I am asked this question with increasing frequency. The position of Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues has been vacant for more than 10 months. The quick answer: coming soon (we hope). But here’s a longer response to give an indication of where things stand.
For the last 16 years, there has been a designated person within the U.S. government responsible for coordinating U.S. policy on Tibet. This position is required by law (under the Tibetan Policy Act).
The Tibet Coordinator was first created in the Clinton Administration following bipartisan pressure from Congress for an envoy on Tibet. The initial individuals serving in this role were Greg Craig (1997-98) and Julia Taft (1999-2001).
In the Bush Administration, Paula Dobriansky (2001-2009) served as Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, concurrent with her underlying responsibilities as Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs. It was thought at the time that putting the Tibet job at this senior position would allow for greater coordination of U.S. policy, and facilitate engagement with Chinese officials on the issue.
The Tibet Coordinator position remained in the Under Secretary’s office in Obama’s first term, under Maria Otero (2009-2013). Otero left the State Department along with Secretary Hillary Clinton in January 2013. The Tibet Coordinator position has remained vacant since. This is not due to policy or political concerns around the issue within the Department. Rather, it has to do with bureaucracy and the slowness of the process to fill key positions.
First, it took the Obama White House six months to name a nominee for the position of Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights (as it is now known). Sarah Sewall, a Harvard professor who served in the Clinton Administration as a Capitol Hill staffer, was nominated on August 1.
Second, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee didn’t hold a hearing on her confirmation until November 7 (to be fair, the White House may not have sent the paperwork over in a timely manner). She was approved by the Committee later that month.
Now, she must be approved by the full Senate. But many State Department nominations are being held up due to disagreements over the Benghazi incident and Republican anger over the Democrats’ changing the rules on nominations. The Senate is scheduled to be in session for only two weeks in December, so we hope that the typical end-of-the-year flurry of activity in Congress includes Ms. Sewall’s nomination. If not, we will have to wait until January 2014 at least.
Of course, there is nothing that formally ties the Tibet Coordinator to this Under Secretary seat. Technically, the Tibetan Policy Act does not specify that the role even be within the State Department, or even dual-hatted with an existing position. But tradition and precedence counts for a lot in this environment, and we have every reason to expect that the Department will continue to see the Under Secretary post as the optimal place for the Tibet Coordinator. Further, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, in her hearing, expressed the assumption that Sarah Sewall would be designated Tibet Coordinator, continuing the Congressional interest in the position.
So lastly, once Sarah Sewall is confirmed as Under Secretary, then we hope and expect that very little time will elapse before she is formally given the Tibet portfolio.
The lack of a Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues has not meant that there is no one minding the Tibet shop within the Department. During 2013, the U.S. government has given Tibet a prominent role in U.S. dialogues with the Chinese, at the UN Human Rights Council and, we hope, on the agenda of Vice President Biden, who is in Beijing as I write.
The Under Secretary’s office continues to have staff designated for Tibet to carry out the requisite duties. And there are staff members in the relevant bureaus – for East Asia, South Asia, human rights, refugees, etc. – who continue to monitor Tibet and implement policy. At this moment, though, the “Tibet office” is short staffed following the recent departure of a senior staffer. This is one more reason to have Ms. Sewall confirmed, sworn in, and appointed, so that she can expeditiously staff up the office.
On November 18 Spain’s National Court ordered international arrest warrants against five former senior Chinese leaders for their suspected role in committing international crimes in Tibet. The order came on the back of the Court indicting former Chinese President Hu Jintao. The decisions were received with wild excitement by some, for the hope the court order carried. Others, however, wondered if such warrants were simply an exercise in futility because political expediency would never allow these warrants to be enforced or the Chinese leaders to be brought to court.
While these questions are certainly important, what is significant at this point is not the eventual outcome, but the message that these court cases send. Whether or not these warrants are enforced and justice is properly served, the decision sends the important message for Tibetans and supporters of the Tibet movement that a national court has accepted their claims of torture and repression. These two court cases are also significant for the larger world of international justice and human rights.
Many have likened the November 18 decision to that of the Augusto Pinochet case. Chile’s President Pinochet (1974-1990) was indicted for human rights violations committed in Chile by Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garcon on October 10, 1998. Six days later he was arrested while on a visit to London and was held under house arrest. After a lengthy judicial process, the House of Lords (the highest British court at the time) found that Pinochet could be extradited to Spain under UK law. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary at the time, however, decided that Pinochet was too ill to be extradited to Spain and let him return to Chile in 2000. Pinochet was never convicted for his crimes.
