Tibetans largely unaware of protests in Chinese cities or the spark of change

As the world scrutinized the anti-regime and anti-Xi protests in Chinese cities beginning last weekend, Tibetans inside CCP-ruled Tibet remain largely unaware of the events shaping up in China. Tibetans notice the sudden stepping up of restrictions in their lives and an increase in public announcements in their hometowns beginning Nov. 27 but remain puzzled over the reason.

Impact of China protests in Tibet

On the day of protests in Chinese cities, the Office of the Leading Group for Lhasa’s Response to the New Coronavirus Pneumonia Epidemic issued an announcement titled “Notice of Behavior” to Tibetans in Lhasa. While COVID-related public notices are frequently issued, the “Notice of Behavior” dated Nov. 27 is extraordinarily long and comprehensive in laying out the prohibitions and the relevant laws applicable for punishment. The notice carried 44 points on prohibited behaviors with point number 28 warning that “Those who use the novel coronavirus infection pneumonia epidemic to create, spread rumors, incite secession, undermine national unity, or incite subversion of state power, overthrow the socialist system are suspected of and shall be held criminally responsible for violating Article 103, paragraph 2, of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China and Article 105, paragraph 2 of the crime of secession or incitement to subvert state power.”

The “notice of behavior” was backed up with reinforcement of law enforcement. The Jamestown Foundation’s senior fellow Willy Wo-Lap Lam wrote that the party’s Central Military Commission had deployed more People’s Armed Police and soldiers to big cities as well as to Xinjiang and Tibet. However, police and military personnel have been ordered to act with restraint on a selective basis and to minimize the number of arrests of residents or students.”

Deployment of armored vehicles in front of Lhasa’s sacred Jokhang temple (Photo via Radio Free Asia)

A day after protests erupted in Chinese cities, the Party Secretary of “Tibet Autonomous Region,” Wang Junzheng, presiding over a standing committee meeting, issued instructions to prioritize stability and struggle against separatists to safeguard the political security of China.

On Nov. 28, the authorities suspended the religious activities in Kardze Monastery in Sichuan, leaving the monks and the local Tibetans puzzled over the reason. Monks in the monastery could not congregate for their religious offering prayers and local religious Tibetans’ access to the monastery was limited.

Similarly, Tibetans and others in Xining in Qinghai were ordered by the authorities to stay confined to their homes beginning the evening of Nov. 27. While the authorities came for home visits to assess the COVID situation, the public were prohibited from leaving their homes.

Party Secretary, Wang Junzheng, presiding over the standing committee meeting on November 28. (Photo via state media)


Since the loss of lives in the horrific burning of an apartment building in Xinjiang catalyzed the protests in Chinese cities by the students and urban middle class, it is deducible that information travels from the far west to east rapidly. But the reverse is not true, at least in terms of spontaneity in Tibet. The only point of view that travels from China to Tibet nonstop is in the form of propaganda and decrees issued by Zhongnanhai in Beijing and executed on the ground by the party and government cadres.

The protests in Chinese cities are remarkable for their leaderless characteristic and spread throughout China, which was not seen even during the 1989 Tiananmen protest. When the Chinese elite spoke out in unison, the party budged in mollifying its social contract with the Chinese people. COVID restrictions across the Chinese heartland are being eased amidst protest participants being tracked down and digital traces of the protests being erased one person at a time. Despite the party’s show of power, by and large the Chinese people won in this protest.

But what about the Tibetans in Tibet and Uyghurs in Xinjiang or East Turkestan, as the Uyghurs prefer to call their homeland?

Double standards

It is noteworthy that there wasn’t a single concurrent solidarity protest in both Xinjiang and Tibet. It should be noted that while information from the far west travels rapidly to the Chinese heartland in the east, the reverse is not true. This is glaringly clear from the current round of protests in China. Tibetans by and large were unaware of the massive but quickly cooled down protests in China. When asked, a Tibetan in Lhasa told the International Campaign for Tibet, “ I have not heard about the protests in China. I think 95% of the Tibetans would be unaware of the protests in Chinese cities.”

Second, unlike the protests by Chinese in China, protests in Tibet and Xinjiang are perpetually labeled as “separatism” or “extremism” irrespective of their genuine grievances and aspirations. In Tibet, as noted above, the party is ready to crush a nonexistent protest in the name of “anti-separatism” and “stability” while the events were unfolding in the Chinese cities.

Third, in the eyes of the party, the Chinese demands are legitimate but the Tibetan demands would be “separatism” if a concurrent protest sparks off in Tibet. This is true not only from the protests in China this week but also observed during the Chinese migrants’ protest in Lhasa a little over a month ago. Because of the suffocating COVID measures in Lhasa, when the Chinese migrants staged a coordinated and large-scale protest on Oct. 28 to be allowed back to their hometowns, they were on their way home the next day. They exited so quickly that the authorities had a hard time clearing the traffic from Lhasa to China. It must be noted that Tibetans’ participation in the Chinese migrants’ protest in Lhasa was minimal except for a possible few joining them.

Change brewing up

While a horrific fire in Xinjiang catalyzed the protests in China this week with the Chinese venting out their frustration at COVID controls on their lives to the point of uttering “Xi Jinping, step down”, none of the protesters in China shouted “Free Tibet” or “Free Xinjiang.” The Chinese urban middle class and the students could relate their lives under COVID lockdowns to those burned to death in an apartment building under COVID lockdown in the far west. But they still couldn’t empathize with how it feels to live a suffocating and controlled life from day one of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

But that seems to be changing.

Unlike their kin at home, Chinese in solidarity protests in foreign countries, most prominently in the United States, uttered the previously unheard of during Chinese protests even in foreign countries. Some of the protesters shouted the unimaginable “Free Tibet, Free Xinjiang” during their solidarity protests for their compatriots at home.

One may dismiss this as mere symbolism or an “isolated case.” One voice in a country of 1.4 billion people does not change things is what is often argued.

But in a changing China, leaders throughout China’s history of protests and revolutions in the past two centuries have almost all the time carried home a spark lit and ideas sharpened in foreign countries. It might not be different this time round as well thanks to COVID.

On China’s “strategy for governing Tibet in the new era”

Third plenary meeting of the Tenth Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region Committee Communist Party in Lhasa on Nov 16, 2022.

