Ashwin Verghese

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!

China gives the game away

The scandalous—and quickly deleted—tweet in which Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey showed support for Hong Kong protestors.

In the polarized age in which we live, American sports fans are often forced to confront whether we can separate our favorite pastimes from their surrounding social and political context. But after seeing all hell break loose over an NBA executive’s mundane tweet about Hong Kong, we should be asking ourselves whether we can still detach sports—or any part of our shared public life—from the tentacles of China’s asphyxiating censors.

In case you haven’t heard, a public relations catastrophe has erupted in the National Basketball Association since Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted an image late last week captioned “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.” Morey later deleted the tweet and apologized, but that didn’t spare him or the league from China’s predictable wrath.

The Chinese consulate in Houston proclaimed it was “deeply shocked” by Morey’s “erroneous comments” and urged the Rockets to “take immediate concrete measures” to repair the damage. The Chinese Basketball Association suspended cooperation with the Rockets (which was particularly stinging, since the association is led by Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming, who spent his entire NBA career in Houston). Some Chinese businesses also ended their sponsorship deals with the Rockets.

Chinese entities also took revenge on the NBA itself, in part because of the league’s qualified response to Morey’s tweet. State broadcaster CCTV declared it would no longer air two NBA preseason games that were scheduled to be played in China; CCTV also said it was reviewing its cooperation with the NBA in toto. And on Wednesday, a press event in Shanghai with LeBron James, the greatest NBA player of this generation, was cancelled just hours before it was slated to begin.

Morey marooned by NBA peers

While this histrionic response from China was no surprise to anyone who monitors the country, the reaction of the NBA community has been far more troubling. It’s important to note that Morey, who helped revolutionize the NBA through his use of analytics, is often considered one of the best general managers in the league and was already a household name among basketball fans. But because he provoked China, his team allegedly considered firing him. The team’s owner, Tilman Fertitta, tweeted that Morey “does NOT speak” for the Rockets and that the Rockets “are NOT a political organization”—as if Hong Kongers’ fight for their basic freedoms were tantamount to voting for the local school board.

Another badge of shame goes to Rockets star James Harden, the 2018 NBA Most Valuable Player award winner, who responded to his general manager’s tweet by saying, “We apologize. You know, we love China.” In the past, Harden has rightly spoken up about racial injustice in the US. But when it comes to justice for Hong Kong, he is apparently willing to look the other way.

Perhaps most eye-roll-inducing was the “Open letter to all NBA fans” from Joe Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets and executive vice chairman of the Alibaba Group, one of China’s most powerful companies. In his lengthy screed, Tsai writes that “1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.” I would like to tell Tsai that earlier this month, I attended an event on Capitol Hill led by Chinese dissidents who decried the 70th anniversary of Communist Party rule in their homeland; does Tsai believe he also speaks for them? In addition, the protestors in Hong Kong are Chinese people who appear to have a different take on national sovereignty than Tsai does. (If only the wealthy could realize that being rich doesn’t qualify them to act as spokespeople for the unwashed masses.)

To his credit, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver—after a confusing initial statement that any communications professional would recognize as the stitched-together work of multiple PR flaks—said the league would protect its employees’ freedom of speech and would live with the consequences of Morey’s tweet. However, Silver’s qualified response stands in contrast to the decisive action he took when he led the ouster of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was caught on tape making repulsive, racist remarks.

Today Hong Kong, yesterday Tibet

Tibet supporters have seen this script before. In recent years, several Western businesses have prostrated themselves before China after invoking Tibet and Tibetans in ways that displeased the Communist Party.

Last year, Marriott President Arne Sorenson issued a statement saying “we don’t support anyone who subverts the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China.” That came after China shut down the hotel chain’s Chinese website as punishment for listing Tibet, along with Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, as separate countries from China. The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) responded to Sorenson with a letter seeking clarification of his views on Tibetan human rights.

Most egregiously of all, Marriott then fired a US employee in Nebraska who accidentally liked a pro-Tibet tweet from a company account. As Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said at the time, “This is the long arm of China. They can get an ‘American’ company to fire an American worker in America.”

