Human rights with human characteristics

Michelle Bachelet’s trip to China is over, but it’s sure to live on in the annals of appeasement. Amid the publication of leaked police files showing horrific images inside China’s internment camps, Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, declined to condemn Beijing’s genocide of the Uyghurs. And despite Tibet now ranking as the least-free country on Earth alongside South Sudan and Syria, she avoided visiting Tibet altogether.

But the long-term implications of Bachelet’s trip might be even more worrisome. As Josh Rogin writes in a searing column for The Washington Post, Bachelet “undermined her credibility and the overall credibility of the UN system on human rights.” Indeed, Beijing has been throwing its weight around at the UN and other international institutions, seeking to bend global norms in its repressive direction.

In place of the concept of universal human rights to which all people everywhere are equally entitled, China is pushing a model of “human rights with Chinese characteristics” that, rhetorically at least, emphasizes material progress over personal freedom. By praising China’s “poverty alleviation and the eradication of extreme poverty” in her end-of-trip press conference, Bachelet appeared to validate this opposing vision.

But I’m not writing this blog post just to lambast Bachelet, who has already received stinging criticism from many advocacy groups, including the International Campaign for Tibet. Even the European Union and the US Secretary of State publicly raised concerns about her visit.

I’m also not writing simply to discredit China’s actual policy on human rights. Any policy that justifies sending 60-year-old Uyghur Tajigul Tahir to a concentration camp because her son doesn’t drink or smoke has no credibility in the first place.

Great thinkers across the world—including Gandhi, Confucius, Mandela and Plato—offer rich insights into cultural views on freedom and responsibility.

Rights or duties?

Instead, I’m writing to address an underlying issue that, frankly, is much harder to dismiss. By promoting “human rights with Chinese characteristics,” the Chinese government is, however cynically, speaking to something that has troubled me for years: Are human rights truly universal, or are they just a Western belief system foisted on the world?

As someone born in the East, I am often inclined to believe the latter. In fact, due in part to my cultural background, the very concept of rights has never made a great deal of sense to me. Instead, like Mahatma Gandhi, I find the concept of duties far more practical. As Gandhi wrote in a letter to the Director-General of UNESCO in 1947:

“I learnt from my illiterate but wise mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved came from duty well done. Thus, the very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship of the world. From this one fundamental statement, perhaps it is easy enough to define the duties of man and woman and correlate every right to some corresponding duty to be first performed.”

My own mother is fully literate and a former schoolteacher, but she imparted similar lessons to me. Although I’ve lived in the United States for all but a few months of my life, the self-indulgence I often encounter in this country still strikes me as foolish and contrary to the ethics and values I was raised with. Moreover, the very idea of individual rights seems to conflict with my Buddhist beliefs—namely, the doctrine that says none of us exist as independent selves in this world, but rather live interdependently with one another. And, for my money, free speech is less valuable than the Buddhist ideal of right speech.

So cultural distinctions do exist. But Gandhi also recognized that the proliferation of rights inevitably runs into a dead end. In his classic text, “Hind Swaraj,” he scorned “in England the farce of everybody wanting and insisting on his rights, nobody thinking of his duty. And, where everybody wants rights, who shall give them to whom?”

Put another way, if we’re all too busy demanding and exercising our rights, who will perform the duty of ensuring the common good?

Personal liberty or economic subsistence?

That’s part of the argument China uses in its critique of Western human rights programs. The Chinese government contends that the success of the country should prevail over the liberty of individuals. Here, too, a valid point lurks within China’s propaganda.

In China’s vision of human rights, the right to development supersedes the rights to democracy and freedom. In many ways, China’s model is the reverse of the United States’. It’s telling that China has signed but not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, while the US has signed but not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Although Americans have a much higher level of personal freedom than people in many other societies, the US is also stretched to the breaking point by economic polarization. According to a report from the Council on Foreign Relations, “Income and wealth inequality is higher in the United States than in almost any other developed country, and it is rising.”

This inequality undermines human rights—how free can you be in a society dominated by the sliver of the superrich?—but in many ways, it seems born out of the confused idea of freedom one finds in the US. Instead of Americans having a right to the economic equality required for meaningful participation in self-governance, corporations seem to have the nearly unlimited freedom to grow and make profits for their plutocratic owners.

Human rights or pretext for oppression?

This heedless vision of economic freedom—which, like other notions of rights, seems nothing more than a fiction to me—played a role in Britain’s invasion of Tibet in 1903-04. The British forces cited an agreement involving trading rights in Tibet that was signed not by Tibetans themselves, but by imperial China and imperial Britain.

With Tibet refusing to abide by the agreement, the British warned that “it would be absolutely necessary that we should insist upon our rights,” according to a paraphrase by Sir Francis Younghusband, the British Lieutenant Colonel who led the invasion. After overwhelming and massacring Tibet’s amateur troops, Younghusband compelled the Tibetans to sign a new agreement guaranteeing British trading rights—and charging Tibet an indemnity (though the Tibetans did not ultimately pay).

Britain’s claim about its “rights” in Tibet was a fabrication it used to further its colonial machinations in Asia. One century later, the United Kingdom was part of a US-led coalition that cited human rights concerns as part of its justification for invading Iraq—especially after the coalition failed to uncover weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Of course, the coalition forces themselves went on to commit numerous violations of human rights against the Iraqi people. The rationale for invasion had shifted from defending trading rights to protecting human rights, but in both cases, rights were invoked to achieve an unjust end.

Right or wrong?

These examples show not only the West’s hypocrisy on human rights—which China loves to point out when defending its own record—but also how human rights can serve to perpetuate Western hegemony. The era of the West’s colonization of the rest of the world has largely come to an end, but Western cultural imperialism can live on in part through the globalization of Western values.

As much as I appreciate many of those values, I am not so comfortable with propping up an imbalanced global order built on a legacy of oppression, racism and exploitation. Moreover, as a person of color and the child of an erstwhile imperial domain, I have no desire to be a handmaiden for Western chauvinism and white supremacy.

