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President Xi’s European Tour: Strategic moves and key outcomes

The Chinese President has just concluded a visit to Europe, his first since 2019. He visited three countries: France, Serbia, and Hungary. Why did China choose these three countries? And what results and lessons can be drawn from the Chinese President’s trip?

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s motorcade passes an overpass on which a Tibetan flag and a “Free Tibet” banner was hung by activists of the Students for a Free Tibet.

Visit to France

The Chinese President’s visit to France follows President Macron’s visit to China in April 2023. It was part of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries when General de Gaulle was in power. Besides being one of the major European countries and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, one reason Beijing chose to kick off this visit of Europe in Paris can be partly explained by France’s position on Europe’s “strategic autonomy” from the USA, which it seeks to promote on the international stage. This approach aims to reduce Europe’s dependence on its American ally, particularly in matters of security and protection. Beijing views this position favorably as it aligns with the vision of a more multipolar world, less dominated by the United States.

Three Main Issues on the Political Agenda

Many subjects were on the agenda in France, but three main issues dominated the discussions: economic relations between France, the European Union, and China, characterized by a large trade deficit and Chinese state aid to its companies, which distorts free competition; international crises, particularly China’s stance on Moscow and its implications for the war in Ukraine. China has never condemned the war (referring to it as a “crisis”) and supports Russia, notably through the delivery of dual-use equipment. More than direct supply of weapons – a red line that China seems careful not to cross so far – it is the supply of machine tools and components for the production of these weapons that is the focus of attention. Thanks to commercial transactions by its companies, Beijing has enabled Moscow to revive its arms industry and gain an advantage in the conflict. China is unlikely to change its position on this issue.

Finally, the last major issue concerns environmental questions and climate change, in which France has played an important role in the past. In 2025, France will host the next United Nations Ocean Conference in Nice.

Human Rights marginalized

It’s highly probable that human rights were also discussed between the two Presidents, but in any case, in the public communication surrounding the visit on the French side, no mention was made of this subject, which is to be regretted. Prior to the Chinese President’s arrival and during his visit, the media, political representatives, NGOs, and members of the Uyghur and Tibetan communities widely highlighted the deplorable human rights situation in the country. A few days before the Chinese leader’s visit, the French President Macron met the President of the Central Tibetan Administration in Exile, Mr. Penpa Tsering, at an event at the Élysée Palace, to present the Legion of Honor to former Senator André Gattolin, known for his support to Tibetan. A meeting of this nature set a political precedent!

For their part, Tibetan supporters undertook protest rallies and even hung pro-Tibet banners from the Arc de Triomphe or from a bridge under which Xi Jinping’s convoy passed on its way from Orly airport to the capital. A major Tibetan demonstration was held on Place de la République on May 5, with several thousand participants. The Uyghurs also held a demonstration at Place de la Madeleine, despite intimidation and counter-demonstrations by pro-Beijing groups. On the political front, an open letter to the French President signed by 14 members of the French Senate’s Tibet Information Group highlighted Tibet’s geostrategic importance in Asia and urged the French President to put human rights and Tibet at the heart of his discussions with his Chinese counterpart. Also worthy of mention is the open letter published in Le Monde by Raphaël Glucksmann, Member of the European Parliament and head of the Socialist Party and Place Publique list in the European elections. In this open letter, he denounced the French President’s “obsequiousness” towards the Chinese leader and his lack of strategic vision.

Lack of European Unity

The French President invited the President of the European Commission to join a meeting with the Chinese President, which she accepted. A similar offer was made to German Chancellor Scholz, who apparently declined, having visited China a few days earlier. This lack of Frehc-German unity in the face of China is certainly not in the European camp’s favor, as it is yet another illustration of the lack of unity in the face of Beijing. China is well aware of this and is playing the “divide and conquer” card in its relations with European states.

Visits to Serbia and Hungary

This logic explains the subsequent visit to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia (which is not a member of the European Union), and then to Budapest in Hungary. In Serbia, Xi Jinping was warmly greeted at the airport by Serbian President Vucic (in France, it was Prime Minister Gabriel Attal who did the honors). The same was true in Hungary, where the Hungarian President met Xi at the plane. Red carpet, Chinese flags, glowing remarks from both sides: the aim was to demonstrate the excellent relations that unite Serbia, Hungary, and China.

One of the purposes for Xi’s visit to Serbia was to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade – an opportunity to criticize NATO in a European country that is not an alliance member, and implicitly reprimand NATO’s growing involvement in the Asia-Pacific region. China and Serbia proclaimed an “ironclad friendship” and a “shared future.” Serbia’s Vucic became the first European leader to commit to joining China in building a “community with a shared future.”

China has also successfully established military cooperation with this ally and has provided some military equipment to Belgrade (such as missiles and drones). Serbia’s military is relying on Chinese arms suppliers as tensions have increased with its smaller neighbor Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 but the government in Belgrade does not recognize it, even though the U.S., U.K., and many other countries do. China and Kosovo do not have formal diplomatic relations as China does not recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state. On the contrary, China is supporting Belgrade’s position on Kosovo, and in exchange, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said that Serbia had “a clear and simple position regarding Chinese territorial integrity: Taiwan is China.” It is difficult to be more explicit than that.

Hungary and China signed some 18 cooperation agreements in sectors such as railways, IT, and nuclear energy. Hungary is emerging as an increasingly important production hub in Europe for Chinese automotive suppliers, including electric vehicle (EV) makers. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “The two sides are ready to take the announcement of the establishment of an all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership for the new era as a new starting point to take bilateral relations and practical cooperation to a higher level.”

Conclusion

Xi’s visit to Serbia and Hungary has served several purposes: it has shown to its domestic audience that China has close friends in Europe, it tries to decrease the pressure on trade, security, and human rights coming from Europe, and these visits are chipping away at a world order he sees as dominated by the United States.

Serbia and Hungary don’t care about democracy or human rights. For them, foreign policy is strictly pragmatic and focused on economic interests. They are strategic gateways for Beijing toward Europe.

On the other side, China has not been successful over the past years in deepening its relations with other central and eastern European countries (with maybe the exception of Slovakia). Although China never recognized Russia’s behavior in Crimea or in Eastern Ukraine, China did not blame Russia for its military actions and is even supportive of Moscow in providing some dual-use equipment, which is feeding the war. This position is not appreciated by most of the eastern and central European countries, who have been under the domination of a communist country during the Cold War and are very supportive of Kiev against Russia’s aggression.

