China Diplomacy & International Relations Politics & Government Security

Seizing the Moment: Tibet’s Reinvigorated Struggle for Autonomy

Relations are so fraught that reconciliation between the autonomous region and Communist Party leaders, who see Tibet as an unruly region of China to control, is difficult for any observer to imagine in the foreseeable future. So, where did it all go wrong and where do we go from here?

For decades now, Tibet has been a dangerous card to play in world affairs. As one of China’s diplomatic red lines, any acknowledgment of Tibet as an independent country risks sharp political and economic backlash from Beijing. The country’s iron grip on Tibet has caused more than 80,000 Tibetans to live in exile in India, including the Dalai Lama (the highest spiritual leader of the region). Years of political and religious suppression in the region has also caught the attention of many, including the United Nations and the Human Rights Watch, who call for world leaders to hold China accountable to their human rights violations.

Relations are so fraught that reconciliation between the autonomous region and Communist Party leaders, who see Tibet as an unruly region of China to control, is difficult for any observer to imagine in the foreseeable future. So, where did it all go wrong and where do we go from here?

The territorial boundaries between Tibet and China remained generally stable until the latter invaded the former in October of 1950. With stability restored in Beijing after the establishment of The People’s Republic of China,  Chairman Mao Zedong sought to assert swift control over Tibet, with his troops quickly overtaking the small Tibetan army. In 1951, the 17-Point “Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” was drafted, within which China promised to protect Tibetan culture, values, religion, language, and structure. While not authorized by the Tibetan government in Lhasa, the Tibetan delegation ultimately succumbed to Chinese pressure and signed the final treaty lest a full scale invasion occur. The agreement was repudiated by the Tibetans angered over Chinese occupation nine years later, amongst years of bitter riots and fighting that continues today. 

Tibetan Buddhists believe the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the predominant deity of Tibet. The Dalai Lama, a unifying and powerful figure of the region and its people, confides the details of his new reincarnation with chosen acolytes who are tasked with finding his reincarnation. As China’s power and world presence continues to grow, the present Dalai Lama of Tibet is worried that his reincarnation will be hijacked by politics, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is aiming to “capture” the next Dalai Lama by installing their own successor. In 2007, the State Administration for Religious Affairs in China decreed that reincarnations must be approved by the Chinese government. This is particularly alarming as China moves to increase its presence in Tibetan authority, notably through religion, the core governing force of Tibetan society. This move will certainly cause more obstacles for the government-in-exile, which is already struggling to reassert its control over the region against China from their refuge in India. If China successfully infiltrates Tibetan religious authority through the installation of their own Dalai Lama, this could breed distrust and discredit the high office’s authority. 

This is not the first occurrence of Chinese meddling in Tibet’s religious rituals. Chinese interference in Tibetan religious practices dates back to 1995, when the government reinstated a Qing dynasty rite that mandated that prominent Tibetan monks be identified through a draw of lots from a golden urn, a process that can be easily rigged to install CCP-friendly monks. In May of that year, Chinese authorities negated the Dalai Lama’s selection of six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama and installed Gyaincain Norbu in his place. Nyima and his family have not been seen since.

China’s meddling in the selection of the Panchen Lama shows how the government is seeking to destroy the authority and validity of Tibetan tradition. By sinicizing Tibetan beliefs and tradition through the assertion of state control, the infiltration of Tibetan leadership weakens religion as an important tenet of Tibetan life. Under the recent leadership of Xi Jinping, China is pushing for every faith in China to conform to CCP values. Special attention has been given to seemingly outlier regions, like Tibet and Xinjiang, with “re-educational” campaigns and programs designed to push Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uyghurs in the government’s desired direction.

