John N

When principles clash: Tibet, anti-imperialism and the left

The spread of an edited video clip depicting an interaction between the Dalai Lama and a young Indian boy on stage at a recent teaching has provoked intense discussions of cultural differences, children’s rights, and the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. The tenor of the coverage of this clip and the discourse surrounding it has, in turn, been deeply distressing to many Tibetans and Tibet supporters, and activists such as Lhadon Tethong, Jigme Ugen, Dhardon Sharling, Tenzin Pema and Tenzin Tsundue have shared their eloquent thoughts on the issue.

I can’t help but notice that some commenters are using the clip as a pretext to advance unrelated attacks on Tibet, the Dalai Lama and the Tibet movement, though. My colleague Ashwin Verghese covered some aspects of this phenomenon in his recent blog post, but given the way the discussion of the video clip has developed this week I want to take a closer look at one commenter: Boots Riley, the musician and filmmaker. In doing so, I want to examine three of the misleading or false claims he’s advancing and explore where they come from and why they appeal to some people.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I didn’t pick Riley solely because of his relatively large reach. I’ve been a fan of Riley since 2009 when I heard Street Sweeper Social Club, his collaboration with Tom Morello. From there I found The Coup, his other band; their single “The Guillotine” has been a constant refrain for me in light of the political developments in the United States over the last few years. Riley’s film “Sorry to Bother You” was also a subject of some discussion in our office after it came out in 2018.

My intention is therefore not to criticize Riley personally but rather to look at how someone with genuine and heartfelt anti-imperialist and anti-racist sentiment can end up so firmly on the wrong side of this issue.

Distorted history

First, Riley has repeatedly advanced false claims about the social status of Tibetans before the Chinese invasion. It’s hard enough to come up with one word that covers the entirety of the very different systems that existed in different parts of Tibet; the lives of farmers in Tsang and nomadic pastoralists in Chabcha and town-dwellers in Dartsedo took place in vastly different political and social contexts.

As Riley tells it, though, pretty much all Tibetans were serfs. The issue of serfdom has been very thoroughly investigated and researched, and one of Robert Barnett’s chapters in “Authenticating Tibet” summarizes the results of this research:

Franz Michael and Beatrice Miller argued that the less loaded words ‘commoner’ or ‘subject’ are more accurate than the word ‘serf,’ [while] Dieter Schuh (1988) [shows] that in many cases they were not ‘bound to the land’ and so were not technically ‘serfs.’ W.M. Coleman (1998) has pointed out that in practice the Tibetans had more autonomy than appears in the written documents, and that Tibetans could equally well be described as peasants … Other scholars have noted that such social categories, Marxist or otherwise, are in any case rooted in European history and do not match the social system of pre-1951 Tibet, let alone the very different arrangements found among the people of eastern Tibet.

This may seem like splitting hairs; neither subjects nor serfs have the rights they deserve. But when you push a cartoonish claim that all Tibetans were serfs, meaningful criticism of the actual social hierarchy and human rights in Tibet becomes impossible. The real failings of the socioeconomic systems in Tibet—failings which have been critiqued by Tibetans themselves—fall to the wayside as peasants and nomads are transformed into serfs and then, in the most outlandish form, slaves. Who benefits from distorting the historical record in Tibet? It’s not Tibetans, nor is it Riley.

Second, Riley misstates China’s impetus for invading Tibet. In a tweet he claims that China had been pushing Tibet to reform its society prior to the invasion, but in fact Beijing’s rhetorical preoccupation with serfdom began only after the invasion was complete, and after their original justification—freeing Tibet from foreign imperialism—turned out to be untenable given the lack of major Western involvement in Tibet at the time.

There are keen ironies at play here. Ostensibly anti-imperialist Beijing was trying out and discarding various justifications for annexing another country, a classic imperial maneuver Americans will readily recall from the way the George W. Bush administration pivoted from weapons of mass destruction to ‘spreading democracy’ as a justification for the war in Iraq after finding that Saddam Hussein had, contrary to their claims, discarded his weapons of mass destruction programs. For their part, the only way Chinese occupiers could find armies of foreign imperialists in Tibet was by looking in a mirror.

Social reform as the impetus for invasion is also a poor fit for China’s actions after the invasion was complete. Instead of removing the Dalai Lama and addressing the conditions of Tibetan workers, Beijing gave the Dalai Lama and other senior clerical and aristocratic figures important positions in the new bureaucracy they established—a strange promotion to give someone they now claim was so greatly abusive.

In fact, it seems to be that the only major constituency Beijing was able to develop in Tibet during their first decade in power was among the top echelon of society itself, where some nobles and senior monks were swayed by China’s promises of preserving the status quo and a constant flow of silver. This, in turn, provoked derision and anger from common Tibetans who saw them as collaborators with an occupying force. Khenchung Sonam Gyaltsen, a monk official and to my knowledge the first official beaten to death by the Tibetan masses during the era of Chinese rule, was targeted not because of any social abuses but rather because of his cooperation with Chinese authorities.

Researchers like Benno Weiner and the Chinese writer Liu Xiaoyuan have documented how Beijing quickly alienated Tibetans, with policies formulated by Chinese leaders who had no understanding of Tibet’s culture and society – and little interest in learning. Who benefits from trying to recontextualize an imperial annexation into a war of liberation? Again, it’s not Tibetans, nor is it Riley.

Third, Riley misleadingly portrays Tibetan armed resistance as the result of CIA covert action. It’s well-known that the CIA provided arms and training to some Tibetan guerillas, but Riley’s claim elides the fact that grassroots Tibetan uprisings against Chinese rule in Tibet and the development of a unified resistance movement predated CIA involvement, which was fairly limited in scope. To attribute Tibetan armed resistance primarily to the CIA only serves to fundamentally misrepresent the nature of this resistance. Beijing would have you believe that lamas and aristocrats and CIA agents forced common Tibetans to take up arms, but there’s plenty of evidence that on the contrary many common Tibetans were in fact deeply frustrated that much of the ruling class seemed paralyzed by – or perhaps even permissive of – China’s invasion.

