Europe must support Tibetan democratic institutions in exile

Penpa Tsering swears in as the new “sikyong,” the leader of the Central Tibetan Administration, on May 27, 2021.

On May 27, Penpa Tsering took over as the new “sikyong,” the leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile, after two rounds of an election fought worldwide. Penpa succeeds Lobsang Sangay, who was not allowed to run for a third term as per the rules of the Charter of the Tibetans in Exile.

Tibetan democracy in exile needs support because it faces numerous challenges in extremely difficult conditions. On the one hand, elections have to be organized in the over 30 countries where Tibetans live in exile, on a voluntary basis and without large financial resources. The Central Tibetan Administration—the official name of the government-in-exile—cannot levy taxes and is dependent on development cooperation or voluntary donations from Tibetans in exile. On the other hand, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tries to undermine the authority and work of the Tibetan government-in-exile wherever it can. Representatives of the Tibetans in exile, although they emerged from free and democratic elections, are still shunned by European governments for fear of the CCP’s reaction.

In 2018, in response to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road” initiative, the European Union launched the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy. The concept essentially provides for the establishment of transport links, energy and digital networks, so-called connectivity partnerships and the promotion of sustainable financing. It does not speak of democracy and the rule of law, despite autocracy and enemies of democracy being on the rise in Asia.

The Tibetans, among others, would be ideal partners in a necessary value-based connectivity strategy. The European Union and its different institutions, as well as its 27 Member States, should therefore reach out to the Tibetans in exile and actively support the democratically elected representatives of the Central Tibetan Administration. This also includes receiving and listening to these representatives, including Penpa Tsering.

Flawed study of self-immolation and Tibetan violence raises questions on London stage

Pah la

The Tibetan nun Dashar played by Millicent Wong in a scene from Pah-La (Picture: Helen Murray/Royal Court)

A play about a Tibetan Buddhist nun who self-immolates leading to an explosion of violence gave a rare prominence to discussions on contemporary Tibet in a cultural sphere as ‘Pah-La’ concluded its run at the Royal Court Theatre in London (April 3 – April 27).

Pah-La situates its action in contemporary Tibet in 2008, featuring the self-immolation of a Buddhist nun, staged with the whiff of kerosene and circuit of flames inches from the audience that shoot towards the ceiling before the space is plunged into blackness. Even more shattering, although far less convincing, are the scenes to follow, compelling a London audience to consider the searing reality of what Tibetans have endured since the wave of self-immolations began in 2009 – the incarceration and torture of a nun who survived setting herself on fire, the brutal violence of state oppression, the deeply rooted fears of evisceration of Tibetan Buddhist civilization.

Such representations of Tibetan experience are rare given Beijing’s far-reaching and systematic efforts to silence, subvert and politicize depictions of Tibet that differ from those of the CPC. We are much more familiar with the neuralgic responses of pre-emptive capitulation and self-censorship from Hollywood and in the arts.

In Doctor Strange, for instance a mystical Tibetan guru in Marvel comics’ legend was played by white actress Tilda Swinton as a Celtic sage. Movies in the mould of ‘Seven Years in Tibet’, depicting China’s invasion, and ‘Kundun’, Scorsese’s moving biopic of the Dalai Lama (with a screenplay by the late Melissa Mathison, deeply-missed board member of ICT) are unlikely to appear any time soon. When the creators of ‘Pixels’ wanted to show aliens blasting a hole in the Great Wall of China, Sony executives worried that the scene might prevent the 2015 movie’s release in China, so they blew up the Taj Mahal instead. The new nationalist, assertive mood, in which Hollywood villains cannot be Chinese otherwise they risk jeopardizing the vital Chinese market, was epitomized in the Chinese action movie Wolf Warrior II, which became the highest-grossing Chinese movie of all time. Here, the villain is American, and in the final battle of the film tells Chinese hero Leng, “People like you will always be inferior to people like me. Get used to it.” Leng beats the villain to death and replies, “That was fucking history.” The film closes with the image of a Chinese passport and the words: “Remember, a strong motherland will always have your back!