Amala and a future of more democracy

For Western audiences, part of the allure of Tibetan culture is that it often seems like an antidote to the doom loops of the modern world. That’s even the case when it comes to one of the West’s most exalted values: democracy.

In 2011, at the start of a decade that saw cult-of-personality leaders ascend to power in some of the world’s largest democracies, the Dalai Lama, one of the most popular figures on Earth and the public face of Tibetan society, voluntarily relinquished his political power. For the first time, Tibetans, spurred on by His Holiness, elected a president, known as the sikyong, who took over much of the temporal authority of the Dalai Lama (His Holiness remained the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism).

Impressively, Tibetans voted for sikyong in over 30 countries around the globe. Sadly, this did not include Tibet itself, where the occupying Chinese government suffocates democracy of any sort. But in exile, Tibetans, under the Dalai Lama’s leadership, have established not just an elected presidency but also a parliament (the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile) and a judiciary (the Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission). These institutions should look familiar to Americans with our tripartite system of checks and balances.

Problems with democracy

Yet if Tibetans are repeating America’s experiments in democracy, they also seem to be running headlong into some of the same problems—namely partisanship and paralysis. In a thought-provoking blog post from earlier this year, my senior colleague Bhuchung K. Tsering asks, “Is Tibetan democracy in exile failing?” While chronicling the Dalai Lama’s heroic efforts to set up a democratic infrastructure and hailing Tibetan democracy at the grassroots level, Bhuchung la also lays out several of the recent controversies in the Tibetan system of government, including the further postponement of a parliamentary session late last year due to the lack of a quorum.

Democracy, Bhuchung writes, “is a double-edged sword”:

When those participating in it exercise their franchise responsibly, there is progress. But when some participants do not do so, they can lead to the stagnation or, worse, the retrogression of the society. The irony will be that people who fall in either of these categories will stick by their position, asserting that they are exercising their democratic rights.

Aptly, Bhuchung compares the dysfunction in the Tibetan parliament to the chaos in the US Congress last year when House Republicans ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy and failed to agree on his replacement for several weeks. Indeed, it should come as no surprise that Bhuchung’s question about democracy failing applies just as easily to the United States.

But given these failures, I can’t help but wonder about a bigger question: Is democracy really the best option for society?

Worth saving?

In the United States, we hear that our democracy may not survive the next election. Yet if you survey the country, it can be hard to see why it’s worth fighting for in the first place. Across a range of issues, from abortion to gun control to Gaza, the will of the majority is thwarted by contemptuous elected officials alongside unelected jurists and bureaucrats. Policy in the US more often represents the desires of the wealthy than the wishes of the public.

Other pillars of democracy are hollow in today’s America. Protestors exercising their right to free speech are assaulted by militarized police. The mainstream press, supposedly a check on abuses of power, largely echoes the views of the powerful. And as I’ve written before, ordinary Americans lack the economic equality needed for meaningful participation in self-government.

These are all ongoing problems. But let’s not forget that America, the global bastion of freedom, is responsible for genocide, slavery and colonialization. Throughout history, democracies across the world have been guilty of the same. If this is what democracy produces, is it even redeemable?

Undemocratic alternative

Don’t get me wrong: I am very worried about the future of politics in the United States. And I certainly prefer living in America to living in a place like China that lacks even a fig leaf of popular rule. Yet seeing the disasters wrought by our governments, I can’t help but think there has to be a better option out there.

Working at the International Campaign for Tibet for the past six years has brought me closer to one potentially superior alternative: rule by the Dalai Lama. It’s easy to understand why having a leader for life would be horrifying, but what if that leader were His Holiness? I would certainly prefer him to any president the United States has ever had. One of the problems with democracy is that it tends to see the worst people in society—the greediest, most self-obsessed, most morally compromised—running for office or finding puppets to run on their behalf. But under the leadership of the Dalai Lama, you would have one of the world’s best people in power.

Yet the very qualities that make the Dalai Lama such a uniquely qualified leader seem to have informed his decision to give up his authority. In 2011, after he announced his decision to step down from politics, His Holiness acknowledged that he had “received repeated and earnest requests both from within Tibet and outside, to continue to provide political leadership.” But, he added, his decision was based on a wish “to benefit Tibetans in the long run.” “I trust that gradually people will come to understand my intention,” he said, “will support my decision and accordingly let it take effect.”

As an outsider in the Tibetan world, I’ve often wondered if most Tibetans truly want democracy or if they would gladly return to a theocratic system. I’ve asked some Tibetans informally, and, to my slight surprise, they’ve said they think democracy is preferable. One Tibetan friend told me that democracy, for all its flaws, is better than every other form of government.

Amala and democracy

The topic of democracy came up recently when ICT hosted a screening of the documentary “Amala,” followed by a Q&A with the film’s titular subject, Jetsun Pema. The younger sister of the Dalai Lama, she earned the moniker “Amala,” or “mother,” because she served for over four decades as president of the Tibetan Children’s Villages school system in South Asia.

When asked by an audience member about the importance of Tibetan democracy, Amala gave a detailed answer in which she acknowledged some of democracy’s shortcomings. “Democracy is for the people, by the people and with the people,” she said. “That’s something which the leaders tend to forget when they get to the top.”

Nevertheless, Amala said democracy is “very precious.” She spoke about the subject for several minutes; what I found remarkable was how much more deeply she seemed to grasp the meaning of democracy than the average politician does.

Inspiration from Amala

Amala made several observations that all of us who care about good governance would benefit from hearing:

  • Democracy and education: Unsurprisingly for a longtime educator, Amala emphasized the role of education in democracy. “Democracy is something you learn right from school,” she said. “People have to be really well-educated to know what democracy means,” she added. Amala’s comments brought to mind John Dewey, the 20th century American public intellectual who was a fierce advocate for democracy. According to Fordham University’s Nicholas Tampio, Dewey believed that “modern societies can use schools to impart democratic habits in young people from an early age.”
  • Democracy outside the ballot box: Amala also drew from her experience at the Tibetan Children’s Villages schools to show that democracy is more than just a formal procedure for electing politicians. “Even in the institutions like TCV,” she said, “we always followed a democratic way of selecting our principals, selecting our heads of the schools and even selecting the president of the Tibetan Children’s Village.” This process puts to shame the notion that democracy simply means giving people the freedom to elect one of two woeful candidates once every four years. Democracy is also about more than just politics. A healthier democracy would exist in a greater range of spheres of life, including democracy in the workplace, democracy at the local level, democracy in the development and use of technology and more.
  • Freedom and responsibility: Democracy is “freedom for everybody,” Amala said. “But it must be freedom with responsibility. You can’t just take democracy to do as you please. Democracy is something which has to be honored.” Amala’s words are an important message for audiences in the West, where the indulgence of individual freedom has run amok. It’s not an exaggeration to say that people focusing on their rights and ignoring their responsibilities is a big reason why democracy is in crisis today.