Tibetan guerillas

Tibetan guerillas display captured Chinese weaponry.

By late 1955 Tibetans in eastern Tibet had begun planning, without any support from the Tibetan government in Lhasa or any foreign power, to rise up against Beijing’s increasingly abusive rule. By 1956 fighting was widespread across Kham, and in 1958 local uprisings in northern Tibet—again, fueled by popular resistance to Chinese rule and without any assistance from outside parties—were put down with extreme bloodshed by Chinese authorities. The formation of Chushi Gangdruk, the unified resistance army, took place in summer 1958.

In contrast to the underground organizations and mass uprisings led by the Tibetans themselves, the CIA involvement began by training a half dozen guerillas in how to use radios, small arms and guerilla tactics. Although the numbers grew later and America continued to supply them with arms for some time to come, the great popular uprisings against Chinese rule in 1956, 1958 and 1959 were all started and sustained by Tibetans, mostly or entirely with weapons they had purchased themselves or stolen from Tibetan military bases.

If Riley were to ask Tibetans, he would find that there are a wide range of opinions about the CIA’s involvement, and plenty of them are guided by anti-imperialism. Some people are grateful for the supplies, which were put to use including during the Dalai Lama’s flight to India, but many other Tibetans are frustrated that the CIA gave the Tibetans just enough to irritate China but not enough to expel it, spending Tibetan lives in the process. In the words of Gyalo Thondup, one of the chief Tibetan interlocutors with the CIA:

For the twenty-five thousand resistance fighters on the ground in Lhokha, the CIA supplied about seven hundred guns. For the five thousand fighters active in Amdo, the CIA dropped maybe five or six hundred rifles. An area with two thousand fighters got maybe three hundred or four hundred … Had I understood how paltry the CIA’s support would be, I would never have sent those young men for training. Mao was not the only one to cheat the Tibetans. The CIA did, too.

If Riley wants to critique the CIA’s involvement in Tibet, there’s his angle – and straight from the mouth of a Tibetan. But accepting Gyalo Thondup’s perspective would require acknowledging widespread popular opposition to Chinese rule in Tibet, something he is conspicuously unwilling to do. Riley is clear that the CIA cheated the Tibetans. Can he admit that Mao did so, too?

When principles clash

I’ve asked who benefits from portraying pre-PRC Tibet as a uniquely abusive society, who benefits from framing the invasion of Tibet as a ‘peaceful liberation,’ and who benefits from depicting Tibetan resistance as something foisted on Tibet by outsiders instead of growing organically from the conditions on the ground. The answer to all three is the same: China.

It should come as no surprise that these narratives were developed and promulgated by the PRC, which has sought for decades to portray the annexation of Tibet in a manner consistent with the self-professed values of a government dedicated to “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and a country which was repeatedly victimized during the colonial era. To borrow one of Riley’s lines from “The Guillotine,” Boots didn’t write out these lies, he’s just quoting them.

Of course the PRC wants to explain their occupation of Tibet as a civilizing mission and a war of liberation. Empires have always sought to justify their looting and plunder as somehow being compatible with their values, and claiming that occupation and domination are actually beneficial for those who have been subjugated is a classic refrain. Similar claims were made about China itself during the Japanese occupation, but I don’t see Riley racing to endorse them.

And of course independent Tibet has to be portrayed as uniquely abusive, because Beijing hopes that every abuse it claims of the old regime—real ones and exaggerated ones and entirely fabricated ones alike—will encourage people who believe in communism and anti-imperialism to allow their support of the former to overrule the latter. For every human rights abuse they’re documented committing in Tibet, Beijing feels the need to present an equal but opposite abuse from the past which they can claim to have stopped.

In reality, Tibet also produced its own iconoclastic thinkers and political figures who leveled serious criticisms against the old systems, people like Gendun Choephel and Phuntsok Wangyal. Their existence is deeply inconvenient for supporters of Chinese imperialism because they show that Tibet had the potential to reform itself from within, a possibility that Beijing cannot acknowledge if it wants to justify Chinese rule in Tibet as a necessity. The idea that an independent Tibet in 2023 would look identical to Tibet in 1949 is completely absurd, but Beijing desperately wants the rest of the world to take it as a given.

Reconciling principles

I was planning to close by encouraging Riley to read about Phuntsok Wangyal, the founder of the Tibetan Communist Party. To my surprise, Phuntsok Wangyal actually came up on Riley’s twitter feed while I was writing, although unfortunately not in a way that accurately reflects his story.

In response to Tibetans begging Riley to consider their perspective on the occupation of their homeland, Riley shared a tweet from Carl Zha, a Chinese podcaster who is a steadfast supporter of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Zha had quoted Phuntsok Wangyal’s early criticism of the Ganden Phodrang government, but there’s much more to his story than that quote might suggest.

Phunwang, as he was known, grew up idolizing the Tibetans who defended their lands from Chinese invaders and became a fervent believer in communism. He pushed for an independent eastern Tibet and later for a socialist revolution in central Tibet, and when the PRC invaded he set aside his Tibetan nationalist ideals to help them overturn the old order. After the invasion Phunwang had outlived his usefulness to the Chinese authorities, however, and he was sentenced to 18 years in solitary confinement in a Chinese prison after warning the Chinese leadership that the actions of one of their officials in Tibet was likely to spark further conflict. With Tibet firmly under Chinese control, they had little need for a homegrown revolutionary who firmly believed in Tibetan rights.

The cruelty Phunwang endured during almost two decades in solitary confinement was handed out not by lamas or Tibetan aristocrats but by the Chinese Communist Party, which turned on him as soon as he displayed signs of being a “local nationalist,” an imperial euphemism if I’ve ever heard one. If even the Tibetans who supported reforms found themselves purged and imprisoned – and Phunwang was not the only one to suffer this fate – it becomes very clear that there’s more to this story than Beijing’s cheery propaganda about “serfs rising up” would suggest.

Perhaps Riley is simply irritated by the Dalai Lama or the existence of his institution. He’s free to cast his judgment, but it’s a mistake to let his opposition to one man blind him to the reality of what Chinese rule has entailed for the Tibetan people. Communism and anti-imperialism are at the center of Boots Riley’s politics, and they sit in contradiction here for Riley and others who hold these values. Attempting to square that circle by praising China’s annexation of a neighboring country is a betrayal of anti-imperialism and an attack on a subjugated people who deserve solidarity.

It’s the customary tendency of imperialists to put forward a claim to someone else’s land, and it’s the duty of anti-imperialists to judge that claim and find it lacking—regardless of whether or not it’s phrased in a way you find pleasing.

Breaking down the barriers: Fulfilling America’s Tibet policy

Between 2002 and 2010, envoys representing the Dalai Lama repeatedly met with Chinese officials in order to find a peaceful solution to the Tibet issue. Since the last round of dialogue, which took place in January 2010, the Chinese side has ignored international calls to resume and conclude the negotiations.

There are multiple ways to view China’s decade-long refusal to return to the negotiating table with the Tibetans. For example, it can be seen as proof of China’s intent to resolve the Tibet issue through repression and forced assimilation instead of dialogue and compromise, as the result of Xi Jinping’s authoritarian outlook, or, within the Tibet movement, as a point of contention between different strategic approaches.

For the American government, this 12-year period without further dialogue should be seen as a failure to achieve one of America’s foreign policy goals. The Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 establishes that it is American policy to promote dialogue without preconditions between Tibetans and the Chinese government and to “explore activities to improve prospects for dialogue, that leads to a negotiated agreement on Tibet.”

The fact that negotiations have not been concluded, and in fact that they have not taken place since 2010, should, therefore, cue an effort to see what more can be done. The American government has consistently taken some opportunities to press China to resume dialogue; see the most recent Report to Congress on Tibet Negotiations for examples. But it is becoming very clear that the current efforts aren’t sufficient to revive the dialogue process. What the United States is doing now isn’t succeeding in bringing China back to the negotiating table, making it incumbent on the government to reevaluate its efforts and find new ways to pursue this policy goal.

The Chinese and Tibetan sides during a previous round of dialogue.

The Congressional-Executive Commission on China’s latest hearing on Tibet examined the barriers to dialogue. ICT’s report on the hearing lays out some of the biggest takeaways, and it can be watched in its entirety here. In brief, the commission heard from Professor Hon-Shiang Lau on the falsehood of China’s historical claim to Tibet, from Tenzin N. Tethong on the Sino-Tibetan dialogue process, from Professor Michael van Walt van Praag on how China’s occupation of Tibet violates international law and from writer/activist (and ICT Board of Directors Member) Ellen Bork on the development of America’s Tibet policy.

Tenzin N. Tethong, Hon-Shiang Lau and Michael van Walt van Praag at the CECC hearing. Eagle-eyed readers might recognize staff members of the International Campaign for Tibet among those seated behind them.

Where the United States can go from here

Considering the facts raised at the hearing, I believe several steps are needed to bring the government’s actions in line with its policy goal of successfully concluding the dialogue process.

First, the United States should do no harm. For years China has been using American statements referring to Tibet as a part of China to undermine America’s policy goals for Tibet; Beijing insists that calling Tibet a part of China—even in a statement urging China to resume negotiations—commits a country to abandoning the Tibetan side. In 2014, for example, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang criticized President Obama for meeting with the Dalai Lama, accusing him of reneging on American’s “commitment of recognizing Tibet to be a part of China.”

The best way to undercut this tactic is to stop referring to Tibet as a part of China. As Professor Lau points out, it isn’t true historically, and as Michael van Walt points out, it isn’t true according to international law. Each time the United States says it, then, it is strengthening China’s hand and weakening Tibet’s case. It’s worth noting that the State Department removed a sentence which called Tibet a part of China from the 2020 Human Rights Report, as Sens. Leahy and Rubio approvingly noted at the time, although it was disappointing to see it reappear in the 2021 Report to Congress on Tibet Negotiations. Congress, meanwhile, has passed legislative language intended to prevent the State Department from recognizing Tibet as a part of China in the absence of a negotiated agreement between China and the Tibetans.

A Ming Dynasty map of China procured by Hon-Shiang Lau shows Chinese territories with shaded backgrounds, while foreign countries such as Japan, Vietnam, and Tibet are shown with white backgrounds.

Second, the United States should draw a clear line on Tibet and the Central Tibetan Administration. Before the Chinese invasion, Tibet was referred to as a country separate from China on multiple occasions by the United States government, and in the years after the invasion, the US continued to do so. Acting Secretary of State James Webb wrote in 1951 that the United States did not consider Tibet a part of China “except to the extent that it is occupied by Chinese Communist forces,” and Congress referred to Tibet as occupied in the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 1992 and 1993.

Beijing has not done anything since then to establish legitimacy for its rule in Tibet, and beyond merely declining to refer to Tibet as a part of China, the United States should not shy away from pointing this out. When the PRC claims that Tibet has been a part of China since ancient times, or refers to Tibet as an internal issue, the United States should be ready to refute both ideas and state unequivocally that Tibet’s future status remains an unresolved question that can only be settled through negotiations with the Tibetan side—which is to say, the Dalai Lama and the leaders of the democratically elected Central Tibetan Administration, who are legitimate representatives of the Tibetan people.

US Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues Uzra Zeya meets with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, home to the Central Tibetan Administration.