Also in 2018, Mercedes-Benz apologized for quoting the Dalai Lama in an Instagram post. The quote itself—“Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open”—was not overtly political, but the German carmaker disowned the post as an “extremely erroneous message.” As ICT Germany Executive Director Kai Müller said at the time, “Mercedes-Benz not only adapts to the language rules of the Chinese Communist Party, but even pledges to support Beijing in its worldwide effort to export its censorship.”

The film industry has also fallen under China’s sway. In December of last year, I wrote a blog post exploring how, after the 1997 twin releases of “Seven Years in Tibet” and “Kundun,” Beijing has been able to cut Tibet almost entirely out of Hollywood films. One galling example was how Disney changed the character of the Ancient One in “Doctor Strange” from a Tibetan in the original comic books to a Celt played by Tilda Swinton in the movie version, cynically claiming its goal was to avoid racial stereotyping. However, the screenwriter of “Doctor Strange” admitted that, “If you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that [the character is] Tibetan, you risk alienating 1 billion people.”

In my post, I pointed out that it is not just businesses that are adhering to Chinese views on Tibet. According to the 2018 annual report of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, European diplomats choose not to discuss Tibet because they don’t want to face Beijing’s wrath.

As I wrote, “The result is arguably the most insidious form of censorship: self-censorship. And it’s becoming more common on the issue of Tibet.”

Taking a page from Orwell

To understand how self-censorship works, we can look to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”—not the main narrative itself, but rather the stunning preface that Orwell wrote.

“Animal Farm” is, of course, a thinly-veiled allegory about the Soviet Union, the West’s great adversary during the Cold War. So it is a bit surprising to read in the preface just how difficult it was for Orwell to get British and American publishers to accept the book. At the time, the Soviets were allies of the UK and US in the war against Nazi Germany. That made Orwell’s anti-Stalinist drama simply unpalatable.

What’s most shocking is that the British government never outright banned publishers from printing Orwell’s book. Instead, publishers simply felt it “wouldn’t do” to distribute the book in light of Britain’s alliance with the Soviets. One publisher even voluntarily ran the book past the UK’s ministry of information. That publisher later wrote to Orwell that “the choice of pigs” to represent Soviet leaders “will no doubt give offence to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.”

Substitute “Chinese” for Russians, and swap out pigs that mock Stalin with tweets that support Hong Kongers or Tibetans or Uyghurs, and you basically have the situation we’re in today.

Resist Chinese censorship

Though Orwell is recognized as one of the most acute critics of totalitarian societies, such as China, his preface to “Animal Farm” is invaluable for understanding how censorship is imposed on supposedly free societies such as ours. In place of government restrictions, private entities like the Houston Rockets, Marriott and Mercedes act as consenting enforcers of Chinese thought proscription. That’s how an action as mild as Daryl Morey tweeting could incite such a firestorm.

The actual substance of his tweet—fight for democracy and freedom, stand with those who are doing so—is so unremarkable that it’s hard to imagine many Americans disagreeing with it. But because the tweet agitated the people in charge of one of the most important business partners for the NBA, Morey was hung out to dry. (Thankfully, while US businesses have demonstrated time and again that they can’t be trusted on the issue of China, US lawmakers on both sides of the aisle continue to stand up to Chinese attacks on our free speech.)

In the long run, the Pandora’s Box that Morey’s tweet seems to have opened may come back to bite China, because the American public is now much more aware of how the Chinese Communist Party impedes their ability to speak freely. It’s one thing for China to strong-arm a car company or hotel chain; it’s quite another to mess with the highly visible and opinionated arena of sports fandom. (It also helps that “South Park” just aired an episode mocking Chinese censorship, followed by a sarcastic ‘apology’ to China from the show’s creators.)

Americans should be terrified by the way Chinese censorship has taken hold in our public life and determined to prevent it from going any further. Let this moment be a turning point where all of us speak out against the deep reach of Chinese free speech curtailment in the US and refuse to be quiet about our support for Hong Kongers, Uyghurs, Chinese dissidents and Tibetans.

