[The advocate, Tashi Wangchuk, 31, has been detained by the police in the town of Yushu, which is mostly Tibetan, since January. He was formally arrested in March on the charge of inciting separatism, which can result in a 15-year prison sentence. Mr. Tashi has no known record of advocating Tibetan independence or separatism.]
By Edward Wong
Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan entrepreneur and education advocate, could face up
to 15 years in prison if convicted of inciting separatism.
Credit Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times
BEIJING — Police officers in western China have investigated a Tibetan language education advocate for interviews he did last year with The New York Times and are pushing for a court trial on a charge of inciting separatism based on his contact with Times journalists, according to his lawyer.
The advocate, Tashi Wangchuk, 31, has been detained by the police in the town of Yushu, which is mostly Tibetan, since January. He was formally arrested in March on the charge of inciting separatism, which can result in a 15-year prison sentence. Mr. Tashi has no known record of advocating Tibetan independence or separatism.
Mr. Tashi’s case entered a new phase on Thursday, when the police concluded an additional investigation at the prosecutors’ request and handed over those results. Prosecutors now have about 90 days to decide whether the case should go to court, said Liang Xiaojun, Mr. Tashi’s lawyer.
If the case goes to court, Mr. Tashi, who was interviewed at length by The Times on Tibetan culture last year, will almost certainly be convicted. The conviction rate in China is more than 90 percent. Inciting separatism is a serious political charge that is used to silence people from ethnic minority groups who are deemed troublemakers by officials.
Mr. Tashi’s case is known among international human rights groups that focus on Chinese government abuses and among Tibet advocacy groups. In April, Amnesty International urged people to call on the Chinese government to “immediately and unconditionally” release Mr. Tashi. International Campaign for Tibet, based in Washington, has asked the United States government to raise the cases of Mr. Tashi and Shokjang, an imprisoned Tibetan writer.
Officials from the United States, Britain and other Western nations have received information on Mr. Tashi’s detention. President Obama and other Western leaders are traveling to China this weekend for the Group of 20 summit meeting, and they may raise human rights issues with Chinese leaders.
Mr. Tashi was detained on Jan. 27 by police officers in Yushu, the town on the Tibetan plateau of Qinghai Province where Mr. Tashi lives with his parents.
Mr. Tashi, a shopkeeper, wrote blog posts about the disintegration of the Tibetan language among younger Tibetans and urged governments in the region to adopt true bilingual education, using Tibetan and Chinese equally as teaching languages in schools.
In September 2015, he traveled to Beijing to try to file a lawsuit against Yushu officials for not properly supporting the Tibetan language, but failed to do so. He was quoted later that year in two Times articles on Tibetan language and culture written from Yushu, and he was the centerpiece of a nine-minute Times documentary video. He had come into contact with Times journalists in May while on an exploratory visit to Beijing and insisted on doing on-the-record interviews.
Mr. Liang, the lawyer, said the police case files, which he had seen on a June visit to Yushu, showed that the police had focused their investigation on Mr. Tashi’s interviews with The Times, which were conducted by this reporter and Jonah M. Kessel, a video journalist. He said the police were especially incensed by the video, produced by Mr. Kessel. (One section of the police case files mistakenly names additional people as producers.)
Mr. Liang, who was retained by Mr. Tashi’s family, met separately with Mr. Tashi and the Yushu police chief.
“I met with Tashi in the detention center for more than one hour,” he said. “Tashi was doing well. He thinks that what he did wasn’t wrong. Tashi said he had had no intention of inciting separatism.”
In his interviews with The Times, Mr. Tashi never advocated Tibetan independence. He said Tibet should remain under Chinese governance and called instead for greater regional autonomy, especially in language use and education. Mr. Tashi also praised Xi Jinping, the Chinese president and Communist Party chief.
“All he wants is to try to preserve Tibetan culture,” Mr. Liang said.
He added that it was possible that prosecutors could ask the police for further investigation into Mr. Tashi and delay the decision on whether to bring the case to court.
Mr. Tashi’s family said in early March that the police were illegally holding Mr. Tashi since officers had not notified family members of Mr. Tashi’s detention. Chinese law requires the police to notify family members of a detainee within 24 hours of a detention, with only a few exceptions.
In late March, the police finally told family members of Mr. Tashi’s arrest and of the separatism charge.
Mr. Tashi sold goods from the Tibetan plateau in a shop in Yushu and online via the popular Taobao platform, started by Alibaba, the online commerce giant. In 2014, Alibaba featured Mr. Tashi in a video produced for its international roadshow before a prominent initial public offering.
Last year, Mr. Tashi also contacted employees at Alibaba in hopes of getting Jack Ma, the billionaire co-founder of Alibaba, to support his efforts at compelling local officials to expand Tibetan-language education.
Follow Edward Wong on Twitter @comradewong.