Tibet did not figure in the 2012 election, and China was brought up mostly as a tool to pummel the other guy on economic policy. As official Washington turns attention back to governing, we will see new personnel in key positions in the U.S. government, focus on the leadership transition in China, and increased media attention on the crisis in Tibet. The coming months present a critical opportunity to make a qualitative advance in efforts to promote improvements in conditions in Tibet.
First, there is no political impetus from the election to alter U.S. Tibet policy. The White House, Senate and House of Representatives remain under the same partisan control. The Obama Administration will be expected to continue its policy (which mirrors that of its predecessors) of promoting Tibetan-Chinese dialogue and calling for an end to repressive Chinese policies that are creating the resentments behind the self-immolations. The Administration’s general statements on Tibet can be found here, and their specific statements on the self-immolations can be found here.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said she will leave at the end of this term. The three names mentioned to replace her are Sen. John Kerry, Susan Rice, Ambassador to the United Nations, and Tom Donilon, National Security Advisor.
Kerry has a long record of support for Tibet, and helped shepherd through two Tibet resolutions in the Senate this year. In his four years as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, however, his focus has been on areas other than China and East Asia policy. Rice has not had an opportunity to deal with Tibet in the U.N. (since China blocks discussion there), although in this seat she certainly has experienced Chinese intransigence. A Secretary Donilon, who reportedly runs the Administration’s China policy now, would essentially mean that China policy implementation would merely shift from the National Security Council to Foggy Bottom.
One of the most important factors for Tibet is the choice of the next Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues. It is expected that the incumbent, Under Secretary Maria Otero, will leave after the term ends. The choice will be up to the next Secretary of State, who can decide to continue the Coordinator position at the Under Secretary level, move it to a different position, or convert it into a sort of ‘special envoy’ type role. The key is to ensure that its placement maximizes the Coordinator’s ability to coordinate policy within the bureaucracy, and to promote dialogue and an improvement in the human rights situation in Tibet.
In Congress, three of four of the top foreign policy committee jobs will be open. The current chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), is term limited. Two Republicans are vying to replace her. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), who has been a forceful advocate for human rights in China and Tibet, and even adopted the Panchen Lama as a political prisoner. The other is Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), former chair of the Asia subcommittee. While Smith has more seniority, Royce has the endorsement of Ros-Lehtinen and may have broader support among his colleagues. The outgoing chairman has given strong support to Tibet, both in holding hearings on the subject and in crafting legislation. Her successor, whether Smith or Royce, will mean continued support for Tibet and may mean more attention on policy toward China.
The top Democrat on the committee will be either Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) or Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), after the current ranking member Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) was defeated in the election by Sherman. Berman was an author of some of the earliest Tibet legislation, back in the 1990s. While neither Engel nor Berman has much of a Tibet profile, they are expected to continue Congressional support.
In the Senate, the first question is whether John Kerry remains as Chairman. If he goes to State, the gavel is expected to pass to Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ). He is known for a tough line on Cuba and Iran, and has been sympathetic to the plight of Tibetans, speaking up for continued surrogate broadcasting into Tibet. The ranking Republican on the committee is expected to be Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who has not established a profile on China/Asia policy.
It is important to note that none of these lawmakers is considered hostile to the Tibet issue. In fact, there is not, nor has there ever been, an “anti-Tibet” faction in Congress. And the issue is completely bipartisan. Rep. Nancy Pelosi has been perhaps Tibet’s biggest champion in the House. But when Rep. John Boehner became Speaker, he hosted the Dalai Lama and met with Sikyong Lobsang Sangay. This continuity is a reflection of the institutionalization of the Tibet issue in Congress, and reflects the broad support the issue receives.
While continuity in policy and support is vital building block, citizens and advocates must continue to call on our representatives in government to push more for a resolution to the Tibet problem. Because of the changes in Beijing and the escalation of self-immolation and protest in Tibet, now is a critical time to pursue these efforts. While we will have to see how these leadership positions get filled, we are fortunate that such changes would only have a tactical effect on our advocacy, not a strategic one. This is because of the institutionalization of the Tibet issue in the U.S. government has created a strong foundation of support for the issue.
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:
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.
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):
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.
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.