In March 2008, people of Tibetan descent in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan began protesting for religious freedom and an end to repressive political and social controls, as well as economic inequalities. The People’s Armed Police responded with force, leading to the arrest of thousands. Chinese authorities expelled foreign journalists from the TAR, imposed restrictions on monasteries, blocked access to YouTube and foreign news sites, and closed the border with Nepal, which was a main route for refugees. These restrictions have remained in effect for the past 15 years. Since 2009, there have been at least 155 cases of self-immolation by Tibetans in desperate protest. To learn more about the 2008 uprising and subsequent crackdown, refer to reports from Human Rights Watch and the Central Tibet Administration.
In 2012, when Xi Jinping assumed power, he implemented a strategy of Sinicization and assimilation, which involves incorporating the languages, religions, and cultures of ethnic minority groups into the larger Chinese historical narrative. This approach is particularly evident in Tibet, where it is accompanied by heavy securitization and pervasive surveillance. Those who go against the authorities face consequences, and any expression of Tibetan identity is viewed as a political act. Traditional local schools have been replaced with boarding schools that isolate at least 80% of Tibetan children from their families, language, and culture. Alongside this, a targeted campaign of censorship and propaganda aims to erase Tibetan identity and activism from global awareness. According to Freedom House, Tibet is currently ranked as the least free region in the world.
In a highly restrictive setting, how do Tibetans residing in Tibet maintain their cultural identity? How can the global community gain knowledge about the situation there? How do exiled Tibetans stay in touch with their loved ones and homeland? Where can we find optimism for the future of Tibet and its people? CDT has initiated this series of interviews to delve into these inquiries and gain a deeper understanding of the current state of affairs in Tibet, efforts to safeguard its religious and cultural legacy, and the crucial work being carried out by activists, writers, researchers, and others to support Tibetans both within and outside the region. Check out past interviews in this series.
Bhuchung K. Tsering was originally from Tibet but left with his family to India in 1960. He completed his education at the University of Delhi and then pursued a career as a journalist in India. Later, he joined the Central Tibet Administration (CTA), which is the official Tibetan government-in-exile, in Dharamsala, India. He also served at the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Office of Tibet in Switzerland. Since 1995, he has been working at the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, D.C. and currently serves as the head of the Research and Monitoring Unit. From 2002 to 2010, he was a part of the team that represented the Dalai Lama in talks with the Chinese government. He has testified multiple times in front of the U.S. Congress about the situation in Tibet and has written for various publications worldwide. In June 2023, he received the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom from the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. He recently spoke to CDT about the impact of Xi Jinping’s policies on Tibetans’ lives and cultural identity, and why it is crucial for the international community to continue paying attention to Tibet’s survival. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
I have been quite surprised by the lack of coverage and discussion about Tibet in the international media in recent years. It appears that Tibet is not given as much attention in discussions about China as it was 20 or 30 years ago. There are various factors contributing to this, but from the limited reports I have come across, it seems that the situation in Tibet has worsened in many aspects.
Bhuchung Tsering expresses a growing sentiment that the Tibetan people are once again being overlooked. He notes that in the early days of Tibetan refugees, there was significant international attention and even covert support from the United States. However, as political winds shifted, Tibetans were left to fend for themselves. In the past, support for Tibet was largely driven by anti-Communist sentiments during the Cold War. But as the political landscape changed and the US shifted its stance on China, Tibetans felt neglected. However, there has been a new group of supporters who are interested in Tibet not because of political reasons, but because they care about the wellbeing of the Tibetan people. These supporters make up the majority of those who actively advocate for Tibet, even though their nonviolent actions may not make headlines. This lack of attention does not diminish the importance of their cause.
Can you share your perspective on the current state of the Tibet movement, especially in regards to the Chinese government’s stance and future outlook?
