On January 31, 2013 I participated in a panel discussion on “Ticking Time Bomb: The Ethnic Crisis Facing China’s New Leadership” in the Cannon House Office Building of the United States Congress in Washington, D.C. My co-panelists were Mr. Enghebatu Togochog, Director, Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center; Mr. Alim Seytoff, President, Uyghur American Association; and Dr. YANG Jianli, President, Citizen Power for China.
The discussion, organized by Citizen Power for China, was moderated by its Vice President, Dr. Lianchao Han.
I am giving below the text of my prepared statement (I based my remarks on this) and a video recording that are posted on the website of the International Campaign for Tibet.
Bhuchung K. Tsering
Vice President, Special Programs of International Campaign for Tibet
January 31, 2013
I would like to address the topic of this discussion, “The Ethnic Crisis Facing China’s New Leadership,” in the context of the current critical situation in Tibet.
The problem in Tibet is a subject that the International Campaign for Tibet has, by its mandate, been seized with for the past 25 years. This is reflected in our two latest reports – “60 Years of Chinese Misrule/Arguing Cultural Genocide in Tibet” and “Storm in the Grasslands/Self-immolations in Tibet and Chinese policy”. The first report reveals that Chinese policies and practices of cultural repression and destruction are so systematic and persistent in Tibet, and their effects are so serious, that they contain elements of cultural genocide. The second report, particularly relevant to our discussions today, shows that the Chinese government has responded to the Tibetan self-immolations by intensifying the military build-up and very policies and approaches that are the root cause of the acts. The above reports are available for download from the ICT website (www.savetibet.org).
In his first speech after becoming the new head of the Chinese Communist Party on November 15, 2012, Xi Jinping said: “In the new situation, our Party faces many severe challenges.” In the same speech, Xi also said, “…Chinese people have opened up a good and beautiful home where all ethnic groups live in harmony and fostered an excellent culture that never fades.”
The self-immolations by Tibetans in Tibet is certainly one of the severe challenges that the new Chinese leadership is facing. They are clear indications of the depth of feelings among the Tibetan people at their current state of affairs. China’s hope of the issue of self-immolations by Tibetans fading away — as a result of a combination of threats, suppression and increased control — is not happening.
The following are some of the reasons why China’s misguided policies on Tibetans are leading to continued tension and possible crisis, contradicting any claims of “ethnic groups living in harmony.”
First, one of the possible solution choices that the Chinese leadership seem to have considered to resolve the Tibetan problem is doing away with the limited constitutional rights for what they call the minority nationalities. In an article in the official newspaper of the Central Party School, Xuexi Shibao (Study Times), in December 2011, Vice Minister Zhu Weiqun of the Central United Front Works Department essentially maintained that the current nationalities problems that China faces are on account of the separate policies for nationalities, and he suggests doing away with them, including on how ethnicity is identified on government-issued identity cards.
Vice Minister Zhu is not the first Chinese to come up with such an idea. In 2004, Prof. Ma Rong raised a similar issue in his “A New Thought on Ethnic Relations: Depoliticization of Minority Ethnic Issues.” There have been other Chinese scholars who have had similar views. However, what is different is that while the Chinese scholars’ views can be taken as academic exercises, Vice Minister Zhu is not only a political leader, but was the point person from the Chinese side in the dialogue with envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Tibet. Therefore, we can assume that he would not have outlined his suggestions unless there were some internal discussions in the Chinese leadership on the issue.
However, Zhu’s statement has not been followed up by any policy changes. A China watcher said that this is an indication that there is division in the Chinese leadership as well as among Chinese intellectuals on how to deal with the issue of nationality.
