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Checkpoint on the road to Lhasa

Early one summer morning in August, travelling from Golmud to Lhasa on the Qinghai-Tibet Highway, we came across the first checkpoint. A police officer wearing a dark cotton uniform used a flashlight to inspect our identity cards: “There’s a Tibetan? Tibetan, get out of the vehicle! Do you have a permit to enter Tibet? If not, you can’t enter!”

I was driving with my husband and two friends who were making a documentary. All three were Han Chinese, I was Tibetan. My “PRC Resident Identity Card” read: “Ethnicity: Tibetan”. So that’s how it was.

Around the checkpoint there were all kinds of blockades. I said pointedly: “I’m not from the ‘four major Tibetan regions’.” This was because, one day in May, two Tibetans from other regions, doing contract work in Lhasa, self-immolated between the Jokhang Temple and the police station on Barkhor Street, where it was busiest with the military, police, tourists and believers. This brought the number of Tibetans who had self-immolated in recent years to 39. It is an unprecedented action of personal sacrifice and protest against the Chinese government.

Such protests have moved from the borders of Tibet to the hinterland, and the Tibet Autonomous Region issued an urgent notice requesting that Tibetans in the “four major Tibetan regions” of China, namely in the four provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan, must have a certificate from the public security bureau of the local county to enter Lhasa. After this decision, another 14 Tibetans self-immolated, one of whom was a herdsman from near Lhasa.

“All Tibetans must have a certificate,” said the police officer –who was, in fact, Tibetan himself, young and tired-looking. At his side, a Han Chinese armed police officer was resting at the table, looking drowsy.

You might well ask: what? Tibetans need a permit to return home? It’s true.

There was a notice stuck on the police car, detailing the information needed on the permits, to which the officer now pointed. Copying was allowed, so that one could make sure one complied in all respects. The notice read:

Basic details about the person: name, gender, identity card number, destination in Tibet, reason for entering Tibet, intended place of residence after entering Tibet, period of stay in Tibet, whether the person entering Tibet has a criminal record, a guarantee that the person does not engage in criminal activity, the public security institution issuing the certificate, a contact person and mode of contact.

I didn’t have a permit, but I was a dissident who had had to leave Beijing before the 18th National
Congress of the Communist Party began. The task of “stability maintenance” in Beijing was obviously greater than in Lhasa. Although I was detained in Golmud for eight hours and spent a lot of effort “communicating”, finally I was released.

On the Qinghai-Tibet Highway, more than 2,000 kilometres long, apart from frequently missing the trains running on the neighbouring railway (and filled with tourists from all over China), we also saw plenty of young Chinese boys and girls riding bicycles towards Lhasa. They were carefree and eye-catching. With just one identity card they could travel through all of Tibet, despite the checkpoints everywhere. But Tibetans on the pilgrimage to Lhasa were no longer anywhere to be seen. Thinking back a few years, on this very road, hundreds of Tibetans from the borderlands would have been majestically kowtowing, with a snowstorm directly ahead. A fellow Tibetan driving the car suddenly exclaimed: “We have only this little bit of freedom left.”

No more solace

Lhasa is the final destination of Buddhist pilgrimage. Tibetans who used kowtowing to express their piety once found solace here. Now they are shut out. But the “stability maintenance” policy based on ethnicity is not new and has been operating across Tibet for years. Han Chinese are given preferential treatment, instilling in them a sense of superiority. But for Tibetans, on whom pressure continues to mount, and who have been deprived of almost all rights, this is not only a disguised policy of “racial segregation” but also a catalyst for ethnic antagonism and separatism. Will we see a stable and united future? I am extremely doubtful.

I once discussed an important question with Tibetans from the Amdo, U-Tsang and Kham regions: had Tibetans been right to protest in 2008? Some think the protest incurred severe repression and even tougher policy reform, so that the little space that had previously been won rapidly diminished. But we think this outcome was not related to the protest. It just turned the lukewarm water used to boil a frog into boiling water.

The mass protest in 2008 sent a slogan of solidarity across Tibet: Tibetans stick together through thick and thin. The self-immolations that began in 2009 show that Tibetans continue to protest vehemently by means of self-sacrifice. The last words uttered from the flames of the 54 self-immolated Tibetans so far call for two things: first, for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet and second, for freedom for Tibet.

Nangdrol, one of those who self-immolated, gave a bitter account in his suicide note: “It’s impossible to live under evil law, impossible to tolerate torture that leaves no trace.” There is not a single true Tibetan who does not want Tibet to be self-governing.

“City of blessings”

There are more than a dozen checkpoints manned by crowds of soldiers and police on the Qinghai-Tibet Highway. On other routes to Tibet, such as the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, there are similar numbers.

Two weeks later we left Lhasa, where even temples and parks have security checks but which is promoted by China Central Television as “the city of happiness and blessings”. After we left the checkpoint at Jagsamka township, in Qamdo Prefecture, I heard that back in July a monk named Pema Norbu had been killed by a policeman there because he had CDs and books on the Buddhist teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

17 September 2012, Lhasa

Tsering Woeser was born in Lhasa during the Cultural Revolution. She lived and studied in Kham, eastern Tibet, and in the Han ethnic regions of China for many years, and is a former editor of Tibetan literature. In 2003, her collection of essays published in China was considered “politically erroneous” and was banned by the authorities. She was also dismissed from her job. Now a freelance writer, she lives in Beijing and Lhasa

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.