The need for more democracy

My favorite writer, Pankaj Mishra, once contrasted the notion of democracy as electoralism (simply electing politicians into office and letting them decide everything from there) or a tyranny of the majority (allowing the largest group in society to trample the needs of all others) with the vision of democracy as “a process of consensus-building, a process of transparent discussion, debate and decision-making.”

“I think what is really true,” Mishra said, “is that we haven’t really had much democracy, and what we need is more democracy.”

For that, Amala’s words are a good starting-off point. All in all, she expressed a vision of democracy that is fuller and deeper than what most of us experience, reminding us that as we look ahead to an uncertain political future, the path forward should not be to turn back on democracy but rather to lean further into it.

Watch Amala’s answer on Tibetan democracy:

Note: After six years at ICT, this will be my final blog post as an employee. Thank you to all of you who have read and commented over the years. I look forward to staying involved in the Tibetan movement. Bod Gyalo! (Victory for Tibet!)

Our Unwavering Mission to Uphold Peace and Human Rights

By Tenzin Passang. Tenzin Passang is a junior at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and an intern at the International Campaign for Tibet.

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”
– His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

 Tenzin Passang

Author Tenzin Passang outside of Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi’s office on Capitol Hill.

This quote of His Holiness manifested in true form when more than 200 Tibetan Americans and non-Tibetans convened in Washington DC for the annual Tibet Lobby Day. Their purpose: to speak for those who can’t. Tibet Lobby Day organized by the International Campaign for Tibet, empowers advocates with the opportunity to meet their legislators and address the plight our fellow Tibetans face in Tibet. This year our focus was on the Resolve Tibet Act, which recently passed the House of Representatives and now awaits Senate approval. The bill, if passed, will make it official US policy that the dispute between Tibet and China remains unresolved and must be resolved in accordance with international law.

It was overwhelming to see many people from all over the nation come to DC for our event. We received a very diverse group of participants including high school and college students, professionals, retired folk and partners of our organization. It was especially inspiring to see so many young Tibetans, and their absence from their school served as their recognition for a greater cause. Their presence meant a lot to me and not because they increased the number of participants, nor because we increased our outreach to more states, but because it served as a testament that the next generation who will eventually lead the movement to free Tibet was up to the task. I perceived a deeply rooted sense of patriotism and selflessness in them reflected by their commitment to advocate for people who they have never met, yet with whom they shared an intrinsic connection of identity, culture, and compassion.

Congressional meetings are often one-sided conversation; you best be prepared to present your issues articulately and persuasively. These meetings require you to understand the bills and relevant current affairs. I accompanied two Vermonters to their Congressional meetings, Tsering Yangkyi Cummings, a community leader, and her 14-year-old daughter, Tenzin Yega Cummings. Tsering and the rest of the group were well prepared, and we had organized in a way so that everyone on the team could contribute to the meeting. However, the person who made the most impactful contribution was Tenzin Yega. Yes, a 14-year-old advocate. Without her the meetings would not have been as productive as we would have liked. She displayed confidence and intellectual prowess by leading our conversations and by answering questions in a well-informed and articulate manner. I could see that the Congressional staffers were amazed, and I was as well.

Tibet Lobby Day

Author Tenzin Passang with ICT staffers Sarah Kane and Tsejin Khando preparing materials for Tibet Lobby Day participants.

Her conversations were driven by her passion and a willingness to make a difference. Her calm and composed demeanor set the tone for our meetings, and she was quick to speak up when others had run out of things to say. During the free time between meetings, she would flip through info packets and prepare herself by practicing with her mother.

All in all, Tibet Lobby Day was a grand success. The event itself is an exercise of our right to petition our government, keeping the Tibetan spirit vibrant within the halls of Congress. The growth in participation since our inaugural year is exponential, with some non-Tibetan allies matching, if not surpassing, my own zeal—a fact that fills me with immense joy. Through our relentless advocacy we aim to marshal more support not just in Congress but the American population in general.

I am eager to participate next year as well and to find more energy and inspiration. Bod Gyalo! (Victory for Tibet!)

Is Tibetan democracy in exile failing?

On Dec. 21, just four days before its rescheduled session was to begin, the Tibetan Parliament-in Exile announced that it was being postponed again to March, this time due to lack of a quorum.

The initial postponement was made on Sept. 28, 2023, when the Tibetan parliamentary secretariat issued a terse notice saying, “The remaining business of the 6th session of the 17th Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile has been postponed due to the absence of the requisite quorum needed for the session to constitute.” This brought an uncertain close to the latest development in Tibetan diaspora politics that left some observers wondering whether Tibetan democracy in exile was failing?

On Nov. 16, 2023, the parliament made an announcement that it “will reconvene with the remaining business of the general session from 25th to 29th December 2023.” And thereby hangs a tale.

I had then wanted to write about this development looking at the overall state of Tibetan democracy, as the parliament is merely a part of it. As I began to draft something, another development took place in Washington, DC, in the US House of Representatives, on Oct. 3, 2023, leading to the dismissal of then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the inability of the House Republicans to come up with a viable new candidate, which paralyzed the House session. It was only on Oct. 25 that Republicans were able to somehow come up with a choice of a speaker in Representative Mike Johnson. Even now there is only temporary peace in the House, so to say.

The development in Washington, DC made me look at what happened in Dharamsala in relation to the fate of democratic institutions in the world in general. It would not be inaccurate to maintain that democracy can become as strong or as weak as its participants want or permit it to be, whether in one of the oldest democracies like the US, the largest democracy in India or the borderless democracy of the Tibetans in exile.

