Ashwin Verghese

As “Kundun” turns 25, Dalai Lama’s wisdom must be preserved

A few months ago, the actor Simu Liu wrote something all too memorable in the most disposable medium. “If the only gatekeepers to movie stardom came from Tarantino and Scorsese, I would never have had the opportunity to lead a $400 million plus movie,” the “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” performer boasted on Twitter. “I am in awe of their filmmaking genius. They are transcendent auteurs. But they don’t get to point their nose at me or anyone.”

The potshots from Liu came in response to criticism two of Hollywood’s most prominent directors—Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese—made of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” of which Liu is a proud part. In an interview that premiered in November, Tarantino said Marvel’s stable of actors are “not movie stars.” “Captain America is the star,” he said. “Or Thor is the star.” It’s worth noting that Anthony Mackie, who actually plays Captain America, said much the same thing years ago. But Liu evidently felt he is a star and wanted the world to know it.

As for Scorsese, the eminent helmer of “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” helped kick-start this whole controversy in 2019 when he told a British magazine that Marvel’s cinematic universe is “not cinema.” Scorsese elaborated: “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

Scorsese is likely the most famous and accomplished director of English-language cinema in the world today. But that didn’t shield him from the ire of Marvel fans, who apparently felt they understood film better than the man who earned the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 1997. With his now wisely deleted tweet, Liu showed himself to be just as presumptuous.

There are so many things wrong with what Liu wrote. To begin with, Scorsese absolutely has the right to “point” his nose at others working in his form (I am not as familiar with the movies of Tarantino and am not here to defend him). A master in any field has the prerogative to critique an upstart.

There’s also Liu’s confusion about auteurism—a rare breed of filmmaking that expresses the personal vision of the director—versus the assembly-belt production of Marvel Studios. Liu basks in leading a “$400 million plus movie,” but he and Scorsese are after different goals. More on that later.

“Kundun” left unsaid

But the most egregious part of Liu’s remark was its obliviousness. He followed up his ill-conceived initial tweet by defending Marvel on the grounds of inclusion. “No movie studio is or ever will be perfect,” he said in another now-deleted tweet. “But I’m proud to work with one that has made sustained efforts to improve diversity onscreen by creating heroes that empower and inspire people of all communities everywhere. I loved the [Hollywood] ‘Golden Age’ too.. but it was white as hell.”

There’s no disputing the first or last part of that comment. But in the middle, Liu was being either embarrassingly ignorant or willfully deceitful. Perhaps he didn’t know—or didn’t want to acknowledge—“Kundun,” Scorsese’s sublime biopic about the current Dalai Lama of Tibet. “Kundun” just had its 25th anniversary last month, yet it remains one of the least seen, least accessible titles in Scorsese’s legendary filmography. That’s no accident: Disney, the same company that now owns Marvel, has deliberately tried to keep “Kundun” out of public view for the past quarter century.

Actually, Disney’s attempts to bury “Kundun” began even before its release date. In the 1990s, China was not the box office behemoth it has since become. The People’s Republic had only begun to open its market to foreign studios when Disney innocently went into production on “Kundun,” not realizing the furor it would provoke among Chinese authorities. But once China’s government started pulling Disney films and series from the country, Disney CEO Michael Eisner reportedly promised Chinese officials that “Kundun” would “die a quiet death.” He even recruited former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, an alleged war criminal, to assure the Chinese that Disney wouldn’t aggressively promote the movie and that it would bomb at the box office.

“Kundun” premiered in the United States on Christmas Day 1997. It brought in just $72,000 in its opening weekend, ultimately finishing with a total gross of $5.7 million. The following year, Eisner traveled to China, where he apologized to government officials for releasing “Kundun,” saying it was “a stupid mistake.” According to the records of China’s former Premier Rongji Zhu, Eisner groveled:

“[W]e released the film in the most passive way, but something unfortunate still happened. The film was a form of insult to our friends and it cost a lot of money, but other than journalists, very few people in the world saw it. The bad news is that the film was made; the good news is that nobody watched it. Here I want to apologize, and in the future we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening. In short, we’re a family entertainment company, a company that uses silly ways to amuse people.”

Twenty-five years later, that’s still what Disney is, despite Liu’s self-important claims about “creating heroes that empower and inspire people of all communities everywhere.” (As a CBR headline wisely puts it, “Simu Liu Sided with the Wrong Gatekeepers in His Tarantino Response.”)

Continued erasure

Although Eisner is long gone, the current leadership at Disney is no less dedicated to ensuring that as few people as possible see “Kundun.” The studio has pumped a fortune into Disney+, but “Kundun” is not available there, and as far as I can tell, it’s not on any other streaming service either. I am a cinephile; watching great movies is an important part of my life. I am even part of a film group that gets together every month to discuss a classic movie. But we probably couldn’t add “Kundun” to our lineup because most group members wouldn’t be able to stream it. (Thankfully the good people at Kino Lorber offer a special edition Blu-Ray and DVD of the film. Link below.)

Disney’s effacement of the Tibetan people is not limited to the Dalai Lama and “Kundun,” however. In 2016, the Marvel Cinematic Universe gained a new main player with the release of “Doctor Strange,” yet another superhero spectacle. In the comic books, Doctor Strange learns his magic powers from the Ancient One, a Tibetan sage. But in the movie, the Ancient One is a Celt played by Tilda Swinton, a White actress from Scotland. Although Disney claimed it was trying to avoid a stereotypical portrayal of Asians, the screenwriter, C. Robert Cargill, shockingly admitted, “If you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that [the character is] Tibetan, you risk alienating 1 billion [Chinese] people.” In contemporary discourse, I think that’s called erasure.

Marvel’s attempt to hide its invisibilizing of Tibetans behind false concerns of racism set the stage for Liu to brandish racial injustice to ballyhoo his own success and bodyguard the studio that pays him. That’s one of the things that annoyed me most about his tweets. As a person of color, I do not see “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” as some breakthrough, even though Liu obviously does. As a South Asian, I also couldn’t care less about “Ms. Marvel” or “Eternals,” both of which feature actors born in Pakistan. Instead, I’d rather watch the enriching cinema of the late Bengali auteur Satyajit Ray or the 2020 Marathi movie “The Disciple,” which is now streaming on Netflix. And I appreciate what I’ve seen from the Tibetan director Pema Tseden. Such films are the “cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

When Liu says that he “would never have had the opportunity to lead a $400 million plus movie” with Scorsese and Tarantino as gatekeepers, he’s in effect saying that people of color should have the same freedom as Whites to create trashy, dehumanizing entertainment. I suppose that’s only fair, but I’d like to think we can all set our sights a little higher.

Purifying effect

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

“Kundun” is a perfect example. There are no superhuman powers in the film; instead of pummeling his adversaries into submission, the Dalai Lama tries to negotiate with them, which he continues to do to this day.

There also isn’t any whitewashing. All the Tibetan characters are played by Tibetans. And rather than use a Western intermediary to guide the audience through the story, Scorsese and screenwriter Melissa Mathison—a late ICT Board Member—throw us right into the family home of Lhamo Dhondrup, a 2-year-old boy in a Tibetan outskirt who would soon be recognized as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. From there, we see how the young reincarnate and his people lived their traditional lives before Communist China swallowed their homeland.

Shot on a budget of $28 million (still only about 1/8 of “Shang Chi’s” budget in today’s dollars), the movie generates more power and suspense in one roughly 15-minute sequence showing His Holiness’ escape to India than any green-screen battle Marvel has ever programmed into existence. Soundtracked by Philip Glass’ hypnotic score and edited by Scorsese’s longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, this climax of the film envisions the Dalai Lama’s perilous route to freedom as a sermonic spiritual journey.

That finale alone makes “Kundun” worth watching. Yet some of the moments that have stuck with me most are the quieter, more pacific recreations of the old Tibet. One scene that has a purifying effect on my mind involves the 5-year-old Dalai Lama playing with toy soldiers, the way any child might. His Holiness throws his figures at the soldiers of his playmate: a sweeper working in the Potala Palace. “I have more men!” he thunders. “I have smarter men,” the sweeper calmly replies, pulling the boy’s soldiers toward him. “I have all the men.” The Dalai Lama slumps. “Today you lose, Kundun. Tomorrow you may win,” the sweeper says as the camera zooms in. “Things change, Kundun.”

Need for preservation

It is this ancient culture of wisdom that all of us in ICT’s community of compassion and the wider Tibet movement are trying to preserve. That vital heritage has already been fractured by China and its assimilationist regime. But it has also been swept away by shameless corporations like Disney and Marvel, which will sacrifice anything of artistic or spiritual value at the altar of the almighty buck.

After 25 years, a film like “Kundun” would never even make it into production today. Instead, we get junk like “Shang Chi” and whatever the latest intellectual property iteration is from Disney and its brethren. But as our lives grow ever more digitized and soulless, we should seek out and preserve great art like “Kundun.” And as the modern world leads us further astray from compassion and nonviolence, we need the wisdom of the Dalai Lama, captured so expressively in “Kundun,” now more than ever.

Buy “Kundun” on Blu-Ray or DVD from Kino Lorber!

The Dalai Lama’s wisdom is also on vivid display in the soon-to-be-released book, “Heart to Heart,” illustrated by Mutts’ cartoonist Patrick McDonnell. Proceeds from the book will benefit ICT. Preorder your copy of “Heart to Heart” today!

Drawing blood: New depravity in China’s surveillance state in Tibet

Police collecting DNA samples from residents in Dritoe county, Yushu municipality, Qinghai province.

From Human Rights Watch: “Police collecting DNA samples from residents in Dritoe county, Yushu municipality, Qinghai province. (‘Zhahe police station caries out DNA blood sample collection,’ Zhidoi County Public Security, WeChat, September 10, 2021.)”

