Nearly two years ago, Tibetan language activist Tashi Wangchuk was sentenced to a five-year prison term as a result of his nonviolent advocacy of Tibetan language.
This month, photos of Tibetan life are on display at Elmhurst Library. One portrays a group of students in a classroom studying language.
According to Tibetan groups, the photos are fake, with the purpose of spreading propaganda by Communist China. At a protest in front of the library Saturday morning, a photo of Tashi reading in a jail cell was paired with that of the students to highlight the truth of what’s happening in Tibet.
“The photo in the gallery shows them being given a Tibetan education in Tibet,” said Tenzin Dolma of the Regional Tibetan Youth Conference of New York and New Jersey. “But actually it’s not. The majority of people in Tibet are not supposed to learn Tibetan. They learn Mandarin and Tibetan has become a secondary language.”
Tibet was declared an independent state by the Dalai Lama in 1913 but Beijing claims it has been part of China for hundreds of years.
According to Dolma and others at the protest, the images that are part of the display showcase a false narrative to the rest of the world and that Tibet is not as well off as China would like people to think.
They said the reality of Tibetan education is a lot harsher, as Tashi’s imprisonment shows. They said Tashi wanted Tibetan language education for his nieces, which led to a lawsuit. He was subsequently detained in 2016 and sentenced to prison in 2018.
Tashi was eventually barred from seeing his family and lawyer. Last month an open letter was sent to the president of China, Xi Jinping. Hundreds signed it, including members of the faculties of Queens College, LaGuardia Community College and St. John’s University.
Despite the claims that the images are fake, the Queens Library has thus far refused to have them taken down.
“We had a meeting with the vice president of Queens Public Library yesterday,” said Dorjee Tseten, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet. “We asked them to take them down because this is a racist, oppressive and politically motivated exhibition. Yesterday’s meeting went well, but at the same time, they are not taking it down.”
In addition to speaking with library representatives, Students for a Free Tibet started a petition urging the library to shut down the exhibit. The petition was aimed at Queens Library President and CEO Dennis Walcott and had obtained more than 3,200 signatures by Monday night.
The library, in an email to the Chronicle, acknowledged that the exhibit was sponsored by the Chinese Consulate and an affiliate, and that while clear signs will be erected to clarify that, the photos will not be taken down.
“We had an honest, respectful conversation on Friday in Woodside with members of the Tibetan community and came away with a deeper understanding about the pain this exhibit has caused them,” the email said. “During the discussion we explained that Queens Public Library is a forum for many different points of view, including those that stir passionate debate. We also communicated that we hope they will offer their perspectives in the form of an exhibit and/or programming to encourage further dialogue.
More than 100 people showed up to the protest and stood at the corner of Broadway and 51st Avenue. Many held up signs, photos and letters, while others carried a Tibetan flag, walking up and down the street.
Many were local residents and some know firsthand the problems facing those in Tibet. One of them was Nyima Lhamo, who used to be a prisoner herself. She spoke of her experiences in Tibet through Tseten.
“Her uncle was arrested, tortured and after 13 years in prison, he was murdered,” he said. “At that time she was in Tibet and for many years, her and her mother called for his release. When he was murdered, they both complained and were detained for 18 days. She was able to escape in 2016 and is protesting because she sees that this is not what’s happening inside Tibet.”
According to Students for a Free Tibet, the exhibit is just one small part in a much larger overseas propaganda effort. They said propaganda and cultural appropriation have no place in a community library.
“If everything is OK in Tibet like they say, why are people protesting inside Tibet? Why is Tibet locked down?” asked Nyima, through Tseten. “This is a complete lie from the Chinese government and the library needs to be held accountable. They are supporting Chinese propaganda and occupation of Tibet, and violence.”
The group also suggested that Elmhurst is one of the neighborhoods where such propaganda would cause the most damage. According to a report by ZipAtlas, 17 percent of Elmhurst’s total population is Chinese. That’s the second-highest percentage in Queens behind Flushing.
The exhibit sits just past the checkout area and library staff has been making quick work of shooting down photo attempts by residents.