So, then, does China’s concept of human rights with Chinese characteristics provide a viable alternative to the Western model? No! Setting aside the self-serving, propagandistic elements of China’s claims, it’s also highly dubious that the suppression of personal freedom is necessary for economic growth. In fact, in decades past, the conventional view held that the two went hand in hand, as seen in the West.

But, even simpler than that, China’s illegal occupation of Tibet, its genocide of the Uyghurs and other Muslim groups, its attacks on democracy in Hong Kong and its repression of Chinese people are all the proof you need that Beijing’s defense of its human rights record as culturally appropriate is morally bankrupt. No amount of conceptual reframing can justify China’s brutality against the people it rules.

West or East?

Still, the illegitimacy of China’s approach doesn’t resolve the question of whether human rights are truly universal or just a Western imposition. For that, the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen is invaluable.

In the 1990s, during a similar debate over so-called “Asian values,” Sen delved into the history of freedom in both the East and West. His theories cover a lot of ground, but it’s important to note that while both some Easterners and some Westerners like to claim that human rights are a Western construct—the former to defend authoritarian rule and the latter to self-congratulate–Sen finds that respect for widespread personal freedom is relatively new even in the West. Universal human rights were not the norm in the Greco-Roman world, nor has the modern West refrained from racial-, gender- and class-based oppression.

Instead, Sen identifies elements of modern human rights in ancient Europe—but also ancient Asia. Take, for instance, China. Although diverse strands of thought (including Buddhism) influenced Chinese culture, Chinese leaders have often invoked Confucius to demand social harmony and conformism. However, Sen unearths examples that challenge this popular view of the great Chinese philosopher.

Once, when someone asks him how to serve a prince, Confucius responds: “Tell him the truth even if it offends him.” (“The censors in … Beijing would take a very different view,” Sen dryly notes.) In another instance, a Governor tells Confucius about a “man of unbending integrity” among his people who denounced his father for stealing a sheep. Confucius replies, “Among my people, men of integrity do things differently: A father covers up for his son, a son covers up for his father—and there is integrity in what they do.”

Human rights with human characteristics

While Sen does not claim that Confucius was a champion of dissent, these examples put the lie to the claim that China’s philosophical underpinnings are purely authoritarian. Moreover, the case of Taiwan, where ethnic Chinese have embraced democracy, shows “Chinese characteristics” may not be so incompatible with the Western take on human rights after all.

Sen also finds examples of the base elements of human rights elsewhere in the world, noting how Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first President, took inspiration from the democratic meetings he saw growing up in his hometown. “Everyone who wanted to speak did so,” Mandela writes in his autobiography. “It was democracy in its purest form.” On the other hand, Sen notes that the Western canon contains its fair share of illiberalism, writing that “it is by no means clear to me that Confucius is more authoritarian than, say, Plato or Augustine.”

Cultures around the world are intellectually heterogeneous, and while human rights are a relatively new concept that ascended in an era of Western dominance, support for them can be found in many traditions across the globe. For the reasons I state in this blog post, I believe that human rights are an imperfect vehicle for achieving human welfare, and I wish they were seen as expansive enough to include economic justice and corresponding duties.

Nevertheless, human rights are one of the strongest tools we have for holding regimes like China to account, and they can help advance many aims that people across the world support, including morality, justice and compassion. The Chinese government is trying to stymie those aims while hiding behind a falsely culturally specific position on human rights. But in so doing, China is running up against not just Chinese characteristics, but human characteristics, and its flouting of human nature will eventually doom its efforts to failure.

Thubten Samphel: A scholar and a gentleman

On the morning of June 4, 2022, I received the shocking news of the demise of Thubten Samphel la, a retired senior Tibetan official, at his residence in the Tibetan settlement in Bylakuppe in South India. It was shocking because he had no major health issues.

In our work at the International Campaign for Tibet, we found in Samphel la a resource bank and a strong admirer of our work. At our request, he had served as a judge in one of our Tibetan empowerment programs, namely the Light of Truth Essay Competition. We have also had him speak to ICT members and staff, both here in Washington, DC and in Dharamsala. He also was responsible for the English version of our publication, “Tibet in Chains: The Stories of Nine Tibetan Nuns.”

Samphel la was born in Tibet, grew up in India. He finished his high school from Dr. Graham’s Home in Kalimpong near the Tibetan border in eastern India and his undergrad and graduation studies from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. He then worked for the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala in various capacities from 1981 until his retirement in 2018. In between, when the US Department of State established a program (now known as the Tibetan Scholarship Program) to enable Tibetan refugees in the Indian subcontinent to do further study in the United States (ICT was involved in advocating for its establishment), Samphel la was among those in the first group to be sent. He studied journalism from Columbia University, New York. You can read more details of his life in this obituary by the Central Tibetan Administration.

Samphel la with his wife Namgyal Chonzom, daughter Tenzin Dekyong, and sons Rabten Namgyal and Tenzin Yugyal. From the family’s collection.

My connection with Samphel la began while I was an undergrad student in Delhi (in Hansraj College) and he was finishing his graduation from the prestigious St. Stephen’s College. Subsequently, when I began working as a journalist for the Indian Express in New Delhi, it was a natural process of keeping in touch with him, as he had by then joined the Tibetan Information Office in Dharamsala. I would occasionally brief him on developments, and since he was editing the official journal Tibetan Bulletin, I started contributing articles and information for it. In one of his letters to me then, he addressed me as “Dear Mr. Reporter,” displaying his own unique sense of humor.

He wasn’t meant to be a bureaucrat and so was a misfit in the mandala of Gangkyi, the area where the Central Tibetan Administration offices were located in Dharamsala. I feel he felt constrained by the procedures that are part of any administration, including that of the Tibetans in exile. His usual way of expressing his disgust at the working of politicians was to squint his eyes (beneath his round rimmed glasses) and sigh out loudly, something like “oof” whenever we had to deal with a situation.

His calling was in scholarship and academics, and he displayed them when Dharamsala had to come out with lengthy reports on different aspects of the Tibetan issue. This can also be seen through his very many analytical articles during his time at the Tibet Policy Institute, including those dealing with aspects of Chinese policies on Tibet. Given his scholarship, some of us colleagues who worked in Dharamsala with him have knighted him, and he is referred to as “Sir Samphel.” Everyone who knew him, whether his senior or junior, respectfully called him Samphel la.