I would like to address three points. Firstly, the Chinese Communist authorities have a clear strategy to resolve the issue of Tibet. Their ultimate goal is to assimilate the Tibetan people and erase their distinct identity. Anything related to Tibet that was previously considered unique or separate from China is now being portrayed as Chinese. For instance, Tibetan Buddhism, with its own rich history, is now being presented as part of the larger Chinese Buddhist community. Similarly, Tibetan culture and way of life are being depicted as part of the broader Chinese mosaic. This may not be obvious in English, but in Tibetan, the term for China has been changed from “Gyanak” to “Zhongguo,” creating a subtle distinction. This is a deliberate attempt to show that Tibet and China belong together under the umbrella term of “Zhongguo.” Such efforts are evident in all aspects of Tibetan life, including language teaching and the recent controversy surrounding boarding schools. The Chinese authorities have also recognized the influential role of the Dalai Lama in preserving Tibetan identity. They know that as long as people remember him and maintain a relationship with him, their goal cannot be achieved. Therefore, over the years, they have banned his photographs in an effort to make Tibetans forget about him. They are targeting the next generation, hoping that by erasing all traces of the Dalai Lama, they can prevent future generations from forming a connection with him. This is the Chinese strategy.
The Tibetan community has a partial understanding of the Dalai Lama’s teachings. His emphasis on democracy is important for establishing long-term stability, even after he is no longer present. The current democratic structure in Dharamsala, with its elections, has been successful in involving people. However, there are also negative aspects of electoral politics that have emerged, causing us to lose sight of our larger movement and unique position. If we continue down this path, it could potentially harm our unity in the absence of the Dalai Lama. This is my overall perception of the Tibetan community.
The third group involved in this situation is the international community. It appears that they may also be feeling somewhat helpless in regards to Tibet, believing that they have exhausted all potential solutions. While I acknowledge that they have not exhausted all options, this seems to be their mindset. I have even heard politicians in Washington DC express a similar sentiment, questioning the effectiveness of any actions taken. However, it seems that their priorities have shifted from the merits of the case to a political agenda. As you mentioned earlier, there has been no decrease in the severity of the situation in Tibet that would justify less attention from governments. In fact, there has been a subtle increase in Chinese control, making it even more important for governments to take action. However, it seems that pushing the Tibet issue is not advantageous for them in light of current challenges with China. They may also be focusing on other issues that could have a more visible impact against China.
CDT: On your second point about electoral politics, have you seen any examples of the Chinese government interfering with the electoral process, even subtly trying to change people’s attitudes toward the CTA?
There is nothing visible or even indirectly referenced within our small community, which is not surprising. Even if Tibetans travel to Tibet without any political motives or support for China, they are still viewed with suspicion by their fellow Tibetans. This suspicion extends to anyone in our small community who may have any connections to China, making it unlikely that we will witness Chinese interference in our elections like in Western countries. However, it is possible that issues and rumors within our community, such as the controversy surrounding the propitiation of the spirit Dorje Shugden, may be influenced by Chinese involvement. This may manifest through individuals posting on social media anonymously, but without solid evidence, it is difficult to confirm. This can create tension and debate within our community.
Can you provide an update on the current progress of communication and discussions between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and Beijing, as there has been a halt in formal dialogue since 2010?
I must clarify that I am no longer involved in the process as I once was. I used to be a member of the task force working on the dialogue process, but the current president disbanded that group and formed a smaller committee, mainly consisting of officials in Dharamsala. However, the elected leader, Sikyong, has publicly stated that he has received communication from Chinese authorities and they are exploring potential solutions. Even the Dalai Lama himself has expressed hope for the possibility of traveling to Tibet. This indicates that while there may not be direct formal contact, there is some form of informal communication taking place. Based on my experience participating in the dialogue process as part of Mr Lodi Gyari’s team, I am aware that the Chinese also desire a resolution, as they do not want this issue to remain unresolved. However, their preferred solution would be one that benefits them. Their understanding of dialogue is not meeting halfway, but rather the other side fully conceding to their demands. Despite officially rejecting the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and accusing His Holiness of being a separatist, they are aware of the influence the CTA and His Holiness have on the people in Tibet, and thus may be attempting to reach out in various ways.
Can we identify any members of the current CCP administration who support Tibetan autonomy, or do we perceive the CCP as a unified entity with a single perspective? Is there any reason for optimism or hope regarding this issue at present?
