Guest

Václav Havel and the 14th Dalai Lama, the story of a friendship and a message for the world

By Katerina Bursik Jacques

On Dec. 18, 2011, ten years ago, Václav Havel passed away. Czech human rights advocate Katerina Bursik Jacques writes about the extraordinary friendship between the Czech president and the Dalai Lama. Photo: Zdenek Merta.

Human rights are universal and indivisible. Human freedom is also indivisible: if it is denied to anyone in the world, it is therefore denied, indirectly, to all people. This is why we cannot remain silent in the face of evil or violence.
-Václav Havel, “Summer Meditations,” 1991

In Czechoslovakia, 1989 began with police arrests on Wenceslas Square in Prague during a low-key commemorative event, marking the death of student Jan Palach who, in January 1969, had burned himself to death, in protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops, in an attempt to rouse a society that was descending into apathy. Among those arrested was playwright and leading Czechoslovak dissident Václav Havel, for whom this was nothing new. He had served more than four years in prison in the past. There was no indication in January that 1989 would become a year of ‘miracles’ that would bring freedom to the entire Soviet bloc and make the imprisoned dissident Havel president before the year was out.

Virtually no one knew—and not only in Czechoslovakia—that martial law had been declared in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, in March 1989. But when, a few months later, at the beginning of June, images of the brutal crackdown in Tiananmen Square in Beijing were circulated around the world, the public was badly shaken. At the sight of tanks targeting defenseless young people, Czechoslovak citizens also felt solidarity and anxiety, as it recalled their own humiliation in 1968 when Soviet tanks had arrived on the streets of Prague.

During the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovaks carry their national flag past a burning tank. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In August 1968, brute force had dashed any hopes of freer conditions in the country. In Czechoslovak cities, streets were aflame, and people were injured and died. Twenty years of so-called ’normalization’ followed, during which the Czechoslovak public (except for a small group of convinced Communist ideologues or opportunists who profited personally from Soviet influence) regarded the Soviet Union, whose regime they despised, as their greatest enemy. The topic of a remote Communist China was somehow beyond the European horizon at the time—most people, apart from insiders, were not interested.

But it was the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989 that shocked the world. It reminded everyone that there was another totalitarian power besides the Soviet bear —Communist China, which did not hesitate to send in the army against its own people and inflict a bloodbath on them, even in front of media cameras. The nature of the Chinese Communist regime, in all its monstrousness, was thus suddenly visible to anyone who wished to see. Tiananmen resonated in Czechoslovakia too and only served to reinforce the sense of disgust with Communism and a degree of hopelessness about the future.

A fateful encounter

The first fateful connection between Václav Havel and His Holiness the Dalai Lama was on Oct. 5, 1989, the day of Havel’s birthday, and also the date on which the annual Nobel Peace Prize was to be announced. Václav Havel was about to celebrate his birthday with friends, but he had to be on the alert. As in previous years, he was on the shortlist of candidates for the prestigious prize and had to be prepared to answer questions from foreign journalists (their Czechoslovak counterparts were certainly not interested in such a thing; they may even have been terrified at the thought of having to report on an award to a prominent opponent of the regime …). According to witnesses, the first person to inform Václav Havel that the prize had been awarded to the Tibetan Dalai Lama was a journalist from Reuters. Havel’s response in English was brief and typical for him: ‘He deserves it!’ Later, the Dalai Lama made the same remark about Havel.

Although there were plenty of reasons in 1989 why Havel should finally have been awarded the most important human rights prize of all, the situation of the Tibetans was more arduous than that of the Czechoslovaks, and the massacre in Beijing certainly contributed to the choice of the Dalai Lama, who was both a symbolic victim of Chinese Communist subversion and an embodiment of its antithesis, the policy of nonviolence.

Moreover, nonviolence was also what Havel symbolized. Both were prominent representatives of their occupied nations, one a dissident and prisoner of conscience, the other a political exile who had lost his homeland. For their compatriots, they were moral authorities who kept alive the hope of freedom and a life of dignity, however unimaginable it was on that October day. Without being acquainted with each other or knowing much about each other, they were already linked by the similarity of their personal fate and the parallels between their peoples.

The Czechoslovaks and Tibetans both experienced firsthand subjugation and military occupation, coupled with the loss of fundamental freedoms—the elimination not only of political and civil rights, but also of culture and religion, combined with censorship and a pervasive state ideology. In both Czechoslovakia and Tibet, the occupying regimes imposed a harsh materialist doctrine that deprived individuals of their creative potential and their religious and spiritual dimension. The Communist ideal of the human being was—and is—in stark contrast to what the monk Dalai Lama and citizen Václav Havel represented.

Czechoslovaks and Tibetans mirrored each other’s experiences not only of foreign occupation but also of government-in-exile. The Dalai Lama created his shortly after escaping to India, the Czechoslovaks created theirs in London during the Second World War. And both in Czechoslovakia and among Tibetans there were individuals who shouldered the burden of the moral dilemma and made themselves individually the loudest voice of conscience of their people, the so-called burning torch.

In October, neither Havel nor the Dalai Lama could have foreseen the changes that would take place in a few weeks’ time. However, events gathered momentum quickly, and the fall of East Germany’s Berlin Wall in November was followed by demonstrations in Czechoslovakia and the so-called Velvet Revolution, which, apart from the initial violent clash between armed security forces and students on Nov. 17 in Prague, took an unexpectedly smooth course, inadvertently materializing Havel’s ideal of nonviolence.

When His Holiness the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony in Oslo on Dec. 10, Human Rights Day, the Velvet Revolution was already in full swing. Havel was at the center of the action and was somehow naturally heading for the presidency.

One of those who participated in nominating the Dalai Lama for the Nobel Prize and who also attended the award ceremony in Norway was a former Indian diplomat in Prague, a supporter of the democratization process in Czechoslovakia and a supporter of the Tibetan cause, Mr. Manohar Lal Sondhi. He decided to connect his idols, the Dalai Lama and Havel. Before returning to India from Oslo, he stopped in revolutionary Prague, where he visited the Civic Forum office to convey the Dalai Lama’s wish “that Czechoslovakia become a centre of peace in Europe” together with a personal message to Václav Havel. In return, Mr. Sondhi then took to India a greeting from Mr. and Mrs. Havel to the Dalai Lama. He thus became one of the driving forces behind the events surrounding the Dalai Lama’s historic visit to Prague.