Exiles have democracy while those in Tibet suffer authoritarianism

Let us put Tibetan democracy in perspective first. In stark contrast to the Tibetans in Tibet who live under an authoritarian regime and are denied their fundamental human rights, leave aside political franchise, the small population of Tibetans in Diaspora has been undergoing a unique experiment in democratic governance at the insistence of H.H. the Dalai Lama. This has been taking place both in the temporary headquarters of Dharamsala in India, as well as in all Tibetan communities in the Indian subcontinent and abroad, adapted to meet the needs of the local situation. Since 2000, the Tibetan leadership at the central level has been shaped by the direct will of the voting populace and been represented by the elected political leader (now known as Sikyong) and the parliamentarians. In short, despite the limitations posed by their situation, Tibetans in exile are better off than our brethren in Tibet.

Tibetan elections

Ven. Gedun Kesang, a 100-year old Tibetan monk residing in Minnesota voting for the Tibetan elections on January 3, 2021. One ballot box is for the Sikyong (President of CTA) elections and the other marked Chithue is for the parliament elections. (Photo: TAFM video)

However, democracy is a double-edged sword. When those participating in it exercise their franchise responsibly, there is progress. But when some participants do not do so, they can lead to the stagnation or, worse, the retrogression of the society. The irony will be that people who fall in either of these categories will stick by their position, asserting that they are exercising their democratic rights.

Secondly, democracy does not operate in a vacuum but has to function within the framework of a given society. It is again up to the participants whether or not they take into consideration the prevailing factors in undertaking their actions. Their decisions have consequences.

Dalai Lama’s intervention resolves a problem

This was most recently apparent since the beginning of the current parliament in 2021. The parliamentarians’ term began in an unusual manner on account of disagreement on the nature of taking their oaths of office. This was because some of them declined to take their oath before the then-speaker pro tempore on account of another development during the previous parliament, which is beyond the scope of this blog post. This led to a four-month impasse and a political vacuum, including the newly elected Sikyong not having any ministerial colleagues in the absence of a parliament to confirm them. In any case, this latest development has added fuel to the ongoing discussions about the perceived degeneration of the Tibetan society in diaspora, leading people to wonder about the future of the precious democracy that we were provided by the Dalai Lama. Even the US government had somehow felt it necessary to intervene, indicating the sense of concern even beyond the Tibetan community. In an unprecedented development, even the US State Department made a public call to the Tibetan parliament to resolve its issues. In a letter in August 2021, the State Department said, “Disputes over parliamentary procedures which are not resolved in a timely manner and in accordance with the rule of law risk undermining the confidence placed by the Tibetan diaspora and the international community in the CTA and TPiE. We urge the elected members to move past their differences and turn to the pressing matters that need their attention.”

Ultimately, unable to reach a solution themselves, the newly elected parliamentarians supplicated to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and his intervention led to the parliament members taking their oath of office in October 2021 and being able to begin their work.

Dawa Tsering addressing the Parliament

Speaker Pro Tempore Dawa Tsering addressing the Parliament after the members resolved their issue of the mode of taking their oath in October 2021. (Photo: https://tibetanparliament.org)

While the developments relating to the Tibetan parliament are certainly concerning and are negatively impacting the democratic process, at the same time they need to be looked at from the broader perspective.

Evolution of democratic governance in exile

Acknowledging the drawbacks of the administrative system in Tibet, the Dalai Lama implemented a series of initiatives to empower the Tibetan people soon after coming into exile. In 1960, His Holiness introduced the concept of representative democracy by asking Tibetans to elect their deputies to a “Commission” (now formally known as the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile) that would have a say in the governance of the Tibetans in exile and also be a preparation for a future democratic Tibet. 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 of this nature. Much to the consternation of the Tibetan public he mandated that this constitution retain an impeachment clause to be applied to the Dalai Lama, if the need arises. This was a very important message that the Dalai Lama was sending, namely that the institution should be more important than individuals and that no one should be considered above the law.

His Holiness also laid out the infrastructural basis in the form of the Central Tibetan Administration and the various organs under it to implement democratic governance.

Initially, the parliamentarians were virtually embedded in the different offices of the CTA to be part of the direct governance.

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. The authority of the Tibetan parliament was clarified to separate it from the executive and expanded to highlight its legislative functions becoming the highest policymaking body in the Tibetan administration. In the case of the judiciary, given that the Tibetan Diaspora operates under host countries, the process was adapted to the prevailing situation. Thus the judiciary that was introduced to the Tibetan community is the Tibetan Justice Commission that works under the alternative dispute resolution system as permitted under arbitration laws of any country.

The Dalai Lama’s devolution of his political authority

The Tibetan people were able to embrace these changes, some unwillingly though, as they had remained assured of the Dalai Lama’s role as the “head of state and government.” But a 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.

When His Holiness had initially broached the idea of his devolution of authority, there were concerns among a section of the Tibetan people about whether we were ready to shoulder the needed responsibility ourselves. His Holiness had then said it was better that the people tread on this path of self-reliance while he was still active as he could then provide guidance if things went astray.

In his announcement of this devolution of authority on March 19, 2011, His Holiness outlined the role of the Dalai Lama institution and the support and reverence he himself was receiving from the people. He continued, “If such a Dalai Lama with an unanimous mandate to lead spiritual affairs abdicates the political authority, it will help sustain our exile administration and make it more progressive and robust.” His Holiness also expressed his optimism: “So, the many political changes that I have made are based on sound reasons and of immediate and ultimate benefit for all of us. In fact, these changes will make our administration more stable and excel its development. So, there is no reason to get disheartened.”

Democratic institutions at the grassroots level

Tibetan democracy should not be seen in the context of the institutions in place in Dharamsala alone. Even while working to resettle the Tibetan refugees in the different settlements in the Indian subcontinent, His Holiness had the foresight to introduce grassroots democracy. I have not done a survey of the situation in all the settlements, but in the first settlement that began in Karnataka, Lugsung Samdubling in Bylakuppe, this empowerment began at the “camp” level, comparable to a village. The Lugsung Samdubling settlement had six such camps composed of 100 houses. Householders (Pachens as they were called) in every 10 houses elected their Chupon (leader of 10) to represent them while the camp as a whole elected two Gyapons (leader of 100) as camp leaders to look after the overall camp affairs. Such camp leaders were also known as Chimi (public person). Given that agriculture was the primary means of earning a livelihood the settlement also had a co-operative society (established to support their economic life) whose affairs were run by a board of directors elected by residents of each of the camps. In the early days when the cooperative society ran all-purpose stores in each of the camps, even the storekeepers were elected by the respective camp residents.

