Amala and a future of more democracy

For Western audiences, part of the allure of Tibetan culture is that it often seems like an antidote to the doom loops of the modern world. That’s even the case when it comes to one of the West’s most exalted values: democracy.

In 2011, at the start of a decade that saw cult-of-personality leaders ascend to power in some of the world’s largest democracies, the Dalai Lama, one of the most popular figures on Earth and the public face of Tibetan society, voluntarily relinquished his political power. For the first time, Tibetans, spurred on by His Holiness, elected a president, known as the sikyong, who took over much of the temporal authority of the Dalai Lama (His Holiness remained the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism).

Impressively, Tibetans voted for sikyong in over 30 countries around the globe. Sadly, this did not include Tibet itself, where the occupying Chinese government suffocates democracy of any sort. But in exile, Tibetans, under the Dalai Lama’s leadership, have established not just an elected presidency but also a parliament (the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile) and a judiciary (the Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission). These institutions should look familiar to Americans with our tripartite system of checks and balances.

Problems with democracy

Yet if Tibetans are repeating America’s experiments in democracy, they also seem to be running headlong into some of the same problems—namely partisanship and paralysis. In a thought-provoking blog post from earlier this year, my senior colleague Bhuchung K. Tsering asks, “Is Tibetan democracy in exile failing?” While chronicling the Dalai Lama’s heroic efforts to set up a democratic infrastructure and hailing Tibetan democracy at the grassroots level, Bhuchung la also lays out several of the recent controversies in the Tibetan system of government, including the further postponement of a parliamentary session late last year due to the lack of a quorum.

Democracy, Bhuchung writes, “is a double-edged sword”:

When those participating in it exercise their franchise responsibly, there is progress. But when some participants do not do so, they can lead to the stagnation or, worse, the retrogression of the society. The irony will be that people who fall in either of these categories will stick by their position, asserting that they are exercising their democratic rights.

Aptly, Bhuchung compares the dysfunction in the Tibetan parliament to the chaos in the US Congress last year when House Republicans ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy and failed to agree on his replacement for several weeks. Indeed, it should come as no surprise that Bhuchung’s question about democracy failing applies just as easily to the United States.

But given these failures, I can’t help but wonder about a bigger question: Is democracy really the best option for society?

Worth saving?

In the United States, we hear that our democracy may not survive the next election. Yet if you survey the country, it can be hard to see why it’s worth fighting for in the first place. Across a range of issues, from abortion to gun control to Gaza, the will of the majority is thwarted by contemptuous elected officials alongside unelected jurists and bureaucrats. Policy in the US more often represents the desires of the wealthy than the wishes of the public.

Other pillars of democracy are hollow in today’s America. Protestors exercising their right to free speech are assaulted by militarized police. The mainstream press, supposedly a check on abuses of power, largely echoes the views of the powerful. And as I’ve written before, ordinary Americans lack the economic equality needed for meaningful participation in self-government.

These are all ongoing problems. But let’s not forget that America, the global bastion of freedom, is responsible for genocide, slavery and colonialization. Throughout history, democracies across the world have been guilty of the same. If this is what democracy produces, is it even redeemable?

Undemocratic alternative

Don’t get me wrong: I am very worried about the future of politics in the United States. And I certainly prefer living in America to living in a place like China that lacks even a fig leaf of popular rule. Yet seeing the disasters wrought by our governments, I can’t help but think there has to be a better option out there.

Working at the International Campaign for Tibet for the past six years has brought me closer to one potentially superior alternative: rule by the Dalai Lama. It’s easy to understand why having a leader for life would be horrifying, but what if that leader were His Holiness? I would certainly prefer him to any president the United States has ever had. One of the problems with democracy is that it tends to see the worst people in society—the greediest, most self-obsessed, most morally compromised—running for office or finding puppets to run on their behalf. But under the leadership of the Dalai Lama, you would have one of the world’s best people in power.

Yet the very qualities that make the Dalai Lama such a uniquely qualified leader seem to have informed his decision to give up his authority. In 2011, after he announced his decision to step down from politics, His Holiness acknowledged that he had “received repeated and earnest requests both from within Tibet and outside, to continue to provide political leadership.” But, he added, his decision was based on a wish “to benefit Tibetans in the long run.” “I trust that gradually people will come to understand my intention,” he said, “will support my decision and accordingly let it take effect.”

As an outsider in the Tibetan world, I’ve often wondered if most Tibetans truly want democracy or if they would gladly return to a theocratic system. I’ve asked some Tibetans informally, and, to my slight surprise, they’ve said they think democracy is preferable. One Tibetan friend told me that democracy, for all its flaws, is better than every other form of government.

Amala and democracy

The topic of democracy came up recently when ICT hosted a screening of the documentary “Amala,” followed by a Q&A with the film’s titular subject, Jetsun Pema. The younger sister of the Dalai Lama, she earned the moniker “Amala,” or “mother,” because she served for over four decades as president of the Tibetan Children’s Villages school system in South Asia.

When asked by an audience member about the importance of Tibetan democracy, Amala gave a detailed answer in which she acknowledged some of democracy’s shortcomings. “Democracy is for the people, by the people and with the people,” she said. “That’s something which the leaders tend to forget when they get to the top.”

Nevertheless, Amala said democracy is “very precious.” She spoke about the subject for several minutes; what I found remarkable was how much more deeply she seemed to grasp the meaning of democracy than the average politician does.