Pah-La’s significance in bringing contemporary Tibet to the international stage (first London, other performances will follow) was acknowledged by reviewers; veteran theatre critic Michael Billington welcomed Pah-La’s “attempt to breach the inherent parochialism of British theatre” while Time Out said: “Given that Tibet has steadily drifted out of Western discourse as China’s star has ascended, it feels, above all, important that ‘Pah-La’ exists.

Rarer still, then, that a writer takes an immersive approach and seeks to follow through ideas and personal testimonies through interviews and a journey into Tibet itself – which Abhishek Mazumdar makes surprisingly public given the dangers to Tibetans this must have entailed, saying that it involved clandestine nocturnal incursions into the two main prisons in Lhasa, Drapchi and Chushur (Qushui). In addition Abhishek – who has tackled contemporary themes of conflict and violence for instance in Kashmir in other plays – has also spoken about receiving threats and harassment from representatives of the Chinese government.

The drama of the play’s creation as depicted in such interviews and public statements would matter less in terms of evaluation of the work if Abhishek had created an entirely fictitious piece with fictitious characters, inspired by Tibet’s recent history. But Abhishek invites us to consider Pah-La as a literal expression, a direct transmission, of his several years of research, interviews and encounters in Tibet and the exile diaspora. And this is why the play has provoked some serious questions for Tibetans and others who have sought to follow closely the unfolding situation in Tibet – particularly since March 2008 transformed the political landscape.

Pah-La is premised on an idea that gathered force for Bengali playwright Abhishek, which is how can Tibetans, who are firmly non-violent, turn violent? In Abhishek’s reading of contemporary history, this is what happened for the first time in March, 2008 (while tangentially referring to a Chushi Gangdruk resistance fighter defecting to the PLA, the play elides the historical context of armed uprisings against Chinese invaders in the 1950s and ‘60s).

In doing so, Pah-La presents a narrative that hews uncomfortably close to that of the Chinese Party state, which depicted the ground-breaking and overwhelmingly peaceful protests of March, 2008 onwards simply as “one violent riot” in Lhasa on March 14 of that year. This narrative gained ground internationally with the “Lhasa riots” still being used as a convenient shorthand to define and therefore misrepresent a wave of several hundred mainly peaceful protests involving nomads, schoolchildren, scholars, monks and nuns that swept across the plateau in the buildup to the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing. As several Tibetan reviewers point out, the play does not contain even a passing reference to the other protests across the plateau at that time, which continued into 2009, and later. (Review by UK based Tibetans Georgina Choekyi Doji, Tenzin Zega, Dechen Pemba, Kunsang Kelden, and Sonam Anjatsang.)

Yet this period was so significant in Tibet’s contemporary history that it was characterized by one of Tibet’s most important intellectuals, the Amdo writer Tagyal (Shokdung) as: “Tibet’s peaceful revolution…a re-awakening of Tibetan national consciousness and solidarity”.

Abhishek contends – and there is no reason to doubt this – that much more serious violence was perpetrated by Tibetans than has been made public so far, in Lhasa on and after March 14, 2008.The issue is not that these claims are implausible, as they are not, but that Pah-La gives a disproportionate focus on Tibetan violence based on evidence that is not yet in the public domain, and that apparently also ignores the painstaking documentation of what happened in 2008 by Tibetan observers, organizations and international media.

In conversation at the Royal Court in London with Abhishek, he told me that in his depictions of violence by Tibetans he used only the incidents described by Tibetan sources, including the burning of a school and references to rape by Tibetan men. “I would not have used accounts by the Chinese I interviewed, as this would have skewed the picture,” he said. In the Tibetan Review piece – the Tibetan reviewers include Dechen Pemba of High Peaks Pure Earth, who documented and translated Tibetan writings about 2008 and beyond – also point out that the more dominant voices in the play belong to the Chinese characters. Similarly, to critique a scene of sexual assault by a Tibetan man of a Chinese woman – as the same fair and balanced review did – is not to deny that rape by Tibetans did not exist in 2008, it was to make the point that the way it was depicted in Pah-La came across as “strange and inappropriate”.

