The U.S. Should Continue to Promote Freedom for Tibetans

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The U.S. Should Continue to Promote Freedom for Tibetans

September 21, 2018 13 min read Download Report
Olivia Enos
Olivia Enos
Former Senior Policy Analyst, Asian Studies Center
Olivia specialized in human rights and national security challenges in Asia.


Over the years, China has instituted some of its strictest policies against Tibetans—policies principally developed by Chinese Communist Party member and former party secretary for Tibet Chen Quanguo—to manage the Tibetan population’s every thought, word, and deed. Tibetan religious sites were destroyed, political prisoners taken, and social controls increased in recent years. Serious threats to freedom in Tibet merit a strong response from the U.S., which has long taken an interest in the preservation of human rights and liberty in the region. The U.S. should quickly fill the position of Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues at the State Department, prioritize reciprocal access to Tibet, and consider sanctioning Chinese officials responsible for undermining freedom in Tibet, especially Chen Quanguo.

Key Takeaways

The U.S. has long been a strong proponent of freedom and human rights in Tibet, although support for Tibet from the executive branch wavered in recent years.

China continues to undermine freedom in Tibet by destroying religious sites, taking political prisoners, and implementing strong social controls over Tibetans.

The U.S. should sanction Chinese officials for undermining freedom in Tibet, call for release of political prisoners, and appoint a Special Coordinator for Tibet.

The primary goal of China’s leadership is to maintain its hold on power. To that end, the Chinese leadership prioritizes territorial integrity (which is linked to the legitimacy of the ruling party) and internal stability. China has long viewed Tibetan unrest as a threat to both of these priorities. As a result, it treats Tibet as a politically sensitive challenge in need of major social control and suppression.

Tibetans are facing an increasingly difficult situation. The U.S. can and should do much more to alleviate Tibetans’ suffering without changing its position that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China.

The Current State of Affairs in Tibet

Over the years, China has instituted some of its strictest policies against Tibetans—policies principally developed by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) member and former party secretary for Tibet Chen Quanguo—to manage the Tibetan population’s every thought, word, and deed.REF

The 19th Party Congress in December 2017 inaugurated new restrictions on religious minorities, including a new law, Regulations on Religious Affairs,REF instituted in February 2018. Restrictions on religion are a part of the Chinese government’s attempt to “Sinicize” all religions.REF Sinicization involves secularizing religion, or more accurately, ensuring that religion conforms to the interests of the CCP.

In Tibet, Sinicization has taken place for years. It is, perhaps, one of the reasons why the Chinese government regards the Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama, as a predominately political figure, not a religious one. In short, the Dalai Lama does not serve the CCP’s ends because he commands both religious and political allegiance from Tibetans, diverting their allegiance away from the Chinese Communist state.

Even before the 19th Party Congress, there were signs that President Xi Jinping’s government was consolidating power in Tibet:

  • Destruction of Tibetan religious sites and homes. In early 2017, Chinese authorities began destroying monastic dwellings and evicting monks and nuns from both the Larung Gar Buddhist Academy and the Yachen Gar Buddhist monastery, claiming that the regions that are home to these institutions were “overcrowded.”REF In total, the U.S. Department of State’s 2017 International Religious Freedom report estimated that nearly half of the 20,000 people residing at Larung Gar were evicted and 4,000 residences were demolished.REF The same report documented that at Yachen Gar, 2,000 residences were destroyed and 2,500 monks and nuns were evicted.REF
  • Social control over Tibetans. Chen Quanguo rolled out a policy known as “grid-style social management,” which, according to the Jamestown Foundation “segments urban communities into geometric zones so that security staff can systematically observe all activities with the aid of new technologies.”REF Surveillance at monasteries is high; in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) an estimated 8,000 government employees were surveilling activities taking place in 1,787 monasteries.REF
  • Self-immolations. In protest of China’s treatment of Tibetans, at least 153 Tibetans have immolated themselves since February 27, 2009, according to the International Campaign for Tibet.REF In 2017, only five Tibetans self-immolated, representative of a decline in recent years.REF The decline can be partially explained by new policies the Chinese government instituted criminalizing self-immolation. Family members of persons who self-immolate are often targeted, interrogated, and sometimes even imprisoned for their family member’s decision to self-immolate.REF
  • Political prisoners. In its annually updated political prisoner database, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China estimates that at the end of 2017, there were at least 512 Tibetan political prisoners in China.REF One of the most high-level Tibetan prisoners is Gedun Choekyi Nyima, the Panchen Lama. Both he and his family disappeared three days after the Dalai Lama declared him the reincarnated Panchen Lama.REF Neither he nor his family has been heard from in more than 20 years.

