Current Events

Kungo Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab was an Officer as well as a Gentleman

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

The issue of a generational change in the Tibetan community has been something that is being felt more and more as the years go by. On Nov. 23, 2023, we got yet another indication of this when Mr. Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab, among the first of the Tibetan community workers in exile, passed away. Kungo Lodhar la, as he is known honorably to people who knew him, dedicated himself to the service of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, making his contribution in strengthening the democratic fabric of the Tibetan administration. He was actively involved at pivotal moments in the history of the Central Tibetan Administration. In fact, he has the sole record of having not only served in leadership positions in all three branches of the Tibetan democratic system in exile, but being instrumental in laying down the working foundation for the judiciary wing.

From the time of his arrival in India in 1959 following the Chinese takeover of Tibet till his demise, he was involved in public work. Initially, in Kalimpong, the first town in India where he resided (with the Dakgyab Rinpoche, more about him later) he began teaching Tibetan to fellow refugees. Thereafter, after moving to Bylakuppe in now Karnataka state in South India, to the first Tibetan refugee settlement of Lugsung Samdupling, he was involved in teaching classes for adult settlers. He also served on the board of the settlement’s cooperative society, which provides support to the refugees on all aspects of their agriculture work. The society is overseen by a board of elected people from the settlement, and he was elected to it.

Tibetan Parliament for the 1969-1972

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab (standing first left) with his colleagues in the Tibetan Parliament for the 1969-1972 period.

From 1969, he was thrust into the Tibetan national scene when he was elected to the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile as a representative of U-Tsang province, and thus moved to Dharamsala. He served for three terms until 1979, and moved up the hierarchy, being elected the vice chair of the Parliament in 1976. In 1979, he was appointed as a member of the first fact-finding delegation sent by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet.

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab (kneeling second from left) and members of the first fact-finding delegation with the Panchen Lama, Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, and Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal in China.

Following his stint in the legislative wing of the Tibetan administration, he moved to the executive wing in 1980 when he was appointed the finance secretary. He served in that position for three years until 1983 when he was appointed finance minister by H.H. the Dalai Lama, who was then the head of the administration. He was the minister until May 1990 when the Tibetan administration was completely overhauled by His Holiness at the leadership level as part of his continuing democratization process, and the ministers began to be elected, rather than appointed by him.

During his tenure in the Department of Finance, Kungo Lodhar la was also overseeing the newly established Planning Council within the Kashag (cabinet).

In 1991, the three constitutionally autonomous bodies of Election Commission, Public Service Commission and Office of the Auditor General were established to enable a more transparent and independent oversight of the work of the Tibetan Administration. Kungo Lodhar la was appointed to hold the position of acting head of the new Tibetan Election Commission.

In 1992, the Tibetan administration saw a major development with the Parliament enacting laws to establish the Supreme Tibetan Justice Commission, the judiciary wing. The Justice Commission was mandated to be responsible for adjudicating all civil disputes in the Tibetan community, within the laws of the host countries. Kungo Lodhar was appointed as the first Supreme Justice Commissioner. Altogether he served as the Justice Commissioner for over 10 years, until his retirement in 2002. For the critical first five years of the Justice Commission, he was the sole Justice Commissioner, during which time he had the unenviable task of overseeing the drafting of the necessary codes, the Tibetan Judiciary Code, Civil Procedure Code and Evidence Code, as the basis of the work of the Commission. Despite the challenge of not having a legal background, he understood the vision of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and put in all the efforts, reaching out to anyone who could support the initiative. I recall him coming to the United States in 1998 to meet with then-Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer as well as to exchange ideas with law professors, all of whom were intrigued by this unique Tibetan experiment of a judiciary in diaspora.

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab with Justice Stephen Breyer in his chamber in the United States Supreme Court in Washington, DC. (Photo from his family collection)

In any case, Kungo Lodhar la was assisted in his work by Ani Vajra Sakya, a lawyer by training and one of the sons of the head of the Phuntsok Phodrang of the Sakya lineage. Ani Vajra Rinpoche had come from the United States to Dharamsala to be of service to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people. Eventually, the codes were formulated, and in February 1996, His Holiness the Dalai Lama approved the three codes, and these are the backbone of the Justice Commission even to this day.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama specifically wanted to establish the Justice Commission so that the administration would be accountable to the people. He felt that the Tibetan public should have a system in place that would not only provide them the third pillar of democracy nominally, but more importantly enable them to exercise their rights to challenge the working of the administration when they perceived abuse of power or privileges, etc.

Dakgyab Rinpoche with his steward, Chazoe Lobsang Khyenrab

Dakgyab Rinpoche with his steward, Chazoe Lobsang Khyenrab in Bylakuppe.

In 1997, two more justice commissioners, Dongag Tenzin Songag Tsang and Lobsang Dhargyal Shewo were appointed. Interestingly, the first case taken up by them in August 1997 and decided in March 1998 was a charge of defamation against the Tibet Times newspaper by a parliamentarian, Jadur Sangpo. The justice commissioners came out with a 17-page judgement.

After serving until September 2002, Kungo Lodhar la retired. However, he continued his public service, being on the board of different organizations, including the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.

He was born in Tibet in 1937 and was related to Dakgyap Rinpoche Ngawang Lobsang Yeshi, the 14th reincarnation of Potowa Rinchen Sal, one of the three main students of prominent Tibetan Buddhist master Dromtonpa. From a young age, Kungo Lodhar la was in the service of Rinpoche. He and Losang Thonden la, a scholar and another relative of Rinpoche, assisted Rinpoche and his steward Lobsang Khyenrab when they escaped to India in 1959. Rinpoche had eyesight issues and could not see well while Chazoe la, as the steward was known, had leg issues and had problems walking.

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

Undated photo of Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab (right) and Losang Thonden in Bylakuppe.

In India, Rinpoche initially resided in Kalimpong, where Kungo Lodhar la had the opportunity to learn the rudiments of the English language even as he taught Tibetan to refugee students. When Rinpoche was appointed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to look after the spiritual needs of the people in the Lugsung Samdupling settlement in Bylakuppe, Kungo accompanied him to South India and was with him until going up to Dharamsala in 1969. Dakgyab Rinpoche belonged to the Minyak Khangtsen (House) of Sera Mey Monastic University.

Rinpoche and some unidentified monks in Bylakuppe

Uma Devi with Dakgyab Rinpoche and some unidentified monks in Bylakuppe.

My personal connection to Kungo Lodhar la began indirectly. My elder brother was a monk of the Thekchenling Monastery that Drakgyab Rinpoche had established and was also attending to sundry needs at the residence of Rinpoche. Therefore, when I was growing up in Bylakuppe I would also visit the residence and in the process was exposed to several books in the English language there, all property of Kungo Lodhar la who had left them there after going to Dharamsala. I still recall some of the novels of the Indian author R.K. Narayan, including “The Man-Eater of Malgudi,” that I was able to read. I assume he inherited these books from the Polish writer and Theosophist Wanda Dynowska (Uma Devi or Tenzin Choedon was the name given to her by H.H. the Dalai Lama) who had resided in Bylakuppe in the late 1960s to help the Tibetans, particularly in the field of education. Uma Devi was close to Dakgyab Rinpoche, who supported her initiatives. I would occasionally meet Kungo Lodhar la when he came to the settlement on a break from his Dharamsala work.

When I joined the Central Tibetan Administration in the 1980s, he became a guide and a mentor to me, explaining to me the nature of the Dharamsala society, the leadership expectations and the workstyle of the officials.

