Beijing should learn from the Scottish Referendum

On Monday, September 22, 2014, in General Commentary, by John N
[caption id="attachment_5506" align="aligncenter" width="570"]Scottish voters and sniper Left: Scottish voters line up at a polling station. Right: Snipers on a Lhasa rooftop.[/caption] Following the Scottish independence referendum through state-owned Chinese news outlets, one might have noticed that they struck an apocalyptic tone. Global Times variously referred to it as a “shock,” “a tremor shaking the whole Western system,” a “[fierce] outbreak of secessionism,” “a white knuckle ride,” and a case of a minority “sabotaging” the unity of a country[1][2]. A Yes vote would “wreck the whole UK,” and make Britain a “second-class nation.” These predictions started out looking foolish, but ended up looking even worse on September 19, when the world awoke to find that Scotland had peaceably voted to remain a part of the UK. To begin with, the framing of the issue reflected the peculiar narratives crafted by Beijing. One Global Times headline asked if a minority would decide the UK’s fate[3]. But this referendum concerned Scotland first and foremost, and it should be noted that the Scottish are not the minority in Scotland, but are in fact 84% of the population. It seems quite sensible that the Scottish would determine the fate of Scotland, and it’s hard to see how members of the Chinese Communist Party Standing Committee could argue with that; every single one of them, since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, has been ethnically Chinese. The real question is whether or not the UK should be in control of Scotland, and it’s here that we find Beijing’s real objection. If the Scottish can debate and vote on their union with the UK, why shouldn’t the Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongolians, Hong Kongers, and Taiwanese be allowed to do the same today in regards to the PRC? At times the stories almost seemed to be trying to goad London into overreacting. The Global Times wrote that “liberal practices in the UK might have worked in the past, but now are facing immense uncertainty.” But if we look at the illiberal practices favored by Beijing in responding to perceived threats to their authority- tanks in Tiananmen, missiles aimed at Taiwan, armored personnel carriers driving around Hong Kong, and rule by force in Tibet- and look at the outcomes they’ve fostered, the difference couldn’t be any clearer. On September 18 an astonishing 84.6% voter turnout rendered a democratic decision in which the level of violence never rose above strenuous flag-waving. Contrast this with China, where the Global Times says that “legal, political and moral systems play an effective role” in curbing separatism, but which has been roiled by massive Tibetan protests, harsh crackdowns, and over 130 self-immolations over the last few years. In one revealing news story, one county in Tibet has made so many arrests lately, and anticipates so many more in the future, that they’ve had to enlarge the paramilitary police detention center used to hold Tibetan political prisoners. It seems that the system China is mainly dependent on force and the threat of violence, while in reality the local legal, political, and moral systems actually did result in peaceful outcome for Scotland. China should find inspiration there instead of deriding it, and allow the minorities of the PRC to freely exercise self-determination in deciding their own futures as well.

Warning: The safety of links to Chinese news sites cannot be guaranteed. [1] Global Times:; [2] Global Times:; [3] Ibid
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[caption id="attachment_5352" align="alignright" width="300"]The signing of the 17 Point Agreement. The signing of the 17 Point Agreement.[/caption]May 23, 2014 marks the 63rd anniversary of the controversial “The Agreement of the Central People’s Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet”, known more popularly simply as the 17 Point Agreement between Tibet and China. It altered the framework of their relationship. Much has been written about this agreement, including its refutation by the Tibetan side. It has also been used heavily by the Chinese Government as proof of, and in an effort to legitimize, its control over Tibet. Here are a few points about the Agreement. Even though China claims Tibet as its “inalienable part”, there is no other document than this agreement that shows Tibet formally agreeing to becoming part of China. It is for this reason that the Chinese Government continues to propagandize about this agreement although the situation in Tibet clearly shows that they have not been adhering to its content. Secondly, it is also the only such agreement that the Chinese Government has reached with a region it claims as its territory. The political implication of this cannot be ignored and also explains why some of the initial leaders of China regarded Tibet as a special status. Thirdly, this agreement is also the precursor to the one country, two systems formula used subsequently for Hong Kong and Macao. Although the term itself was not used for the 17 Point Agreement, its content show that the then Chinese leaders clearly promised the Tibetan Government freedom to operate under a separate political system while agreeing to “return to the big family of the motherland”. Article 4 of the Agreement clearly says, “The Central Authorities will not alter the existing political system in Tibet. The Central Authorities also will not alter the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama.” The Agreement fundamentally promised self-governance to the Tibetan people. Had the Chinese Government earnestly abided by its clauses it could have really resulted in peaceful co-existence that the then Tibetan Government worked to have with it. Although the Tibetan Government tried to abide by the Agreement, the Chinese Government reneged on all these commitments; it exercised full powers in Tibet’s internal affairs and greatly interfered in the powers and functions of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The situation in Tibet deteriorated subsequently leading to the Tibetan Uprising in March 1959 and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in March 1959. It should also be noted that the Tibetan government has maintained that the Agreement was forced upon them and that they had to sign it under duress. As proof, they maintain that the official Tibetan seal used on the Agreement was not the genuine one that they had, but one that was manufactured by the Chinese side. After experiencing the suffocating atmosphere in Tibet with intrusive Chinese presence, the Dalai Lama, once he was able to escape to India, lost no time in issuing a statement on April 18, 1959. In it he referred to the Agreement saying: “In 1951, under pressure of the Chinese Government, a 17-Point Agreement was made between China and Tibet. In that Agreement, the suzerainty of China was accepted as there was no alternative left to the Tibetans. But even in the Agreement, it was stated that Tibet would enjoy full autonomy. Though the control of External Affairs and Defence were to be in the hands of the Chinese Government, it was agreed that there would be no interference by the Chinese Government with the Tibetan religion and customs and her internal administration. In fact, after the occupation of Tibet by the Chinese armies, the Tibetan Government did not enjoy any measure of autonomy even in internal matters, and the Chinese Government exercised full powers in Tibet’s affairs. “In 1956, a Preparatory Committee was set up for Tibet with the Dalai Lama as Chairman, the Panchen Lama as Vice-Chairman and General Chang Kuo Hun as the Representative of the Chinese Government. In practice, even this body had little power, and decisions in all important matters were taken by the Chinese authorities. The Dalai Lama and his Government tried their best to adhere to the 17 Point Agreement, but the interference of the Chinese authorities persisted.” Therefore, we should keep the above in mind as the Chinese authorities will surely talk of how the Tibetan people in Tibet have benefited from the Agreement. If China is truly implementing the Agreement, those Tibetan areas covered by it should be enjoying much more autonomy than they have currently.
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[caption id="attachment_5063" align="alignright" width="300"]Human Rights Council session Attendees at the Human Rights Council session stand to commemorate Cao Shunli, a Chinese human rights activist who was prevented from traveling to the Council and died in detention.