First time in Czechoslovakia

On Dec. 29, 1989, six weeks after the outbreak of the Velvet Revolution, Václav Havel was elected president amid general euphoria. A few days later, millions of Czechoslovak households were watching his New Year’s message on television screens. Havel began his speech by stating that the citizens had been lied to for decades, and that he had not been elected president in order to lie to them too. According to Havel, truth and love were supposed to triumph over lies and hatred. Empty Communist platitudes about class struggle and happy tomorrows were replaced by truthful words from President Havel about the poor state of society and a proposal for the direction a free country should take together with the policies it should pursue. In his speech, Havel formulated the values on which the new democracy was to be based.

Václav Havel welcomes the Dalai Lama in Prague. Photo: OHHDL.

And surprisingly for some, Havel concluded his television appearance by expressing his wish that Czechoslovakia be visited as soon as possible by two important spiritual authorities, the Catholic Pope John Paul II and the Tibetan Dalai Lama. As a man not firmly anchored in religion, but deeply grounded philosophically and spiritually, Havel understood the value of “interreligious dialogue,” which he publicly encouraged and later fully developed at the FORUM 2000 conferences, of which the Dalai Lama later became a regular guest and an integral part.

In his speech, Havel said verbatim that he would be “happy” if they both came, even if only for a single day. It’s obvious what he meant: restoring spirituality in a society which had been distorted by “historical materialism” and was spiritually arid. Later, when Havel recalled the Dalai Lama’s first invitation to Prague, he spoke about how the Dalai Lama had brought a little bit of light into our midst for a time. And witnesses confirm that this was indeed the case.

Apart from the spiritual motivation for both invitations, there was also a political aspect, of course. John Paul II was known for his opposition to Communism and his sense of human rights, and his arrival signaled not only the return of religious liberties to Czechoslovakia, but also the end of the Communist ideology in Central Europe. Likewise, the Dalai Lama, as the spiritual leader of Tibet, was also the foremost representative of a hard-pressed nation, who carried the hopes of his people on his shoulders. The Dalai Lama and the Pope arrived in Prague on Feb. 3 and April 21, 1990, respectively.

In retrospect, the Dalai Lama’s entire visit to Prague seems like a small miracle, when one considers that it took place only a month after Havel introduced the idea. On the Czechoslovak side, there was no experience of diplomatic protocol, and those who were present recall that everything happened somewhat chaotically. At a time when there were no mobile phones or the internet, and it was not possible to buy a ticket with just a couple of clicks on a computer as it is today, it was also an extraordinary organizational feat on the part of the Tibetans. Havel’s office prepared a three-day program, which in practice was modified in various ways and consisted of a series of public appearances, impromptu meditations and meetings with the general public, who turned up at various points to see and greet the distinguished guest. The most important of these meetings was the initial audience of the Dalai Lama with Cardinal František Tomášek in the Archbishop’s Palace at Prague Castle, and especially the meeting with Václav Havel himself at Lány Castle.

Few people in Czechoslovakia had any clear idea about the Dalai Lama, rather just a vague notion of what and whom he represented and that he was a recent Nobel Peace Prize winner. Apparently, not even Václav Havel knew exactly what to expect. In this connection, he later remarked that at that time his “knowledge of Tibet and its brave inhabitants was almost entirely from books.”

As both men recall, and as eyewitnesses testify, their first meeting was warm and, in a sense, surprisingly informal from the very outset. People described the intimacy that developed between the two men almost immediately. Both had a pleasantly detached approach to their functions and roles, both were informal and both liked to laugh. The Dalai Lama appreciated Havel’s sense of humor, humanity and naturalness. Havel, too, was pleasantly surprised by the warmth and directness of the holy man, who had a ready wit and a broadminded assessment of worldly transgressions. He told Havel, a heavy smoker, that he looked forward to “a second revolution when the country will stop smoking at the dinner table.”

What drew Havel to the Dalai Lama was his desire for spirituality, and many agree that he was fascinated by him on a human level. But it was also Havel the politician who felt the need to support the Dalai Lama in his legitimate efforts to preserve Tibetan autonomy against Chinese Communist oppression. Even as a president and statesman, he did not change his priorities and was actively concerned about human rights everywhere, so that his attitude toward Tibet and the presence of the Dalai Lama were a logical outcome of that attitude.

As soon as the plane touched down, sympathizers gathered at the airport with improvised banners welcoming the “exotic visitor.” Video footage shows His Holiness’ beaming face as he steps off the plane and sets foot for the first time in his life on the soil of a former Communist bloc country (apart from a brief visit to East Berlin on his way to receive the Nobel Prize).

The Dalai Lama’s visit seemed to be telling the people of Czechoslovakia and the whole world: This is the new us, these are the values we profess; Communism is gone and will never return. We stand for the oppressed elsewhere in the world; Tibet has our support, it too deserves its freedom.

The Chinese embassy protested, but nobody was too worried about it. As president of a now-free country, Havel, who had always been guided less by interests than by principles, had simply extended an invitation to the Tibetan leader.

The Dalai Lama’s first visit to Prague was a political and cultural milestone for hosts and visitors alike. For the Czechoslovaks, the arrival of the Tibetan leader marked one of the new regime’s first significant acts of foreign policy, a clear symbol of the rejection of the old order in the newly liberated country. For the Tibetans, they were able to see their spiritual and political leader walking side by side with one of the most important representatives of the democratic movement in the world. This gave them great hope that they too would one day rid themselves of authoritarian rule in a similar fashion. Since then, the Dalai Lama has visited the Czech Republic 10 times—twice since the death of Václav Havel—as a participant in conferences and ecumenical meetings within the framework of FORUM 2000.

The Dalai Lama had traveled abroad prior to his first visit to Prague, but not nearly as much as after his meeting with Václav Havel. He toured Europe in 1973 and at the end of that decade he visited the United States for the first time, including Congress, and around the same time he also addressed the European Parliament. The Nobel Prize has contributed to his prestige and his universal renown, and fostered the interest of the world public in the Tibetan issue. However, it may be said that Václav Havel was the one who, with his unexpected invitation, really broke a longstanding taboo, because until then no head of state had honored the Dalai Lama in such a way.