The three pages of acknowledgements in the script of Pah-La give a disturbing insight into the nature of Abhishek’s research inside Tibet, even while they are obliquely framed. Almost any encounters in today’s Lhasa are unlikely to escape the reach of one of the most dystopian and intrusive police and security states in the world. Before he was transferred as Party chief of the Tibet Autonomous Region to Xinjiang in 2016, soldier-turned-politician Chen Quanguo developed a system combining cutting edge surveillance technology with the deployment of tens of thousands of Party cadres in monasteries, schools, and homes, with the aim of rewiring Tibetan thoughts and beliefs, giving rise to fears of nothing less than obliteration of cultural and religious identity. Abhishek thanks sources for “risking their lives so that the rest of us could hear your stories”. But it is not clear that the real stories of those nuns, or other Tibetans, are being told and given due weight in Pah-La, even despite the genuine insights and at times, one suspects, direct quotes gleaned from his research.

The second act of ‘Pah-La’ in particular seems oddly unmoored from lived Tibetan experience of 2008 and beyond. For example, the dialectical debate between the Chinese prison guard and his captor, Tibetan nun Dashar, centering on a polygraph machine was unconvincing, even while Abhishek’s research on the sale of a number of such machines from Hong Kong to Lhasa after March 2008 is interesting and thought-provoking. (ICT has monitored the use of polygraph or ‘lie-detector’ tests among officials in eastern Tibet, linked to an evaluation of their political loyalty to the CCP. The reports, published in Chinese state media, are evidence of a disturbing new level of intrusion into the private lives and thoughts of Tibetans, indicating the atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia in the official sphere and the CPC’s insecurities over the erosion of its authority.)

Abhishek’s research should not be discounted, but nor should the painstaking documentation of March, 2008 onwards by Tibetans and Tibet organizations, as well as the monitoring of Tibetan self-immolations since Kirti monk Tapey set himself ablaze on February 27, 2009, after a prayer ceremony was cancelled at his monastery. With breathtaking courage, in 2008, Tibetans inside Tibet propelled the issue to the top of the international news agenda prior to the Beijing Olympics in August, China’s ‘coming out party’ on a global stage. (See ICT’s report).

Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser was one of those key voices, with more than 3 million internet users visiting her blog, and daily updates translated into numerous languages. There were so many wrenching stories – the blind monk who committed suicide, the lama who was beaten when he tried to prevent a protest from escalating, the hundreds of monks, hooded, bloody, with bare feet, dragged from Drepung monastery onto the Lhasa train to be taken to camps in remote Qinghai. Thousands of Tibetans were ‘disappeared’, often being taken from their homes in the middle of the night to face extreme brutality in ‘black jails.’ The spike in numbers of political prisoners since March 10, 2008, was the largest increase that has ever occurred in Tibetan areas of the PRC under China’s current Constitution and Criminal Law.

Woeser documented the internal lives and feelings of Tibetans, too, at that time; in one of her poems, ‘Fear in Lhasa’, she described how the fear in the city today is greater than at the time of three key events in Tibet’s contemporary history – the Lhasa Uprising, which led to the Dalai Lama’s escape into exile in March 1959, the Cultural Revolution, and the imposition of martial law in March 1989. She wrote: “A hurried farewell to Lhasa/Where the fear starts at the Potala and strengthens as you go east, through the Tibetans’ quarter/Dreadful footsteps reverberate all round, but in daylight you won’t glimpse even their shadow/They are like demons invisible by day, but the horror is worse, it could drive you mad/ A few times I have passed them and the cold weapons in their hands.”