According to magazines like The New Yorker, we are living in “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction,” with readers drawn to stories that project their anxieties about a coming nightmare of surveillance, authoritarianism, climate destruction, inequality and disease. But in Tibet, under the rule of the Chinese government, many of the hallmarks of that horrific future are on full display right now.

Case in point, the recent report by Human Rights Watch finding that Chinese authorities are systematically collecting DNA from residents of the Tibet Autonomous Region (which spans most of western Tibet), including by taking blood from children as young as 5 without the consent of their parents.

“The Chinese government is already subjecting Tibetans to pervasive repression,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at HRW and an old friend of the International Campaign for Tibet. “Now the authorities are literally taking blood without consent to strengthen their surveillance capabilities.”

DNA collection

According to HRW’s report, the DNA collection is taking place in every prefecture and municipality of the Tibet Autonomous Region, with all residents—including temporary ones—forced to provide a sample.

“There is no publicly available evidence suggesting people can decline to participate,” the report says, “or that police have credible evidence of criminal conduct that might warrant such collection.”

The report adds that the DNA gathering is part of “ongoing efforts by Chinese authorities to establish police presence at the grassroots level throughout the region.”

Some of the report’s most disturbing findings involve blood collection from children. That includes the taking of blood from kindergarten students in Tibet’s capital of Lhasa, and the collection of DNA from all boys ages 5 and older in a Tibetan township of Qinghai province.

History of control

While mass blood testing of ordinary Tibetans is outrageous, it is not very surprising. Since China began its illegal occupation of Tibet over 60 years ago, it has subjected the Tibetan people to Orwellian levels of social control.

Although the Chinese government violates human rights across the territory it rules—and increasingly exports its repressive technology to countries around the globe—Tibet has been a laboratory for its evolving methods of subjugation.

From 2011 to 2016, Chinese official Chen Quanguo served as Party Secretary in the Tibet Autonomous Region, where he developed a system of constant mass surveillance, torture and militarization. That system included forcing Tibetans to spy on their neighbors, stationing Communist Party cadres in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and incentivizing Tibetan-Chinese intermarriage as a way to eliminate Tibetans’ distinct identity.

A camera disguised as a Buddhist prayer wheel

A perfect symbol of China’s surveillance state in Tibet: a camera disguised as a Buddhist prayer wheel.

After his brutalization campaign in the TAR, Chen moved on to serve as Party Secretary in Xinjiang (which Uyghurs know as East Turkestan). There he led China’s infamous Uyghur genocide, showing how the Chinese government’s abuse of Tibetans spreads to other groups.

The virus

Although Chen has left the TAR, the surveillance state he helped build there has continued to grow. Most recently, the ongoing COVID outbreak in Tibet has exposed the brutal costs of China’s system of control.

For one thing, the outbreak itself appears to be a consequence of China’s failed leadership. I am not just talking about the fact that COVID-19 emanated from Wuhan; but also the fact that the current spread of the virus in Tibet is quite possibly the result of Chinese tourism to the region encouraged by the Chinese government. (It should be noted that this promotion of so-called “domestic tourism” stands in stark contrast to China’s near-total ban on visitors to Tibet from outside the People’s Republic of China.)

China’s policy failure hasn’t stopped it from using a predictably heavy hand to deal with the outbreak its own actions facilitated. After COVID-positive cases emerged in Tibet, authorities placed the entire population of 800,000 in the Shigatse (Chinese: Xigaze) prefecture-level city under a three-day complete lockdown. Authorities also imposed partial lockdowns in Lhasa, Nyingtri (Linzhi) and Lhoka (Shannan).

Since then, horrifying videos of police and health officials manhandling Tibetans have circulated on social media. One particularly disturbing clip shows a Tibetan policeman kicking and smacking a Tibetan herder who had come back into town not knowing about the outbreak while he was herding in the mountains. Another clip shows authorities dragging a screaming woman out of a restaurant and throwing her into a police SUV after she declined to show photo ID.

To be clear, I am in full support of taking necessary steps to prevent the spread of COVID, including vaxxing, masking and testing. But many of China’s measures in Tibet have not only been needlessly violent but also seem highly performative. The Chinese government often claims its authoritarian approach is necessary to protect and uplift Tibetans (a claim that is predicated on racist and colonialist assumptions). Nevertheless, the Chinese government’s disastrous creation and handling of the outbreak in Tibet shows how wrongheaded its repression is on both a moral and a practical level.

Bleeding Tibet dry

China’s DNA collection in Tibet has added a vampiric cast to its surveillance and control state, but it is of a piece with decades of the Chinese government crushing Tibetans’ culture, religion, language and freedom. The end goal is not simply to bring Tibetans to heel, but to eliminate their identity altogether so that the Tibetan people no longer exist as a separate group deserving self-determination.

Moreover, as I mentioned above, China’s surveillance technology and other tools of repression are spreading from Tibet to other places, including Xinjiang and foreign countries. If that trend continues, Tibet’s dystopia may become a dystopian future for people across the globe.

The best way to prevent that from happening is to head it off where it’s happening now. That means pressuring China to recognize Tibetans’ self-determination through peaceful negotiations with Tibetan leaders.

You can play a part in that by signing ICT’s petition to your members of Congress, asking them to cosponsor the Resolve Tibet Act, which will recognize Tibet’s status as illegally occupied and add pressure on the Chinese government to restart negotiations for the first time in more than a decade.

Sign the petition!

Read Human Rights Watch’s report on mass DNA collection in Tibet.

Human rights with human characteristics

Michelle Bachelet’s trip to China is over, but it’s sure to live on in the annals of appeasement. Amid the publication of leaked police files showing horrific images inside China’s internment camps, Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, declined to condemn Beijing’s genocide of the Uyghurs. And despite Tibet now ranking as the least-free country on Earth alongside South Sudan and Syria, she avoided visiting Tibet altogether.

But the long-term implications of Bachelet’s trip might be even more worrisome. As Josh Rogin writes in a searing column for The Washington Post, Bachelet “undermined her credibility and the overall credibility of the UN system on human rights.” Indeed, Beijing has been throwing its weight around at the UN and other international institutions, seeking to bend global norms in its repressive direction.

In place of the concept of universal human rights to which all people everywhere are equally entitled, China is pushing a model of “human rights with Chinese characteristics” that, rhetorically at least, emphasizes material progress over personal freedom. By praising China’s “poverty alleviation and the eradication of extreme poverty” in her end-of-trip press conference, Bachelet appeared to validate this opposing vision.

But I’m not writing this blog post just to lambast Bachelet, who has already received stinging criticism from many advocacy groups, including the International Campaign for Tibet. Even the European Union and the US Secretary of State publicly raised concerns about her visit.

I’m also not writing simply to discredit China’s actual policy on human rights. Any policy that justifies sending 60-year-old Uyghur Tajigul Tahir to a concentration camp because her son doesn’t drink or smoke has no credibility in the first place.

Great thinkers across the world—including Gandhi, Confucius, Mandela and Plato—offer rich insights into cultural views on freedom and responsibility.

Rights or duties?

Instead, I’m writing to address an underlying issue that, frankly, is much harder to dismiss. By promoting “human rights with Chinese characteristics,” the Chinese government is, however cynically, speaking to something that has troubled me for years: Are human rights truly universal, or are they just a Western belief system foisted on the world?

As someone born in the East, I am often inclined to believe the latter. In fact, due in part to my cultural background, the very concept of rights has never made a great deal of sense to me. Instead, like Mahatma Gandhi, I find the concept of duties far more practical. As Gandhi wrote in a letter to the Director-General of UNESCO in 1947:

“I learnt from my illiterate but wise mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved came from duty well done. Thus, the very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship of the world. From this one fundamental statement, perhaps it is easy enough to define the duties of man and woman and correlate every right to some corresponding duty to be first performed.”

My own mother is fully literate and a former schoolteacher, but she imparted similar lessons to me. Although I’ve lived in the United States for all but a few months of my life, the self-indulgence I often encounter in this country still strikes me as foolish and contrary to the ethics and values I was raised with. Moreover, the very idea of individual rights seems to conflict with my Buddhist beliefs—namely, the doctrine that says none of us exist as independent selves in this world, but rather live interdependently with one another. And, for my money, free speech is less valuable than the Buddhist ideal of right speech.

So cultural distinctions do exist. But Gandhi also recognized that the proliferation of rights inevitably runs into a dead end. In his classic text, “Hind Swaraj,” he scorned “in England the farce of everybody wanting and insisting on his rights, nobody thinking of his duty. And, where everybody wants rights, who shall give them to whom?”

Put another way, if we’re all too busy demanding and exercising our rights, who will perform the duty of ensuring the common good?

Personal liberty or economic subsistence?

That’s part of the argument China uses in its critique of Western human rights programs. The Chinese government contends that the success of the country should prevail over the liberty of individuals. Here, too, a valid point lurks within China’s propaganda.

In China’s vision of human rights, the right to development supersedes the rights to democracy and freedom. In many ways, China’s model is the reverse of the United States’. It’s telling that China has signed but not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, while the US has signed but not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Although Americans have a much higher level of personal freedom than people in many other societies, the US is also stretched to the breaking point by economic polarization. According to a report from the Council on Foreign Relations, “Income and wealth inequality is higher in the United States than in almost any other developed country, and it is rising.”

This inequality undermines human rights—how free can you be in a society dominated by the sliver of the superrich?—but in many ways, it seems born out of the confused idea of freedom one finds in the US. Instead of Americans having a right to the economic equality required for meaningful participation in self-governance, corporations seem to have the nearly unlimited freedom to grow and make profits for their plutocratic owners.

Human rights or pretext for oppression?