Finally, if the current level of pressure on China isn’t sufficient, the United States must adjust accordingly and find ways to increase this pressure. Beijing wants Washington to stop mentioning Tibet or, failing that, to do so either behind closed doors, perfunctorily, or both. Based on the most recent Tibet Negotiations Report it seems that neither President Biden nor Secretary of State Blinken pushed for a resumption of dialogue in private conversations with Chinese leaders; they certainly haven’t done so in public forums with the PRC. This clearly isn’t helping to promote America’s policy goal with Tibet.

Senior government figures should treat China’s refusal to conclude negotiations with the Tibetans like a problem they need to actively solve, not a foregone conclusion or a box to check off in statements. Beijing’s continued absence at the table is not a justification to put America’s policy goals for Tibet aside; it is, in fact, the very reason that the US adopted them in the first place. Reviving dialogue is a challenge that the White House, State Department and Congress must rise to meet.

Breaking down the barriers

As a candidate, Joe Biden promised that “a Biden-Harris administration will stand up for the people of Tibet.” He went on to specifically pledge that his administration would “work with our allies in pressing Beijing to return to direct dialogue with the representatives of the Tibetan people to achieve meaningful autonomy, respect for human rights, and the preservation of Tibet’s environment as well as its unique cultural, linguistic and religious traditions … and step up support for the Tibetan people.”

This promise is rooted in longstanding American policy, and now it is time to translate this policy and this promise into heightened pressure and stronger requests, incentives and engagement with Beijing on Tibet. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Jim McGovern recently promised new legislation designed to “encourage a peaceful resolution to the ultimate status of Tibet,” and the White House must interpret this legislation as a mandate for bolder action to end the occupation of the Land of Snows.

Dalai Lama and CCP celebrate two very different birthdays

On July 1, 2021, the Chinese Communist Party arranged celebrations to mark the occasion of its 100th birthday. Light shows, firework displays and television events took place across the People’s Republic of China, and a mass rally was held at Tiananmen Square. This centenary arrives as the CCP ages up into being one of the longest-running single party dictatorships in human history, a grim milestone that party leaders are determined to extend.

One venue for the CCP’s self-adulation was the front wall of the Potala Palace, an iconic building in Lhasa that has been home to the Dalai Lamas for centuries. Projectors beamed a loop of congratulatory messages in red onto the broad white walls of the ancient structure, including one reading, “I love China.”

“I love China” is projected onto the side of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider the significance of the Potala. The UNESCO World Heritage site has stood at the center of Tibetan civilization for some time, and a Tibetan colleague explained its significance like this:

The Potala Palace is a symbol of the Tibetan nation. In the seventh century AD, Emperor Songtsen Gambo built the Potala Palace. In 1645 AD, the Fifth Dalai Lama presided over the expansion of the Potala Palace. Since then, major religious and political ceremonies have been held here. The Potala Palace has become the winter palace of the Dalai Lamas, and it is the political and religious center of Tibet.

The Potala Palace is the holiest holy place in the hearts of all Tibetans! The main building is divided into two parts: the White Palace and the Red Palace. The White Palace is the place where His Holiness the Dalai Lama lives. It is located in the lower part of the Potala Palace. The White Palace is seven floors high. On the seventh floor, there are two sets of Dalai Lama’s winter residence halls. Because the sun shines all day long here, they are called the East and West Sunlight Halls. The Red Palace is located at the top center of the Potala Palace, and it is composed of various Buddhist temples that house stupas for the Dalai Lamas.

Far from being a convenient blank wall for projecting propaganda, the Potala is imbued with multiple meanings for Tibetans: religious, cultural, historical and national. This raises a question: why the Chinese government would commit an act of sacrilege by splashing their propaganda on a symbol of Tibetan religious and national sentiment, and the home of a man they’ve slandered and kept in exile for decades? In a region that has seen massive popular uprisings and a series of more than 150 self-immolation protests, what is the point of antagonizing the local population?

Perhaps there’s an element of obliviousness to it. The CCP has seriously misread popular sentiment in Tibet before, most famously in 1979 when they asked Tibetans to refrain from throwing rocks at the Dalai Lama’s representatives. Instead, astonished Chinese officials found that the delegation was greeted by throngs of Tibetans simply hoping to get close to someone who was close to the Dalai Lama, leading a party leader to complain that all of China’s attempts to inculcate loyalty to the CCP and aversion to the Dalai Lama had been “no more effective than throwing money into the Lhasa River.”

Maybe the CCP holds a simple feeling of entitlement to use Tibet’s national treasures as they see fit, but we shouldn’t discount the possibility that this was an intentional act of domination; essentially, an occupying power asserting its superiority over a captive population. A Tibetan who was born in Tibet and currently lives in the United States named Tenzin Tashi told me about his reaction to seeing it used as a stage for Chinese propaganda:

For every Tibetan, the Potala Palace symbolizes a unique continuation of Tibetan civilizations for last two thousand years. It also epitomizes the persistent endurance of our national existence through multiple tremulous periods in the history. Given its political and spiritual significance, when I saw it in 2003 it brought tears to my eyes. I could not help being awed by its beauty and glory.

Unfortunately, seeing it covered under the sad illumination of Chinese five star red flag on the 100th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party invoked a strong sense of discomfort and pain. I saw it was an intentional act of disrespect and clear sign of how subordinated Tibetans are under Chinese rule.

Just five days after the CCP turned 100, the Dalai Lama reached the age of 86. World leaders sent well wishes to mark the occasion, but all was quiet in Tibet. Chinese authorities have forbidden the celebration of his birthday, and in 2016 nine Tibetans who organized a small picnic in his honor were arrested and given prison sentences of varying lengths; the longest, given to a monk named Drugdra, was 14 years. He is due to be released sometime shortly before the year 2030. A few years before that, Chinese police opened fire on a crowd that had gathered on the side of a mountain to celebrate, seriously injuring two monks.

