Coming out of decades of isolation under Mao Zedong’s rule, China’s ‘reform era’ saw a general trend of growing openness to the world. This trend has reversed under Xi Jinping’s rule, in which an increasingly repressive Communist Party exerts greater influence abroad even while it restricts the activities of foreign governments and organizations inside China. Tibet has never been afforded the same degree of openness as other parts of the PRC, and the Party has implemented even greater restrictions in recent years.
The International Campaign for Tibet has monitored more than 20 foreign government delegations to Tibet in the ten-year period from March, 2008, averaging around two each year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, during this period there have been more delegations from the United States to Tibet than any other foreign government. The US is the only Western nation which has institutionalized support for Tibet in the form of the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002, which is intended to “support the aspirations of the Tibetan people to safeguard their distinct identity,” including by supporting “projects designed … to raise the standard of living for the Tibetan people and assist Tibetans to become self-sufficient.”
The then US Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, visited Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture (the Tibetan area of Amdo) in Sichuan in September 2012, a month before a major spike in self-immolations of October 2012, coinciding with the time of the 18th Party Congress in Beijing. Despite numerous requests, Ambassador Locke was not able to visit Lhasa until June, 2013, when he urged the Chinese authorities to open the area up to tourists and diplomats, and highlighted the importance of preserving Tibet’s cultural heritage. It was the first time since September 2010 that the Chinese government had granted a US ambassador access to the tightly-controlled region.
The United States has an embassy in Beijing and consulates in the major Chinese cities of Chengdu, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenyang, and Wuhan. The State Department has repeatedly requested permission to open a consulate in Lhasa, and the Chinese authorities have repeatedly refused. The Lhasa consulate has been a top priority for years, and Congress approved legislation that included a provision for $5 million to construct it nearly a decade ago.
Invoking the concept of reciprocity, the House Foreign Affairs Committee stipulated in 2011 that China would not be permitted to establish any more consulates in the United States until it allows the opening of a consulate in Lhasa. The only consulate in Lhasa at present is from neighboring Nepal.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Dr. Daniel B. Baer told the House Foreign Affairs Committee about ongoing State Department efforts to establish the consulate in 2011: “We have, since 2005, made the establishment of a consulate in Lhasa a priority. We continue to press the Chinese government to answer our request, while we reiterate our long-standing interest in regular and comprehensive access to Tibetan areas for international diplomats, journalists and non-governmental organizations.”
India, which operated a mission and consulate in Lhasa until the 1962 Sino-Indian War, has occasionally sought to reestablish a diplomatic presence in Tibet. In 2009, Ju Jianhua, the then director of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Tibet Autonomous Region, told an Indian news correspondent that India was welcome to establish a consulate in Lhasa “any time it wants to”. In 2012, Beijing formally rejected India’s request, however, and in 2015 following further rejections India accepted a counter-offer to open a consulate in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan.
Denied the opportunity to establish a physical presence in Tibet, diplomatic personnel from multiple countries and intergovernmental organizations have attempted to visit Tibet in recent years, with varying success. Chinese authorities, despite international treaties and regulations meant to guarantee consular access, have blocked numerous attempts.
Article 20 of the Consular Convention between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China cites “reasons of national security” as the only exception to freedom of movement for consular personnel. Article 7 of the Regulations of the People’s Republic of China Concerning Diplomatic Privileges and Immunities states that diplomatic personnel “shall enjoy freedom of movement and travel within Chinese territory,” except where entry is “prohibited or restricted by the regulations of the Chinese Government.”
Comparable restrictions to those instituted by Chinese authorities in Tibet mainly exist in instances like the declaration of a state of emergency in Ethiopia in 2016. Even diplomats stationed in North Korea face fewer barriers leaving the city of Pyongyang than diplomats who attempt to travel from Chinese areas into Tibet.
Sarah Sewall, a former Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues at the US State Department, spoke on the topic of Chinese restrictions on access to Tibet in 2015, saying: “Reciprocity is a cornerstone of diplomatic relations. However, while Chinese diplomats and journalists travel freely throughout the United States, our diplomats and journalists are not afforded the same access to Tibet. Over the last four years, 35 of 39 requests made by our Embassy or Consulates to visit the TAR were denied.”
