In July 2012, Stravros Lambrinidis was appointed EU Special Representative for Human Rights, the first EU appointment of this kind. At that time the International Campaign for Tibet expressed its willingness to interact with the newly appointed EU Special Representative for Human Rights regarding the situation in Tibet and called on Mr. Lambrinidis to guarantee that human rights are included at every level of EU-China relations (see: Stavros Lambrinidis appointed first EU Special Representative for Human Rights).
Mr. Lambrinidis took office on 1 September and last week, on 28 November, he addressed the European Parliament’s Sub-committee on human rights on the main activities he has undertaken during his first two months in office and future priorities for his mandate.
Among other things, Special Representative Lambrinidis expressed his readiness and commitment to work on Tibet within his mandate. Tibet was listed as one of his priority issues. He said he met with the Chinese Ambassador to the European Union Wu Hailong and communicated his interest to visit the People’s Republic of China, including Tibetan areas. Most importantly, he said that he is open to meet representatives of the Tibetans and other Tibetan people to have a better understanding of their grievances.
Just few weeks before, High-Commissioner for Human Rights Navy Pillay released a robust statement urging the Chinese government to immediately address the long-standing Tibetan grievances that have led to an escalation of self-immolations (see: UN Rights Commissioner makes strong first statement on Tibet) . Similarly, the Chairlady of the European Parliament’s Sub-Committee on Human Rights (DROI), Barbara Lochbihler, criticized the Chinese government over the human rights situation in Tibet in an interview with the German News Agency DPA on 3 November (see: Appell: Chinas künftige Führung muss Menschenrechte achten) .
All of them have expressed in different occasions their interest in visiting Tibet to personally assess the situation there according to their human rights mandate. Yet, none of them was granted formal invitation from the Chinese government to go to Tibet. However, the recent visit by US Ambassador Locke to afflicted Tibetan areas since the self-immolations crisis accelerated in 2011 demonstrates that visiting Tibet is not impossible.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has constantly appealed to the international community to visit Tibet. The international community should not give up and continue requiring the Chinese government access to Tibetan areas and the possibility to personally witness the situation on the ground.
The recent attention shown to Tibet by senior figures with leadership responsibility in the area of human rights should be seen in Beijing as an indication of serious concerns that demand urgent attention.
Here are a few reasons for this.
Although we saw “political structural reform” as one of the buzz-phrases at the Congress, there was no indication that this reform would apply to communities that the People’s Republic of China proclaims as its ‘ethnic minorities.’ And, even as “scientific outlook on development” was incorporated into the Party’s Constitution, we found nothing to indicate that a “people first” spirit would be applied to Tibetans when it comes to matters relating to their destiny. A statement after the first meeting of the new Politburo on November 16, 2012, said: “The foremost political task is to concentrate the mind of the Party, the nation and people of all ethnic backgrounds onto the congress’s spirit…” But the spirit of the Congress is only to consider the economic side of the equation, namely “the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects.” As the spirit of Tibetans is in crisis, with 74 confirmed incidents of self-immolation, this is a tragically narrow approach.
Another indication that Tibetans are given lesser weightage is the decrease in the number of Tibetans in the Party’s 18th Central Committee. In the past few Party Congresses, there were at least two Tibetans among the 200 plus members of the Committee. This time only one Tibetan is included. He is Pema Thinley, the current head of the Tibet Autonomous Region Government, and he was a member of the official Chinese delegation during the eighth round of discussions with the Dalai Lama’s envoys in 20087. If members of the Central Committee are ‘elected,’ then the reduced weightage it is an indication about the thinking of the majority Chinese members; if they were ‘selected,’ then it reflects the thinking of the Party itself. To be noted, there are four Tibetans who serve as alternate members in the Central Committee, the largest number we have had to date.
Speaking of representation, the most visible position that an ‘ethnic minority’ secured this time is that of being a member of the Secretariat of the Central Committee. This honor is bestowed on Yang Jing, a Mongolian. He already serves as the Minister in the State Ethnic Affairs Commission and a Vice Minister of the Central United Front Work Department. Otherwise, no ‘ethnic minority’ finds a place among the deputy secretaries, or standing committee members of the 18th Central Commission for Discipline Inspection], or the 25-member Politburo, not to talk of its Standing Committee.
In his first speech as the General Secretary of the Party, Xi Jinping, on November 15, 2012, acknowledged that: “In the new situation, our Party faces many severe challenges.” However, the growing social tension, including between Chinese and Tibetans, is a reality that the Chinese leaders will have to deal with, even as Xi says, “…Chinese people have opened up a good and beautiful home where all ethnic groups live in harmony and fostered an excellent culture that never fades.”
Culturally and psychologically, too, the ‘ethnic minorities’ seem to be considered more for their token value than substance during the Congress. Much of the reference to them during this historic 18th Party Congress was about their pictorial value for their “exotic garb.”
As we witness the historic and historical development in Tibet today, including the self-immolations by Tibetans, the following statement by Xi Jinping during his acceptance speech acquires a deeper meaning. “It is the people who create history. The masses are the real heroes. Out strength comes from the people and masses.” I believe the Tibetan people are really creating history and Beijing might want to listen.
Ling Jihua, the current head of China’s Central United Front Work Department that is the key organization managing Tibetan affairs, finds a place in the Central Committee, as was the case with his predecessors. But it is interesting that Zhu Weiqun, the Executive Deputy Minister of the UFWD, who handled day to day affairs on Tibet, does not find a place in the Committee although he was a member of the 17th CPC committee. This is all the more surprising when we consider that the former head of the UFWD, Du Qinglin, is in the new Central Committee. Du is older than Zhu Weiqun (born in November 1946 while Zhu was born in 1947), indicating that age may not have been a consideration.
It remains to be seen who will oversee organizations like the China Tibetan Culture Protection and Development Association, which Beijing has set up for their soft power outreach on Tibet. Zhu Weiqun was its Vice- President and Secretary General since 2004.
In the coming months, we may see the appointment of members of the Central Tibet Work Coordination Group or the Leading Group on Tibetan affairs, and depending on their background, we might get an idea of how the party sees the Tibetan issue. In the past, security considerations seem to have dominated in the composition of membership of the Group.
In his acceptance speech, Comrade Ji Xinping concluded,“China needs to learn more about the world, and the world also needs to learn more about China.” I would add that China and the new Chinese leaders need to learn much more about the Tibetans, too.
For more please read ICT’s special report: “China’s new leadership and Tibet” >>
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.