He was interested in analysis of society. I recall Marxist formulations like “base and superstructure” coming out of his mouth during some of our discussions then, but I have not seen him espouse any specific political ideology.

Every time I would meet him during my trips to Dharamsala in recent years, he would always commend the work of ICT, in particular the reports that we bring out. He was particularly impressed by an analysis of the impressions of Chinese visitors to Tibet that we published in 2014. On a few different occasions I recall him telling me how good this report was: “‘Has Life Here Always Been Like This?’ Chinese Microbloggers Reveal Systematic Militarization in Tibet.” It collected hundreds of images and messages from the Chinese microblogging site Weibo and documented perspectives of Chinese tourists on conditions in Tibet.

Gyari Rinpoche (Lodi Gyari as he is formally known), who was the Special Envoy of H.H. the Dalai Lama in Washington, DC as well as ICT’s Executive Chairman (under whom both Samphel la and I had worked in Dharamsala), understood his potential as a scholar. Among the efforts Rinpoche made to exploit this potential of Samphel la was to make efforts to place him as a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute in Texas in 2011. At that time there were plans to establish a formal relationship with the institute, given former President George W. Bush’s interest in H.H. the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan issue. Rinpoche thought that Samphel la’s presence as a research fellow at the institute would enable Samphel la to exercise his passion while placing the Tibetan issue before policymakers here in the United States. I was involved in some of the discussions that took place then. All preparatory work had been done on this, but somehow it did not come to fruition at the end.

It was only at the end of his working life that Samphel la was able to exercise his passion a bit more when he headed the newly established Tibet Policy Institute in Dharamsala. I can only imagine what the situation would have been had he been involved with a similar research institute from 1981 itself. In any case, over the years he was able to exercise his passion for writing. In addition to several articles (which he continued to do even after retirement), he wrote two novels. “Falling through the Roof” (“Novel based on the real pathos of Tibetan students studying in Delhi University and their political activities to liberate Tibet by forming Tibetan Communist Party”) and “Copper Mountain” (“A moving picture of Tibet’s natural beauty and rich historical tradition, Copper Mountain combines memorable characters with an environmental conspiracy and a shot of dark humour”). He is in the category of a handful of Tibetans who have ventured into the world of fiction writing in English.

He is survived by his wife, Namgyal Chonzom, and three children, daughter Tenzin Dekyong and sons Rabten Namgyal and Tenzin Yugyal. He has two siblings in Tibet and another one in exile, who was also a CTA official and predeceased him.

During his time on this earth in this lifetime, Sir Samphel has left his mark. We can celebrate his legacy.

On making a difference

Chinese military helicopters fly over the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.

When you’re trying to help the victims of oppression, it can sometimes feel hard to believe that anything you’re doing actually improves their lives. But recently, the passage of new legislation—and the sight of Chinese military helicopters—reminded me that our community of compassion at the International Campaign for Tibet is making a difference.

A few months ago, I joined all of you in celebrating when the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, the watershed bill we spent years advocating for, became law. The TPSA promised to upgrade US support for Tibetans, defend the succession of the Dalai Lama from China’s interference, address water security and climate change in Tibet, and much, much more.

The enactment of the TPSA was the triumph the Tibet movement had been waiting for, and it was one we saw play out in votes on the floor of the US Congress and statements from the White House. So it was jarring, then, a few days later when I began to see photos of China’s helicopters flying over Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, in an apparent response to the TPSA.

China’s response to the TPSA

According to Indian news outlet the Hindustan Times, the aerial drill could have signaled that China planned to accelerate its “Sinicization” of Tibet—an effort to eliminate Tibet’s unique culture and force Tibetans to assimilate into Chinese society—in light of the TPSA’s passage.

“China wouldn’t want anything to happen in Tibet that reflects support for the US law …” an analyst told the newspaper. “The military drill was a preemptive move and would be followed by other steps to stem any potential dissent.”

I remembered those articles this week when Lobsang Sangay, president of the Central Tibetan Administration, described the Chinese government’s reaction to the TPSA during a virtual celebration of the law hosted by the Regional Tibetan Association of Massachusetts, Amherst.

“They brought helicopters over Potala Palace,” Sangay said, referring to the historic winter residence of the Dalai Lama. “They brought military in the streets of Lhasa and various other places. They had a war drill or anti-riot drill for days, some say for weeks, to intimidate Tibetans, to create fear that there might be another uprising in Tibet in appreciation of the support of the bill.”

Sangay added that the Chinese government has been holding workshops on the TPSA for its officials in Tibet and ordering scholars to write articles against the legislation. That helps explain why I’ve seen so many anti-TPSA stories in Chinese state media since the bill passed.

Here and there

Like the vast majority of my International Campaign for Tibet colleagues—including the Tibetan ones—I’ve never set foot in Tibet. The only images I’ve seen of it have come from photos and video snippets. All the advocating I’ve done for the Tibetan people has taken place far away, more than 7,500 miles from Lhasa, in the comfort and safety of Washington, DC (which, granted, feels a little less safe this year for reasons you can probably imagine).

Because the Chinese government makes it almost impossible for foreigners to enter Tibet and keeps information about Tibet from reaching the outside world, I’ve never gotten much of a glimpse into the effect our work at ICT has on Tibetans living under China’s authoritarian rule. I, of course, have always hoped that we’re helping to raise their spirits after decades of China’s oppression and laying seeds for greater freedom and justice in Tibet in the future.

I did understand that China might respond to the legislation we’ve helped pass by cracking down on Tibetans. But speculating about that felt a lot different than actually seeing images of the Chinese military bearing down on Tibet.

I hope this goes without saying, but the thought of any Tibetan suffering because of something I contributed to horrifies me. Obviously, it’s the opposite of what I want.

Reaction by Tibetans

I trust you’ll also believe me when I say I don’t feel I have the right to decide how much suffering in Tibet is okay in the short run so that Tibetans can get human rights over the long term. I think it’s important for Tibetans themselves to take the lead in making those decisions. (I know that’s a standard disclaimer these days in social justice discourse, but I still want to make it clear.)