In the light of the 20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, time has come for us to brush up on our understanding of Communist jargons and see if we can truly comprehend what the “new era” means to the Tibetan people.

Obviously, whenever a political leader comes out with an initiative there is an interest in knowing what is new about it and how it might impact the people concerned. Given that Tibet is currently under Chinese rule, and as someone interested in the welfare of the Tibetan people, the urge is there to find out what the “new era” will bring to them.

During the 19th Party Congress in 2017, we saw the incorporation of Xi Jinping’s “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” in the Party’s Constitution. During the recent 20th Party Congress, China claimed to have established the “new era.”

In fact, even on Taiwan, the 20th CPC document says, “We have put forward an overall policy framework for resolving the Taiwan question in the new era.”

So, what exactly is new in this “new era”? Although the 20th Party Congress report itself did not expand on what it might mean to the Tibetan people, developments before and after it tries to shed some light.

On November 16, 2022, a meeting of the Communist leaders of the Tibet Autonomous Region in Lhasa saw Party Secretary Wang Junzheng making a reference to the “Party’s strategy for governing Tibet in the new era”.

I had a glimmer of hope that there will be clarity now. However, this is not the first time when a Chinese leader has connected the “new era” to Tibet.

Xi Jinping made the first reference to governing Tibet in the new era during his address at the seventh Tibet Work Forum in August 2020. According to Xinhua, “Xi underlined the need to fully implement the CPC’s policies on governing Tibet for a new era.” The state media reported Xi as telling the meeting,” Efforts must be made to build a new modern socialist Tibet that is united, prosperous, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful”.

Thereafter, in May 2021, in its White Paper “Tibet Since 1951: Liberation, Development and Prosperity” the Chinese Government devoted a whole section to “Embarking on a New Journey in the New Era.” The White Paper said the “four main tasks embodied in the guidelines for governing Tibet – ensuring stability, facilitating development, protecting the eco-environment, and strengthening the frontiers – will be implemented”.

At the recent meeting in Lhasa, Wang expanded on what is meant by governing Tibet in the new era through bringing in more Chinese Communist jargons. He said it meant “anchoring the “four important issues” (四件大事 Sì jiàn dàshì) and “four guarantees”(四个确保 sì gè quèbǎo). Wang added that “The strategic deployment of “Four Creations” (四个创建 sì gè zǒu zài qiánliè) and “Four Advances” (四个走在前列 sì gè zǒu zài qiánliè) is an inevitable requirement for implementing the “two-step” strategic arrangement in the new era and building a new socialist modernized Tibet.”

What these jargons mean in actual practice is not clear to me and so the question remains on what the “new era” entails. Irrespective of the labels, one thing is clear from the “new era”: the Chinese authorities intend to strengthen their hold on all things Tibetan. In 2020, we surmised that the “new era” includes “Sinicization” of Tibetan Buddhism and improving the ability of Chinese Communist Party organizations and members at all levels “to deal with major struggles and prevent major risks.” This being the case, the new era that the Chinese Communist Party is offering to the Tibetan people is not a welcome one.

Speaking of jargons, the November 16 meeting in Lhasa was the third plenary meeting of the Tenth Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region Committee Communist Party. As a matter of curiosity, I looked up the outcome of a similar plenary of the previous Ninth Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region Committee Communist Party held in 2017. The 2017 meeting clearly said, “we must persist in carrying out the anti-separatist struggle in depth” whereas the 2022 meeting did not have any such references. Should one conclude from this that “separatism” — as the Chinese government terms Tibetan struggle for their own rights — is no longer an issue today? Something to ponder.

China’s 20th Party Congress and the Tibetans

As the Chinese Communist Party prepares to begin its 20th National Congress on Oct. 16, 2022, I must note that China has not been able to come up with a credible Tibetan leader since 2014 when Bapa Phuntsog Wangyal Goranangpa, the last such individual, passed away.

The 10th Panchen Lama, Ngapo Ngawang Jigme and Bapa Phuntsog Wangyal were three Tibetans who enjoyed some sort of pan-Tibetan acceptance after the Chinese takeover of Tibet in the post-1959 period. All three of them were met by the first fact-finding delegation that the H.H. the Dalai Lama sent to China and Tibet in 1979 (see photo), and separately by other visiting Tibetan leaders from exile. In a way, the Chinese authorities tried to use them as their vehicle to seek control over the Tibetan people.

Members of the first fact-finding delegation sent by the Dalai Lama with the three Tibetan leaders in Beijing in 1979. Standing (from left) Dharamsala official Phuntsok Tashi Taklha, 10th Panchen Lama, Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, Phuntsog Wangyal Goranangpa, Dharamsala official Thupten Namgyal Juchen. Kneeling (from left) Dharamsala officials Tashi Topgyal and Lobsang Dhargay Phunrab and the Dalai Lama’s brother Lobsang Samten Taklha.

The Panchen Lama endeared himself to the Tibetans, even though he was not initially recognized by the Tibetan government, because of his forthright championing of the cause of the Tibetan people and for his steadfast devotion to the Dalai Lama. His petition on the situation in Tibet addressed to Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai was a direct challenge to the Chinese policies on Tibetans, and according to Isabel Hilton (author of “The Search for the Panchen Lama”), the petition is the “most detailed and informed attack on China’s policies in Tibet that would ever be written.”

On Jan. 23, 1989, the Panchen Lama delivered a speech in Tibet in which he said: “Since liberation, there has certainly been development, but the price paid for this development has been greater than the gains.” Five days later, he passed away mysteriously.

Ngapo was a minister in the Tibetan government before the Chinese takeover, and he led the Tibetan delegation in the talks with the Chinese government in 1951, during which he was made to sign the controversial 17 Point Agreement. He worked within the system thereafter, opting to stay back in Tibet in 1959, and rose up in the Chinese hierarchy.

Many Tibetans accuse Ngapo of not speaking more forthrightly and openly on behalf of the Tibetan people, as the 10th Panchen Lama did. Nevertheless, the two of them worked together to see how they could be of benefit to the Tibetans within the Chinese system, including through the establishment of the Tibet Development Fund to implement developmental projects in Tibetan areas.