[/caption]On March 19, 2014 I travelled to Geneva to represent the International Campaign for Tibet at the adoption of China’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). This was a culmination of more than a year’s long work for ICT and I was glad that I was going to be at the Council. Below is my personal experience at the HRC. The views in this blog are my own and do not reflect those of ICT. On that morning, as soon as I walked into the HRC chamber and sat down on one of the seats reserved for NGOs, a man approached me asking me very directly whether I would give a statement on Tibet later on during the adoption of China’s report. At first, this only surprised me. ICT as a member of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) had planned to issue a joint statement together with FIDH and Human Rights in China (HRiC). FIDH, as an NGO with consultative status, was going to deliver it. However, our joint oral statement was not public yet. Moreover, I had never met this man before. He must have noticed my surprise because he tried to reassure me by saying that he was “Tibetan” and therefore very interested in my statement. He wished to see the statement beforehand and asked me to send it to him but when he gave me his email address, it was only composed by numbers and did not have a name, or even an organization, in it. Now this made me very suspicious as to whom he was and how he knew I worked on Tibet. When he gave a statement on behalf of his “NGO”, the China Association for Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture (CAPDTC), during a Council debate on minority issues, I knew he was not presenting the real picture in Tibet but the government’s version.He stressed that the Chinese government was safeguarding the rights of the Tibetan people, especially those concerning language and bilingual education. However I know from ICT’s reports that this is not the case in Tibet. This was only the beginning of the many intimidation measures I would witness at the HRC those days. Later during the day, when speaking to representatives of other Tibetan NGOs, I was told that they had been photographed by some Chinese officials while they were sitting in the UN Cafeteria. That afternoon, when the start of China’s adoption approached, NGO seats began to be filled in the Council chamber by many representatives of Chinese NGOs, or rather representatives of the Chinese government. The adoption started by being delayed. Rumors started circulating about a possible postponement of the adoption to the following day. The Chinese officials were complaining to the President of the HRC about NGOs’ request to hold a minute of silence to honor Ms. Cao Shunli, a Chinese human rights defender who died in detention on March 14. In the meantime, Chinese delegates were filming and taking pictures of NGO representatives in the Council chamber in contravention of the HRC’s rules, which state that only accredited press have permission to do so. One of China’s targets on that day was Ms. Ti-Anna Wang, the daughter of a well-known Chinese political prisoner. On March 18, she had given testimony on her father’s situation in detention. A Chinese representative openly photographed her in the Chamber. On March 19, when she was sitting right next to me a Chinese official leaned over and took a photo of the screen of her laptop. After reporting these actions to the UN security guards, the devices were confiscated and the violator escorted outside the room. As reported some days later by the New York Times, the UN decided to disbar this man from its premises. In the end, the adoption of the report was postponed to the next day. On March 20, the atmosphere in the HRC chamber was very heavy. The feeling I had was that everyone knew that something would happen but no one wanted to mention it. Again, Chinese representatives were everywhere, especially near NGOs. During those two days, other UPR reports were adopted, such as the ones of Saudi Arabia, Chad and the Central African Republic, notably not human rights champions. However, what happened with China was incomparable to any other State. The first speaker on the NGO list was the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR). NGOs had planned a joint action, which ISHR was leading. It involved standing up while holding posters of Ms. Cao Shunli as soon as the first NGO would start speaking and mentioning a minute of silence to remember Ms. Cao’s death. Personally, this was an incredible experience. Cao Shunli was planning to attend a human rights training and China’s UPR session in October 2013 but she was detained before catching her flight to Geneva. Six months later she was dead, simply for doing what I was doing - attending a UN session. It was beautiful and touching to see so many inspiring people united and protesting peacefully against injustice. China’s complaints as well as those from its authoritarian friends, such as Iran, Cuba, Pakistan and others, were all in vain. Civil society went on with its silent protest until the end of the Council’s debate of China’s UPR. As FIDH delivered its oral statement, the Chinese delegation interrupted the speaker by raising a point of order. The Chinese asked the President of the Council “to abolish the status of the speaker [FIDH] to speak” because the other two organizations did not have consultative status. The UN secretariat ruled against the Chinese, citing a long practice where accredited NGOs could “mention other entities.” FIDH was allowed to continue with the statement. This is what China is mostly afraid of. It is aware of the power of the people. This is why it wants to silence them with all means. Oddly, I don’t think this was a bad experience for the civil society movement. On the contrary, I think it only shows the strength of our movement, the movement of thoughtful, committed citizens, who believe that there is ONE people with the same rights all over the world, be it the Tibetans, the Chinese or the Syrians. It shows that with a common, unified approach and with commitment to the fundamental values of freedom and democracy, this movement one day will win its battle. It may not be tomorrow but it is only a matter of time. On a personal level, it has reinforced my own convictions that what we are doing is right. Moreover, this has also been a victory for ICT. The unacceptable behavior of Chinese representatives has once again proved to the whole world what the true face of an authoritarian State looks like, despite the friendly smiles and handshakes. Their measures are not only counter-productive, as they showed Chinese opposition to fundamental freedoms and drew more attention to the Tibetan cause, but mainly because they proved that China has no moral legitimacy in an important forum such as the HRC and, most importantly is a threat to democracy and freedom everywhere, not only within its own borders. Democratic countries have nothing to share with a dictatorship. Now it’s the international community’s time to act.