Gandhi and Tibet

Mahatma Gandhi (far left) speaks at the Asian Relations Conference in Delhi in 1947 as two Tibetan delegates (front right) listen. A small sign saying “Tibet” and the Tibetan flag are seen in front of them.

“As I stood there I wondered what wise counsel the Mahatma would have given me if he had been alive. I felt sure he would have thrown all his strength of will and character into a peaceful campaign for the freedom of the people of Tibet.”

—The Dalai Lama in his autobiography “My Land and My People,” on his visit to Gandhi’s cremation site in 1956

Today, Oct. 2, 2019, the world marks 150 years since Mahatma Gandhi was born. But for those of us in the Tibet movement, it’s perhaps more important to remember when he died.

Gandhi, a revolutionary of staggering political, spiritual and philosophical insight, was shot dead by a Hindu nationalist on Jan. 30, 1948—in other words, the year before the Chinese Communist Party came to power and subsequently invaded Tibet, beginning its ongoing, brutal occupation of India’s historical neighbor.

Though the Mahatma and the Dalai Lama walked the same Earth for about 12-and-a-half years, they never interacted. Instead, a young Dalai Lama visited India years after Gandhi’s death for the 2,500th birthday of the Lord Buddha. While there, on his first morning in New Delhi, he visited Gandhi’s memorial, Raj Ghat. Thus, on one short pilgrimage in the midst of China’s savage conquest of his land, His Holiness came into spiritual communion with arguably the two greatest minds the Indian subcontinent has produced: Gandhi and Buddha.

Three years later, the Dalai Lama was forced to seek refuge in India when Chinese troops forced him to sneak out of the Norbu Lingka Palace in Lhasa to escape likely imprisonment or death. Nearly ever since, His Holiness has been perched in the northern Indian outpost of Dharamsala, from where he continues to guide the Tibetan people to this day.

Though Gandhi did not live long enough to advise the Dalai Lama on his struggle, as His Holiness seems to have wanted, the Mahatma’s imprint can be seen all over the Tibetan movement.

Indeed, one could argue that in exile, the Dalai Lama and his followers have practiced their own form of “swaraj,” one of Gandhi’s core concepts. Swaraj means “self-rule,” and the Mahatma sought to implement it in myriad ways, including “swadeshi,” or self-reliance—which he most famously demonstrated by spinning his own clothes; the image of the spinning wheel now adorns independent India’s flag—health and education programs, and peacekeeping between India’s multifarious religious and communal groups.

While Tibetans’ swaraj has not completely replicated Gandhi’s blueprint, it has deployed several similar strategies. For one thing, Tibetan exiles have shown an astonishing commitment to education. In 1960, the Dalai Lama established the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala. Today, TCV is a network of schools across India that help keep the Tibetan language and culture alive while also introducing young Tibetans to other important academic subjects. No doubt this would impress Gandhi, who once said that swaraj “means national education, i.e. education of the masses.”

In addition, the Dalai Lama has echoed the work of the Mahatma in striving to keep the Tibetan people together. In fact, there is arguably greater unity among Tibetans in exile today than there was in Tibet before the Chinese invasion. During that time, the Dalai Lama was viewed as a spiritual authority across the Tibetan Plateau, but political authority was fragmented among the different regions of Tibet. In India, however, the Dalai Lama has been able to keep Tibetans united so they can present a unified front against Chinese malevolence. The Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, which was formed with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama, includes representation for each of Tibet’s three provinces, as well as its different religious schools. It’s no surprise, then, that the Dalai Lama has written that Tibetans are “one of the most successfully resettled refugee groups in the world” with their own political and cultural institutions.

Like Gandhi, His Holiness has embraced wise reforms for his millennia-old society, and what’s remarkable—but less-often recognized—about both men is not simply their courageous leadership of resistance movements, but rather their deep commitment to community self-improvement and purification.