Inspiration from Amala

Amala made several observations that all of us who care about good governance would benefit from hearing:

  • Democracy and education: Unsurprisingly for a longtime educator, Amala emphasized the role of education in democracy. “Democracy is something you learn right from school,” she said. “People have to be really well-educated to know what democracy means,” she added. Amala’s comments brought to mind John Dewey, the 20th century American public intellectual who was a fierce advocate for democracy. According to Fordham University’s Nicholas Tampio, Dewey believed that “modern societies can use schools to impart democratic habits in young people from an early age.”
  • Democracy outside the ballot box: Amala also drew from her experience at the Tibetan Children’s Villages schools to show that democracy is more than just a formal procedure for electing politicians. “Even in the institutions like TCV,” she said, “we always followed a democratic way of selecting our principals, selecting our heads of the schools and even selecting the president of the Tibetan Children’s Village.” This process puts to shame the notion that democracy simply means giving people the freedom to elect one of two woeful candidates once every four years. Democracy is also about more than just politics. A healthier democracy would exist in a greater range of spheres of life, including democracy in the workplace, democracy at the local level, democracy in the development and use of technology and more.
  • Freedom and responsibility: Democracy is “freedom for everybody,” Amala said. “But it must be freedom with responsibility. You can’t just take democracy to do as you please. Democracy is something which has to be honored.” Amala’s words are an important message for audiences in the West, where the indulgence of individual freedom has run amok. It’s not an exaggeration to say that people focusing on their rights and ignoring their responsibilities is a big reason why democracy is in crisis today.

The need for more democracy

My favorite writer, Pankaj Mishra, once contrasted the notion of democracy as electoralism (simply electing politicians into office and letting them decide everything from there) or a tyranny of the majority (allowing the largest group in society to trample the needs of all others) with the vision of democracy as “a process of consensus-building, a process of transparent discussion, debate and decision-making.”

“I think what is really true,” Mishra said, “is that we haven’t really had much democracy, and what we need is more democracy.”

For that, Amala’s words are a good starting-off point. All in all, she expressed a vision of democracy that is fuller and deeper than what most of us experience, reminding us that as we look ahead to an uncertain political future, the path forward should not be to turn back on democracy but rather to lean further into it.

Watch Amala’s answer on Tibetan democracy:

Note: After six years at ICT, this will be my final blog post as an employee. Thank you to all of you who have read and commented over the years. I look forward to staying involved in the Tibetan movement. Bod Gyalo! (Victory for Tibet!)

Is Tibetan democracy in exile failing?

On Dec. 21, just four days before its rescheduled session was to begin, the Tibetan Parliament-in Exile announced that it was being postponed again to March, this time due to lack of a quorum.

The initial postponement was made on Sept. 28, 2023, when the Tibetan parliamentary secretariat issued a terse notice saying, “The remaining business of the 6th session of the 17th Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile has been postponed due to the absence of the requisite quorum needed for the session to constitute.” This brought an uncertain close to the latest development in Tibetan diaspora politics that left some observers wondering whether Tibetan democracy in exile was failing?

On Nov. 16, 2023, the parliament made an announcement that it “will reconvene with the remaining business of the general session from 25th to 29th December 2023.” And thereby hangs a tale.

I had then wanted to write about this development looking at the overall state of Tibetan democracy, as the parliament is merely a part of it. As I began to draft something, another development took place in Washington, DC, in the US House of Representatives, on Oct. 3, 2023, leading to the dismissal of then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the inability of the House Republicans to come up with a viable new candidate, which paralyzed the House session. It was only on Oct. 25 that Republicans were able to somehow come up with a choice of a speaker in Representative Mike Johnson. Even now there is only temporary peace in the House, so to say.

The development in Washington, DC made me look at what happened in Dharamsala in relation to the fate of democratic institutions in the world in general. It would not be inaccurate to maintain that democracy can become as strong or as weak as its participants want or permit it to be, whether in one of the oldest democracies like the US, the largest democracy in India or the borderless democracy of the Tibetans in exile.

Exiles have democracy while those in Tibet suffer authoritarianism

Let us put Tibetan democracy in perspective first. In stark contrast to the Tibetans in Tibet who live under an authoritarian regime and are denied their fundamental human rights, leave aside political franchise, the small population of Tibetans in Diaspora has been undergoing a unique experiment in democratic governance at the insistence of H.H. the Dalai Lama. This has been taking place both in the temporary headquarters of Dharamsala in India, as well as in all Tibetan communities in the Indian subcontinent and abroad, adapted to meet the needs of the local situation. Since 2000, the Tibetan leadership at the central level has been shaped by the direct will of the voting populace and been represented by the elected political leader (now known as Sikyong) and the parliamentarians. In short, despite the limitations posed by their situation, Tibetans in exile are better off than our brethren in Tibet.

Tibetan elections

Ven. Gedun Kesang, a 100-year old Tibetan monk residing in Minnesota voting for the Tibetan elections on January 3, 2021. One ballot box is for the Sikyong (President of CTA) elections and the other marked Chithue is for the parliament elections. (Photo: TAFM video)

However, democracy is a double-edged sword. When those participating in it exercise their franchise responsibly, there is progress. But when some participants do not do so, they can lead to the stagnation or, worse, the retrogression of the society. The irony will be that people who fall in either of these categories will stick by their position, asserting that they are exercising their democratic rights.

Secondly, democracy does not operate in a vacuum but has to function within the framework of a given society. It is again up to the participants whether or not they take into consideration the prevailing factors in undertaking their actions. Their decisions have consequences.

Dalai Lama’s intervention resolves a problem

This was most recently apparent since the beginning of the current parliament in 2021. The parliamentarians’ term began in an unusual manner on account of disagreement on the nature of taking their oaths of office. This was because some of them declined to take their oath before the then-speaker pro tempore on account of another development during the previous parliament, which is beyond the scope of this blog post. This led to a four-month impasse and a political vacuum, including the newly elected Sikyong not having any ministerial colleagues in the absence of a parliament to confirm them. In any case, this latest development has added fuel to the ongoing discussions about the perceived degeneration of the Tibetan society in diaspora, leading people to wonder about the future of the precious democracy that we were provided by the Dalai Lama. Even the US government had somehow felt it necessary to intervene, indicating the sense of concern even beyond the Tibetan community. In an unprecedented development, even the US State Department made a public call to the Tibetan parliament to resolve its issues. In a letter in August 2021, the State Department said, “Disputes over parliamentary procedures which are not resolved in a timely manner and in accordance with the rule of law risk undermining the confidence placed by the Tibetan diaspora and the international community in the CTA and TPiE. We urge the elected members to move past their differences and turn to the pressing matters that need their attention.”