Even amid all this repression, though, Tibetans have found ways to quietly celebrate the day. In previous years images have emerged of prayer gatherings at Buddhist monasteries, and this year Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya found this short video of a Tibetan in Lhasa walking through the prayer circuit wearing a coat with “86” stitched onto the back:

If the CCP’s Potala display was a vulgar act of domination, there’s something fitting about the Tibetan response: a peaceful act of dedication to one of their own, a man who is beloved around the world and yet can’t be acknowledged in his own homeland. It also points to the reason why the party would go so far to celebrate itself and to prevent celebrations of the Dalai Lama: fear. Fear that they have no legitimacy underlying their rule of Tibet, and a fear that even after seven decades of rule over Tibet, the time, effort, and money they’ve spent trying to forcibly secure the loyalty of the Tibetan people still may as well have been thrown into the Lhasa river.

Beware the Sixth Tone

Lhagang, Tibet.

A temple outside of Lhagang, Tibet.

Syllables in the Mandarin language all use one of four active tones, or a fifth ‘neutral’ tone. So, what is the sixth tone? Far from being a new linguistic addition to Mandarin, the Sixth Tone is a state-market hybrid news outlet created to spread Communist Party-approved viewpoints with a bit more subtlety than they normally employ. Combined with a web-savvy design, it’s part Ministry of Truth and part

Chinese media pieces on Tibet normally conform to one of a small number of recognizable tones. There are pieces that rage against the so-called Dalai Clique, pieces where Party cadres resolutely broadcast the Chinese government’s positions and slogans, and pieces that crow over purported evidence of progress in Tibet- the ‘happy, dancing Tibetans’ motif that Chinese media outlets have repeated for decades. One long-running problem is that these narratives have little appeal for people who have access to international media; essentially, this style of propaganda only works in a news vacuum.

Enter the Sixth Tone. In an attempt to find something less tonally off-putting for foreigners, the creators of this new site craft pieces that focus on telling personal stories while removing the broader political context that the Communist Party doesn’t like people to hear about. This dynamic is very much evident in an article they published earlier this week about life in Lhagang, a small town in eastern Tibet.

Consistently referring to this Tibetan town by its Chinese name, Tagong, Sixth Tone paints a picture of a town with nomadic roots in flux as the tourism industry reshapes people’s livelihoods. So far, so good; this is certainly a real and timely dilemma faced by many Tibetans. But Sixth Tone writes about the dwindling number of nomads without mentioning heavy-handed government drives to forcibly settle nomads across Tibet. Instead, they present the issue as an apolitical question of one way of life losing its appeal. The author also notes the presence of a picture of the Dalai Lama in a Tibetan home without mentioning government prohibitions on his image, and that Tibetans can be beaten or imprisoned for possessing it. Without this context, the open display of a photograph of the Tibetan spiritual leader may even look like a sign of religious freedom in Tibet, instead of a frequently-risky act of devotion to a man Sixth Tone’s owners in Beijing describes as a ‘wolf in monk’s robes.’

 portrait of the Dalai Lama

A portrait of the Dalai Lama defaced by Chinese police in neighboring Ngaba prefecture, March 2008.

The article touches on lithium mining in Tibet, too, and here the author swerves to avoid mentioning that it was none other than the town of Lhagang that made international headlines last year when Tibetan villagers staged a sit-in protest to demand an end to mining in the area. Chinese authorities responded by dispatching armed police in riot gear. This wasn’t the first protest to take place in Lhagang; in 2008 Tibetans scaled a cellular tower next to the town and flew a Tibetan flag from the top.

Sixth Tone’s snappy content and light touch makes it potentially much more palatable to a foreign audience, an audience that generally dislikes the strident tone of traditional Global Times or Xinhua-style propaganda. We should take note of the way they frame these issues, though. Serious problems created by Communist Party policies are reduced to personal choices, with no mention made of government diktats that force Tibetans to put their safety (and all too often their lives) at risk when they protest poisoned rivers or display photographs of the Dalai Lama. For a publication that claims to “highlight the nuances and complexities of today’s China,” their dedication to glossing over issues and ignoring vital pieces of context seems noteworthy.

China’s Greater Leap Backward

globe illustration

Part of Oliver Munday’s illustration for The Atlantic.

James Fallows’ recent cover article for The Atlantic, entitled “China’s Great Leap Backward,” is an important and timely piece. In it the veteran China writer describes how repression in the PRC has grown under Xi Jinping, and considers the implications for the United States. His article is especially significant because it arrives during a time of potential upheaval for America’s China policy under the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, which has already deviated from long-standing diplomatic precedent by accepting a congratulatory phone call from Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan.

To briefly summarize his points, Fallows notes an increasingly hard line being taken in a number of key areas: communication, where China’s censorship of the internet and press grows ever stricter; civil society, where the Party is turning the screws ever tighter on religious groups, NGOs, and unions; extraterritorial actions, where attempts to enforce Beijing’s will outside the borders of the PRC grow ever bolder; failed reform, where the political climate grows ever darker; anti-foreign sentiment, where foreigners living inside China and foreign companies doing business inside the country are viewed with ever more suspicion; and the Chinese military, which grows ever more aggressive as territorial disputes with a dozen neighboring countries continue to fester.

These are all serious issues, and Fallows lays them out with the care and insight that comes from his long experience with China. Reading the article, though, I couldn’t help but to think that another crucial factor had been omitted: Increasing repression in Tibet and East Turkestan. The way China treats “minority nationalities” serves as an essential indicator of how committed it is to using violence and repression to stay in power. If you want to know how far the Party might go to control Chinese citizens tomorrow, you need only look at what they’re doing to Tibetans and Uyghurs today.

Including the Tibetan and Uyghur experience in his article would only strengthen Fallow’s case, too. Take his first category, communication: As bad as things are in China proper for internet usage and journalism, they are far, far worse in Tibet and East Turkestan. Tibet remains largely closed to foreign journalists; in recent years they’ve been chased out by police and government officials, denied entry, and forced to sign a document promising they wouldn’t try to return. Other journalists successfully reported from Tibet only after entering through subterfuge (in one case incurring subsequent blowback from Chinese embassy officials who harassed the writer in multiple countries), or after bypassing police checkpoints by hiding in the backseat of a car (this happened multiple times). In 2008 foreign journalists in Tibet faced mass expulsion, and since then reporting from inside the Tibet Autonomous Region has been limited to Potemkin tours arranged by the Communist Party.