The case of Pinochet was not significant for its final outcome. It was significant because it broke down barriers that ex-leaders benefit from impunity. The court order on the Chinese case has the same significance – that ex-leaders can be held accountable despite having been in power and still enjoying powerful friends
The next question is on practical enforcement. Are these warrants of any use if no country is going to enforce them because of the realities of power politics? Clearly, China will not hand over its ex-leaders to be prosecuted. Yet there are consolations. Due to these warrants, the ex-leaders could be detained when they travel to Spain, or other countries, which recognize court orders signed by Spain. So, while the final decision on extradition would indeed be political (as in the case of Jack Straw deciding to ignore the judicial ruling), in most countries – especially in Western Europe – there would at least have to be a judicial process before politics comes to play on whether the Chinese leaders are to be extradited to Spain to stand trial.
As a judicial process would have to determine if the accused person can be extradited or not, all the while the person in question would, like Pinochet, remain under house arrest. Therefore, unless the order is reversed, future international travel for the five Chinese ex-leaders means taking a risk. They will be in fear that they could be arrested even for a short while. It is also likely that in countries where the Spanish writ runs, leaders of the host country would discreetly advise against the Chinese ex-leaders visiting because the political fallout would be embarrassing to the host as well. The risk, the anxiety and signals from foreign leaders that they are unwelcome, all serve to sully the image dictators like to cultivate. And for dictators who kill and torture to preserve their image, image is everything.
Therefore, if any one of these five ex-leaders wants to travel, he will have to ponder the possibility of the country he is visiting carrying out the warrant. Further, every time they weigh the pros and cons of travelling, they will also remember that Tibet is the reason. The ex-leaders will not be as free as they used to be.
For survivors of the mass human rights violations, simply sullying an ex-leader’s image or barring foreign travel is not enough. However, it is a step in the right direction. Almost all of the international criminal cases against leaders have come to court not because officials in government wanted it, but because of the patient persistence of survivors and the tireless support of human rights activists. Both survivors of mass human rights violations, as well as human rights activists the world over, understand that the road to justice and accountability is long and hard. But acts such as the decision by Spain’s National Court serve as beacons that ensure both survivors and activists stay the course until justice is done.
 Until 2009 the British House of Lords functioned as its court of last resort. The upper house of the British Parliament (called the House of Lords) appointed “Law Lords” – highly qualified full time judges to carry out the judicial work of House of Lords. These Law Lords functioned as Supreme Court justices would do in the US. The Constitutional Act of 2005 created a separate Supreme Court for the UK in 2009. http://www.parliament.uk/about/mps-and-lords/about-lords/lords-types/law-lords/
 House of Lords v. Evans and other Ex. Parte Pinochet. Decision given on March 24 1999
Walking the Barkhor, a winding street which encircles Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple, has been a vital part of the Tibetan pilgrim experience for centuries. Visitors from across Tibet join Lhasa natives in worship and shopping while walking clockwise circuits around the 7th century Jokhang, the spiritual heart of Tibet. Arriving in Lhasa in 1946, just a few short years before the Chinese invasion, Heinrich Harrer described the Barkhor as “a center of business, sociability, and frivolity,” in which most of the life of the city was concentrated. Stalls selling everything from Scotch whiskey to Indian cloth in an open-air bazaar served as a social center for Tibetans of every class.
The last few decades have been transformative for the Barkhor, though, and as Chinese state-run media outlets launch another round of propaganda regarding the latest change, we’re presented with a good opportunity to look at just how much Tibet’s Barkhor has become China’s Barkhor. Today local business is dominated by Chinese migrants. As far back as 1994, research revealed that more than 70 percent of the businesses in the Tromzikhang, a historic marketplace on the Barkhor, were run by Chinese traders. Today the Tromzikhang is set to be overshadowed by new malls built by the Chinese in the heart of the old city, including one massive project called the Barkhor Shopping Mall which will encompass 150,000 square meters and includes a 1,117-space parking garage. When Tibetans have already been largely edged out of small stalls, it’s hard to see how they can successfully compete with Chinese businesses in a high-rent mall with no cultural or historical Tibetan connections.
Tibetan architectural heritage has also been under incessant pressure. The Tromzikhang itself was gutted and rebuilt in the 1990s; only the facade was left intact after authorities decided it should be ‘redeveloped.’ A National Public Radio reporter visiting Lhasa in 2006 spoke to residents who lamented the loss of centuries-old homes and temples, adding that their reconstructions merely pay lip service to traditional architecture.