One group non-Tibetans should look to for guidance is the Central Tibetan Administration, which provides democratic representation for Tibetans in exile. Although Sangay, the administration’s president, unnerved me with his vivid description of China’s response to the TPSA, he gave me a smile by talking about the response from Tibetans.

“Inside Tibet, they were celebrating it,” he said. “In monasteries, they were praying, they were burning incense to appreciate the US government for what you have done.”

Sangay added: “Yes, there’s a clampdown. There’s repression. And obviously, they cannot say much. But deep down, I know in the dark cells of prisons also, they are very, very appreciative for passing this bill.”

There were other inspiring moments at the TPSA celebration this week, which featured remarks by Congressional leaders, Tibetan association presidents, the North American representative of the Dalai Lama and ICT Interim President Bhuchung K. Tsering, among others.

More than ever

One of the featured guests of the event was Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., who introduced the TPSA in the House of Representatives alongside Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ben Cardin, D-Md., introduced the bipartisan bill in the Senate.

McGovern pointed out the TPSA is part of a wave of recent Tibet legislation that has also included the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, which became law in 2018 and led to the State Department announcing last summer that it had banned Chinese officials from entering the United States over their role in keeping Americans out of Tibet.

“In the last couple years, we have passed more legislation on human rights in China and on issues related to Tibet than at any other time in Congress,” McGovern said.

He added that he hopes the Dalai Lama will be able to return to the United States to meet with President Biden and Vice President Harris. The Tibetan spiritual leader has previously met with Presidents George H. W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.

McGovern said he believes the Biden administration will soon appoint a new high-ranking special coordinator for Tibetan issues in the State Department. ICT has stressed the importance of appointing someone for the role at the undersecretary of state level or above so that person has the resources and authority needed to be successful.

New administration

Meeting with the Dalai Lama and appointing a new special coordinator for Tibetan issues are two promises Biden made during his campaign.

Since taking office, his administration has taken a number of steps to show support for the Tibetan people.

  • At the beginning of this month, the State Department gave a statement to Radio Free Asia pledging that the US will pressure China to re-enter dialogue with the representatives of the Dalai Lama; end its interference in the selection of Tibetan Buddhist leaders; and respect Tibetans’ unique culture, religion, language and environment.
  • A few days later, on Feb. 5, during his first phone call with China’s top diplomat, the new secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said the United States will continue to push for human rights and democratic values in Tibet.
  • And just last week, Blinken delivered a video message at the State Department’s annual reception for Losar, the Tibetan New Year. The department has held the reception every year since 2015; Blinken was the first secretary of state to speak at it. Blinken later tweeted his Losar greetings and called for the preservation of Tibet’s “rich traditions.”

These actions have added to the momentum from the bipartisan passage of the TPSA and the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act during the last administration.

Global support

The new laws have also echoed across Europe and the democratic world.

In July 2020, Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said the EU opposes any interference in the Dalai Lama’s succession by the Chinese government. (The TPSA requires the State Department to work at the international level to build support for Tibetan Buddhists’ freedom to choose their own leaders. Borrell’s statement was a nice head start.)

Earlier, Borrell, who is also vice president of the European Commission, responded to a question from Member of the European Parliament Isabel Santos by saying, “The Commission will continue to call on the Chinese authorities to allow reciprocal access to Tibet” as part of the EU’s human rights dialogue with China.

In addition, officials in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands have also recently stated their position that Tibetans have the right to choose their own religious leaders without China’s influence. ICT’s European offices have helped spearhead efforts to build support for Tibetans in Europe.

Last month, the European Foundation for South Asian Studies, a think tank, suggested the TPSA could lead to more democratic countries expressing support for Tibet.

“It would be worth watching whether a few such democracies take the cue from the US and acknowledge the sufferings of the Tibetans more substantially,” the foundation said in a report.

The report added that the TPSA could “provide a template and options for India”—the world’s largest democracy and the exile capital of the Tibetan people—“to examine and expand upon in its future dealings” with China.

Pushing forward

During the celebration of the TPSA this week, Bhuchung K. Tsering, ICT’s interim president, said “Congress has done its part in passing the legislation. We now look forward to working with Congressman McGovern, Senator Rubio and their colleagues in the Congress to see that the Biden administration fully implements the TPSA” and the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act.

Bethany Poulos, policy analyst in Rubio’s office, added that the TPSA “wasn’t a one off.”

“We’re going to continue to work on this issue,” she said. “It’s going to be a priority in Congress.”

That should encourage all of us who care about Tibet to keep pushing forward with our advocacy. We know that whatever we do, China won’t stop its repression in Tibet tomorrow, as its recent show of military force in Lhasa made clear. But at the same time, our actions are having a clear impact.

“Don’t ever, ever think that your voices don’t matter,” McGovern said. “That is what made the difference here. People in the Tibetan community, throughout the world but in the United States, raised their voices, advocated and made a difference.”

As an ICT member, you’ve made a difference for Tibet and contributed to the unprecedented momentum of the Tibet movement. The last few months have provided a startling reminder of the real-world results of our activism. As we look ahead to the rest of 2021 and the future, let’s try to give our dear friends in Tibet more reasons for hope and celebration.

Long march to perfecting the state of surveillance in China

facial recognition

File photo of Hikvision’s facial recognition technology capable of recognizing “ethnic minorities”.

Three years ago, during a mock exercise Chinese police in Guiyang City challenged the BBC’s John Sudworth to go anywhere in the city without being found by them. Within seven minutes after the reporter left the surveillance control room, he was caught by security officers based on his location caught on camera. Through this mock exercise, China sent a loud message: the Chinese state is omniscient and omnipresent.

A lot has been written about the technological surveillance prowess of China and its trialing in Tibet prior to wider rollout. To a significant degree, surveillance aided by technology has deterred human rights activists in China for the fear of being caught by the state’s eyes all around them. Deterrence of freedom and rights activism in Tibet has also taken a hit due to stepped-up surveillance in Tibet in the wake of popular protests against Chinese rule in the spring of 2008. This raises the pertinent question of how powerful the surveillance technology is and whether China has perfected surveillance technology. Making the location of citizens scrutable and legible to surveillance data gathering is not the same as knowing what they think or say or intend. How useful is this knowledge to a party-state seeking complete control?