Many historically victimized peoples have responded to their oppression by seeking to emulate and outdo their oppressors—what Gandhi pithily dismissed as “English rule without the Englishman.” For instance, China, the Dalai Lama’s lifelong antagonist, has strived to prevent a recurrence of the “century of humiliation” it suffered at the hands of European and Japanese imperialists by becoming a mighty imperial power itself, adopting the Western notion of sovereignty (as opposed to the priest-patron relationship it once had with Tibetans) and claiming it over Tibet and East Turkestan (Chinese: Xinjiang) while eyeing the forced integration of Hong Kong and Taiwan with the Chinese mainland.

This kind of modeling of the behavior of one’s bully is understandable, but nevertheless tragic. However, it is largely the opposite of what Gandhi and the Dalai Lama preach. Like other leaders of the colonized, they recognized the need for their societies to self-strengthen, but they sought to do that by preserving and refining the best aspects of their cultural traditions, not by acquiescing wholesale to Western or Chinese ways. Though both Gandhi and the Dalai Lama assimilated the most useful and meritorious ideas of the invaders’ cultures—Gandhi was heavily influenced by the Christian gospels and by Western thinkers like Edward Carpenter—they rejected the militarism and acquisitiveness that brought outside powers to their countries in the first place.

Indeed, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama are most recognizably linked in their devotion to “ahimsa,” or nonviolence. Neither man was willing to accept violence or hatred by the victims toward their victimizers. And both see ahimsa as a crucial part of the ideal society they wish to create. In his Five Point Peace Plan address to the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1987, His Holiness even went as far as to say that Tibet should become a “zone of ahimsa” from which all troops and military installations would be removed. As the threat of violence between India and China looms ever present over border and water disputes, Indians might wonder how much better off they’d be with Tibet as a peaceful buffer state between them and the belligerent Chinese Communists.

I see another surprising connection between the Dalai Lama and Gandhi. For the Mahatma, achieving independence from Britain was insufficient; he was adamant that India should not become a modern state in the vein of England or the United States. (It’s worth noting that several of China’s leading intellectuals at the turn of the last Century believed the same thing, but their voices were swallowed up by the march of the Communist regime.) Instead, he believed the best organization for India was a web of self-sufficient village republics. This concept no doubt seems radical to many modern commentators (though I personally find it very appealing), but it reveals the extent of Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence and equality, as well as the depth and reach of his ideas. (To say Gandhi was merely an independence activist is a bit like saying Buddhism is merely the practice of meditation.)

Similar ingenuity can be seen in the Dalai Lama’s proposal of “genuine autonomy” for Tibet, rather than full-fledged independence. Stopping short of asking for Tibet’s freedom is no doubt at least partly a calculated move by His Holiness, designed to bring the Chinese to the table for a mutually acceptable compromise. But it also shows that, like Gandhi, the Dalai Lama is not limited by modern ideas of the homogenous nation-state and political sovereignty.

For me, this political and ethical imagination is a big reason why I wanted to join the Tibet movement in the first place. It’s not for me to decide whether genuine autonomy or “rangzen,” total independence, is the better option for Tibetans. But witnessing the social upheavals that have roiled the world over the past few years, including in the heart of the progressive West, I feel the need to consider totally different understandings of human life that are more compassionate and more ethical. Gandhi offers that, and while the Dalai Lama differs from him in manifold ways, he carries on Gandhi’s legacy of providing a moral and spiritual voice to correct the waywardness of modern civilization.

As we celebrate “Gandhi Jayanti” today, I am touched by the reminder that the Mahatma died believing himself a failure as he witnessed India descend into horrendous violence following Britain’s unconscionably reckless and hasty retreat from the Subcontinent. “I am in the midst of flames,” Gandhi wrote bitterly toward the end of his life. “Is it the kindness of God or His irony that the flames do not consume me?”