The voice of Czechoslovakia in the World

If people in the world knew about Czechoslovakia, it was mainly thanks to Václav Havel. He quickly became a globally recognized moral icon and authority, and not only politicians but people from all walks of life, including business and show business, not to mention rock stars like the Rolling Stones, were interested in meeting him. What Havel did or said attracted unprecedented media interest, and choosing to meet the Dalai Lama worked like a spell, opening other important doors, from the White House to the Élysée Palace and the Bundestag.

That there was something mystical in Václav Havel’s relationship with the Dalai Lama is confirmed by their last meeting. In the summer of 2011, Havel’s health deteriorated, and the Dalai Lama was informed of the fact. That October, Václav Havel celebrated his 75th birthday, but he gradually withdrew from public life. In November, Czech television broadcast his last ever public interview—with his former cellmate who had deepened his relationship with faith and spirituality while in prison, the current Cardinal Dominik Duka.

On Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011, again symbolically on Human Rights Day and on the anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel Prize to the Dalai Lama, the two men met for what we now know was the last time. The two of them first spent some time alone and then made a joint appearance before the press. Václav Havel was visibly frail and obviously very ill, but he was smiling and pleased to meet his precious friend. A week later, on Dec. 18, Václav Havel breathed his last and, as described by Sister Boromejka, the nun who cared for him in his last moments, it was as if he had blown out a candle. The flame of a fulfilled life had gone out, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama was the last guest and friend to say goodbye to him in person just before his death. In a way, it was otherworldly and completed the circle.

The Dalai Lama has returned to Prague twice since Havel’s death. Each time he stressed how strong their relationship was, but most importantly he appealed to us to carry on fulfilling Havel’s legacy. What the Dalai Lama has in mind are Havel’s universal principles and moral fortitude, his lifelong concern for human rights and the environment, and his belief in the meaningfulness of dialogue and bringing nations together, as is happening, for example, in the European Union, which received the strong support of both Havel and the Dalai Lama.

But we should also feel a commitment because of Havel’s attitude to Tibet, a country to which he offered moral support uncompromisingly from the time he took office until the end of his life. He remained firm in his view that human rights take precedence over economic interests. Once, while still in office, he wrote to His Holiness that if the Beijing government ever invited him to China, he would insist on visiting Tibet and Taiwan as part of the trip. Needless to say, the Chinese never invited him.

On the occasion of the important 4th International Meeting of Tibet Support Groups hosted by the Czech Senate in 2003, Havel gave a speech that clearly illustrates his retrospective view of the decision he had taken over a decade earlier and that shows that he stood by it and would not act differently in the future:

“When in 1990, at the very beginning of my first presidential term, I welcomed the supreme spiritual leader of the Tibetan nation to Prague, I caused some confusion; allegedly the invitation to His Holiness was due to my lack of political and diplomatic experience. To risk worsening relations between Czechoslovakia and mighty China seemed to many to be an act of sheer recklessness. Since then, however, His Holiness has visited our country several times and Beijing has not yet declared war on us.

“However, we keep hearing that we should not interfere in matters that are none of our business, that we do not understand the problem at all and that the Czech Republic and Tibet have nothing in common. This is the same attitude for which the Czech nation has already paid dearly for the loss of freedom on more than one occasion. Will we never learn? Unlike some of my critics, I believe that if the Czech Republic was unable to export some of its goods to China, it would only be because we have been overtaken by our competitors, not because of our friendly relations with the government-in-exile in Tibet or because we put respect for human rights ahead of momentary commercial interests.

“Why should the greatest power in Asia be afraid of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who commands no troops? I can personally testify (although it never ceases to fascinate me) that autocratic politicians, backed by the entire state apparatus, including the military, are always annoyed when someone stands up to them, even though that person is armed with nothing more than a belief in truth and non-violence.

“I am convinced that the desire for freedom is one of the fundamental traits of human nature. No politician in the world can ignore this fact. The struggle for freedom by non-violent means may be temporarily halted, but never destroyed.”

Not to fear meeting

The politicians who have succeeded Havel in the Czech Republic and elsewhere have not been so principled. This has also contributed to the current situation in which China has unprecedented influence and, with the help of state-of-the-art technology, is undermining and subverting Western democratic countries and their values, as well as manipulating the media and practicing censorship at home, while seeking to exercise it abroad.

The current geopolitical situation seems to be extremely complex, and world politics is once again lapsing into the taboos of the pre-Havel era, when meeting the Dalai Lama was something unacceptable, something that top leaders were reluctant to do for reasons of so-called realpolitik, lest they provoke some kind of imaginary retaliation from China.

We must ask ourselves why liberal democracies are succumbing so readily to this pressure and abandoning their own values and principles in the name of so-called economic interests. Let us ask ourselves what would happen if the entire free world were to say at the same moment a clear “no” to Chinese intimidation and blackmail. What would happen if Western leaders were to say to China with one voice that they stood behind Tibet and the Dalai Lama, that they stood behind the right of the people to freedom of religion and the development of their own culture. That, like Havel, they placed human dignity and human rights above narrow utilitarian interests and behaved in a way that was right. The answer is banally simple: “nothing” would happen at all. China would not stop doing business with the world, its threats would be empty saber-rattling with no real impact.

If the world will be commemorating the outstanding figure of Václav Havel on the 10th anniversary of his death, and if statesmen will be lauding with due emotion his merits and the ideas he promoted, it might be a good idea for them to examine their consciences and emulate Havel with practical actions.

They should send a clear signal to China that they will not be intimidated or blackmailed, that they will meet with whomever they want, whether it be Tibetan emigrants or Uyghurs, that they will support dissidents and prisoners of conscience in China, the way that Havel stood up publicly and with complete commitment for the signatories of the 2008 “Charter 08,” inspired by the Czechoslovak “Charter 77.” The best-known of them, Liu Xiaobo, who lost first his freedom and then his life as a result of the Communist regime, was not allowed to personally accept the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was awarded shortly before his death. It was precisely for him that Havel drew up a petition calling for his release from prison, which he personally placed in the mailbox of the Chinese Embassy in Prague in 2008, in the presence of the media.

Photo: Ondrej Besperat.