Sinologists Jessica Batke and Mareike Ohlberg set out to answer these questions. In their quest to understand the State of Surveillance in China, Jessica Batke and Mareike Ohlberg asked six questions: “To what degree is Xinjiang a model for the rest of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)? Who, exactly, are local governments elsewhere trying to track? Why do they think such surveillance is necessary? How much does the application of national surveillance plans vary from place to place? How costly is it to local governments? And how well do any of these systems actually work?”

Based upon analysis of 76,000 surveillance technology procurement documents on the government procurement network spanning 16 years between 2004-2020, the authors conclude that China has not perfected surveillance technology although the intent is clearly “to eliminate any public spaces where people might remain unwatched.” China is not yet an Orwellian state as Chinese leaders would want us to believe to project the infallibility of the Communist Party of China. But it may be well on course to become one in the long run by training both machines and humans.

The authors argue that the surveillance technology and conceptual framework is the same across China, although scale and purpose of deployment may vary from location to location. While dissidents and potential criminals may be the object of surveillance in parts of the Chinese heartland, all members of a particular “ethnic” or religious group are targeted for their “ethnic” or religious affiliation. This finding comports with what Tibetans and Uyghurs have experienced for several decades solely due to their distinct identity and the socio-political-historical context under which the two territories and peoples became “ethnic” minorities under Beijing’s rule.

Parsing through 76,000 documents surely is overwhelming, and explaining the nuanced findings is a huge challenge without boring your audience to death with statistical and technical jargon. The authors skillfully told the story by doing a comparative analysis of three case studies in terms of demand and deployment of surveillance technology. The case studies focused on Shawan County in far west Xinjiang, Xijiao in southeast coastal Guangdong province, and Harbin in northeast Heilongjiang province. The three locations are scattered on the map of China, thereby making the case studies representative of the research conclusion.

The authors found that the local authorities have wide latitude in deciding the type of surveillance technology, and the scale of deployment in the three places varies according to threat perception. In Xiqiao, surveillance is deployed to check daily activities of the people with a focus on “key persons,” a term for types of people the authorities view as dangerous. Officials in Harbin were working on surveillance capacity to predict where the city residents will go and what they are likely to do. In Xinjiang, unlike other parts of China, surveillance pervades daily life not only through technology but the massive presence of “convenience police stations” and security checkpoints throughout the region. Other parts of China pale in comparison to the intense scrutiny that exist in Xinjiang although the technology and conceptual frameworks are the same as in other parts of China.

The following are notable takeaways from the report:

  • The pervasive and invasive surveillance system in Xinjiang is designed to target the Uyghurs as a group. It is discriminatory by design to distinguish Uyghurs from other groups present in the region. For example, the 8 million Han Chinese in Xinjiang accounting for 40% of the Xinjiang population are not subject to the same level of surveillance meted out to the Uyghurs. The authorities target Uyghurs as a group instead of focusing on outsiders, dissidents and criminals like in other parts of China.
  • The state of surveillance technology, conceptual frameworks and programs in Xinjiang is not unique, although the scale of deployment and the intensity are when compared to other regions in China.
  • Purchase of surveillance technology has increased dramatically in the past two years.
  • 14 billion RMB ($2.1 billion) was spent between 2016 and 2020 for deploying the “Sharp Eyes” program alone, in addition to expenditures on other surveillance projects. Surveillance expenditure sometimes reached half of the annual total public security expenses.
  • Last year, at least 998 counties spread across China purchased surveillance equipment of some type.
  • Facial recognition cameras are not omnipresent, although they are gaining traction in deployment.
  • The Public Security Bureau accounts for 65% of purchase of surveillance technology.

Surveillance in Tibet

The authors mention Tibet only one time in the 17-page report. But this does not mean that Tibet is not a concern in terms of deployment of surveillance technology. In fact, both Tibet and Xinjiang are at the same extreme end of the surveillance spectrum in China. Both are outliers in terms of scale compared to surveillance practice in the Chinese heartland. Both have a massive presence of so-called “convenience police stations” and security checkpoints installed across their homeland. Surveillance technology is being used not only to monitor “criminals” but for “social management” of Tibetans and “social stability” in Tibet.

A simple keyword query for Tibet in the Chinese government procurement network reveals that the public security bureau in Tibet has no intent of scaling down the level of surveillance already in place. Besides the usual oppressive tools of choice, it is most likely that drones will soon be part of the surveillance mix to monitor the Tibetans.

A wide range of documents are available on the Chinese government procurement network (, but three items of interest in terms of recent procurement notices will be highlighted here.

  • Genome surveillance   Based on anecdotes, it has been known for long that DNA of Tibetans is being profiled by the state. The project does not seem to be complete yet, although some observers had earlier reported the project to have been completed. Select recent procurement notices for DNA database construction (July 8, 2019), DNA reagents and Consumables (July 21, 2020), Ultra-micro magnetic bead method DNA extraction kit (June 27, 2020) show that it is an ongoing project. Since DNA profiling is highly controversial, the strategy so far appears to be to keep the project out of view to avoid condemnation for mass profiling. But recent procurement notices reveal that the strategy has changed, as the public security bureau is actively bidding for rigorous DNA profiling; one such procurement notice comes with a price tag of 1 billion yuan. DNA data of Tibetans is scrutinized intensely by the Chinese authorities. Geneticist Yves Moreau, an engineer and professor at the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, said in an interview with NPR that the DNA profiles of “Tibetans are studied 40 times more intensely than the Hans, and the Uighurs are studied 30 times more intensely than the Hans.” In Crackdown on Genomic Surveillance, Moreau wrote that half of the genome studies of Tibetans and Uyghurs are authored by the police force, military or judiciary.

    The official justification to profile DNA is to catch criminals. However, such a justification is problematic, as a wide range of Tibetan activism for language, environment, culture, freedom of opinion and expression, etc., is criminal by the official Chinese definition. In recent years, even discussing the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach for conflict resolution has been criminalized through law.