The common perception of Kungo Lodhar la in the Dharamsala official circle was of someone who was sincerely dedicated to his work and adopted a gentle attitude to everyone. Even though his contribution to the institutional development of Tibetan democracy is formidable, not many know of this on account of his basic nature of not being in the limelight and his humility.

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab and wife Kaldon la with monk officials of Minyak Khangtsen of Sera Mey in Bylakuppe.

He is survived by his wife Kaldon la in Dharamsala, daughter Tenzin Kunsang Phunrab in Utah and son Tashi Topgyal Phunrab in California.

Jerry Mander and Tibet

Jerry Mander

Jerry Mander

“Many of China’s so-called minorities have had glorious pasts, notably the Mongols, whose thirteenth-century empires reached westward to Europe, and the Tibetans, whose civilization has lasted at least two millennia and who are considered among the world’s most refined people, psychologically, socially, spiritually, and artistically.”—Jerry Mander, “In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations”

In this year of climate disasters and artificial intelligence, a future of ecological and technological destruction feels as inevitable as the April death at age 88 of the author quoted above. But looking back at his writing, I’m convinced we needn’t accept such inevitability.

Jerry Mander (yes, that was his real name; no, he had nothing to do with election rigging) was an activist and advertiser for environmental causes. He’s best known for writing 1978’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” a weighty treatise that lays out why, in Mander’s view, “television and democratic society are incompatible.”

Even 45 years ago, arguments against TV probably felt as quaint as arguments against mobile phones do today. But Mander had a knack for inspecting our casual acceptance of technology, investigating its ramifications and offering alternatives. We should get rid of television, he says, because of its (1) mediation of experience, (2) colonization of experience, (3) effects on the human being and (4) inherent biases. If you want to know more, I highly recommend reading the book.

Struggles of ‘native’ people

Mander advances his arguments in 1991’s “In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations.” This time, he broadens his aim to target not just TV but also computers and space travel. However, about halfway through the book, Mander pivots from critiquing technological society to hailing “Indian” (by which he means Indigenous) alternatives. That’s where Tibet comes in. (Disclosure: I’ve read “Four Arguments” in full but have not yet finished “In the Absence of the Sacred.”)

Mander, an American, focuses mainly on Native Americans. But in a later section of the book, he surveys the struggles of Indigenous people around the globe. About Tibetans living under China’s occupation, he writes:

The most well-known of today’s conflicts [between the Chinese government and “minority” groups] is taking place in Tibet. Chinese armies invaded Tibet in 1950 … Since then more than one million Tibetans have died resisting the invaders. In an open effort to forever suppress the elaborate and celebrated Tibetan culture, the Chinese have destroyed more than 6,000 monasteries, which also housed most of the Tibetan nation’s art, religious artifacts, and books.

I can imagine some of you shaking your head right now. A lot of Tibetans reject the “Indigenous” label, although some in the younger generation have embraced it (here’s a good explainer). Moreover, people like Mander, who exalt Indigenous cultures, risk promoting “noble savagery,” the belief that Indigenous people lived in a state of perfect nature before they fell under the control of “civilization,” a claim that critics deride as racist and ahistorical.

On the other hand, the Chinese government uses the opposite argument—that Tibetans are backward and in need of development—to justify its forced resettlement of Tibetan nomads and despoilment of the Tibetan Plateau. Unfortunately, even we Tibet supporters in the West can fall victim to this mindset due to the inherent biases of our “modern” world.

Myth of progress

There’s no doubt Beijing and the West have different visions of the future. But both are plagued by a myth of progress. This is the belief that change is necessary, beneficial and inevitable. According to this view, things are perpetually getting better. Hatred and bigotry are fading away; poverty and disease are disappearing; violence and war are vanishing from the Earth. At the same time, people are growing smarter and more tolerant, while technology carries us toward a paradisaic future. (In the Chinese version, there may be less emphasis on social justice, but the narrative of continuous improvement is still there.)

This belief has been a driving force of the West for ages. It was used to justify America’s own abhorrent colonization of native lands, and I think it lingers in our collective unconscious. But over the past few years, with the emergence of COVID-19, the eruption of war in Ukraine (not to mention all the wars happening in non-White places) and the return of fascism, it’s not so easy to believe in the march of progress anymore. (To his credit, Mander rejected this eschatology even during the boom times of the post-World War II era and the “end of history” period when the Soviet Union fell and liberal democracy looked destined to reign forever.)

My disenchantment with progress is partly why I joined the Tibet movement in 2018—because I believed that Western progress, rooted in the destruction of nature and alienation of people, was driving us off a cliff, and we needed alternatives from different traditions. As a result, I’m still a bit wary of using Western institutions and concepts like individual rights to defend Tibet from China’s predations, even though I recognize the usefulness of doing so. To me, that’s akin to expecting technology to save us from the problems technology has created.

I think it would be a mistake to frame our goal of liberating Tibet as the triumph of progress against the darkness of Chinese authoritarianism. I have no say in the matter—and as a non-Tibetan, I don’t deserve one—but to me, it would be a shame if a free Tibet ended up like just another cog in the liberal order, with a veneer of cultural difference but ultimately the same beliefs and same problems as the contemporary West. I don’t know what the future Tibet should look like, but I hope it will look better than what we have in the US today.

Things don’t have to change

That gets me back to Jerry Mander. In one of my favorite passages so far from “In the Absence of the Sacred,” he describes speaking with Oren Lyons, faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan, Onondaga Nation, who explains to Mander the Iroquois governance system. Far from the despotic chiefdoms that Native Americans are stereotyped as living in, the Iroquois instead had a democracy purer and more participatory than the “representative democracy” other Americans have.

Rather than majority rule, the Iroquois required consensus for decision-making. At council meetings, all adults had the right to speak, so long as they did not speak too loudly or try to dominate others. And the discussion would take as much time as needed. (Mander writes, “Lyons added that only in machine-oriented societies is there pressure to get human matters processed quickly, because society is moving at machine-speed.”) If three meetings went by without a consensus, the issue would be dropped. “We figure it will come up again some other time,” Lyons says.

Mander writes:

At first I was shocked by this idea of just dropping something that cannot be agreed upon. But eventually I realized that the Indian decision-making system is biased toward the idea that things don’t really have to be changed. They can stay the way they are. If some step really is needed—say there’s an attack of some kind—then a consensus will be reached and steps will be taken. The equivalent principle in American terms is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Save Tibet

Unfortunately, too many of us moderns, me included, are still trying to fix things that aren’t broken. We continue to adopt (or are coerced into adopting) new technology, from the smartphone a decade-and-a-half ago to generative AI today. The problems these technologies supposedly solve are generally made-up or not really problems at all—our species survived without an iPhone for 300,000 years after all—and whatever good they do is overwhelmed by the enormous harms they fuel: the destruction of the climate, the subversion of democracy, the crisis of mental health, the concentration of wealth and power, the rise of hate movements and the descent of humanity into a post-human future. If progressives really want the things they say they want, they might do better to turn the clock back on technology rather than forward.

The acceptance of these “innovations” is based in part on people’s belief in their inevitability—that even if we don’t want them, we have no choice but to assimilate. Adapt or die. That same belief shaped the attitude toward television decades ago. But one key takeaway from Mander’s books is that we don’t have to accept things we don’t need. We can choose to reject change that will subtract more than it adds.

When it comes to Tibetans, they don’t have to become Chinese. They don’t have to become Western, either. If they need to change—and the Dalai Lama himself has been a staunch reformer—they deserve the freedom to discuss and decide that for themselves.

As Mander writes, Tibetans “are considered among the world’s most refined people, psychologically, socially, spiritually, and artistically.” So rather than sail on to the next techno-utopia after trashing this continent and leaving it behind, we should seek to preserve the Tibetan civilization that China is trying to toss on the ash-heap of history. True progress isn’t colonizing Mars; true progress is saving Tibet.

