By Mark Magnier, Staff Writer
The Los Angeles Times
July 10, 2008
BEIJING – As Dechan Pemba left her
apartment Tuesday morning, seven
or eight government security officials
surrounded her, she says, including some
who apparently had been waiting in her
The 30-year-old ethnic Tibetan, a British
national who is a part-time English
teacher, tried to explain that she was
running late, but they insisted that she
return to her apartment to talk, saying it
would take only 20 minutes.
Instead, the two-year Beijing resident says,
they held her for 5Â½ hours, then she was
unceremoniously put aboard an airplane,
deported and told she couldn’t return for
Pemba says she repeatedly asked what her
offense was, only to be told that she should
know what crime she had committed.
“It’s ridiculously paranoid,” Pemba said
Wednesday by telephone from London. “I
can only speculate on why. It could be
anything — that I have Tibetan friends, that
I have coffee with journalists. I don’t know
what they consider illegal.”
Her visa was in order, she said, and wasn’t
set to expire until Nov. 23.
China is in the midst of a widespread
crackdown in the final month before the
Olympics, which will start Aug. 8. Pemba’s
story is a small pixel in a broader image of
people being detained or forced to leave
the country, some of them longtime
The government has said that Tibetans and
separatists from the far western Xinjiang
region plan to undermine the Olympics
with violent plots, but critics have accused
authorities of fanning fears to silence even
China said Wednesday that police killed
five members of an alleged radical Islamic
separatist group, wounded two and
arrested eight others in Xinjiang for
plotting to overthrow the state and
slaughter ethnic Chinese.
For most foreigners affected by the
stepped-up security, the welcome mat was
rolled up over a period of weeks or
months. But Pemba’s short-order ejection
is a rarity. She was forced to wrap up her
life and leave within hours, an action
reminiscent of treatment the Chinese
government meted out decades ago.
Regulations here are often vague and leave
wide latitude for interpretation. China is
particularly concerned with anythin related
to Tibet after weeks of riots in March
prompted a protracted crackdown. Even as
Beijing has negotiated with the Dalai Lama,
the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, Chinese
officials have continued to condemn him as
an evil “splittist.”
Pemba is the daughter of exiled Tibetans.
She grew up in London, speaks Tibetan and
once worked for a Tibetan rights
organization in Berlin. Her uncle, Tsering
Shakya, wrote a well-regarded history,
“The Dragon in the Land of Snows.”
Presumably, Beijing knew all of that all
along, Pemba said. She signed her name to
the apartment lease, and has never been
denied a visa, even as a visitor in 2004
while working for the Tibetan rights group.
Pemba said the government agents
refused her requests to be allowed a call to
the British Embassy as they bundled her off
to the airport. They seized her cellphone,
two Tibet books purchased in China and a
“Dreaming Lhasa” T-shirt in Tibetan script.
She was allowed to pack only one bag,
whose contents were scrutinized, and had
to leave the rest of her belongings behind.
They also seized her passport, tickets to
Olympics rowing and athletics events and
her Chinese bankbook, even demanding
her PIN number. Two security officers
videotaped the entire process.
Pemba’s account could not be
independently verified. Officials at the
Public Security Bureau and Foreign
Ministry said they didn’t know about the
case or declined to comment.
The British Embassy said Wednesday that it
was aware of the case and had spoken to
Pemba but had not been informed of her
deportation by Chinese authorities.
Pemba said she was guarded by six police
and other security officers on a minibus to
the airport escorted by two black cars in
front and one behind. All told, she
estimates at least 30 people were directly
involved, most in plainclothes. “It was like
they were making a documentary film,”
Pemba said. “They were polite, but quite
firm and not friendly.”
She said she was held at the gate until the
last minute, and was the final passenger
allowed to board, at which point they
handed back her cellphone and passport.
Only after she was on board was she able
to call her family and the embassy before
the plane took off. She then noticed that
they had looked through her phone
messages, she said.
“This is unprecedented, especially without
any known motive, and it required a lot of
coordination to repatriate someone that
quickly through immigration, the airline,
surveillance,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a
Hong Kong-based China researcher with
Human Rights Watch.
“As the Olympics approach, the
government seems to be more worried
about embarrassment than actual security
threats,” he said. “We’re seeing a very
expansive definition of what’s harmful to
In April, Pemba said, she was stopped
briefly at the airport upon returning from
London. And her apartment was searched
in late May, although she said it was never
clear what the police were looking for, and
they did not ask questions or issue any
Pemba said the authorities declined to give
her a copy of her deportation notice,
although they said she would get one later.
She also wonders why they would take her
bankbook and PIN number.
“I feel very sad to be leaving my friends
behind and worry for the personal safety
of many of my Tibetan friends,” she said in
an e-mail to friends sent from London.
“It is an unfortunate way to leave a city
that I feel a strong connection with, having
been based there since September 2006.
“I hope that I can go back one day.”