We can all follow the advice of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and fulfil the legacy of Václav Havel: by being truthful, by seeing environmental and climate protection issues as absolutely fundamental, by supporting and protecting the European Union, and by not forgetting Tibet and its people. Because, as Václav Havel wrote: if human freedom is denied to anyone in the world, it is therefore denied, indirectly, to all people. Long live Havel, long live the Dalai Lama!

Katerina Bursik Jaques served as Head of the Human Rights Department in the Government of the Czech Republic. She was also Director of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Government Commissioner for Human Rights. She is a former Member of the Parliament of the Czech Republic, Chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on European Affairs and a Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. She founded and chaired the Tibet Support Group in the Czech Parliament and organized His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s official visit in the Parliament of the Czech Republic. Katerina is Co-founder of the NGO “Czechs Support Tibet.” She is a member of ICT Germany, Secretary of the Tibet Support Group in the Czech Parliament and Member of the Steering Committee of the International Tibet Network.

China’s discourse power in geostrategic competition

Securing the future means much more than the military balance, given current strategic competition with China for influence across emerging economies worldwide. China’s rise goes beyond global dominance of production of strategic minerals and the technologies reliant on them. These are great challenges, but we know how those challenges can be met, including through self-reliance, strategic reserves, re-industrialization.

China’s ambitions stretch far beyond dominance of global supply chains. China seeks discourse power. That means not only amplifying China’s voice, on China’s terms, but also being heard, believed and heeded. Discourse power frames what is normal and what is no longer sayable or even imaginable.

What China is proud to call propaganda has never been more important, both as the only source of information available to Chinese citizens and, beyond China, a story of China’s “rightful place” that demands acceptance.

At present, China’s discourse power lags its economic power. That disparity is much lamented by China’s leaders, ideologues and elite intellectuals now working to amplify China’s voice. China has plans, at the highest level, to engineer its acceptance as not only a great civilization, but the great civilization, of such unbroken continuity, super-stability and magnificence that everyone will be dazzled and then deferentially kowtow. As Deputy Foreign Minister Hua Chunying says, discourse power is “an important battlefield for the strategic game of great powers.”

In the richer countries, heeding China’s discourse seems a remote prospect, just as China’s mastery of so many technologies and industries and export markets once seemed to be remote prospects. But if you live in Africa, Central or Southeast Asia or the Pacific, if you rely on Mango TV or CGTN to know the wider world, you are already a client of China’s burgeoning discourse power.

The ancient silk road conveyed much more than silk. Buddhism travelled from its Indian origins into Central Asia and then into China on the silk road with the traders. Today’s silk road, the Belt and Road Initiative, is about more than importing coal, oil and gas into China and exporting railways, power grids, pipelines and highways. Positioning Chinese culture as the great civilization to be admired and emulated is the long-term agenda in the expanding sphere of influence of a regional superpower.

Within China, “public opinion guidance” is a major state-owned industry, ensuring citizens have access only to the official line. Ramping up or dialling down the powerful emotions of patriotic pride and anger, in real time on social media, has enlisted an army of influencers who herd dissenters away from thinking the wrong thoughts and guiding the masses to think only the right thoughts. China has built its own internal online alternative universe to disseminate, without contradiction, the Chinese Communist Party’s alternative facts and debate framings.

Beyond China, normalizing an alternative master narrative is much harder, as Chinese civilization so far lacks the appeal of Korean boy bands and squid gaming, Japanese brands, Taiwanese tech or European heritage. China envies Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood, but has as yet little rejoinder. China is now investing in “national culture export bases” tasked with finding that elusive formula that will dethrone Hollywood.

China’s new frontier is hearts and minds worldwide. Extending China’s reach into deep space and the deep seafloor, into a massive blue ocean force projection navy, are all familiar dangers which can be contained. But the new horizon of attaining discourse power proceeds. As with the militarization of the South China Sea, a response to the rising challenge has been belated and haphazard. Advancing China’s discourse power within the UN system has progressed for years, with little pushback.

It begins with China’s repudiation of universals and insistence on exceptionalism, especially universals such as the UN’s foundational Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which insists that to be born human is to be born with rights. The first step of naval expansion was to dredge coral reefs into islands with military airstrips; the first step of redefining master narratives is to blunt what had been normal, demanding “Chinese characteristics” exempt China from any oversight or accountability.

Having blunted the scope of hitherto universally accepted universals, China’s next step in public diplomacy is to insert its own slogans as the frame. One example is the UN Convention on Biodiversity meeting in a Conference of Parties in Kunming in Yunnan province in October 2021, which issued its agreed Kunming Declaration, titled “Ecological Civilization: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth.”

China is immensely proud of this achievement, combining two key propaganda slogans into one document title, that does nothing for endangered species. What is “ecological civilization”? Why does it require, as CCP propaganda repeatedly tells us, “arduous struggle” to construct it? What does an anodyne phrase like “a shared future for all life on Earth” matter so much that China lobbied hard for its inclusion? How is it possible that China’s official policy instructions on biodiversity conservation repeatedly speak of “harmony between man and nature” and “shared future for all life,” yet in the same document impose exclusion and displacement of pastoralists from their remote pastures deep inland, leading to loss of land tenure rights, food security and livelihoods?

China is building a new reality based on a master narrative of mastery, of atomistic science and state simplifications that erase the accumulated local knowledge of local communities who have sustainably managed vast landscapes for thousands of years, now recategorized as “rural labourers,” a lumpen rural proletariat no longer fit for purpose in a new era of consolidation and scaling up intensification of land use, while proclaiming “ecological civilisation.”

To those skilled pastoralists, expert at living off the uncertainties of a highly variable climate, that’s confusing. It is as confusing for observers trying to reconcile fieldwork reporting of mass displacements with the rhetorics of building a shared future for all life on Earth.

As China’s discourse power building program gathers momentum, as new propaganda slogans are issued with greater frequency, we need reliable guidance that unpacks and decodes the proliferating building blocks of discourse power.

As China codifies its agenda for a new order, with distinctly Chinese characteristics, we face a growing need to decode, to discern implicit meanings and motives. The China model is actively exported to developing countries worldwide, especially in government-to-government transactions that bypass civil society and community engagement, on the explicit basis of China’s doctrine of “non-interference.”