One last thing: Carmen Kohlruss recently wrote a lovely piece for Tricycle magazine about the connection between Tibetans and Native Americans in western Montana. Check it out.

China makes a mockery of 30th World Press Freedom Day

Free press

For decades, the government of China has parched media inside the country. Now it’s flooding the media in the rest of the world.

On this 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, that’s one urgent takeaway from two recent reports chronicling Beijing’s subversion of the free press.

In its annual report this year, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China documents Beijing’s use of weaponized COVID-19 restrictions, surveillance, harassment and intimidation to stymie the work of foreign journalists in 2022. Worse, the Chinese government denied visas to foreign journalists and even kicked some journalists out of the country altogether.

At the same time, Beijing has increasingly polluted news outlets in other countries with its propaganda lies. That’s according to a 2022 report on Beijing’s global media influence by the watchdog group Freedom House, the same organization that recently rated Tibet as the least-free country on Earth alongside South Sudan and Syria.

Press freedom, like most basic freedoms, is virtually non-existent in Chinese-occupied Tibet. But that hasn’t stopped Beijing from exploiting media freedom in other countries to spread its fake news about the Tibetan people.

Lack of media access

In the Foreign Correspondents’ Club report, several foreign journalists say they had less freedom in 2022 to make reporting trips around China than they did in years prior. “Perhaps the most dramatic escalation has been the tendency to be followed by carloads of officials almost every time we report outside Beijing,” says the BBC’s Stephen McDonell. “Apart from harassing journalists, they intimidate and pressure those we are trying to interview.”

But one area where no escalation was needed is the so-called “Tibet Autonomous Region.” That’s because foreign media have long been denied access to the TAR, which spans most of western Tibet.

The TAR is the only region that the People’s Republic of China requires foreigners, including journalists, to get special permission to enter. “Access to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) remains officially restricted for foreign journalists,” the club’s report says. “Reporters must apply to the government for special permission or join a press tour organized by China’s State Council or” Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

However, those press tours are organized to keep journalists from seeing the truth about China’s oppression of the Tibetan people. And the special permission journalists must get is rarely if ever granted.

In the Foreign Correspondents’ Club’s annual survey, three journalists said they applied to visit the TAR in 2022. All three were denied. Even those who were able to visit other Tibetan areas outside the TAR faced restrictions.

No longer trying

Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that so few journalists appear to even be trying to enter the TAR anymore. In 2021, four journalists in the club’s survey said they applied for permission to visit the region; all four were denied. In 2018, there were five applicants and five rejections.

The fact that even this small number has diminished over the years suggests that individual journalists don’t think it’s worth applying because they know they’ll never be accepted. Thankfully, higher authorities have taken up their cause.

In 2019, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club published a position paper calling on China to allow journalists “unfettered access to the Tibet Autonomous Region and all Tibetan-inhabited regions.” The paper adds that foreign governments should protest China’s intimidation of journalists who interview the Dalai Lama and request data from the Chinese government on journalists’ applications to report on Tibet.

The paper followed the passage of a pathbreaking US law, the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act. Known as RATA, the law pressures China to give US journalists, diplomats and ordinary citizens the same level of access to Tibet that their Chinese counterparts have to the United States. Under RATA, the State Department has banned entry to the United States by Chinese officials involved in keeping Americans out of Tibet.

What happens in Tibet doesn’t stay in Tibet

RATA became law in 2018, the same year I joined the International Campaign for Tibet. During my time as ICT’s communications officer, I’ve spoken to several journalists who have tried to visit Tibet for a reporting trip but were physically stopped by Chinese authorities.

Given these experiences, I can understand why some journalists might give up on ever trying to enter Tibet. But Tibet’s story needs to be told.

For one thing, the Tibetan people deserve to have their voices heard around the globe. For more than 60 years, they have lived under one of the world’s most brutal occupations. China has routinely violated their basic freedoms, including religious freedom, freedom of movement and, yes, freedom of the press. In this bleak landscape, it’s not surprising—but nevertheless tragic—that over the past 14 years, nearly 160 Tibetans have self-immolated, lighting their own bodies on fire in a desperate act of protest.

However, it is not just Tibetans who suffer from this repression; as much as China keeps a tight lid on Tibet, what happens there doesn’t ultimately stay there. Beijing’s brutalization of the Tibetan people has spread to other territories under its command, most notably Xinjiang, which Uyghurs know as East Turkestan. China’s genocide of the Uyghurs was initially led by Chen Quanguo, who honed his vicious tactics as the Chinese Communist Party Secretary of the TAR from 2011-2016.

Now, China’s repression in Tibet is fueling Beijing’s repression in other parts of the globe, including here in the United States. I am not just talking about direct threats and transnational repression against Tibetan activists in exile. I also mean China’s efforts to censor the truth about Tibet, spread disinformation and fool media consumers into believing its lies.

State media inside the free media

As Freedom House’s “Beijing’s Global Media Influence Report 2022” states, the “Chinese government, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, is accelerating a massive campaign to influence media outlets and news consumers around the world.” The report adds: “The possible future impact of these developments should not be underestimated.”

While China has long sought to warp global public perception in its favor, according to the report, its efforts increased starting around 2019, when Beijing began to suffer the bad press of its crackdown in Hong Kong, its genocide of the Uyghurs and its attempted coverup of the origins of COVID-19, among other issues.

Rather than try to mitigate this public relations disaster by, say, telling the truth about COVID or respecting the rights of Uyghurs and Hong Kongers, China instead tried to muscle the media into submission. It did this via several methods.

One of Beijing’s primary tactics has been to place content made by or friendly to the Chinese state in news outlets around the world, including print, TV, internet and radio news. Such content appeared in
over 130 news outlets across 30 countries studied in Freedom House’s report. “The labeling of the content often fails to clearly inform readers and viewers that it came from Chinese state outlets,” the report says.

Through these placements, Beijing is able to reach a much wider overseas audience than its own state media would allow. And it can do so without having those audiences know clearly that they are receiving CCP propaganda. Worryingly, China appears to be aggressively pursuing more of such placements in foreign media outlets. Coproduction arrangements in 12 countries allowed China to have a degree of editorial control over reporting in or on China in exchange for providing the foreign journalists with technical support or resources.

China has also resorted to blatant bribery. According to Freedom House’s report, CCP agents offered monetary compensation or gifts such as electronic devices to journalists in nine countries, including Kenya and Romania, in exchange for pro-China articles written by local journalists.

Intimidation of journalists, including Tibetans

Then there are China’s attempts to censor foreign journalists. According to the report, Chinese diplomats and government representatives intimidated, harassed and pressured journalists and editors in response to their critical coverage, at times demanding they retract or delete unfavorable content. The Chinese officials backed up those demands with implicit or explicit threats of defamation suits and other legal repercussions; a withdrawal of advertising; or harm to bilateral relations.

Sadly, those demands have at times been successful. In one glaring example, in August 2021, China’s embassy in Kuwait pressured the Arab Times to delete an interview with Taiwan’s foreign minister from its website after the interview already appeared in print. The interview was then replaced by—and this is not a joke—a statement from the embassy itself.

Even more sadly, journalists from communities that Beijing oppresses—including ethnic Chinese dissidents—have been the target of some of China’s most coercive attempts at overseas censorship. Last year, Erica Hellerstein reported in Coda that a Tibetan exile journalist in an unnamed country was tricked into meeting with a Chinese state security agent who appeared to make vague threats about the journalist’s family members still living in Tibet. A few weeks later, a group of men ambushed the journalist as he walked home, throwing a black bag over his head and forcing him into a van that drove around for hours as the men grilled him for information and searched his phone.