    DNA-profiling technology has made great headway in solving crimes worldwide, and it is legitimate for law-enforcement agencies to use the technology with stringent safeguards and oversight. However, use of such technology is problematic in Tibet and in China, where the Communist Party of China is the final authority free of any oversight for human rights abuses.

    It is not outlandish to imagine Chinese leaders ordering targeted extradition of Tibetans in exile by furnishing DNA of family members back home as proof of their Chinese citizenship to foreign governments. For example, last month Indonesia extradited three Uyghurs to China instead of Turkey on the merit of China producing DNA of their family members in Xinjiang to prove their Chinese citizenship. China’s claim of universal jurisdiction of its national security law also throws open a range of imaginable situations under which DNA profiles can be used for extradition of dissidents (read: criminals in Chinese) including Tibetans from foreign countries.
  • Drone surveillance   Use of drones for domestic surveillance is another controversial issue worldwide. Drones to surveil civilian Tibetans has not been observed so far—at least publicly—but that looks to change soon. In light of a procurement notice (June 22, 2020) on the Chinese government procurement network, the Lhasa Public Security Bureau will soon deploy drones to surveil the Tibetans in Lhasa.

    In the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic, journalists and observers have reported authorities in China stepping up collection of citizen’s personal data through a variety of health surveillance apps. With the deployment of talking drones, authorities warned ordinary Chinese citizens to confine themselves in their homes at the height of Covid outbreak in China.

    But the deployment of drones to surveil Tibetans would be altogether at a different level given the political context under which the technology will be put to use. The Chinese authorities already operate with a combat mindset in Tibet. It is anticipated that sending drones to surveil Tibetans won’t be as mundane as ordering someone to lock themselves up in the house to escape from Covid.
  • Big data analytics   Big data analytics feature prominently in the government of China’s plan to surveil and control everyone under the rule of Beijing. For Tibetans and Uyghurs as the two minority groups most distrusted for “stability maintenance,” Chinese security authorities deploy big data analytics and policing techniques to surveil and control Tibetans. Although it is not unique to Tibet, a skewed dataset is a major concern when compared to big data analytics in other parts of China.

    Analysts, including Batke and Ohlberg, point to the ease of generating vast amounts of data, which are then analyzed according to algorithms that predetermine propensity for criminalized behaviors according to rules, categories written into the algorithms. The naïve faith in high tech creates the illusion that algorithms are objective and capable of discovering criminal intent well in advance. In reality the old GIGO maxim holds: garbage in, garbage out.

    Besides the TAR CCP’s procurement notice for a classical video surveillance network (July 10, 2019), the public security bureau of the Tibet Autonomous Region is actively building cloud computing for data sets of Tibetans in the TAR in view of select procurement notices for cloud investigation (October 22, 2020) and Nagchu City cloud video surveillance network (September 10, 2019). These clouds are expected to be plugged into the national level police cloud maintained by China’s Ministry of Public Security. According to the Rand Corporation’s Chinese Views of Big Data Analytics, “The MPS [Ministry of Public Security Bureau] is exploiting new data sets that it plans to centralize in a ‘police cloud’. Eventually accessible to all provincial and municipal police authorities, the police cloud will increase the ease with which police can make connections across disparate databases—including non-crime-related systems, such as housing and employment records—to rapidly identify people, places, and businesses of interest.”

    The goal for building a police cloud is to preempt any demonstration or protest by Tibetans by proactively tracking activities of all Tibetans. Those deemed to harbor “ill thoughts” against the government or who have expressed their dissent in the past form the focus of people in big data analytics.

    Human Rights Watch warned that the police cloud “scoops up information from people’s medical history, to their supermarket membership, to delivery records … the Police Cloud system track where the individuals have been, who they are with, and what they have been doing, as well as make predictions about their future activities.” In other words, privacy is not a right, but a luxury Tibetans in Tibet can only dream of.

    Predictive policing based on big data analytics compounds the issue of human rights abuses committed by Chinese law enforcement agencies. Preempting the “culprits” before they have even carried out any activism is highly worrisome, given Chinese authorities’ track record of decades-old repression in Tibet and racial biases against Tibetans. Predictive policing is already a reality in Xinjiang that looks to be on the verge of replication in Tibet.

The Communist Party of China’s reliance on surveillance technology to govern everyone under its rule is widely known. The party wants the people it rules to believe that it is infallible by internalizing fear of its surveillance prowess. Jessica Batke and Mareike Ohlberg’s research gives the crucial analytical conclusion that the surveillance technology in China is not perfect. Despite its deep-seated intent, the party still has a long march ahead of it in perfecting the panopticon system. The implication of this research work is that the Chinese surveillance state is navigable, and there is still time to reverse or at least stop the state of surveillance at its current stage. The party’s mastery of surveillance at the expense of the people it rules is no longer confined within the domestic borders of China. Over 80 countries worldwide in awe of the government of China’s ability to control its citizens import surveillance technology from China. The state of surveillance technology in China has direct implications for liberties and freedoms of everyone on the face of the planet. The liberties and freedoms of people across the globe, irrespective of the political systems under which they live, are tied to whether the surveillance technology in China is perfected or not.

Tibetans have reason to fear China’s delusions of omniscience and omnipotence. Yet in the long run, more and more Tibetans are criminalized, classified as security threats and punished, without having done anything criminal. This only alienates Tibetans further and undermines the credibility of the state. China will eventually discover this has been counterproductive.

Why Takna Jigme Sangpo Matters

For those working in the field of human rights, there are few occasions when we can feel our effort is having concrete and positive impact. This is particularly so when the issue concerns political prisoners as then there is the measurable output in the form of their release. Over the years the International Campaign for Tibet has taken up a number of cases with the United States Government as well as with the United Nations. There have been occasions when we have had the pleasure of seeing some of the Tibetan political prisoners not only released, but also sent abroad for a variety of reasons.

