If I remember right, that change involved Hsieh Su-wei, a regular presence in Wimbledon singles and doubles whom I had seen year after year identified as a player from Taiwan. But on ESPN’s coverage this time, the announcers and the on-screen graphics said Hsieh represented something called “Chinese Taipei.”
At the time, I saw nothing nefarious in any of this. In fact I actually assumed “Chinese Taipei” was a more politically correct way of referring to Hsieh’s homeland. (In those days, I still believed in the myth of the world growing perpetually more inclusive and just.)
Today, as a tenured Tibet activist, I recognize the heavy hand of the Chinese government at work. While I’m not sure exactly why ESPN dropped “Taiwan” from its coverage that year, I’ve learned that Beijing objects to that word because it implies that Taiwan is a country, rather than a province of China.
To be clear, Taiwan is a country. But to assuage China, Taiwanese athletes compete in international events under the name “Chinese Taipei”—with a distinct Chinese Taipei flag to boot.
Tibet is not ‘Xizang’
I recalled that incident from Wimbledon’s grass courts recently as evidence grew of a new, increasing campaign by Beijing to replace the name “Tibet.” Rather than this internationally recognized term, China now wants the rest of the world to use the Chinese-language word “Xizang.”
Over the past few months, Chinese state media articles written in English have increasingly substituted “Xizang” for “Tibet.” The “Tibet Autonomous Region” is now the “Xizang Autonomous Region.” “Tibetan affairs” are now “Xizang affairs.”
Most notably, China’s new white paper on Tibet, released Nov. 10, is titled “[Communist Party of China] Policies on the Governance of Xizang in the New Era: Approach and Achievements.”
Without a doubt, the right name for any country can vary by time and audience. For example, Taiwan’s leaders previously balked at using “Taiwan,” preferring instead the official title “Republic of China,” which supported their claim to be the legitimate government of China. Today, however, many young people in Taiwan are proud to call themselves Taiwanese and decline to identify as Chinese.
When it comes to Tibet, that word itself is not what Tibetan people use. Instead, Tibetans refer to their country as “Bod”—hence the motto, “Bod Gyalo,” meaning “victory for Tibet.” The term “Tibet” may be a corruption of Bod.
Thus, “Tibet” is not perfect word choice either. But, as far as I can tell, it’s the result of translation issues across languages and peoples, perhaps similar to how Americans say “Spain” instead of “España.”
China’s use of “Xizang,” on the other hand, is a deliberate, political act. It’s a clear example of Beijing trying to “name it to tame it”—or, in this case, rename it to tame it—to make Tibet nominally Chinese in order to further crush any resistance to Chinese rule.
This effort is part of a broader campaign by China to “Sinify” Tibet—meaning to make it Chinese. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, Beijing has sought to replace the Tibetan language with Mandarin inside Tibet. It has ordered Buddhist monks to pledge loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party instead of the Dalai Lama. And it has even separated over 1 million Tibetan children from their families at state-run boarding schools that emphasize Chinese-language education and Chinese academic subjects.
The long-term goal of all these policies is to eliminate Tibetan as a distinct identity in order to eliminate the possibility of unruly Tibetans. The next step in that process is to replace “Tibet” with “Xizang,” a name change that implies that Tibet is not really Tibetan at all; it’s Chinese.
Logic similar to China’s refusal to let Taiwanese athletes use “Taiwan” is also at work. By replacing “Tibet” with a Chinese name, Beijing is trying to undermine the conceptual basis for recognizing Tibet as a separate country: If Tibet has a Chinese name, then it becomes easy to assume Tibet belongs to China.
More than mere words
That gets me back to my Wimbledon experience. When I saw “Taiwan” give way to “Chinese Taipei,” I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to realize the geopolitics at play. I just deferred to what I assumed was the new, proper way to label Taiwan.
I worry many people will react the same way if “Xizang” begins to slip into mainstream discourse. The Chinese government has already been wildly successful in getting foreign journalists, businesses and governments to describe Tibet as part of China, even though Tibet is a historically independent country that China is occupying against international law. Similarly, China seems to have gotten most people to use the name “Xinjiang” instead of “East Turkestan,” the English-language name preferred by Uyghurs.
An even bigger concern looms on the horizon. It’s no secret that once His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama eventually passes away, the Chinese government will try to replace him with its own hand-picked successor.
If that happens, will the average person be informed enough to recognize Beijing’s choice as a fake?
Clearly, Beijing is banking on the answer to that question being “No.” China thinks that its power and influence can force other countries, corporations and media to go along with its selection of a new Dalai Lama—and that the general public will be too distracted and disinterested to notice.
Thankfully, the US government is taking steps that can help prevent that from happening. In 2020, the US enacted the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, a bipartisan law that—among many provisions providing support to the Tibetan people—made it official US policy that only the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhist community can decide his succession. If any Chinese officials try to interfere in that process, the US will sanction them.
The TPSA was a breakthrough in pushing back on China’s manipulations. But there’s more the United States can and must do.
Right now, Congress is considering another bipartisan bill, the Resolve Tibet Act, that will reject China’s lies about Tibet.
The Resolve Tibet Act will pressure China to get back to the negotiating table with Tibetan leaders for the first time since 2010. This dialogue process is the best way to peacefully resolve China’s decades-long occupation of Tibet in a way that serves the long-term interests of both Tibetans and Chinese.
But the bill will also stand up to China’s falsehoods about Tibet. The legislation will empower the Office of the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues to counter Communist Party propaganda about the history of Tibet, the Tibetan people and Tibetan institutions, including that of His Holiness.
The Resolve Tibet Act will also confront China’s misuse of the name “Tibet” in a different way. The Chinese government has long sought to portray the “Tibet Autonomous Region” (which it now calls the “Xizang Autonomous Region”) as the whole of Tibet, even though it spans only about half of Tibet’s historic territory.
Unfortunately, too many outsiders have gone along with China’s deception, casually using the word “Tibet” when they really mean just the Tibet Autonomous Region. But the Resolve Tibet Act will make it clear that Tibet includes not just the TAR but also Tibetan areas that are incorporated in China’s Gansu, Sichuan, Qinghai and Yunnan provinces.
There are many things all of us will have to do to fight back against China’s attempts to rename Tibet. Persuading Congress to pass the Resolve Tibet Act would be a good start.