Honoring the American who died on duty in Tibet

On Thursday, November 1, 2012, in Culture & History, by Todd Stein

Every time I visit the U.S. State Department and proceed to the west side elevators from the main lobby, I take a glance at a name on the wall.  It reads:

CIA plaque

Douglas S Mackiernan | Killed by gunfire Tibet 1950

This inscription is on the American Foreign Service Association’s Memorial Plaque, which honors “diplomatic and consular officers of the United States who while on active duty lost their lives under heroic or tragic circumstances.” It is notable for a couple of reasons:

Mackiernan has been acknowledged as the first Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer to die in the line of duty; and

He is the only U.S. official recorded at having died in Tibet.

In 1949, Douglas Mackiernan was stationed in the U.S. consulate in Urumchi, in what was called Sinkiang Province in the Republic of China (now Xinjiang or East Turkestan). When Chinese officials in Urumchi switched sides to the Communists, the U.S. closed its consulate. In order avoid arrest by Chinese Communists, Mackiernan, an American anthropologist named Frank Bessac, and three White (anti-Communist) Russians chose a path southwards through Tibet on the way to India.

After spending time with Kazakhs, in the spring of 1950, the party crossed into the desolate Changtang desert. On April 29, the group encountered a Tibetan outpost. Mackiernan and two of the Russians were shot and killed. This was at a time when Tibetan border guards were under general direction to oppose any foreigners attempting to cross into Tibet.

Mackiernan was called a State Department official death was reported in 1950. It wasn’t until 2001 that it was revealed that he was working for the CIA, in a book by author Ted Gup. Two years later, a book by Thomas Laird made public the fact that Mackiernan was conducting intelligence work on the Soviet atomic program. In 2006, the CIA placed his name in the Book of Honor at the Memorial wall in the CIA headquarters, and in 2008, publicly acknowledged his atomic intelligence role.

(In fact, Mackiernan and his story are the subject of Laird’s book, Into Tibet: The CIA’s First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa.)

The tragic twist in this tale is that, two days after Mackiernan and companions were shot, a letter from the Dalai Lama’s government arrived, informing the outpost that the Americans were to be welcomed (the Tibetans were trying to gain U.S. help against a Chinese invasion). Bessac and the surviving Russian were then escorted to Lhasa. Bessac (who lived until 2010) successfully sought leniency for the border guards who shot his companions, who were to be subject to severe punishment by Tibetan authorities.

The Mackiernan/Bessac journey is one of the few penetrations by Americans of insular, pre-invasion Tibet.  Author Ken Knaus places the episode under the heading “Washington rediscovers Tibet” in his book, Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival. In the 1940s, U.S. strategic interest in Tibet was as an alternate route of supply for Chinese forces battling the Japanese (as commemorated by President Obama in his 2010 gift to the Dalai Lama of an exchange of letters between President Roosevelt and the Dalai Lama.

By 1950, U.S. interest in Tibet had rotated to its potential as a bulwark against Communist expansion following the victory of Mao’s forces the previous year. Thus, Mackiernan’s death marks, albeit unintentionally, the beginning of the CIA’s secret engagement in Tibet, now documented by Mr. Knaus, documentarian Lisa Cathey and others, and now publicly acknowledged by a plaque at the Camp Hale, Colorado, site, where Tibetan freedom fighters were trained.

I glance at the plaque in the State Department lobby in part because it observes that Mackiernan died in “Tibet.” Of course, the U.S. officially considers the Tibet Autonomous Region (and adjacent Tibetan jurisdictions) as part of the People’s Republic of China. But the Mackiernan episode happened before the People’s Liberation Army had reached Lhasa, and before the 1951 17-point agreement between Chinese Communist officials and the local Tibetan government. The U.S. position is appropriately (and consciously) agnostic on the status of Tibet before the 1950s – evidenced by the formula that it considers Tibet a part of the PRC, not “China.” This formula is important to the Tibetans’ standing with regard to dialogue with the Chinese, and should be understood and replicated by other governments.

P.S. In researching this blog, I came upon another Tibet reference. Stephen Karsada was another CIA employee who was killed in May 1960, while on temporary duty in Southeast Asia in support of a CIA air supply mission to Tibet. When his name was added to the Book of Honor, it represented a small but important recognition by the CIA of its role in Tibet’s history.

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The missed opportunity for a debate on China (and Tibet)

On Tuesday, October 23, 2012, in China, Recent, US Government, by Todd Stein

Last night was “foreign policy night” in the third and final presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama

A 15-minute segment was devoted to the subject of “The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World” by moderator Bob Schieffer.  Unfortunately, we got very little insight into the candidates view of China’s role in the world or how they would approach China overall.

Yesterday’s blog hoped that Obama and Romney would touch on issues of democracy, human rights, territorial ambitions and Tibet.  Instead, the candidates used this foreign policy topic to steer the conversation back to domestic themes.  China became a vehicle to talk about trade, manufacturing, industrial policy, taxes, etc.

The New Yorker’s always insightful Evan Osnos writes that this is troubling:

The absence of a discussion of human rights will not go over well in the American human-rights community or with Tibetan groups. For the moment, however, in Beijing it is being greeted with pleasure. China takes careful note of vocabulary—the Foreign Ministry keeps track of the mentions of specific words—and the erosion of human rights from the candidates’ priorities will be taken as a sign, as foreign-affairs specialist Zhu Feng put it, that economic issues are “something they really care more about now than human rights or security.”

A Beijing-based Chinese economist agreed: “Chinese officials will be satisfied by the debate, as the China topics were trade and currency, and neither candidate mentioned human rights, so it was quite friendly towards China.”

However, there were a couple of interesting moments that provided a window into each man’s thoughts on China.

First, President Obama opened up with the view that “China’s both an adversary but also a potential partner in the international community if it’s following the rules.”  The use of “adversary” certainly got noticed in Beijing, and according to Foreignpolicy.com’s Josh Rogin, appeared to contradict his own Administration’s messaging on U.S-China relations.  Rogin cites a speech by Secretary of State Clinton in 2009 where she distances the Administration’s approach from those who would label China an “adversary.”  Of course, the Administration’s posture has evolved over three years in response to a more globally assertive posture by Beijing.  Perhaps Obama’s choice of words reflects that evolution.

It is also interesting that he used the phrase “potential partner,” which implies China is not a partner now.  This also is a different tone than that expressed by his Administration, and will also be noticed in Beijing (if not first by his Treasury Secretary).

For his part, Governor Romney tacked away from Obama’s comments, saying, “We don’t have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form. We can work with them. We can collaborate with them if they’re willing to be responsible.”  This is similar to Obama’s approach, by putting the onus back on Beijing to choose whether it wants to be a responsible partner.  At the same time, experts pointed to this as a softening of Romney’s tone on China.  It seems to have been welcomed in Beijing.

Romney also said, “China has an interest that’s very much like ours in one respect, and that is they want a stable world. They don’t want war. They don’t want to see protectionism… So they want the economy to work and the world to be free and open.”

For one, Romney assesses that the Chinese don’t want protectionism even as he has previously accused them of practicing it, when he called China “cheaters” and promised to “crack down” by labeling them as currency manipulators.

For another, Romney’s claim that the Chinese want the world to be “free and open” raises eyebrows, given that China is consistently rated by Freedom House as the “worst of the worst” among the world’s most repressed society.  (This notion is cleverly displayed in TIME magazine’s recent cover story on Xi Jinping: The Next Leader of the Unfree World.)  But perhaps Romney meant to refer to free and open commercial markets.

Overall, it was revealing that the Middle East dominated the debate.  While China got one-sixth of the time, that was more than Europe, Latin American and Africa combined.  My reaction to the topical allocation in the debate can be summed up by a Tweet last night by the ever-witty @RelevantOrgans (a Twitter handle that satirizes the Chinese Communist Propaganda Bureau):

Relevant Organs Tweet
But this missed opportunity to have a serious debate on China policy doesn’t mean it’s the last chance for such a debate.  Tonight, four third party candidates will participate in a debate in Chicago – Jill Stein of the Green Party, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party.  Let’s see what they have to say on China.

Lastly, I offer a reminder to urge the candidates to respond to ICT’s 2012 Tibet questionnaire, in which they tell voters what their Tibet policy would be.  We have heard from one candidate (Obama) but not heard from the others we asked (Romney, Stein, Johnson).   Our page gives you tips for how to contact the campaigns via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.

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Chinese predicament at continuing Tibetan self-immolation

On Tuesday, October 23, 2012, in China, US Government, by Bhuchung K. Tsering

Even as the Chinese leadership is engrossed with preparations relating to the upcoming 18th Party Congress, the continuing Tibetan self-immolations are posing a particular predicament to them. As I write this on October 23, 2012, there is the latest report of another Tibetan, Dorjee Rinchen, from the Labrang area in Amdo committing self-immolation.

Thus, the Chinese authorities’ hope of the issue fading away — as a result of a combination of threats suppression and increased control — before the Party Congress is not happening.  There are indications that the Chinese leadership are now beginning to fear the negative impact of their lack of courage to deal with the developments in Tibet.

Jia Qinglin, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and a key figure involved in Tibet, is quoted by the official Chinese media on October 23 as saying, “the country is in a key period of fighting against the Dalai Lama group.”

Similarly, Zhou Yongkang, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party, on October 19, told a “seminar on safeguarding security and stability during the upcoming national congress” that the “risk of major social problems should be evaluated to prevent and reduce conflicts in areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang.”

As an indication of lack of confidence in some of their officials in the Tibetan areas, the Tibet Autonomous Region Party Secretary Chen Quanguo is reported by the People’s Daily as using a conference on October 16 to say “that local military officials should cooperate with police and be on standby around the clock, adding that officials would be dismissed on the spot if their areas of responsibility did not remain stable.”