China’s expanding campaign to assert soft power complements China’s global economic reach, and its expanding military hard power; they go together. For these reasons, China’s vague yet meaningful propaganda slogans need to be included in non-traditional security analysis just as much as security analysts assess China’s latest missiles and what they portend.

For some geostrategists, all that matters is hard power. They see China’s propaganda as at most China steering its domestic audiences; no need to bother taking is seriously. This seriously under-estimates how central propaganda is to China’s rise, the extent to which Xi Jinping’s regime sees propaganda as a frontline, and the appeal of carefully framed propaganda slogans to emerging country governments.

Decoding China’s rapidly proliferating discursive propaganda power is increasingly necessary. The DecodingCCP website unpacks core slogans that matter to China—and now matter globally. DecodingCCP.org critiques those vague phrases China works so hard to insert into UN documents and treaties: common but differentiated responsibilities, belt and road, ecological civilization, new development paradigm, public opinion guidance, splittism, bottom-line mission, common prosperity, non-interference in internal affairs, patriotic education campaign, to name a few.

With subtle humor rather than antagonism, DecodingCCP identifies implicit meanings, hidden assumptions and party-state intentions, with plenty of scope for the reader to decide what to make of it. DecodingCCP comes to the task from a different angle, as a Tibetan product, an outcome of centuries living alongside a giant neighbor and its arrogant imperial court framing all foreign relations as submission and tribute paying. Tibetans learned quickly to master Maoist and contemporary CCP rhetorics: Their survival depended on it.

The Tibetan angle of this trilingual decoder is a fresh voice, from Tibet’s global South experience of China’s world-making hauteur.

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Tsering Tsomo is director of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, which worked on developing the Decoding CCP website. Her email is director@tchrd.org.

Lessons from Tibet for COP15 biodiversity conference

By Palmo Tenzin, ICT Germany
Palmo Tenzin is the Advocacy and Research Officer at the International Campaign for Tibet in Germany, where she primarily focuses on advocating for Tibet at United Nations institutions. Palmo has an academic background in Sinology and is an experienced policy officer.

COP15

This week, countries are meeting virtually to open the first sessions of the COP15 conference on biodiversity in Kunming, People’s Republic of China. This conference is significant, as it will finalize the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework—a new ambitious plan to halt and reverse the loss of the planet’s plants, animals and ecosystems.[1]

This year’s biodiversity conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity is split into two sessions. The first session is currently underway in Kunming and is a virtual, largely ceremonial event which will culminate in a “Kunming Declaration.” The second session is where the key negotiations will play out and will be an in-person meeting from April 25 to May 8, 2022. The location of the meeting has yet to be confirmed.

Why is COP15 so important?

The new Global Biodiversity Framework is not only an opportunity to set ambitious targets to halt and reverse biodiversity loss, it is also an opportunity to shape a binding vision with a compliance mechanism in global environmental management—a first in the environmental space. The GBF can be a new mechanism that can institutionalize and operationalize human rights principles, such as the rule of law, participatory development, transparent governance, and compliance and accountability in environmental governance. Such success would empower citizens, including Tibetans, to access information, submit complaints and seek effective remedy when states have failed to fulfil their duties with respect to environmental management.

In the long run, the framework can further streamline the ecosystem approach to environmental conservation, which assesses environments according to the biological unit of the ecosystem; treats ecosystem management as a social process that must involve communities; and recognizes the need to balance the conflicting goals of conservation and economic and social interests. This approach is also more consistent with traditional Tibetan conceptions of the environment. For example, as one Tibetan environmental activist noted:[2]

“In the Tibetan approach to environmental protection, all living beings are equal. The [W]estern approach designates certain places as protected and leaves other places out … The livelihood and outlook of local farmers and nomads are central to successful environmental protection.”

Institutionalizing the ecosystem approach also creates future opportunities to address environmental challenges in Tibet that are transboundary (such as river systems, mountains, grasslands), consult and involve local communities and confront the drivers of biodiversity loss (such as urbanization, mining and in-migration).

What role can Tibet play in the biodiversity conversation?

Tibet is a region rich in biodiversity, and the biodiversity challenges facing Tibet offer insights into what is needed to shape a practical, inclusive, and accountable Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

The Tibetan Plateau is characterized by four large ecosystems which contain over 12,000 species of vascular plants, 5,000 species of organisms that grow on plants, 210 species of mammals, 532 species of birds and 115 species of fish.[3] The Tibetan Plateau is also situated at the intersection of three biodiversity hotspots—defined as the earth’s most biologically rich but threatened terrestrial regions.[4] These biodiversity hotspots have at least 1,500 vascular plants not found elsewhere and have 30% or less of its original natural vegetation.[5]

Conserving Tibet’s biodiversity ensures ecosystems are more stable, productive and resilient to environmental stress—including climate change. A biodiverse ecosystem also ensures the healthy provision of ecosystems services[6] and natural resources that at least 1.4 billion people in the Himalayan river basins rely on.

Our research shows that the Tibetan Plateau is increasingly threatened by climate warming, a lack of scientific data, blind infrastructure development and a lack of locally defined responses. One clear example of poor locally-defined responses to environmental challenges has been the creation of protected areas, such as nature reserves. The top-down approach has relocated Tibetan nomads from their grasslands, effectively ignored key areas of biodiversity and dismissed local environmental knowledge at the cost of the wellbeing of both residents and the environment.

With these Tibet-specific lessons in mind, the International Campaign for Tibet presented governments with four recommendations for designing a meaningful, inclusive and effective Global Biodiversity Framework:

  1. Integrate a rights-based approach throughout the framework, as it is empowered people who can enact and sustain environmental interventions
  2. Institute strong transparency and accountability measures
  3. Using the ecosystem approach, directly address the drivers of biodiversity loss
  4. Calibrate the language on protected areas, noting the risks of removing local communities and excluding traditional knowledge.

See a full copy of ICT’s briefing.

Footnotes:
[1] https://ec.europa.eu/environment/news/un-biodiversity-summit-cop-15-phase-one-eu-leading-ambition-new-deal-protect-people-and-planet_en
[2] Kunga Lama (Director), 2010, Shielding the Mountains [Film].
[3] Wu and Feng in Ibid. Zhang et al, 2002, page 138.
[4] Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, 2019, ‘What is a biodiversity hotspot?,’ https://www.cepf.net/our-work/biodiversity-hotspots/hotspots-defined.
[5] Ibid., Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, 2019.
[6] For example, water retention, soil retention, sand storm prevention, and carbon sequestration.

