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China Hides the Real Tibet From Congress

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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When former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a surprise congressional delegation to Tibet last month under strict Chinese Communist Party supervision, U.S. lawmakers were given a carefully managed and misleading tour of a region under strict and ever-tightening repression, according to the leader of the Tibetan government in exile.

Pelosi led the delegation with fellow Democrat Jim McGovern; both have been outspoken supporters of the rights of Tibetans and their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. They were certainly not naïve about the history of governmental repression and efforts that would be made to whitewash it.

Yet Chinese state run media in Tibet claimed after the visits that Pelosi “highly praised” the Chinese government’s “progress” in Tibet and the Communist Party’s work toward “guaranteeing religious freedom, protecting ethnic culture and protecting the ecology and environment.”

In a press conference following the trip, Pelosi and McGovern praised the visit as a useful first step in resolving the Tibet issue. They were careful about offending the Chinese government and thanked President Xi Jinping for allowing the visit. Pelosi said that the meetings were very controlled and the delegation may have visited a house that was set up with staged family members. McGovern said they had “very heated discussions” with Chinese officials.

Source: Central Tibetan Administration

The Tibetan leadership, which is in exile in India and barred from visiting its homeland, sees the lawmakers’ visit as a missed opportunity. Americans are still largely unaware of what Tibetans see as a growing attack on their identity, culture, freedom of movement, freedom of expression and access to prosperity.

Lobsang Sangay, the exile government's Sikyong, or political leader, told me in an interview that although the Chinese Embassy in Washington approved the delegation’s visas only days before the trip, Chinese authorities in Tibet spent weeks preparing for the visit by cracking down on dissent and cleansing the capital, Lhasa, of evidence of increasingly restrictive security measures. 

“There was a clampdown in Lhasa for several weeks," he said, citing his extensive network of contacts inside Tibet. "People were puzzled as to what was happening, then they found out there was a congressional delegation they were preparing. They never got the true picture, that’s obvious.”

Still, Sangay said the trip might not have been a total loss. He hoped some Chinese officials, at least, took into consideration the views of the delegation. “It drives a point even to the Communist Party secretaries that there are people who care, who won’t agree with their narrative, so that is important,” he said.

Had Pelosi and company been able to see the real Tibet and interact with real Tibetans, they would have found that the Chinese government in Lhasa has spent the last months instituting what Sangay described as an extensive grid system meant to impose self-monitoring and control.

Neighborhoods are divided into clusters as small as five families each. Each cluster has an appointed representative whose responsibility is to ensure the stability of the cluster. The system rewards those who report illegal behavior to the authorities, and in Tibet this can include possessing a photo of the Dalai Lama or owning books that speak about human rights.  “Essentially, they are making your neighbor your spy. That’s a very uncomfortable way of living" Sangay said.

In addition, according to Sangay, the Chinese government has accelerated its plan to change the demographics of Tibet by speeding up the importation of thousands of ethnically Han Chinese. The government has been building rail lines, developing new cities, and providing incentives for Han Chinese to move in and open businesses. The Chinese Communist Party has given financial encouragement for Han Chinese to marry Tibetans.

“You get subsidized home, jobs, promotion if you marry Tibetans, in order to assimilate Tibetans with Han Chinese,” Sangay said. “That’s a dilution of Tibetan identity… It’s cultural assimilation.” 

The government also trying to keep those who live outside Lhasa from making pilgrimages or settling there, Sangay said. It has been issuing identification cards with biometric chips to all Tibetans, in part to monitor those who move to the capital.  Those who do visit are forced to leave after a few days.

Sangay feels that the Tibetan movement's commitment to nonviolence keeps it off the front pages. The international media focuses on Islamic State and Boko Haram because their brutal tactics shock the conscience. More than 140 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009, yet their deaths received scant news coverage.

In an effort to generate more global coverage, the Tibetan leadership is trying to make the international community aware that China’s development of the Tibetan plateau has dire environmental consequences. The Tibetan plateau holds the world’s third largest store of ice and supplies rivers that over 1 billion people in Asia depend on. “If Tibet as an area heats up, the glaciers melt faster,” said Sangay. “This is a serious issue, because it is the headwater for 10 major rivers in Asia.”

Congress for decades has helped bring some attention on the plight of Tibetans. But Chinese repression is only increasing. More visits like Pelosi's can help, but U.S. leaders also have to be aware of how sanitized those tours are, and get a clearer picture from the exiled Tibetan leadership. Without more public discussion of China’s true policies, Tibetans' identity, culture and basic freedoms will all continue to suffer.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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