This heedless vision of economic freedom—which, like other notions of rights, seems nothing more than a fiction to me—played a role in Britain’s invasion of Tibet in 1903-04. The British forces cited an agreement involving trading rights in Tibet that was signed not by Tibetans themselves, but by imperial China and imperial Britain.

With Tibet refusing to abide by the agreement, the British warned that “it would be absolutely necessary that we should insist upon our rights,” according to a paraphrase by Sir Francis Younghusband, the British Lieutenant Colonel who led the invasion. After overwhelming and massacring Tibet’s amateur troops, Younghusband compelled the Tibetans to sign a new agreement guaranteeing British trading rights—and charging Tibet an indemnity (though the Tibetans did not ultimately pay).

Britain’s claim about its “rights” in Tibet was a fabrication it used to further its colonial machinations in Asia. One century later, the United Kingdom was part of a US-led coalition that cited human rights concerns as part of its justification for invading Iraq—especially after the coalition failed to uncover weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Of course, the coalition forces themselves went on to commit numerous violations of human rights against the Iraqi people. The rationale for invasion had shifted from defending trading rights to protecting human rights, but in both cases, rights were invoked to achieve an unjust end.

Right or wrong?

These examples show not only the West’s hypocrisy on human rights—which China loves to point out when defending its own record—but also how human rights can serve to perpetuate Western hegemony. The era of the West’s colonization of the rest of the world has largely come to an end, but Western cultural imperialism can live on in part through the globalization of Western values.

As much as I appreciate many of those values, I am not so comfortable with propping up an imbalanced global order built on a legacy of oppression, racism and exploitation. Moreover, as a person of color and the child of an erstwhile imperial domain, I have no desire to be a handmaiden for Western chauvinism and white supremacy.

So, then, does China’s concept of human rights with Chinese characteristics provide a viable alternative to the Western model? No! Setting aside the self-serving, propagandistic elements of China’s claims, it’s also highly dubious that the suppression of personal freedom is necessary for economic growth. In fact, in decades past, the conventional view held that the two went hand in hand, as seen in the West.

But, even simpler than that, China’s illegal occupation of Tibet, its genocide of the Uyghurs and other Muslim groups, its attacks on democracy in Hong Kong and its repression of Chinese people are all the proof you need that Beijing’s defense of its human rights record as culturally appropriate is morally bankrupt. No amount of conceptual reframing can justify China’s brutality against the people it rules.

West or East?

Still, the illegitimacy of China’s approach doesn’t resolve the question of whether human rights are truly universal or just a Western imposition. For that, the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen is invaluable.

In the 1990s, during a similar debate over so-called “Asian values,” Sen delved into the history of freedom in both the East and West. His theories cover a lot of ground, but it’s important to note that while both some Easterners and some Westerners like to claim that human rights are a Western construct—the former to defend authoritarian rule and the latter to self-congratulate–Sen finds that respect for widespread personal freedom is relatively new even in the West. Universal human rights were not the norm in the Greco-Roman world, nor has the modern West refrained from racial-, gender- and class-based oppression.

Instead, Sen identifies elements of modern human rights in ancient Europe—but also ancient Asia. Take, for instance, China. Although diverse strands of thought (including Buddhism) influenced Chinese culture, Chinese leaders have often invoked Confucius to demand social harmony and conformism. However, Sen unearths examples that challenge this popular view of the great Chinese philosopher.

Once, when someone asks him how to serve a prince, Confucius responds: “Tell him the truth even if it offends him.” (“The censors in … Beijing would take a very different view,” Sen dryly notes.) In another instance, a Governor tells Confucius about a “man of unbending integrity” among his people who denounced his father for stealing a sheep. Confucius replies, “Among my people, men of integrity do things differently: A father covers up for his son, a son covers up for his father—and there is integrity in what they do.”

Human rights with human characteristics

While Sen does not claim that Confucius was a champion of dissent, these examples put the lie to the claim that China’s philosophical underpinnings are purely authoritarian. Moreover, the case of Taiwan, where ethnic Chinese have embraced democracy, shows “Chinese characteristics” may not be so incompatible with the Western take on human rights after all.

Sen also finds examples of the base elements of human rights elsewhere in the world, noting how Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first President, took inspiration from the democratic meetings he saw growing up in his hometown. “Everyone who wanted to speak did so,” Mandela writes in his autobiography. “It was democracy in its purest form.” On the other hand, Sen notes that the Western canon contains its fair share of illiberalism, writing that “it is by no means clear to me that Confucius is more authoritarian than, say, Plato or Augustine.”

Cultures around the world are intellectually heterogeneous, and while human rights are a relatively new concept that ascended in an era of Western dominance, support for them can be found in many traditions across the globe. For the reasons I state in this blog post, I believe that human rights are an imperfect vehicle for achieving human welfare, and I wish they were seen as expansive enough to include economic justice and corresponding duties.

Nevertheless, human rights are one of the strongest tools we have for holding regimes like China to account, and they can help advance many aims that people across the world support, including morality, justice and compassion. The Chinese government is trying to stymie those aims while hiding behind a falsely culturally specific position on human rights. But in so doing, China is running up against not just Chinese characteristics, but human characteristics, and its flouting of human nature will eventually doom its efforts to failure.

Disappearing: China, the Olympics and Tibet

The stories from the sports world defy the norm.

In basketball, an NBA player spoke up for Tibetans, Uyghurs and other victims of the Chinese government’s oppression. His team’s games quickly vanished from streaming platforms in China.

In tennis, the world’s former no. 1-ranked doubles player accused a top Communist Party of China official of sexual assault. She’s been missing from public view ever since.

And in just over two months, China will host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

I’ve been a sports fan most of my life. In fact, my two favorite events are tennis and basketball (in that order).

Usually, sports are an escape from the depressing news I confront every day in my work on the Tibetan issue. Now, my pastimes are running headfirst into my profession—and I am all for it.

For too long, businesses, including big-time sports, have kept silent on China’s human rights abuses to avoid upsetting the notoriously prickly Chinese government and losing access to the Chinese market. But lately, China’s behavior has been so egregious that it’s becoming too hard for sports leagues—and sports stars—to ignore.

Enes Kanter

If you’re a Tibet supporter, by now you’ve probably heard about Enes Kanter’s bold stand in solidarity with the Tibetan people. To recap, the Boston Celtics center posted a video on Oct. 20 in which he wore a shirt with the Dalai Lama’s face on it and declared, “My message to the Chinese government is: Free Tibet!”

Kanter also wore “Free Tibet” sneakers with the image of a Tibetan self-immolator to the Celtics’ season-opening game that night. But the game never aired in basketball-crazy China: Celtics games were scrubbed from the Chinese internet that very day.

To their credit, Celtics’ Head Coach Ime Udoka and President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens have both stood by Kanter and his right to speak his mind on important issues. Since expressing his support for Tibet, Kanter has called out China over East Turkestan (also known as Xinjiang, the region where China is carrying out its Uyghur genocide), Hong Kong, Taiwan and more.

On the flipside, Kanter says NBA officials tried to persuade him to take off his “Free Tibet” shoes, warning he could be banned from the league if he didn’t. Kanter kept the shoes on but got no playing time that night.

Kanter also got no support from the NBA’s biggest star, LeBron James. Last week, Kanter criticized “King James” on social media, writing, “Sad & disgusting how these athletes pretend they care about social justice … They really do ‘shut up & dribble’ when Big Boss ?? says so.”

In response, LeBron asserted that Kanter was “trying to use my name to create an opportunity for himself.” The sheer self-absorption of that statement—claiming Kanter was seeking an “opportunity for himself” when he was speaking up for those oppressed by China—has sadly become typical of James, whose outspokenness on social issues in the United States turns to silence whenever China is involved.

Two years ago—shortly before Chinese authorities began censoring news of a new virus emerging out of Wuhan—the Chinese government yanked some NBA games after Daryl Morey, then-general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted a pro-Hong Kong message. (It made me chuckle to learn that even now, China blocks games of my favorite team, the Philadelphia 76ers, because Morey now leads them. The CCP knows how to hold a grudge.)

For his part, James was as myopic then as he is now. Focusing on how Morey’s support for Hong Kong impacted him, James—who profits handsomely from sponsorship deals and fans in China—waded into self-parody by saying, “people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others.”

Today, having once again ignored the plight of Tibetans, Hong Kongers and other victims of the CCP, the greatest basketball player of this generation has shown his commitment to social justice is nowhere to be found when it comes to China. But with colleagues like Kanter continuing to apply the NBA’s social justice values to China, the league’s CCP problem isn’t going away anytime soon.

Peng Shuai

Thankfully, the stars of professional tennis have proven themselves braver than the cowardly king. As you’ve likely heard by now, Peng Shuai, a Wimbledon champion and one of China’s best-known athletes, wrote a post on Chinese social media on Nov. 2 accusing Zhang Gaoli, a former Chinese vice premier and Politburo member, of forcing her into sex.

It was the first time such a high-ranking CCP official has faced #MeToo charges. But within 20 minutes, Peng’s post was taken down; reportedly even the word “tennis” was censored from Chinese internet searches. Most worryingly of all, Peng herself disappeared. As of this writing, her only public appearances have been transparent publicity stunts.

China’s abduction of former top-ranked doubles tennis player Peng Shuai has threatened the future of international sports in the country.

Even those stunts, insufficient as they were, might not have happened had it not been for the extraordinary pressure put on China by the Women’s Tennis Association. WTA Chairman Steve Simon has been unequivocal in demanding “independent and verifiable proof” of Peng’s safety. Further, Simon has insisted on an investigation into her accusation against Zhang “with full transparency and without censorship”—an incredible demand of a regime that always holds itself above accountability.