It was the camp leaders, assisted by the Chupons, who looked after the welfare of the residents. They would oversee water supply, undertake spiritual, cultural and social activities for the camp as a whole, be the coordinator between the co-operative society and the residents on agricultural work (including arranging for ploughing schedule and selling of crops). They would also be the mediators for any disputes between residents or even within a family. Since the local post office did not deliver mail to individual houses but deposited all mail with the camp leaders, they also had to serve as delivery persons of the mail. The camp leaders met with the Chupons to discuss issues, and for major matters they would convene a householders’ assembly for decisions.

Growing up in the Lugsung Samdubling settlement, I would see the camp residents eagerly taking part in elections for their Chupons, Gyapons and Board of Directors to the co-operative society. As quite many of the people were illiterate then, symbols like those in the eight auspicious symbols were assigned to candidates, and these would be pasted on the ballot boxes so that people could decide whom to cast their votes for.

Almost all the settlements would have elected camp leaders or other similar positions. This grassroots system of democracy in the settlements continues to this day with a new generation of younger residents taking over the mantle of the camp leaders and other locally elected positions.

Also, at the settlement level, there are co-operative societies that have been set up to assist the settlers in their socio-economic life. Their board of directors are elected by the people in the settlement who also technically own shares in the societies. Following democratization, these societies, which used to be administered by Dharamsala, are now overseen by a Federation of Tibetan Cooperatives (FTCI). FTCI lists 10 such societies under it in different Tibetan communities in India.

Signboard of a store for the Kunpheling Tibetan

Signboard of a store for the Kunpheling Tibetan settlement in Sikkim, northeast India, run by its cooperative society (Photo: www.nyamdel.com)

Since the promulgation of the Charter of Tibetans-in-Exile, there is provision for Local Tibetan Assemblies, to be composed of deputies elected by the people in the area to be the watchdog of the work of the settlement office in the region. The Tibetan Parliament website currently lists 40 such local assemblies in the Indian subcontinent as well as in Switzerland.

11th Local Tibetan Assembly of the Tibetan settlement in Leh

11th Local Tibetan Assembly of the Tibetan settlement in Leh, Ladakh after their swearing in on Oct. 30, 2023. (Photo: www.tibet.net)

Is the Parliament impeding Tibetan democracy?

The parliament is seen as the symbol of Tibetan democracy, as is the case with other democracies. Therefore, when parliamentarians, individually or collectively, become embroiled in controversies, there is an immediate negative impact in the public’s eye. This is the situation that Tibetans are in currently. Our parliamentarians who swear by democracy somehow end up being seen as causing impediments to the governance system. The disappointment is more so with the younger parliamentarians upon whom much faith was placed that they would be different from their “green-brained” (a derogative term for older people who are perceived as not using their brains) older colleagues. If not their action, the rhetoric of some of them does give that impression that they, too, subscribe to the herd mentality. Observing the proceedings of the parliament one cannot but avoid reaching the conclusion that consideration of personalities dominates discussions on substance.

The situation is further complicated by the surge in social media usage in the Tibetan community. To be fair, the rise of social media has had a positive impact in the community in many ways. It is common knowledge how social media, particularly messaging apps (unlike in the West students in India did not have individual access to computers and so had to depend on their mobile phones for their classes), were the lifeline for teachers to impart education to Tibetan children in India during the coronavirus pandemic when physical presence in classes was not possible.

Similarly, a major factor for the widespread craze for the Gorshey (circle dance) on Lhakar (White Wednesday) in the Tibetan community is because of social media that became the vehicle for Tibetans all over the world to impact each other. It did not matter whether they were residing in the remote settlement of Choephelling in Miao in Arunachal Pradesh, Bylakuppe in Karnataka, Gangtok in Sikkim (all in India), Pokhara in Nepal, Toronto in Canada or in Bhutan or any other places where Tibetans reside. This has also resulted in younger Tibetans taking pride in projecting their Tibetanness, whether in wearing Tibetan garments or speaking the language.

Gorshey performances

Tibetans in the remote settlement of Choephelling in Arunachal Pradesh in India, close to the Tibetan border, at one of the Gorshey performances. (Screengrab from a YouTuber: Evergreen ChungChung)

However, there have been negative impacts with the advent of social media, as individual content creators do not need to take into consideration accountability. Thus, issues are amplified and distorted and every development is followed by a blame game with polemical utterances through factional taking of sides.

We should, however, remind ourselves of the initial two-pronged objectives His Holiness the Dalai Lama had after coming into exile: to look after the socio-economic welfare of the Tibetan community and to resolve the Tibetan political problem. Thus, it is a no-brainer to realize that all of us should utilize our democracy to work to solve the Tibetan problem rather than lead to the community’s weakening. This power of democracy that the Tibetans have attained in the post-1959 period has enabled united efforts under His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which have been a source of hope for the Tibetans in Tibet and of concern for the Chinese leadership. Not only do the Chinese officials have concerns, but ironically there is an expectation from the Chinese leadership side that the CTA is capable of much more than what it is doing. As a case in point, way back in 1993, during a secret meeting to discuss their public relations strategy on Tibet, one of the Chinese government officials said, “According to analysis, since the beginning of 80s, the splittist activities of the Dalai Clique [the demeaning Chinese term to refer to the Tibetans in exile under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama] have entered a new cycle. It is still in the process of developing and has (not) yet reached its peak stage.” Thus, the Chinese government is certainly cognizant of the potential of the Central Tibetan Administration. There is the opportunity for all of us to prove to the Chinese authorities that they were right, at least on their expectations about the Tibetan leadership in exile.

In one sense, it is good that problems, like the recent one with the Tibetan parliament, are taking place now while corrective measures can be taken and when we have the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to provide guidance, if all other efforts fail. But we need to think deeply.

The Tibetan people need to change their mindset on their understanding of democracy. Currently, whether it is the parliament or the public, it appears that we are only copying the worst of democratic practices of East and West. Unlike those countries, we Tibetans do not have the luxury of focusing on side issues and neglecting the more fundamental aspect. To the Tibetans in exile, democracy is not the end, but the means to get to the political end, and our recognizing that can pave the way for a smoother running of the Tibetan governance system.