These restrictions have imposed serious difficulties for foreign diplomats attempting to render aid to their citizens in Tibet, as was the case following a 2013 bus crash in the TAR which left three Americans dead and several more injured. Chinese authorities delayed consular access to American diplomatic personnel for more than 48 hours; Sewall’s comments suggested the possibility that these delays may have impinged on the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the 1981 US-China Bilateral Consular Convention.
Australian and Canadian diplomats have also publicly acknowledged the difficulty of gaining access to Tibet. The Australian Ambassador to China, Frances Adamson, was granted a short visit to Tibet only after two years of requests for access. In a statement after her visit, Ambassador Adamson said: “I clearly and directly conveyed the Australian government’s views on the human rights situation in Tibet. I made the point that we wished to see open and regular access to the Tibetan Autonomous Region for the media, as well as for Australian diplomats.”
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion stated in 2016 that Chinese officials routinely attempt to delay diplomatic visits to Tibet or made it very difficult to obtain permits, adding that Canadian embassy staff were even barred from visiting Canadian-funded projects in Tibet. As with the restrictions on journalists, the primary mechanism for restricting access is the selective granting of Tibet Travel Permits, which require submitting the applicant’s visa and passport, and without which it is impossible to book travel or hotel rooms within the TAR.
A prominent tactic of the Chinese authorities is to use a visit to Tibet as a carrot or stick to further their own agenda in bilateral dialogues, for instance in the EU. The International Campaign for Tibet has monitored cases for instance in Germany when government visits have been cancelled at the last minute due to “scheduling difficulties”.
Members of legislative bodies from around the world have also been targeted by Chinese restrictions. In one prominent case, a German lawmaker who chairs the Bundestag’s Human Rights Committee was refused access to the PRC on the basis of previous comments he had made about the human rights situation in Tibet. Bundestag Member Michael Brand was told by China’s foreign ministry that he was “not welcome” because of his support for Tibet. In response to the ban, Brand said: “We can’t just accept it when authoritarian regimes like China, Russia or Turkey carry out censorship and oppression, certainly not if they want to export these methods — and to Germany too.”
When foreign legislators are given access, it is always on China’s terms, with interviews, itineraries, and access carefully planned and handled. ICT research has found a pattern of high-level delegations that slowly increased in quantity after a near-total lockout in the wake of the 2008 Tibetan Uprising. The delegations – led by British ministers, EU Commission Chairmen, ambassadors, and more – speak with Party leaders and local government leaders who can be relied upon to convey Communist Party narratives.
A frequent tactic is to quote delegates with making positive comments in Chinese state media, whether they actually did so or not. Last year (2017), the Slovenian ambassador to China was quoted in the official media as remarking that “seeing all these believers come here to worship and pray for their families indicates religious freedom in Tibet,” following a visit to the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, and Sera Monastery. The same article lays out the themes which Chinese authorities had sought to take credit for in front of their guests: cultural protection and heritage, Tibetan Buddhist culture, ecological and the environment, tourism, and the “stability” – a political term meaning compliance with Party policy – of Tibetan society.
Democratic Leader of the House in the US Nancy Pelosi, a long-term friend of the Dalai Lama and supporter of Tibet, said that the Chinese security detail accompanying her group on a visit to the TAR in 2015 did what they could to stop them even greeting ordinary Tibetans. At a press conference after the visit, Minority Leader Pelosi said: “There were people who – shall we say – had walkie-talkies that may not have been identified as security who are part of the mass movement through the – down the path and through the old part of Tibet. But, those same people, right from the start, kind of complained that there was too much ‘Tashi Delek’ [a traditional Tibetan greeting] going on between us and the people who were standing around. They were like: ‘She wasn’t supposed to be doing that.’” Congressman Jim McGovern, who was also on the visit, said: “I think it’s fair to say that I think the Chinese government wanted to control as much of our visit as they could. And we saw what they wanted us to see. We also saw things that they didn’t want us to see.”