Also, Ngapo did correct certain historical distortions that were being promoted by the Chinese government. For example, in a speech in an internal meeting in 1988 he said this on the nature of the 17 Point Agreement: “Such an agreement has never existed between the central government and any other minority regions. We have to consider the special situation in Tibetan history while drafting policies for Tibet in order to realize its long-term stability.”

In 1989, Ngapo corrected the official Communist Chinese report that claimed that in 1940 the then-Chinese envoy, Wu Zhongxin, sent to the Tibetan capital Lhasa for the enthronement of the 14th Dalai Lama, had “presided over” his enthronement, and as evidence showed a photograph of her with the Dalai Lama. Obviously, this was being done to indicate that Tibet was politically subservient to China. However, Ngapo said this in Tibet Daily on Aug. 31, 1989: “Wu Zhongxin’s claim of having presided over the enthronement ceremony on the basis of this photograph is a blatant distortion of historical facts.” Tibetan historians have also written that records show the Chinese envoy did not get any special treatment than what was given to other foreign dignitaries attending the ceremony then. Apparently, the photo was taken not on the day of the ceremony, but a few days after it.

Ngapo passed away in 2009.

Phuntsok Wangyal, or ‘Phunwang,’ is of another category. He did not have the religious background nor the political background of the Panchen Lama and Ngapo. He in fact was a devoted Communist and in the 1950s he was the highest-ranking Tibetan in the Chinese Communist Party, and he accompanied Zhang Guohua, the commander of the 18th Army, to Lhasa. Thus, his involvement with the Chinese Communists resulted in Tibetans regarding him negatively. At the same time, in subsequent years, he did not gain the trust of the Chinese authorities, too, on account of his commitment to the welfare of Tibetans, which made him suspect to them.

While aligning himself with the Chinese government, Phunwang was vocal in urging it to change its Tibet policy. He submitted open letters to Chinese leaders, including Hu Jintao, calling for a review of their attitude toward the Dalai Lama.

He passed away in 2014.

In between and subsequently, the Chinese authorities have tried to cultivate several Tibetan leaders to be their token Tibetan. However, none of them have received the same respect and support among Tibetans as the three mentioned above had gotten. From the Chinese side, despite official claims of equality and ethnic unity, in practice there is a trust deficit when it comes to Tibetans. Thus, very few Tibetans have fit the category of having some presence among Tibetans but also enjoying the Party’s trust.

Ragdi and Phakpalha Gelek Namgyal are two such individuals.

Ragdi is from northern Tibet and assumed leadership positions both in Lhasa and in Beijing. For some years in the 2000s, he was the “Tibetan face” of the Chinese Communist Party. But after the 16th Party Congress, in 2007 and 2008, he had to step away from his party and government positions. He does figure now and then on the political stage, but his influence is not clear.

Phakpalha, who is a reincarnation and head of a major monastery in eastern Tibet, is the longest lasting of the Tibetan leaders. Starting in the 1950s, he has continued to hold positions in Lhasa and Beijing. Currently, he is simultaneously a vice chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the Tibet Autonomous Region People’s Political Consultative Conference. However, these days he is rarely seen in meetings, and one gets to occasionally hear of him when visiting senior Chinese officials call on him while in Lhasa.

So as the Chinese Communist leaders gather in Beijing, they do so with the knowledge that while they have physical control of Tibet, they have not been able to win over the Tibetans even after six decades of occupation. The fact that they do not have even one Tibetan leader who enjoys Tibetan public support and who they can trust completely is a testimony to this. Even the Panchen Lama selected by the Chinese Communist authority has been said to be not totally trusted to be left on his own.

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. 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.


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

Disappearing: China, the Olympics and Tibet

The stories from the sports world defy the norm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enes Kanter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peng Shuai

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing Panchen Lama

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

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

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

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

The Olympics

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

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

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

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

Diplomatic boycott

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

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

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

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

Shigatse nomenklatura

Beijing tightly controls Tibet despite the core leadership of the Chinese Communist Party sitting at large in Zhongnanhai palace thousands of miles away from Tibet. Besides the “inspection tours” to Tibet by the top leaders, the daily governance and control are carried by cadres in an evolving large and complex party-state bureaucracy. For the party, cadre management is essential for managing state-subnational region relations. The personnel allocation and supervision system is a system revolutionary China inherited from Stalin. The nomenklatura are an elite and politically reliable officials approved by the CCP to hold key party and government bureaucratic positions, with great power over those below them, answerable only to those higher in the hierarchy, which is the core of the authoritarian top-down command and control system.[1]

The nomenklatura system, despite its impact on Tibetan and Chinese lives, remains obscure to the wider world. This blog post dives into the newly available data from Shigatse (Chinese: Rikaze) to reveal how party power over personnel warps China’s ability to understand those it rules. This blog post analyzes leadership in the 17 counties and one district in Shigatse prefecture-level city. For analytical purposes, Samdruptse district—the only district in urban Shigatse—is treated as a county.

Based on imperial China’s principle of “law of avoidance” in appointing and rotating regional officials assigned to nonnative jurisdictions, the CCP generally follows the norm in appointing nonnative officials to directly supervise areas under its control for compliance with central directives. Like the imperial authorities, the most trusted nonnative officials with loyalty to the center are given charge of politically restive and highly sensitive posts to co-opt and control the subnational regions.[2] In the 70 years that Beijing has governed Tibet, no Tibetan has been appointed as the party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region. At the county level also, Han Chinese party secretaries predominantly occupy the position.

For the CCP, maintaining control over subnational authorities down to the neighborhood level—in contrast to the imperial court maintaining control up to the county level—is a critical political imperative for regime security. Unlike the late Qing imperial bureaucracy, which had 20,000 officials in the whole of China, the People’s Republic of China has 7 million cadres in the Party and government offices to govern people down to the neighborhood level.[3] The party appoints loyal leaders for effective control and direct supervision of areas for compliance with central directives conflicting with local interests, especially those in Tibet.

Although it is usually kept a secret, the party periodically uses its discretion in publishing its nomenklatura list depending on political and strategic needs. The Chinese state media’s recent open publication of the Soviet-style nomenklatura in Shigatse prefecture-level city is believed to be in response to the need for political communications and a road map among the insiders of the large and complex bureaucracy crucial for sustaining Beijing’s rule.