It seems Gandhi would be unsurprised by the rise of strongmen in countries around the world today. As the Indian author Pankaj Mishra notes, “Gandhi predicted that even ‘the states that are today nominally democratic’ are likely to ‘become frankly totalitarian’ since a regime in which ‘the weakest go to the wall’ and a ‘few capitalist owners’ thrive ‘cannot be sustained except by violence, veiled if not open.’” Indeed, China has shown that, contrary to the prognostications of some in the West, authoritarianism and the market economy can fit together hand in hand and fist in glove.

Despite the crushing blows of India’s Partition and bloody nation-building, Gandhi was not defeated. As Dwight Macdonald wrote in a deeply pained but ultimately inspiring obituary after the Mahatma’s assassination, Gandhi “was killed after his most profound ideas and his lifelong political activity had been rebuffed by History,” but “he was still alive and kicking, still throwing out imaginative concepts, still ‘in there fighting.’ Macdonald added: “The ideologue is baffled, but the human being—and by this sentimental phrase I mean the acute intelligence as much as the moralist—is not through; he has plenty of inspirations and surprises in store for us.”

More than 70 years after Gandhi’s death, his work is not yet done. During his life, Gandhi provided the template that numerous other civil rights activists would follow. For example, in 1935, he met in India with the African American minister Howard Thurman and told him, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” Thurman went on to serve as a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. One can only imagine how fruitful a discussion between the Dalai Lama and the Mahatma would have been had the course of time allowed it to happen.

Gandhi’s mission to create a better world continues all around the globe today, including in the person of the Dalai Lama and the cause of Tibet. Today, as we experience the rise of authoritarian china, as well as eruptions of nationalism and neo-fascism in even supposedly liberal societies, not to mention the apocalyptic threat of climate change, we need that mission to succeed more than ever. That’s why I’m grateful to be part of the movement for Tibet, and to be serving the salvational legacy of the Dalai Lama and Gandhi.

Abuse of privilege: Roisin Timmins and access to Tibet

Roisin Timmins

Roisin Timmins, an English-speaking correspondent for Chinese state media, was blasted on social media for filing a mendacious video report from Chinese-occupied Tibet.

There are many ways to define privilege. One might be who gets to go where.

If you’re Roisin Timmins, you get exclusive access to Tibet, one of the world’s most geographically and politically secluded countries, which is currently in the stranglehold of China’s stringent isolation policies.

Having brutally occupied Tibet since 1959, China now has the region on complete lockdown. A recent report from the US State Department says the Chinese government “systematically impeded travel to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan areas outside the TAR for US diplomats and officials, journalists, and tourists in 2018.”

No doubt the same was true for citizens of other countries—except Chinese citizens, who increasingly make tourist trips to Tibet, where they are presented with a Disneyland version of Tibetan culture and history.

The situation is worst of all for Tibetan exiles, including thousands of Tibetan American citizens, who are cruelly denied the right to visit their ancestral land. Since I began working for ICT last summer, I’ve been dismayed by the number of Tibetans I’ve met who’ve never been allowed to set foot on Tibetan soil.

This exclusion is also extreme for international journalists. In March 2019, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China released a position paper noting the TAR is the only region of China that journalists need government permission to enter, and that such permission is rarely granted.

So how, then, did Timmins—who described herself as a journalist in a 2018 interview with her alma mater, Leeds Trinity University in England—enter Tibet earlier this year?

The answer is easy: She took a job as a correspondent for Xinhua, an official Chinese state news agency, leading to this fiasco of a video report filed from the TAR.

If you want to spare yourself six minutes of wasted time, let me assure you: The video is trash. In it, Timmins conjures the profound insight that “There’s much more to Tibet than yaks and temples” and sets out to show how, under Chinese rule, Tibetans have “modernized their education, their healthcare, their whole way of life without losing their identity.”

Of course, that thesis itself is sheer nonsense. More than 1 million Tibetans have died as a direct result of China’s invasion and occupation of their land, and Tibet’s rich and ancient culture is slowly being devoured by China’s assimilationist regime.