Referring to the scale and scope of the crackdown that followed the protests, Abhishek says: “You could not believe a regime would turns so mad. There was a sense of madness across the board.” Pah-La points towards an aspect of 2008 that is little known, which is the resignations of Tibetan and Chinese prison guards and police from their jobs due to revulsion at the violence that followed the protests and riots, of which Abhishek appears to have some knowledge. He also hints at a way of viewing the protests through the lens of gender via the character of a female prison guard who blames the chaos on “all the fathers”; the Tibetan men for engaging in violence, the Chinese for responding with such overwhelming brutality.

An equally contentious point in Pah-La has proved to be that the (Tibetan) violence in Lhasa in March 2008 was sparked by the self-immolation of a Tibetan nun. Abhishek explained to me that he had heard the rumour of the self-immolation of a Tibetan nun prior to the March protests in 2008 several times; he later said that one of his sources had seen her name on a prison list. He also contends that there have been many more self-immolations than the 155 documented by ICT and other organisations. (The self-immolation in the play takes place on a remote hillside on a railway track in faraway Kham, with no explanation for why the nun Dashar then appears in a prison cell in Lhasa. There is no railway in Kham, yet, the ‘steel dragon’ traversing the Tibetan plateau that opened in 2006 runs from Qinghai to Lhasa).

According to current information, the wave of self-immolations that have swept across the Tibetan plateau began with the Kirti monk Tapey who set fire to himself on February 27, 2009, after a religious ceremony at his monastery in Amdo (Ngaba) was cancelled. (The first self-immolation in Tibetan society in the modern era took place in exile in Delhi, India, on April 27, 1998, when Thubten Ngodrup set himself on fire – and later died – as a Tibetan Youth Congress hunger strike was broken up by Indian police.)

Tibetans have said that when they hear of a self-immolation, they pray that the individual dies, rather than survive the ordeal that follows. Tapey survived. Monks from Kirti monastery in exile said that police opened fire on him after extinguishing the flames, and that according to further information received three years later (demonstrating the extent of the information blackout), “They are not allowing the bullet wounds on his arms and legs to heal, but repeatedly re-opening them in the name of medical treatment.” The same sources said that when Tapey was taken to hospital after his self-immolation in Barkham the first thing he said to his mother was, “I am not the son you want to see. I should have died that day, but I didn’t manage it.”

An official documentary shown on Chinese TV in 2012 showed Tapey in hospital, wearing monks’ robes, with his head, neck, arms and legs heavily scarred, sitting under a pink quilt emblazoned with the word ‘Love.’ Despite the heavy pressure he must have been under to express his regret, or blame the Dalai Lama, in the video Tapey simply talks carefully only about his physical condition, saying that most parts of his body have physically healed and he can write slowly with one of his hands. The humanity of hospital staff is conveyed through a nurse, speaking to the official news agency Xinhua, who says: “With Tibetan incense, prayer beads and Buddhism sutras laid on his bedside table, Tapey normally spent no less than an hour participating in Buddhist services in both the morning and evening.”

Another monk who self-immolated and is depicted in the same video gives a similar succinct message to camera, omitting any mention of regret and manipulation by “external forces” (despite inevitable pressure to single out the Dalai Lama as being responsible). Eighteen-year old Kirti monk Lobsang Kelsang, who set fire to himself on September 26, 2011, was filmed in his hospital bed saying: “I have no words but thanks – doctors have given me another life, they all treat me well.”

The Party state narrative on March 2008 was immediate and unambiguous. When CCTV made a documentary called “Records of the Lhasa Riots” in 2008, footage of the incidents on March 14, 2008, was broadcast over and over again on primetime television in China, and was made into a DVD. The deaths of Chinese shop workers were broadcast repeatedly on Chinese national television, with little or no mention of the Tibetan shop workers who died in the same fires – and no mention of Tibetans killed when Chinese troops opened fire, or afterwards following torture. (Leading Tibetan historian and scholar Tsering Shakya wrote in the book “The Struggle for Tibet” written with Wang Lixiong that when much larger riots broke out in Wengan, Guizhou and inland China, even Chinese bloggers wondered why the protestors in Lhasa had been demonized on national television as criminals, while in Wengan the local leadership was sacked, an investigation team sent to review local policies, and news of the incident scarcely reported in the official media at all.)