Map of Shigatse in the “Tibet Autonomous Region”. Image credit: Keithonearth under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Shigatse is big and strategic. Sharing international borders mostly with Nepal, Bhutan and India (the southern nine out of 18 counties share international border), the land mass of Shigatse prefecture-level city (70,271 sq mi) in southwest Tibet approximately corresponds to the combined land mass of Nepal (56,956 sq mi) and Bhutan (14,824 sq mi). Like all territories under the control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Leninist principles of party organization and state-society relations apply to Shigatse as well to maintain the party’s power and the domination of Chinese over Tibetans. Although the nomenklatura system allows for nominal representation of Tibetans in the government bureaucracy, Chinese dominate all the strategic party bodies with real power or are strategically embedded in bureaus where Tibetans are the majority.

Chinese domination of the county party bodies

In China’s party-state bureaucracy, the party bodies are where the power lies and the vital decisions are made. The government in charge of day-to-day work is strictly controlled and guided by the party bodies. In this light, whoever dominates the party bodies, also controls the government implementing the policy decisions.

All the party bodies in Shigatse’s county-level governance are undoubtedly dominated by Han Chinese cadres posted in Tibet. Tibetans whose expertise in local affairs are critical for the Han outsiders in developing policies are represented in positions beneath those held by the Chinese.

The 18 counties in Shigatse are dominated by Han Chinese dispatched to distant Tibet because they have been assessed as loyal to the party. Party secretaries take charge of political affairs and in setting strategies for their counties. Fourteen out of 18 (78%) county-level party secretaries are Chinese except for four Tibetan party secretaries in rural Panam, Ngamring, Rinpung and Khangmar counties. The deputy party secretaries in the 18 counties are also mostly Chinese, accounting for 54.5% of deputy party secretaries. In all counties there are between three to four deputy party secretaries, with one of them holding the “aid Tibet” cadre post. “Aid-Tibet” will be discussed later in this blog. Not only at the provincial, regional or municipal level, the standing committee of the CCP is the most powerful decision-making body where the seat of power lies at the county level as well. The county party standing committees are also disproportionately represented by 110 Chinese accounting for 64% of the membership, and Tibetans accounting for 33% of the total membership. The composition of the party standing committees are important for county governance and therefore carefully selected by the provincial leadership to maintain the party’s power down the hierarchy.

The other party entities in the Shigatse nomenklatura are also dominated by Chinese. Seventy-eight percent of the 18 county secretaries of Commission of Discipline Inspection are Chinese, whereas 58% of the deputy secretaries are Tibetans (usually a Chinese and Tibetan deputy secretary in each county). The directors of the Supervisory Committee are also dominated by Chinese at 78% or 14 out of 18 Directors.

Tibetan majority government and legislative bodies

With the policies and strategic directions set by the county standing committee of the CCP, the government oversees the day-to-day county governance work. In a party-state system, government is subservient to the ruling party. In government entities, Tibetans are well represented. It must be noted that most of the government workers also hold CCP membership, which ensures that the interests of the CCP and power override the Tibetan majority government. The governor of a county also holds the concurrent designation of the county deputy party secretary. Every Tibetan knows the party is in command, and state officials must obey.

The 1984 Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law requires autonomous regions and counties to be represented by the ethnic people who are expected to be intermediaries of the Chinese state with their knowledge of the society from the inside. However, representation alone does not guarantee benevolent governance, especially when the Tibetans as intermediaries of the Chinese state are expected to give top priority to regime stability and power. Tibetans in the county government are essentially intermediaries who know their society from inside and whose mediation is relied upon for state legibility and competency. Article 17 of China’s Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law requires that “the head of an autonomous county shall be a citizen of the nationality exercising regional autonomy in the area concerned … who direct the work of the people’s government at their respective levels.” Seventy-eight percent, or 14 out of 18, county governors in Shigatse are Tibetans, whereas 56%, or 10 out of 18, vice governors are Chinese.

A Tibetan majority government headed by a Tibetan governor at the county level, like the regional level for responsive governance, does not necessarily mean a democratic or locally accountable governance. The Tibetans in the county government act as insiders and intermediaries of the Chinese state by providing their knowledge of the society, relationships, and experience in service of the party-state. Their role is implementing the hardline policies driven by the regional higher-ups, who in turn are guided by their principals in Beijing. Ethnic Tibetan cadres facilitating outsider ethnic Han-developed hardline policies and managing societal backlash against the policies is useful for the party-state regime. This state practice is like imperial China’s personnel management in the Chinese heartland. Ethnic Manchu Qing emperors ruled China and the Chinese by appointing insider and politically trustworthy ethnic Manchus as military viceroys and ethnic Han as governors with their extensive local knowledge and experience for the ethnic Manchu’s empire-state building.[4]

In the two legislative bodies at the county level, Tibetans also account for most of the leadership positions. Because of the constitution’s fundamental principle of democratic centralism, the congresses at the lower-level function as extensions of the central government answerable to the “unified leadership” in Beijing.

In the Chinese political system, legislative bodies hardly initiate political legislation, which is true at the center as well as at the county level. Legislatures enact the will of central leaders. However, legislation on economic affairs is relatively less constrained if the party directives are not violated. Nine (50%) chairmen of the county people’s congresses in Shigatse are Tibetan, whereas 54 (78%) of the vice chairmen are also Tibetan. The chairmen of the county Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference are mostly Tibetans at 72% in 13 out of 18 counties, while the Chinese hold 75% of the vice chairman positions, or 54 out of 69 vice chairmen of the county CPPCC.

The composition of the top leaders of the Shigatse county-level legal system is peculiarly 50% for both Tibetans and Chinese. The composition is one of a perfect balance between Han Chinese and Tibetans, as in the Chinese dualistic notion of yin and yang. However, the perfect balance is only surface-level deep. The US Congressional-Executive Commission on China points out that various internal and external mechanisms limit the ability of China’s judiciary to make independent decisions. For instance, local governments interfere in judicial matters to protect local industries and to shield themselves from liability in administrative lawsuits. Since local governments appoint the judges, control their salaries and court finances, they can influence judicial decisions. The CCP approves the judicial appointments, as well as enforces party discipline in courts. The party also influences the courts through the Political-Legal Committees in the local government that influence judicial cases. The procuratorate and the people’s congresses supervise the work of judges and the courts. The procuratorate’s dual role in prosecuting and supervising the legal process makes the Chinese legal system anything but balanced and free of conflict of interest.