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

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

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

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

Tibetan Parliament for the 1969-1972

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

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

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dakgyab Rinpoche with his steward, Chazoe Lobsang Khyenrab

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

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

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

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

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

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

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

Rinpoche and some unidentified monks in Bylakuppe

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

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

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

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

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

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

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

(Re)name it to tame it: China’s new ploy to control Tibet

For almost every summer since 1999, I’ve watched the venerable Wimbledon tennis tournament on TV. Its all-white dress code and prim green lawns have been as constant and reassuring in my life as an antique clock. So I was surprised when, several Wimbledons ago, the tradition-bound event bore a surprising name change.

If I remember right, that change involved Hsieh Su-wei, a regular presence in Wimbledon singles and doubles whom I had seen year after year identified as a player from Taiwan. But on ESPN’s coverage this time, the announcers and the on-screen graphics said Hsieh represented something called “Chinese Taipei.”

At the time, I saw nothing nefarious in any of this. In fact I actually assumed “Chinese Taipei” was a more politically correct way of referring to Hsieh’s homeland. (In those days, I still believed in the myth of the world growing perpetually more inclusive and just.)

Today, as a tenured Tibet activist, I recognize the heavy hand of the Chinese government at work. While I’m not sure exactly why ESPN dropped “Taiwan” from its coverage that year, I’ve learned that Beijing objects to that word because it implies that Taiwan is a country, rather than a province of China.

To be clear, Taiwan is a country. But to assuage China, Taiwanese athletes compete in international events under the name “Chinese Taipei”—with a distinct Chinese Taipei flag to boot.

Tibet is not ‘Xizang’

I recalled that incident from Wimbledon’s grass courts recently as evidence grew of a new, increasing campaign by Beijing to replace the name “Tibet.” Rather than this internationally recognized term, China now wants the rest of the world to use the Chinese-language word “Xizang.”

Over the past few months, Chinese state media articles written in English have increasingly substituted “Xizang” for “Tibet.” The “Tibet Autonomous Region” is now the “Xizang Autonomous Region.” “Tibetan affairs” are now “Xizang affairs.”

Most notably, China’s new white paper on Tibet, released Nov. 10, is titled “[Communist Party of China] Policies on the Governance of Xizang in the New Era: Approach and Achievements.”

Imperfect name

Without a doubt, the right name for any country can vary by time and audience. For example, Taiwan’s leaders previously balked at using “Taiwan,” preferring instead the official title “Republic of China,” which supported their claim to be the legitimate government of China. Today, however, many young people in Taiwan are proud to call themselves Taiwanese and decline to identify as Chinese.

When it comes to Tibet, that word itself is not what Tibetan people use. Instead, Tibetans refer to their country as “Bod”—hence the motto, “Bod Gyalo,” meaning “victory for Tibet.” The term “Tibet” may be a corruption of Bod.

Thus, “Tibet” is not perfect word choice either. But, as far as I can tell, it’s the result of translation issues across languages and peoples, perhaps similar to how Americans say “Spain” instead of “España.”

Erasing Tibet

China’s use of “Xizang,” on the other hand, is a deliberate, political act. It’s a clear example of Beijing trying to “name it to tame it”—or, in this case, rename it to tame it—to make Tibet nominally Chinese in order to further crush any resistance to Chinese rule.

This effort is part of a broader campaign by China to “Sinify” Tibet—meaning to make it Chinese. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, Beijing has sought to replace the Tibetan language with Mandarin inside Tibet. It has ordered Buddhist monks to pledge loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party instead of the Dalai Lama. And it has even separated over 1 million Tibetan children from their families at state-run boarding schools that emphasize Chinese-language education and Chinese academic subjects.

The long-term goal of all these policies is to eliminate Tibetan as a distinct identity in order to eliminate the possibility of unruly Tibetans. The next step in that process is to replace “Tibet” with “Xizang,” a name change that implies that Tibet is not really Tibetan at all; it’s Chinese.

Logic similar to China’s refusal to let Taiwanese athletes use “Taiwan” is also at work. By replacing “Tibet” with a Chinese name, Beijing is trying to undermine the conceptual basis for recognizing Tibet as a separate country: If Tibet has a Chinese name, then it becomes easy to assume Tibet belongs to China.

More than mere words

That gets me back to my Wimbledon experience. When I saw “Taiwan” give way to “Chinese Taipei,” I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to realize the geopolitics at play. I just deferred to what I assumed was the new, proper way to label Taiwan.

I worry many people will react the same way if “Xizang” begins to slip into mainstream discourse. The Chinese government has already been wildly successful in getting foreign journalists, businesses and governments to describe Tibet as part of China, even though Tibet is a historically independent country that China is occupying against international law. Similarly, China seems to have gotten most people to use the name “Xinjiang” instead of “East Turkestan,” the English-language name preferred by Uyghurs.

An even bigger concern looms on the horizon. It’s no secret that once His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama eventually passes away, the Chinese government will try to replace him with its own hand-picked successor.

If that happens, will the average person be informed enough to recognize Beijing’s choice as a fake?

Pushing back

Clearly, Beijing is banking on the answer to that question being “No.” China thinks that its power and influence can force other countries, corporations and media to go along with its selection of a new Dalai Lama—and that the general public will be too distracted and disinterested to notice.

Thankfully, the US government is taking steps that can help prevent that from happening. In 2020, the US enacted the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, a bipartisan law that—among many provisions providing support to the Tibetan people—made it official US policy that only the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhist community can decide his succession. If any Chinese officials try to interfere in that process, the US will sanction them.

The TPSA was a breakthrough in pushing back on China’s manipulations. But there’s more the United States can and must do.

Right now, Congress is considering another bipartisan bill, the Resolve Tibet Act, that will reject China’s lies about Tibet.

Resolve Tibet

The Resolve Tibet Act will pressure China to get back to the negotiating table with Tibetan leaders for the first time since 2010. This dialogue process is the best way to peacefully resolve China’s decades-long occupation of Tibet in a way that serves the long-term interests of both Tibetans and Chinese.

But the bill will also stand up to China’s falsehoods about Tibet. The legislation will empower the Office of the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues to counter Communist Party propaganda about the history of Tibet, the Tibetan people and Tibetan institutions, including that of His Holiness.

The Resolve Tibet Act will also confront China’s misuse of the name “Tibet” in a different way. The Chinese government has long sought to portray the “Tibet Autonomous Region” (which it now calls the “Xizang Autonomous Region”) as the whole of Tibet, even though it spans only about half of Tibet’s historic territory.