Most powerfully of all, Simon has even said the WTA is willing to pull its tournaments from China if the situation isn’t resolved satisfactorily. That threat is even more astonishing considering that China accounts for at least one-third of the WTA’s revenues, per Sports Illustrated. But, singing music to my ears, Simon told CNN, “There’s too many times in our world today when you get into issues like this that we let business, politics, money dictate what’s right and what’s wrong … We have to start as a world making decisions that are based on right and wrong, period.”

It may seem like a no-brainer to remove your employees from a country that abducts a member of your workforce. But this is China we’re talking about. As Slate put it, “In the realm of corporate leadership, the WTA’s response to the Peng Shuai case has been radical and transgressive.” Fortunately, tennis’ top stars are not shying away from the issue either, with Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic Roger Federer and others all voicing concerns about Peng’s wellbeing.

Missing Panchen Lama

For many Tibetans and Tibet supporters, Peng’s disappearance no doubt recalls the Panchen Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader whom Chinese authorities abducted just days after the Dalai Lama officially recognized him in 1995, when he was only six years old. Asked about the Panchen Lama since then, Chinese officials have claimed he’s living his life normally and doesn’t want to be disturbed. Tellingly, that’s the same claim they’re now making about Peng. Thankfully, the leaders of professional tennis aren’t buying it—and neither are the White House and the United Nations.

Why is the WTA refusing to back down when other entities would have? Why is Enes Kanter continuing to speak out when the consequences are so obvious? Surely there are many reasons, not least the personal courage and decency of the athletes and officials involved. But I think another important factor is that China is running directly into the headwinds of powerful social movements.

For years, the NBA has encouraged its players to speak out on social justice, including racism and state violence against ethnic groups. It seemed inevitable, then, that—LeBron notwithstanding—an NBA player would look at China’s treatment of Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hong Kongers and others and recognize the parallels between their struggles and struggles here in the United States and around the world.

Similarly, many WTA stars have fought for women’s rights and gender equality. The #MeToo movement also remains a potent force. Thus it would have been hard for the WTA’s leader to ignore China not only sweeping a player’s sexual misconduct allegation under the rug but even punishing that player.

The Olympics

Unfortunately, one organization continues to be willfully obtuse about China’s behavior: the International Olympic Committee. After IOC officials held a suspicious video call with Peng on Nov. 21, the organization publicly declared that Peng was “safe and well” and said it would comment no further out of respect for her privacy.

Human rights groups rightly blasted the IOC for amplifying China’s propaganda and accepting its claims at face value. But even with Peng disappearing just months before the Winter Olympics are set to begin, the IOC seems unlikely to move the Games from Beijing. Just last month, in response to criticism over its decision to award the Olympics to China, the committee said, “We are not a world government. We have to respect the sovereignty of the countries who are hosting the Games.”

Last week, the International Campaign for Tibet released a briefing paper documenting how China has escalated its repression in Tibet since it last hosted the Olympics in 2008. The paper highlights several aspects of China’s growing human rights violations against the Tibetan people, including its severe restrictions on Tibetans’ ability to practice their own religion, language and culture; hundreds of arrests of Tibetan political prisoners; and a system of digital authoritarianism in the Tibet Autonomous Region (which spans about half of Tibet) installed by the architect of China’s Uyghur genocide.

In the paper, ICT reiterates our call for the IOC to revoke its decision to award the 2022 Games to Beijing. “The International Olympic Committee has the clear obligation to verify that China abides by its code of ethics and commitments,” the paper says, adding, “At a minimum, the committee must speak up, publicly and openly, without fear of reprisal, about the rights violations in Tibet, East Turkestan (Xinjiang), Inner Mongolia, Hong Kong and elsewhere.”

Diplomatic boycott

The paper also calls for a diplomatic boycott of the Games by governments around the world. As such, it was great to see columnist Josh Rogin write in The Washington Post last week that the Biden administration is expected to announce a diplomatic boycott soon. The United Kingdom is also reportedly considering a diplomatic boycott as well.

The fact that several of the world’s most powerful governments might skip the Games is a sign of how much things have changed since the last Beijing Olympics in 2008—not only in terms of China’s rising repression but also the rest of the world’s willingness to speak out against it.

China hopes that by pulling NBA games and disappearing Peng Shuai, it can make its problems with the sports world vanish. But China might have finally gone too far, and the quiescence it has received from pro sports may be next to disappear.

Read ICT’s briefing paper, “Olympic Descent: Repression in Tibet since Beijing 2008”

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.

30th anniversary: the Dalai Lama meets the president

President George H.W. Bush

The Dalai Lama had his first meeting with a sitting US president on April 16, 1991. Here he is with President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush.

“America is the nation for championing liberty, democracy and freedom. America should stand on those principles … in international relations.”

Those words, admiring and assertive, come from an interview the Dalai Lama gave at the threshold of a historic event: his first meeting with a sitting president of the United States.

That auspicious gathering took place April, 16, 1991—30 years ago today. That evening, President George H.W. Bush welcomed His Holiness to the White House for a discussion about Tibet, the Himalayan homeland the Chinese Communist Party had forced the Dalai Lama to flee during a brutal conquest more than three decades earlier.

First Lady Barbara Bush took part in the meeting, as did several US and Tibetan officials, including the late International Campaign for Tibet Executive Chairman Lodi Gyari, who was the special envoy of His Holiness, and ICT’s founding President Tenzin Tethong, who was then the Tibetan foreign minister. Afterward, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater told reporters, “They discussed the general situation in Tibet … [The Dalai Lama]’s the religious leader of the country. The president felt it was appropriate to see him.”

The meeting—which the Chinese government tried furiously but futilely to prevent—only lasted about half an hour. But it was the start of something special. Over the next 25 years, every US president, regardless of their political party, spoke with the Dalai Lama in the White House, sending a clear signal to Beijing, and the world, about America’s enduring, bipartisan support for His Holiness’ vision of dialogue with China and meaningful autonomy for Tibet.

As Lodi Gyari said in “My Personal Words of Gratitude” upon his retirement: “This was the first meeting between His Holiness and an American president and it set the precedence for subsequent meetings between His Holiness and other world leaders.”

Lodi Gyari

President George H.W. Bush, Special Envoy Lodi Gyari, Foreign Minister Tenzin Tethong and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Political and personal

I have no doubt that His Holiness meeting routinely with the most powerful person in the world helped elevate the Tibetan movement. Although he only met Bush—who lost reelection the next year—that one time while he was in office, the Dalai Lama convened in the White House four times each with Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Each of them publicly voiced support for His Holiness’ efforts to resolve the Tibetan issue peacefully. They also spoke up for the Dalai Lama with Chinese leaders, most notably when Clinton pushed Chinese President Jiang Zemin to engage His Holiness in dialogue during a news conference that aired live on TV in China in 1998.

But the Dalai Lama’s relationship with the presidency appears to have been a two-way street. Commander-in-chief may be the most influential job in the world, but even presidents need personal guidance. His Holiness, a spiritual leader for countless people around the globe, seems to have provided that.

President Clinton

His Holiness in the White House with President Clinton in 1998.

In one of ICT’s Tibet Talks during the 2020 election, Greg Craig, the first special coordinator for Tibetan issues, revealed a surprising detail about one of His Holiness’ trips to the White House during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the earliest political controversy that I can remember living through.

At one point, Craig recalled, His Holiness asked if everyone could leave the room so he could be alone with the president and first lady. “He stayed on and talked to Mr. and Mrs. Clinton for another 25, 30 minutes,” Craig told ICT. “So not only was he a great leader of a great religion and venerated around the world, but he became a very special marriage counselor, I think, at that particular moment.”


His Holiness appears to have played a similar role as a source of wisdom for Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush. Paula Dobriansky, the special coordinator from 2001-09, also appeared in an ICT Tibet Talk, during which she said she witnessed the relationship between Bush and the Dalai Lama “not only come together firmly but truly grow.” “The two of them are very compassionate about the importance of democracy,” Dobriansky said.

After his presidency, Bush famously exhibited a portrait he made of the Dalai Lama, calling him “a very sweet man, and I painted him as sweetly as I could.” When His Holiness turned 85 last year, Bush sent him a video message saying, “I admire you, I care for you, and I love you.”

Dalai Lama stands next to President George W. Bush

Which one is real? The Dalai Lama stands next to President George W. Bush’s portrait of him.

President Obama also seems to have maintained his respect for the Dalai Lama post-presidency. Recently, the Skimm’ asked Obama which world leaders he would want in a group text. His first response: “Dalai Lama. Love that guy.” Obama later added Pope Francis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Queen Elizabeth to the list.

In December 2017, about a year after he left office, Obama again met with His Holiness in New Delhi. Kasur Tempa Tsering, an ICT board member and the India and East Asia coordinator for His Holiness’ office, said the two Nobel laureates “both spoke about promoting compassion and altruism in human beings.”

Dalai Lama and President Obama

An embrace between Nobel Peace laureates: the Dalai Lama and President Obama in 2016.

Past and future

Even though Obama was the last sitting president so far to meet with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama’s contacts with the White House began long before his visit with the senior President Bush 30 years ago.

In fact, Franklin Roosevelt, who won an unprecedented third term in the White House the same year as the Dalai Lama’s enthronement in 1940, sent the young Tibetan leader a Patek Philippe gold watch when he was just 7 or 8 years old. Decades later, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., shared an image on Facebook of His Holiness holding the watch during a visit to the US Capitol in 2016.

His Holiness has also met with former President Jimmy Carter since he left the White House, including once in Carter’s home state of Georgia in 1987.

Dalai Lama and former President Jimmy Carter

The Dalai Lama and former President Jimmy Carter in 2002.

It’s too soon to tell yet whether the present-day commander-in-chief, Joe Biden, will revive the tradition of US presidents welcoming the Dalai Lama to the White House. There are more logistical challenges now, including the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and His Holiness’ advancing age.