For decades, world governments have tiptoed around the conflict in Tibet so as to avoid angering China, a formidable superpower with immense economic and political presence. However, last December, the United States boldly stepped out in favor of Tibet through the passage of the Tibet Policy and Support Act (TPSA), introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate by Representatives Chris Smith and Jim McGovern, and Senators Marco Rubio and Ben Cardin. It was passed in both houses of Congress as an amendment to the $1.4 trillion government spending bill and the $900 billion COVID-19 relief packages that President Trump signed on December 27th, 2020. The act halts the construction of Chinese consulates in the U.S. until an American outpost is opened in Lhasa, Tibet and places economic and visa sanctions on any actors that interfere with the succession process of the Dalai Lama. While TPSA is a major move forward by the U.S. government for the Tibetan cause, support from within Washington has been growing over the years. In fact, TPSA is a revised bill from the historic Tibet Policy Act of 2002, which served to protect the religion, culture, national identity, and linguistics of Tibet.

Amongst Tibetan advocates and supporters eager to take advantage of TPSA is Tibetan President Lobsang Sangay, an international law scholar educated at Harvard Law, who heads the Tibetan government-in-exile. Since last year, President Sangay has been pushing for the U.S. to punish China for crimes against humanity committed in Tibet. He believes that his allies in the White House could potentially halt China’s use of lethal force against unarmed protestors in Tibet by imposing Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders found responsible for ordering troops to open fire on Buddhist dissidents.

The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act authorizes the U.S. president to impose economic sanctions and bar entry into the country to a foreign individual who has been identified as a perpetrator of human rights abuse or corruption. His recent meeting at the White House with the newly appointed U.S. special coordinator for Tibetan issues, Robersons Destro, shines amongst supporters as a significant mark of solidarity of the American government with Tibetans and the Tibet cause.

Just before President Sangay’s momentous invitation to the White House, the U.S. issued an official determination that China is in gross violation of the principles set forth in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as the CCP maintains a military occupation of Tibet that dates to the 1950s. Sangay believes this means that the U.S. has officially acknowledged that Tibet was independent before the Chinese occupation in 1950.

The significance of TPSA lies in its progression towards direct communication between Beijing and the Tibetan government-in-exile in order to achieve what the Dalai Lama calls the “Middle Way Approach,” a compromise to give Tibetans limited autonomy within the Chinese system. The current goal of the Tibetan government-in-exile is not full independence, rather a “zone of peace” between China and India. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly called for greater autonomy from China by transforming Tibet into a self-governing democratic country, in association with the People’s Republic of China, accompanied by the withdrawal of People’s Liberation Army troops.

The government wants penalties aimed at those committing human rights crimes already documented by UN scholars, including the torture of nuns and monks in Tibetan prisons. As many democracies across the west have already adopted Magnitsky sanction regimes, including the United States, the UK, and the EU, Sangay wants these laws to be utilized to punish the worst perpetrators of human rights crimes across Chinese leadership. Steps around the world have already been taken to put the plan into action. Tsering Tomo, head of the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, is preparing a list of potential targets for Magnitsky penalties for the U.S. State Department.

In Spain, human rights activist Alana Cantos, who heads the pro-Tibet support group Comité de Apoyo al Tíbet, and his team filed an appeal at the European Court of Human Rights to unfreeze a suit filed on behalf of Tibetan victims of Chinese rights crimes in Spain’s National Court almost a decade ago. While Beijing had exerted tremendous pressure on Madrid to halt the case, increased global attention and awareness of the Tibetan cause may revive the case and result in a win for Tibetan supporters. In December of 2020, Cantos and Sangay were also invited to a virtual roundtable that covered future prospects for a Nuremberg-like trial of Tibet’s oppressors. 

However, these moves do not pass under Beijing’s radar without objection. In 2013, Yu Zhensheng, a ranking Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of Tibet, declared that the Dalai Lama’s call for an autonomous Tibet was a call for autonomy against the Chinese constitution. In response to the bill, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian expressed China’s opposition, emphasizing that “the determination of the Chinese government to safeguard its national sovereignty, security and development interests is unwavering.” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin also warned the U.S. to “stop meddling in China’s internal affairs and refrain from signing into law these negative clauses and acts, lest it further harms our further cooperation and bilateral relations.” 

