The United States has a legacy of using domestic legislation to counter actions by external adversaries. While the Biden administration has focused its attention on Russia diplomatically, it continues to engage with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This engagement has not however, stopped from the US from using its legislative apparatus to pass bills on Tibet. These Acts serve the dual purpose of defining America’s policy on Tibet (and the PRC) and also provide the government of the day, the mandate to enforce the Act in several ways including financial sanctions or diplomatic isolation. In this context, the unanimous passage, by a voice vote (29 November 2023) of H.R. 533 Tibet Act is significant. The act aims to amend the Tibetan Policy Act of 2022 (Public Law 107-228) to expand the responsibilities of the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues to include countering Chinese disinformation on Tibet. However, the act is far reaching in its import and merits closer examination.
The bill allows the use of funds authorized for countering China’s influence with the objective of refuting disinformation. It also expands an existing reporting requirement to include information on efforts undertaken because of the bill. The “Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Conflict Act” makes it official US policy that the conflict between Tibet and China remains unresolved and that Tibet’s legal status remains to be determined under international law. The bill also recognises that Tibetans have a right to self-determination—and that China’s policies preclude them from exercising that right. Significantly, the Act faults China for failing to meet the expectations of the Tibetan people to participate in dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives to resolve the issue peacefully.
In the context of recent efforts by the PRC to claim that Xizang, has belonged to China since ancient times, the US bill rejects as “historically false” China’s claim to Tibet from before its illegal occupation of the region in 1951. It also makes it clear that Tibet includes, not only the so-called “Tibet Autonomous Region” of China but also Tibetan areas of Gansu, Sichuan, Qinghai and Yunnan provinces. Reinforcing this context, the bill explicitly cites seven documents between 9 January 1919 and 14 February, 1963, where the US government identified Tibet as separate and distinct from China. Notably, HR 533 empowers the Office of the US Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues to counter Communist Party propaganda about the history of Tibet, the Tibetan people and Tibetan institutions, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
The new bipartisan bill on Tibet will undoubtedly have a profound impact on the Tibet issue. It will also help to clarify the position of the United States and other democratic countries, on the Tibet-China conflict. The Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Conflict Act was introduced in the House of Representatives by Congress members Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Michael McCaul, R-Texas, on 13 July 2022. McGovern stated that he introduced the bill in the hopes of “getting the two sides to negotiate a durable solution,” while McCaul said the legislation “will help ensure Tibetans have a say in their own future.”
Pertinently, the PRC has trampled on international law, its Constitution, violated the policy of regional ethnic autonomy, and carried out a policy of brutal repression of ethnic minorities, including in Tibet. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has deprived the people of their freedom and basic human rights while implementing a policy of cultural genocide to restrict and eliminate the cultural, ethnic and religious identity of Tibetans. The bill comes at a time when the human rights situation in Tibet continues to deteriorate. In addition, Tibetan autonomy continues to be grossly trampled upon and the Chinese government is intensifying its barbaric policy of eliminating Tibetan national consciousness and national identity.
In the context of the suffering of the Tibetan people, manifested in the over 160 self-immolations in the past decade the bill can be seen as a part of an international pressure with a force of goodwill. Experts say the CPC’s tyranny in Tibet for more than 70 years has completely obliterated any possible Chinese claim to legitimate rule. The expectation is that the bill will pressurize the Chinese government to conform with the demands of the Tibetan people, to follow the trend of history, and reach a solution to the Tibetan issue through peaceful dialogue.
The Act passed by the US House of Representatives is a bill urging dialogue and negotiation between the CPC and Tibetans. It is only through dialogue and negotiation can both sides understand each other and gradually build mutual trust. Over time, the world has witnessed the CPC’s heavy handedness and Sinicization Policy in Tibet. Since the 1990s, the CPC’s policy has been a unilateral policy of assimilation, marginalizing the Tibetan language, and the ‘Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism.’ The implementation of such a policy was often accompanied by high-handed tactics that went against the wishes of the Tibetans and suppressed Tibetan culture. Consequently, all kinds of human rights violations occurred inevitably causing the Tibetan people to resent and resist, and arousal of serious concern in the international community. Factually speaking, the Chinese and Tibetan people are distinct. Thus, for the PRC to try and forcibly assimilate the Tibetans is a negative and retrograde step. History has shown that the Tibetan people are not the Chinese people, and that Tibetan culture is different from Chinese culture. Chinese strategy of governing Tibet by Sinicizing Tibet is thus untenable.
Across the Atlantic, the EU has regularly expressed its concerns about the human rights situation in Tibet, including in international forums such as the UN Human Rights Council. Concerns have also been raised publicly by EU leaders, from time to time. The EU-China Human Rights Dialogue, despite lacking clear benchmarks, has so far failed to achieve concrete improvement on the ground. It, however, remains a channel for the EU to raise its concerns directly with the Chinese government. However, in recent years, the EU has faced increasing difficulties in using combined leverage and speaking with one voice to address China’s human rights record, especially in the case of Tibet, which Beijing considers a strategic and therefore ‘sensitive’ issue. It would make sense for the EU Parliament to introduce a bill along the lines of HR 533 passed by the US House of Representatives on Tibet to make their position, both formal and direct. This would have the additional benefit of bringing EU members together, as unity in the face of an aggressive China has often resulted in the lack of a unified policy. Such a move would add pressure on other countries, including India, to forge ahead with Parliamentary Resolutions on Tibet, creating yet another pressure point on the PRC.