But to back up their bogus claim, Timmins and crew interview a number of Tibetans—who might have felt horrific pressure to say the right things as state media cameras filmed them—and regurgitate a set of Chinese government talking points, all of which are easy to rebut. For example:

  • Tibet’s population is 90% Tibetan. According to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), ethnic Chinese outnumber Tibetans in Tibet. China has also implemented policies incentivizing intermarriage between Tibetans and Chinese, hoping to breed out Tibetans in a kind of slow, covert genocide.
  • China brought democratic reform to Tibet. There is no democracy in Tibet or China. China is a one-party authoritarian regime. If Tibetans ever did get to vote freely, surely they would vote to kick their repressive Chinese leaders out.
  • Schools are helping to preserve Tibetan culture. In July 2018, Chinese officials banned Tibetan schoolchildren from taking part in religious activities during their summer breaks. Buddhism is at the heart of Tibetan culture. So if anything, China’s control of the education system is helping to eradicate Tibetan heritage, not protect it.
  • China is bringing jobs to Tibet. Just a few weeks ago, Radio Free Asia reported that a Tibetan graduate student whose essay on declining government job opportunities for Tibetans went viral was hauled out of class and has been detained ever since. As I tweeted, this is the reality of China’s economic development in Tibet. Tibetans are discriminated against in the job market and viciously punished when they complain.
  • China is helping to preserve Tibet’s environment, including by hiring Tibetan herders as forest rangers. Put aside for a moment the mining, bottled water production and reckless development policies China has unleashed in Tibet. Chinese authorities have also forced Tibetan nomads off their ancestral lands and onto ill-fitting settlements. Not only is this stunningly inhumane, but scientists everywhere (including in China) have reached a consensus that indigenous stewardship is crucial for the health of ecosystems, making China’s approach to Tibetan nomads both savage and environmentally destructive.

Apart from the obvious inaccuracies, Timmins’ piece is problematic in a more foundational way. Timed to distract from the media attention surrounding the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s forced exile from Tibet, the video claims the anniversary actually marks “Serfs’ Emancipation Day,” the Rubicon moment when Chinese troops freed the Tibetan people, who, according to this narrative, lived as serfs in a feudal order.

To set the record straight, the Dalai Lama has acknowledged that Tibet had many problems at the time of China’s invasion, when he was just a teenager, and insisted he would have enacted reforms. Indeed, in exile, His Holiness helped set up the CTA to provide democratic representation for the Tibetan diaspora. This transition to democracy was completed in 2011 when the Dalai Lama retired from politics, fully severing church and state.

But no matter what injustices took place in Tibet decades ago, none of them could possibly justify China’s ravenous annexation of the country. In fact, Beijing’s claim that it took control of Tibet to liberate the Tibetan people is sickeningly reminiscent of the propaganda past imperial powers have used to defend their crimes.

Case in point: The British Empire consumed India, my country of birth, looting its abundant resources, restructuring its economy to serve English commercial interests, exacerbating religious divisions that eventually led to a bloody Partition and dehumanizing the Indian people, all while claiming to help them.

Like Tibet, India had its share of social plagues, the untouchability of the caste system high among them. But a violent conquest by foreign profiteers was hardly the right cure. Every civilization has its particular ills, and every empire uses them as a pretext for invasion and plunder. To avoid creating as much damage as it’s intended to fix, social reform needs to come from the bottom up, not from the barrel end of a colonizer’s gun.

My outrage at India’s subjugation and despoiling by the British is part of the reason I wanted to join ICT in the first place. As heir to a history of oppression, I felt the need to speak out against colonialism wherever it occurs, even if it’s perpetrated by Asians like me.

Of course, China too was touched by the heavy hand of foreign domination during the bygone age of imperialism. Beijing is right to decry the humiliation it faced from Westerners and Japanese in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and its continued anger and paranoia are understandable. But unfortunately, as so often happens, the onetime victim has now become a swaggering bully. Rather than demonstrate solidarity with its Tibetan neighbors, who were themselves once invaded by England, China has instead imposed on them a form of settler colonialism that is shamefully similar to the sufferings inflicted on indigenous peoples throughout the world.