Chinese authorities have ignored these concerns and actively pushed back against preservationists who sought to protect Tibetan architecture. A German named Andre Alexander became a leading figure in preservation after inventorying every remaining historic home in Lhasa, and through his efforts (including the founding of the Tibet Heritage Fund) a number of them were saved. He had to work quickly, as he found that “on each subsequent visit, houses had vanished – stone by stone, block by block, alley by alley.” In recognition of his efforts Chinese authorities eventually expelled him from the People’s Republic of China and denied the Tibet Heritage Fund access to Tibet. Perhaps it’s fitting that Alexander was standing on the Barkhor when he personally witnessed one of the defining moments of recent Tibetan history: in 1987 he was almost hit when Chinese police open fired on Tibetan protestors who had gathered in front of the Jokhang Temple.Surveillance has become a defining characteristic of the Barkhor. Security cameras, plainclothes police, and heavily-armed police patrols have proliferated greatly since the 2008 Tibetan Uprising; Tibetans and Chinese alike wonder if security personnel outnumber pilgrims and tourists today. It’s now considered unusual when camouflaged police armed with rifles are absent from the rooftops along the Barkhor, as they were when authorities withdrew them during the visit of US Ambassador Gary Locke in June 2013. Aside from such brief attempts to project normalcy, the police presence is stifling; a Lhasa resident described the city as “a giant prison” while speaking to Radio Free Asia last year. Checkpoints and metal detectors form an impenetrable ring around the Barkhor, while a network of at least six police stations keep tabs on the area. Cyril Payen, a reporter working for France24, said that arriving in Lhasa felt like entering “an Orwellian world of surveillance” while reporting from the city in early 2013.
While security grows, the pilgrim presence has tapered. Human Rights Watch documented a mass expulsion of Tibetans hailing from outside the Tibet Autonomous Region after two young men from northern Tibet self-immolated on the Barkhor in May 2012. Human Rights Watch’s China Director Sophie Richardson argued that “this arbitrary expulsion of people because of their ethnicity or place of birth is clearly discriminatory and violates their basic rights to freedom of movement and residence.”
Religious festivals, formerly a major draw for pilgrims, have also been severely restricted. Harrer describes seeing a major festival shortly after his 1946 arrival (likely Monlam Chenmo, the Great Prayer Festival) in which tens of thousands of pilgrims witnessed, by light of butter lamp, the procession of the Dalai Lama circling the Barkhor and arriving at the Jokhang Temple. Chinese authorities have forbidden the observance of Monlam Chenmo in Tibet since 1959, save for a brief revival in the 1980s which ended in 1990. Tibetan writer Woeser mourned these changes on her blog, writing that the Barkhor “has no more of the pilgrims from Kham and Amdo who prostrate themselves all the way from the far borders to Lhasa; no more lamp pavilions in which thousands and tens of thousands of butter lamp offerings were lit every day.”
All of this brings us to the latest news. Early this week Xinhua crowed about the complete removal of all street vendors from the Barkhor, explaining that they had been forced to relocate to the newly-constructed “Barkhor Commercial Building.” ICT reported on an earlier partial relocation last year, although at the time stall-owners were told that the relocation would be temporary. This time the intention appears to be a permanent removal. A picture posted to the Chinese-run news site Tibet Online shows a modern building with a faux-Tibetan facade, while the Chinese-language label above the front door dwarfs the Tibetan script.
With this change, the Barkhor may well be unrecognizable to Harrer and those who knew it well in pre-invasion Tibet. The bustling open-air market is gone, the pilgrims have been slowed to a trickle, and the Dalai Lama hasn’t been on the premises in decades. Shotgun-toting patrols, rooftop snipers, and armored personnel carriers probably don’t lend themselves to the atmosphere of frivolity Harrer described.
Instead, a new Barkhor exists to serve Chinese interests: profit for businessmen, a destination for tourists, and a symbol of Chinese control over Tibet. On a recent stroll through the Barkhor, Woeser paused to count the number of Chinese flags flying on the rooftops above Jokhang square. There is perhaps no place in Tibet more intensely watched by police trying to prevent the flying of the Tibetan flag, and in its place she counted 14 Chinese flags flying around this small square. Each one helps convey a message: as far as the authorities are concerned this is China’s Barkhor, not Tibet’s Barkhor.
As part of my work I look at the statements by China’s leaders to see if they reveal anything about the current state of affairs in Tibet. This was particularly so after General Secretary Xi Jinping took over the leadership and people were having expectation that he will be different.
Therefore, it was interesting to read the article by Tibet Autonomous Region Party Secretary Chen Quanguo in the Party journal Quishi, “Ensuring the Security of Tibet’s Ideological Realm with Courage to Show One’s Sword” (Qiushi, No. 21, 2013), which has been translated into English by High Peaks Pure Earth.
It is about how the Chinese leadership should intensify the effort to control the minds of the Tibetan people through the media. People have read this essay as an indication of hardening of Chinese stand on the Tibetan people. In a way, it is, but to me the article has three other points worth noting. Let me expand.
First, the article is a concrete acknowledgement of failure of China’s Tibet policies to date. It talks about “hostile forces” that “have colluded with the clique of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, and have considered Tibet as a key area for infiltration and separatist activities and as the main battlefield for sabotaging and causing disturbances. They have tried all means to contend for the battlefield, popular feeling and the common people, thus, all their efforts have made Tibet the teeth of the storm in the struggle of the ideological realm.”