The journalist reportedly quit his media career after that, fearful of what would happen to his relatives in Tibet if he continued his important work.

Social media spread

It’s not just the traditional media that Beijing is preying on; it’s also social media. According to Freedom House’s report, Facebook and Twitter have become important channels of content dissemination for China’s diplomats and state media outlets. However, these state actors are not attracting attention via organic interest. Instead they are purchasing fake followers and using other tools of covert manipulation.

As Freedom House states:

“Armies of fake accounts that artificially amplify posts from diplomats were found in half of the countries assessed. Related initiatives to pay or train unaffiliated social media influencers to promote pro-Beijing content to their followers, without revealing their CCP ties, occurred in Taiwan, the United States, and the United Kingdom. In nine countries, there was at least one targeted disinformation campaign that employed networks of fake accounts to spread falsehoods or sow confusion.”

One of Beijing’s most noticeable—and unfortunately most successful—targeted disinformation campaigns has been its deliberate amplification of an edited video clip of His Holiness the Dalai Lama interacting with a young boy in India. The clip, which takes the interaction out of its cultural context and suggests lurid intentions where there were none, went viral over a month after the interaction took place, thanks to suspicious accounts that appeared out of nowhere and helped get the clip coverage in major news outlets.

Disinformation and disbelief

It’s important to note that according to Freedom House’s report, Beijing’s influence campaigns have had mixed results so far. The CCP has failed to get its official narratives and manufactured content to dominate coverage of China in the 30 nations studied in Freedom House’s report. And domestic journalists, civil society groups and governments in the 30 countries have been at least somewhat effective in pushing back on Beijing’s efforts at manipulation.

However, I can’t help but feel concerned about Beijing’s potential for long-term success. On this 30th World Press Freedom Day, the press is in tough straits. Layoffs and closures have ruptured the industry. Vice, which provided some of the fairest, most informative coverage of the aforementioned controversy surrounding His Holiness, apparently gutted its Asia-Pacific news desk and may be preparing for bankruptcy.

As the financial void in journalism grows, China is positioned to step in with bags of money. As Freedom House notes, “As more governments and media owners face financial trouble, the likelihood increases that economic pressure from Beijing will be used, implicitly or explicitly, to reduce critical debate and reporting.”

This softening of the traditional media model comes with public trust already on the decline. As I wrote in a previous blog post, contrarians and charlatans are spreading conspiracy theories that catch fire among the alienated in society. And now the Chinese government is working even harder to sow division. As Freedom House says, Beijing’s campaigns have “reflected not just attempts to manipulate news and information about human rights abuses in China or Beijing’s foreign policy priorities, but also a disconcerting trend of meddling in the domestic politics of the target country.”

On this World Press Freedom Day, we must find ways to buttress free and independent media from China’s attacks, including perhaps by allotting more government and philanthropic funding to journalists. And we must use our own freedom of expression to call out the double standard that allows Beijing to block foreign media from its country while barraging other countries with its fake news.

My thoughts on Mongolian spiritual leader Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa and Dalai Lama

Following the public appearance of the young 10th reincarnation of the Mongolian spiritual leader Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa at a teaching by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala on March 8-9 this year, a section of the non-Tibetan international media has been misreporting on it. In the process, quite a few of them have unfortunately provided a distorted perspective on the Jetsun Dhampa and the significance of the 10th incarnation.

The 10th Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa making the Mandala offering to H.H. the Dalai Lama on March 8, 2023. Photo: Tenzin Choejor/ OHHDL

First, a brief history of the Jetsun Dhampa institution. The first Jetsun Dhampa Lobsang Tenpay Gyaltsen (also known as Zanabazar) was recognized in the 17th century with the involvement of the Fifth Dalai Lama and the Fourth Panchen Lama and came to be accepted as the spiritual head of Mongolian Buddhists. The subsequent incarnations may have been involved in predominantly spiritual matters, but the eighth incarnation came to be known as the Bogd Khan and also became the political head of Mongolia. While the first two incarnations were Mongolians, the next six have been born in Tibet. The Jetsun Dhampa was also recognized as the reincarnation of Taranatha, head of the Jonang tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Following the Communist takeover of Mongolia in the 1920s and after the passing away of the eighth incarnation, the then-Mongolian government banned the recognition of the Jetsun Dhampa.

The 9th Jetsun Dhampa

The 9th Jetsun Dhampa

But the 9th Jetsun Dhampa Jampal Namdol Chokyi Gyaltsen was in anyway discovered in Tibet, having been born in 1932. When he was four years old, he was recognized by Radreng Rinpoche, who had by then become the Regent of Tibet after the 13th Dalai Lama passed away in 1933. But given the Mongolian political situation then, the recognition was not made public even though the reincarnation underwent his spiritual education. It was only after Mongolia became a democracy and its monastic emissaries went to India to request the Dalai Lama for information about the 9th Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa. Subsequently, His Holiness had this to say, “After Mongolia became free once more, I formally recognised and enthroned him where he lived in Madhya Pradesh” and the 9th Jetsun Dhampa’s public recognition took place on Jan. 13, 1992. As an aside, the 9th Jetsun Dhampa and I shared a train cabin at one time in 1993. We were in Sikkim for the Kalachakra Initiations that H.H. the Dalai Lama bestowed there and were returning to New Delhi by train. Following his public recognition, he was invited to visit Mongolia for the first time in 1997, eventually being settled in the country in 2010 and was given citizenship by the government. He passed away in Mongolia in 2012.

Although the Dalai Lamas in general have had a special relationship with the Mongolian spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama says his family had a close connection with the Jetsun Dhampa. In 2013, during a teaching in south India, he explained this by saying people in his birth region of Kumbum were in fact closer to Jetsun Dhampa than to the Dalai Lamas. While he was growing up in Lhasa, His Holiness told the gathering that he would often find the young Jetsun Dhampa with his mother when he went to visit his family.

After the 9th Jetsun Dhampa passed away in March 2012, His Holiness the Dalai Lama took part in a memorial prayer gathering held in Dharamsala then. He also composed a prayer for the Jetsun Dhampa’s speedy rebirth and also publicly mentioned his belief that the reincarnation would be born in Mongolia.

Those who follow the issue of the Jetsun Dhampa would know that for the next few years thereafter, the Dalai Lama continued to update the public about the Mongolian spiritual leader at teachings that he gave in different places.

During special teachings for devotees from Mongolia who had gathered in the Indian capital New Delhi on Dec. 4, 2013, the Dalai Lama gave a reading transmission of his prayer for the swift return of the Jetsun Dhampa. At the end of the same month, the Dalai Lama was giving a teaching at Sera Monastery in South India, where again he referred to the Jetsun Dhampa and the prayer he had composed, saying, “This prayer refers to his previous lives and makes the wish that he come back in Mongolia as a scholar able to teach.”

In December 2014, at yet another teaching requested by Mongolian devotees, this time in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama gave the reading transmission of his prayer for the swift rebirth of the Jetsun Dhampa. The Dalai Lama also “mentioned that he had encouraged him to take his next birth in Mongolia,” according to His Holiness’ website.

In 2016, on Nov. 23, during a visit to Mongolia, the Dalai Lama publicly spoke about the rebirth of the Jetsun Dhampa, telling the media then, “the boy is very young right now, so there is no need for haste in making an announcement. When he is 3, 4 or 5 years old, we’ll see how things are. Placing a small child on a high throne is not what’s important. What is much more important is that he is able to study and become learned so he will be able to contribute to the flourishing of the Buddha dharma.”