By producing a video purporting to show the progress benevolent Chinese have bestowed on backward Tibetans, Timmins is serving as apologist for an evil empire. Yet I feel incensed by her work not just as a native of India but as someone who—like Timmins herself presumably—grew up in a Western democracy.

No doubt Western countries have been immensely hypocritical in preaching freedom and equality for some while enforcing subservience and hierarchy on untold others. As an American citizen, I take part in political debates, vote regularly and criticize my government frequently in the hopes of fueling change. Yet the thought of living in a place where I’m unable to do even those things, meager or ineffective as they may be, gives me chills.

For all their inadequacies, open societies where people have at least basic freedoms are certainly preferable to totalitarian countries like China. Coming from the UK, Timmins ought to have been sensitive to that. Instead, she has produced work that is—to borrow a phrase George Orwell used to describe another gleeful propagandist of empire, Rudyard Kipling—“morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.”

Timmins is among a privileged few in world history who have had the relative freedom to say what they want and go where they please. She was even able to travel to Tibet, a place many Tibetans in the diaspora have never been able to see. And to get that access, all she had to do was betray the humane values of liberty, justice and civil rights.

Timmins did herself no favors with her attempted self-defense on Twitter, in which she deigned to “make it clear what my job is” and “what it isn’t,” as though merely stating that her role is to do what Xinhua tells her to makes what she did acceptable. If only Roisin would realize ‘I was just doing my job’ has never been a good excuse.

As I told Timmins on Twitter, no one was holding a gun to her head; she could have chosen to do something else with her life. (Relevant side note: Chinese troops have pointed guns at the heads of many Tibetans and Chinese, who do not have the array of life choices that Timmins has.) Perhaps Timmins enjoys the perks of her job, but there is likely something more insidious at play. Tom Grundy, editor-in-chief and co-founder of the Hong Kong Free Press, brought the subtext to the surface in a comment on one of Timmins’ tweets:

Though Timmins is now performing the role of social media victim, the backlash she has faced is purely of her own making. For me personally, I’m disgusted by her work in part because it seems she and I have as many commonalities as differences. We appear to be close in age; we are both from the West; and we both work as PR people for groups involved in the same contentious issue—except I acknowledge my role for what it is while Timmins calls herself a journalist.

When I decided to join ICT, I realized I was likely forfeiting the possibility of traveling not only to Tibet, but also to China unless major changes come to that country. Yet I was fine with my decision because I knew which side of the Tibet issue I wanted to be on. I knew I could criticize the Chinese government from the safety of the US without facing jail time and torture—something Tibetans surely cannot do. Even overseas, many Tibetan exiles feel unable to criticize China openly because they fear what Chinese authorities will do to their family members in Tibet.

Access to Tibet is a privilege conferred not by Tibetans themselves, but rather by the Chinese powers who continue to rule over their land. Timmins gained that privilege by dint of being a useful tool for the occupying forces. She could have opted to do countless other things for a career, but she made her choice of her own accord.

Sadly, given the glib, defensive posture she has assumed on social media, it seems unlikely Timmins will reverse course any time soon. But hopefully the controversy she ignited will lead others like her—and me—to use the tremendous privilege we have to speak up in support of the Tibetan people, not their oppressors.

Lights, camera, retraction: How China cut Tibet out of movies


Chinese troops in the 1997 movie “Kundun,” directed by Martin Scorsese. After the film premiered, Disney’s CEO traveled to China to apologize for releasing it.

“You’re not going to see something that’s like ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ anymore,” says Larry Shinagawa, professor at Hawaii Tokai International College, in a recent New York Times piece titled “How China Is Rewriting Its Own Script.”

That’s cause for concern, because when I was growing up, movies like “Seven Years in Tibet” and “Kundun,” both of which opened in 1997, helped introduce me—and surely many Americans in my generation—to the Tibetan issue. If such films are no longer made, how will kids today discover this important topic?

Hollywood screenwriters love a good-vs.-evil story. Twenty years ago, they found a great one in Tibet.

