Current Events

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.


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.

[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?,’
[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.

China gives the game away

The scandalous—and quickly deleted—tweet in which Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey showed support for Hong Kong protestors.

In the polarized age in which we live, American sports fans are often forced to confront whether we can separate our favorite pastimes from their surrounding social and political context. But after seeing all hell break loose over an NBA executive’s mundane tweet about Hong Kong, we should be asking ourselves whether we can still detach sports—or any part of our shared public life—from the tentacles of China’s asphyxiating censors.

In case you haven’t heard, a public relations catastrophe has erupted in the National Basketball Association since Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted an image late last week captioned “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.” Morey later deleted the tweet and apologized, but that didn’t spare him or the league from China’s predictable wrath.

The Chinese consulate in Houston proclaimed it was “deeply shocked” by Morey’s “erroneous comments” and urged the Rockets to “take immediate concrete measures” to repair the damage. The Chinese Basketball Association suspended cooperation with the Rockets (which was particularly stinging, since the association is led by Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming, who spent his entire NBA career in Houston). Some Chinese businesses also ended their sponsorship deals with the Rockets.

Chinese entities also took revenge on the NBA itself, in part because of the league’s qualified response to Morey’s tweet. State broadcaster CCTV declared it would no longer air two NBA preseason games that were scheduled to be played in China; CCTV also said it was reviewing its cooperation with the NBA in toto. And on Wednesday, a press event in Shanghai with LeBron James, the greatest NBA player of this generation, was cancelled just hours before it was slated to begin.

Morey marooned by NBA peers

While this histrionic response from China was no surprise to anyone who monitors the country, the reaction of the NBA community has been far more troubling. It’s important to note that Morey, who helped revolutionize the NBA through his use of analytics, is often considered one of the best general managers in the league and was already a household name among basketball fans. But because he provoked China, his team allegedly considered firing him. The team’s owner, Tilman Fertitta, tweeted that Morey “does NOT speak” for the Rockets and that the Rockets “are NOT a political organization”—as if Hong Kongers’ fight for their basic freedoms were tantamount to voting for the local school board.

Another badge of shame goes to Rockets star James Harden, the 2018 NBA Most Valuable Player award winner, who responded to his general manager’s tweet by saying, “We apologize. You know, we love China.” In the past, Harden has rightly spoken up about racial injustice in the US. But when it comes to justice for Hong Kong, he is apparently willing to look the other way.

Perhaps most eye-roll-inducing was the “Open letter to all NBA fans” from Joe Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets and executive vice chairman of the Alibaba Group, one of China’s most powerful companies. In his lengthy screed, Tsai writes that “1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.” I would like to tell Tsai that earlier this month, I attended an event on Capitol Hill led by Chinese dissidents who decried the 70th anniversary of Communist Party rule in their homeland; does Tsai believe he also speaks for them? In addition, the protestors in Hong Kong are Chinese people who appear to have a different take on national sovereignty than Tsai does. (If only the wealthy could realize that being rich doesn’t qualify them to act as spokespeople for the unwashed masses.)

To his credit, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver—after a confusing initial statement that any communications professional would recognize as the stitched-together work of multiple PR flaks—said the league would protect its employees’ freedom of speech and would live with the consequences of Morey’s tweet. However, Silver’s qualified response stands in contrast to the decisive action he took when he led the ouster of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was caught on tape making repulsive, racist remarks.

Today Hong Kong, yesterday Tibet

Tibet supporters have seen this script before. In recent years, several Western businesses have prostrated themselves before China after invoking Tibet and Tibetans in ways that displeased the Communist Party.

Last year, Marriott President Arne Sorenson issued a statement saying “we don’t support anyone who subverts the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China.” That came after China shut down the hotel chain’s Chinese website as punishment for listing Tibet, along with Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, as separate countries from China. The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) responded to Sorenson with a letter seeking clarification of his views on Tibetan human rights.

Most egregiously of all, Marriott then fired a US employee in Nebraska who accidentally liked a pro-Tibet tweet from a company account. As Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said at the time, “This is the long arm of China. They can get an ‘American’ company to fire an American worker in America.”

Also in 2018, Mercedes-Benz apologized for quoting the Dalai Lama in an Instagram post. The quote itself—“Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open”—was not overtly political, but the German carmaker disowned the post as an “extremely erroneous message.” As ICT Germany Executive Director Kai Müller said at the time, “Mercedes-Benz not only adapts to the language rules of the Chinese Communist Party, but even pledges to support Beijing in its worldwide effort to export its censorship.”

The film industry has also fallen under China’s sway. In December of last year, I wrote a blog post exploring how, after the 1997 twin releases of “Seven Years in Tibet” and “Kundun,” Beijing has been able to cut Tibet almost entirely out of Hollywood films. One galling example was how Disney changed the character of the Ancient One in “Doctor Strange” from a Tibetan in the original comic books to a Celt played by Tilda Swinton in the movie version, cynically claiming its goal was to avoid racial stereotyping. However, the screenwriter of “Doctor Strange” admitted that, “If you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that [the character is] Tibetan, you risk alienating 1 billion people.”

In my post, I pointed out that it is not just businesses that are adhering to Chinese views on Tibet. According to the 2018 annual report of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, European diplomats choose not to discuss Tibet because they don’t want to face Beijing’s wrath.

As I wrote, “The result is arguably the most insidious form of censorship: self-censorship. And it’s becoming more common on the issue of Tibet.”

Taking a page from Orwell

To understand how self-censorship works, we can look to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”—not the main narrative itself, but rather the stunning preface that Orwell wrote.

“Animal Farm” is, of course, a thinly-veiled allegory about the Soviet Union, the West’s great adversary during the Cold War. So it is a bit surprising to read in the preface just how difficult it was for Orwell to get British and American publishers to accept the book. At the time, the Soviets were allies of the UK and US in the war against Nazi Germany. That made Orwell’s anti-Stalinist drama simply unpalatable.

What’s most shocking is that the British government never outright banned publishers from printing Orwell’s book. Instead, publishers simply felt it “wouldn’t do” to distribute the book in light of Britain’s alliance with the Soviets. One publisher even voluntarily ran the book past the UK’s ministry of information. That publisher later wrote to Orwell that “the choice of pigs” to represent Soviet leaders “will no doubt give offence to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.”

Substitute “Chinese” for Russians, and swap out pigs that mock Stalin with tweets that support Hong Kongers or Tibetans or Uyghurs, and you basically have the situation we’re in today.

Resist Chinese censorship

Though Orwell is recognized as one of the most acute critics of totalitarian societies, such as China, his preface to “Animal Farm” is invaluable for understanding how censorship is imposed on supposedly free societies such as ours. In place of government restrictions, private entities like the Houston Rockets, Marriott and Mercedes act as consenting enforcers of Chinese thought proscription. That’s how an action as mild as Daryl Morey tweeting could incite such a firestorm.

The actual substance of his tweet—fight for democracy and freedom, stand with those who are doing so—is so unremarkable that it’s hard to imagine many Americans disagreeing with it. But because the tweet agitated the people in charge of one of the most important business partners for the NBA, Morey was hung out to dry. (Thankfully, while US businesses have demonstrated time and again that they can’t be trusted on the issue of China, US lawmakers on both sides of the aisle continue to stand up to Chinese attacks on our free speech.)

In the long run, the Pandora’s Box that Morey’s tweet seems to have opened may come back to bite China, because the American public is now much more aware of how the Chinese Communist Party impedes their ability to speak freely. It’s one thing for China to strong-arm a car company or hotel chain; it’s quite another to mess with the highly visible and opinionated arena of sports fandom. (It also helps that “South Park” just aired an episode mocking Chinese censorship, followed by a sarcastic ‘apology’ to China from the show’s creators.)

Americans should be terrified by the way Chinese censorship has taken hold in our public life and determined to prevent it from going any further. Let this moment be a turning point where all of us speak out against the deep reach of Chinese free speech curtailment in the US and refuse to be quiet about our support for Hong Kongers, Uyghurs, Chinese dissidents and Tibetans.

2019 Severe Snow Disaster in Dzatoe, Tibet

Dzatoe snow disaster

A herd of yak covered in snow in Dzatoe.

In the past three months, there have been multiple heavy snowfalls in Yulshul Prefecture. Among its six counties, Dzatoe, Dritoe, Chumarlep and Tridu counties have been affected badly by the consecutive snowstorms. Dzatoe County is the most severely affected county from all Tibetan areas in this winter.

Dzatoe is a pure pastoral county which has an area of 30,161 square kilometers. Since the end of October last year, when the winter started, there have been 30 snowfalls in Dzatoe, and currently deep icy snow sheets cover 70% of its territory. The accumulated snow on the ground has gotten harder and harder as the temperature has gone lower and lower.

Affected grazing lands are covered by 8 inches and more of icy snow, which has put livestock and wildlife in a difficult situation for a prolonged time. As a result, not only have a large number of yaks and sheep died, but also a large number of wild animals, including blue sheep, white lipped deer, Tibetan gazelles, wild yaks, and several species of birds such as Tibetan snow cock starved to death. The situation there has been getting worse.

Dzachen, Aktoe, Mogshung, Tradham and Kyitoe are the most affected 5 townships in Dzatoe. Many nomadic families from 18 nomadic villages of the above listed five townships have already lost all of their livestock. Nearly 20,000 head of livestock died in Dzatoe County by March 1st, 2019, and most of them were yaks. Because there is no grass to eat, the starved yaks even ate the fur of dead yaks as seen in an online video clip.

It is common that more yaks die than sheep, goats, or horses do when animals have to struggle to get grass from deep snow as in this disastrous winter. This is due to the different strategies of grazing methods used by those animals in the snow. A horse, sheep or goats uses its nose and front legs to stroke and dig snow to get grass. A yak only uses its nose to stroke the snow to get the grass underneath, but it is not capable of using its front legs to dig. On these grazing methods in the snow by the horse, sheep and yak, we have folk story as the following:

Long, long ago, after creating the world and all creatures, Sipai Phamani, the couple who were parents to all, decided to send the yak, the horse and the sheep to live on Tibetan Plateau forever. They told the three that Tibetan Plateau is pleasant to live in summer, but the winter is long and snow a lot there, and asked the animals how they will get grass from snow-covered pastures. The horse answered, “I am going to use my nose and long front legs to stroke and dig the snow to get the grass.” “I will use my nose and short front legs to stroke and dig the snow to get the grass as well,” the sheep said. The yak laughed at the sheep and the horse, and then said, “I can get the grass more easily than those two, using only my powerful nose. My nose will blast out heat to blow off or melt away the snow.”

Sadly, the yak has never been able to do such a thing.

Even some herders in severely affected areas in Dzatoe have reached the predicament of not having enough food to eat. They pastures are located in remote places and far away from towns. They normally go shopping in the towns by horseback with pack animals. Even though there are no formal roads or highways for vehicles, some nomads, especially young people, like riding motorcycles or driving cars to travel between their homes in the pastures and the towns. However, in situation like this, almost no pasture in the affected areas is accessible by cars or motorcycles at all.

Yak dung is the only fuel for herders who live in high-altitude areas such as those affected 5 townships in Dzatoe where no tree grows. Herdsmen rely on yak dung for cooking and heating. It has been very difficult for herdsmen to get dried yak dung to make fire, because of the three-month long low temperatures and consecutive snowfalls; dung becomes frozen in the cold and snow.

So far, local herdsmen have received little assistance from the Chinese government. The Chinese authorities have kept saying that they have been concerning the welfare of those Tibetan people in the snow disaster affected areas dearly. They say, however, remote locations of those nomadic families and the accumulated snow on the roads made them difficult for transporting relief supplies to the affected areas. Some Chinese officials even urge herdsmen to slaughter or sell all of the remaining yaks and sheep while they are alive to avoid greater loss. What local Tibetan herdsmen really need is getting help to save their remaining livestock, but not slaughter or sell them in time like this.

Some local Lamas, such as Karma Gyume Rinpoche of Dzogchen Monastery in early February bought 31 big trucks of hay from some other region to distribute them to local nomad’s families. Tibetans from Derge County gathered 20 trucks of hay, barley and dried turnips and brought them all the way to Dzatoe County. However, these are far from meeting the need for disaster relief.

Even their yaks and sheep had died and are dying; local Tibetans spared the hay they have to needy animals in the wild. Tibetan monks and lay people carry hay to the mountains to feed blue sheep, deer, Tibetan gazelles and others herbivores.

Nomads in Dzatoe are in a difficult situation. They are struggling to survival in the biggest snow disaster ever since 1953 and really need help.