by Nithin Coca
In February 2018, a dramatic video emerged of flames leaping out from the rooftop of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
The Jokhang is considered the holiest site in Tibetan Buddhism, akin to the Kaaba in Mecca for Islam, or the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for Catholics. It dates back to the 7th century and hosts the Jowo Shakyamuni, a statue of a 12-year-old Buddha. The statue is one of the holiest objects in Tibet, and is unique in the Buddhist world. The thought that the historic temple structure or the Joko itself could be damaged was incredibly worrying.
Nearly seven months after the fire, we knew little more about it than we did in the hours after it occurred. There was damage, but there has been no investigation nor much information at all released since the morning of that February 17th. In fact, quite the opposite; there has been a total suppression of information.
“They banned all people from circulating all images on social media,” said Bhuchung K. Tsering, vice president with the International Campaign for Tibet. “The very little space that is available for Tibetans on Chinese social media, even that was shut off to them.”
When you look at this from the accepted reality of our global and interconnected digital world, the silence is stunning. Typically, when something like this happens, we face the opposite problem: a flood of images and videos appear on our social media timelines. Take, for example, when a horrific fire burned the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro in September 2018. For hours, the fire was trending on Twitter, and today, there are countless pieces about the priceless cultural heritage that was lost in that tragedy.
The Jokhang Fire was no less shocking, no less of a potential tragedy for human heritage, but besides a few distant videos, we have no idea what happened that night. The initial Chinese story was that the fire was not at the Jokhang but at an adjoining temple compound, the Meru Nyingpa, which few believed. But with outside observers forbidden from the site, it’s hard to ascertain reality.
“With there being no detailed about information what may have happened, it’s very difficult to say what the situation is,” said Tsering. There is a suspicion that China fears an increase in protests in Tibet, such as the massive ones that rocked Tibet in 2008 and in which Buddhist monks played a central role, and worries that too much news about what happened to the Jokhang could lead to increased resentment.
The coverage around the fire in Lhasa shouldn’t be any different than what emerged after the National Museum of Brazil fire in Rio de Janeiro. In fact, a few months earlier, Lhasa got access to 4G services, and has high internet penetration and smartphone ownership. Hundreds of thousands of camera-touting tourists visit Lhasa, snapping picture of not only the Jokhang, but of the Potala Palace and scenes of ordinary Tibetan life.
Despite this, time has not illuminated what happened that fateful February day. In the days, weeks, then months after the fire, no further information emerged on the extent of the damage besides that initial, distant image and a few statements from Chinese officials. A highly sophisticated, Chinese state-run infrastructure has limited what not only outsiders, but even Tibetan residents of Lhasa could know about the fire and how much it damaged the sacred temple.
This could be a sign of things to come. As technology allows governments around the world to pry deeper into our lives, it also has a reverse effect by allowing them to be more effective in keeping sensitive information within their borders. And nowhere is that power more apparent then in China’s two outermost regions; Tibet, and the far northwestern province of Xinjiang, also known as East Turkestan, homeland of the oppressed Muslim Uyghurs.
“Many of the data analysis systems in China are explicitly designed for social control,” said Maya Wang, China research for Human Rights Watch in a blog post. “The Chinese government’s exploitation of personal data to fuel its mass surveillance projects is a prime example how a lack of regulations, coupled with authoritarianism, can lead to dangerous consequences for human rights.”
The tools used by journalists and activists to keep track of what’s happening around the world – Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat – are mostly dark here, and getting verifiable information out is only getting tougher. This is not an isolated case; technology is allowing other governments to better control information flows, particularly around sensitive events such as the Jokhang fire, or other protests in places like Iran, Cameroon, and Bahrain.
This is the Chinese model of digital control – pervasive censorship, a severely limited press, and the use of predictive policing and a massive surveillance state – which, someday soon, may be able to monitor every single one of the country’s 1.3 billion citizens anywhere, and it could become the future everywhere.
“China’s adaptive and largely successful system of domestic Internet censorship…has been held up as an example of how authoritarian regimes might, against all expectations, successfully manage the political impact of information and communication technology,” said Shanthi Kalathil, Director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies in a blog post.
The mystery of the Jokhang Temple, and the tragedy of Tibet should be a warning sign of the potential of a digital dystopia. In our digital world, if something isn’t being shared or read on social media, it is as if it never happened at all. Soon, the prevalence of fake news could be overshadowed by the fact that news we should be aware of isn’t getting out at all.
Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who covers the social implications of technology, focusing in emerging economies and developing countries. Coca’s feature and news pieces have appeared in global media outlets including Al Jazeera, Quartz, Engadget, Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, Vice, and other regional publications in Asia and the United States. Reach him on twitter @excinit