Just imagine this pitch to a producer: admirable but outnumbered protagonists follow a wise elder who teaches inner peace and spiritual growth. The antagonists, meanwhile, are an evil empire bent—as real-world events have shown—on actual global domination.

Not even George Lucas could do it better. So why, then, did Hollywood turn its back on Tibet?

The sad answer is that, for now, the evil empire is winning.

According to the Times report, written by reporters Amy Qin and Audrey Carlsen, “China wields enormous influence over how it is depicted in the movies Americans make and watch.”

The Chinese gained that influence by using many of the same tactics that every colonial power uses: invade when local institutions are weak, buy off the elites and spread fear to squelch dissent.

In the case of Tinseltown, the takeover was obviously less dramatic. But it largely followed the same script.

Hollywood studios were weakened by years of declining revenue and competition from online streaming. China swooped in with huge wads of cash and the promise of a blockbuster market for foreign ticket sales.

As a result, Hollywood executives today are simply too afraid to make a movie that could offend China. That means no more “Seven Years in Tibet” or “Kundun.”

Apparently, the release of those films helped provoke Chinese censorship in the first place. In the mid-1990s, Disney was just breaking into the Chinese market when the government in Beijing heard about “Kundun,” a beautiful film on the early life of the Dalai Lama directed by screen legend Martin Scorsese and written by Melissa Mathison, an International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) Board Member who died in 2015.

China’s leaders raged against the movie, Disney pulled back on its marketing campaign, and Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner, traveled to China to apologize to the Chinese prime minister—and to negotiate a new theme park in Shanghai. (As a supporter of Tibet and an ardent cinephile, I took heart in this line from a 1998 Film Comment article: “You decide: who’ll be lucky to be even a footnote in movie history, Eisner or Scorsese?”)

Following that experience, it’s safe to assume that no studio today would greenlight a film like “Kundun.” But even when Tibetans come up organically in a story, Chinese pressure forces them out.

Case in point: the 2016 Marvel epic “Doctor Strange.” In the comic books, the titular doctor learned his craft from the Ancient One, a wise Tibetan sage.

But in the movie, the Ancient One is Celtic and played by Tilda Swinton, a white actress from Scotland. Although Disney—once again behaving as nefariously as any of the villains in its cartoons—claimed it was trying to avoid a stereotypical portrayal of Asians, the screenwriter shockingly admitted, “If you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that [the character is] Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people.”

Unfortunately, Hollywood, the land of make believe, is not the only place where China’s government has pressured Americans to pretend Tibet isn’t real.

The 2018 annual report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission notes that earlier this year, “the Shanghai branch of the Cyberspace Administration of China shut down Marriott’s Chinese website for a week as punishment for listing Taiwan as well as Hong Kong, Macau and Tibet as separate from China on a questionnaire for customers.”

Like its peers in La-La-Land, Marriott sheepishly apologized. ICT followed up with a letter to Marriott’s CEO, Arne Sorenson.

The Commission’s report also states that China doesn’t have to tell European diplomats not to mention Tibet; instead those diplomats simply choose on their own not to bring it up because they don’t want to face Beijing’s wrath.

The result is arguably the most insidious form of censorship: self-censorship. And it’s becoming more common on the issue of Tibet.

Unlike in the movies, good doesn’t always triumph over evil in real life. Hollywood, which once championed the Tibetan cause to kids like me, now shuns the Tibetan people.

Thankfully, there’s still hope for a better ending. Movie studios may fear getting banned by China, but Tibetan-Americans already face that reality. Although Chinese citizens are free to travel throughout the United States—and Chinese officials throw their weight around unimpeded in this country—China restricts Tibetan-Americans from visiting their homeland.

The Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives in September and unanimously approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, aims to change that situation by denying US visas to Chinese officials who prevent Americans from entering Tibet.

According to Congressional Quarterly, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who introduced the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act in the Senate, said that Chinese authorities are “literally undertaking an effort to strip people of their identity.”

Although we can no longer count on our favorite movies to protect that identity, we can—and should—still lobby our government to do so.