Newly elected President Joe Biden has also stated that the U.S. will sanction Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses in Tibet. As President Biden commences his presidency, he must not fall into the “smooth relations” trap with China. It is likely that advisors will tell Biden that Tibet, uncomfortable as the subject is, is a topic he should gloss over in order to repair the rocky U.S.- China relations leftover from  the Trump administration. In Barack Obama’s presidency, his deference in downgrading the Dalai Lama’s White House visit essentially enabled Chinese leaders to ramp up their unification campaigns because it was apparent that the U.S. was willing to maintain a passive position on Tibet to pacify relations with China. However, it is paramount that Biden takes a firm stance and commits to his statement of protecting Tibet.

From Taiwan to Hong Kong, Beijing has routinely ignored sanctions and condemnation from world leaders as it continues to stamp out dissent and push forward its mission of preserving territorial unity. Furthermore, the sheer amount of political and economic power the country wields makes it unlikely for governments to use the threat of force to influence policies about controversial territories that China has been active in reigning in. However, the Biden administration should pay attention to Beijing’s agenda as a human rights and national interest issue.

While holding a firm stance can exacerbate tensions between Beijing and Washington, should the U.S. remain unyielding to pressure, it sends a clear message to China that its immense power can and will be curbed if they continue their human rights violations. As a superpower itself, Washington’s move to check Beijing’s strength may gain the support of world leaders, who would like to remain in the U.S.’s favor, to enact similar policies counteracting China’s agenda. This would allow the U.S. to gain an edge over China, as the two have been neck to neck in a fierce competition for world power.

In the midst of a longstanding and bitter battle, a formidable player enters the arena: India. Tibet and India have retained mutual relations and trade through the 1954 Panchsheel agreement, which negotiated non-interference and respect in each other’s internal affairs and sovereignty. TPSA holds special significance for India because India gives refuge to the Dalai Lama and his followers in Dharamsala, a show of support for Tibet that has created unease for the Chinese government over New Delhi’s influence in the Tibetan conflict.

China has leveraged Tibet to seize key vantage points in Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh by claiming they were historically part of Tibet. And because China claims authority over Tibet, the Chinese government is thus claiming Indian territory through Tibetan links. China has been referring to the 2003 Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation Between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India. This declaration includes India’s formal recognition of the Tibet Autonomous Region as China’s territory, which has allowed China to increase its incursions into Indian territory. While New Delhi has repeatedly stated that China has violated every agreement and commitment on border peace that the two countries have signed, India should pay key attention to Tibet in the coming years.

With the passing of TPSA and increased global awareness of the Chinese government’s human rights violations, now is an opportune time to elevate Tibet strategically to protect Indian land from Chinese incursions. The protection of Tibet will allow the Indian government to defend such ambiguous vantage points that have the potential to be claimed as either Chinese or Indian territory, as well as advantageously align themselves with the U.S., the powerful country from which the bill originated from. China has also used the One-China policy, a policy that asserts that there is only one sovereign state named China, to claim control over Tibet. If India refutes this policy, it will be increasingly difficult for China to continue their incursions. On the flip side, if India continues to maintain a passive stance on Tibet, their deference enables the Chinese government to continue expanding its territorial borders and grow its power in Asia.

Daring as it may be for world leaders, in spite of China’s growing power, it is imperative that they recognize Tibetan sovereignty. China’s wrath has undoubtedly caused many to take a passive stance on the disputed territory. However, the human rights crimes committed and the jeopardy of an independent religious authority has serious implications for millions of lives and is a move that could enable China to expand and solidify its already massive presence in Asia. With powerful countries such as the United States taking action and India on the watch, the victor of the Tibetan struggle will play a decisive role in the fate of Asia’s geopolitics. 

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