Ultimately, unable to reach a solution themselves, the newly elected parliamentarians supplicated to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and his intervention led to the parliament members taking their oath of office in October 2021 and being able to begin their work.

Dawa Tsering addressing the Parliament

Speaker Pro Tempore Dawa Tsering addressing the Parliament after the members resolved their issue of the mode of taking their oath in October 2021. (Photo:

While the developments relating to the Tibetan parliament are certainly concerning and are negatively impacting the democratic process, at the same time they need to be looked at from the broader perspective.

Evolution of democratic governance in exile

Acknowledging the drawbacks of the administrative system in Tibet, the Dalai Lama implemented a series of initiatives to empower the Tibetan people soon after coming into exile. In 1960, His Holiness introduced the concept of representative democracy by asking Tibetans to elect their deputies to a “Commission” (now formally known as the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile) that would have a say in the governance of the Tibetans in exile and also be a preparation for a future democratic Tibet. He then followed it up a few years later with the promulgation of a draft constitution for future Tibet, thus introducing the concept of rule of law of this nature. Much to the consternation of the Tibetan public he mandated that this constitution retain an impeachment clause to be applied to the Dalai Lama, if the need arises. This was a very important message that the Dalai Lama was sending, namely that the institution should be more important than individuals and that no one should be considered above the law.

His Holiness also laid out the infrastructural basis in the form of the Central Tibetan Administration and the various organs under it to implement democratic governance.

Initially, the parliamentarians were virtually embedded in the different offices of the CTA to be part of the direct governance.

In subsequent years, the Dalai Lama took further steps in empowering the Tibetan people; from enfranchising the people to elect the ministers (who were until then appointed by him); to the drafting of a Charter, specifically to govern the Tibetan Diaspora, which included provision for the establishment of the three pillars of democracy, legislative, executive, and the judiciary. The authority of the Tibetan parliament was clarified to separate it from the executive and expanded to highlight its legislative functions becoming the highest policymaking body in the Tibetan administration. In the case of the judiciary, given that the Tibetan Diaspora operates under host countries, the process was adapted to the prevailing situation. Thus the judiciary that was introduced to the Tibetan community is the Tibetan Justice Commission that works under the alternative dispute resolution system as permitted under arbitration laws of any country.

The Dalai Lama’s devolution of his political authority

The Tibetan people were able to embrace these changes, some unwillingly though, as they had remained assured of the Dalai Lama’s role as the “head of state and government.” But a significant change took place in 2011 when the present Dalai Lama not only gave up all his political authority in favor of an elected Tibetan leadership, but also virtually removed the institution of the Dalai Lamas from all future political roles.

When His Holiness had initially broached the idea of his devolution of authority, there were concerns among a section of the Tibetan people about whether we were ready to shoulder the needed responsibility ourselves. His Holiness had then said it was better that the people tread on this path of self-reliance while he was still active as he could then provide guidance if things went astray.

In his announcement of this devolution of authority on March 19, 2011, His Holiness outlined the role of the Dalai Lama institution and the support and reverence he himself was receiving from the people. He continued, “If such a Dalai Lama with an unanimous mandate to lead spiritual affairs abdicates the political authority, it will help sustain our exile administration and make it more progressive and robust.” His Holiness also expressed his optimism: “So, the many political changes that I have made are based on sound reasons and of immediate and ultimate benefit for all of us. In fact, these changes will make our administration more stable and excel its development. So, there is no reason to get disheartened.”

Democratic institutions at the grassroots level

Tibetan democracy should not be seen in the context of the institutions in place in Dharamsala alone. Even while working to resettle the Tibetan refugees in the different settlements in the Indian subcontinent, His Holiness had the foresight to introduce grassroots democracy. I have not done a survey of the situation in all the settlements, but in the first settlement that began in Karnataka, Lugsung Samdubling in Bylakuppe, this empowerment began at the “camp” level, comparable to a village. The Lugsung Samdubling settlement had six such camps composed of 100 houses. Householders (Pachens as they were called) in every 10 houses elected their Chupon (leader of 10) to represent them while the camp as a whole elected two Gyapons (leader of 100) as camp leaders to look after the overall camp affairs. Such camp leaders were also known as Chimi (public person). Given that agriculture was the primary means of earning a livelihood the settlement also had a co-operative society (established to support their economic life) whose affairs were run by a board of directors elected by residents of each of the camps. In the early days when the cooperative society ran all-purpose stores in each of the camps, even the storekeepers were elected by the respective camp residents.

It was the camp leaders, assisted by the Chupons, who looked after the welfare of the residents. They would oversee water supply, undertake spiritual, cultural and social activities for the camp as a whole, be the coordinator between the co-operative society and the residents on agricultural work (including arranging for ploughing schedule and selling of crops). They would also be the mediators for any disputes between residents or even within a family. Since the local post office did not deliver mail to individual houses but deposited all mail with the camp leaders, they also had to serve as delivery persons of the mail. The camp leaders met with the Chupons to discuss issues, and for major matters they would convene a householders’ assembly for decisions.

Growing up in the Lugsung Samdubling settlement, I would see the camp residents eagerly taking part in elections for their Chupons, Gyapons and Board of Directors to the co-operative society. As quite many of the people were illiterate then, symbols like those in the eight auspicious symbols were assigned to candidates, and these would be pasted on the ballot boxes so that people could decide whom to cast their votes for.

Almost all the settlements would have elected camp leaders or other similar positions. This grassroots system of democracy in the settlements continues to this day with a new generation of younger residents taking over the mantle of the camp leaders and other locally elected positions.

Also, at the settlement level, there are co-operative societies that have been set up to assist the settlers in their socio-economic life. Their board of directors are elected by the people in the settlement who also technically own shares in the societies. Following democratization, these societies, which used to be administered by Dharamsala, are now overseen by a Federation of Tibetan Cooperatives (FTCI). FTCI lists 10 such societies under it in different Tibetan communities in India.

