A prominent Tibetan filmmaker, who was jailed for making a documentary about Tibetans living under Chinese rule and had been under police surveillance since his release three years ago, has fled to the United States after an “arduous and risky escape” from China, according to his supporters.
Dhondup Wangchen, 43, arrived in San Francisco on Dec. 25 and was reunited with his wife and children, who were granted political asylum in the United States in 2012, according to Filming for Tibet, a group set up by Mr. Wangchen’s cousin to push for his release.
“After many years, this is the first time I’m enjoying the feeling of safety and freedom,” Mr. Wangchen said in the statement issued by the group. “I would like to thank everyone who made it possible for me to hold my wife and children in my arms again. However, I also feel the pain of having left behind my country, Tibet.”
Mr. Wangchen was a self-taught filmmaker from China’s western province of Qinghai who had spent five months in 2007 interviewing Tibetans about their hopes and frustrations living under Chinese rule. In his documentary, “Leaving Fear Behind,” many Tibetans talked about their love for the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and how they thought the 2008 Beijing Olympics would do little to improve their lives.
Mr. Wangchen was detained in 2008 after his footage was smuggled out and shown at film festivals around the world and shown in secret to a group of foreign reporters ahead of the Olympics. He was later sentenced to six years in prison for “inciting subversion.”
During Mr. Wangchen’s time in prison, many rights groups, including Amnesty International, campaigned for his release, saying that he was denied medical care after contracting hepatitis B in jail, was forced to do manual labor and was kept in solitary confinement for six months. The United States raised Mr. Wangchen’s case with Beijing “at the highest level,” according to the International Campaign for Tibet, a Tibetan rights group.
Mr. Wangchen’s flight from China comes at a time of growing authoritarianism in the country under President Xi Jinping. Two rights activists have been tried and one more is expected to go on trial on subversion charges this week. Since Mr. Xi came to power in 2013, his administration has imprisoned human rights lawyers and cracked down on civil society.
Mr. Wangchen’s supporters did not provide details of his escape and he could not be reached for comment. Police officials from Xining, the capital of Qinghai, and the Qinghai government did not answer multiple telephone calls seeking comment.
After his release from prison, Mr. Wangchen remained under heavy surveillance and his communications were monitored, according to Filming for Tibet. Mr. Wangchen’s fellow filmmaker, Golog Jigme, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, fled China to India in 2014 and was granted political asylum in Switzerland a year later.
Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, whose district covers San Francisco, said on Twitter on Wednesday that it was an honor to welcome Mr. Wangchen to “our San Francisco community.”
Many Tibetans have complained about repressive conditions under China, which has ruled Tibet since 1950. Among their list of complaints: They are barred from publicly worshiping the Dalai Lama, who Beijing reviles as “a wolf in monk’s clothing”, and say that their language and culture have been suppressed. After widespread protests by Tibetans in 2008, China imposed a security clampdown.
More than 150 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 in protest against Chinese rule, according to the International Campaign for Tibet. On Wednesday, a young Tibetan man set himself on fire in the southwestern province of Sichuan, the group said. China has called the self-immolators “terrorists” and blamed exiled Tibetan rights groups and the Dalai Lama for inciting them.
“The six years Dhondup Wangchen had to spend in jail are a stark reminder of the human costs that China’s policies continue to have on the Tibetan people,” Matteo Mecacci, president of International Campaign for Tibet, said in a statement. “Dhondup Wangchen should have never had to pay such a high personal price for exercising his freedom of expression.”