In my opinion, Xi Jinping is surprisingly a potential key player in resolving the Tibetan issue due to his background, rather than his personal beliefs. A recent report from ICT highlighted potential negative aspects, but also raised the question of whether Xi respects his Chinese culture and tradition of filial piety, as his father Xi Zhongxun was known for being moderate on the issue of Tibet. Xi Jinping has shown interest in understanding the Tibetan people and their strong connection to Buddhism, which has caught the attention of the Dalai Lama. It is worth noting that in the past, the Dalai Lama has expressed hope in Xi Jinping and even described him as someone with special insight. From a practical standpoint, if Xi Jinping truly wants to resolve the Tibetan issue, having complete control would be the best opportunity to do so. This is because the Tibetan issue is a major obstacle in Chinese politics, and previous leaders have only resorted to harsh tactics to address it. Any attempt at a different approach, like that of Hu Yaobang, has resulted in problems later on.
CDT: That ICT report you just mentioned talked a lot about how under Xi, the policy of ethnic autonomy has been replaced with one focused on cultural assimilation, Sinicization, and securitization. Could you explain how that looks on the ground in Tibet, and what government control and interference look like on a daily basis for a typical Tibetan family these days?
I mentioned previously that there are several things being implemented to instill the belief that one’s Tibetan identity is secondary to their broader Chinese identity. This includes the idea that Tibetan Buddhism is a part of Chinese Buddhism, and individuals should focus on their Chinese heritage rather than their spiritual roots in the South. There is also a push for Chinese language education among Tibetan families, and the use of the term Zhongguo to blur the distinction between Tibet and China in the Tibetan language. These efforts are supported by policies that aim to control monasteries and indoctrinate students in schools. This has been a gradual process, but it is now becoming more evident.
Can you please discuss any other pressing matters that Tibetans in Tibet are currently facing, aside from those that have already been mentioned and are clearly a top priority? Are there any other issues that you believe deserve more attention from the rest of the world?
It is crucial that the Tibetan identity is preserved, as it is currently under threat. The Chinese government’s actions may result in a new identity that is considered “Tibetan” but is heavily influenced by Chinese culture. They may use this to claim that Tibetan identity has been maintained, which is their current narrative.
What is the current level of disagreement in Tibet? How frequently are there reports of protests taking place in Tibet, even if it is just a small number of individuals, and what are the typical reasons behind these protests?
In Tibet, simply being Tibetan is viewed as a political statement, making it impossible for the people to take any action without facing immediate repression, regardless of whether or not there is a political context. While rallies and language demonstrations have taken place in major Chinese cities, similar events in Tibet are no longer tolerated. In the past, Tibetans in Amdo were able to hold rallies advocating for the study of Tibetan language in schools, but this is no longer the case. Anything related to Tibetan identity is considered suspicious and as a result, there is little to no information about any such activities currently.
The Chinese government is attempting to divert the attention of Tibetans from their political issues by offering economic incentives. Tibetans have reported that if they avoid involvement in politics, they have the opportunity to become wealthy. However, this strategy is ultimately futile because the survival of Tibetan culture, Buddhism, and medicine depends on the freedoms that existed before Communist control. The Chinese government is also exerting control over Tibetan Buddhism by requiring their authorization for reincarnations. While they may have some temporary success, the true spiritual authority of these appointed individuals will eventually be questioned and hold no value. This can be seen in the case of the Panchen Lama. The current Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama may perform visible religious acts, but lacks the spiritual authority necessary to truly lead his people.
Can there be instances where the Chinese government chooses an illegitimate reincarnation while the Tibetan Buddhist community chooses a different one? In this scenario, there would be two separate reincarnations, but only one of them would be recognized by the Chinese government.
Yes, this is a potential situation that may be occurring. Due to the Chinese government’s political concerns about Tibet, they tend to disregard the fact that Tibetan Buddhism extends beyond Tibet. In the past, due to the structure of Tibetan society, Tibetan Buddhism could spread outside of Tibet and still survive. This is evident in the past Dalai Lamas from Mongolia or India’s Arunachal Pradesh. However, now the Chinese authorities believe that Tibetan Buddhism must only exist within Tibet and must be controlled by the CCP. This may not be feasible because a new generation of reincarnated Lamas is emerging in India, with a history in both Tibet and India, giving them spiritual authority. On the other hand, the Chinese authorities may appoint reincarnations in Tibet as mere symbols. This conversation delves into the realm of faith, where anything can happen. For example, the previous 10th Panchen Lama, who was highly respected by Tibetans in his later years, was not initially chosen by the Tibetan government in Lhasa. Instead, he was selected by his monastery and had the support of the Kuomintang government. However, through his efforts to preserve Tibetan religion and culture while serving under the Chinese Communist system, he challenged the Chinese government to fulfill its promises to Tibetan Buddhists. If anyone chosen by the Chinese authorities does the same, they too will have a path similar to the previous Panchen Lama. Currently, the Panchen Lama selected by the Chinese government is promoting their slogan of Tibetan Buddhism being Chinese Buddhism.
