The head of Tibet’s government-in-exile is making a rare visit to Washington this week to rally support for the Biden administration to pressure China to address decades-long grievances by Tibetans living under Chinese rule.
Sikyong Penpa Tsering wants China to lift the 12-year freeze on official dialogue with its Tibetan central government. Penpa is being received kindly in Washington, but enforcing change from Beijing will be a challenge given China’s long-standing assault on Tibetan Buddhism, language and cultural traditions. China also faces international backlash over policies towards its Muslim Uyghur population, ranging from allegations of genocide to crimes against humanity.
Penpa, whose visit comes at the invitation of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, warns that Tibetans living within China’s borders face cultural extinction unless the government makes efforts to persuade Beijing to step up to merge with his government based in Dharamsala, India.
“We want to let the world know that what is happening in Xinjiang is one level, but what is happening in Tibet is another level – we are dying a slow death,” Penpa told POLITICO. “The policies adopted by [Chinese President] Xi Jinping today aim to completely erase the identity of Tibetans and other national minorities.”
This fear is reflected on Capitol Hill. “When we talk about the Uyghurs, we must not forget the Tibetans [or] Xi Jinping will completely destroy Tibetan culture,” said MP Chris Smith (RN.J.), a longtime advocate for Tibetan rights.
Chinese troops occupied Tibet in 1950 and crushed the territory’s theocratic government based on Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetans launched a failed uprising in 1959 that forced the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, to flee to India, where he has lived in exile ever since. He has advocated a “middle way” policy to resolve Tibet’s sovereignty with “genuine autonomy for all Tibetans residing in the three traditional provinces of Tibet within the framework of the People’s Republic of China,” according to a CTA statement .
The Chinese government has rejected the CTA policy, instead calling the Dalai Lama “a wolf in monk’s robes” responsible for instigating a violent uprising in Tibet. The Dalai Lama left political office in 2011 and Tibetan exiles elected Penpa in May.
Penpa’s government has powerful allies in Washington, including Uzra Zeya, Undersecretary for Civil Security, Democracy and Human Rights. Zeya became special coordinator for Tibetan affairs in December. Her 27-year career in foreign service brings both regional skills and a proven record of high-level international diplomacy to her role as US envoy to Tibet.
Zeya served as Ministerial Political Advisor at the US Embassy in New Delhi and from 2019 to 2021 served as President of the Alliance for Peacebuilding, a non-profit, non-partisan global network of more than 130 organizations dedicated to “ending conflict through peaceful means “ has prescribed.
“[Zeya] knows India, knows the Tibet issue and is very proactive, unlike the former special envoys on Tibet,” Penpa said. “The rank of undersecretary has so many opportunities to meet with Chinese officials at different levels that even if the undersecretary does not necessarily want to meet with the special coordinator for Tibetan affairs, the undersecretary raises the Tibet issue in different forms and in different ways.” can address levels.”
Zeya inherits the goodwill of two decades of bipartisan cooperation that has spawned a number of pro-Tibet initiatives including the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002, the awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor to the Dalai Lama in 2007, mutual access to Tibet Act of 2018 and Tibet Policy and Support Act of 2020, which Smith co-sponsored.
Rep. Scott Perry (R-Ohio) introduced the Tibet Independence Act in June, which would require the US government to “recognize Tibet as a separate and independent country.” The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022, which President Joe Biden signed into law last month, provides $21 million for Tibetan language, religion, culture and other preservation initiatives.
Zeya agrees with Penpa’s insistence on the need for a dialogue between Beijing and the CTA to provide understanding of Tibet’s status as an “autonomous region,” which would end Beijing’s efforts to eradicate the region’s culture.
“We believe that a negotiated agreement leading to meaningful autonomy for Tibetans and ensuring they can preserve their own religion, culture and language represents the best hope for long-term stability in the region,” Zeya said in a statement. “The United States urges the PRC authorities to resume, without preconditions, meaningful and direct dialogue with the Dalai Lama, his representatives or democratically elected leaders of the Tibetan community, leading to a negotiated agreement on Tibet.”
Chinese officials want Zeya to step down. “The US appointment of the so-called ‘Special Coordinator for Tibetan Affairs’ is interfering in China’s internal affairs,” Liu Pengyu, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told POLITICO in a statement. “We strongly reject it and never acknowledge it.”
Liu’s vehemence is matched only by China’s portrayal of the territory as a peaceful oasis, despite all the evidence to the contrary. The state-run Xinhua News Agency last month declared Tibet “one of the safest places in the world… [that] has traversed a path from poverty to prosperity, from autocracy to democracy, and from isolation to openness.”
Foreign Minister Antony Blinken paints a different picture, earlier this month accusing China of subjecting Tibet to “systematic repression”. That repression includes a centralized boarding school system that houses up to 900,000 Tibetan children, ages 6 to 18, where students are “prohibited from practicing their religion and subjected to political indoctrination,” according to a Tibet Action Network report released in December. These allegations “shake one’s conscience,” Zeya said.
Penpa says Chinese propaganda has undermined CTA efforts to rally international support to get China to change its relationship with Tibet.
“The growing influence of the Chinese narrative … is so strong that everyone feels that Tibet has been part of China for many centuries, and that doesn’t give us the leverage or reason for China to work with us, even if governments say that they support the dialogue between them that [CTA] and the Chinese government,” Penpa said. “Without talks with the Chinese government, there is no way out for the Tibetans.”