Paramilitary police officers swap positions during a change of guard in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, in October. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
The world is finally responding to the Chinese government’s mass atrocities against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in China’s northwest province of Xinjiang. But now Beijing is replicating some of its worst practices — including rounding up hundreds of thousands of innocent people in military-style reeducation camps — in other parts of China. This year, Beijing built and filled massive camps in Tibet, which had been the original testing ground for cultural genocide, political indoctrination and forced labor. Tibetan leaders are pleading for the world to pay attention.
“When it comes to human rights violations in China, Tibet was Patient Zero,” Lobsang Sangay, the president of the Tibetan government in exile, known as the Central Tibetan Administration, told me during a visit to Washington last week. “Xi Jinping is now reintroducing labor camps back into Tibet . . . what’s new is the speed and the scale of it and the military style that they are bringing to it.” Beijing has forced more than half a million rural Tibetans into these military-style training and indoctrination facilities in just the past six months, Sangay said. Upon their release, thousands of rural laborers are sent to perform factory work or menial jobs in other parts of China, all under the guise of “poverty alleviation,” according to a September report by the Jamestown Foundation. Corroborating documents obtained by Reuters showed that Chinese Communist Party officials were given strict quotas for how many Tibetans to round up. While Beijing has long operated gulags for political prisoners and dissidents in Tibet, these new facilities represent a huge expansion of China’s years-long program to involuntarily mass relocate rural Tibetans, which Human Rights Watch in 2013 called “unprecedented in the post-Mao era.” The goal of these camps is threefold, according to Sangay: Beijing wants to appropriate Tibetan land to commercialize its natural resources; the CCP uses the camps to forcibly assimilate Tibetans by snuffing out their culture, language and religion; and the third goal, using Tibetans as cheap forced labor, serves the first two. “ ‘Poverty alleviation’ for us means cultural assimilation,” Sangay said. “In that sense, they want to take away our faith and erase the history of Tibet.” Sangay came to Washington to support the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, which Congress passed as part of the omnibus spending bill. The legislation is meant to ensure the Biden administration doesn’t turn away from yet another Chinese government campaign of cultural genocide through forced assimilation and political indoctrination. The legislation expresses support for the idea that Tibetan Buddhists, not the CCP, should determine the identity of the 15th incarnation of the Dalai Lama after the current Dalai Lama exits this world. The fact that Beijing plans to foist on Tibetans an imposter Dalai Lama tells you everything you need to know about how it views their right to worship. Perhaps more importantly, the law updates the original Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 to call on Beijing to negotiate directly with the Tibetan government in exile based in Dharamsala, India, toward what the Dalai Lama calls the “Middle Way Approach” — a compromise to give Tibetans limited autonomy within the Chinese system. It also calls on the U.S. government (soon to be the Biden administration) to sanction CCP officials guilty of human rights violations in Tibet and establish a U.S. consulate in Lhasa, the administrative capital of Tibet. Predictably, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reacted to the legislation by demanding the United States shut up about Tibet, “lest it further harms our further cooperation and bilateral relations.” Beijing is trying to see if the Biden team will fall into the same trap President Barack Obama did in his first year. In 2009, Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett traveled to Dharamsala and told the Dalai Lama that he would not be invited to the White House in Obama’s first year. When he did eventually visit, Obama tried to please Beijing by downgrading the meeting from the Oval Office to the Map Room and ushering His Holiness out the back door, where he was photographed walking past heaps of trash. But Beijing did not reward Obama’s deference. Once Chinese leaders realized the United States was willing to downgrade the Tibet issue, they cut off talks with the Tibetan leadership and ramped up their repression campaign. President Trump never even bothered to meet with the Dalai Lama. Biden must establish early on that he won’t trade Tibetans’ futures for the false promise of smooth relations. Some of Biden’s advisers will surely tell him Tibet is just one more uncomfortable issue to be avoided in his effort to manage a complex and already rocky U.S.-China relationship. But ignoring Tibet helped embolden Beijing to expand its repression scheme to Xinjiang in the first place. That sickness is still spreading. Biden must not allow it to further metastasize.
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