Unfortunately, too many outsiders have gone along with China’s deception, casually using the word “Tibet” when they really mean just the Tibet Autonomous Region. But the Resolve Tibet Act will make it clear that Tibet includes not just the TAR but also Tibetan areas that are incorporated in China’s Gansu, Sichuan, Qinghai and Yunnan provinces.

There are many things all of us will have to do to fight back against China’s attempts to rename Tibet. Persuading Congress to pass the Resolve Tibet Act would be a good start.

Learn more about the Resolve Tibet Act.

Jerry Mander and Tibet

Jerry Mander

Jerry Mander

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

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

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

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

Struggles of ‘native’ people

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

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

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

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

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

Myth of progress

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

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

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

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

Things don’t have to change

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

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

Mander writes:

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

Save Tibet

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

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

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

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

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

Talking about Tibet in plain English

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about plain language. As the US government puts it, that’s language “your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it.”

I had the chance to talk with a group of writer friends about this recently. And some of my favorite writers—from crime novelist Dashiell Hammett to film critic Roger Ebert—use a plainspoken style.

I want to share a few ideas about how plain language can help our work on Tibet.

Let me start by saying what plain language is not. It’s not talking down to anyone. It’s not dumbing your message down either.

Yes, it calls for short words and no jargon. But the main goal of plain language is clarity: You want your reader to get what you’re saying without having to work at it.

When it comes to Tibet, that’s important because so few people understand the issue at all. To get them to care, we first have to make sure they can follow what we’re saying.

The politics of plain language

As you can probably tell, I’m trying to use plain language in this blog post. Maybe it’s sounded awkward so far. (That just shows how hard plain writing is, even for a “professional” like me.) But now I must use some less-plain words to talk about one of the more serious parts of this topic.

George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” is like holy scripture when it comes to plain writing. In it, Orwell talks about how “ugly and inaccurate” the English language had become.

This wasn’t due to the passing of time or some random event. Instead, bureaucrats, corporations, lawyers, academics and propagandists changed the language to their own ends, putting it out of reach of ordinary people—just think of the fine print at the bottom of a form, the dense prose of a college text, or the mutterings of the Chinese Communist Party.

This made it impossible for the average person to know what was going on and what most writing even meant.

China covers up the truth

I read “Politics and the English Language” for the first time almost 10 years ago. And one passage I’ve kept going back to since is:

Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

It’s not hard to see how this relates to Tibet.

The Chinese government forces over 1,000 Tibetan nomads off a nature preserve, shoving them into urban encampments where they can no longer live the nomadic lifestyle their families have lived for generations. This is called “high-altitude ecological migration.”

China takes over 1 million Tibetan schoolkids away from their families, arrests and tortures Tibetans for having photos of the Dalai Lama, and installs surveillance cameras in Buddhist prayer wheels. This is called “a new way for world human rights development.”

The US passes a law saying only Tibetan Buddhists can decide what happens with the Dalai Lama’s succession. This is called “foreign interference in China’s internal affairs.”

How to talk plain

I always say that we Tibet supporters are not just fighting (nonviolently) to stop China’s oppression in Tibet. We’re also fighting a messaging war against the Chinese Communist Party.

Lucky for us, communists can’t seem to resist using leaden prose that lands with a thud. But we in the Tibet movement can still step up our game to reach people who don’t know or care what’s happening in Tibet.

Let me share a few tips for speaking and writing in plain English.

  • First, never use a long word where a short one will do. When I was a student, I used a thesaurus to replace short words with longer, fancier ones. Today I do the opposite—and so should you.
  • Use concrete words instead of conceptual ones. Talking about universal human rights or reciprocity makes sense for a lot of audiences. But for most people, talking about China’s prison guards sexually assaulting Tibetan nuns, or China refusing to let American journalists into Tibet, is going to hit harder.
  • Avoid Latinate phrases. In English, Latin-origin words usually sound intellectual and upper-class, like “illuminate” rather than “light,” “terminate” rather than “end” or “sagacious” rather than “wise.” If you can pick between words like these, pick the non-Latin one.
  • Choose verbs over nouns. A “hidden verb” is when you take a verb like “promote” and use its noun form, “promotion.” Rather than say, “Through the promotion of dialogue, we hope to peacefully resolve the Tibet-China conflict,” say, “By promoting dialogue, we hope to resolve the Tibet-China conflict peacefully.”
  • Be positive! Instead of telling someone what they should not do, tell them what they should do. It’s better if I say, “Get rid of jargon” than, “Don’t use jargon.”
  • Say “I” and “you.” This makes what you’re saying feel more personal. On that note, write the way you talk. Use contractions like “it’s” instead of “it is.” Cut out some of the formality.
  • Get organized. I said earlier the main goal of plain language is clarity. That means making it easier for people to read what you put on the page. Write in short paragraphs (and short sentences while you’re at it). Break up your text with subheadings. Use bullet lists, like this one. Most important of all, organize what you say in a way your reader can understand.
  • Write a second draft. To speak in plain language, you have to figure out what you actually want to say. That takes time. You’ll have to write and rewrite to get it right.

Why it matters

These are just some of the many tips for speaking in plain English.

Of course, there are also many exceptions to all these guidelines.

If you’re writing a legal document, for example, it’s possible none of this advice would serve you.

Also, in case this isn’t clear, I’m only talking about speaking in English (and mostly just American English at that). I have no idea if any of this would work for Tibetan or Mandarin or ancient Pali.

I also know that some of you might disagree with what I’ve said in this blog post. That’s fine. As you can see, I myself have broken some of the rules for plain writing in this very piece.

But still, I find plain English hard to deny. Not only is it easier to read, it’s also more urgent and forceful too.

And it serves a higher calling. Because plain language is supposed to be speech everyone can understand, it’s the language of democracy.

And since it avoids euphemisms, legalese and propaganda, plain language makes it easier to get the truth across. That makes a big difference.

As the Dalai Lama says: “We have the power of truth. Chinese Communists have the power of gun. In the long run, power of truth is much stronger than power of gun.”

Simple truths: the Resolve Tibet Act

Truth is the only antidote to lies. That is the heart of the bipartisan Resolve Tibet Act currently under consideration by Congress.

It is no secret that a hallmark of the People’s Republic of China is trafficking in falsehoods thus fulfilling a primary pillar of totalitarian regimes—not the control of facts per se but the erasure of the distinction between truth and lies. This is a defining element of totalitarian regimes because every inch of a society must serve the leader’s ideology and the political utility of the moment.