The Chinese authorities want stability and fear destabilization on account of the situation in Tibet. However, the continued tragic self-immolations by Tibetans is a clear indication of the depth of feelings among the Tibetan people at their current state of affairs. The only lasting solution is for the Chinese authorities to address the genuine grievances of the Tibetan people.

To start with, the Chinese leaders should really look at some of their own statements and apply them positively to their Tibetan policy.  China’s Global Times quotes Jia Qinglin as saying that “Tibet-related issues were of paramount importance.” Is suppression the right way to deal with an issue that is really important? Similarly, it quotes Zhou Yongkang as telling the above-mentioned seminar that “people’s reasonable appeals as well as petitions should be better dealt with.” If he really wants to act on this, then why are the Chinese leaders letting so many Tibetan lives be lost without doing anything to redress their grievances. How many more Tibetans have to lose their lives before the Chinese authorities can consider them “reasonable appeals”?

It was a pity that during the final American presidential debate on October 22, 2012 that was devoted to foreign policy, hardly any time was spent on the fundamental American values of democracy and freedom. The United States and other countries have a responsibility to see that the peaceful struggle in Tibet succeed if they are for a more peaceful world. There is reason that people are beginning to ask why the world is not paying adequate attention to the developments in Tibet. Prof. Jeffrey Hopkins of the University of Virginia in fact said it well when he mentioned at a public event with the Dalai Lama on October 11, 2012 in Charlottesville that in Vietnam it took two such deaths and the world was aroused while in Tibet there have been more than 50 self-immolations and the world is not yet aroused.

In an interview with Ann Curry of NBC news (broadcast on October 11, 2012), the Dalai Lama said it was difficult to judge whether the method (used by the self-immolators) is right or wrong, but they are a non-violent expression of feelings regarding Chinese policies. He said that the Tibetans in Tibet are passing through really desperate situation.

Commenting about the nature of the Tibetan struggle and the Chinese attitude, the Dalai Lama told Ann Curry, “The struggle is between the power of truth and power of gun. For short term, power of gun may seem much stronger. But in the long run, power of truth is much stronger.” When asked what is the one thing that he would ask world leaders to support the Tibetans, he responded, “Just one word, freedom.”

We are now approaching the end of the term of President Hu Jintao and it is now clear that he is leaving behind a legacy of suppression of Tibetans, lack of foresight to deal with the issue and disregard of avenues that will really lead to stability of the People’s Republic of China and the establishment of a harmonious society. Hu Jintao has failed on Tibet. We will now have to see how the new leadership that will emerge out of the 18th Party Congress will fare.

China (and Tibet) in the presidential debate

On Monday, October 22, 2012, in Recent, US Government, by Todd Stein

Tonight, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney square off in their third and final debate. The focus is foreign policy.

An entire 15-minute segment in the third and final presidential debate on October 22 is scheduled to be dedicated to “The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World.” This provides the opportunity to hear from the candidates on how they would approach China, in a broad policy sense, over the next four years.

“While there has been plenty of talk of China in the 2012 campaigns, we remember the trend wherein “China bashing” on the campaign trail (reflecting the mood of the American public’s continued concern with Chinese Government’s attitude) tends to soften once the candidate takes office. Recall Governor Bill Clinton’s accusing George H.W Bush of “coddling dictators” in 1992, yet giving China normalized trade status by 2000.

This year, China has served as a tool rather than a focus of the talk. Each candidate has used China as an instrument to criticize the economic policies of the other.  Challenger Romney has called the Chinese “cheaters” and said that he would label China a currency manipulator on “day one,” claiming that he would take tough action where incumbent Obama hasn’t.

The Obama campaign has cited Romney’s time running Bain Capital to claim that he facilitated the outsourcing of American jobs to China, implying that such practice would take place under a Romney Administration.

Unfortunately, none of this back and forth has delved into the wider and deeper aspects of the complex and evolving U.S. relationship with the People’s Republic of China. It would be refreshing and informative to hear the candidates address these questions:

  • Can China be a reliable partner on global issues as long as the Chinese Communist Party maintains one-party rule?
  • Should the U.S. do more to promote democratic reform?
  • Should the U.S. impose consequences for the Chinese government’s failure to respect the human rights of its citizens?
  • How should the U.S. respond to China’s territorial ambitions and growing influence to its east, south and west?
  • What can the U.S. do to promote a durable solution for Tibet?

On this last point, to get a sense of the candidates’ approach to the Tibet issue, ICT sent their campaigns the 2012 Tibet questionnaire, as ICT has done in every presidential election since 2000. We received a response from the Obama campaign, which is reprinted on our 2012 campaign page. As the incumbent, President Obama’s Administration has a long record of statements on Tibet.

For Mitt Romney, we have no indication of his position on Tibet. Despite several avenues of outreach over 11 months, we have not received a response from his campaign to the Tibet questionnaire.

We also sent the Tibet questionnaire to the campaigns of Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein.  We received acknowledgment from their staff that they had received the questionnaire, but have not yet received a response from either.

It’s not too late to urge the campaigns to respond to the  Tibet questionnaire. Our campaign page gives you tips for how to contact the campaigns via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.

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