In the future, Tibetan Buddhism will likely become more widespread globally instead of being primarily centered in Tibet.
In the past, this has been the situation. The difference was that Lhasa was the central location, regardless of where the spread was occurring – in Mongolia, the Russian Federation, the Indian Himalayas, Nepal, or Bhutan. However, this may change now and there may be other centers that are seen as more important to followers. Currently, there are two reincarnations of the Karmapa outside of Lhasa, and they are able to coexist despite not being in ideal circumstances. This is possible because neither of them has a government authority, especially not one that is atheistic like the Chinese Communist Party.
CDT: Journalists and researchers have had limited access to Tibet, particularly since 2008. How has this affected your work? Are you still able to conduct research in the area?
After 2008, we still had opportunities to make connections within Tibet. This was evident in the reports that emerged during the self-immolations in 2009. However, the Chinese government has since tightened their control and it has become nearly impossible to obtain such information in the same way. Despite this, there are still some individuals who feel the need to share the truth with the world. The time for trying to raise awareness about the persecution of Tibetans has passed; it is now widely known. However, we believe that there is always a way to access and analyze information about policy changes in Tibet and Beijing that will affect Tibet. For example, understanding the process of Sinicization involves not only being on the ground, but also observing and studying policy changes. This is something we are now able to do. It is both a challenge and a contradiction for the Chinese government, as they try to present Tibet as “normal” while also acknowledging that they cannot keep it closed off forever – even if they only allow Chinese tourists in.
Can you confirm if there have been attempts to facilitate dialogue and interaction between Han Chinese and Tibetans? Are there any online platforms or other means for individuals to connect and exchange viewpoints in a constructive and courteous manner?
ICT has been engaged in the dialogue process for many years, particularly during the tenure of Mr. Lodi Gyari. When ICT was first established, Ngapo Jigme, the son of a well-known Tibetan noble who later became a prominent figure in Beijing as chairman of the TAR, was sent to India to serve as an intermediary to the Chinese community. This was in line with His Holiness’s belief that in order for a lasting political solution to be achieved, there must also be understanding and communication between the people on both sides. As part of our efforts, ICT had a Chinese outreach and engagement program where we collaborated with Chinese-speaking colleagues to hold informal discussions with Chinese intellectuals and scholars. Initially, this included democracy activists and advocates, but eventually expanded to include scholars from outside of China and even those within China. Through this process, figures such as Wang Lixiong gained more visibility. However, due to the sensitivity of the Tibetan issue, many Chinese scholars are afraid to engage with it openly for fear of retaliation from the Chinese government.
Can you provide an update on international efforts? Is there currently any ongoing initiatives in that regard?
There is a Chinese desk in Dharamsala and many officers there have staff who speak Chinese and are dedicated to connecting with the Chinese community. It is unclear if there is currently someone in Geneva, but there used to be representatives in Australia and Taiwan as well. Tibetan NGOs also have relationships with Chinese democracy activists, such as a friendship society in Canada and a group in New York that interacts with Tibetans and visits Dharamsala to share their perspectives. The International Campaign for Tibet also has a program where Tibetan youth learn about American politics in Washington DC and often have the opportunity to meet with Chinese democracy activists or scholars to gain insight from the Chinese viewpoint.
How can we best combat the spread of false information and hate speech towards Tibet on social media, such as the recent accusations against His Holiness the Dalai Lama?