Signboard of a store for the Kunpheling Tibetan

Signboard of a store for the Kunpheling Tibetan settlement in Sikkim, northeast India, run by its cooperative society (Photo:

Since the promulgation of the Charter of Tibetans-in-Exile, there is provision for Local Tibetan Assemblies, to be composed of deputies elected by the people in the area to be the watchdog of the work of the settlement office in the region. The Tibetan Parliament website currently lists 40 such local assemblies in the Indian subcontinent as well as in Switzerland.

11th Local Tibetan Assembly of the Tibetan settlement in Leh

11th Local Tibetan Assembly of the Tibetan settlement in Leh, Ladakh after their swearing in on Oct. 30, 2023. (Photo:

Is the Parliament impeding Tibetan democracy?

The parliament is seen as the symbol of Tibetan democracy, as is the case with other democracies. Therefore, when parliamentarians, individually or collectively, become embroiled in controversies, there is an immediate negative impact in the public’s eye. This is the situation that Tibetans are in currently. Our parliamentarians who swear by democracy somehow end up being seen as causing impediments to the governance system. The disappointment is more so with the younger parliamentarians upon whom much faith was placed that they would be different from their “green-brained” (a derogative term for older people who are perceived as not using their brains) older colleagues. If not their action, the rhetoric of some of them does give that impression that they, too, subscribe to the herd mentality. Observing the proceedings of the parliament one cannot but avoid reaching the conclusion that consideration of personalities dominates discussions on substance.

The situation is further complicated by the surge in social media usage in the Tibetan community. To be fair, the rise of social media has had a positive impact in the community in many ways. It is common knowledge how social media, particularly messaging apps (unlike in the West students in India did not have individual access to computers and so had to depend on their mobile phones for their classes), were the lifeline for teachers to impart education to Tibetan children in India during the coronavirus pandemic when physical presence in classes was not possible.

Similarly, a major factor for the widespread craze for the Gorshey (circle dance) on Lhakar (White Wednesday) in the Tibetan community is because of social media that became the vehicle for Tibetans all over the world to impact each other. It did not matter whether they were residing in the remote settlement of Choephelling in Miao in Arunachal Pradesh, Bylakuppe in Karnataka, Gangtok in Sikkim (all in India), Pokhara in Nepal, Toronto in Canada or in Bhutan or any other places where Tibetans reside. This has also resulted in younger Tibetans taking pride in projecting their Tibetanness, whether in wearing Tibetan garments or speaking the language.

Gorshey performances

Tibetans in the remote settlement of Choephelling in Arunachal Pradesh in India, close to the Tibetan border, at one of the Gorshey performances. (Screengrab from a YouTuber: Evergreen ChungChung)

However, there have been negative impacts with the advent of social media, as individual content creators do not need to take into consideration accountability. Thus, issues are amplified and distorted and every development is followed by a blame game with polemical utterances through factional taking of sides.

We should, however, remind ourselves of the initial two-pronged objectives His Holiness the Dalai Lama had after coming into exile: to look after the socio-economic welfare of the Tibetan community and to resolve the Tibetan political problem. Thus, it is a no-brainer to realize that all of us should utilize our democracy to work to solve the Tibetan problem rather than lead to the community’s weakening. This power of democracy that the Tibetans have attained in the post-1959 period has enabled united efforts under His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which have been a source of hope for the Tibetans in Tibet and of concern for the Chinese leadership. Not only do the Chinese officials have concerns, but ironically there is an expectation from the Chinese leadership side that the CTA is capable of much more than what it is doing. As a case in point, way back in 1993, during a secret meeting to discuss their public relations strategy on Tibet, one of the Chinese government officials said, “According to analysis, since the beginning of 80s, the splittist activities of the Dalai Clique [the demeaning Chinese term to refer to the Tibetans in exile under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama] have entered a new cycle. It is still in the process of developing and has (not) yet reached its peak stage.” Thus, the Chinese government is certainly cognizant of the potential of the Central Tibetan Administration. There is the opportunity for all of us to prove to the Chinese authorities that they were right, at least on their expectations about the Tibetan leadership in exile.

In one sense, it is good that problems, like the recent one with the Tibetan parliament, are taking place now while corrective measures can be taken and when we have the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to provide guidance, if all other efforts fail. But we need to think deeply.

The Tibetan people need to change their mindset on their understanding of democracy. Currently, whether it is the parliament or the public, it appears that we are only copying the worst of democratic practices of East and West. Unlike those countries, we Tibetans do not have the luxury of focusing on side issues and neglecting the more fundamental aspect. To the Tibetans in exile, democracy is not the end, but the means to get to the political end, and our recognizing that can pave the way for a smoother running of the Tibetan governance system.

(Re)name it to tame it: China’s new ploy to control Tibet

For almost every summer since 1999, I’ve watched the venerable Wimbledon tennis tournament on TV. Its all-white dress code and prim green lawns have been as constant and reassuring in my life as an antique clock. So I was surprised when, several Wimbledons ago, the tradition-bound event bore a surprising name change.

If I remember right, that change involved Hsieh Su-wei, a regular presence in Wimbledon singles and doubles whom I had seen year after year identified as a player from Taiwan. But on ESPN’s coverage this time, the announcers and the on-screen graphics said Hsieh represented something called “Chinese Taipei.”

At the time, I saw nothing nefarious in any of this. In fact I actually assumed “Chinese Taipei” was a more politically correct way of referring to Hsieh’s homeland. (In those days, I still believed in the myth of the world growing perpetually more inclusive and just.)

Today, as a tenured Tibet activist, I recognize the heavy hand of the Chinese government at work. While I’m not sure exactly why ESPN dropped “Taiwan” from its coverage that year, I’ve learned that Beijing objects to that word because it implies that Taiwan is a country, rather than a province of China.

To be clear, Taiwan is a country. But to assuage China, Taiwanese athletes compete in international events under the name “Chinese Taipei”—with a distinct Chinese Taipei flag to boot.