However, during the 2020 campaign, Biden promised to meet with the Dalai Lama as president, just as he met with him when he was a senator. His administration has also, in my opinion, gotten off to a promising start on Tibetan issues. That has included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, whom many see as Biden’s most trusted foreign policy advisor, raising Tibet in his first call with China’s top diplomat in February.

Pressure from China

I’m sure this will come as no surprise, but I hope Biden and Vice President Harris will be able to meet with His Holiness, either in the White House, in India or through some kind of virtual gathering. I desire that not just as a member of ICT’s community of compassion, but as an American citizen.

Let me go back to His Holiness’ first trip to the White House in 1991. By that time, the Dalai Lama had been coming to the United States for over a decade. He made his first political speech outside of India when he addressed the bipartisan Congressional Human Rights Caucus (now the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission) in 1987. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and was one of the most respected people on the planet.

Despite all that, his meeting with Bush came as a surprise. According to The Washington Post, the president’s supporters in Congress only found out about it one day in advance (Bush had previously declined to speak with the Dalai Lama two years earlier). The meeting did not appear on Bush’s public schedule, nor was there a public report afterward. Fitzwater, the White House press secretary, appeared to downplay their talk, emphasizing His Holiness’ role as a religious leader over his then-role as the political head of the Tibetan people. Subsequent administrations have used the same tactic.

No doubt part of the reason for that has been the enormous pressure China puts on any country whose leaders dare to host His Holiness. As a result, several countries have shamefully backed away from the Dalai Lama and Tibet altogether.

Congressional Human Rights Caucus

His Holiness addressing the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1987, his first political speech outside India.

“What America is supposed to be”

China’s pressure was also there 30 years ago when His Holiness first visited the White House. At the time, a senior Bush administration official told The Washington Post, “Of course, we have heard from the Chinese on this, and of course they would prefer no meeting.

“But,” the official added, “the Dalai Lama is a leader in human rights, a religious leader and the president wants to meet with him.” (It must have helped that Bush’s cousin, Elsie Walker, was a longtime supporter of Tibet who urged the president to receive His Holiness.)

Before his meeting with Bush, the Dalai Lama was surprisingly (to me anyway) blunt in his criticism of US policy, labeling it “unequal and unfair” for assisting some countries like Kuwait (remember that this was the time of the Gulf War) while not doing as much for a place like Tibet. As an immigrant and a man of color, I’m unhappily aware of the injustice this country is capable of. But I feel my background also gives me greater appreciation for America’s highest ideals. And I see those ideals come to life whenever our leaders embrace His Holiness.

Looking back on the 30th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s first visit to the White House, I couldn’t help but think of something our ICT Chairman Richard Gere said during this year’s State Department reception for “Losar,” the Tibetan New Year. The event was itself a positive sign about US support for Tibet, as it marked the first time a secretary of state had taken part in the holiday celebration.

But Gere made it even more special by recalling that glorious day in 2007 when the Dalai Lama received the Congressional Gold Medal in the US Capitol Rotunda. (President George W. Bush spoke at the ceremony, the only time a sitting president has met with His Holiness in public.)

“When His Holiness spoke, I think everyone was in tears,” Gere recounted. “Again, this feeling that this is what America is supposed to be. In that moment, the Dalai Lama was the first among Americans. And I think we also maybe reclaimed our ideals.”

ICT Chairman Richard Gere discusses American ideals at the State Department’s 2021 Tibetan New Year event.

Thirty years ago, as he was about to make his first visit to the White House, the Dalai Lama said America should stand on its principles in international relations. As we mark the anniversary of that happy, historic event, we should continue to push our country to follow His Holiness’ advice by standing as Americans with the Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet.

On making a difference

Chinese military helicopters fly over the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.

When you’re trying to help the victims of oppression, it can sometimes feel hard to believe that anything you’re doing actually improves their lives. But recently, the passage of new legislation—and the sight of Chinese military helicopters—reminded me that our community of compassion at the International Campaign for Tibet is making a difference.

A few months ago, I joined all of you in celebrating when the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, the watershed bill we spent years advocating for, became law. The TPSA promised to upgrade US support for Tibetans, defend the succession of the Dalai Lama from China’s interference, address water security and climate change in Tibet, and much, much more.

The enactment of the TPSA was the triumph the Tibet movement had been waiting for, and it was one we saw play out in votes on the floor of the US Congress and statements from the White House. So it was jarring, then, a few days later when I began to see photos of China’s helicopters flying over Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, in an apparent response to the TPSA.

China’s response to the TPSA

According to Indian news outlet the Hindustan Times, the aerial drill could have signaled that China planned to accelerate its “Sinicization” of Tibet—an effort to eliminate Tibet’s unique culture and force Tibetans to assimilate into Chinese society—in light of the TPSA’s passage.

“China wouldn’t want anything to happen in Tibet that reflects support for the US law …” an analyst told the newspaper. “The military drill was a preemptive move and would be followed by other steps to stem any potential dissent.”

I remembered those articles this week when Lobsang Sangay, president of the Central Tibetan Administration, described the Chinese government’s reaction to the TPSA during a virtual celebration of the law hosted by the Regional Tibetan Association of Massachusetts, Amherst.

“They brought helicopters over Potala Palace,” Sangay said, referring to the historic winter residence of the Dalai Lama. “They brought military in the streets of Lhasa and various other places. They had a war drill or anti-riot drill for days, some say for weeks, to intimidate Tibetans, to create fear that there might be another uprising in Tibet in appreciation of the support of the bill.”

Sangay added that the Chinese government has been holding workshops on the TPSA for its officials in Tibet and ordering scholars to write articles against the legislation. That helps explain why I’ve seen so many anti-TPSA stories in Chinese state media since the bill passed.

Here and there

Like the vast majority of my International Campaign for Tibet colleagues—including the Tibetan ones—I’ve never set foot in Tibet. The only images I’ve seen of it have come from photos and video snippets. All the advocating I’ve done for the Tibetan people has taken place far away, more than 7,500 miles from Lhasa, in the comfort and safety of Washington, DC (which, granted, feels a little less safe this year for reasons you can probably imagine).

Because the Chinese government makes it almost impossible for foreigners to enter Tibet and keeps information about Tibet from reaching the outside world, I’ve never gotten much of a glimpse into the effect our work at ICT has on Tibetans living under China’s authoritarian rule. I, of course, have always hoped that we’re helping to raise their spirits after decades of China’s oppression and laying seeds for greater freedom and justice in Tibet in the future.

I did understand that China might respond to the legislation we’ve helped pass by cracking down on Tibetans. But speculating about that felt a lot different than actually seeing images of the Chinese military bearing down on Tibet.

I hope this goes without saying, but the thought of any Tibetan suffering because of something I contributed to horrifies me. Obviously, it’s the opposite of what I want.

Reaction by Tibetans

I trust you’ll also believe me when I say I don’t feel I have the right to decide how much suffering in Tibet is okay in the short run so that Tibetans can get human rights over the long term. I think it’s important for Tibetans themselves to take the lead in making those decisions. (I know that’s a standard disclaimer these days in social justice discourse, but I still want to make it clear.)

One group non-Tibetans should look to for guidance is the Central Tibetan Administration, which provides democratic representation for Tibetans in exile. Although Sangay, the administration’s president, unnerved me with his vivid description of China’s response to the TPSA, he gave me a smile by talking about the response from Tibetans.

“Inside Tibet, they were celebrating it,” he said. “In monasteries, they were praying, they were burning incense to appreciate the US government for what you have done.”

Sangay added: “Yes, there’s a clampdown. There’s repression. And obviously, they cannot say much. But deep down, I know in the dark cells of prisons also, they are very, very appreciative for passing this bill.”

There were other inspiring moments at the TPSA celebration this week, which featured remarks by Congressional leaders, Tibetan association presidents, the North American representative of the Dalai Lama and ICT Interim President Bhuchung K. Tsering, among others.

More than ever

One of the featured guests of the event was Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., who introduced the TPSA in the House of Representatives alongside Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ben Cardin, D-Md., introduced the bipartisan bill in the Senate.

McGovern pointed out the TPSA is part of a wave of recent Tibet legislation that has also included the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, which became law in 2018 and led to the State Department announcing last summer that it had banned Chinese officials from entering the United States over their role in keeping Americans out of Tibet.

“In the last couple years, we have passed more legislation on human rights in China and on issues related to Tibet than at any other time in Congress,” McGovern said.

He added that he hopes the Dalai Lama will be able to return to the United States to meet with President Biden and Vice President Harris. The Tibetan spiritual leader has previously met with Presidents George H. W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.

McGovern said he believes the Biden administration will soon appoint a new high-ranking special coordinator for Tibetan issues in the State Department. ICT has stressed the importance of appointing someone for the role at the undersecretary of state level or above so that person has the resources and authority needed to be successful.

New administration

Meeting with the Dalai Lama and appointing a new special coordinator for Tibetan issues are two promises Biden made during his campaign.

Since taking office, his administration has taken a number of steps to show support for the Tibetan people.

  • At the beginning of this month, the State Department gave a statement to Radio Free Asia pledging that the US will pressure China to re-enter dialogue with the representatives of the Dalai Lama; end its interference in the selection of Tibetan Buddhist leaders; and respect Tibetans’ unique culture, religion, language and environment.
  • A few days later, on Feb. 5, during his first phone call with China’s top diplomat, the new secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said the United States will continue to push for human rights and democratic values in Tibet.
  • And just last week, Blinken delivered a video message at the State Department’s annual reception for Losar, the Tibetan New Year. The department has held the reception every year since 2015; Blinken was the first secretary of state to speak at it. Blinken later tweeted his Losar greetings and called for the preservation of Tibet’s “rich traditions.”

These actions have added to the momentum from the bipartisan passage of the TPSA and the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act during the last administration.