The field of social media can be difficult to fully comprehend, making it challenging to find solutions to problems created by individuals. As a result, I cannot simply use a magic wand to know what actions should be taken. However, I believe that supporters of Tibet should respond to these situations in a rational manner. Often, social media conflicts escalate when both sides resort to making allegations instead of clarifying the issue. This is how social media operates. When someone presents a different perspective or disagrees respectfully, it often goes unnoticed. In my own way, I try to respond to these situations without adding to the problem, but rather reducing it. This is similar to my experience with Tibetan democracy, where social media has also caused unnecessary tension. Instead of clarifying accusations, both sides tend to make counter allegations, leading to a competition to outdo each other. However, when it came to the distortion of His Holiness’ video, the Tibetan presence helped in calming the situation. Although there were still counter allegations, the focus was on providing a comprehensive understanding of the situation from the perspective of the Dalai Lama. These efforts can have a positive impact, as it only takes one person with adequate resources to make a difference. Despite the challenges of internet connectivity in Tibet, people can still post and share information as someone somewhere will be able to see it.
CDT: Speaking of access to information from inside Tibet, one of the facts that was most shocking to me in the ICT report you mentioned earlier is that only five refugees were documented crossing the Tibet border in 2022. Thousands used to flee every year. This obviously has far-reaching and dire implications for people both inside and outside Tibet. But what impact do you think this has on the world’s understanding of what is happening in Tibet, with a primary source of firsthand accounts now shut down?
BT: It is evident that this has greatly affected the issue of Tibet, especially in terms of raising awareness. When refugees from Tibet arrive in Nepal and Dharamsala, India, and have the opportunity to share their experiences with the media, it brings attention to the issue and increases awareness. However, this is no longer possible due to current restrictions. Additionally, we have lost the chance to understand social developments in Tibet from a local perspective. For instance, how do changes in policies affect people in a particular village? While they may not consciously think about it, their experiences can provide valuable insights. Unfortunately, with the absence of newcomers from Tibet, it has become a challenge for the Tibetan movement to find new ways to address the issue. This is why I mentioned the importance of analyzing policy changes as one approach to bridging this gap.
What recent occurrences or advancements bring optimism for the future of Tibet and its people?
I mentioned the conflict between preserving Tibetan culture and prioritizing the CCP-created identity, regardless of the actions of the Chinese authorities. This contradiction will persist, but we have the ability to use it to bring about change. Tibetans both inside and outside of Tibet can utilize this contradiction to create momentum. For instance, before 1959 when the Communists took control of Tibet, there were areas that were not under the rule of the Dalai Lama. However, these regions still had a strong sense of Tibetan identity. This identity remains prevalent today, regardless of where a Tibetan is from. It is a common thread that connects all Tibetans, including those living in the TAR, Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, and Qinghai. This sense of identity has also been acknowledged by the Chinese government in their ethnographic map of the People’s Republic of China. Therefore, Tibetans in Tibet will continue to find ways to preserve their identity, and the Dalai Lama’s offer of autonomy is crucial in this effort as it emphasizes the importance of treating all Tibetans as one united group. By implementing a uniform policy for Tibetans, regardless of their location, culture and religious traditions can be preserved even in the present circumstances. This offers hope that there will be a more reasonable approach from Beijing in the future.
There are two differing perspectives in China about the Dalai Lama. One belief is that he should be engaged in conversation as he is not a problem, and finding a resolution with him could lead to a solution for Tibet and its associated issues. However, another belief is that the Dalai Lama could actually create more problems, as his return could pose a threat to the Chinese Communist Party. As a result, some are hesitant to even consider his return. It would be beneficial to promote the viewpoint of Wang Lixiong, who sees the Dalai Lama as a valuable asset rather than a liability. If the authorities recognize this and work towards a resolution while the Dalai Lama is still alive, there is a chance for a lasting solution for Tibet. However, if they do not, there may be future conflicts that cannot be easily resolved without the Dalai Lama’s presence.
What actions can CDT and our readers take to provide assistance to Tibetans?
China Digital Times has been actively discussing the issue of Tibet in a more comprehensive manner through your posts, which has greatly aided the understanding of Tibet among influential individuals and policymakers. It would be beneficial to continue in this direction, as you previously mentioned the lack of attention given to Tibet. While governments may internally acknowledge the issue, they may not publicly express it. You are highlighting the importance of continued attention towards Tibet, as its resolution could have a positive impact on China’s future, regional stability, and the world as a whole. His Holiness believes that the peaceful approach taken by Tibet can serve as a model for resolving international conflicts, and the success of this approach relies heavily on government involvement.