TYLP: Ngawang Sangdrol and the story of all Tibetans

When first joining the 2021 TYLP program as the intern for the program, I expected to have an in depth discovery of my Tibetan cultural heritage and identity, however I did not expect on the last day to have such a memorable breath-taking speaker; that being Ngawang Sangdrol.

At a personal level the story of Ngawang Sangdrol is one which resonates to my innate Tibetan core, a story of suffering which unfortunately resembles too many other stories from the region which Tibetans once roamed so freely on. Now on the eve of the CCP’s 100-year anniversary, the Potala Palace was blanketed in a suffocating red banner of Communism and the necessity for the individual life stories of my Tibetan brothers and sisters to be heard becomes increasingly dire by each hour.

The story of Ngawang Sangdrol is one of advocacy, pain, and the unfortunate lack of justice/rightfulness that is inherent to the Chinese Communist Party. Imprisoned by the Chinese government at the young age of 13, an age at which most American children are barely entering middle school, for peacefully demonstrating against the Chinese occupation of the historically Tibetan land, Ngawang Sangdrol didn’t give up on her Tibetan identity, rather she used her unique situation being inside a Chinese prison to contribute to the Tibetan movement by continuing to protest within prison. This would culminate in a number of significant consequential achievements such as the moving of freedom songs out of Drapchi Prison, and an energetic platform from which she spread her meaningful life story/message to act as a voice for those who may not have the same opportunity.

The ability for an individual to take a scenario so precarious as imprisonment in a Chinese Communist prison and to turn that situation into a vast opportunity to assist her heritage-defined movement demonstrates a level of mental stability and perseverance that is superhuman. Furthermore, as a Tibetan American hearing this level of perseverance, especially when coming from a privileged position as many Tibetan Americans do, is perspective-altering as the relativity/juxtaposition of our situations motivates me to pursue my own ambitions and goals.

For many young Tibetan Americans these stories are generalized with rare circumstances for true personal meaningful stories from Tibetans within Tibet to be shared in a one on one setting, this leads to a greater point as seen throughout societal history the passage of wisdom and knowledge from the older generations to the younger ones is crucial in the sustenance of said society, whether that be due to the relevancy of the pure information in daily life or for the contextual relativity that said knowledge may bring to younger generations struggling for a sense of identity.

For Ngawang Sangdrol and the greater Tibetan society the importance of family is crucial, and through her story we learned the struggles of Tibetan families within Tibet, the choices they must make between freedom and culture and how those choices overlap into the lives their children and their children will leave. Tibetans possess a bright and vibrant culture, one which has thrived in the face of turmoil over the past sixty years, and now as we enter into a new age of Tibetan history, that being the rise of the first generation of Tibetan Americans into adulthood, the importance of the historical anecdotes that the older generations provide us must never be forgotten and must be kept guarded closely to our hearts at all times.

If we lose our history, we lose our identity, and if we lose our identity, we lose Tibet. This is why Ngawang Sangdrol la’s story resonated so heavily, because it is the story of all Tibetans.

By Tenzin Yonten Tsering, TYLP 2021

TYLP, an experience that will stick with me forever

I’ve always struggled with my Tibetan-American identity, never really feeling fully a part of either. Being born in America as the daughter of Tibetan refugees has greatly influenced my worldview and interpretation of my own responsibilities as a Tibetan-American. Unlike my parents and the older generations of Tibetans, I didn’t grow up in a refugee settlement or witness the difficult realities displaced people face. I wouldn’t necessarily say I was given a golden spoon in my mouth, but I was provided a spoon that was crafted from the struggle and resilience that the older generation of Tibetans endured. As a result, I have access to a plethora of opportunities and education that my parents didn’t.

Witnessing the silence of the international community on the Tibet issue has inspired me to pursue a career in international relations and public service. When I found out I had been accepted into the Tibetan Youth Leadership Program, I was excited to connect with other Tibetans and learn more about how I could best contribute to the Tibet movement. Coming from a small Tibetan community in Chicago, the idea of meeting other Tibetan-American youth across the country was one I always wished for. Based on my experience doing college remotely for an entire year, I was hesitant about participating in a virtual program. Despite entering the program with low expectations, I left the TYLP with an unforgettable experience and invaluable connections.

Through TYLP I was able to meet a variety of people in public service and learn about their connection to the Tibet cause. Although the program was only one week, I was able to participate in a US State department simulation, lobby for Tibet, talk to diplomats, and meet the people behind the human rights reports I’ve been quoting for years. Most notably, I met fellow Tibetan-Americans in public service. Considering that I had never met a Tibetan working in public service, I was surprised to meet four incredibly inspiring Tibetan Americans making change and working in the federal government. Their support and willingness to mentor and guide us through a career in public service was empowering.

Even though all of the sessions taught me something new, the first and last sessions were the most memorable. In the first session, Bhuchung Tsering la asked our cohort (something along the lines of) “What is your country?” Every single member of my cohort said “Tibet”. When Bhuchung la pointed out that almost all of the participants were born and raised in America, we all fell silent. Being American comes with its privileges and as TIBETAN AMERICANS we must utilize that privilege to uplift the concerns of those inside Tibet. I left that call with a whole new perspective on the Tibet issue and even some closure to questions I had with my own Tibetan American identity. The last session was equally as impactful. Hearing Ngawang Sangdrol la speak about her life in Lhasa and the lack of basic fundamental rights in Tibet was disheartening. My grandmother was born and raised in Lhasa, so listening to Sangdrol la’s story of resistance was inspiring.

While the long hours staring at a screen wasn’t ideal, the lessons I took away from each session and the people I met through TYLP is an experience that will stick with me forever.

By Sonam Rikha, TYLP 2021

The Feeling of Empowerment: My experience at TYLP

I swapped hours of doing administrative work in front of a computer for hours of intensive and completely eye-opening and insightful workshops, speaker events, and teachings relating to how Tibet fits in U.S politics today and how Tibetan Americans (and Tibetans), like myself, can contribute to the chant and mission statement we all grew up saying . . . how we can contribute to a “Free Tibet!”