Such occasions arose for us in the early 2000s when the Chinese authorities released four Tibetan political prisoners between 2002 and 2004, who were subsequently sent to the United States. Since the International Campaign for Tibet was then providing support to the Special Envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Washington, D.C. we were closely involved in arranging for the resettlement of the former political prisoners. Takna Jigme Sangpo was the second in the group, the others being (in order of their dispatch to the United States) ethnomusicologist Ngawang Choephel, Drapchi nuns Ngawang Sangdrol and Phuntsok Nyidron.

The process would be something like this: Special Envoy Lodi G.Gyari is informed by the State Department about the impending release of a Tibetan. ICT then steps in to work on the logistics; housing, medical treatment, long-term stay, etc. We would work with the individual to discuss future plans and how we could help realize them. Accordingly, from the four that were sent to the United States, Takna Jigme Sangpo and Phuntsok Nyidron opted to be resettled in Switzerland as it had also taken an active interest in their cases (we facilitated their interaction with the Swiss Embassy) while Ngawang Choephel and Ngawang Sangdrol (we assisted in their documentation) settled themselves in the United States.

Although in his seventies when he arrived in the United States, he was mentally very alert. One of the very first things he told us during our first meeting with him was how he noticed that we were all mistaken in calling him “Tanak” (which we were doing then) and that the correct form was “Takna” like it is in “Tiger’s nose”. Also, following his medical checkup at Georgetown hospital, he took it in his strides when the doctors kept him in an isolated room for a few days after they suspected him of having TB.

While John Kamm, American businessman and human rights campaigner, is to be rightly complimented for relentlessly taking up the cases of Takna Jigme Sangpo and the three other Tibetan prisoners who were released, his work was helped by strong support by the United States Congress and the Administration. In the case of Jigme Sangpo, Congressman Tom Lantos (since deceased) was among those who took a lead on his behalf.

Since then there have not been any more Tibetan political prisoners released to the United States by the Chinese authorities. In general, the four Tibetan political prisoners were released and sent to the United States not because the Chinese authorities felt that that was their right, but because they thought they would win the support of the United States, on this.

That was the period when President Jiang Zemin and his successor President Hu Jintao were desirous of improving relations with the United States to fulfil their own agenda for China. Similarly, the United States Congress and Administration were sending the right message to China. In a report on October 18, 2002, the Washington Post analyzed the circumstances leading to the release of prisoners by China saying:

“When President Bush last met with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, a senior State Department official passed a list of 13 jailed dissidents and other prisoners to a Chinese counterpart and delivered a message: If China wanted better relations with the United States, it should let these people go.

“The Chinese government responded in the following months by releasing two of the individuals on the list. They were Jigme Sangpo, a Tibetan teacher who was one of China’s longest-held political prisoners, and David Chow, a U.S. businessman jailed eight years ago on questionable fraud charges. Today, eight days before Bush and Jiang are scheduled to meet again, China released a third person on the list, a young Tibetan nun named Ngawang Sangdrol who was imprisoned in 1992 at the age of 15.”

So Takna Jigme Sangpo symbolized a few things. He symbolized the determination of the Tibetans in Tibet in standing up for their rights. The governmental support for his release symbolized the international community’s concern for the Tibetan people. His release and subsequent dispatch to the United States indicated the fact that if the Chinese Government is placed in a situation where it is in their interest to change their approach to issues relating to Tibet, they will do so.

Takna Jigme Sangpo passed away on October 17, 2020. This article was written for Swirling Red Dust, the story of Tibet’s longest-serving political prisoner, Blackneck Books in collaboration with ICT-Europe, 2017. Although China did not release any Tibetan political prisoners in a similar way in recent years, in a different circumstance, ICT had the opportunity to assist Dhondup Wangchen when he arrived in the United States in 2017.

John Lewis and the efficacy of nonviolence

“It’s in keeping with the philosophy of nonviolence. That’s what the movement was always about, to have the capacity to forgive and move toward reconciliation.”—John Lewis

For obvious reasons, the timing of John Lewis’ death last week felt like a heavy blow. Not only have most of our lives ground to a halt in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, but our country is also in the midst of a massive reckoning over racial injustice. And now we have lost the light of one of the last remaining luminaries of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. (The Rev. C.T. Vivian, another high-profile figure from the movement, died the same day as Lewis, July 17, 2020.)

As a believer in the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent activism, I lament the passing of Congressman Lewis. I often fear that great moral leaders like Rep. Lewis, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and their forebears are a rare species in our modern world, which—for whatever progress it has made—is also more fractured and imperiled than it ever has been in many of our lifetimes. The death of John Lewis only makes this frightening landscape feel a little dimmer.

Prayers from the Dalai Lama

Given everything Lewis stood for (and got beaten for) during his lifetime, it’s no surprise the Dalai Lama mourned his death in a statement this past weekend. “Through his principled adherence to the fundamental democratic values of liberty, equality and justice, Congressman Lewis won admiration even among those who did not share his political outlook,” His Holiness wrote. “In the course of many years of public service, he inspired many Americans to take up the cause of justice and peace through nonviolence.”

The Dalai Lama’s website also shared a photo of the Tibetan Buddhist leader clasping hands with Rep. Lewis—a striking image of two beaming avatars of wisdom and compassion. Lewis supported Tibet during his decades in Congress, including by signing onto several letters calling for greater US action to advance Tibetans’ rights.

Two avatars of wisdom and compassion: Congressman John Lewis and His Holiness the Dalai Lama

In his statement, the Dalai Lama also connected Lewis to other icons of nonviolence:

Whenever I talk about nonviolence, I cite the examples of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King. Congressman Lewis not only knew Dr. King, but also gave him crucial support. Although I did not have the privilege of meeting Dr. King myself, in meeting Congressman Lewis, I feel [I] have made a direct connection with him.

The power of forgiveness

I’ve written before on this blog about my admiration for Gandhi (as well as, of course, my love for His Holiness). But as an Indian immigrant in the US, I feel simultaneously proud that the civil rights movement borrowed methods and ideas from Gandhi’s “satyagraha” campaign and indebted to Black leaders like Congressman Lewis and Dr. King, who suffered horrific abuse—and even death in King’s case—so that people of color could have the same freedoms as their fellow citizens. I know the opportunities I’ve had in this country would not have been possible without those visionary activists, so I will forever be grateful.

