How Chinese-Issued Phones Allow Chinese Authorities to Track Tibetan Prisoners

Pro-Tibetan protesters.

Pro-Tibetan protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in Lafayette Park across from the White House in Washington, DC. (Image: via The

In the early 2000s, the Free Tibet movement galvanized the world. From celebrity endorsements to Simpsons cameos, the media launched the plight of Tibet into the Western imagination; the suffering of Tibetans under a foreign regime became well known. Currently, former Tibetian prisoners must use Chinese-issued phones to track their whereabouts.

The surpression of Tibet

On August 29, 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced plans to “strengthen unity and socialism” in Tibet by building an “impregnable fortress” to ward off splittism. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views Tibetan disobedience, violent or nonviolent, as separatism, which, in Beijing’s eyes, threatens national security and expansionism.

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When the 2008 Tibet protests erupted, fomented by discontent with decades-long repression, the CCP ruthlessly responded by killing and arbitrarily arresting protesters. But these immediate measures were not enough. The CCP began to plan a long-term policy of forced assimilation.

Tibetan prisoners must use Chinese-issued phones.
Signs marking the national college entrance examination sites in Nagchu Municipality, Tibet Autonomous Region. (Image: via Human Rights Watch)

Chinese-issued phones

Recently, the Chinese government tracked the whereabouts of former political prisoners of Tibet with government-issued phones. The Chinese authorities in Tibet want to keep a tab on the movements and activities of former political prisoners and they are using Tibetans’ phones for that purpose. The former prisoners are not being allowed to use their own phones. They are being given cell phones by the Chinese authorities.

The policy was initially launched in 2014, but it has been employed extensively in recent years. The Chinese government-issued cell phone models have inbuilt tracking devices. This lets the government figure out where the users are going and whom they are meeting with ease. The users have to keep their phones away when they talk with someone in person to evade being tracked remotely.

Several Tibetan former political prisoners have to use these phones. There are some other limitations imposed on these political prisoners, too. They have to report to the police every month about their activities. This goes on for a year or so after their release.

Tracking software

The Chinese government not only keeps track of the activities of former political prisoners in Tibet, but their family members are also put under remote surveillance. The Chinese government used Apple iPhone Model 4 for tracking these people.

Human rights groups have lambasted the Chinese government for this policy several times. Human Rights Watch’s China director Sophie Richardson says: “It is almost comical, the lengths the authorities are going to track people. It is also very chilling that people would be obliged to carry government-issued phones with them because we all know that these are essentially tracking devices. This means that you will have the government listening to you all the time, and that will have consequences for the freedom of expression.”

The handsets with an embedded tracking system are issued free of cost. However, it ensures the users are put under tabs at all times. The SIM cards installed in these devices are linked with a control office. While the users do not have to pay for using the devices, the freedom that they lose out is way too costly compared to regular mobile usage costs. 

Beijing-appointed secretary inspecting the Tengdro monastery.
Beijing-appointed Secretary Zhang Ling (center) during his inspection tour of Tengdro monastery in Shekar town, Tingri County, Tibet Autonomous Region, (Image: via Human Rights Watch)

Human Rights Watch: Tibet today under Chinese rule

The first extensive analysis of official Chinese accounts regarding the arrests and trials of Tibetan protesters began in March 2008 and shows that by the Chinese government’s count, there have been thousands of arbitrary arrests pushed through the judicial system, Human Rights Watch noted.

New Human Rights Watch research and analysis point to a judicial system so highly politicized as to preclude any possibility of protesters being judged fairly.

Human Rights Watch has examined dozens of court reports, statements by leading officials, local judicial statistics, and official Chinese press reports.

The organization revealed that the number of protests was higher than previously acknowledged by the government, that protesters have been sentenced outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region in the provinces of Sichuan and Gansu, that protestors died or were killed in Lhasa, and that courts have sentenced protesters under state security charges for nonviolent acts such as waving the Tibetan flag and throwing pamphlets on the street.

“The Chinese government has refused every external request for a real accounting of the detention, arrest, and sentencing of those involved with the Tibetan protests,” said Sophie Richardson.

She added: “Both the arrests and the releases seem to have been arbitrary, and we still know next to nothing about those who are still detained or have been imprisoned.” 

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