Global support

The new laws have also echoed across Europe and the democratic world.

In July 2020, Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said the EU opposes any interference in the Dalai Lama’s succession by the Chinese government. (The TPSA requires the State Department to work at the international level to build support for Tibetan Buddhists’ freedom to choose their own leaders. Borrell’s statement was a nice head start.)

Earlier, Borrell, who is also vice president of the European Commission, responded to a question from Member of the European Parliament Isabel Santos by saying, “The Commission will continue to call on the Chinese authorities to allow reciprocal access to Tibet” as part of the EU’s human rights dialogue with China.

In addition, officials in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands have also recently stated their position that Tibetans have the right to choose their own religious leaders without China’s influence. ICT’s European offices have helped spearhead efforts to build support for Tibetans in Europe.

Last month, the European Foundation for South Asian Studies, a think tank, suggested the TPSA could lead to more democratic countries expressing support for Tibet.

“It would be worth watching whether a few such democracies take the cue from the US and acknowledge the sufferings of the Tibetans more substantially,” the foundation said in a report.

The report added that the TPSA could “provide a template and options for India”—the world’s largest democracy and the exile capital of the Tibetan people—“to examine and expand upon in its future dealings” with China.

Pushing forward

During the celebration of the TPSA this week, Bhuchung K. Tsering, ICT’s interim president, said “Congress has done its part in passing the legislation. We now look forward to working with Congressman McGovern, Senator Rubio and their colleagues in the Congress to see that the Biden administration fully implements the TPSA” and the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act.

Bethany Poulos, policy analyst in Rubio’s office, added that the TPSA “wasn’t a one off.”

“We’re going to continue to work on this issue,” she said. “It’s going to be a priority in Congress.”

That should encourage all of us who care about Tibet to keep pushing forward with our advocacy. We know that whatever we do, China won’t stop its repression in Tibet tomorrow, as its recent show of military force in Lhasa made clear. But at the same time, our actions are having a clear impact.

“Don’t ever, ever think that your voices don’t matter,” McGovern said. “That is what made the difference here. People in the Tibetan community, throughout the world but in the United States, raised their voices, advocated and made a difference.”

As an ICT member, you’ve made a difference for Tibet and contributed to the unprecedented momentum of the Tibet movement. The last few months have provided a startling reminder of the real-world results of our activism. As we look ahead to the rest of 2021 and the future, let’s try to give our dear friends in Tibet more reasons for hope and celebration.

John Lewis and the efficacy of nonviolence

“It’s in keeping with the philosophy of nonviolence. That’s what the movement was always about, to have the capacity to forgive and move toward reconciliation.”—John Lewis

For obvious reasons, the timing of John Lewis’ death last week felt like a heavy blow. Not only have most of our lives ground to a halt in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, but our country is also in the midst of a massive reckoning over racial injustice. And now we have lost the light of one of the last remaining luminaries of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. (The Rev. C.T. Vivian, another high-profile figure from the movement, died the same day as Lewis, July 17, 2020.)

As a believer in the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent activism, I lament the passing of Congressman Lewis. I often fear that great moral leaders like Rep. Lewis, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and their forebears are a rare species in our modern world, which—for whatever progress it has made—is also more fractured and imperiled than it ever has been in many of our lifetimes. The death of John Lewis only makes this frightening landscape feel a little dimmer.

Prayers from the Dalai Lama

Given everything Lewis stood for (and got beaten for) during his lifetime, it’s no surprise the Dalai Lama mourned his death in a statement this past weekend. “Through his principled adherence to the fundamental democratic values of liberty, equality and justice, Congressman Lewis won admiration even among those who did not share his political outlook,” His Holiness wrote. “In the course of many years of public service, he inspired many Americans to take up the cause of justice and peace through nonviolence.”

The Dalai Lama’s website also shared a photo of the Tibetan Buddhist leader clasping hands with Rep. Lewis—a striking image of two beaming avatars of wisdom and compassion. Lewis supported Tibet during his decades in Congress, including by signing onto several letters calling for greater US action to advance Tibetans’ rights.

Two avatars of wisdom and compassion: Congressman John Lewis and His Holiness the Dalai Lama

In his statement, the Dalai Lama also connected Lewis to other icons of nonviolence:

Whenever I talk about nonviolence, I cite the examples of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King. Congressman Lewis not only knew Dr. King, but also gave him crucial support. Although I did not have the privilege of meeting Dr. King myself, in meeting Congressman Lewis, I feel [I] have made a direct connection with him.

The power of forgiveness

I’ve written before on this blog about my admiration for Gandhi (as well as, of course, my love for His Holiness). But as an Indian immigrant in the US, I feel simultaneously proud that the civil rights movement borrowed methods and ideas from Gandhi’s “satyagraha” campaign and indebted to Black leaders like Congressman Lewis and Dr. King, who suffered horrific abuse—and even death in King’s case—so that people of color could have the same freedoms as their fellow citizens. I know the opportunities I’ve had in this country would not have been possible without those visionary activists, so I will forever be grateful.

Yet as inspired as I feel by how much Lewis, the son of Alabama sharecroppers, managed to achieve in his 80 years on this Earth, I am perhaps just as moved by how much he was willing to forgive.

As Michael A. Fletcher recalls in an excellent piece for The Undefeated, the beatific Lewis once faced criticism from his peers for having too much anger. At the legendary 1963 March on Washington where Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the 23-year-old Lewis—who was one of the “Big Six” organizers of the event and the last one to die—had to tone down his remarks at the request of King, A. Philip Randolph and others, who feared the oration he planned to give was too divisive and combative.

Years later, Lewis fully embraced the need for forgiveness and reconciliation. According to Fletcher, he forgave “Bull” Connor, the notorious former public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Ala., who unleashed firehoses and attack dogs on peaceful protestors.

The capacity to change

Perhaps most strikingly of all, Lewis even forgave George Wallace, the man who famously pledged in his 1963 inauguration as Alabama governor, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Growing up decades after the fact, I knew Wallace only as a caricature of midcentury racism. What I did not learn until years later was that during the final stages of his life, Wallace—who by then was bound to a wheelchair following an attempt on his life—expressed remorse for the damage he caused African Americans. He met with Lewis in 1979 and with other civil rights leaders too.

Many people felt—and still feel—that Wallace’s about-face on racism was less than sincere. Yet in an astonishing op-ed he wrote for The New York Times the week Wallace died in 1998, Lewis said the Wallace he got to know “was a changed man.” “When I met George Wallace, I had to forgive him,” he wrote, “because to do otherwise — to hate him — would only perpetuate the evil system we sought to destroy.”

Lewis went on to say that Wallace “should be remembered for his capacity to change.” “I can never forget what George Wallace said and did as governor, as a national leader and as a political opportunist,” he wrote. “But our ability to forgive serves a higher moral purpose in our society.”

The effectiveness of nonviolence

Lewis was also willing to forgive less well-known figures too. In one of the most startling examples of his grace, he forgave Elwin Wilson, a Ku Klux Klan member who viciously beat Lewis and a fellow Freedom Rider at a bus station in the early 60s—Lewis and the other activist refused to fight back or press charges—before seeking him out to apologize and make amends decades later.

Lewis beautifully recalled their meeting about 10 years ago in Washington, DC: “He started crying, his son started crying, and I started crying,” he said. The quote from Lewis at the top of this post explains why he never hesitated to accept Wilson’s apology.

For his part, Wilson, who wanted to set things right with his God before it was too late, had wisdom of his own to dispense. “[M]y daddy always told me that a fool never changes his mind, and a smart man changes his mind,” he said. “And that’s what I’ve done and I’m not ashamed of it.” He and Lewis made several TV appearances together over the next few years, and when he died in 2013, Lewis issued a statement saying he was “very sorry to learn of Elwin Wilson’s passing.”

“He demonstrated the power of love and the effectiveness of nonviolent direct action,” Lewis said, “not only to fix legislative injustice but to mend the wounded souls in our society, the soul of the victim as well as the perpetrator.”

Hope for Tibet, hope for tomorrow

Though I’m sad that Congressman Lewis no longer walks this Earth with the rest of us, reading about him over the past few days has refocused my belief in the Tibetan cause and the vision of the Dalai Lama. Lewis’ success in changing the world, and changing individual people, renews my hope that change can come to Tibet.

I’m not saying it will be easy. Do I believe that Chen Quanguo, the architect of mass atrocities against Tibetans and Uyghurs, will undergo the same change of heart that Wallace and Wilson said they did? Not really, no. As Lewis himself noted in his op-ed, Wallace’s conversion was a rare feat for a politician.

Many of you probably also question whether it even matters to convert or forgive people like Wallace and Chen, given the immense harm they’ve caused. On top of that, even though I’ve followed the Dalai Lama and other nonviolent leaders for many years now, I’m still never sure how to put their teachings into practice—how to combat injustice and stand up for what’s right without becoming unjust or unkind myself.

I can also assure you that I have many of the same fears that many of you do about the coronavirus and its effect on our health, our economy, our future. There’s also the threat of climate change, the rise of authoritarianism and numerous other concerns to worry about.

Spirit of healing

Yet I know that whatever the next few months, as well as the next few years and decades, bring, I would prefer to face them with the spirit of compassion, nonviolence and healing that Lewis embodied, rather than with anger and vindictiveness.

That’s a big part of what drew me to Tibet in the first place, and I suspect it’s what drew many of you as well. It’s not about achieving victory over the Chinese, but about creating conditions for Tibetans and Chinese to live together peacefully, the way Lewis and his peers hoped different races in the US could live as equals.

Below is His Holiness’ full letter about the loss of Congressman Lewis. I hope you take a moment to read it, and I hope you stay committed to the cause of nonviolence and peace.