A proven tool to achieving this phenomenon is repetition. Today, this is an increasingly effective and efficient methodology in a global environment of rapid media cycles, social media networks, and China’s enormous capacity and investment in controlling physical and digital information flow. A deep analysis of Beijing’s internal and external use of propaganda is both beyond the scope of this piece and unnecessary. Like so many truths, the reality of China’s actions are irrefutable: transnational harassment, and an unrelenting and blatant denial of the facts.

The case of Tibet

China has spent seven decades erecting a bulwark of propaganda to hide the truth of its occupation and crimes against humanity in Tibet.

Beijing’s relentless disinformation and only argument for its occupation is that Tibet has been part of China’s domain since “antiquity,” making its invasion under Mao Zedong in 1950 a “liberation.” Here we witness an assertion so easily punctured as to be laughable. In fact, Chinese records, legal analysis and archaeological evidence confirm Beijing’s claims are counterfactual.

More than anything, however, common sense belies any such statement. Simply put, if Tibet had been owned by China since antiquity, why was it necessary to inflict the wave of destruction following its takeover? If the motive was freedom, why did 1.2 million human beings lose their lives? Why were thousands of monasteries demolished and plundered? Why were book burnings prevalent, nuns raped and citizens disappeared?

Perhaps most significantly, why are 6 million Tibetans still suffering in an open-air prison while crimes against humanity are regularly inflicted on the society at large? It would seem genuine “liberation” and subsequent “benevolent” rule would not require these mounting excesses.

This brings us to what the United States can do now to confront Beijing’s attempts to rewrite history, condemn its brutality and codify that US support of Tibet will never waiver until the facts on the ground demonstrate the cessation of acts so gruesome as to approach genocidal, and genuine self-determination for the Tibetan people is reached.

A first step is to remember the oft-cited adage that insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results. Currently, this seems to be the United States’ approach in a nutshell.

This is not to say that the United States is ignoring Tibet. That is not the case and should never be construed as such. The United States often has led the world in chastising China for its inhumane actions and led the way by passing its own important laws, including the Tibetan Policy and Support Act and the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act.

That said, when it comes to countering Beijing’s long-term Tibet stratagem the United States must take the next logical step in bolstering its stance. Specifically, no longer allowing China to simply stonewall any attempt to cement a resolution by abandoning the negotiating table, as it did 13 years ago, leaving potential solutions on the cutting room floor.

We must recognize what China’s refusal to continue talks means. The PRC has telegraphed repeatedly that after the eventual passing of the current Dalai Lama, it intends to install a patently false, handpicked “Dalai Lama” it assumes it can control to serve its political agenda.

Certainly, such a possibility is as transparent as it is recognized. And through six presidential administrations, the United States has called upon China to resume dialogue with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Here we come to the crux of the matter and return to our famous adage.

China isn’t listening. It is time for the United States—and the global community—to respond accordingly. A starting point is busting China’s myth that “there is nothing to see here.” Which is what the Resolve Tibet Act is all about.

The Resolve Tibet Act

Introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, in the House and Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Todd Young, R-Ind., in the Senate, the bipartisan Resolve Tibet Act strikes at the core of China’s Tibet strategy in five main ways.

First, it states in unambiguous terms that the situation in Tibet is not yet resolved. This is self-evident, as no agreement between Tibetan leadership and the Chinese government has been reached. This is irrefutable because if an agreement were in place, Tibetan leadership would acknowledge it since negotiating a peaceful solution has been His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration’s stated goal for decades.

We must recognize that China’s waiting game is keyed to the passing of the current Dalai Lama. To counteract this, the global community must make crystal clear its policy is to protect the institution of the Dalai Lama and Tibetans’ right to freely choose their religious leaders, no matter what the particular circumstances.

Second, allowing any ambiguity in the United States policy position and how it is relayed to the public risks, at least partially validating Beijing’s relentless assertions that whatever happens in Tibet is “an internal matter” and any criticism is due to “outside agitators.” Once again, we encounter the totalitarian regime’s need to control all aspects of society—no matter what level of denial it requires. In the case of Tibet, clarifying that the United States does not consider the Tibet crisis settled will only underscore that not only is China’s strategy in Tibet unjustifiable, but its actions also violate international law, which clearly states that crimes against humanity must be condemned and efforts made to halt them wherever they occur.

Third, the legislation defines Tibetans as a people deserving of the human right to self-determination. In truth, this policy provision should never have to be put forward. Without doubt, the Tibetans have shared a common history, language, culture, religion, language and DNA for several thousand years. It is hardly tenable, therefore, to make any assertion otherwise. And once again, international law and basic ethics provide that a people have the right to define their future, i.e. self-determination.

Fourth, the legislation provides a new means to counter China’s lies by mandating that the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues actively refute propaganda regarding Tibet and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Considering the scale of China’s disinformation campaign and hypersensitivity to matters related to the Dalai Lama, this is yet another essential tool in combating Xi Jinping’s increasingly totalitarian methodologies.

Finally, the bill validates that Tibet’s boarders are defined by proven history, not the artificial carving up of an occupied sovereign state, a well-worn strategy of conquerors and colonialists to isolate communities and disrupt cultural continuity. Below is a map depicting historic Tibet and the segmentation imposed by China over the years. The conclusion is self-explanatory and reinforces the need to state clearly that the status of Tibet is far from resolved.

Tibet map

Conclusion

The point of this exercise is more than demonstrating the import and relevance of the Resolve Tibet Act to the future of Tibet, which is obvious. It also is a challenge to our elected leaders, from Congress to the administration to our international partners, to embrace the truth. Part of that is realizing that what is happening in Tibet is a microcosm of Xi Jinping’s totalitarian goals and transparent agenda to dismantle a world order based on democracy, human rights and free will.

Or in the words of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Now is the time to counter lies with facts, repeatedly and unflaggingly, while also proclaiming the greater truths: of our equal humanity, of decency, of compassion. Every precious ideal must be reiterated, every obvious argument made, because an ugly idea left unchallenged begins to turn the color of normal. It does not have to be like this.”

In the end, it’s not very complex. The world must not permit the Xi Jinping regime to turn truth inside out. We cannot afford to imitate China’s cherry picking of what is and isn’t factual based on political expedience.

After all, the truth shouldn’t be so hard to say, should it?

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.