Tibet is not ‘Xizang’

I recalled that incident from Wimbledon’s grass courts recently as evidence grew of a new, increasing campaign by Beijing to replace the name “Tibet.” Rather than this internationally recognized term, China now wants the rest of the world to use the Chinese-language word “Xizang.”

Over the past few months, Chinese state media articles written in English have increasingly substituted “Xizang” for “Tibet.” The “Tibet Autonomous Region” is now the “Xizang Autonomous Region.” “Tibetan affairs” are now “Xizang affairs.”

Most notably, China’s new white paper on Tibet, released Nov. 10, is titled “[Communist Party of China] Policies on the Governance of Xizang in the New Era: Approach and Achievements.”

Imperfect name

Without a doubt, the right name for any country can vary by time and audience. For example, Taiwan’s leaders previously balked at using “Taiwan,” preferring instead the official title “Republic of China,” which supported their claim to be the legitimate government of China. Today, however, many young people in Taiwan are proud to call themselves Taiwanese and decline to identify as Chinese.

When it comes to Tibet, that word itself is not what Tibetan people use. Instead, Tibetans refer to their country as “Bod”—hence the motto, “Bod Gyalo,” meaning “victory for Tibet.” The term “Tibet” may be a corruption of Bod.

Thus, “Tibet” is not perfect word choice either. But, as far as I can tell, it’s the result of translation issues across languages and peoples, perhaps similar to how Americans say “Spain” instead of “España.”

Erasing Tibet

China’s use of “Xizang,” on the other hand, is a deliberate, political act. It’s a clear example of Beijing trying to “name it to tame it”—or, in this case, rename it to tame it—to make Tibet nominally Chinese in order to further crush any resistance to Chinese rule.

This effort is part of a broader campaign by China to “Sinify” Tibet—meaning to make it Chinese. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, Beijing has sought to replace the Tibetan language with Mandarin inside Tibet. It has ordered Buddhist monks to pledge loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party instead of the Dalai Lama. And it has even separated over 1 million Tibetan children from their families at state-run boarding schools that emphasize Chinese-language education and Chinese academic subjects.

The long-term goal of all these policies is to eliminate Tibetan as a distinct identity in order to eliminate the possibility of unruly Tibetans. The next step in that process is to replace “Tibet” with “Xizang,” a name change that implies that Tibet is not really Tibetan at all; it’s Chinese.

Logic similar to China’s refusal to let Taiwanese athletes use “Taiwan” is also at work. By replacing “Tibet” with a Chinese name, Beijing is trying to undermine the conceptual basis for recognizing Tibet as a separate country: If Tibet has a Chinese name, then it becomes easy to assume Tibet belongs to China.

More than mere words

That gets me back to my Wimbledon experience. When I saw “Taiwan” give way to “Chinese Taipei,” I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to realize the geopolitics at play. I just deferred to what I assumed was the new, proper way to label Taiwan.

I worry many people will react the same way if “Xizang” begins to slip into mainstream discourse. The Chinese government has already been wildly successful in getting foreign journalists, businesses and governments to describe Tibet as part of China, even though Tibet is a historically independent country that China is occupying against international law. Similarly, China seems to have gotten most people to use the name “Xinjiang” instead of “East Turkestan,” the English-language name preferred by Uyghurs.

An even bigger concern looms on the horizon. It’s no secret that once His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama eventually passes away, the Chinese government will try to replace him with its own hand-picked successor.

If that happens, will the average person be informed enough to recognize Beijing’s choice as a fake?

Pushing back

Clearly, Beijing is banking on the answer to that question being “No.” China thinks that its power and influence can force other countries, corporations and media to go along with its selection of a new Dalai Lama—and that the general public will be too distracted and disinterested to notice.

Thankfully, the US government is taking steps that can help prevent that from happening. In 2020, the US enacted the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, a bipartisan law that—among many provisions providing support to the Tibetan people—made it official US policy that only the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhist community can decide his succession. If any Chinese officials try to interfere in that process, the US will sanction them.

The TPSA was a breakthrough in pushing back on China’s manipulations. But there’s more the United States can and must do.

Right now, Congress is considering another bipartisan bill, the Resolve Tibet Act, that will reject China’s lies about Tibet.

Resolve Tibet

The Resolve Tibet Act will pressure China to get back to the negotiating table with Tibetan leaders for the first time since 2010. This dialogue process is the best way to peacefully resolve China’s decades-long occupation of Tibet in a way that serves the long-term interests of both Tibetans and Chinese.

But the bill will also stand up to China’s falsehoods about Tibet. The legislation will empower the Office of the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues to counter Communist Party propaganda about the history of Tibet, the Tibetan people and Tibetan institutions, including that of His Holiness.

The Resolve Tibet Act will also confront China’s misuse of the name “Tibet” in a different way. The Chinese government has long sought to portray the “Tibet Autonomous Region” (which it now calls the “Xizang Autonomous Region”) as the whole of Tibet, even though it spans only about half of Tibet’s historic territory.

Unfortunately, too many outsiders have gone along with China’s deception, casually using the word “Tibet” when they really mean just the Tibet Autonomous Region. But the Resolve Tibet Act will make it clear that Tibet includes not just the TAR but also Tibetan areas that are incorporated in China’s Gansu, Sichuan, Qinghai and Yunnan provinces.

There are many things all of us will have to do to fight back against China’s attempts to rename Tibet. Persuading Congress to pass the Resolve Tibet Act would be a good start.

Learn more about the Resolve Tibet Act.

Talking about Tibet in plain English

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about plain language. As the US government puts it, that’s language “your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it.”

I had the chance to talk with a group of writer friends about this recently. And some of my favorite writers—from crime novelist Dashiell Hammett to film critic Roger Ebert—use a plainspoken style.

I want to share a few ideas about how plain language can help our work on Tibet.

Let me start by saying what plain language is not. It’s not talking down to anyone. It’s not dumbing your message down either.

Yes, it calls for short words and no jargon. But the main goal of plain language is clarity: You want your reader to get what you’re saying without having to work at it.

When it comes to Tibet, that’s important because so few people understand the issue at all. To get them to care, we first have to make sure they can follow what we’re saying.

