Much is being written about the ramifications of the dramatic midterm elections in the United States that resulted in the takeover by Republicans of the House of Representatives and a slimming of the Democratic majority in the Senate. Let me touch on the impact on Tibet and U.S. China policy in general.
First, as many Tibet supporters have noted, Nancy Pelosi will no longer be Speaker of the House. She has been one of the most forceful advocates for Tibet in Congress. Pelosi has done so publicly, from championing human rights debates over China’s trade status to her convening of the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony for the Dalai Lama. She also led the notable House delegation to Dharamsala days after the 2008 uprising started. But she has also been effective behind the scenes, helping steer congressional funding for programs to help Tibetans in Tibet and in exile.
Speaker Pelosi has announced that she will run for the post of minority leader, rather than relinquish a leadership post or retire from Congress, as some have speculated. As I write, it is unclear whether she will be challenged. If she does remain as Democratic leader, her voice for Tibet will continue to be valuable, even if she does not wield the same power she did as Speaker.
The new presumed Speaker is John Boehner. While he does not have a comparable record on Tibet or China policy, he did make impressive remarks
about Tibet and the Dalai Lama during the Gold Medal ceremony in 2007.
The change of political control in the House shouldn’t have much effect on Tibet policy. Going back to the days when conservative Sen. Jesse Helms teamed up with liberal Sen. Claiborne Pell to advance a special envoy for Tibet, the Tibet issue has enjoyed broad bipartisan (or better said, non-partisan) support. Religious freedom matters, so core to the Tibet issue, received special attention the last time Republicans controlled Congress (marked by passage of the International Religious Freedom Act
Funding for Tibet programs has enjoyed bipartisan support, with many of today’s earmarks getting their start under Republican bill-writers. However, the push against federal spending, so prevalent in winning Republican campaigns, could put the squeeze on the bill that funds these programs. Tibet supporters will have to step up their advocacy to protect the Tibet programs.
One area that is sure to see a change under the new House majority is increased Congressional oversight of the Obama Administration’s China policy. Even with the prominence of U.S.-China relations over the last two years, under Democratic control the Congressional foreign policy committees held only one
hearing specifically on China in the entire 111th Congress. That hearing was on the Google issue; there were none on human rights in China.
The new Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee will be Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. She has been an enthusiastic supporter of Tibet and the Dalai Lama. While she hasn’t devoted as much energy to China as she has to an issue close to her home and heart, Cuba, she has little patience for communist regimes that oppress their own people. I expect that the Committee, under her leadership, will devote more focus to China and Tibet.
There is a prevailing perception, including among conservative foreign policy circles, that the Obama Administration subordinated human rights to other priorities in its China policy, buoyed by their own statements
and the decision that the President would not meet the Dalai Lama in October 2009 (they did meet in February 2010). This suggests that the new House majority may recognize an opportunity here, for political if not for policy reasons.
The transfer of power pursuant to the 2010 mid-term elections is a testament to the vitality of democracy in the U.S. Tibetans are undergoing their own successful exercise in democracy through the ongoing elections for a new Kalon Tripa (prime minister) and parliament. These exemplify the shared values and mutual support between Tibetans and Americans.
PHOTO: John Boehner, right, with His Holiness the Dalai Lama greeting the late Tom Lantos during the Congressional Gold Medal award ceremony in 2007.