Chinese snipers

Chinese snipers disappear from their usual positions on Lhasa rooftops when foreign journalists visit the TAR.

On the internet front, too, struggles with finding a good VPN might seem quaint to some people in Tibet and East Turkestan. Chinese authorities have taken to pulling the plug entirely and removing all internet access when they feel the need arises; they did so most famously in East Turkestan. The entire area, which has a population of 22 million, went without internet access for ten months in 2009. The BBC reported that those who needed to get online were forced to travel hundreds of miles to neighboring provinces to do so.

Chinese police raid

Hooded and armed Chinese police raid an internet café in northern Tibet.

The plug has been pulled repeatedly in Tibet as well, inspiring one New Republic writer to visit the Tibetan region of Ngaba to take a look at life behind China’s ‘cyber curtain.’ A few years ago one resident of Tsoe, a city in Gansu’s Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, complained to me about the unpredictability of these outages. The internet would disappear after a protest or before a sensitive date, and the entire area would remain offline for days, or weeks, or months. Beijing may be more comfortable doing this to Tibetans and Uyghurs than to the inhabitants of well-to-do Chinese megacities like Shanghai, but we should be mindful of the fact that they’ve developed these tools, and that they’re willing to use them.

In reviewing the repression of civil society, Fallows mentions restrictions on religious practice and the demolition of churches in China. The flattening of churches is cruel, but today it’s hard to read the word ‘demolition’ without thinking about the campaign of destruction at Larung Gar in Tibet, the largest Buddhist institute in the world. More than 9,000 monks and nuns have been expelled since the demolitions began in late July, according to the latest reports from Radio Free Asia. In broader Tibetan civil society, the case of Tashi Wangchuk is illustrative of how little room non-Chinese grassroots activists are afforded in the PRC: He now faces up to 15 years in prison for his efforts to support the implementation of truly bilingual Tibetan and Chinese education systems in Tibet.

Finally, no account of China’s growing use of extraterritorial repression could be complete without a look at Nepal:

Nepal is a case study in how a rising China has come to exert itself over its neighbors. Landlocked and impoverished, with a chaotic political system and recovering from natural disaster, Nepal has capitulated easily to Beijing’s will — and nowhere has that been more strongly expressed than in the fate of would-be immigrants from Tibet.

Responding to demands from China, the Nepalese have installed heightened security on the border. A phalanx of undercover police and informants now makes it almost impossible for Tibetans to cross into Nepal, except by extraordinary means such as the zipline.

Tibetans already in Nepal — many of them born here — are facing new restrictions on getting refugee certificates, jobs, drivers licenses and even exit visas to leave the country.

In all of these categories, the Party’s political crackdowns are hitting Tibetans and Uyghurs harder and more regularly than the average Zhou in China. The results can be deadly, as in these cases where Tibetans were tortured to death in Chinese prisons over the last few years. Another high-profile case is that of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a beloved Tibetan religious leader who died in custody last year while serving an unjust sentence. Just last week the number of Tibetan self-immolation protests against Chinese rule reached 146 when a man named Tashi Rabten set himself on fire and died. His wife and children were detained and beaten by the police when they asked that his body be returned to the family. The situation in East Turkestan is no better; a Times reporter who visited earlier this year found the region seething with anger under a sustained crackdown. The recent transfer of Communist Party official Chen Quanguo from the Tibet Autonomous Region to East Turkestan is another bad omen; the man distinguished himself by developing and applying innovative new techniques of repression.

Heavily armed police

Heavily armed police, a constant presence in the heart of Lhasa and in towns across Tibet, would be considered a very unusual sight in Chinese-populated regions of the PRC.

Fallows notes that the United States still has the power to shape the realities in which China chooses its future course. It is vitally important for this power to be used to make concrete improvements in the human rights situation in Tibet and East Turkestan. As the next administration shapes a new China policy, prominent writers like James Fallows can play an important role in ensuring that the human rights concerns of Tibetans and Uyghurs aren’t overlooked. He starts his piece with a question: “What if China is going bad?” I might answer that with another question: Looking at how it treats ‘ethnic minorities,’ how can we say that it hasn’t already gone bad?

China: Quashing free expression at home and abroad

Every time I watch the video of Tibetan nomad Runggye Adak going off-script while giving a speech at a major festival in Eastern Tibet, I’m struck by the disconnect between the simple action he took and the enormous consequences that followed. Adak, in full view of thousands of people, said what so many Tibetans think: “If we cannot invite the Dalai Lama home, we will not have freedom of religion and happiness in Tibet.” He went on to call for the 11th Panchen Lama and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche to be freed.

These are extremely common sentiments among Tibetans, but Adak paid a high price for voicing them out loud. After he walked away from the microphone he was seized by Chinese police, and within a month he had been charged with ‘provocation to subvert state power.’ During his trial he defended himself, saying: “I wanted to raise Tibetan concerns and grievances, as there is no outlet for us to do so.” Just the same, he was given 8 years in prison.

With that incident in mind, it was shocking and disappointing to see a co-owner of Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington DC help Chinese agents remove Lhadon Tethong from their store last week. Lhadon, the director of the Tibet Action Institute, had come to an event featuring Chinese State Council Information Office Deputy Director Guo Weimin with the intention of asking him about Tibet. As seen in the video below she started speaking several minutes into his remarks, which were delivered in promotion of Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s book The Governance of China:

Xi Jinping's Book Launch – PART 1:Lhadon Tethong, Director of Tibet Action Institute, and Pema Yoko, Acting Executive…

Posted by Students for a Free Tibet on Thursday, September 17, 2015

Politics & Prose co-owner Bradley Graham, seen here pushing Lhadon out of the store, once wrote in the Washington Post that he’s concerned about the erosion of democratic discourse. Isn’t democratic discourse eroded when a store owner helps silence a Tibetan voice in favor of a state propaganda official from an authoritarian government? The Party has annihilated democratic discourse inside China. Last week they were able to export a small piece of their repression to a bookstore in America’s capital which bills itself as “a forum for discussion addressing the salient ideas of the day.”