Coronavirus leaves China no excuses in Tibet

A photo of a Tibetan police officer (right) whom Chinese state media mysteriously claim died from “overwork” fighting the coronavirus outbreak in Tibet.

The coronavirus outbreak has tragically caught much of the world off guard. But knowing the Chinese government’s repression in Tibet, I’m not at all surprised by how this pandemic spread.

Instead, I’m outraged.

A lot of disinformation is now percolating about the roots of our current global crisis, both because Chinese officials are deliberately trying to confuse the issue, and because some outside China are helping them deny the blame. So let’s be clear about what happened.

In December, laboratories in the central Chinese city of Wuhan identified the emergence of the new virus. But rather than act decisively to prevent it from mushrooming, Chinese authorities ordered the scientists to stop their tests and destroy the samples.

That was hardly all. Chinese police also detained a young doctor who warned his colleagues about the dawning outbreak. That young man later died of COVID-19, the disease the coronavirus causes (more on that below).

Chinese state-controlled media avoided discussing the topic for weeks. The Chinese government denied to the World Health Organization that the coronavirus spreads from human to human. And Chinese officials allowed a potluck banquet for tens of thousands in Wuhan to go forward as planned.

Now, with the number of deaths mounting across the globe, China is taking a bow on the world stage, claiming it has wrestled the coronavirus into submission and flaunting offers to help countries still under siege. Yet this narrative conveniently leaves out the part at the beginning where Beijing dumped Pandora’s box on all of humanity.

The reality is this: According to a University of Southampton study, if the Chinese government had acted to combat the coronavirus three weeks earlier than it did, it could have reduced COVID-19 cases by 95 percent.

Instead, Chinese authorities spent that time bullying, deceiving and denying, and as of today, the virus has reportedly infected more than 1.3 million people worldwide—although the real number is almost certainly larger, in part because Beijing is likely underreporting cases in China, and because too few people have access to testing here in the United States and elsewhere.

Whatever the figure is, it doesn’t begin to convey the holistic toll of the outbreak: the jobs lost, the families separated, the communities broken, the traumas inflicted, the civil liberties expunged and the lives forever worsened.

So for whatever bouquets people want to give Beijing for its eventual performance in controlling the outbreak, they must also lay the blame at its feet for exposing the world to this debilitating crisis in the first place.

And the next time the Chinese government claims its actions in Tibet are of no concern to the global community, we should all remember that the duplicity and malignancy of this regime have the horrifying power to bring our entire world to a crashing halt.

Same story in Tibet

If you’re a Tibet supporter like I am, you’ve seen this movie before. Only it’s not “Outbreak” or “Contagion.” Instead it’s a documentary about the Chinese government’s long-running, ideologically driven ineptitude.

I mentioned earlier Li Wenliang, the heroic physician who became world-famous after police interrogated and threatened him over a post he made on the messaging app WeChat about a possible new viral outbreak.

Li and I were born the same year—but the big difference between us is that he’s now dead. The courageous doctor died after police reproached him for “disturbing the social order” and he returned to work, only to contract the virus the officials compelled him to deny.

From my perch at the International Campaign for Tibet, I recognized the Kafkaesque nature of Li’s story immediately, because I’ve seen it so often in Tibet, which China has brutally occupied for more than six decades.

Four years ago, police in Tibet arrested businessman Tashi Wangchuk after he appeared in a New York Times video calling for the protection of Tibetans’ native language. In the video, Tashi travels to Beijing, where he tried to file a lawsuit requiring officials to improve Tibetan-language instruction in his home city of Yushu.

Under China’s constitution, ethnic minorities have the right to use their mother tongue, and Tashi says explicitly in the video that he wanted to “try to use the People’s Republic of China’s laws to solve the problem.”

Despite this, in 2018, a court in Yushu handed him a five-year prison sentence. ICT later translated his court documents, which reveal his prosecution to be a sham and his confession to be the result of possible torture. (One can only imagine what authorities would have done to Dr. Li had he been ethnically Tibetan rather than Chinese.)

I automatically thought of Tashi when I first heard of the ordeals Li faced before his tragic death. Although the details differ, the pattern is largely the same. Both men tried to draw attention to an issue of public concern. Both attempted to act according to the law. Both were careful and measured. And for their troubles, both were detained and accused of undermining society.

Now, Tashi is languishing in prison, while Li has become just another of the more than 76,000 people around the world known to have died so far from the disease his government punished him for warning people about.

Sick regime

Of course, I don’t believe the Chinese government is solely to blame for our current peril. Governments across the world have failed to prove themselves capable during this crisis. You are unlikely to hear me utter a word in defense of our own country’s ill-prepared and inadequate response, and I am continuously appalled by a system that favors profits over public health and people’s welfare.

And yet, having worked at ICT since 2018, I cannot get over how the denialism and pathology I’ve observed in Tibet during that time have now helped unleash this scourge on the entire planet. (I don’t think I’ve felt this angry since the 2008 financial crisis, which also had a rotten belief system as a primary cause.) More importantly, I think we would be derelict if we failed to hold the Chinese government accountable for its catalyzing role in this disaster.

I can’t make the point any better than Kapil Komireddi does in the British news outlet The Critic, so I will simply share his words: “The calamity unfolding all around us did not emerge from a void. It originated in China. And its eruption into a global pandemic is inseparable from the nature of the regime that has ruled China since 1949.”

I won’t claim to be an expert on the Chinese government after less than two years in this field. But I do sense that the Chinese Communist Party is obsessed with staying in power above all else and views any potential challenge—including the coronavirus—through that lens.

Chinese officials often cast peaceful protest and cultural expression by Tibetans as threats to social stability (and therefore a threat to the government’s continued rule). They reacted to the coronavirus the same blinkered way but found that an infectious disease is not as easy to suppress as nonviolent resistance.

Despite my familiarity with China’s institutional irrationality, I hoped somewhere in the back of my mind that it would respond to its failures with some much-warranted humility. Unsurprisingly, that has not proven to be the case. In the midst of this crisis that it helped spawn, the CCP has only doubled down on its routine of praising itself while throwing elbows at its geopolitical rivals, especially the United States.

Perhaps the most outlandish part of that effort has been the claim by Chinese officials that the US army introduced the coronavirus to Wuhan during a visit in October. Although that’s blatant demagoguery, Beijing has gone even further in using the pandemic to attack Americans, with a state media article in March implying that China could halt its export of pharmaceutical ingredients to the United States, which would cause the country to “fall into the hell of a novel coronavirus epidemic.”

Last month, China announced it would expel US journalists from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post and subject those three outlets, along with Time and Voice of America, to increased red tape. The Chinese Foreign Ministry claimed this was retaliation against the US decision to decrease the number of Chinese state media journalists allowed to work in the United States.

But China’s action was a major escalation, not an equivalent response. Even worse, it promises to increase the Chinese government’s lack of transparency after that lack of transparency enabled the coronavirus to spread.

Inoculated from criticism

For me personally, one of the most confounding parts of this pandemic has been the accusations of racism. It has been heartbreaking to see bigots in the United States and other parts of the world target people of Chinese and East and Southeast Asian descent for violence and intimidation. The thought of students facing bullying in their schools saddens me in particular. I was in high school during 9/11 with

brown skin and a foreign-sounding name, so I understand the fear and self-consciousness racial profiling can bring, and I don’t wish that on anyone.

Speaking only for myself, I think it’s a mistake to refer to the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus” or “the Chinese coronavirus,” because doing so seems likely to provide grist for anti-Asian xenophobes, which is too serious a risk to ignore. But it would also be a mistake to let the Chinese government off the hook for its inciting role in this outbreak.

Indeed, Beijing seems more than happy to use accusations of bigotry to inoculate itself from judgment. For instance, when Nobel Prize-winning Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa wrote a column about the pandemic stating that, “none of this could have happened in the world if popular China was a free country and democratic rather than a dictatorship,” the Chinese embassy to Peru accused him of making “discriminatory and defamatory statements”—a charge that deliberately conflates criticism of the Chinese government with racism toward the Chinese people.

Similarly, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang—the bane of my existence in my work as ICT’s communication officer—urged Llosa to “discard his prejudice and look at the issue in an all-round, correct manner.” What that “correct manner” is is apparently up to Beijing to decide and the rest of us to adhere to.

Sadly, some seemingly well-meaning people are playing into Beijing’s hands, allowing their commendable aversion to racism to distract from the Chinese government’s misdeeds. Especially perplexing to me is a “Late Night with Seth Meyers” segment in which the host—whose humor I often enjoy—appears to brush off criticism of the Chinese government as racist, then almost immediately pivots to using a mock Italian accent to talk about the coronavirus in Italy. I’m not claiming the experience of Italians and Europeans in the modern world is precisely the same as that of Asians. But I still find the whiplash reasoning of that segment hard to believe.

I’ve also seen some commentators suggest that looking back at how this pandemic began is a waste of time now that we’re in the middle of it, and that we should focus more on criticizing our own government than on criticizing China’s. With all due respect to the people who hold those views, I think we can do more than one thing at a time.

We can confront the crisis we have on our hands while leaving space to figure out how it could have been prevented in the first place. We can (and should) demand more from our own leaders—indeed, I’m sure many of you will feel the criticisms I make of Beijing in this piece also apply to Washington, DC—while demanding greater transparency and respect for whistleblowers in China. And we can oppose the authoritarian blundering of the Chinese government while recognizing that governments and people are not the same thing.

Continued oppression in Tibet

We’ll get no help in that last effort, however, from the Chinese government itself, which is more than content to paint any criticism of its repressive system as a hate-fueled attack on Chinese people themselves. But that red-herring maneuver is a bit much coming from a regime that has built an entire colonial apparatus in Tibet based on the racist idea that Tibetans are culturally inferior and deserve to live as second-class to China’s Han majority.