Perhaps no political imprisonment is more emblematic of China’s fears over Tibet than that of Tashi Wangchuck. At the beginning of 2018, Tashi was sentenced to five years in prison by the Chinese government for advocating and preserving the use of the Tibetan language.REF The principle evidence held against him was a New York Times video where he was interviewed about the importance of preserving the Tibetan language.REF He was charged with “inciting separatism.”REF Tashi’s sentencing reveals China’s biggest fear—Tibetan independence or separatism—which would violate China’s core interests of preserving territorial integrity, internal unity, and preventing instability.

China’s fear of Tibetan separatism is largely unwarranted. Even during the most politically sensitive moments, for example, the 2008 protests that took place around the 49th anniversary of the Chinese takeover of Tibet, most protesters were not seeking independence. The Dalai Lama, in fact, has long laid out a so-called Middle Way approach, which seeks genuine Tibetan autonomy—not independence—under China’s administration.

U.S. Policy Toward Tibet

U.S. support for freedom in Tibet has wavered over the years, vacillating between active engagement on behalf of Tibetans and tacit acceptance of the status quo. Right now, executive branch support for human rights and freedom in Tibet is waning, seemingly in favor of leveraging Chinese support for U.S. sanctions against North Korea, resolving trade tensions, and dealing with security threats from China in areas like the South China Sea. Support for Tibet in Congress remains strong.REF

In the early part of the Trump Administration, the proposed fiscal year (FY) 2018 budget originally zeroed out all Tibet programming.REF Proposed budget cuts would have eliminated all USAID programming for Tibet, as well as funding for programs that support Tibetan refugees and persons in Tibet. This budget approach was reversed by Congress.

Current funding for Tibet programming tops $20 million, with $8 million for grants to nongovernmental organizations for sustainable development and cultural preservation in Tibet; another $2.5 million in assistance to Tibetan refugees; around $6 million in economic development assistance to Tibetan refugees; around $3 million for capacity-building; $1.4 million for the Tibetan Scholarship Program and Ngawang Choephel fellows scholarship program; $1 million for the Special Coordinator for Tibet; and additional funding to improve information access goes to Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and National Endowment for Democracy.REF This funding is in question in the proposed FY 2019 budget.

To date, however, the position of Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues at the U.S. Department of State—as mandated by the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002—remains vacant.REF During confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo affirmed his intent to implement the Tibetan Policy Act, which includes filling the Special Coordinator position.REF The Tibetan Policy Act also requires the U.S. to encourage and facilitate dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama or his representatives for the purposes of achieving a negotiated settlement to the protracted disagreements between the two parties.

At present, talks between China and the Dalai Lama are stalled. In fact, no meeting has taken place between Chinese authorities and the Dalai Lama since 2010, although there are rumors of closed-door contact.REF

In addition to the vacancy of the Special Coordinator position, China itself has proven an obstacle to any role that the U.S. might play in facilitating dialogue. According to the International Campaign for Tibet, China consistently restricts travel by U.S. officials, U.S. citizens, and others to Tibet.REF In 2015, for example, China refused consular access to State Department officials for 48 hours after three U.S. citizens were killed and scores of others injured in a bus accident.REF Despite congressional efforts to reciprocate with similar bans,REF the U.S. does not currently restrict travel by Chinese officials or Tibetans from Tibet to the U.S.

In contrast to China’s own conception of Tibet, the U.S. places Tibet unequivocally in the bucket of human rights issues. China, however, views Tibet primarily as a political and security issue, and sees control over the region as an important geopolitical issue among its top concerns.

U.S. policymakers should consider the relative importance that China places on Tibet and recalibrate U.S. policy in a way that meaningfully acknowledges and mitigates China’s attempt to undermine the basic rights of the Tibetan people.

Next Steps to Strengthen U.S. Policy Toward Tibet

Up until now, U.S. policy toward Tibet has been inconsistent. The U.S. should right its path and consider ways that it can strengthen efforts to advance freedom in Tibet.

  • The U.S. government should move quickly to fill the position of Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues. Since 2001, the Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights at the State Department has been dual-hatted with the position of Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues. Marshall Billingslea was recently nominated for the position of Undersecretary, but no reference has been made to him also serving as the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues.REF The U.S. government should not eliminate the Special Coordinator position as a part of broader State Department reform efforts or downgrade the position below the Undersecretary level. Keeping it at the Undersecretary level highlights the importance that the U.S. places on Tibet in broader diplomatic efforts.
  • President Donald Trump should meet with the Dalai Lama. Every President since George H. W. Bush has met with the Dalai Lama.REF In addition to meetings with the President, the Dalai Lama attended the National Prayer Breakfast during President Barak Obama’s tenure in February 2015.REF High-level meetings and invitations to attend significant diplomatic events elevate concerns regarding freedom in Tibet and would advance the Trump Administration’s focus on promoting international religious freedom. In addition to a meeting with President Trump, the Office of International Religious Freedom at the U.S Department of State should extend an invitation to the Dalai Lama to attend the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in 2019.REF
  • The U.S. government should consider sanctioning Chen Quanguo and other Chinese officials who are known specifically to be responsible for repressing the people of Tibet. Earlier this year, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback called for Chen Quanguo to be sanctioned for the role he played in constructing the social management policies that China institutes in Tibet and Xinjiang.REF For his role in both, he should be evaluated for designation under Global Magnitsky Act authorities, which permit the U.S. government to place targeted financial measures on individuals on human rights and corruption grounds.
  • The U.S. should take additional steps to facilitate discussion between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama or his representatives. The latest report mandated by the Tibetan Policy Act highlighted how few engagements between senior-level U.S. officials and Chinese authorities about Tibet took place. Higher-level officials in the State Department, especially a Special Coordinator, should raise these concerns in meetings where other important political and security matters are discussed.
  • The U.S. should press for the release of all political prisoners in China, including those from Tibet. The U.S. should continue to publicly call for the release of high-level Tibetan political prisoners, including the Panchen Lama and Tibetan language advocate Tashi Wangchuck. The U.S. government should also continue to publicly and privately press for the release of all political prisoners in China.
  • The U.S. should reaffirm its support for the right of the Dalai Lama to determine plans for reincarnation. The Chinese government has repeatedly undermined Tibetans’ ability to determine the next Dalai Lama, first by imprisoning the Panchen Lama, and second by strictly regulating plans for reincarnations.REF The U.S. promotes the religious freedom of Tibetans by affirming their right to determine plans for the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation and succession.
  • The U.S. should find ways to encourage reciprocity of travel and access to information about the Tibet. At present, U.S. government officials, journalists, and other citizens have access to Tibet that falls far short of the access the U.S. grants to Chinese officials, journalists, and other citizens. The U.S. should work with the Chinese government to improve ease of access to these areas and continue to improve access to information for persons residing in Tibet. This lack of reciprocity impedes necessary awareness about the situation on the ground in Tibet.

The U.S. should consider how it can improve the freedom of Tibetans. It is a matter of principle. Standing for principle in one area of the world makes it more likely that others around the globe enjoy first freedoms as well.

—Olivia Enos is a Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.


Olivia Enos
Olivia Enos

Former Senior Policy Analyst, Asian Studies Center