While we’re on the subject, are there any salient ideas in Xi’s book? The Atlantic describes it as having “portcullises of dullness” which seem to “forbid readers from entering any further.” The “droning cadences” of Communist Party propaganda feature “familiar abstractions, the insistent buzzwords, and the numbing repetitions.” Xi’s description of the Chinese dream contains “unsettling echoes of 20th-century ethnic nationalism,” a paradise “primarily built for people of a single race.” The Chinese race, naturally- and to be clear, the idea that Tibetans and Uyghurs and Chinese are somehow all Chinese is a rhetorical fig leaf over the racial reality of the People’s Republic of China.

Tibetans inside Tibet run incredible risks whenever they speak their minds. It’s deplorable to see them silenced when they find opportunities to demand answers from Chinese officials outside China- especially when the author of the book is the leader of a police state sustained by the denial of free expression.

Xi Jinping as a Living Buddha

Communist Party officials visiting Beijing for annual meetings shook up the internet and saddled themselves with reams of bad press last week when they harshly attacked the Dalai Lama. That in itself isn’t anything new; even headline-grabbing accusations like claims that the Dalai Lama ‘betrays his country and his religion’ are just new iterations of Beijing’s old themes. What really got people’s attention is the way Party officials claimed ownership and mastery over the Tibetan Buddhist concept of reincarnate lamas: “Decision-making power over the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, and over the end or survival of this lineage, resides in the central government of China,” senior Party official Zhu Weiqun told reporters.


NYT editorial cartoon- Xi Jinping tries to issue spiritual orders to the Dalai Lama.

There’s an obvious absurdity to this claim; Tibet expert Robert Barnett mentioned seeing Zhu’s statement “through the prism of Monty Python.” It might be useful to look at some of the specifics regarding Beijing’s claim though, in order to fully appreciate the absurdity of these ideas.

To begin, the Party has been riled up by comments the Dalai Lama made over the last few years concerning his reincarnation. He has speculated that he may return outside the borders of the People’s Republic of China, or as a girl, or that he may not be reborn at all. He has emphatically repeated that senior Tibetan Buddhist leaders, and the Tibetan people at large, will end up making the final decisions, and in the meantime as long as he remains in good health these matters won’t have to be decided for some time. Hence this reply, delivered by Padma Choling, the Chinese-appointed governor of the Tibet Autonomous Region: “Whether he wants to cease reincarnation or not, this decision is not up to him.”

Here the obvious absurdity reveals itself: if we take the Dalai Lama to be a human manifestation of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, then we can safely say that the decision certainly does lie with him, and not with some department of the Communist Party of China. Padma Choling also asked reporters “if the central government had not approved it, how could he have become the 14th Dalai Lama? He couldn’t.” And yet, he did- because the central government he’s referring to now, established by the Communist Party, didn’t yet exist when the current Dalai Lama was recognized. The central government of China at the time was that of the Republic of China, which has since relocated to Taiwan. It’s worth noting that their involvement was minimal, as well- their representatives arrived after traditional Tibetan methods had been used to confirm the identity of the child, and they merely joined other foreign delegations in attending the enthronement ceremony. The Party would like you to believe that they presided over the ceremony, but historian Tsering Shakya has found no evidence supporting this claim.

Recently the Party has begun insisting that the use of a Qing dynasty relic called the Golden Urn is crucial for recognizing reincarnate lamas. My colleague Pema Wangyal examined the history of the Golden Urn last year, and his findings significantly undermine the Party’s position. The Golden Urn was only involved in the selection of three out of the fourteen Dalai Lamas, and just two of the first ten Panchen Lamas. Notably, the current Dalai Lama was selected without the use of the Golden Urn.

The Communist Party obsession with the Golden Urn has a much deeper flaw, though. As Elliot Sperling points out, the only reason the Golden Urn had any legitimacy in the past is that the emperors of the Qing dynasty practiced Tibetan Buddhism. Emperor Qianlong was acknowledged as an emanation of Manjusri, and he was considered by some to have powers of discernment that might help in the process of searching for reincarnations. Today’s Communist Party leaders have no such faith, and no such acknowledged spiritual roles. The rules of the Communist Party would even appear to make this impossible, as atheism is a must for senior Party leaders.

Even then, the patron-priest relationship that linked the Dalai Lamas to China in the past was formally abrogated by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1913. In the absence of any such arrangement, Beijing would be wise to leave spiritual matters like the recognition of reincarnate lamas to qualified spiritual authorities. This will spare them from the absurdity of documents like State Religious Affairs Bureau Order No. 5, a 2007 Chinese law which says people who plan to be reborn must complete an application and submit it to several government agencies for approval. It’s a law which somehow manages to make a mockery of both the Communist Party’s supposed atheism and the religious institutions of Tibetan Buddhism.

To borrow their words, Zhu Weiqun and Padma Choling have taken an ‘extremely frivolous and disrespectful attitude’ towards this issue, and a good first step towards sorting it all out would be for them to stop intentionally conflating the relationships Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism has had with the Communist Party, the Republic of China, and the Qing dynasty. Tibetan Buddhist leaders like the Dalai Lama are perfectly capable of making their own decisions regarding the future of Tibetan Buddhist institutions, and they should be free to do so without outside interference.

How does one incite ethnic hatred in China?