The official response was far more muted and ambiguous when the self-immolations began. It was not until May 2012 –three years after Tapey set fire to himself in 2009 – that the Chinese state media produced its most elaborate response in the form of a video broadcast in both Chinese and English (with some variations between the two) on Chinese Central Television (CCTV), China’s predominant state television broadcaster. The preparation time accorded to the documentary, and a series of articles published a month later which gave more human details about those who had self-immolated, gave a sense of individuals within a bureaucratic system struggling for an adequate and coherent response.

It is still not known exactly how many people were killed or died after torture following the events of March, 2008; the Beijing leadership engaged in a comprehensive cover-up of the torture, disappearances and killings across Tibet combined with a virulent propaganda offensive against the exiled Tibetan leader, Nobel Peace Laureate the Dalai Lama.

Pah-La is a flawed but passionately-felt attempt by the playwright to lead us to a deeper understanding, and it poses serious questions. More answers will come from inside Tibet over time; just as it is only now that we have gained a fuller comprehension of the sheer scale of the killings and oppression in March, 1959, through Jianglin Li’s essential analysis of eyewitness sources and classified government records.

The most powerful scene in Pah-La, for me was entirely without dialogue. Nuns are darting around a dark stage amidst fluttering religious texts, in the gaze of a gleaming Buddha; Buddhist mantras can be heard amid Communist Party slogans. It is a moment when the sheer power and energy of Tibetan culture and individuals seeking to transcend their terror through the transformative impacts of Tibetan Buddhism can be sensed.

At an after-show talk during Pah-La’s run in London Abhishek Mazumdar reflected on his experience meeting a child who later apparently died of starvation in prison, after March 2008. “What sort of play do you write after that? With Tibetans I speak to, there is often a sense of having lived through an experience that is so harsh, it is not that one doesn’t want to talk about it, it is that one doesn’t have the words.”

A welcome about-turn: the Süddeutsche Zeitung renounces its Chinese propaganda supplement

Virtually unnoticed by the general public, the Süddeutsche Zeitung seems to have decided to discontinue supplements from the Chinese Communist Party’s China Daily. News of the termination of this presumably very lucrative business relationship was tucked away in a third-page article by the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s correspondent for China, who claimed that the “China Watch” supplement was only meant as a one-time affair. In November 2017, things certainly sounded different. In response to our criticism, the managing directors stated in an email to the International Campaign for Tibet that they intended to include the supplement in their print edition “bi-monthly.” This would mean that at least two more print editions should have appeared this year if the SZ had not, apparently, thought better of it.

Even if it remains unclear what made the management reconsider, it is a decision worthy of praise. Other media should follow the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s lead and terminate their advertising deals with this propaganda-peddling newspaper. They should distance themselves from cooperation with Chinese state media, which not only serve as the mouthpiece of an authoritarian country and party leadership but also take part in the most perfidious oppression. Since 2013 TV and the state-run press in China have broadcast forced confessions from dissidents clearly jailed unjustly to silence them and intimidate the public. This clearly contradicts international human rights standards as well as China’s own written laws.

Thus, the International Campaign for Tibet, along with the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH) and the French Ligue des droits de l’Homme, made an urgent appeal to the Parisian Le Figaro to discontinue its monthly China Daily supplement. In Germany, the Handelsblatt continues to publish advertising supplements from China Daily, as do many other leading media in Europe and America. It is high time to call out this cooperation for what it is: the selling-out of journalistic credibility.

Follow-up: Süddeutsche Zeitung risks its credibility

China Watch supplement explaining the workings of the Chinese Communist Party to the readers of the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

It has been just over a week since we addressed the issue of the supplement to the Süddeutsche Zeitung taken out by the Chinese state’s mouthpiece, China Daily. Meanwhile the executive board of the Süddeutsche Zeitung has responded to our letter, a response that is as predictable as it is disappointing: the Süddeutsche Zeitung will continue to publish China Daily supplements. The Süddeutsche Zeitung claims that articles and advertising are separate and there is no reason to be concerned about critical reporting on China.

Furthermore, the executive board of the Süddeutsche Zeitung cannot provide any information about how much China Daily paid for advertising for which other papers take large six-figure sums annually. Given that the sixteen pages entitled “China Watch,” according to the executive director, henceforth will be published six times a year in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, it is clearly no small amount that China Daily will be transferring. At any rate, it will apparently be large enough for the executive board of the Süddeutsche Zeitung to abandon any concerns they had entertained about Russian advertising supplements not too long ago.

China invests strategically

China invests strategically and long-term, also and specifically in the field of media. For example, the Chinese state (or rather the controlling Communist Party) systematically advertises via a state media system conceived especially for prestigious Western newspapers. There have been supplements from China Daily in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The Telegraph, the Handelsblatt, Le Figaro, and Wall Street Journal, to name just a few.

The Communist Party of China stands only to gain. First, it successfully exploits the reach and reputation of these high-quality newspapers to cleverly spread its propaganda in seemingly apolitical articles to its Western readers and to obscure the reality of authoritarian China.

Secondly, the Communist Party is priming to undermine the independence of potentially financially weak publishing houses, particularly in small, economically fragile but stable countries. Who would have thought that we would find ourselves talking seriously about or facing the sad reality of censorship of the prestigious Cambridge University Press or the academic publishing house Springer?

Thirdly: even if Beijing’s leadership cannot entirely prevent critical reporting on China, it can continue its efforts to undermine the credibility of individual newspapers. It can inspire public debate about their independence, which can only be expected in an open society. Is it naïve to assume that readers are not reading articles that are “China-friendly” or “optimistic about China” because they assume that seven-figure payments might be making their way from Beijing to Munich?

It is scandalous that highly regarded Western media are risking credibility over advertising from authoritarian states. The Süddeutsche Zeitung should no longer publish “China Watch.”

Selling out: Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung and its Chinese propaganda ads

Can democratic societies get the upper hand against authoritarianism if their own institutions sell out to dictators? Since November 10, we have had to ask this question again—also and especially in Germany. It has become particularly pressing since Germany’s daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, in its own words “Germany’s largest nationwide quality daily” notable for its “opinionated and independent journalism,” published a supplement from the state-run China Daily. Headlined “China Watch,” it promises to reveal “All you need to know.”

What’s in there is what you’d expect—16 pages of good news from the Middle Kingdom. The title article includes not one but two photos of Xi Jinping while the headline boasts that the country “is gaining new strength.” Naturally, they could not leave out the panda bears in the Berlin Zoo or German ex-pats celebrating Oktoberfest in China, their beer mugs in hand. And right in the middle you’ll find an enormous chart entitled “The Communist Party of China in Figures.” Pure propaganda from an authoritarian regime distributed in Western mass media. What is the difference, one feels compelled to ask, between Facebook and Twitter ads apparently paid for by Russia (and which exerted massive influence on the American presidential election) and the publication of a China Daily supplement in the Süddeutsche Zeitung?

The China Daily supplement, however, is not an isolated case. In July, the Süddeutsche Zeitung published a multi-page ad from the Chinese state agency Xinhua, just in time for the G20 Summit. The editorial board of the Süddeutsche Zeitung at least must have known who it was dealing with, either by reading its own paper or from – apparently cozy – meetings with representatives of the Chinese state media, for example, at the now expanded “Mediaforum China-Germany-USA” established by the Robert Bosch Foundation and which we’ve already written about (German language blog). Perhaps they laid the groundwork for further business at, for example, the fun-loving table top soccer game with the “enemies of press freedom”?

The Chinese state media are not such good sports when it comes to dissent and pluralism. For example, they actively took part in blackmailing human rights activists, bloggers, book dealers, and journalists into making “confessions” and publicly humiliating them. These methods, reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, violate to an extreme degree the human rights, personal rights, and liberty of those they target. They intimidate dissenters and doubtlessly intensify the climate of repression under Xi Jinping. China Daily and Xinhua, state-run media, are an integral part of this repression.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung, if it really wishes to produce quality journalism and preserve its credibility as an independent paper, cannot publish the propaganda of authoritarian states guilty of egregious human rights violations. In this particular case, they also must disclose what the Chinese state media paid for advertising and supplements. The International Campaign for Tibet in Germany has urged the paper’s editorial board to rethink their policies accordingly.

In Germany, the door to authoritarian policies and ideas has been thrown wide open—ironically also by those who see themselves as the pillar of democratic societies and who should clearly be so: the media, universities, even NGOs. Will there be a change in thinking before it’s too late?

Kai Mueller, Executive Director, International Campaign for Tibet Germany, based on an original German language blog at

ICT’s push against the Chinese “divide and rule” strategy in Europe

Poster for the rally organized by ICT and other NGOs in the margins of the 19th EU-China Summit on 2 June 2017. (Photo: ICT)

Since I started leading ICT’s Brussels office in 2006, I have progressively witnessed the development of the Chinese government’s “divide and rule” strategy in Europe. This strategy tries to use the disparities among European member states to play them against each other, creating economic dependency as a tool for political leverage. Today, in light of the large amount of Chinese investment EU members states have received in recent years (and in particular in the framework of the 16+1, a structure of collaboration initiated by China together with 16 central and eastern European states – including eleven EU member states – in 2012), some European governments have become much more reluctant to criticize Beijing, including on human rights and “sensitive” issues such as Tibet. My office has regularly warned against the dangers of this strategy which undermines the EU’s position as a unified bloc, and has consistently called on member states to prioritize values over economic interest or trade relations.

A highly negative consequence of Beijing’s strategy has been the cancellation of the EU-China annual Human Rights Dialogue in 2016, due to the inability of the EU member states to find a common position on China’s demand to downgrade the level of this exchange. We have cosigned a joint letter with other NGOs, calling upon EU leaders to “lead the EU and its member states in demonstrating unified and unambiguous commitment to promoting human rights in China”. On the day of the EU-China summit on June 2 (2016), we organized, together with a coalition of NGOs, a rally in front of the EU institutions, which gathered over 200 people, including Tibetans, Uyghurs and European activists, calling on the EU to take a strong stand on the deteriorating human rights situation in the PRC. Finally, we welcomed the remarks given after the summit by the President of the European Council Donald Tusk saying that he had raised human rights issues with Prime Minister Li Keqiang including the situation of “minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs”. It was also announced that the EU-China dialogue would finally take place – which it did, although at a downgraded level, setting an inacceptable precedent for future dialogues.

The effects of the Chinese “divide and rule” strategy in Europe are now also visible at the United Nations level, as shown by the Greeks’ decision to block an EU statement critical of China’s human rights record at the 35th session of the Human Rights Council this June. This development has, in my opinion, greatly damaged the EU’s credibility as a defender of human rights and undermined its efforts toward bringing positive change in China. It prompted us to write to the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs, reminding him of his country’s commitment to human rights and obligation to cooperate with his European partners. In addition, we have sent letters to all the other EU member states, urging them to promote EU unity on the necessity to continue highlighting China’s abysmal human rights in international fora.

At the recent session of the Human Rights Council this September, the EU managed this time to deliver a statement on China’s human rights situation on behalf of all its member states, which also directly referred to the case of detained Tibetan language advocate Tashi Wangchuk. It was a relief, but the fight is far from over; as China’s political and economic influence continues to grow, more and more countries will be tempted to shy away from criticizing Beijing for fear of economic retaliation, and there will probably be other attempts to block such statements in the future. My office in Brussels, as well as other offices of the International Campaign for Tibet in Europe will therefore strengthen their efforts both at the EU and UN level to counter this divide and rule strategy. I am sure other NGOs such as Amnesty International, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), or Human Rights Watch will join in.

The ambivalent attitude of the Brussels based European Institute for Asian Studies on Tibet

Serious questions are raised by the lecture on 4th December at EIAS by a Chinese Communist Party official who has been notable for his attempts to stifle independent debate and adherence to aggressive policies against the Dalai Lama.

Vincent Metten

Vincent Metten (ICT) asking questions during the Q&A Sassion. On the panel from left to right: the chinese interpreter, Mr Pema Thinley and EIAS moderator Mr Fouquet.

Pema Thrinley (Chinese transliteration: Baima Chilin) the Vice Chairman of the Ethnic Affairs Committee, National People’s Congress of China spoke about “Assessing Economic Development in Tibet”. We believe that this is in direct contravention of the mandate of the European Institute for Asian Studies, as a “leading Brussels-based Think Tank and Policy Research, which provides a platform for the promotion of dialogue and understanding between the European Union and Asia on affairs of strategic regional and global importance, hereby ensuring indepth, comprehensive research and information exchange.” (

Pema Trinley served in the People’s Liberation Army based in Tibet from 1969 to 1986, a military career which could be as an important credential for the continued implementation of harsh security policies in the region that have become the norm for the Party in handling Tibet. He is seen as a man who had played a prominent role in justifying the crackdown on Tibetans after the March 2008 protests in the Tibetan capital city, Lhasa. This year Pema Trinley accused the Dalai Lama of “profaning religion and Tibetan Buddhism” as a reaction to Dalai Lama’s remarks that he might not be reincarnated when he dies.

The decision by EIAS to invite this official delegation also appears contradictory in the light of its recent decision to reject a discussion with an authoritative independent expert on Tibet’s environment, a matter of regional stability and increasing global concern.

The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) contacted the EIAS and proposed them to host an event with an expert in environmental issues in Tibet, Mr Gabriel Lafitte, a researcher in the Department of Management, Faculty of Business and Economics, of Monash University, in Australia, and editor of a specialist website which focuses on Tibetan encounters with global modernity.

EIAS responded to the proposal as follows: “After discussing internally, and while unfortunately organizing a public seminar on Tibet is not possibility for EIAS, we would be very interested in having an internal meeting with Mr Lafitte, should he be interested (together with some of our senior associates and researchers).”

Very surprisingly, a few weeks later we received an invitation from the same organization to attend a Briefing Seminar on Tibet by Pema Thinley as the main speaker.

During the Q&A Session, I asked why the Institue had changed its attitude towards Tibet and has now included it on its agenda, EIAS’ “moderator” Mr David Fouquet answered: “Even in small organisations, there can be bureaucratic misunderstanding and miscommunication. I was not involved in process you describe, but we can maybe talk about it later with the person you were in contact with. My approach would be that it would have been a possible topic of interest.”

EIAS Briefing

Participants to the EIAS Briefing.

diplomat from the Chinese

The diplomat from the Chinese EU mission trying to prevent me from taking pictures.

I was also quiet surprised by the attitude of a diplomat form the Chinese EU mission (the person with the pink tie) who tried to prevent me physically from taking picture during the event without any reaction from the organizers! The diplomat had forgotten his visit cards and did not mention his name to me. The EIAS did not mention publicly to all participants at the beginning of the event nor on the invitation that Chatham House rules were applying and that pictures were not allowed. Several other participants took pictures during the event without any reaction from anyone.

In my view, there is a real need for additional investigation by independent experts and journalists on how some of Brussels’ based think tanks and research centers dealing with Asia, in particular active on China, position themselves and tackle sensitive issues such as human rights, Tibet, Taiwan or Hong Kong.

And most importantly there is a need to understand what are the interests and reasons behind such attitudes and what is the added-value for these organisations to side-line sensitive issues from a public debate.