The head of the Tibetan government in exile is making a rare visit to Washington this week to rally Biden administration support in pressuring China to address decadeslong grievances of Tibetans living under Chinese rule.
Sikyong Penpa Tsering wants China to lift a 12-year freeze on official dialogue with his Central Tibetan Administration. Penpa will receive a friendly reception in Washington but forcing changes from Beijing will be a challenge given China’s long-standing assault on Tibetan Buddhism, language and cultural traditions. China is also facing international backlash about policies toward its Muslim Uyghur population, ranging from allegations of genocide to crimes against humanity.
Penpa, whose visit is at the invitation of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, warns that unless the administration kick-starts efforts to push Beijing to engage with his Dharamsala, India-based administration, Tibetans living within China’s borders face cultural extinction.
“We want to make it known to the world 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 are aimed completely at the eradication of the Tibetan and other minority nationalities’ identities.”
That fear is echoed on Capitol Hill. “When we talk about the Uyghurs, we can't forget the Tibetans [or] Xi Jinping will utterly destroy the Tibetan culture,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), a longtime advocate for Tibetans rights.
Chinese troops occupied Tibet in 1950, crushing 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 since. He has championed a “Middle Way” policy to resolve Tibet’s sovereignty with “genuine autonomy for all Tibetans living in the three traditional provinces of Tibet within the framework of the People’s Republic of China,” a CTA statement said.
The Chinese government has rejected the CTA policy and instead calls the Dalai Lama “a wolf in monk’s robes” responsible for plotting violent insurrection in Tibet. The Dalai Lama relinquished his political role in 2011 and Tibetans in exile elected Penpa in May.
Penpa’s administration has powerful allies in Washington, including Uzra Zeya, undersecretary of State for civilian security, democracy and human rights. Zeya became special coordinator for Tibetan issues in December. Her 27-year foreign service career brings both regional chops and a proven record of high-level international diplomacy to her role as the U.S. envoy on Tibet.
Zeya has served as the political minister-counselor at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi and from 2019-2021 was the president of Alliance for Peacebuilding, a nonprofit nonpartisan global network of more than 130 organizations dedicated “to end conflict by peaceful means.”
“[Zeya] knows India, she knows the Tibetan issue and she's very proactively engaged, unlike the former special representatives for Tibet,” Penpa said. “The rank of undersecretary has so many avenues to meet with Chinese officials at various levels, so even if they don't want to particularly meet with the special coordinator for Tibetan affairs, the undersecretary can raise the issue of Tibet in different forms at different levels.”
Zeya inherits the good will of two decades of bipartisan collaboration that has produced a slew 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, the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act in 2018 and Tibet Policy and Support Act of 2020, whch Smith co-sponsored.
Rep. Scott Perry (R-Ohio) in June introduced the Tibet Independence Act, which would require the U.S. government “to recognize Tibet as a separate and independent country.” The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022 that President Joe Biden signed last month allocates $21 million to preserve Tibetan language, religion, culture and other initiatives.
Zeya agrees with Penpa’s insistence on the need for dialogue between Beijing and the CTA to broker understanding of Tibet’s status as an “autonomous region” that would end Beijing’s efforts to eradicate the region’s culture.
“We believe a negotiated agreement that leads to meaningful autonomy for Tibetans and ensures they can preserve their distinct religion, culture, and language provides the best hope for long-term stability in the region,” Zeya said in a statement. “The United States calls on PRC authorities to resume meaningful and direct dialogue, without preconditions, with the Dalai Lama, his representatives, or democratically elected leaders of the Tibetan community that leads to a negotiated agreement on Tibet.”
Chinese officials want Zeya to back off. “The US designation of the so-called ‘Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues’ interferes in China’s internal affairs,” Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, told POLITICO in a statement. “We firmly oppose it and never recognize it.”
Liu’s vehemence is surpassed only by China’s depiction of the territory as a peaceful oasis despite all evidence to the contrary. State news agency Xinhua last month declared Tibet “one of the world's safest places … [that] has embarked on a path from poverty to prosperity, from autocracy to democracy, and from isolation to openness.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken paints a different picture, accusing China earlier this month of subjecting Tibet to “systematic repression.” That repression includes a centralized boarding school system that warehouses up to 900,000 Tibetan children 6 to 18 years of age where students are “barred from practicing their religion and are subjected to political indoctrination,” a Tibet Action Network report published in December revealed. Those allegations “shock the conscience,” Zeya said.
Penpa says that Chinese propaganda has undermined CTA efforts to rally international support to push China to change its relationship with Tibet.
“The growing influence of China's narrative … is so strong that everybody feels that Tibet has been part of China for many centuries and that does not provide us the leverage or the reason for China to engage with us even if governments say that they support dialogue between the [CTA] and the Chinese government,” Penpa said. “Without talking with the Chinese government, there can't be a way out for the Tibetans.”