Chinese misrepresenting Tibetan aspirations

On Wednesday, March 12, 2014, in Recent, by John N
Last month President Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama for the third time since taking office, conversing for an hour in the Map Room of the White House. The Administration reiterated its commitment to supporting the Middle Way Approach in their official statement, while making it clear that they do not support Tibetan independence. As one might expect, Chinese officials and media organs reacted in a manner completely out of step with this highly reasonable meeting and statement, variously accusing President Obama of having “perverted purposes,” playing the “Dalai card,” forming an “unholy alliance,” and following the “abominable precedent” set by former President George H. W. Bush, the first American President to welcome the Dalai Lama to the White House. Amidst all this froth, one particular narrative consistently pushed by Chinese officials and their media mouthpieces was the idea that all Chinese citizens, including Tibetans, were offended by the meeting. An opinion piece in China Daily penned by Lian Xiangmin, a director of the Communist Party-backed China Tibetology Research Center, claimed that the Dalai Lama's activities not only lack the support of Tibetans, but are actively “condemned” by them. Another China Daily piece, this one an unsigned editorial, said that the Middle Way approach is “against the will” of Tibetans. A third one alleged that the Dalai Lama's influence in Tibet has “waned.” The writers are conspicuously silent on sourcing these claims, which leaves them suspect given the prohibition against opinion polling in Tibet. Chinese propaganda outlets apparently can't help but to try to speak on behalf of Tibetans, despite being repeatedly contradicted by the words and actions of the Tibetan people throughout the decades. Completely misjudging the relationship between the Dalai Lama and Tibetans is something of a Party specialty at this point. In 1979, for example, Chinese authorities held meetings in advance of the arrival of the Dalai Lama's first fact-finding delegation into Tibet, asking that locals refrain from throwing stones or spitting at them. Instead, they were shocked to see that each successive delegation was enthusiastically greeted by thousands of Tibetans at each stop- “mobbed” by them, as Tsering Shakya put it. Ten years later the Dalai Lama was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. The news spread through Lhasa by word of mouth over the next few days, and soon thousands of Tibetans gathered in the heart of Lhasa to celebrate. Ronald D. Schwartz, a sociologist who personally witnessed many of the defining moments of the late 80's in Lhasa, wrote of Tibetans “speaking openly of their delight in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama.” Festivities continued for days, ending only when authorities intervened and threatened to arrest celebrants. Both the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007 and the Dalai Lama's first meeting with President Obama in 2010 were greeted by celebrations across Tibet as well. Official claims that Tibetans opposed the Dalai Lama and Obama meeting were visibly contradicted by Tibetans posting at the time on Weibo, a Chinese social media network similar to Twitter. There, reactions[i] ranged from joy over the meeting to a rejection of Chinese propaganda on the subject. “Thank you Obama,” one reposted message said, while others posted combinations of smiling faces, peace signs, flowers, and candle icons in reaction to the news:

“Elder brother, this afternoon you said something very good. Therefore I praise you.”

Other Tibetan posters expressed derision towards Chinese propaganda in the form of laughter at a particularly hard-line editorial. Still others posted an image of Obama's face photoshopped onto the body of a Khampa Tibetan, accompanied by approving comments: Barack Obama Khampa Tibetan
There were also an unusually high number of references to posts being deleted on the two days following the meeting among Tibetans I checked, from which we might reasonably infer that even more explicit or popular messages in support of the meeting may have been quickly culled. Although this is still no substitute for scientific polling, at the end of the day all of the reactions I found among Tibetans on Weibo were positive, and I didn't encounter any instances of them condemning the meeting. The unsigned China Daily editorial did make one point I think we can all support: it closes by calling on Obama to do more to benefit “people in Tibet.” I concur, and suggest that he begin by sparing no effort to support the Dalai Lama and the Middle Way Approach by whatever methods are appropriate.
[i] Links haven't been provided to these posts in order to protect the identities of the Tibetans who posted them.
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