The politics of plain language

As you can probably tell, I’m trying to use plain language in this blog post. Maybe it’s sounded awkward so far. (That just shows how hard plain writing is, even for a “professional” like me.) But now I must use some less-plain words to talk about one of the more serious parts of this topic.

George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” is like holy scripture when it comes to plain writing. In it, Orwell talks about how “ugly and inaccurate” the English language had become.

This wasn’t due to the passing of time or some random event. Instead, bureaucrats, corporations, lawyers, academics and propagandists changed the language to their own ends, putting it out of reach of ordinary people—just think of the fine print at the bottom of a form, the dense prose of a college text, or the mutterings of the Chinese Communist Party.

This made it impossible for the average person to know what was going on and what most writing even meant.

China covers up the truth

I read “Politics and the English Language” for the first time almost 10 years ago. And one passage I’ve kept going back to since is:

Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

It’s not hard to see how this relates to Tibet.

The Chinese government forces over 1,000 Tibetan nomads off a nature preserve, shoving them into urban encampments where they can no longer live the nomadic lifestyle their families have lived for generations. This is called “high-altitude ecological migration.”

China takes over 1 million Tibetan schoolkids away from their families, arrests and tortures Tibetans for having photos of the Dalai Lama, and installs surveillance cameras in Buddhist prayer wheels. This is called “a new way for world human rights development.”

The US passes a law saying only Tibetan Buddhists can decide what happens with the Dalai Lama’s succession. This is called “foreign interference in China’s internal affairs.”

How to talk plain

I always say that we Tibet supporters are not just fighting (nonviolently) to stop China’s oppression in Tibet. We’re also fighting a messaging war against the Chinese Communist Party.

Lucky for us, communists can’t seem to resist using leaden prose that lands with a thud. But we in the Tibet movement can still step up our game to reach people who don’t know or care what’s happening in Tibet.

Let me share a few tips for speaking and writing in plain English.

  • First, never use a long word where a short one will do. When I was a student, I used a thesaurus to replace short words with longer, fancier ones. Today I do the opposite—and so should you.
  • Use concrete words instead of conceptual ones. Talking about universal human rights or reciprocity makes sense for a lot of audiences. But for most people, talking about China’s prison guards sexually assaulting Tibetan nuns, or China refusing to let American journalists into Tibet, is going to hit harder.
  • Avoid Latinate phrases. In English, Latin-origin words usually sound intellectual and upper-class, like “illuminate” rather than “light,” “terminate” rather than “end” or “sagacious” rather than “wise.” If you can pick between words like these, pick the non-Latin one.
  • Choose verbs over nouns. A “hidden verb” is when you take a verb like “promote” and use its noun form, “promotion.” Rather than say, “Through the promotion of dialogue, we hope to peacefully resolve the Tibet-China conflict,” say, “By promoting dialogue, we hope to resolve the Tibet-China conflict peacefully.”
  • Be positive! Instead of telling someone what they should not do, tell them what they should do. It’s better if I say, “Get rid of jargon” than, “Don’t use jargon.”
  • Say “I” and “you.” This makes what you’re saying feel more personal. On that note, write the way you talk. Use contractions like “it’s” instead of “it is.” Cut out some of the formality.
  • Get organized. I said earlier the main goal of plain language is clarity. That means making it easier for people to read what you put on the page. Write in short paragraphs (and short sentences while you’re at it). Break up your text with subheadings. Use bullet lists, like this one. Most important of all, organize what you say in a way your reader can understand.
  • Write a second draft. To speak in plain language, you have to figure out what you actually want to say. That takes time. You’ll have to write and rewrite to get it right.

Why it matters

These are just some of the many tips for speaking in plain English.

Of course, there are also many exceptions to all these guidelines.

If you’re writing a legal document, for example, it’s possible none of this advice would serve you.

Also, in case this isn’t clear, I’m only talking about speaking in English (and mostly just American English at that). I have no idea if any of this would work for Tibetan or Mandarin or ancient Pali.

I also know that some of you might disagree with what I’ve said in this blog post. That’s fine. As you can see, I myself have broken some of the rules for plain writing in this very piece.

But still, I find plain English hard to deny. Not only is it easier to read, it’s also more urgent and forceful too.

And it serves a higher calling. Because plain language is supposed to be speech everyone can understand, it’s the language of democracy.

And since it avoids euphemisms, legalese and propaganda, plain language makes it easier to get the truth across. That makes a big difference.

As the Dalai Lama says: “We have the power of truth. Chinese Communists have the power of gun. In the long run, power of truth is much stronger than power of gun.”

Next time China lies, Tibet groups will be ready

It wasn’t that long ago that the People’s Republic of China was calling the Dalai Lama a wolf in monk’s robes and his supporters members of the “Dalai Clique.” A phrasing so comical that ICT had t-shirts made that said, “proud member of the Dalai Clique,” and when an ICT staff person had a baby, they were given a onesie with “Newest Member of the Dalai Clique” printed on it.

The events of the past week show how the PRC campaign against the Dalai Lama in the West has reached new levels of sophistication. The PRC knew that an attack on the moral character of His Holiness, which is unimpeachable, would be hard. The fact that the public meeting that the excerpted clip was taken from was available online for more than a month prior to the clip being released shows that this was not some instant reaction to a specific event. An innocent interaction was taken out of context and weaponized against the Dalai Lama. It was planned and methodical.

The Chinese government is obviously much more in tune with the conspiracy theories of the day and how to capitalize on them. Surely they are aware of what happened in Washington several years ago. I live in walking distance of Comet Ping Pong, where a confused man was manipulated into believing children were being abused in a non-existent basement. My family and I ate lunch there two hours before he entered with an assault rifle, looking to ‘help’ those imaginary children. He is now in prison. One example of how a conspiracy theory was manipulated to a violent end.