Counterpart assistance policy

A further complexity is added by the aid-Tibet policy that links wealthy Han Chinese cities and provinces with specific counties in Tibet. Some of the cadres sent to operate this “counterpart assistance” program rank high in the nomenklatura, as they are designated as the link for economic construction of Tibet and project implementation on the ground. In every county in Shigatse, an “aid-Tibet” cadre is present at the rank of deputy party secretary in the party hierarchy and deputy vice governor in the government. All the top 36 aid-Tibet cadres in Shigatse are Han Chinese from the eastern edge of mainland China to make Shigatse a political and economic zone favorable for Han migrants. This matters because they are answerable to the wealthy province that appoints them, incentivizing them to skew “aid-Tibet” projects to benefit their principals rather than help Tibetans to benefit from state investment, abandoning a Tibetan-first development strategy.

In 1979, the first “National Border Defense Conference” held by the central committee began the gradual institutionalization of the “counterpart support” policy replacing the arbitrary and random “assistance” and selection of cadres to Tibet in the initial years after Beijing’s occupation of Tibet. With the proposal for the state to increase capital and material input in border and minority areas, pairing of mainland Chinese provinces and municipalities to the “backward and underdeveloped ethnic minority areas” was determined as the direction of development for the “common prosperity” of China.

The third Tibet Work Forum in 1994 was the turning point in officially establishing the basic framework of the counterpart “Aid-Tibet” system replacing the previous national counterpart assistance practice of uniformly selecting cadres from the central government to work. The third Forum decided that 14 provinces and the hinterland would support 44 counties in seven prefectures and cities in Tibet. The Forum launched 62 large-scale projects in the TAR, ushering in large-scale Han migration to Tibet. In theory, they were experts who could teach Tibetans, transferring specialist knowledge to locals. The counterpart “Aid-Tibet” system was further tweaked in the subsequent fourth Tibet Work Forum in 2001 to expand the scope of projects and mainland provincial pairing to Tibet to cover all the remaining counties and districts in the TAR.[5]

Four Chinese provinces and cities and two business enterprises are primarily assigned to “assist” Shigatse. Mainland China’s Shanghai, Shandong province, Heilongjiang province, Jilin province, oil giant Sinopec and Shanghai Baosteel are involved in Shigatse’s development. Each mainland city or province takes charge of a certain number of counties in Shigatse. For example, besides Kashgar in Xinjiang and Sizhou in Yunnan, Shanghai also runs projects in Gyantse county (counterpart Pudong new area), Dhingri county (counterpart Songjiang district), Sakya county (counterpart Xuhui district), Latse county (counterpart Yangpu district) and Dromo county (counterpart Putuo district) in Shigatse. Although four out of the five counties (Dromo county is semi-agricultural and semi-pastoral), 60% of the aid funds and projects are used by Shanghai for development at and below the county level to “modernize” rural Tibet.[6]

The “Rural vitalization strategy for modernized economy” proposed at the 19th National Congress of the CCP in 2017 is now being implemented in full force with self-congratulations on “shaking off poverty” in 2020 as required by the strategy. Officially, the target was met.

Urban-rural integration is the goal in the development blueprint in the recently launched “14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) for National Economic and Social Development and the Long-Range Objectives Through the Year 2035.” Tightening rural governance and urbanizing rural Tibet is expected to further accelerate in the near term by further integration of Tibetan rural areas into China’s formal industries “assisted” by counterpart coastal cities and provinces.

Chinese cadres in Tibet

Securitizing Tibet, and surveilling and controlling the Tibetan population, has long been China’s top priority, with development depicted as the long-term solution. While the cadres in China’s nomenklatura system have long been considered by Beijing as the key to solving China’s Tibet problem, the cadres, and the projects they implement are unpopular among Tibetans.

The second wave of Han cadre migration to Tibet since the 1990s, although competent professionals with outstanding education from China’s top universities, has no interest in joining a conversation with the Tibetan community or learning the Tibetan language to understand the objects of their rule. The cadre turnover rate is high in Tibet, with most spending two to three years before promotion moving back to their native towns, having built up credentials for their career trajectory. Some simply resign and leave unexpectedly, unable to adjust to Tibet’s climate or for non-availability of services they are used to in wealthy urban areas. Altitude sickness is common. Although the first wave of revolutionary cadres was less educated, sent with the mission of being the proletariat class fighters, many were Chinese-Tibetan bilingual and integrated better into Tibetan society.[7]

Some of what we know comes from fieldwork research coming out of Shenzhen University. Taotao Zhao is a specialist on ethnic policy making and implementation processes in China. In her study of the cadres in Tibet, she argues that recruitment, minority cadre arrangement, evaluation and term of office have created obstacles to the cadres’ performance in Tibet. For the non-performance of the cadres, she points out that “the TAR’s current recruitment standard that targets highly professional ethnic Han cadres has attracted personnel with minimal intentions of integrating with the local community. Second, ethnic minority cadres are troubled by an identity crisis in which they are trusted neither by the local population nor their ethnic Han superiors. Third, cadre evaluation in the TAR has overemphasized social stability performance, which often overwhelms the cadres and encourages abuses of power. Fourth, the short term of office encourages cadres to pursue short-term outputs, regardless of policy outcomes, and presents challenges to the continuity of institutionalized policies.”

China’s nomenklatura system has enabled the party to maintain effective control of the state and the party’s power. However, the system does not serve the real interests of the Tibetan public except for the elite few. Yet the party is committed to maintaining the system rather than to institute an alternative system allowing Tibetans to have a say in their own lives. The party’s apparent fear of expanding the Tibetans’ participation in public affairs and decision making shut down any possibility of establishing an alternative structure of public servants. Instituting an independent watchdog to oversee and assess the cadres’ performance is also not an option. A free of conflict-of-interest watchdog would mean the party losing monopoly of its power. What remains on the ground is an institution that is imperfect, and state building continues to be a work in progress.