I came into this week thinking I would learn the basics – What is going on in Tibet? How does China oppress Tibetans? And what can the U.S and people around the world do to make our chants of “free Tibet” a reality. I did in fact learn all this, but something that is more cliché, and equally important, that I gained through the Tibetan Youth Leadership Program is a sense of belonging, empowerment, and an experience of humbleness. Though I grew up in a large Tibetan community, I felt this new sense of world-wide community that Tibetans are so fortunate to have. Though we do not have a physical piece of Earth that is recognized as our homeland by some people in power, the places we have come to inhabit all makeup another type of home. A home that is built upon the restless and concrete backs of our grandmothers and grandfathers and the generations of Tibetans that came before our own. From the East Coast to the West Coast, and all the land in between, I was able to (virtually) meet truly outstanding Tibetans from across the United States that helped create a sense of this world-wide Tibetan community.

The feeling of empowerment that I felt came to actualization as I listened to Tibetans who worked in the government, and those who served in their own unique ways, give talks about their experiences in public service. This sense of empowerment comes from seeing Tibetan representation within many different career paths, that I (in my personal experience) am not often exposed to. If there is no space on the table, I now have confirmation and evidence that Tibetans can make the space for themselves, and our community, in spaces where important decisions are being made – and in doing so also making positive impacts within different career fields.

My time as a Tibetan Youth Leadership participant also humbled me – I still have so much to learn, not just in terms of the Tibetan language itself, but in terms of personal growth that will allow me to become a version of myself that is equipped to make active change, no matter how small. Though much is still a work in progress, I have learned that this does not mean I cannot contribute to my communities, it is not an exclusive relationship – one can make a positive impact in the world and still be working on oneself. I have learned through the amazing speakers and experiences that ICT was able to provide me with, that I can make important changes and positive impacts in my community while also learning and growing as a person.

I have learned so much about myself, my hopes and goals, and my Tibetan community through this experience provided by ICT. I truly think that any Tibetan who finds themselves wanting to learn and grow in any area of their life, would benefit from this program and the amazing people they will meet and get to learn from through it.

Thank you to all the dedicated and hardworking ICT staff that came together to make this program truly an invaluable experience!

By Tenzin Chodon Dorje, TYLP 2021

A Tibetan American’s experience as a Lodi Gyari Fellow on Capitol Hill

My name is Tenzin Rangdol and I am a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies with concentrations in conflict management and international economics. This summer, I interned for the democratic staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) as a Lodi Gyari Fellow for the International Campaign for Tibet. I was initially drawn to this fellowship to develop a deeper understanding of the American legislative process. Through ICT, I was able to place an internship that met both my desire for congressional experience and my academic interests in international affairs.

During the six-week internship, I worked on a variety of projects that ranged from drafting legislative summaries to conducting research for policy memos and preparing documents for congressional hearings. In my first week, I drafted the official summary for the Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability Act of 2019 (H.R.3190— the BURMA Act of 2019). The BURMA Act of 2019 includes congressional findings on the human rights abuses in Burma, sanctions responsible actors, and authorizes humanitarian assistance to support the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities displaced by conflict in Burma and Bangladesh.

Last semester, I took a class on global forced migration, which explored the challenges of reconciling state sovereignty and human rights in refugee and forced migration policy. Through that class, I learned about the contemporary challenges the Rohingya face in their homeland in Burma and the ecological and infrastructural challenges the government of Bangladesh faces in hosting over 700,000 Rohingya refugees. This first project allowed me to apply my understanding of the refugee crisis to legislation addressing the plight of the Rohingya. This was a very meaningful experience as I not only applied what I learned in class to practice but also helped advance legislation that advocates for some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Throughout the rest of my tenure on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I worked on organizing cosponsors for the bill and helped oversee the introduction of the bill into the committee.

While my first project was within my scope of study, I also worked on several projects in functional and regional portfolios that I did not have previous experience with. The policy memo I wrote on fifth generation (5G) technology required me to conduct research on the technical mechanisms of 5G and the implications of first-mover advantage within the telecommunications sector. In the past, I had read about 5G in relation to Huawei and great power competition between the U.S. and China, but I did not have a thorough understanding of 5G and its distinct features compared to 4G LTE. Similarly, when I was preparing an information sheet on Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Marshall Islands for a congressional staff delegation to the Pacific Islands, I got to learn about a region that I was previously unfamiliar with. These projects allowed me to simultaneously expand my understanding of important issue areas and strengthen my practical skills in research and memo writing.

In addition to the projects I worked on, the opportunity to network on Capitol Hill was an integral component of my internship. In conversation with senior professional staff and policy analysts, I learned about the different avenues through which legislation is conceived and the process of shepherding a bill from inception into law. I learned how staffers were able to champion issue areas they were personally passionate about and the process of devising strategic legislation to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges. On a more personal level, I was able to connect with staff who were alumni of my school and learn about their career trajectories post-graduation. They took a genuine interest in learning about my career goals and offered unique insights into available opportunities within government and beyond.

During my internship in Capitol Hill, I saw first-hand the threads of civic engagement and service that make the United States unique. I witnessed the diversity of the American experience and the important role the United States plays throughout the world. I am confident that the knowledge and experience I gained on the Hill will guide me as I pursue a career in foreign affairs.

By Tenzin Rangdol, member of the first class of Lodi Gyari Fellows

An exciting and productive week of ICT’s Tibetan Youth Leadership Program

Participants of the TYLP 2019 with Mr. Tenzin N. Tethong, VOA Tibetan Director and former Chairman of the Tibetan Cabinet as well as president of ICT, and ICT President Matteo Mecacci.

First, I would like to share a big warm thank you to all the sponsors, supporters and staff members at ICT who made this program possible. Without their endless support, hard work and dedication none of this would have been possible. I am forever grateful for receiving such an amazing opportunity to attend the 2019 Tibetan Youth Leadership Program. This exciting and productive week flew by and I wouldn’t want to trade this experience of being able to meet and interact with extraordinary members in the community who have contributed greatly to the Tibetan issue with any other.