Dalai Lama addressing the media

The Dalai Lama addressing the media in Mongolia on Nov 23, 2016 on the Jetsun Dhampa, flanked by Mongolian monastic leaders. (Photo: Tenzin Taklha/OHHDL)

The Dalai Lama also outlined his special reason for his interest in the Jetsun Dhampa. He told the media in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar then, “Previous Jetsun Dhampas have been close to the Dalai Lamas in the past. I knew the 9th Jetsun Dhampa from childhood. As the time of his death approached, he asked me where and when he should pass away, which surprised me a little. However, during our last meeting, when he was already in poor health, I told him that it was important for him to be reborn in Mongolia. Considering the significance of his reincarnation and bearing in mind that he is a personal friend, I feel I have a responsibility to look after his reincarnation.”

Therefore, this is the background to the public appearance of the young 10th Jetsun Dhampa in Dharamsala in March. The occasion was a two-day Buddhist teaching on the Krishnacharya lineage of Chakrasamvara (part of the higher tantric practice) by the Dalai Lama that was requested by the main Mongolian monastery, Gandan Tegchenling, which is located in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. The 10th Jetsun Dhampa was among the 600 or so Mongolians who had arrived in Dharamsala for the teachings.

While it was certainly the 10th Jetsun Dhampa’s first public appearance, it was not an announcement of his recognition, as can be discerned from developments in 2016. This can also be seen from how His Holiness refers to the young reincarnation at the beginning of the teachings on March 8. His Holiness is seen reading from a note (whether by himself or by the organizers) placed on his table, “The reincarnation of (Khalkha) Jetsun Dhampa is here.” He then looks around and asks, “Where is he? Does he understand Ukay (central Tibetan dialect)?” His Holiness continues reading from the note, “He is here to receive the empowerment of Krishnacharya lineage of Chakrasamvara. The reincarnations of the Khalkha (Jetsun Dhampa) have been adopting the Krishnacharya lineage of Chakrasamvara as their main practice and so this is an auspicious occasion without having planned for it.”

Dalai Lama reading

The Dalai Lama reading from the note about the 10th Jetsun Dhampa’s presence at the teachings in Dharamsala on March 8, 2023. (Screengrab)

The reincarnation is later seen participating in some of the ritual procedures as part of the empowerment.

This was certainly a newsworthy story, given that the young reincarnation is the spiritual leader of Mongolian Buddhists. But there were a few distortions.

The Jetsun Dhampa is not the successor to the Dalai Lama, as some media reports implied, nor is he “traditionally one of the Buddhist leaders who recognize the Dalai Lama’s successor,” as another one contented. While making this latter misleading assertion, one news outlet even inserted just below it an ad for its own newsletter, ironically stating, “Don’t let yourself be misled. Understand issues with help from experts.” Neither conventionally nor historically have the Jetsun Dhampas had any roles in the search for the Dalai Lamas.

Yet another misunderstanding was that the Jetsun Dhampa was “the third most important spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism.” While Tibetan Buddhism is traditionally clear that the Dalai Lama is the supreme leader, there is no clear system that describes the hierarchy thereafter. The Tibetan government does have a system of classifying reincarnated masters into levels of ranks, made use also to determine seating during public events where the lamas might be gathering.

If the Mongolian Buddhists are the sources for this assertion of the Jetsun Dhampa being the third most important spiritual leader, then a possible reasoning could be from the particular history of the institution of the Jetsun Dhampas, whose initial establishment was connected to the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, the two most well-known Tibetan masters. But in any case this would not be the case for the overall world of Tibetan Buddhism.

As for the China connection, which some media outlets projected in different ways, in general anything connected to the Dalai Lama somehow seems to invite some sort of China context whether there is relevance or not. This is further fueled by the tendency of Beijing to go to any extent to reduce space for the Dalai Lama, and not because they have a stake in the Jetsun Dhampa. But the Jetsun Dhampa is connected to an independent nation of Mongolia, and if the Mongolian Buddhists have acceptance of the reincarnation, that is what is relevant. At best the Communist regime in China might only be in a position to sow confusion by causing internal dissension in Mongolia. It cannot claim authority over the recognition of Jetsun Dhampa, just as we cannot think of any China connection to the reincarnation of Zhabdrung Rinpoche, a prominent lama in the Drukpa Kagyu lineage in Bhutan. Zhabdrung Rinpoche was a Tibetan lama who settled in Bhutan some centuries back.

The 10th Jetsun Dhampa is significant because he symbolizes the aspiration of the Mongolian Buddhists for their spiritual renewal, a process that began following the downfall of the Communist regime there. This is the only relevant angle to the public appearance of the reincarnation. To me, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was only helping in the realization of this Mongolian aspiration, nothing more and nothing less.

Losing Tibetan identity in the West

Tibetan activist and poet Tenzin Tsundue (right) speaks at ICT’s Washington, DC office on March 15, 2023.

It’s well known that China’s government is forcibly assimilating Tibetans inside their Asian homeland. But coercive assimilation can happen in the West too, and although it’s less overt, it’s still destructive.

I was reminded of that last week when ICT welcomed Tenzin Tsundue, a renowned Tibetan activist and poet, to our office in Washington, DC. I had been excited to meet Tsundue la, both because I am a (very amateur) poet myself, and because he seems to have led the kind of authentic activist lifestyle I’ve always admired. The man has been in jail 16 times, after all.

Tsundue joined us for a lunch discussion with NGO representatives and government officials. The sight of this goateed Tibetan protestor, dressed in traditional garb and a red bandana that he says he won’t remove until Tibet is free, mixing with members of the dapper DC professional class was striking enough. But Tsundue also showed a sharp contrast in thought to what echoes through the halls of power in the US capital.

In his remarks, Tsundue criticized consumerism, one of the bedrocks of American life. He noted that US consumption of cheap Chinese goods helped fuel China’s rise to superpower status, threatening American dominance around the globe.

Consumer trap

Consumerism is also harmful to the Tibetan movement. In fact, it can be an even bigger threat than repression, Tsundue warned (I’m not using quotation marks because we didn’t record his speech and I didn’t take notes, so I’m recalling as best I can from memory).

Inside Tibet, China’s abuses are so visible that the Tibetan people likely see constant reminders of it. An ordinary Tibetan under Chinese rule must live with the awareness that she is a second-class citizen, that her country is occupied and that her community is being assimilated against its will.

It brings to mind an anecdote from Barbara Demick’s excellent 2020 book, “Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town.” Demick shares the story of a young man named Tsepey, who “was into partying, not politics” growing up. However, the condescension he faced from Chinese tourists and coworkers—including a boss who told him, “You need to behave more like the others”—led to a political awakening. Tsepey eventually took to the streets during the 2008 pan-Tibetan protests, got arrested and eventually escaped into exile.

Tsepey’s life—sadly he died from flu a few years ago—shows how systemic repression can, counterintuitively, harden a person’s attachment to who they are. But in a consumer society like the US, where you can supposedly choose your identity as easily as buying a new shirt, who you are can get lost in a sea of false choices. I speak from experience.

Personal story

After the lunch at ICT, I spoke with Tsundue la for a few minutes to dive deeper into his thoughts. I shared that I was born in Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu in India. When Tsundue tried communicating with me in Tamil, I had to admit that I couldn’t speak it. (For the record, my ancestral language is Malayalam, a relative of Tamil and the official language of the neighboring state of Kerala, where my family is originally from.)

Though I was born overseas, I moved to the US at just four months old. Growing up in suburban Pennsylvania in the 1990s and early 2000s, I mostly tried to distance myself from my ethnic background. While I likely couldn’t have embraced Indian culture even if I wanted to—the world was less digitally connected in those days—I mostly sought to ditch my identity because I felt the pain of being different.