Shigatse nomenklatura in both Chinese and pinyin, and the percentage calculation of the cadre’s nationality at various designations is available to download here.


[1] John P. Burns, “The Chinese Communist Party’s Nomenklatura System as a Leadership Selection Mechanism: An Evaluation,” in The Chinese Communist Party in Reform (Routledge, 2006).

[2] John Fitzgerald, “Cadre Nation: Territorial Government and the Lessons of Imperial Statecraft in Xi Jinping’s China,” The China Journal 85 (January 1, 2021): 26–48.

[3] Bulman, David J., and Kyle A. Jaros. “Loyalists, Localists, and Legibility: The Calibrated Control of Provincial Leadership Teams in China.” Politics & Society 48, no. 2 (June 2020): 199–234.

[4] Ibid. 208.

[5] Lei Wang and Yunsheng Huang, “Research on the Evolution and Operating Characteristics of Counterpart Assistance Policies: Taking Counterpart Assistance to Tibet as an Example,” Journal of Southwest University for Nationalities (Humanities and Social Sciences Edition), no. 39(05) (February 26, 2018). Chinese language publication.

[6] Wei Lu, Hancun Yu, and Jie Yang, “Analysis of the Association between Aided Talents and Regional Development Based on the Coupling Model: Taking Shanghai’s Counterpart Support to Xigaze, Tibet as an Example,” Rural Economy and Technology 29 (20) (July 21, 2018). Chinese language publication.

[7] Taotao Zhao, “The Cadre System in China’s Ethnic Minority Regions: Particularities and Impact on Local Governance,” Journal of Contemporary China, February 26, 2021, 1–15.

NYTimes editorial calls out “transnational repression” of Tibetans

Imagine that a foreign, totalitarian regime rules your country, subjecting you to extensive surveillance, policing and violence. You manage to escape, but even in exile, you, your children and your children’s children cannot feel safe, because that same regime is spying on and intimidating you from afar, trying to squeeze you back inside its grip.

That’s what many Tibetans face today from the Chinese government. And thanks to recent major media coverage, as well as a major report from a human rights group, it’s getting more of the attention it merits.

On Aug. 28, The New York Times published an editorial warning about “Repression Without Borders.” In it, the Times’ editorial board writes that a “new breed of strongmen,” including Chinese President Xi Jinping, has expanded “the scope, scale and impunity of transnational repression” through intimidating, kidnapping and even assassinating critics in exile communities.

The editorial, which centers around a report from the watchdog group Freedom House, says that the “worst offender” in this emerging trend is China, which has brutally occupied neighboring Tibet for more than 60 years. “Beijing marshals its technological prowess, geopolitical clout and vast security apparatus to hound not only the many Chinese people living abroad but also entire ethnic and religious groups, such as Uyghurs, Tibetans and followers of Falun Gong,” the editorial says.

The report from Freedom House—which recently declared Tibet the least-free country on Earth in a tie with Syria—also led to an opinion essay in The Washington Post earlier this year by the group’s president, Mike Abramowitz, and its director of research strategy, Nate Schenkkan. “China’s relentless persecution of Uighurs and Tibetans beyond its borders is the subject of magazine articles and human rights reports,” the essay notes.

Tibet and Nepal

In its report, Freedom House says Tibetan exiles are “subject to sustained, systematic pressure from the [Chinese Communist Party] party-state that spans from neighboring Nepal to Europe and the United States.”

But, the report points out, the problems begin even before Tibetans escape to exile. As a result of China’s stricter controls over Tibetans’ movement and its upgraded border security, the number of Tibetans who are able to flee their homeland has dwindled. Whereas thousands of Tibetans once successfully completed the dangerous trek to freedom every year, that number dropped all the way down to 23 in 2019.

Traditionally, Tibetans would first cross the border into Nepal, where a “Gentleman’s Agreement” with the United Nations required the Nepali government to give Tibetans safe passage to India, the exile home of the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration.

However, Freedom House notes, China’s pressure has eroded that agreement in recent years. Instead, Nepal signed two agreements with China during a visit by Xi in late 2019. Those agreements could lead to Nepal sending Tibetan border-crossers back to Tibet and to China intervening in matters related to

Tibetans living in Nepal. Fears also remain high that Nepal and China will sign an extradition treaty that could target Tibetans in Nepal for arrest and refoulement.

US, Europe, everywhere

The Freedom House report also says that Tibetans living around the world face “intimidation and espionage by Chinese agents,” just like Uyghurs do. “The same top-shelf spyware used against Uighurs has also been used in campaigns against Tibetans,” the report adds.

The report spotlights last year’s arrest of Baimadajie Angwang, a New York City police officer accused of spying on local Tibetans for the Chinese government. According to the Justice Department, Angwang, who was also a US Army reservist, reported to a handler in the Chinese consulate in New York as he surveilled the Tibetan community in the region and attempted to recruit additional spies from it.

Angwang’s arrest recalled similar instances of alleged spying on Tibetans in other countries. In 2018, Swedish authorities indicted a man named Dorjee Gyantsan, who was allegedly paid to provide personal information about his fellow Tibetans to the Chinese government. A court found Dorjee guilty and sentenced him to 22 months in prison.

In response to Dorjee’s case, a Tibetan in Europe told the International Campaign for Tibet that, “No Tibetan living in Europe or America will be surprised to hear about this sad situation. Everywhere that Tibetans are settled—Brussels, Britain, Zurich or New York—it is known that the Chinese authorities are working behind the scenes, making threats, spreading suspicion and damaging the lives of families back in Tibet related to those in exile.”

Taking action

As a citizen of the United States, I’m outraged at the thought of China bullying vulnerable people in this country. Thankfully, The New York Times editorial board lays out several actions the US could take to push back against China and other perpetrators of transnational repression.

Says the editorial:

Targeted sanctions on authoritarian governments can be effective if used wisely. Training employees of the State and Justice Departments to recognize, understand and address the various incarnations of transnational repression would also bring more attention and resources to fight the problem. Making it easier for refugees to escape repression would be in keeping with the country’s long tradition of offering a safe harbor to persecuted and desperate people.

It is horrible enough that China has turned Tibet, an ancient and inspiring country, into a human rights nightmare. We must not let the Chinese government replicate those rights abuses here. As the Times suggests, I hope the US and its allies will take strong action to prevent China’s transnational repression against Tibetan exiles.

A world heritage in danger: World Heritage Committee reviews Lhasa’s UNESCO-protected cultural heritage

Before and after shots of the Jokhang Temple entrance dated 2014 (left) and May 2020 (right) by Tsering Woeser[1]

This week, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee is meeting online to discuss the management of select UNESCO-protected cultural and natural heritage sites. From Wednesday, July 21, to Friday, July 23, the historic ensemble of the Potala Palace—comprising the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and the Norbulingka area—is scheduled for review.

This year’s review of the historical ensemble of the Potala Palace is of particular interest, as there is mounting evidence of mismanagement and institutional disregard for the cultural heritage of Tibet— both serious threats to what UNESCO terms the “Outstanding Universal Value” of the site and sufficient reason to inscribe the site as “Heritage in Danger.” The review, previously scheduled for 2020, was also postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and is notably being hosted in Fuzhou, China. As a result, a discussion of the Potala site is unlikely due to the host country’s political sensitivities. Despite this limitation, it is important to review the historical management of the site, sustain efforts and continue to pressure the World Heritage Committee to fulfil the mission of the World Heritage Convention and apply the Operational Guidelines, which set out the criteria for effective management of a UNESCO-protected site.

A concerning response to the 2018 Jokhang fire

First, there is still uncertainty about the February 2018 fire that engulfed the Jokhang Temple. Very little information is known about the cause, effects and response to the fire. Although a Reactive Monitoring Mission in 2019 concluded that “the 2018 fire did not affect the whole of the structures, art, or belief system of the Jokhang Temple,”[2] there still remains a high level of secrecy around the incident. Even China’s required 2019 “state of conservation report” about the site was not publicized until the International Campaign for Tibet pressed the UNESCO World Heritage Centre on its absence. A two-page executive summary was subsequently published one month after the required date; it described minimal damage and provided no detail about a restoration or conservation plan.

The “unresolved” pavilions in front of the Jokhang Temple

Second, in 2020, China constructed two new Chinese-style pavilions directly in front of the Jokhang Temple. The construction of the two large pavilions, which stand in stark contrast to the Jokhang Temple, notably began during the first COVID-19 lockdown and only became known to the public on April 28, 2020, already near its completion.

As is customary with World Heritage Committee meetings, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre (WHC) publishes a report on the state of conservation at each site and outlines a draft decision to be considered by the committee. In its report on the historic ensemble of the Potala Palace, the WHC recommends the pavilions be redesigned “to be less visually prominent and less historically confusing.”[3] The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), an organization that provides technical expertise to UNESCO, also “advised that they [the pavilions] have a negative impact on the cultural setting and cultural context of the Jokhang Temple Monastery” and stated “alternative solutions should be considered.”[4]

Despite the expert advice and subsequent correspondence between China and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, the report describes the matter over the newly constructed pavilions as “unresolved,”[5] suggesting China has failed to accept and act on the advice; another cause for serious concern. In fact, the advice by the WHC for the pavilions to be “less visually prominent” and to be “less historically confusing” appears to be a moderately put ask. The “alternative solution,” as implied by ICOMOS, could be their demolition.

Timeline: The construction of the pavilions in front of the Jokhang Temple

Heritage management without boundaries and conservation plans

Third, and perhaps one of the clearest indicators of institutional disregard for heritage management, China has failed to provide the UNESCO World Heritage Centre clearly defined boundaries for the heritage site and buffer zones for 18 years. Similarly, requests for a conservation plan for the site has been outstanding for 14 years. This means that UNESCO does not clearly know the boundaries of the heritage site, nor how its heritage will be managed into the future.

Tourists prioritized above Buddhist worshippers at the Jokhang Temple

Finally, it is important to note that the Jokhang Temple and other components of the Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace are living culture. The buildings are not relics or museums that reflect a culture frozen in time from the past. Local Tibetans as well as pilgrims from across Tibet visit the sacred Jokhang Temple to prostrate, circumambulate, pray, give alms and gather. It is the people, their knowledge and their relationship to the site and their practices that give meaning, value and create a unique culture. However, in the name of COVID-prevention, on May 19, 2021 Chinese authorities introduced new rules to separate pilgrim and tourist visiting times and prioritize tourists.[6] New rules allow Buddhist worshippers to visit the temple between 8 am and 11:30 am (3.5 hours), while tourists may visit between noon and 7:30 pm (7.5 hours). While the WHC conservation report indicated that ICOMOS reviewed pilgrim and tourism management of the Jokhang Temple plaza, it is not clear if this included the May 19 rules.

While some may rejoice that there is at least some transparency and an attempt at accountability in the UNESCO World Heritage management system, the mission to protect cultural heritage (as outlined in the World Heritage Convention) is not genuine if the World Heritage Committee does not act on reliable information about consistent mismanagement. The World Heritage Committee member states should therefore invoke more serious measures, such as consider inscribing the site as a World Heritage in Danger. As per paragraph 179 of the Operational Guidelines,[7] the lack of conservation policy and threatening effects of regional planning projects, as well as significant loss of historical authenticity are at least three criteria that the property satisfies for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

Over the past decades, Lhasa has seen a tremendous loss of Tibetan cultural heritage. If UNESCO and its member states take their role seriously, the longstanding mismanagement of UNESCO-protected sites such as the Jokhang and the surrounding old Town of Lhasa must have consequences. If UNESCO doesn’t act, Lhasa’s UNESCO-protected sites and Tibetan cultural heritage will suffer further irreparable damage.

In the meantime the Chinese government will draw international recognition and prestige from its UNESCO sites and present itself as guardian of Tibetan cultural heritage, which it is not.


[1] Facebook post by Tsering Woeser, 7 May 2020,

[2] United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 21 June 2021, ‘Item 7B of the Provisional Agenda: State of conservation of properties inscribed on the World Heritage List’,, page 19.

[3] Ibid., page 20.