Yet as inspired as I feel by how much Lewis, the son of Alabama sharecroppers, managed to achieve in his 80 years on this Earth, I am perhaps just as moved by how much he was willing to forgive.

As Michael A. Fletcher recalls in an excellent piece for The Undefeated, the beatific Lewis once faced criticism from his peers for having too much anger. At the legendary 1963 March on Washington where Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the 23-year-old Lewis—who was one of the “Big Six” organizers of the event and the last one to die—had to tone down his remarks at the request of King, A. Philip Randolph and others, who feared the oration he planned to give was too divisive and combative.

Years later, Lewis fully embraced the need for forgiveness and reconciliation. According to Fletcher, he forgave “Bull” Connor, the notorious former public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Ala., who unleashed firehoses and attack dogs on peaceful protestors.

The capacity to change

Perhaps most strikingly of all, Lewis even forgave George Wallace, the man who famously pledged in his 1963 inauguration as Alabama governor, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Growing up decades after the fact, I knew Wallace only as a caricature of midcentury racism. What I did not learn until years later was that during the final stages of his life, Wallace—who by then was bound to a wheelchair following an attempt on his life—expressed remorse for the damage he caused African Americans. He met with Lewis in 1979 and with other civil rights leaders too.

Many people felt—and still feel—that Wallace’s about-face on racism was less than sincere. Yet in an astonishing op-ed he wrote for The New York Times the week Wallace died in 1998, Lewis said the Wallace he got to know “was a changed man.” “When I met George Wallace, I had to forgive him,” he wrote, “because to do otherwise — to hate him — would only perpetuate the evil system we sought to destroy.”

Lewis went on to say that Wallace “should be remembered for his capacity to change.” “I can never forget what George Wallace said and did as governor, as a national leader and as a political opportunist,” he wrote. “But our ability to forgive serves a higher moral purpose in our society.”

The effectiveness of nonviolence

Lewis was also willing to forgive less well-known figures too. In one of the most startling examples of his grace, he forgave Elwin Wilson, a Ku Klux Klan member who viciously beat Lewis and a fellow Freedom Rider at a bus station in the early 60s—Lewis and the other activist refused to fight back or press charges—before seeking him out to apologize and make amends decades later.

Lewis beautifully recalled their meeting about 10 years ago in Washington, DC: “He started crying, his son started crying, and I started crying,” he said. The quote from Lewis at the top of this post explains why he never hesitated to accept Wilson’s apology.

For his part, Wilson, who wanted to set things right with his God before it was too late, had wisdom of his own to dispense. “[M]y daddy always told me that a fool never changes his mind, and a smart man changes his mind,” he said. “And that’s what I’ve done and I’m not ashamed of it.” He and Lewis made several TV appearances together over the next few years, and when he died in 2013, Lewis issued a statement saying he was “very sorry to learn of Elwin Wilson’s passing.”

“He demonstrated the power of love and the effectiveness of nonviolent direct action,” Lewis said, “not only to fix legislative injustice but to mend the wounded souls in our society, the soul of the victim as well as the perpetrator.”

Hope for Tibet, hope for tomorrow

Though I’m sad that Congressman Lewis no longer walks this Earth with the rest of us, reading about him over the past few days has refocused my belief in the Tibetan cause and the vision of the Dalai Lama. Lewis’ success in changing the world, and changing individual people, renews my hope that change can come to Tibet.

I’m not saying it will be easy. Do I believe that Chen Quanguo, the architect of mass atrocities against Tibetans and Uyghurs, will undergo the same change of heart that Wallace and Wilson said they did? Not really, no. As Lewis himself noted in his op-ed, Wallace’s conversion was a rare feat for a politician.

Many of you probably also question whether it even matters to convert or forgive people like Wallace and Chen, given the immense harm they’ve caused. On top of that, even though I’ve followed the Dalai Lama and other nonviolent leaders for many years now, I’m still never sure how to put their teachings into practice—how to combat injustice and stand up for what’s right without becoming unjust or unkind myself.

I can also assure you that I have many of the same fears that many of you do about the coronavirus and its effect on our health, our economy, our future. There’s also the threat of climate change, the rise of authoritarianism and numerous other concerns to worry about.

Spirit of healing

Yet I know that whatever the next few months, as well as the next few years and decades, bring, I would prefer to face them with the spirit of compassion, nonviolence and healing that Lewis embodied, rather than with anger and vindictiveness.

That’s a big part of what drew me to Tibet in the first place, and I suspect it’s what drew many of you as well. It’s not about achieving victory over the Chinese, but about creating conditions for Tibetans and Chinese to live together peacefully, the way Lewis and his peers hoped different races in the US could live as equals.

Below is His Holiness’ full letter about the loss of Congressman Lewis. I hope you take a moment to read it, and I hope you stay committed to the cause of nonviolence and peace.


What the killing of George Floyd means to me

During the last few months, we at the International Campaign for Tibet have been continuing our work in support of the people of Tibet and to oppose the systematic discrimination they suffer at the hands of the Chinese government.

A few days ago, like everyone living in America, I saw the images of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and I shared my thoughts about that tragedy on my personal Facebook page. Today, I want to share those thoughts with all of you who support ICT.

For a few days I had trouble watching the video of the killing of George Floyd. I could not stand hearing a man begging a policeman not to suffocate him, and seeing him succumbing.

Now, I think that this image represents something which is way bigger than the tragic loss of a precious human life. It represents the universal pain of all those who are oppressed by the arrogance of power.

The arrogance of power takes many, different forms: it’s institutional, it’s economic, it’s discriminatory, it’s racist, it’s intolerant and it’s bigoted.

That arrogance now needs to be stopped. With determination, but without violence, with strength and compassion for the opponent and with the indomitable will to overcome the obstacles.

Remember that when we accept injustice, we become complicit with it. Change is possible, and it starts with each of us saying that enough is enough.

Gandhi and Tibet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abuse of privilege: Roisin Timmins and access to Tibet

Roisin Timmins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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