Even since the coronavirus outbreak set in, the Chinese government has kept up its repression of the Tibetan people. As with Dr. Li, police have cracked down on Tibetan netizens who make statements about the outbreak, including a man named Tse from the city of Chamdo (Chinese: Changdu), who posted a message on WeChat urging people to recite a prayer in order to ward off infection. For that spiritual sin, he was given seven days in administrative detention.

There was also a strange report in state media claiming a Tibetan police officer died from “overwork” fighting the outbreak. The report, which fails to explain why the officer was overworking and whether it was voluntary, appears to be yet another attempt by the Chinese government to falsely depict Tibetans as loyal to the Communist Party and its bankrupt ideology.

Despite the dangers of spreading the virus, Chinese officials in January said they were moving ahead with a new campaign in Tibet described as a “million police entering 10 million homes,” which involves police “visiting the people, resolving people’s concerns, resolving conflicts, preventing risks, investigating problems and controlling chaos.”

In contrast to the Chinese government’s predictably heavy-handed response, Tibetans have reacted to the coronavirus with compassion. Inside Tibet, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have donated money for the purchase of facemasks and other urgently needed supplies. Kumbum monastery in the region of Amdo contributed 1 million yuan to Wuhan.

In exile, His Holiness the Dalai Lama responded to requests from people around the world by sharing a message offering comfort and strength to all of us as we struggle through this pandemic. And here in the United States, Tibetan American medical professionals are fighting the virus on the frontlines, including 400-500 brave nurses in New York City, the new epicenter of the outbreak.

Interdependent world

For millennia, Buddhism has taught that all of our lives are interdependent, and today, that lesson is more obvious than it has been at any other time since most of us were born.

It seems likely to me that even after this pandemic ends, our world will remain different for the foreseeable future. Already we’re seeing democracies collapse, inequality grow, mass surveillance expand and industries die out. Even for those of us who never get infected, the trauma of losing loved ones, not to mention the hardship of rebuilding our communities, won’t soon fade.

But as bleak as the future might look, I still hope that at least some positive changes will emerge. Perhaps we will come to a better understanding that individual health quickly scales up to public health. Maybe we’ll start to take climate change more seriously. It’s possible we’ll even see a renewal of compassion and solidarity.

But wherever we go from here, we should never again accept the Chinese government’s claim that its decisions don’t involve the rest of the world. That notion is now invalid forever.

In the case of Tibet, China has proven it can’t be trusted to govern the country as a responsible member of the international community. Although the situation in Tibet may not cause the same global shock waves the coronavirus has, the boiling unrest there will certainly have spillover effects into the surrounding region and even farther afield, especially if Chinese officials pursue their unconscionable plan to appoint the next Dalai Lama.

For years, Beijing has said its oppression in Tibet is a domestic issue that foreigners have no right to get involved in. That never made sense, since Tibet has never truly been part of China. But in the wake of the coronavirus, all of us should make it clear to Chinese leaders that they don’t get to use that excuse anymore.

80 years of the Dalai Lama: An appreciation

The four-year-old Dalai Lama glances at the camera during his enthronement ceremony in Lhasa, Tibet on Feb. 22, 1940

It’s no exaggeration to say that when I was growing up, the Dalai Lama was one of the most visible and popular figures in the United States. And though I’m loathe to pat myself on the back, I often think that if I could travel back in time and tell my adolescent self that someday I’d work in service of the Dalai Lama and his people, the younger me would break into a big smile.

In fact, when I took my job with the International Campaign for Tibet two summers ago, my first thought was that after about a decade as a professional, I’d finally made it in the world. That had nothing to do with money (the public sector is not exactly a goldmine) or reputation (I had been working for the Pew Charitable Trusts, a household name among nonprofits) or even the type of work I do here (which is pretty much the same as what I’ve done in past jobs). Instead, it had everything to do with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and what he represents.

Tomorrow, the world will celebrate 80 years since the enthronement of this icon from Tibet. On Feb. 22, 1940, the four-year-old Dalai Lama officially took the throne in a glorious ceremony at the Potala Palace in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The photo above provides an extraordinary glimpse at the child who—according to Tibetan Buddhist beliefs—is an incarnation of Avalokiteśvara, a Bodhisattva of compassion, and who, unlike his 13 predecessors, would go on to bridge the gap between Tibet’s unique culture and the outer world while leading his people and their supporters in an epochal moral and political struggle against the Chinese Communist Party.

I am not the most qualified person to deliver a biography of His Holiness, nor am I in a position to offer a rigorous study of his religious and philosophical ideas. Instead, I plan to use this post to share some personal reflections on what the Dalai Lama has done for me, a non-Tibetan living in the West whose almost entire life has been limned by the gentle glow of his wisdom and beneficence.

Little Dalai Lama

I cannot say when I first learned of the Dalai Lama, but my earliest intact memories of him date back to when we were both kids—sort of. In 1997, two major films came out that focused on the early life of His Holiness: “Seven Years in Tibet,” starring Brad Pitt as the Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer, and “Kundun,” directed by Martin Scorsese. (This was back before China managed to almost completely censor any mention of Tibet in Hollywood.) Watching those movies with my father helped familiarize me with Tibet and the ongoing human rights crisis there.

I can recall having two distinct emotional reactions to “Seven Years in Tibet” and especially “Kundun.” The first was that I felt sorry for the little boy Dalai Lama, because I was a kid too, and I thought it must have been so boring for him to spend all his time indoors meditating, rather than going outside to play. To me, it was like having to go to church every day.

My other reaction was pride in knowing that His Holiness eventually took refuge in India. Although I had no real memories of India, I knew that I was born there and that I was Indian, so I thought it was pretty cool that this revered world leader lived in my homeland. Today, that immature sense of ethnic self-satisfaction has been replaced by my appreciation for His Holiness’ role as a spokesperson for ancient Indian philosophy. The Dalai Lama often now talks about his commitment to reviving India’s traditional knowledge, especially the teachings of the Nalanda Buddhist academy and the Indian masters’ understanding of psychology and mental training—things I too think are urgently needed for curing the modern world’s spiritual and psychic maladies.


It’s no surprise, then, that my next vital memory of the Dalai Lama’s influence in my life involves another Indian sage. When I was a freshman in college and trying to sort out my political views, my roommate had me take a political compass test that placed my beliefs along X and Y coordinates on a plot graph that also charted the ideology of famous figures. If I recall correctly, my roommate ended up in the quadrant of the graph that had Karl Marx and Che Guevara, but that didn’t seem quite right for me. Thankfully, the quadrant my beliefs landed me in was home to His Holiness and to Mahatma Gandhi—two great avatars of nonviolence and moral resistance.

A few months ago, I wrote another post for this blog touching on His Holiness’ affinity for the Mahatma and drawing comparisons between the movements these two wise men have led. Most significant to me was the fact that neither Gandhi nor the Dalai Lama are revolutionaries or freedom fighters in the most commonly understood meanings of those terms. Gandhi never wanted India to become a contemporary nation like its colonial ruler, Great Britain. Rather, he dreamed of an India that would repudiate modern civilization and embrace traditional notions of simplicity, neighborliness, local self-rule and nonviolence. Similarly, the Dalai Lama has even been willing to accept less than total independence for Tibet in favor of a Middle Way Approach of genuine autonomy and mutual benefit with the Chinese. He has also, to my immense satisfaction, guided Tibetans in exile to adopt democracy and relinquished his own political authority.

No need to worry

My youthful sense of identification with the Dalai Lama was a source of background comfort through the first quarter-century of my life, but it was not until just under a decade ago that I really began to look more closely at his beliefs. At the time, I was going through the kind of existential confusion common to people in that age group. I had drifted away from my childhood religion (Christianity), I had struggled to find my place in the world in my first few years out of college, and I felt profound anxiety and uncertainty over my future.

During that period, I began to gravitate toward Buddhism, which presented me with a radically different understanding of the world and the self than the one I had been raised with. Of course, the Dalai Lama is likely the world’s most famous Buddhist, so he quickly emerged as my go-to source of guidance, as well as my biggest hero. Through my fervent consumption of his YouTube clips (my favorite was this one where he laughs uncontrollably at an Australian reporter’s unsuccessful attempt to tell a joke; I challenge any of you to watch it without giggling) and his pithy sayings, His Holiness quickly became the most prophetic voice in this world reminding me that life is actually good. I even went so far as to tape a small postcard of the Dalai Lama to the side of my dresser, so that when I was getting ready in the morning, I could see his beaming smile and remember to embody his teachings as I went about my day.

That summer, 2011, I saw—for the only time so far in my life—the Dalai Lama in person when he spoke outside the US Capitol here in Washington, DC. I will never forget that I went there that day with a slightly older friend of mine who tragically died just a few years later from an unexpected health issue. Thus my memories of this friend, who was a person of deep compassion, will forever be intertwined with my memories of seeing the Dalai Lama, which seems fitting.

A couple years after that day at the Capitol, when the brilliance of the Dalai Lama’s beliefs had begun to take root in my mind, I shared with another close friend of mine my favorite quote from His Holiness, which by then had become my words to live by:

“If you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.”

Today and tomorrow

Today, I feel blessed to be part of the Tibet movement, because I always knew I wanted to try to do something good for the world, but I never could have guessed I would get to do something as good as serve the vision of His Holiness.

As China pursues its wicked plans to appoint the Dalai Lama’s eventual successor, it is more important than ever for all of us to take action to protect the legacy and the teachings of this great man.

I hope you will join me tomorrow in celebrating the 80th anniversary of His Holiness’ enthronement. And, if you have not already done so, please write to your Senators to ask them to support the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, which will make it official US policy that only Tibetan Buddhists can decide the Dalai Lama’s succession—and will sanction any Chinese officials who attempt to name their own Dalai Lama in the future.

Tell your Senators to pass the TPSA!