[4] Ibid., page 19.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Radio Free Asia, 18 May 2021, ‘China Cuts Hours for Tibetan Buddhists at Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple to Half That of Tourists’,

[7] World Heritage Centre, July 2012, ‘Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention’, United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation,, paragraph 177-179.

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.

China-US Exchange Foundation: Beijing’s front to bury Tibet in the US

The loudness and shrills of China’s “wolf-warrior” diplomacy today define the belligerent image of China’s foreign diplomacy. The counterproductive nature of that brand of Chinese diplomacy has led President Xi Jinping to recently recalibrate Chinese diplomacy to change the country’s international communication. While “wolf-warrior” diplomacy is loud and clear for all to see, what often goes unnoticed is Beijing’s deeper and more long-term strategy of influencing opinion through an invisible network of influencers. Beijing’s foreign diplomacy runs on twin tracks in not only brashly articulating its demands but also patiently wooing a new generation of Americans to a Sino-centric worldview. Converting Americans’ opinion of Tibet and Tibetans is a vital component of Beijing’s long-term strategy in America.

Changing the public discourse on Tibet

A US-based public relations firm’s decade-old disclosure document reflects Beijing’s strategy to control and shape American public opinion on Tibet. The document unearthed by the US media group Axios last year carried critical information previously unseen by observers, although Beijing’s foreign policy to condition foreign countries to its politically constructed narrative on Tibet is clear throughout the last decade.

Beijing stepped up global influence operations to neutralize the Tibet issue in the quest to whitewash China’s image in the post-2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. A popular uprising in Tibet preceded the Summer Olympics, China’s coming-out party on the global stage.

Neutralizing Tibet

Beijing’s strategy to neutralize the Tibet issue includes both internal and external dimensions to not only hide the reality in Tibet but to control the discourse internationally. Internally repression was not only heightened in Tibet, but Beijing also constructed “copper ramparts, iron wall” and “nets in the sky, traps on the ground” to shut down the borders and communication channels to convert Tibet into a securitized black box hyper-managed by the state. Internationally, Beijing stepped up its influence operations mainly in the West to dominate and shape public opinion toward its politically constructed narrative. The method to achieving the set goal included setting up front organizations, sending government delegations, reinforcing government NGOs, financing and flexing its market power to proactively influence foreign countries and their citizens toward Beijing’s official master narrative. The International Campaign for Tibet observed 55 Chinese delegations, comprising government officials, academics and religious figures, to spread Beijing’s official narrative on Tibet internationally between 2009 to early 2018. The United States was the top destination during the period to alter the public discourse on Tibet through non-public meetings.

The principal front organization

Concurrent to controlling the stories of Tibetans from Tibet, Beijing stepped up its influence operations overseas to drive international public opinion toward its official narrative on Tibet. The establishment of the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF) unmistakably coincides with the year Beijing set out to boost its influence operations worldwide. Established in 2008, CUSEF functions as a front organization in Beijing’s United Front systemic approach for influence mission. Claiming to be an independent organization, the founder and current chairman of the CUSEF, Tung Chee-hua, is also a vice chairperson of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, one of China’s two legislative bodies with the mandate of shepherding everyone in the arms of the Communist Party of China.

The agent

CUSEF’s public relations firm Brown Lloyd James, now rebranded as BLJ worldwide, in its 2011 disclosure revealed its activities as an agent of its foreign principal CUSEF. Mitigating the Tibet issue in the United States is a key component of services for CUSEF.

Brown Lloyd James’ disclosure, as required under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act, carries a comprehensive plan to shape American public opinion. While some of the program activities impact the Tibet issue in the US indirectly, changing American public opinion on Tibet toward Beijing’s narrative is undoubtedly a vital component of the plan.

Acknowledging that Beijing’s rule and injustices in Tibet are unpopular in American public opinion, BLJ Worldwide then claimed that Americans’ opinion of Beijing could be “improved and event[sic] reversed in the public perception, but not overnight.”

Emphasis on American youth

For goal execution, BLJ’s plan targeted high school students, journalists, politicians and academics as the primary target groups, as well the general American public. The American youth demographic receives particular emphasis in BLJ’s strategy to reverse the American public opinion on Tibet. This includes a long-term plan for influencing the next generation of US thought leaders toward Beijing’s narrative on Tibet. One of the methods for shifting the public discourse specified conducting a “long-term educational campaign to inform a younger generation of learners” toward Beijing’s historical narrative on Tibet.

Conducting a CUSEF-sponsored “thorough analysis” of four leading United States high-school textbooks’ coverage and portrayal of issues relating to Tibet and China, BLJ planned to influence editors and publishers of the textbooks for “countering the tide of public discourse” on Tibet.

The emphasis on youth in effect means that BLJ’s foreign principal CUSEF’s American engagement is long term, which may span decades as Chinese stratagems are always known to be.

Journalists to Tibet

For its role in informing the American public, journalists form a key target group to be influenced to steer American public opinion on Tibet toward Beijing’s narrative. In strategic planning for organizing media trips to China, BLJ cites as an example to cherry pick journalists for media trips to Tibet for favorable coverage as a follow-up to a “familiarized” ethnic minorities and “religious diversity” media trip to China. Attaching significance to the next generation of US journalists, partnerships between CUSEF and graduate journalism programs were proposed to arrange “familiarization trips” to China for the US journalism students during their winter and spring breaks.

Despite the long-term nature of the strategic plans, influencing U.S. journalists on Tibet has had little to no success thus far. As the fourth pillar of a vibrant and robust democracy, American journalists have seen through Beijing’s ruse of access through stage-managed media trips to Tibet to influence the journalists. Beijing’s tactic has had some success in influencing journalists from like-minded authoritarian states or the states in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, but those from Western liberal democracies in general have remained elusive to Beijing to date.

Goal of Chinese influence operations

The goal of the Chinese global influence operations is to dominate and bury the story of Tibet. Tibet’s story is one of Chinese military occupation and an ever-escalating repression and securitization in the past seven decades which are glossed over by Beijing as “70 years of peaceful liberation.” The story of Tibet touches humanity that has seen far too many wars, genocides, colonialism, oppression, and mass atrocities in history and continues to see them in the contemporary world. Beijing’s goal is to demolish the human story of Tibet and impose a Chinese state-centric narrative instead. It is a project in progress.