The PRC played on the conspiracy theories of the day and knew that by manipulating social media and the news media, they would be able to capitalize on the irrational views held by some who have a loud megaphone. In Tibet however, this particular campaign seems to have backfired. The PRC lifted the ban on talking about the Dalai Lama in China, and he started to trend on social media. The video that the Chinese hoped would lead to Tibetans denouncing His Holiness in shame has led to an outpouring of emotion because they were finally allowed to view video of him publicly and without fear of reprisals. It has also galvanized the Tibetan community in exile to fight even harder now that the PRC has shown there is no bottom to its smear campaign against His Holiness.

The entire Tibet world was shocked by the swiftness of the media (both social and news) cycle that took off with one 40-second out-of-context and misleading video clip. It was especially disheartening that there was so little pushback from Western media saying that there might be a deeper cultural meaning or context to the interaction.

This lack of pushback on the video and failure to see the manipulation by the PRC came as a tremendous shock to me and other allies. This shock led to a delayed response by all of us in the Tibet world, something that made the situation worse and allowed a conversation to continue long after it should have been extinguished. These types of attacks are unexpected, but not just by Tibetans and their allies. The same is true of the US government. The Washington Post recently reported that there were four more Chinese spy balloons in addition to the three that were spotted earlier this year. The US military wasn’t even able to initially identify all the equipment that was being used on the balloons. This new approach to spying on the US (and other countries) is now one that the military is prepared for and will take action against when it happens again.

Fortunately, the narrative is beginning to turn, and people are realizing that only the PRC benefits from this baseless campaign against the Dalai Lama, and we as Tibet supporters will never be caught so unprepared again. The old saying is true—a lie did make it around the world before the truth could put its boots on. We are not going to let that happen again.

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.

Tibet contrarianism is “dum”

Letters to a young contrarianYears ago, at a different job, a coworker asked if I had always been a contrarian. The question struck me like an apple falling from a tree. I had never seen myself as a contrarian, but perhaps that one word could explain why as a young man I so often felt at odds with the world.

Invigorated by the potential for self-understanding, I went to Barnes & Noble and began reading Christopher Hitchens’ “Letters to a Young Contrarian.” The book, Hitchens writes in the first chapter, is addressed to those who feel “a disposition to resistance, however slight, against arbitrary authority or witless mass opinion, or a thrill of recognition when you encounter some well-wrought phrase from a free intelligence.” My ego was tickled.

But a few pages later, I encountered a splash of iconoclasm that stopped me in my tracks. After assailing anti-Semites and racists and the atom-bombing of Japan, Hitchens shifts his aim to a very different target: the Dalai Lama. Quoting a speech in which the Tibetan leader relates his belief that we are all seeking happiness, Hitchens sneers: “The very best that can be said is that he uttered a string of fatuous non sequiturs.”

“[H]uman beings do not, in fact, desire to live in some Disneyland of the mind, where there is an end to striving and a general feeling of contentment and bliss,” Hitchens writes, adding: “Even if we did really harbor this desire, it would fortunately be unattainable.”

Suddenly, I was off the contrarian train almost as quickly as I’d hopped on.

Spared by the Dalai Lama

It turned out “Letters to a Young Contrarian” was not the only time Hitchens, who died in 2011, sicced his estimable wit on the Dalai Lama. In a piece for Salon in 1998, he dismisses His Holiness as a “[creature] of the material world.” Elsewhere, he maligns the Dalai Lama for claiming to be a “hereditary king appointed by heaven itself” and enforcing “one-man rule” in his exile home of Dharamsala (more on that later).

I, for one, don’t believe anyone is beyond reproach. Good-faith criticism can be made of the Dalai Lama—his words and actions, as well as his status and followers.

As one of those followers, I hold myself up for critique—though my behavior shouldn’t reflect on anyone else—in part because I see how far short I fall of His Holiness. I can’t deny I’m prone to pessimism and hand-wringing; I tend to be doubtful of attempts to improve the world while simultaneously mournful over the state of it. (I’m also too self-critical, if you haven’t noticed.)

And yet, even before I joined ICT, I never felt the need to doubt His Holiness. In fact, the Dalai Lama and figures like him—Gandhi and John Lewis come to mind—have helped spare me from a life of total cynicism. If it weren’t for them, I might not believe in anything. That’s not because I think they’re unimpeachable. It’s not even, for me, whether they achieved their overall goals or not.

Instead, the mere fact that a person like His Holiness exists in this world helps sustain my faith in humanity. From his humble living quarters to his transcendent wisdom to his innumerable displays of kindness—let alone his remarkable ability to forgive and seek reconciliation with his Chinese antagonists—His Holiness lives much the way you’d want everyone to live.

Who could ever be cynical about that?

Contrary to facts

It seems Hitchens was motivated to ‘take down’ His Holiness not just because Hitchens was an anti-theist and a libertine, but because His Holiness is a popular leader around the globe. The public generally loves the Dalai Lama, so Hitchens, driven by a need to look down on the herd, felt compelled to diminish its “witless mass opinion.” I can’t say that for certain, but it’s the impression I get reading Hitchens’ work and knowing other people like him.

There’s no denying Hitchens’ eloquence, and often, he trained his sights on deserving victims, especially politicians and people in government. But one of the problems with contrarianism—with preferring to disagree and express unpopular views—is that it prevents you from seeing things as they truly are (the same can be said of partisanship). Hitchens’ Salon piece, for instance, relies more on breezy suppositions and tendentiousness than on objective reporting.

Although Hitchens disdained religion, he was just as zealous as some fundamentalists in overlooking facts that got in the way of his faith. Take his claim about the Dalai Lama’s “one-man rule” in Dharamsala. That is simply, demonstrably false; ask the democratically elected Indian and Tibetan governments in the city if you have any doubt.

Hitchens’ assertion that His Holiness claims to be a “hereditary king appointed by heaven itself” is also easily refuted by the evidence. As Andrew Goodwin writes in Tricycle, the Dalai Lama

“has said, repeatedly and in plain language, that he is not a special person or a supernatural being, but an ordinary man. The second point of significance is his comment that if science proved Buddhist teachings incorrect in any way, then Buddhism would have to change. One might have expected that a book written by a well-informed journalist [Hitchens] who is appalled at the irrationality of religion would have found space to mention this.”