Looking back, I of course feel ashamed now of being ashamed back then. But I was responding to the pressure I faced in that situation. Whether it was classmates mocking my dark skin, girls telling me they would never date a non-White guy or teachers accidentally calling me the name of one of the few other Indian students in my school, I was frequently reminded of my separateness at an age when many of us are desperately trying to fit in.

Freedom to destroy

But there was more to it than that. As a teen and young adult, I internalized the American belief that where you come from shouldn’t matter, and that you have the right to be whomever you want. The problem with me being Indian was not just the discrimination, but the fact that it limited my freedom.

In other words, I wanted to assimilate because it felt like the way to be free and happy. But a few decades later, I’ve found that the abundant freedoms this country provides can do as much to restrict your sense of self as to liberate you.

For one thing, if you are a person of color, assimilation will never be easy. No one will ever miss your otherness when they look at you. (Although, like Tsepey, direct discrimination might lead you to double down on your identity, something I’ve definitely experienced in life.)

Moreover, the differences between you and the majority will almost inevitably pop up, whether it’s through a contrast in values; a condescending remark that reminds you how other people truly see you; or just the inescapable feeling that you’re not like everyone else. No amount of effort to fit in can erase that, it seems to me.

International desert

Perhaps worst of all, if you try to abandon where you come from—geographically, culturally, religiously, etc.—you’ll have nothing but fragments to hold onto when you get older. Internally you’ll feel divided and unsure of who you really are. Rather than finding the freedom to be happy, you’ll only get the freedom of a balloon without a string.

I threw away being Indian as a kid so that I could be American, but today, I don’t feel fully like either, or anything. Thankfully, when I touched on these topics with Tsundue la, he seemed to grasp what I was saying immediately.

It’s tempting in a country like the US to walk away from your origins and seek to remake yourself as a free individual. But if you do that, Tsundue cautioned, you’ll end up in an international desert.

Empowering Tibetan American youth

That’s a fate I want to help Tibetan American youth avoid. Obviously, I am not saying all Tibetan American kids need to adhere to their ancestry, nor am I calling for anyone to avoid engaging with the wider world. But I know how important cultural preservation is and how difficult it can be in this society, and I at least want Tibetan American youth to have the opportunity to stay true to their roots, because I believe it will help them when they’re older (not to mention that it’s a crucial part of keeping the Tibetan struggle alive while China continues to occupy Tibet).

To be sure, Tibetan Americans seem to do a great job of that already. In my five years at ICT, I’ve been so impressed by how well the community comes together not just to advocate for their homeland but also to pass their culture to the next generation. Especially important, in my eyes, is the Tibetan Sunday schools that help teach Tibetan American kids the ways of their people. It’s a stark contrast to the Chinese boarding school system that has separated 1 million Tibetan children from their families, religion, language and culture.

I’m also pleased that ICT has so many programs that empower Tibetan Americans. In fact, we just started accepting applications for our 2023 Tibetan Youth Leadership Program. TYLP gives Tibetan American college students a unique, hands-on learning experience in policymaking and advocacy right here in Washington.

Having participated in the program the past few years, I can attest that it is a remarkable opportunity for Tibetan American youth. If you’re a Tibetan American undergrad or graduate student—or know someone who is—I encourage you to check out the application process.

Learn more and apply for TYLP.

My take on messages from the Tibetan National Uprising of 1959

Every year, we at the International Campaign for Tibet are involved in the organization of the commemoration of the Tibetan National Uprising anniversary on March 10 in all the regions where we have our offices. In Washington, DC one of the roles that we have is to address the rally before the embassy of the People’s Republic of China and the White House.

March 10 rally

Tibetan flag flying at the rally before the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC on March 10, 2023.

This year, on the 64th anniversary of the 1959 Uprising, I spoke at the rally before the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC. Before I continue, I should mention that this year we also had the Chair of the newly established House Select Committee on China, Representative Mike Gallagher, come to offer his support to Tibet. This is significant because the bipartisan Select Committee (whose full name is “The United States House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party”) is being looked upon as a committee that will provide a path for the future of the US-China relationship taking into consideration the current attitude of the Beijing leadership and the need to protect American interests. Tibet is a core issue in the US-China relationship as reflected in testimony before Congress by senior State Department officials and successive reports on Tibet negotiations by the State Department, which say, “the lack of resolution of these problems leads to greater tensions inside China and will be a stumbling block to fuller political and economic engagement with the United States and other nations.”

March 10 rally

Addressing the rally at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC on March 10 with a placard on political prisoner Go Sherap Gyatso with me.

Now coming back to my remarks at the rally this year, I outlined the following three messages from the 1959 Tibetan National Uprising.

First, the people in Tibet rose up to protect His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is not only the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, but also a symbol of Tibet. They understood the strong bond between His Holiness and the Tibetan people. Sixty-four years later, the Dalai Lama continues to be a symbol of the Tibetan nation and people, and we need to do what we can to support his vision.

Secondly, in 1959, the Tibetan people in Lhasa rose up because they saw a threat to Tibet, the survival of Tibetan identity, culture, language, religion, way of life, etc., at the hands of Tenda Gyamar (“Red China, Enemy of the Faith”). Sixty-four years later, the threat to the survival of Tibetan identity posed by the misguided Chinese policies, including the Sinicization of all aspects of Tibetan life, continues. It is a credit to the determination and courage of the Tibetans in Tibet, who continue to confront the assault from the Chinese leadership and look for space to preserve their identity. We Tibetans need to see what we can do to meet these challenges and to overcome them.

Thirdly, in 1959, the Tibetan people rose up in desperation without any clear support from the international community. There were efforts made to reach out to neighboring countries as well as the United Nations. Sixty-four years later, the Tibetan issue has become an issue for concern by the international community, particularly those working in the human rights field. The international community needs to do more. Today, we can see the concern, and rightly so, on Ukraine. Since the international community does not desire conflict, it should adopt a universal policy of providing concrete support to the Tibetan issue, too, so that peace can be restored to the region.

I concluded by saying that one action that the United States can take is to pass the bipartisan and bicameral Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Conflict Act that is before the Congress.

China after the Communist Party?

Something that has never, or at least seldom, been heard is currently echoing on China’s streets. “Down with Xi Jinping, down with the Communist Party,” chanted hundreds of demonstrators, perhaps more, openly and apparently without fear of the omnipresent surveillance and repression, in Shanghai and many other cities on the last weekend of November. The protests against the brutal zero-Covid policy of the CCP still seem manageable for the Communist Party. But they must ring the alarm for the autocratic leadership around Secretary General Xi Jinping. After all, what if the voices of the brave few multiply and Xi and the Communist Party can no longer hold on to power? An unlikely, even unreal, scenario given how accustomed we have become—or are meant to become—to the omnipotence of the Communist Party.

But as in the case of Russia, entrenched assumptions can be proven wrong, and as in the case of Russia—and many are already doing so—we must grapple with the question of what comes after the autocrat. Will a peaceful transformation of China be possible—and what role will the many peoples colonized by Beijing, the Tibetans, the Uyghurs, the Mongols, play in this? Are there blueprints, ideas, suggestions for a way out of a potentially explosive situation?

The current protests should give reason to think about this as well, they may even force one to do so. And one would get answers and leads right away. There is the Charter 08 by the late Liu Xiaobo, and there are the Tibetans who have made many constructive suggestions as to what peaceful coexistence could look like. The 1987 Five Point Peace Plan, the 2008 Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People and the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach. And these proposals do not only refer to Tibet but could be an inspiration for a fair balance of interests between all parties involved. China policy and strategy development should deal intensively with these scenarios. We have to think the unthinkable.