Secondly, the Chinese authorities have resorted to blatant racial discrimination against Tibetans that makes them feel like second class citizens. Let me cite some examples.
i) Today, while Chinese places enjoy a comparative more freedom, whether of movement, expression or assembly, the Tibetan areas are increasingly being turned into one big prison. There is heavy security crackdown in Tibetan areas now. Several of the monasteries whose members have undertaken self-immolation are under lockdown with restrictions on the monks’ religious practices;
ii) While China simplified passport application process for majority of Chinese people with many getting their passports within weeks, Tibetans are virtually being denied new passports currently. Tibetan applicants for passports are subjected to a new procedure that are not implemented for Chinese. Worse still, the authorities in the Tibet Autonomous Region have in fact been confiscating the passports of the few fortunate Tibetans who have them, thus denying them their right to travel abroad.
iii) Xinhua reported on January 23, 2013 that there is an increase of tourists to Lhasa and that 6.5 million tourists visited Tibet’s capital in 2012. So even as China is boasting of increased Chinese tourists visiting Tibet, Tibetans from one area cannot travel to another area without prior permission.
According to recent information, a Tibetan from east and north-east Tibet needs at least four approval letters from different security-related offices to go on a pilgrimage to Lhasa. In fact a journalist of Canada’s The Globe & the Mail, who visited the Tibetan border town of Dhartsedo (Kangding) reported on January 22, 2013 that “Monks in Kangding say they’ve been told they can no longer travel from one region to the next unless they first obtain a hard-to-get permit from the Public Security Bureau, creating a farcical situation in which the Tibetan Autonomous Region – long sealed to many foreigners – is now also closed even to many Tibetans living in the neighbouring Chinese provinces.” It is not just monks but any Tibetan wanting to go from one place to another need to seek one permit or another. Lhasa, which is the holiest town for all Tibetans, is now virtually out of bounds for Tibetans not only living outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region, but also to many Tibetans within the region.
iv) While China is proudly heralding the amendment to the Criminal Procedure Law that talks about “respecting and protecting human rights” we are seeing a new reign of terror in the Tibetan areas where ordinary Tibetans are being threatened with guilt by association on matters relating to the self-immolations. Just today, China has handed down heavy sentences to two Tibetans, including one sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve, after being accused of inciting people to self-immolate.
Therefore, the situation in Tibet is at breaking point. Instead of trying to understand the underlying causes of the Tibetan self-immolations, the Chinese authorities are imposing measures that will only lead to heightened tension.
The Dui Hua Foundation has said that “It is unlikely that either the criminalization of self-immolation or heavy-handed propaganda will lead to the resolution of the longstanding grievances that underlie the protests. Recent government policies appear aimed at integrating these peripheral ethnic regions more firmly into the dominant economic, social, and cultural order of China, without giving due consideration to the desires of inhabitants there.”
Thus, President Hu Jintao is leaving behind a legacy of suppression of Tibetans, lack of foresight to deal with the issue and disregard of avenues that will really lead to stability of the People’s Republic of China.
- China should heed the call of the international community, including by the United Nations, the United States and the European Union, to address the “deep underlying issues” in Tibet and not resort to “heavy security measures and suppression of human rights.”
- The United States government should urge the new Chinese leadership to re-evaluate the ‘stability maintenance’ approach applied in Tibet, end the military buildup and limit the dominance of the security apparatus.
- The United States should call on China to halt the rampant detention of Tibetans and accusations that they are involved with encouragement of self-immolations, without following any due process.
- American and other diplomats, including representatives of multilateral organizations, should seek access to Tibetan areas based on the spirit of principle of reciprocity by which Chinese diplomats and journalists enjoy unrestricted access in the United States.
- The international community should recognize that the situation in Tibet constitutes a systematic violation of human rights targeting the Tibetan culture, religion and identity in ways that reveal elements of cultural genocide, and they should use this language in general comments as well as in their interventions with Chinese officials.
The new Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping has the opportunity to redress the situation. During his acceptance speech on November 15, 2011, Xi Jinping said: “It is the people who create history. The masses are the real heroes. Out strength comes from the people and masses.”
I believe the Tibetan people are really creating history and Beijing might want to listen before it is too late. How the new Chinese leadership will respond to the crisis in Tibet is something that we are watching closely.