NYTimes editorial calls out “transnational repression” of Tibetans

Imagine that a foreign, totalitarian regime rules your country, subjecting you to extensive surveillance, policing and violence. You manage to escape, but even in exile, you, your children and your children’s children cannot feel safe, because that same regime is spying on and intimidating you from afar, trying to squeeze you back inside its grip.

That’s what many Tibetans face today from the Chinese government. And thanks to recent major media coverage, as well as a major report from a human rights group, it’s getting more of the attention it merits.

On Aug. 28, The New York Times published an editorial warning about “Repression Without Borders.” In it, the Times’ editorial board writes that a “new breed of strongmen,” including Chinese President Xi Jinping, has expanded “the scope, scale and impunity of transnational repression” through intimidating, kidnapping and even assassinating critics in exile communities.

The editorial, which centers around a report from the watchdog group Freedom House, says that the “worst offender” in this emerging trend is China, which has brutally occupied neighboring Tibet for more than 60 years. “Beijing marshals its technological prowess, geopolitical clout and vast security apparatus to hound not only the many Chinese people living abroad but also entire ethnic and religious groups, such as Uyghurs, Tibetans and followers of Falun Gong,” the editorial says.

The report from Freedom House—which recently declared Tibet the least-free country on Earth in a tie with Syria—also led to an opinion essay in The Washington Post earlier this year by the group’s president, Mike Abramowitz, and its director of research strategy, Nate Schenkkan. “China’s relentless persecution of Uighurs and Tibetans beyond its borders is the subject of magazine articles and human rights reports,” the essay notes.

Tibet and Nepal

In its report, Freedom House says Tibetan exiles are “subject to sustained, systematic pressure from the [Chinese Communist Party] party-state that spans from neighboring Nepal to Europe and the United States.”

But, the report points out, the problems begin even before Tibetans escape to exile. As a result of China’s stricter controls over Tibetans’ movement and its upgraded border security, the number of Tibetans who are able to flee their homeland has dwindled. Whereas thousands of Tibetans once successfully completed the dangerous trek to freedom every year, that number dropped all the way down to 23 in 2019.

Traditionally, Tibetans would first cross the border into Nepal, where a “Gentleman’s Agreement” with the United Nations required the Nepali government to give Tibetans safe passage to India, the exile home of the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration.

However, Freedom House notes, China’s pressure has eroded that agreement in recent years. Instead, Nepal signed two agreements with China during a visit by Xi in late 2019. Those agreements could lead to Nepal sending Tibetan border-crossers back to Tibet and to China intervening in matters related to

Tibetans living in Nepal. Fears also remain high that Nepal and China will sign an extradition treaty that could target Tibetans in Nepal for arrest and refoulement.

US, Europe, everywhere

The Freedom House report also says that Tibetans living around the world face “intimidation and espionage by Chinese agents,” just like Uyghurs do. “The same top-shelf spyware used against Uighurs has also been used in campaigns against Tibetans,” the report adds.

The report spotlights last year’s arrest of Baimadajie Angwang, a New York City police officer accused of spying on local Tibetans for the Chinese government. According to the Justice Department, Angwang, who was also a US Army reservist, reported to a handler in the Chinese consulate in New York as he surveilled the Tibetan community in the region and attempted to recruit additional spies from it.

Angwang’s arrest recalled similar instances of alleged spying on Tibetans in other countries. In 2018, Swedish authorities indicted a man named Dorjee Gyantsan, who was allegedly paid to provide personal information about his fellow Tibetans to the Chinese government. A court found Dorjee guilty and sentenced him to 22 months in prison.

In response to Dorjee’s case, a Tibetan in Europe told the International Campaign for Tibet that, “No Tibetan living in Europe or America will be surprised to hear about this sad situation. Everywhere that Tibetans are settled—Brussels, Britain, Zurich or New York—it is known that the Chinese authorities are working behind the scenes, making threats, spreading suspicion and damaging the lives of families back in Tibet related to those in exile.”

Taking action

As a citizen of the United States, I’m outraged at the thought of China bullying vulnerable people in this country. Thankfully, The New York Times editorial board lays out several actions the US could take to push back against China and other perpetrators of transnational repression.

Says the editorial:

Targeted sanctions on authoritarian governments can be effective if used wisely. Training employees of the State and Justice Departments to recognize, understand and address the various incarnations of transnational repression would also bring more attention and resources to fight the problem. Making it easier for refugees to escape repression would be in keeping with the country’s long tradition of offering a safe harbor to persecuted and desperate people.

It is horrible enough that China has turned Tibet, an ancient and inspiring country, into a human rights nightmare. We must not let the Chinese government replicate those rights abuses here. As the Times suggests, I hope the US and its allies will take strong action to prevent China’s transnational repression against Tibetan exiles.

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Ashwin Verghese

As the Communications Officer for the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), Ashwin Verghese works with members of the media, writes stories and helps share the message of ICT’s mission to promote human rights and democratic freedoms for the people of Tibet. He joined ICT in the summer of 2018 after a 10-year career in communications and journalism, including stops with The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Temple University and The Pew Charitable Trusts. A native of southern India, Ashwin is passionate about helping the Tibetan people maintain their culture, religion and dignity.

Contact Ashwin at ashwin.verghese@savetibet.org or (202) 580-6772.

6 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Thank you for your continuing efforts. Tibet has been a focus for me since early childhood; now, 74, I continue to hope for improvements, but the Chinese government seems even more bent on restricting Tibetan culture and people. I would not wish for combat, but eventually repression invariably leads to greater and greater resistance. Hopefully that resistance can find success without violence. But, if so, the path ahead seems very long. Keep on keeping on!

    • Hi Peter, thank you for sharing your story and your words of encouragement. It’s incredible that you’ve supported Tibet for all these years. Certainly the level of repression is great right now, but the support from the US and others is also rising. The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people’s commitment to nonviolence is a true inspiration for our world.

    • Hi Professor Thurman, thank you for your thoughtful message. It’s great to hear from you – I’m proud to say that I’m a graduate of your EdX course on the Indian & Tibetan River of Buddhism. Thank you for everything you’ve done to spread the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings.