Tag - China

Why does Tibet matter in the discourse on the democratization of China?

On October 2, 2016, I participated in a conference on possibility for democratization of China at New York University. There were scholars on China, Chinese-American academics, Tibetans, Uyghurs, and some of the top names in the Chinese democracy movement, including Tiananmen veteran Wang Juntao and writer of Fifth Modernization Wei Jingsheng. The conference was convened by Prof. Ming Xia of New York University and Mr. Chin Jin of the China Democracy Forum.

In my presentation I made a case on why Tibet matters in this discourse by Chinese democracy advocates.

Here is an expanded version of the points I made:

First, the aspirations of the Tibetan people need to be considered from the beginning of the discourse. If the Chinese democracy advocates are talking of democratization of the People’s Republic of China, then they need to bear in mind that the present PRC territorial borders include a large number of people like Tibetans who are not Chinese (Han). In fact, the PRC terms itself “a unified multi-ethnic country” with the 56 nationalities supposed to be having equal rights. Therefore, Tibetan viewpoints need to be considered as part of the discourse rather than Tibetans merely being perceived as beneficiaries of the discourse.

The Chinese Communist government has failed, and continues to fail, in understanding Tibetan aspirations. It is for this reason that even after virtually 60 years of occupation, the leadership in Beijing has not been able to gain the trust of the Tibetan people. The Chinese democrats should not commit the same mistake.

Secondly, although the Tibetans in Tibet have been living under an authoritarian regime, the small, but critical number of Tibetan Diaspora, has been undergoing a unique experiment in borderless democracy. In the process, Tibetans are gaining much experience in the intricacies of democracy, both good and bad. This experience is something that the people talking about democratization of China can look at and learn from.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has been the proponent of Tibetan democracy, developed his thinking, monitored the changing circumstances of the Tibetan Diaspora, and introduced pertinent changes in stages. The process began in 1960 with the Dalai Lama introducing the concept of representative democracy by asking the Tibetans to elect their deputies to a Parliament that would have a say in the governance of the Tibetans in exile. He then followed it up a few years later with the promulgation of a draft constitution for future Tibet, thus introducing the concept of rule of law. Much to the consternation of the Tibetan public he mandated that this constitution have an impeachment clause to be applied to the Dalai Lama, if needed. This was a very important message that the Dalai Lama was sending, namely that no one should be considered being above the law.

In subsequent years, the Dalai Lama took further steps in empowering the Tibetan people; from enfranchising the people to elect the ministers (who were until then appointed by him); to the drafting of a Charter, specifically to govern the Tibetan Diaspora, which included provision for the establishment of the three pillars of democracy; legislative, executive, and the judiciary. Obviously, given that the Tibetan Diaspora does not operate from their own homeland these were adapted to the prevailing situation.

The most significant change took place in 2011 when the present Dalai Lama not only gave up all his political authority in favor of an elected Tibetan leadership, but also virtually removed the institution of the Dalai Lamas from all future political roles.

Therefore, the Chinese democracy movement needs to discuss how and where the Tibetans will fit in their discourse on the democratization of China. This means thinking about the broader issue of nationalities. Lately, some Chinese scholars and politicians have been talking about a “second generation ethnic policy”, which calls for doing away with virtually all affirmative actions (that are on paper, if I may add) for people considered “minorities”. What is the position of the Chinese democracy advocates on this? What do they feel about the concerns of the Tibetan people?

They should also learn from the Dalai Lama and his vision for Middle Way Approach to resolve the Tibetan issue. In this it will be beneficial for the Chinese democrats to understand the Dalai Lama’s role, not only on the Tibetan issue, but also his impact on the broader Chinese community.

In summation, Chinese democracy advocates need to address the aspirations and concerns of the Tibetan people if they are to be part of the democratization of China. It would be counter-productive to take people like the Tibetans for granted or to merely see them as part of the community needing some largesse. They need to bear in mind that among Tibetans there is no consensus on their preference for a democratic China for there are those who feel that there may not be much difference. Also, there are voices in the Tibetan community that call for an independent Tibet and discussions need to happen on how they fit in the discourse.

In short, the Chinese democracy advocates need to consider the Tibetan people when they are discussing the future, but also take steps to win over the Tibetans in the current discourse.

Would China’s new Party Secretary in Lhasa turn out to be a double-edged sword to Tibetans?

The former Party Secretary of Tibet Autonomous Region, Chen Quanguao (left) with the newly appointed Party Secretary Wu Yingjie (right).

The former Party Secretary of Tibet Autonomous Region, Chen Quanguao (left) with the newly appointed Party Secretary Wu Yingjie (right).

On August 28, 2016 the Chinese authorities replaced the Party Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Chen Quanguo, with Wu Yingjie. Chen’s transfer may not have any extra significance as he has served in Lhasa for over five years, which is around the time when such Party officials are moved. But Wu is interesting in quite a few ways.

Wu is the first of the “second generation Tibetans” (Chinese: Zang Er Dai) to assume the position of the Party Secretary. The term “second generation Tibetans” is assigned to Chinese officials who have literally grown up in Tibet, having been brought there by their parents when they were young. They are believed to be very familiar with the Tibetan way of life. The first generation is composed of those who were sent in the 1950s by Beijing after taking control of Tibet.

The general assumption is that given his past portfolio and his statements and actions while serving in different capacities in Lhasa and other places, he will only strengthen the Party’s rigid control of the Tibetan people. He has been personally linked to some of the crackdowns in Tibet, including in Driru county where he is said to have asked the armed police force, after an incident in 2013, to “further strengthen patrol duty, control and grid management.” According to this theory, Wu Yingjie’s long stint in different Tibetan towns enables him to understand the Tibetan psyche and this will enable him to adopt appropriate stringent measures to deal with the people. In other words, since he is familiar with the Tibetans, he can be relied on to have contempt for them.

Wu’s appointment is an indication of the Chinese authorities’ inability to empower Tibetans to assume such a responsible position. In the past, when asked why a Tibetan has not been appointed as a Party Secretary, one of the responses from the Chinese side has been that, unlike in the government, in the Party there is no space for ethnic consideration. But in the present case, Pema Thinley (Chinese: Padma Choling), holds a deputy secretary position (a rank similar to that of Wu Yingjie before his promotion) in the Tibet Autonomous Region Party Committee. In fact, Pema Thinley is senior because he became Deputy Secretary in 2010 while Wu Yingjie was named Deputy Secretary only in 2011. So Pema Thinley’s seniority in the Party should have made him an equal candidate for the post. But there is no indication that anything like that has happened. Thus, his being a Tibetan might have in fact been an obstacle in his promotion, just as it seemed to have been with previous Tibetan Party leaders like Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal, Sangye Yeshi (Tian Bao), Tashi Wangchuk, etc. The only message that one can take from this is that if one is Tibetan one is always a suspect in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party. That was the situation in the 1950s and it remains the same today.

I want to mention here that I am of the view that even if a Tibetan were to be appointed as the Party Secretary, he or she would not be able to do much, in the absence of courage to take a certain amount of risk. For the possibility of being accused of “local nationalism” will always be there, like the Sword of Damocles.
Nevertheless, whenever, there is a change in leaders, there is always the possibility of a new approach. Therefore, there is the opportunity for Wu Yingjie to show himself as someone sensitive to the Tibetan people’s sentiments. In this he does not have to look far for inspiration. There is his namesake predecessor, Wu Jinghua, who served as the Party Secretary in Lhasa from 1985 to 1988. This Wu, who was of Yi nationality, endeared himself to the Tibetans by his willingness to appreciate Tibetan sensitivity, allowing for the revival of Tibetan culture and tradition, so much so that the 10th Panchen Lama is said to have termed him even as ‘one of the best officials in Tibet’.

Even if we look at history, it looks like Mao Zedong himself did look for officials who did not alienate the Tibetans. It is believed that Zhang Guohua, who served twice as Party Secretary in Lhasa (in the 1950s and in the 1960s), is said to have been chosen for his familiarity with the Tibetan culture.

Today, despite whatever claims the Chinese authorities might have about how wonderful the life of Tibetans in Tibet is, the fact remains that there is a trust deficit situation. By their misguided policies, recent Chinese officials overseeing Tibetan affairs have not contributed to reducing this deficit. If Wu Yingjie truly considers himself a “second generation Tibetan” he should understand Tibetan aspirations and reflect that in his work.

A red dress too far? Xi goes to the Palace in the UK’s ‘epic kowtow’ to China

Parliament square

Protests at Parliament square.

The day before UK PM Cameron entertained Xi Jinping for a pint in his local pub last week, a Chinese Tiananmen survivor and two young Tibetan women were locked up overnight by police in London and informed they were not allowed to be ‘within 100 metres’ of the ‘victim’ of their ‘harassment’, Chinese Communist Party boss Xi.

It was a troubling conclusion to a week in which the UK government faced an angry public backlash to ‘the great British kowtow’, in which the authoritarian leader of the Chinese Communist Party, currently presiding over the most serious crackdown in the PRC in a generation, was accorded a glittering surfeit of Royal pomp and obsequiousness in line with Chancellor Osborne’s new China policy of doing whatever the Beijing leadership wants.

As the golden carriage bearing Xi Jinping and the Queen progressed down a Mall lined with cheering Chinese students with immense red flags, uniform tee-shirts, drummers and dragons, dissident writer Ma Jian had tears in his eyes. “The message from the Chinese tyrants to their subjects is clear: if the queen of the UK, the oldest democracy in the world, lavishes your president with such respect and approbation, then what right have you to criticise him?” Ma Jian wrote.

Tibetan protesters

Sonam and Jamphel, the two Tibetan protesters arrested during Xi Jinping’s London visit, welcomed by members of the Tibetan community in London on their release.

There were numerous attempts by the Chinese students and security personnel to obscure or intimidate the small number of Tibetans, Chinese (Falun Gong and others), Uyghur and other protesters on the Mall. Carole Beavis wrote that she was “singled out by three official looking Chinese men, who effectively herded me away from the event, lowered my arm holding the camera.”

Xi Jinping’s visit to the UK coincides with a terrifying crackdown on civil society in China in which lawyers and human rights defenders have been targeted, with many enduring horrific torture. More than 140 Tibetans have set themselves on fire, an act emerging from anguish at unbearable oppression, while moderate Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti is serving life in prison for peacefully advocating dialogue.

But it is not only within the PRC. Xi and the top Party leadership are aggressively seeking to export their assault on civil society and to roll back freedom and democracy in other parts of the world.

The three arrests in London last Wednesday are in the context of police being pressed elsewhere in Europe to take stronger measures against peaceful demonstrations (for example in Denmark and Belgium.

Shao Jiang’s protest took place as Xi Jinping arrived in the all important ‘square mile’, the financial centre of London (Chancellor Osborne wants London to be the worldwide center for renminbi trading).

TV footage shows Shao Jiang, a British citizen who was imprisoned for 18 months after involvement with the Tiananmen Square protests, stepping into the road with two small white placards bearing the statements ‘end autocracy’ and ‘democracy now’. Several police officers charge towards him, knocking him off his feet, helmets flying, and take him into custody.

Soon afterwards, two Tibetan women who had been displaying Tibetan flags nearby were led away by police and all three held overnight in the cells.

At the police station that night, the duty officer told me that they were accused of ‘conspiracy’ ‘to commit threatening behaviour’. But Shao Jiang had been on his own – could they mean that perhaps he had been thinking of standing in another part of the public highway with his two placards? Perhaps the two young women, Sonam and Jamphel, were conspiring to go and grab a cup of tea afterwards, as it was a grey and rainy day?

As they were being held in custody, police went to each of their homes and seized laptops, phones, and USB sticks. All three depend on their laptops for work; the computer of Johanna Zhang, Shao Jiang’s wife, who works as an artist and translator, was even taken. This was a chilling step, particularly given the obvious resonances; in Tibet and China, people understand the visceral fear associated with a knock on the door in the middle of the night.

Shao Jiang

Chinese Tiananmen survivor Shao Jiang is released on bail at Bishopsgate police station (charges are now dropped) by Tsering Passang, head of the Tibetan Community in Britain, and Kate Saunders.

In a debate in Parliament on Monday (October 26), Shao Jiang’s MP, Emily Thornberry, asked for the Home Office Minister to advise her “how I can hold to account those who made the disgraceful decisions to arrest someone who was, on the face of it, behaving in a way that was entirely peaceful, who should not have been arrested and whose house should not have been searched?” MP David Winnick, referred to “British police action with Chinese characteristics”. (Video available here.)

The arrests made front page news in the UK, in the context of an overwhelming public backlash against the UK government’s ‘epic kowtow’ to Communist Party boss Xi. Business leader and expert on China James McGregor, chairman of consultancy APCO Worldwide, told the BBC’s influential Today programme: “If you act like panting puppy the object of your attention is going to think they’ve got you on a leash. China does not respect people who suck up to them.” Mark Steel mused in The Independent: “If trade helps improve human rights, it’s about time we let North Korea and Isis run some of our industries.”

Steve Hilton, the UK PM’s former strategy advisor, tore into his friend Chancellor Osborne, arguing that kowtowing to China does nothing for Britain’s economic health: “Of course the Beijing oppressors would prefer not to be lectured in public on human rights. But if a convicted murderer said he’d prefer not to be lectured in public on the morality of killing people, would we say: ‘OK, we’ll keep your verdict secret’? […] China is a superpower, aggressively spreading its influence. Our security and economic opportunity depend on an orderly world, underpinned by the values of openness. We need to stand up, strongly, for openness. If the world slides towards the opposite values, those of the Beijing dictators, we should be very nervous.”

In the meantime, The Times reported that senior military and intelligence figures have warned ministers that plans to give China a big stake in Britain’s nuclear power industry pose a threat to national security (see this great video).

In a bizarre media postscript to the visit, I was invited to join a Sunday morning TV show on which Ken Livingstone bucked the trend with the bizarre claim that the Dalai Lama had no credibility because he was a CIA stooge, while TV presenter Tricia Goddard did agree that the Duchess of Cambridge’s dress at the state banquet was a step too far.

Kate looked stunning as she clinked glasses with President Xi, but did she need to wear red, in homage to a man who is China’s most authoritarian and paranoid leader since Mao? A man who is so controlling that he even banned cartoons of Pooh Bear, after Chinese micro-bloggers picked up on an uncanny resemblance between a photograph of Xi and President Obama and a cartoon image of A. A. Milne’s cartoon creations.

As if to prove that another approach is possible, this week Dutch King Willem-Alexander made a strong public statement by raising human rights at a state banquet in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

On Wednesday night, two days after questions were raised in Parliament about their arrests, Scotland Yard said that the three protesters had been “released from their bail with no further action”. Their laptops and phones were returned today.

Why Tibet Could Be the Best Opportunity for Xi Jinping

This article written by ICT President Matteo Mecacci, co-authored by ICT Vice President Bhuchung K. Tsering, was published on September 22 by The Huffington Post.

Obama Xi

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, shakes hand with Chinese President Xi Jinping after their press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China in 2014. (Photo: AP)

On September 24 later this month, China’s President Xi Jinping will arrive in Washington to meet President Obama for an important state visit. The context is a growing alarm about China’s less than peaceful rise, and provides a rare opportunity for the president to give an important message on Tibet.

It has been noted in Washington that President Xi’s self-proclaimed “China Dream” — a vision of a peaceful and rising China on the world stage — has become a Kafka-esque nightmare for many.

China’s government has been publicly blamed for major cyber attacks suffered by US federal institutions and businesses over the last months and more sanctions seem to be in preparation to target some of its officials. US and EU business leaders are now openly expressing concern for the safety of their work in China; fears that were previously reserved for political dissidents, Tibetan religious leaders, lawyers and journalists targeted by Beijing. CEOs and others are obviously concerned about the purge and targeting of city workers in China after the recent downturn of the financial markets.

There has been an unprecedented attack on Chinese civil society, resulting in the arrests of civil rights lawyers and peaceful activists. In Tibet, writers and artists have been tortured and imprisoned for singing about the Dalai Lama or expressing their views in literary journals.

The expansion of outposts in the South China Sea has unnerved China’s neighbors and US allies in the region and revived the debate about increasing US military spending to push back against what are perceived as Beijing expansionist aspirations in the Pacific.

The domestic anti-corruption campaign — with its international ramifications to recover financial assets — has not been followed up by a reform of the judicial system that provides independence. It is now perceived more as a way to eliminate other competing factions than a genuine attempt to implement the rule of law in the public sector.

We know that Tibet, as a strategic border area, is an important matter to China. The Party State has stepped up its rhetoric against the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, in this context — which sits uncomfortably with the White House. President Obama has met the Dalai Lama four times and the two men enjoy a warm relationship.

The Dalai Lama’s peaceful advocacy and will to find a negotiated solution with China is highly respected in Washington, and his stature in the world stage as spiritual and moral leader increases with his age.

In the interest of China, and his own, Xi Jinping, certainly needs to give different signals to a world that is skeptical about his administration. A commitment to reduce carbon emissions in view of the COP21 UN Summit in Paris on climate change later this year is in the making, and would be certainly welcomed by the Obama administration, but it won’t be a surprise, as it won’t be enough expressing a general commitment to find “peaceful” solutions to the South China issues or to “fight against cyberterrorism.”

China can show to the world that it is really changing only if it can make profound reforms, such as moving from a centralized and authoritarian political system — which leads to its embrace of nationalistic and aggressive policies — to a more democratic and decentralized one, where the rule of law and a process of genuine consultations lead to sound political decisions.

For this, the Tibetan issue represents an important opportunity for Xi Jinping. By embracing the Dalai Lama’s sincere offer for dialogue based on his Middle Way Approach, and his decision to devolve his political authority to Tibetan institutions in exile — clearly indicating that he has no interest in going back to Tibet to rule — Xi Jinping would show that he is open to find some solutions to difficult and longstanding political issues that are of concern for the international community.

President Obama, who is also a Nobel Peace Laureate, should personally tell President Xi that he has nothing to fear from the Dalai Lama. The resistance by Tibetans to the decades-long policies of cultural and ethnic assimilation has been remarkably nonviolent so far, and this is largely due to the leadership provided by the Dalai Lama. It is the 80th birthday year of the Dalai Lama and this should provide a sense of urgency for resolving the issue in his lifetime. It is absurd to believe that Xi Jinping, leader of an atheist Party state, can ensure stability in Tibet through stage-managing a reincarnation of the Nobel Peace Laureate and seeking to eviscerate a peaceful religious culture.

Rather, by embracing the Dalai Lama President Xi might be able to bring about a change in the mindset of the international community on China and its future. China and its leaders know that despite its economic influence (which seem to be shaking currently) there is much distrust by the governments about China’s intentions and ambitions. If China respects the aspirations of the Tibetans for self-rule, the Dalai Lama could be a catalyst for China’s acceptance as a responsible member of the community of nations.