The article further says, “We will thoroughly carry out the educational activities of comparing Old Tibet with the New Tibet, instructing people of various ethnic groups to be grateful to the Party, listen to the Party and follow the Party.”
In other words, despite more than 60 years after the “liberation” the Chinese authorities have not been able to win over the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people, who are displaying indications of loyalty and reverence to the Dalai Lama.
Also, if after 60 years the Chinese authorities have to make effort to paint independent Tibet (“Old Tibet”) as negative to the Tibetan people compared to the current socialist Tibet (“New Tibet”) something is certainly lacking. Good or bad, those Tibetans in Tibet who are of a certain age have experienced life in Tibet, before and after 1959, and no amount of “educational activities” can alter their directly felt perception.
Secondly, we can infer that the Chinese authorities are losing control over the cadres and party officials who are not toeing the official line. Although the article does not specify, it could be that these are mainly ethnic Tibetan officials.
For example, it says, “We should strengthen the political responsibility of the “Chief” of Party Committees of various levels, requiring them to lead the work and face the challenges directly. They are required to take the lead to listen to and watch state media as well as the local Party newspaper, the local radio station and the local TV station. They should also take the lead to control the orientation of the local media and the public opinion.”
The article adds, “We should put forth an effort to train a group of excellent propaganda cadres, who are politically reliable and who are in complete mastery of their professional work.
Connected with this is a sort of declaration of lack of trust in the intellectuals, again of Tibetan origin, I assume. It says, “We will build a contingent of intellectuals with high quality, who are obedient to the Party, who are grateful to the grace of the Party and who follow the Party.”
Either Chen Quanguo shows disrespect to the capability of intellectuals or the state of affairs of the Tibetan people are such that even intellectuals are not showing gratitude to “the Party.” Otherwise, if the Chinese Communist Party has done positive things for the Tibetan people, the intellectuals, by definition, should be at the forefront in appreciating them for they would know better.
This brings me to my third point, which is that the article is a clear indication that the Chinese authorities have nothing in substance to show to the Tibetan people that their interest is being looked after. Logically, if one needs to convince a community that good is being done to them, publicity is of secondary importance. What is needed first is that something good needs to be done that could be publicized.
Therefore, something is not right when Chen Quanguo has to say, “ We should persist in disseminating the earth-shaking and tremendous changes that have occurred in the new socialist Tibet and publicizing the new stable, peaceful and happy life of people of various ethnic groups in Tibet.” Isn’t it common sense that if there have been “earth-shaking and tremendous changes” the Tibetan people would have felt them without having to be convinced by others?
Above all, this article by Chen Quanguo is a clear indication that the Chinese leaders who administer the Tibetan people have a distinct lack of understanding of the nature of Tibetan people and society. Leaving aside the political issues of “Middle Way,” “high degree of autonomy”, etc. no Chinese who understands and respects Tibetan history, culture, religion and way of life could have said something like “We should educate and guide cadres and ordinary people of various ethnic groups to separate Tibetan Buddhism from the fourteenth Dalai Lama, and separate the fourteenth Dalai lama from the title of the Dalai Lama so that they will consciously make a clear break from the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s clique.”
The bond between the Tibetan people and the Dalai Lama is older than the Communist Party of China or even the Nationalists Chinese. Moreover, Tibetan Buddhism as we know of it cannot be separated from the Dalai Lama, the way Chen Quanguo puts it, without destroying the fundamentals.
Here I want to contradict myself by saying that the Chinese authorities do understand this special bond and are afraid of it. Chen Quanguo’s article is just one of the many efforts that the Chinese leadership is making to break it. The ban on the possession of photos of the present Dalai Lama is related to this and is very much in line with Chen Quanguo’s strident remarks saying they should “prevent voices and images of hostile forces and the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s clique from being heard and seen.”
What should be the Tibetan people’s response to this onslaught by Chen Quanguo? I want to repeat two points that I mentioned in another article in 2008.
First, I believe the Tibetans should continue to assert their Tibetan identity, within Tibet and outside. This has to be understood as the broader concept of the Tibetan struggle and not narrowed down merely to political identity.
Secondly, Tibetans in Tibet and outside need to assert the commonality of their aspirations. I believe this commonality in the aspirations among Tibetans is the solid foundation of the Tibetan struggle. Tibetans in Dho, U and Kham, which incorporate the entire area of traditional Tibet, have time and again highlighted this commonality.
So, if there is anything positive that General Secretary Xi Jinping is planning vis-à-vis Tibet, I think it should include changing the mindset of leaders who are selected to rule over the Tibetan people. I can say with certainty that almost all Tibetans will take this article by Chen Quanguo with more than a pinch of salt. Even if the Chinese leaders do not care about the Tibetan people, such articles are counter-productive to China’s own interests.