Hitchens is famous, among other things, for “Hitchens’s razor,” the belief that “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” Heaven forbid his razor should be applied to his own writing on the Dalai Lama.

Rebels without a cause

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Hitchens, who has been dead for over a decade. But unfortunately, his vapid views on the Dalai Lama have found voice in some contrarians of today.

Take, for example, media personality Max Blumenthal, who is almost comical in his contrarianism. Blumenthal doesn’t just criticize the US government—which is totally fair and appropriate, as I argue below—he actively defends the governments of Russia, Syria and, yes, China. In fact, he has appeared several times in Chinese state media to dispute accusations of atrocities by Beijing, including the claim of genocide against Uyghurs.

In a 2019 article in MintPress News, Blumenthal ahistorically describes the Dalai Lama as “the head of a relatively minor Buddhist sect until it was exploited by the CIA as a weapon against communist China.” He also asserts that “Tibetan Buddhists seek a return to theocratic feudal rule in the [Tibetan] plateau.”

That might be news to Tibetans in exile, who had a voter turnout of over 70% in 2021 when they elected Penpa Tsering the Sikyong (President) of the Central Tibetan Administration, the position to which His Holiness devolved political power in 2011 in line with his belief in the separation of church and state. Before China forced him into exile in 1959, the Dalai Lama even tried social and land reforms inside Tibet, but the Chinese blocked his efforts. It seems the Tibetan Buddhist leader does not seek theocracy or feudalism after all. (One gets the impression Blumenthal has never actually spoken to a Tibetan Buddhist in his life.)

Blumenthal is founder and editor of The Grayzone, a news website that’s also home to Aaron Maté, a fellow Chinese state media contributor and the son of world-famous doctor Gabor Maté. Blumenthal, for his part, is the son of a former senior advisor to President Bill Clinton, and he graduated from Georgetown Day School in Washington before matriculating to the Ivy League.

I don’t know Blumenthal or Maté or their motives, but it’s not surprising to me that two of the most aggressive apologists for China in US media are wealthy, White—Blumenthal’s claim about Tibetan Buddhists seeking feudal theocracy is racist and colonialist—children of famous parents. Part of contrarianism is rebellion, and these two sons of privilege fit the part of rebels without a cause.

Rewriting history

Sadly, a parade of contrarians, useful idiots and CCP shills have come out in full force recently in the wake of a misleading video clip showing His Holiness with a young boy in India. The video clip understandably provoked controversy and a flood of news coverage, and the Dalai Lama’s office quickly responded with an apology on his behalf.

As I write above, good-faith criticism of His Holiness is fine. But several commentators have sickly exploited this incident to rewrite history and justify China’s brutal occupation of Tibet. For some, that’s likely because it serves their brand to do so. But others seem to have genuinely let their critique of the United States blind them into drinking China’s Kool-Aid.

Indeed, long before the current headlines, I saw several self-proclaimed progressives write off Tibet as a vehicle for America’s foreign interference and imperialism, conveniently ignoring that China’s rule in Tibet is imperial. (In fact, it seems quite likely China lackeys helped engineer this recent controversy by purposefully spreading an out-of-context clip from over one month ago to manipulate the news cycle and discredit one of Beijing’s oldest foes without concern for the effect this would have on the young child.)

Don’t be a dum dum

No one can deny our leaders in the US have done horrible things and lied about them. Many institutions in this country—from government to media to banks to schools to houses of worship—have betrayed the public trust, leaving people feeling powerless and atomized. In this environment, it’s easy to give in to a nihilistic urge to tear everything down or an ego-wish for moral superiority.

I get the allure, but it is a siren call. I’m reminded of a statement from the late YouTube host Michael Brooks, who tragically died three years ago. I never met Michael in person, but I did interact with him a couple times online, and he was kind enough to engage me on Twitter, perhaps out of solidarity with Tibetans and perhaps because of his long interest in Buddhism. (One of his video clips inspired my previous blog post about human rights.)

Brooks was a true man of the left, but in one of his most enduring segments, he called out what he termed “the dum dum left”:

There is, unfortunately still, a dum-dum left who confuse moral posturing with revolutionary fervor. Who confused ahistorical throwing anything at the wall and endless whining about the Democrats for a real radical stance towards politics … And I get why that’s emotionally appealing to people because we live in absolutely disgusting times and the governing class of this country and the globe is disgusting. It’s abusive, it’s cruel, it’s abusive, it’s stupid, it’s arrogant, it’s insular and they need to be mocked, ridiculed, debunked, and they need to be taken out, to keep it simple. But not too simple. We need to keep it as simple as it can be, but not simpler than that.”

Working toward a vision

It’s too simple to think: America bad, therefore China good. It’s too simple to believe the whole world is bad, so let’s just blow everything up. You have to have some positive, humane vision to work toward. In my opinion, His Holiness and Tibetan Buddhist culture provide that.

In my own case, I don’t think I ever truly was a contrarian, just someone with a perspective shaped by an immigrant, minority, lower-income background. I have no problem holding contrary views on sacred cows like Winston Churchill, for instance. I am still skeptical of mainstream politics and business, along with a litany of other things.

But I am not so skeptical that I can’t recognize a good person, however imperfect, when I see one. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a good person, to say the least, and Tibet is a good cause. There are many things in this world worth taking down, but the Dalai Lama’s vision is worth building up.

Instead of contrarianism that leads to cheerleading the invasion of Iraq (like Hitchens) or parroting Chinese government propaganda (like Blumenthal, Maté and other online critics of Tibet), His Holiness offers a superior radicalism for today’s world. As the Dalai Lama says: “Compassion is the radicalism of our time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kundun” left unsaid

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continued erasure

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

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

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

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

Purifying effect

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

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

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

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

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

Need for preservation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DNA collection

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

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

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

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

History of control

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

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

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

A camera disguised as a Buddhist prayer wheel

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

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

The virus

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

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

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

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

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

Bleeding Tibet dry

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

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

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

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

Sign the petition!

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

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.