One aspect I enjoyed most about this program was gaining exposure to grasp a better understanding of how the American political system works, in order to help us further enhance our methods on improving the current situation in Tibet. Listening to distinguished professionals working on foreign policy issues and sharing their stories and experience greatly allowed me to put things into perspective as well as see that there is still more that we can do to create change. Another aspect of this program which I appreciated greatly was the fact that we all came together with a shared ambition and purpose in wanting to make an impact for Tibet despite our different backgrounds in field of study.

I believe that it is crucial that in order to be effective leaders in our community one must have both an educated mind and heart. I find it really important that everyone prospers and thrives in whatever field they’re studying so that there is a solid base to start from. I encourage everyone to put their mind to whatever it is that they want to study and do so with great dedication. I found it very captivating how all my fellow participants and I are all studying different things in our universities such as nursing, economics, finance, psychology and etc. because it makes our drive so much more productive and powerful. The fact that we can each contribute something unique to the table makes fighting for our cause so much more engaging.

Attending ICT’s week long Tibetan Youth Leadership Program has truly been a valuable experience. I believe the size of the participants in this program has enabled us to get closer to one another on a deeper level as we are all able to come together. In addition, the fact that we can all come together despite varying fields of study under a common goal on behalf of Tibet makes us stronger than ever. It is extremely important that the younger generation understand that it is our duty as Tibetan Americans to continue to be louder than ever despite all the actions the Chinese regime puts forth to shut us down. It is in our position to utilize what we learn and place matters into our own hands to see real change. Something I will carry on from this program is the everlasting knowledge and friendships I have made with everyone here.

Whether or not you have any interest in politics or International affairs or relations, deep down we are all involved in this as this issue is no longer a foreign issue but a domestic one. Now, it is more important than ever to make our voices heard because the Tibetan issue lies within all of us and so we must educate ourselves to make an impact in politics which plays a huge role in the world and global affairs. Everyone should apply to this program because we can never have too many leaders in our community to lead Tibet to its freedom.

I have gained an insight into the true value of how important education is in being able to advocate for ourselves as well as educating others, Thank you ICT!

By Yeshi Lhakyi, a member of the 2019 Tibetan Youth Leadership Program.

Remembering Tony Rowell

Tony Rowell

Tony Rowell

It is with deepest sorrow that International Campaign For Tibet (ICT) & The Rowell Fund for Tibet announce the passing of Tony (Edward Anthony) Rowell on February 16th, 2019, at the age of 50.

Tony was part of the ICT family since 2003 when he, along with former ICT President John Ackerly, helped develop the Rowell Fund in honor of his late father Galen Rowell, a famed photographer and mountaineer, who was an avid supporter of the Tibetan cause. Tony became very instrumental in the success of the Rowell Fund over the years. Following in his father’s footsteps, Tony traveled to Tibet in August 2004 with National Geographic Expeditions, and has donated his photos from the trip to the International Campaign for Tibet.

Named after his Grandfather, Tony was the second child of Galen Rowell and entered this world on August 8th, 1968. (Tony’s older sister, Nicole Rowell Ryan, also a member of The Rowell Fund Advisory Board, passed away last year at the age of 54.) With Galen’s adventures, the Rowell family were always on the road heading in every direction with many summers spent in Yosemite Valley, California.

One of our favorite memories with Tony is of climbing Oregon’s tallest peak, Mount Hood. A passionate photographer, Tony documented the ascent with many pictures that left us very impressed with his talents. Tony was also an accomplished astrophotographer as well. Tony was always intrigued with space and began photographing earth-based subjects with a galactic background. His pioneering work in this field eventually led him to author his spectacular book Sierra Starlight. Tony’s photography adventures took him from the Arctic Circle to the mountains of Tibet.

Tony is preceded in death by his Father Galen, Mother Carol and his sister Nicole. Tony is survived by his two nephews Forrest Avery Ryan and Colby Dustin Ryan. Last year, Tony’s eldest nephew Forrest Ryan joined the Board of the Rowell Fund for Tibet, continuing the family’s legacy to help Tibetans safeguard their culture and traditions.

Tony will always be remembered for his kind and generous heart and big smile. He made friends everywhere he went and will be greatly missed by so many that knew and loved him. As fellow Rowell Fund Board member Conrad Anker wrote, “Tony was a joy to be with and was always a reminder of his direct connection to his father.” John Ackerly summed it up well by stating “Tony was a great advocate for Tibet and the Rowell Fund for Tibet, which he helped to co-found. Galen shot his photos quickly during the mountain light, in the early morning and late afternoon, while Tony had the patience to leave the shutter open for minutes or hours, capturing the distant stars and pondering the universe. Like meteors, they both came and went far too quickly.”

By John Jancik & Terri Baker, The Rowell Fund For Tibet

In Memoriam – Nicole Rowell Ryan

Terri Baker and John Jancik

Nicole and her husband Ray Ryan with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

It is with deepest sorrow that ICT and The Rowell Fund for Tibet announce the passing of Nicole Rowell Ryan on Sunday, April 29th, 2018, at the age of 54.

Nicole, a member of the Rowell Fund Advisory Board, was part of the ICT family since 2003 when she, along with former ICT President John Ackerly, developed the Rowell Fund in honor of her late father Galen Rowell. Galen, a famed photographer and mountaineer, was an avid supporter of the Tibetan cause during his life. Nicole was instrumental in the success of the Rowell Fund over the years.

Her husband, Ray Ryan, remembers her insistence that whoever the grant recipients were, they truly represented the culture of the Tibetan people, and they would help advance an understanding and appreciation of Tibet so that the culture would not fade away and be forgotten. He remembers how passionate she was about the awards being offered.

Nicole’s younger brother, Tony, remembered the many days they both spent with their father in Yosemite National Park while they were growing up – together over countless campfires.

One of our favorite memories of Nicole is sipping wine over a campfire together in Yosemite at the Tibet at Tuolumne fundraiser. She reminisced about her times in the park with family. She spoke with love and pride about her husband and sons. She also spoke about her concern that the beauty and peacefulness of the Tibetan culture would be lost.

Nicole, is survived by her brother Tony Rowell, husband Ray Ryan and sons Forrest and Colby.

A Celebration of Life has been scheduled for Saturday July 7th, 2018 at 4pm at the Amador County, California Fairgrounds.