JIQIE NO. 2 VILLAGE, China — She was 27, a kind, hard-working woman who supported her family by herding yaks and harvesting caterpillar fungus, a prized health cure, on the high grasslands of Tibet. Last October, Tsering Tso was found hanged from a bridge in a small town near her home.
Her family and local villagers gathered outside the police station in Chalong township to demand answers: She had last been seen in the company of a local Buddhist priest and two policemen.
The authorities insisted it was suicide. Family and friends suspected foul play and demanded an investigation. That night and the following morning, an angry crowd stormed the gates of the police station, smashing windows, according to local police.
The authorities’ response was brutal, revealing much about the crackdown taking place in Tibetan parts of China and showing how unrest and unhappiness is increasingly viewed as dangerously subversive.
On Oct. 10, five days after Tsering Tso’s body was found, hundreds of armed soldiers arrived in the town and descended on her funeral ceremony in the remote hamlet known as Jiqie No. 2 Village in Chinese and Raghya in Tibetan, in China’s western Sichuan province.
Witnesses said that more than 40 people were tied up, beaten with metal clubs, piled into a truck “like corpses” and placed in detention.
So much blood was shed that “stray dogs could not finish lapping it up,” according to a remarkable and rare open letter sent by the community to President Xi Jinping asking for justice.
Most of those detained were gradually released in the weeks and months that followed, and although no one died, many went straight to the hospital.
But on May 20, five relatives and family friends were sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. Acquaintances say they were jailed for refusing to sign a statement absolving the police of blame for Tsering Tso’s death.
In a statement issued on its social-media account, the Garze county Public Security Bureau contested that version of events. It said some of the protesters had carried knives, iron pipes or stones and had caused nearly $10,000 worth of damage. The bureau ran photographs of several men climbing over a gate, but only two broken windows were shown.
The jailed men, the statement said, had either carried weapons or organized the protest and had been found guilty of “assembling a crowd to attack state organs.”
But relatives who spoke to The Washington Post outside the family’s tent on the remote grasslands said they were not convinced that any investigation had been carried out.
No one denied that a few stones had been thrown during the protest, hitting a police car and office building. But they said that as a result, their entire community had been accused of “splittism” — a serious crime implying support for the Dalai Lama, the exiled religious leader, or for Tibet’s independence from China.
Internet connections have been cut off in Chalong township since the incident, and relatives of Tsering Tso have been threatened with further punishment if they talk to outsiders. The village — a scattering of tents and yaks in a scenic, sweeping grassland valley — has been told it will not get government subsidies for roads or houses for three years because of its “bad character.”
The family insisted that its demands were not political or ethnic in nature: The priest and policemen last seen with Tsering Tso were local Tibetans, and the family said it had no beef with the central government.
All the family wants, it said, is a proper investigation, justice for Tsering Tso and freedom for the five men in jail.
“My daughter was healthy and happy. She wouldn’t commit suicide,” her 49-year-old mother Adhey said, fighting back tears as she sat on the grass with her 83-year-old mother and two young sons.
“My beloved daughter was murdered without any justice being given by the government. Instead, they simply arrested more innocent people and sent them to jail.”
What happened on the grasslands near Chalong in Garze prefecture fits a disturbing pattern. More than six decades after Chinese troops first moved into Tibet, dissent continues to roil the plateau and, if anything, is being suppressed ever more savagely.
Control and surveillance have been dramatically tightened since riots and demonstrations broke out in Tibet in 2008, and then expanded further under Xi, with tens of thousands of party cadres sent to monitor villages and monasteries, according to a January report by the International Campaign for Tibet.
In a May report, Human Rights Watch catalogued nearly 500 arrests across Tibetan parts of China between 2013 and 2015. It concluded that dissent had spread from urban to rural areas. Whereas the vast majority of arrests in the 1980s and 1990s had been of monks and nuns, most of those detained more recently were ordinary people.
Many “had merely exercised their rights to expression and assembly without advocating separatism” — criticizing local officials, for example, or opposing a mining development, the report said.
Yet even relatively mild protests about poor governance are increasingly seen through a political lens and labeled as “criminal acts,” rights groups say. Punishment can be severe.
The incident in Chalong “reflects the unrest and instability in Tibetan society,” said Golog Jigme, a filmmaker and former political prisoner who now lives in exile in Switzerland. “It’s not outsiders or the Dalai Lama stirring things up, it’s social issues.”
On the evening of Oct. 4, 2015, Tsering Tso had received a phone call from her boyfriend, a lama at the Gertse Dralak monastery in Chalong. He said he was ill and wanted to see her.
Her father gave her a lift, only to find the lama drinking with two policemen. He left her there. The following morning, Tsering Tso’s body was found hanging from a small bridge in the town.
Although police say an autopsy listed the cause of death as suicide, residents are deeply skeptical. Some reported seeing bruises on her body and said that a doctor’s report had noted a wound on her head as well as a broken neck. They also said her clothes looked as though they had been put on after her death. The lama, who had a reputation as a womanizer, has since disappeared.
In its statement, the Public Security Bureau said the two policemen were on duty at the time of her death and could not have been involved. But villagers insist that the two men were seen drinking with the lama that night and suspect a coverup. Instead of investigating, they say, the police just called in the army.
As they rounded up suspects, security forces raided and ransacked relatives’ homes, “smashing everything and stabbing knives into sacks of rice and butter,” one relative said. “We’ve only seen that kind of brutality before in TV dramas about Japanese invaders.”
The raiders confiscated photos of Tsering Tso — even checking mobile phones. A family member showed scars on his head from a beating that he said left his body drenched in blood. Released weeks later, he was warned by officials not to talk to anyone, but he refuses to be silenced.
He said another relative walks with a limp after being beaten on his legs; a third, a Buddhist monk, was beaten so badly on the head that he bled from one ear and today cannot walk at all. Family members who work for the government lost their jobs.
The police statement merely said that 44 people had been subpoenaed.
Many Tibetans are too scared to speak out publicly against injustice, but the communities around Chalong appear to have gathered to write a remarkable open letter about the incident. The letter, first obtained by Golog Jigme, claims to have been written in the name of 700 residents across 13 communities in the area.
“These days the Chinese Communists are claiming and announcing how they are building a perfect Tibet and how free and happy Tibetans are in China, but now we have no option but to show the world an actual example of the real suffering endured by the people of the three regions of Tibet under Chinese oppression,” the letter begins.
Local officials, the letter continued, had “conspired to use force to bully the common people,” ending with an appeal to President Xi to “investigate and rectify.”
The International Campaign for Tibet said the incident reveals the extent of the impunity of officials and police in Tibet, and the fact that it took so long to reach the outside world shows how tightly information flows are restricted. The organization Free Tibet said it “clearly exemplifies not just the brutality of life under the Chinese occupation but also how arbitrary and illogical it can be.”
Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.