Not victims, but partners!

As the world’s largest Communist party (CCP) is meeting in Beijing and the whole planet is puzzling over what will happen to China, many Tibetans such as I look to the future with great optimism.

For the first time in recent history, Tibetans are in a position to tell European governments that it is in their interest to close ranks with Tibetans, despite the ongoing gross human rights violations in Tibet.

The invasion of Ukraine and the COVID pandemic have made European capitals realize how vulnerable they are. European elites are finally developing an objective view of China and realize that this regime may pose a greater danger to European security than Russia: destabilization of the world order, excessive economic dependence on China, opacity in existential global affairs.

Over the past decades, Tibetans and their supporters have desperately appealed to Western governments not to be lulled into a false sense of security by the CCP’s narratives. The Tibetans, but also the people of Taiwan, Hong Kong and East Turkestan fought a lonely fight and warned that appeasement would never be rewarded.

The West allowed itself to be blinded by pro forma, non-binding and ineffective “human rights dialogues.” In the search for a quick profitable deal, governments accepted lies to be true, and engaged in a disgraceful game at the end of which they stood with their values plundered.

The Dalai Lama and the Tibetans could easily take on the role of the brave Chinese doctor, who shared the Chinese secret about the COVID genome. As for defending the free world, they have decoded the genome of the CCP a long time ago and know the danger of the regime in Beijing.

The best medicine to the corrosive effects of totalitarian regimes is truth and the promise of freedom. The Tibetan people with their leader have risen up and proposed a plan for a modern and democratic future in the heart of Asia. In 1963, a constitution for Tibet was presented and in 1987, the idea for a Zone of Peace. It was their answer to the totalitarian dystopias of a control state. They are aware that China may be able to control the present. But it is incapable of imprisoning the future.

Tibetans have successfully held out against one of the world’s most repressive regimes for 70 years. They are still open to dialogue and have not abandoned their fundamental principles. Therefore, do not see Tibetans as victims, but as partners for your own interests. There is no other group of people in Central Asia that has so clearly conceptualized the future as the Tibetans. It is time for governments to recognize and support this, for their own sake.

Lessons from Tibet for COP15 biodiversity conference

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

COP15

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

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

Why is COP15 so important?

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

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

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

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

What role can Tibet play in the biodiversity conversation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

See a full copy of ICT’s briefing.

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

Coronavirus leaves China no excuses in Tibet

A photo of a Tibetan police officer (right) whom Chinese state media mysteriously claim died from “overwork” fighting the coronavirus outbreak in Tibet.

The coronavirus outbreak has tragically caught much of the world off guard. But knowing the Chinese government’s repression in Tibet, I’m not at all surprised by how this pandemic spread.

Instead, I’m outraged.

A lot of disinformation is now percolating about the roots of our current global crisis, both because Chinese officials are deliberately trying to confuse the issue, and because some outside China are helping them deny the blame. So let’s be clear about what happened.

In December, laboratories in the central Chinese city of Wuhan identified the emergence of the new virus. But rather than act decisively to prevent it from mushrooming, Chinese authorities ordered the scientists to stop their tests and destroy the samples.

That was hardly all. Chinese police also detained a young doctor who warned his colleagues about the dawning outbreak. That young man later died of COVID-19, the disease the coronavirus causes (more on that below).

Chinese state-controlled media avoided discussing the topic for weeks. The Chinese government denied to the World Health Organization that the coronavirus spreads from human to human. And Chinese officials allowed a potluck banquet for tens of thousands in Wuhan to go forward as planned.

Now, with the number of deaths mounting across the globe, China is taking a bow on the world stage, claiming it has wrestled the coronavirus into submission and flaunting offers to help countries still under siege. Yet this narrative conveniently leaves out the part at the beginning where Beijing dumped Pandora’s box on all of humanity.

The reality is this: According to a University of Southampton study, if the Chinese government had acted to combat the coronavirus three weeks earlier than it did, it could have reduced COVID-19 cases by 95 percent.

Instead, Chinese authorities spent that time bullying, deceiving and denying, and as of today, the virus has reportedly infected more than 1.3 million people worldwide—although the real number is almost certainly larger, in part because Beijing is likely underreporting cases in China, and because too few people have access to testing here in the United States and elsewhere.

Whatever the figure is, it doesn’t begin to convey the holistic toll of the outbreak: the jobs lost, the families separated, the communities broken, the traumas inflicted, the civil liberties expunged and the lives forever worsened.

So for whatever bouquets people want to give Beijing for its eventual performance in controlling the outbreak, they must also lay the blame at its feet for exposing the world to this debilitating crisis in the first place.

And the next time the Chinese government claims its actions in Tibet are of no concern to the global community, we should all remember that the duplicity and malignancy of this regime have the horrifying power to bring our entire world to a crashing halt.

Same story in Tibet

If you’re a Tibet supporter like I am, you’ve seen this movie before. Only it’s not “Outbreak” or “Contagion.” Instead it’s a documentary about the Chinese government’s long-running, ideologically driven ineptitude.

I mentioned earlier Li Wenliang, the heroic physician who became world-famous after police interrogated and threatened him over a post he made on the messaging app WeChat about a possible new viral outbreak.

Li and I were born the same year—but the big difference between us is that he’s now dead. The courageous doctor died after police reproached him for “disturbing the social order” and he returned to work, only to contract the virus the officials compelled him to deny.

From my perch at the International Campaign for Tibet, I recognized the Kafkaesque nature of Li’s story immediately, because I’ve seen it so often in Tibet, which China has brutally occupied for more than six decades.

Four years ago, police in Tibet arrested businessman Tashi Wangchuk after he appeared in a New York Times video calling for the protection of Tibetans’ native language. In the video, Tashi travels to Beijing, where he tried to file a lawsuit requiring officials to improve Tibetan-language instruction in his home city of Yushu.

Under China’s constitution, ethnic minorities have the right to use their mother tongue, and Tashi says explicitly in the video that he wanted to “try to use the People’s Republic of China’s laws to solve the problem.”

Despite this, in 2018, a court in Yushu handed him a five-year prison sentence. ICT later translated his court documents, which reveal his prosecution to be a sham and his confession to be the result of possible torture. (One can only imagine what authorities would have done to Dr. Li had he been ethnically Tibetan rather than Chinese.)

I automatically thought of Tashi when I first heard of the ordeals Li faced before his tragic death. Although the details differ, the pattern is largely the same. Both men tried to draw attention to an issue of public concern. Both attempted to act according to the law. Both were careful and measured. And for their troubles, both were detained and accused of undermining society.

Now, Tashi is languishing in prison, while Li has become just another of the more than 76,000 people around the world known to have died so far from the disease his government punished him for warning people about.

Sick regime

Of course, I don’t believe the Chinese government is solely to blame for our current peril. Governments across the world have failed to prove themselves capable during this crisis. You are unlikely to hear me utter a word in defense of our own country’s ill-prepared and inadequate response, and I am continuously appalled by a system that favors profits over public health and people’s welfare.

And yet, having worked at ICT since 2018, I cannot get over how the denialism and pathology I’ve observed in Tibet during that time have now helped unleash this scourge on the entire planet. (I don’t think I’ve felt this angry since the 2008 financial crisis, which also had a rotten belief system as a primary cause.) More importantly, I think we would be derelict if we failed to hold the Chinese government accountable for its catalyzing role in this disaster.

I can’t make the point any better than Kapil Komireddi does in the British news outlet The Critic, so I will simply share his words: “The calamity unfolding all around us did not emerge from a void. It originated in China. And its eruption into a global pandemic is inseparable from the nature of the regime that has ruled China since 1949.”

I won’t claim to be an expert on the Chinese government after less than two years in this field. But I do sense that the Chinese Communist Party is obsessed with staying in power above all else and views any potential challenge—including the coronavirus—through that lens.

Chinese officials often cast peaceful protest and cultural expression by Tibetans as threats to social stability (and therefore a threat to the government’s continued rule). They reacted to the coronavirus the same blinkered way but found that an infectious disease is not as easy to suppress as nonviolent resistance.

Despite my familiarity with China’s institutional irrationality, I hoped somewhere in the back of my mind that it would respond to its failures with some much-warranted humility. Unsurprisingly, that has not proven to be the case. In the midst of this crisis that it helped spawn, the CCP has only doubled down on its routine of praising itself while throwing elbows at its geopolitical rivals, especially the United States.

Perhaps the most outlandish part of that effort has been the claim by Chinese officials that the US army introduced the coronavirus to Wuhan during a visit in October. Although that’s blatant demagoguery, Beijing has gone even further in using the pandemic to attack Americans, with a state media article in March implying that China could halt its export of pharmaceutical ingredients to the United States, which would cause the country to “fall into the hell of a novel coronavirus epidemic.”

Last month, China announced it would expel US journalists from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post and subject those three outlets, along with Time and Voice of America, to increased red tape. The Chinese Foreign Ministry claimed this was retaliation against the US decision to decrease the number of Chinese state media journalists allowed to work in the United States.

But China’s action was a major escalation, not an equivalent response. Even worse, it promises to increase the Chinese government’s lack of transparency after that lack of transparency enabled the coronavirus to spread.

Inoculated from criticism

For me personally, one of the most confounding parts of this pandemic has been the accusations of racism. It has been heartbreaking to see bigots in the United States and other parts of the world target people of Chinese and East and Southeast Asian descent for violence and intimidation. The thought of students facing bullying in their schools saddens me in particular. I was in high school during 9/11 with

brown skin and a foreign-sounding name, so I understand the fear and self-consciousness racial profiling can bring, and I don’t wish that on anyone.

Speaking only for myself, I think it’s a mistake to refer to the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus” or “the Chinese coronavirus,” because doing so seems likely to provide grist for anti-Asian xenophobes, which is too serious a risk to ignore. But it would also be a mistake to let the Chinese government off the hook for its inciting role in this outbreak.

Indeed, Beijing seems more than happy to use accusations of bigotry to inoculate itself from judgment. For instance, when Nobel Prize-winning Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa wrote a column about the pandemic stating that, “none of this could have happened in the world if popular China was a free country and democratic rather than a dictatorship,” the Chinese embassy to Peru accused him of making “discriminatory and defamatory statements”—a charge that deliberately conflates criticism of the Chinese government with racism toward the Chinese people.

Similarly, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang—the bane of my existence in my work as ICT’s communication officer—urged Llosa to “discard his prejudice and look at the issue in an all-round, correct manner.” What that “correct manner” is is apparently up to Beijing to decide and the rest of us to adhere to.

Sadly, some seemingly well-meaning people are playing into Beijing’s hands, allowing their commendable aversion to racism to distract from the Chinese government’s misdeeds. Especially perplexing to me is a “Late Night with Seth Meyers” segment in which the host—whose humor I often enjoy—appears to brush off criticism of the Chinese government as racist, then almost immediately pivots to using a mock Italian accent to talk about the coronavirus in Italy. I’m not claiming the experience of Italians and Europeans in the modern world is precisely the same as that of Asians. But I still find the whiplash reasoning of that segment hard to believe.

I’ve also seen some commentators suggest that looking back at how this pandemic began is a waste of time now that we’re in the middle of it, and that we should focus more on criticizing our own government than on criticizing China’s. With all due respect to the people who hold those views, I think we can do more than one thing at a time.

We can confront the crisis we have on our hands while leaving space to figure out how it could have been prevented in the first place. We can (and should) demand more from our own leaders—indeed, I’m sure many of you will feel the criticisms I make of Beijing in this piece also apply to Washington, DC—while demanding greater transparency and respect for whistleblowers in China. And we can oppose the authoritarian blundering of the Chinese government while recognizing that governments and people are not the same thing.

Continued oppression in Tibet

We’ll get no help in that last effort, however, from the Chinese government itself, which is more than content to paint any criticism of its repressive system as a hate-fueled attack on Chinese people themselves. But that red-herring maneuver is a bit much coming from a regime that has built an entire colonial apparatus in Tibet based on the racist idea that Tibetans are culturally inferior and deserve to live as second-class to China’s Han majority.

Even since the coronavirus outbreak set in, the Chinese government has kept up its repression of the Tibetan people. As with Dr. Li, police have cracked down on Tibetan netizens who make statements about the outbreak, including a man named Tse from the city of Chamdo (Chinese: Changdu), who posted a message on WeChat urging people to recite a prayer in order to ward off infection. For that spiritual sin, he was given seven days in administrative detention.

There was also a strange report in state media claiming a Tibetan police officer died from “overwork” fighting the outbreak. The report, which fails to explain why the officer was overworking and whether it was voluntary, appears to be yet another attempt by the Chinese government to falsely depict Tibetans as loyal to the Communist Party and its bankrupt ideology.

Despite the dangers of spreading the virus, Chinese officials in January said they were moving ahead with a new campaign in Tibet described as a “million police entering 10 million homes,” which involves police “visiting the people, resolving people’s concerns, resolving conflicts, preventing risks, investigating problems and controlling chaos.”

In contrast to the Chinese government’s predictably heavy-handed response, Tibetans have reacted to the coronavirus with compassion. Inside Tibet, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have donated money for the purchase of facemasks and other urgently needed supplies. Kumbum monastery in the region of Amdo contributed 1 million yuan to Wuhan.

In exile, His Holiness the Dalai Lama responded to requests from people around the world by sharing a message offering comfort and strength to all of us as we struggle through this pandemic. And here in the United States, Tibetan American medical professionals are fighting the virus on the frontlines, including 400-500 brave nurses in New York City, the new epicenter of the outbreak.

Interdependent world

For millennia, Buddhism has taught that all of our lives are interdependent, and today, that lesson is more obvious than it has been at any other time since most of us were born.

It seems likely to me that even after this pandemic ends, our world will remain different for the foreseeable future. Already we’re seeing democracies collapse, inequality grow, mass surveillance expand and industries die out. Even for those of us who never get infected, the trauma of losing loved ones, not to mention the hardship of rebuilding our communities, won’t soon fade.

But as bleak as the future might look, I still hope that at least some positive changes will emerge. Perhaps we will come to a better understanding that individual health quickly scales up to public health. Maybe we’ll start to take climate change more seriously. It’s possible we’ll even see a renewal of compassion and solidarity.

But wherever we go from here, we should never again accept the Chinese government’s claim that its decisions don’t involve the rest of the world. That notion is now invalid forever.

In the case of Tibet, China has proven it can’t be trusted to govern the country as a responsible member of the international community. Although the situation in Tibet may not cause the same global shock waves the coronavirus has, the boiling unrest there will certainly have spillover effects into the surrounding region and even farther afield, especially if Chinese officials pursue their unconscionable plan to appoint the next Dalai Lama.

For years, Beijing has said its oppression in Tibet is a domestic issue that foreigners have no right to get involved in. That never made sense, since Tibet has never truly been part of China. But in the wake of the coronavirus, all of us should make it clear to Chinese leaders that they don’t get to use that excuse anymore.