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Human Rights Foundation Freedom Fellow Pema Doma is a Tibetan human rights and climate campaigner who was a key organizer in #NoBeijing2022, a global campaign against China’s hosting of the Winter Olympic Games. She has trained thousands of youth activists in community organizing and serves as the executive director for Students for a Free Tibet, a global grassroots network working for Tibetan rights.

Doma is currently part of the HRF’s Freedom Fellowship, a one-year program that provides hands-on, expert mentorship across seven critical areas: leadership, movement-building, organizing, fundraising, media, mental health, and digital security. 

HRF sat down with Doma to learn more about China’s expanding surveillance state and her efforts to raise awareness about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s tactics of biometric repression.

Q: What is biometric repression, and to what extent is it being employed by the CCP?

A: Over the past few years, the Chinese government has been developing the world’s largest DNA database to surveil and tighten control over Tibetans and Uyghurs. This database could open the doors to potential levels of biometric repression that we’ve never seen before. A united stance against this effort is crucial not just for Tibetans but for anyone living under authoritarian or competitive authoritarian regimes. Normalizing such draconian databases would wreak havoc for generations of human rights activists, environmental defenders and all those standing up to authoritarian regimes. 

Reports published in September by Human Rights Watch and Citizens Lab revealed jarring new evidence that inside Tibet, upward of 30% of all Tibetans have had their DNA cataloged by the Chinese government. Photographic evidence and data from Chinese government sources show that DNA has been coercively collected from monks, nuns, and even children as young as five.

Q: What are the goals of your campaign? What have been your achievements thus far?

A: Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) is calling on international companies, especially United States-based companies, to take human rights compliance seriously when dealing with authoritarian regimes such as the CCP. 

SFT recently launched a campaign targeting an American company sourcing DNA kits to the Chinese government. The campaign petition has garnered nearly 8,000 signatures. SFT also signed a joint letter alongside 120 Tibetan human rights groups, which was sent to the company, asking about their dealings with China. We have since been in communication with the company, but their responses remain irresponsible. Last week, we began a Global Week of Action with activists from around the world calling on the company to listen to voices from impacted communities and end its complicity in biometric repression.

Our campaign has also used digital tactics such as a virtual Instagram-live concert with well-known Tibetan pop artists. We collected over 500 signatures during the two-hour concert. The CCP is constantly finding new tactics to surveil and oppress Tibetans, so we are also constantly using innovative tactics to come together and fight back.

Q: Can you briefly describe the status quo inside Tibet?

A: The CCP came into power in the 1940s, and in 1959, the CPP threatened the life of his Holiness, the Dalai Lama — the religious leader of Tibet and, at that time, also the political leader of Tibet — by entering the country. Thousands of Tibetans joined in a peaceful uprising against the Chinese invasion, and the Dalai Lama successfully escaped. Since 1959, the CCP has killed over 1.2 million Tibetans and demolished over 5,000 monasteries. Any Tibetans who fled across the Himalayas by foot — including my own father — have never been able to return home. 

This year was the third year in a row in which Tibet was ranked as the least free country or territory in the world, tied with only Syria and South Sudan,  due to escalating repression by the Chinese government. We see colonial boarding schools separating nearly one million children as young as four from their families. And we have also seen over 160 self-immolations inside Tibet, calling for the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and freedom for Tibet.

Q: Why is the A4 Revolution campaign important?

A: Recently, videos have surfaced of the police going into people’s homes in China and forcibly detaining those suspected of being part of the protests. These videos reminded me of a piece written by a Tibetan woman named Jamyang Kyi, who was arrested in 2008 during a peaceful uprising. Jamyang Kyi wrote about how, after being imprisoned, she often wondered whether death would be more pleasant than being a political prisoner under her oppressor. This is a sad thought but one that will become a reality for many more living under the CCP in the coming years.

Being Tibetan, we know well that a freedom movement is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. The Chinese government can never end our movement, but they can delay our victory. The only way we lose is if success is delayed so much that our people cease to exist or cease to have hope when an opportunity comes. 

A small child today, maybe six or seven years old, in 20 years, might be one of the leaders of our movement. But if their DNA is sampled and cataloged, the government will have much power and leverage against them. Right now, it’s happening inside Tibet, but there could be a day when every single Uyghur, Tibetan, Hong Konger, and even Chinese person is impacted. And on that day, it will be much more challenging for people to rise up.

Q: How has your Freedom Fellowship experience impacted your activism?

A: My favorite part of the Freedom Fellowship is the people. Whether it’s the mentors, trainers, coordinators, or participants, every person has their own story and knowledge. Usually, activists leading campaigns and movements have little time to stop and reflect on their personal growth and development as leaders. The fellowship carves time to ensure we grow and become stronger leaders even when we think we’re too busy. 

The fellowship opened my eyes to injustices we may not be thinking about when we are fighting a battle for our people. This global campaign is important for every person who believes in freedom and human rights around the world.

Q: How has your Tibetan identity shaped your activism?

A: When my mother was born, her father was a political prisoner. My grandfather spent those years in prison because he stood up for what he believed in. He was asked: “Are you willing to acknowledge that Tibet is a part of China? And if you are, then you can walk away right now and be a free person. If not, you can take your integrity and honor to prison with you.” When I see the strength of the Tibetan community and what it means to be a Tibetan person today, I know that decisions like that of my grandfather stand true to our identity and culture. 

Growing up in exile from my motherland, I lived a much freer life than Tibetans inside Tibet. But I remember being a young child in Nepal, where the Chinese government had a long arm of influence. While celebrating Losar, the Tibetan new year, military soldiers walked around with guns, ensuring we didn’t connect with one another. They were afraid of what would happen if Tibetans organized. 

It’s easy to feel alone and fragmented — from my grandfather staying true to his identity to realizing as a child the government’s money and power. But these have shaped my belief that there can be, and will be, a better future for Tibet.

Q: What message would you give to Tibetans and all other populations living under authoritarian regimes struggling for freedom and basic human rights?

A: Struggles for freedom can take a long time. Sometimes it feels like there is no end in sight. But to create the world we envision, everyone must come together. Together, we can take steps toward justice and human rights. Tibetans are a great example of resilience and why we must keep fighting. The freedom we long for is only possible with the grit and perseverance that Tibetan people have displayed over the previous decades.

The Freedom Fellowship is a unique, one-year program that gives human rights advocates, social entrepreneurs, and nonprofit leaders from challenging political environments the opportunity to increase the impact of their work. Through mentorship and hands-on training sessions, fellows develop critical skills and join a growing community of human rights activists.

If you are interested in learning more about or donating to the Freedom Fellowship, we encourage you to contact Jhanisse Vaca-Daza at [email protected].