Imagine a country which is openly denying ethnic minorities the right to check into hotels, and to receive passports. Imagine a country where a rights lawyer from the majority ethnicity calls these kinds of policies ‘ridiculous.’ And finally, imagine a country where the criminal charge of ‘inciting ethnic hatred’ that soon follows is brought against the lawyer for opposing these policies, and not against the government agencies responsible for instituting them.

The lawyer is Pu Zhiqiang, a smart and steadfast man whose commitment to defending rights runs all the way back to his participation in the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement. He has defended high-profile Tibetans, including Karma Samdrup, and Perry Link described his outlook on minorities in the PRC thusly:

In his comments on Uighurs and Tibetans, Pu tries to appreciate how ethnic minorities see things—not ideologically but as practical matters of daily life. He hears about a new regulation ordering that Buddhist temples in Tibet hang portraits of the top Chinese leaders—all Han—and that the stated reason for the move is “to dissipate religious consciousness.” He posts: “Are Han heads insane? Or only the head Hans?”

Pu Zhiqiang

Pu Zhiqiang

The latest word is that Pu rejected the charges as groundless from his cell in a detention center, but it seems unlikely a Party-picked judge will agree- as Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times reminds us, as of 2013 Chinese courts had an acquittal rate of just 0.007%. Jacobs referred to legal experts who say that the issue centers on “China’s party-run judiciary, a system in which the police, prosecutors and judges work together to ensure convictions.” The consequences could be severe for Pu, who would face an 8-year prison term. The evidence presented by the government as proof of his incitement of ethnic hatred comes in the form of a handful of Weibo posts, the equivalent of tweets.

Meanwhile, Tibetans find it difficult to leave the country, and difficult to stay in it as well. Freedom of movement is one of the most basic and fundamental human rights, something enshrined in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (to which China is a signatory) and in the first Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (although it was later removed after the institution of the hukou system). The restrictions on passports, which are implemented in some places by requiring Tibetans to hand in old passports and then denying them new ones en masse, are completely unlike the way the Communist Party treats Chinese people. Domestic travel has become just as difficult, with Tibetans who live outside the Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR] finding it difficult or impossible to visit the TAR, and with Tibetans inside the TAR encountering new restrictions on their movement within their own ‘autonomous’ region. “We can’t accept Tibetans,” one hostel worker told Radio Free Asia. “It’s clearly stated in the police regulations.”

By choosing to charge Pu while they continue the practice of structural discrimination, the Party makes it clear that in their view ‘ethnic hatred’ isn’t incited by those who violate the rights of China’s ethnic minorities, but rather by those who call for these violations to end. It’s a view that reflects the absolutely dominant position that the Chinese hold in the Communist Party, and one that leaves no place for the view of the minorities- a polar opposite to the way Pu viewed the Tibetans and Uyghurs.

Didi Kirsten Tatlow recently wrote from a Chinese elementary school where students are taught mnemonic devices involving bloodthirsty Japanese people, and where parents muse about how “Tibetans are considered inferior and such allegedly inferior people will never lead China.” In Xi Jinping’s China they’re far less likely to get in trouble for ‘inciting ethnic hatred’ for saying something like that than someone else would be for commenting on it.

Beijing should learn From the Scottish Referendum

Scotland and Tibet

Left: Scottish voters line up at a polling station.
Right: Snipers on a Lhasa rooftop.

Following the Scottish independence referendum through state-owned Chinese news outlets, one might have noticed that they struck an apocalyptic tone. Global Times variously referred to it as a “shock,” “a tremor shaking the whole Western system,” a “[fierce] outbreak of secessionism,” “a white knuckle ride,” and a case of a minority “sabotaging” the unity of a country[1]. A Yes vote would “wreck the whole UK,” and make Britain a “second-class nation.” These predictions started out looking foolish, but ended up looking even worse on September 19, when the world awoke to find that Scotland had peaceably voted to remain a part of the UK.

To begin with, the framing of the issue reflected the peculiar narratives crafted by Beijing. One Global Times headline asked if a minority would decide the UK’s fate[2]. But this referendum concerned Scotland first and foremost, and it should be noted that the Scottish are not the minority in Scotland, but are in fact 84% of the population. It seems quite sensible that the Scottish would determine the fate of Scotland, and it’s hard to see how members of the Chinese Communist Party Standing Committee could argue with that; every single one of them, since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, has been ethnically Chinese. The real question is whether or not the UK should be in control of Scotland, and it’s here that we find Beijing’s real objection. If the Scottish can debate and vote on their union with the UK, why shouldn’t the Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongolians, Hong Kongers, and Taiwanese be allowed to do the same today in regards to the PRC?

At times the stories almost seemed to be trying to goad London into overreacting. The Global Times wrote that “liberal practices in the UK might have worked in the past, but now are facing immense uncertainty.” But if we look at the illiberal practices favored by Beijing in responding to perceived threats to their authority- tanks in Tiananmen, missiles aimed at Taiwan, armored personnel carriers driving around Hong Kong, and rule by force in Tibet- and look at the outcomes they’ve fostered, the difference couldn’t be any clearer. On September 18 an astonishing 84.6% voter turnout rendered a democratic decision in which the level of violence never rose above strenuous flag-waving. Contrast this with China, where the Global Times says that “legal, political and moral systems play an effective role” in curbing separatism, but which has been roiled by massive Tibetan protests, harsh crackdowns, and over 130 self-immolations over the last few years. In one revealing news story, one county in Tibet has made so many arrests lately, and anticipates so many more in the future, that they’ve had to enlarge the paramilitary police detention center used to hold Tibetan political prisoners.

It seems that the system China is mainly dependent on force and the threat of violence, while in reality the local legal, political, and moral systems actually did result in peaceful outcome for Scotland. China should find inspiration there instead of deriding it, and allow the minorities of the PRC to freely exercise self-determination in deciding their own futures as well.

Warning – The safety of links to Chinese news sites cannot be guaranteed:
[1] Global Times:
[1] Global Times: