RATA

How a bill becomes a law the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act

A four-year wait. A race against the clock. A shady campaign by the Chinese government to interfere in the American legislative process.

The Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act (RATA) had to overcome a lot. But thanks to the efforts of concerned members of Congress, Tibetan-Americans and Tibet groups and activists around the country, as well as International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) members, it is now the law of the land in the United States.

That makes this a good time to look back at how this unlikely bill beat the odds to make it through the legislative process and launch a new era of American support for the Tibetan people.

A four-year wait. A race against the clock. A shady campaign by the Chinese government to interfere in the American legislative process.

The Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act (RATA) had to overcome a lot. But thanks to the efforts of concerned members of Congress, Tibetan-Americans and Tibet groups and activists around the country, as well as International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) members, it is now the law of the land in the United States.

That makes this a good time to look back at how this unlikely bill beat the odds to make it through the legislative process and launch a new era of American support for the Tibetan people.

2014

2014

‘SOMETHING AT LAST IS BEGINNING TO CHANGE’

“Today, Members of Congress introduced bipartisan legislation to promote travel by Americans to Tibetan areas where access is routinely denied by Chinese authorities.”

Those were the first words of the story ICT published on June 12, 2014 when RATA was introduced in Congress. Since 1988, ICT, a membership-based organization, had been advocating for human rights and democratic freedoms for the people of Tibet. That bill (H.R. 4851) was introduced in the House on June 12, 2014 and had 16 co-sponsors from both the parties.

The real excitement around the bill’s introduction took place the next month in Northampton, Mass., where Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who introduced the bill alongside Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.), held an event with Tibetan-Americans in front of the Northampton City Hall.

Thondup Tsering, a local Tibetan American who had just returned to his home in Amherst, MA, from a trip to Dharamsala, India, home of the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration, told MassLive: “Everywhere I went, Tibetan people had heard of this bill; they’re very excited; they were talking about it.”

Tsering added, “There is a feeling in the Tibetan community that something at last is beginning to change in Washington; something beyond the typical lip service in support of Tibet.”

The MassLive report said McGovern was “frustrated with the ‘lack of imagination’ from the US State Department and world community in coming up with ‘creative ways to put pressure on China to open up Tibet and change some of their abusive policies.’”

RATA—which calls for end to the isolation of Tibet — would deny US visas for the Chinese officials who were responsible for keeping American citizens out of Tibet and was certainly creative. But it would take several years before McGovern’s staunch advocacy of the bill would pay off.

‘SOMETHING AT LAST IS BEGINNING TO CHANGE’

“Today, Members of Congress introduced bipartisan legislation to promote travel by Americans to Tibetan areas where access is routinely denied by Chinese authorities.”

Those were the first words of the story ICT published on June 12, 2014 when RATA was introduced in Congress. Since 1988, ICT, a membership-based organization, had been advocating for human rights and democratic freedoms for the people of Tibet. That bill (H.R. 4851) was introduced in the House on June 12, 2014 and had 16 co-sponsors from both the parties.

The real excitement around the bill’s introduction took place the next month in Northampton, Mass., where Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who introduced the bill alongside Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.), held an event with Tibetan-Americans in front of the Northampton City Hall.

Thondup Tsering, a local Tibetan American who had just returned to his home in Amherst, MA, from a trip to Dharamsala, India, home of the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration, told MassLive: “Everywhere I went, Tibetan people had heard of this bill; they’re very excited; they were talking about it.”

Tsering added, “There is a feeling in the Tibetan community that something at last is beginning to change in Washington; something beyond the typical lip service in support of Tibet.”

The MassLive report said McGovern was “frustrated with the ‘lack of imagination’ from the US State Department and world community in coming up with ‘creative ways to put pressure on China to open up Tibet and change some of their abusive policies.’”

RATA—which calls for end to the isolation of Tibet — would deny US visas for the Chinese officials who were responsible for keeping American citizens out of Tibet and was certainly creative. But it would take several years before McGovern’s staunch advocacy of the bill would pay off.

2015

2015

In 2015, with a new Congress, RATA was re-introduced on February 26, 2015 (H.R. 1112) and had 43 cosponsors.

In April 2015, Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a briefing on Tibet during which ICT President Matteo Mecacci highlighted the issue of access to Tibet and urged for the passage of RATA.

In July 2015, ICT Chairman Richard Gere referred to it in his testimony before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. Gere supported “this effort by Co-chairs McGovern and Pitts and urge the House to pass this bill as soon as possible.”

In 2015, with a new Congress, RATA was re-introduced on February 26, 2015 (H.R. 1112) and had 43 cosponsors.

In April 2015, Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a briefing on Tibet during which ICT President Matteo Mecacci highlighted the issue of access to Tibet and urged for the passage of RATA.

In July 2015, ICT Chairman Richard Gere referred to it in his testimony before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. Gere supported “this effort by Co-chairs McGovern and Pitts and urge the House to pass this bill as soon as possible.”

2016

ICT continued to push Congress to move the RATA forward.

During this year’s Tibet Lobby Day, over 100 Tibetan-Americans and Tibet supporters from all across the United States gathered in Washington, DC on February 29 and March 1 and passage of RATA was their first Ask to members of Congress.

In this election year, International Campaign for Tibet included the issue of commitment to access to Tibet in our US Presidential Election 2016 Candidate Questionnaire.

2016

ICT continued to push Congress to move the RATA forward.

During this year’s Tibet Lobby Day, over 100 Tibetan-Americans and Tibet supporters from all across the United States gathered in Washington, DC on February 29 and March 1 and passage of RATA was their first Ask to members of Congress.

In this election year, International Campaign for Tibet included the issue of commitment to access to Tibet in our US Presidential Election 2016 Candidate Questionnaire.

2017

TRYING AGAIN

A lot had changed in three years.

In the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)—an area of China that covers much of historical Tibet—Chinese Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo ended his five-year reign of terror and moved on to Xinjiang (known to Uyghurs as East Turkestan), where he would earn international scorn as the mastermind behind the mass internment camps where at least 1 million Uyghurs and Kazakhs have been locked up to date. The chilling surveillance state that Chen created in the TAR, however, remained in place and even grew after he was gone, turning daily life for ordinary Tibetans into an Orwellian nightmare.

In Washington, DC, President Barack Obama finished his second term in office and was replaced by President Donald Trump.

But for RATA, everything was status quo. The original bill introduced in 2014 did not even go up for a vote, nor did a second version introduced in 2015. The only change was that Pitts, the Pennsylvania Representative who helped introduce the bill the first time, retired from Congress.

On April 4, 2017, lawmakers tried again and this time in both the Houses. RATA was reintroduced in the House (H.R.1872) by McGovern and Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) and in the Senate by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.).

Their timing was significant: It was just a few days before President Trump was to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida for their first-ever summit.

It was also the first time the bill was introduced simultaneously in both the House and Senate. Still, RATA’s chances of getting through Congress appeared slim.

Patheos, a well-known religion news site, noted, “this is not the first attempt to pass this bill.”

“And like previous attempts,” the site said, “this one seems unlikely to move forward.”

RICHARD GERE RECOMMENDS RATA

Richard Gere

Richard Gere, chairman of ICT, urged Congress to “send a strong message” by passing RATA.

The year was almost over, and RATA still hadn’t become law. But 2017 was going to end on a high note for the bill’s advocates.

On Dec. 6, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific held a nearly two-hour-long hearing about US Tibet policy, and RATA became a main topic of the discussion. It came up right off the bat in the opening remarks by Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), the subcommittee’s chairman.

RATA also got a boost from ICT Chairman Richard Gere, who was invited to testify.

Gere, a longtime supporter of Tibet, pointed out that between May 2011 and July 2015, the US submitted 39 requests for diplomatic access to the Tibet Autonomous Region, but only four were granted.

Even when diplomats were allowed into the region, Gere said, they were strictly supervised by Chinese authorities and prevented from freely meeting local residents.

In his list of recommendations to the subcommittee, Gere encouraged “American diplomats, including representatives of multilateral organizations, to seek access to Tibetan areas based on the spirit of the principle of reciprocity.”

He also called on Congress to “send a strong message” by passing RATA.

2017

TRYING AGAIN

A lot had changed in three years.

In the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)—an area of China that covers much of historical Tibet—Chinese Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo ended his five-year reign of terror and moved on to Xinjiang (known to Uyghurs as East Turkestan), where he would earn international scorn as the mastermind behind the mass internment camps where at least 1 million Uyghurs and Kazakhs have been locked up to date. The chilling surveillance state that Chen created in the TAR, however, remained in place and even grew after he was gone, turning daily life for ordinary Tibetans into an Orwellian nightmare.

In Washington, DC, President Barack Obama finished his second term in office and was replaced by President Donald Trump.

But for RATA, everything was status quo. The original bill introduced in 2014 did not even go up for a vote, nor did a second version introduced in 2015. The only change was that Pitts, the Pennsylvania Representative who helped introduce the bill the first time, retired from Congress.

On April 4, 2017, lawmakers tried again and this time in both the Houses. RATA was reintroduced in the House (H.R.1872) by McGovern and Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) and in the Senate by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.).

Their timing was significant: It was just a few days before President Trump was to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida for their first-ever summit.

It was also the first time the bill was introduced simultaneously in both the House and Senate. Still, RATA’s chances of getting through Congress appeared slim.

Patheos, a well-known religion news site, noted, “this is not the first attempt to pass this bill.”

“And like previous attempts,” the site said, “this one seems unlikely to move forward.”

RICHARD GERE RECOMMENDS RATA

Richard Gere

Richard Gere, chairman of ICT, urged Congress to “send a strong message” by passing RATA.

The year was almost over, and RATA still hadn’t become law. But 2017 was going to end on a high note for the bill’s advocates.

On Dec. 6, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific held a nearly two-hour-long hearing about US Tibet policy, and RATA became a main topic of the discussion. It came up right off the bat in the opening remarks by Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), the subcommittee’s chairman.

RATA also got a boost from ICT Chairman Richard Gere, who was invited to testify.

Gere, a longtime supporter of Tibet, pointed out that between May 2011 and July 2015, the US submitted 39 requests for diplomatic access to the Tibet Autonomous Region, but only four were granted.

Even when diplomats were allowed into the region, Gere said, they were strictly supervised by Chinese authorities and prevented from freely meeting local residents.

In his list of recommendations to the subcommittee, Gere encouraged “American diplomats, including representatives of multilateral organizations, to seek access to Tibetan areas based on the spirit of the principle of reciprocity.”

He also called on Congress to “send a strong message” by passing RATA.

2018

2018

LOBBY DAY(S)

Tibet Lobby Day

Tibet Lobby Day 2018 participants met with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) as part of the effort to get RATA passed.

The numbers behind Tibet Lobby Day 2018 said a lot.

There were 125 participants who came to Washington, DC from 21 states—including as far away as California and Oregon—to talk with their Senators and Representatives.

It was the 10th time the annual event was held. Participants held over 200 in person meetings with Congressional offices.

Those numbers were significant because they showed the commitment of Tibetan-Americans and Tibet supporters to passing RATA. Although Lobby Day participants talked with their members of Congress about many topics—including funding for Tibetan programs and the release of Tibetan political prisoners—support for RATA was their main priority.

The event was a sign that momentum was starting to build for the bill’s passage. But it would take much more effort—and another Lobby Day later in the year—to get the bill past the finish line.

“A GOOD DAY TO BE MOVING FORWARD”

House Judiciary Committee members praised the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act before voting to approve it unanimously on July 25, 2018.

Despite years of advocacy, it looked as if RATA still hadn’t moved forward in Congress. But the relentless efforts by all were about to pay off.

On July 25, the House Judiciary Committee approved RATA unanimously during a markup hearing, sending the bill to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote.

The hearing itself became a forum for committee members to praise the bill before approving it. One by one, they spoke up to express their support:

  • “Moving this bill is the right thing to do. It is time that Congress take a stand with regard to access by foreign nationals to the Tibetan regions.”—Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), committee chairman
  • “For Tibetans, restricted access to the region leaves them in virtual isolation from the rest of the world while also precluding international witnesses to the Chinese government’s continuous violations of the Tibetans’ human rights.”—Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), ranking member
  • “If Chinese officials, journalists and other citizens are able to travel freely in this country, it’s only fair that their American counterparts are able to do the same.”—Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.)
  • “Until we push back against Beijing’s double standards, they will continue to bully us and their neighbors, and [RATA] pushes back.”— Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio)
  • “I am pleased that we are finally acting on this. It has been a long time coming. But today is a good day to be moving forward. It is an important step to protect the Tibetan people.”— Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.)

The hearing was a breakthrough for RATA that was four years in the making. And it set the stage for an even bigger triumph two months later.

TAKE IT TO THE HOUSE

It was past 9 pm on Sept. 25, and ICT staff members were still huddled in their offices, their eyes fixed on the live broadcast of proceedings in the House of Representatives.

Streaming live was an all-important meeting on Capitol Hill: the House of Representatives was debating—and getting ready to vote on—RATA. Would the bill finally make it through the lower chamber of Congress?

As the night rolled on, the answer became clear: the House voted to pass RATA. The bill was now one-third of the way to becoming law.

“Today is a great day for human rights,” Rep. McGovern said that night.

The next day, he and his fellow legislators took to Twitter to express their joy.

LOBBY DAY(S)

Tibet Lobby Day

Tibet Lobby Day 2018 participants met with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) as part of the effort to get RATA passed.

The numbers behind Tibet Lobby Day 2018 said a lot.

There were 125 participants who came to Washington, DC from 21 states—including as far away as California and Oregon—to talk with their Senators and Representatives.

It was the 10th time the annual event was held. Participants held over 200 in person meetings with Congressional offices.

Those numbers were significant because they showed the commitment of Tibetan-Americans and Tibet supporters to passing RATA. Although Lobby Day participants talked with their members of Congress about many topics—including funding for Tibetan programs and the release of Tibetan political prisoners—support for RATA was their main priority.

The event was a sign that momentum was starting to build for the bill’s passage. But it would take much more effort—and another Lobby Day later in the year—to get the bill past the finish line.

“A GOOD DAY TO BE MOVING FORWARD”

House Judiciary Committee members praised the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act before voting to approve it unanimously on July 25, 2018.

Despite years of advocacy, it looked as if RATA still hadn’t moved forward in Congress. But the relentless efforts by all were about to pay off.

On July 25, the House Judiciary Committee approved RATA unanimously during a markup hearing, sending the bill to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote.

The hearing itself became a forum for committee members to praise the bill before approving it. One by one, they spoke up to express their support:

  • “Moving this bill is the right thing to do. It is time that Congress take a stand with regard to access by foreign nationals to the Tibetan regions.”—Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), committee chairman
  • “For Tibetans, restricted access to the region leaves them in virtual isolation from the rest of the world while also precluding international witnesses to the Chinese government’s continuous violations of the Tibetans’ human rights.”—Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), ranking member
  • “If Chinese officials, journalists and other citizens are able to travel freely in this country, it’s only fair that their American counterparts are able to do the same.”—Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.)
  • “Until we push back against Beijing’s double standards, they will continue to bully us and their neighbors, and [RATA] pushes back.”— Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio)
  • “I am pleased that we are finally acting on this. It has been a long time coming. But today is a good day to be moving forward. It is an important step to protect the Tibetan people.”— Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.)

The hearing was a breakthrough for RATA that was four years in the making. And it set the stage for an even bigger triumph two months later.

TAKE IT TO THE HOUSE

It was past 9 pm on Sept. 25, and ICT staff members were still huddled in their offices, their eyes fixed on the live broadcast of proceedings in the House of Representatives.

Streaming live was an all-important meeting on Capitol Hill: the House of Representatives was debating—and getting ready to vote on—RATA. Would the bill finally make it through the lower chamber of Congress?

As the night rolled on, the answer became clear: the House voted to pass RATA. The bill was now one-third of the way to becoming law.

“Today is a great day for human rights,” Rep. McGovern said that night.

The next day, he and his fellow legislators took to Twitter to express their joy.

But it wasn’t just House members who were celebrating on social media. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who introduced RATA in the Senate alongside Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), had an encouraging message of his own.

But it wasn’t just House members who were celebrating on social media. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who introduced RATA in the Senate alongside Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), had an encouraging message of his own.

With Rubio’s tweet, attention turned to getting RATA to the next level: passage by the Senate.

CAMPAIGNING AROUND THE CLOCK

It took four years for RATA to pass the House of Representatives. But if the bill was to become law, it would have to pass the Senate in just a few months.

Since Congress was quickly heading toward winter recess, RATA needed to be approved by the Senate and signed by President Trump before the end of 2018. Otherwise, it would have to start all over again in the House in the new year.

Given how long it took the House to vote on RATA the first time, we pulled out all the stops to make sure the Senate acted before it was too late.

ICT President Matteo Mecacci and Vice President Bhuchung K. Tsering urged members to contact their Senators to tell them to support RATA.

First, ICT members signed more than 7,000 petitions calling for RATA to become law.

Then they took to social media, using #AccessToTibet to share their reasons for supporting the bill.

With Rubio’s tweet, attention turned to getting RATA to the next level: passage by the Senate.

CAMPAIGNING AROUND THE CLOCK

It took four years for RATA to pass the House of Representatives. But if the bill was to become law, it would have to pass the Senate in just a few months.

Since Congress was quickly heading toward winter recess, RATA needed to be approved by the Senate and signed by President Trump before the end of 2018. Otherwise, it would have to start all over again in the House in the new year.

Given how long it took the House to vote on RATA the first time, we pulled out all the stops to make sure the Senate acted before it was too late.

ICT President Matteo Mecacci and Vice President Bhuchung K. Tsering urged members to contact their Senators to tell them to support RATA.

First, ICT members signed more than 7,000 petitions calling for RATA to become law.

Then they took to social media, using #AccessToTibet to share their reasons for supporting the bill.

Patrick Leahy and Sonam Chophel

Sonam Chophel, president of the Vermont Tibetan Association, met with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) the same week that Tibet supporters visited their Senators’ offices around the country to ask them to pass RATA.

Finally, ICT organized a special Lobby Day on Oct. 17, during which Tibet supporters visited the offices of all 100 Senators to let them know why RATA was so important.

Unlike other Tibet Lobby Days, this one took place around the country, with Tibet supporters calling on Senators in their home districts in California, New York, Virginia and other states.

Earlier in the week, members of the Vermont Tibetan Association met with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in the city of Burlington, Vermont. Leahy was a cosponsor of RATA and one of Congress’ staunchest supporters of Tibet.

All the campaigning made a difference. On Nov. 13, Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) signed on to cosponsor RATA, raising the overall number of cosponsors to 10—and raising hopes that the Senate would pass the bill before time ran out.

CONFIDENCE AND HARD WORK

The report made damning conclusions.

The Chinese government was arresting Tibetans for protesting peacefully. It was restricting their freedom of religion and freedom of movement. And it had not negotiated with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in almost nine years.

Those were just some of the stark findings in the Congressional-Executive Commission on China’s 2018 annual report.

The recommendations in the report were equally clear: The US should push for renewed dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama’s representatives, the report said. And it should demand reciprocal access to Tibet.

At a press conference for the report’s release on October 10, 2018, Sen. Rubio, the commission’s co-chair, was even more direct.

Asked about RATA’s chances of becoming law, Rubio said he believed the Senate would pass the bill unanimously before the end of the year and that President Trump would sign it into law.

“I’m confident that if we can get it onto the floor of the Senate in some form, it would pass without even a vote,” Rubio said.

But for that to happen, he said, the bill would first need to be approved by a Senate committee.

“We want to get it there,” Rubio said. “We believe there’s support for it, and we’re working hard to get it accomplished.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was confident RATA would pass—if it got to the Senate floor.


EXPANDING IN EUROPE

As RATA made progress in the US, we looked for expanding the initiative to other countries as it would take a global movement to end China’s isolation of Tibet.

On May 9, 2018, ICT President Matteo Mecacci visited London to take part in the roundtable discussion on the issue of access to Tibet hosted by All-Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet. It was attended by several members of Parliament and Mecacci provided an insight into how the UK government can press for a more reciprocal and fair relationship with China

Again on Nov. 21, ICT led a conference inside the European Parliament in Brussels on “Access to Tibet and the Practice of Reciprocity.”

The conference, which was co-organized by the International Federation for Human Rights, not only got European leaders talking about passing their own versions of RATA; it also advanced the idea that reciprocity from China should move beyond the issue of trade to include the issue of access to Tibet.

European Parliament

ICT jointly organized a conference in the European Parliament on access to Tibet and the practice of reciprocity.

The conference was hosted by Members of European Parliament Thomas Mann, chairman of the Tibet Interest Group, and Cristian Dan Preda, vice chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights, who stressed that “The [European Union] should refer to reciprocity as a key principle in terms of our bilateral relations with China.”

There were also presentations by former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak and by several journalists who talked about the extreme difficulty of getting access to Tibet.

“There is no reciprocity with China…It is, for instance, incredible that a huge phenomena such as self-immolation has not been covered adequately,” said Ursula Gauthier, a French reporter. “This is a scandal.”

The conference also got a special message from the US.

Rep. McGovern spoke to the conference via video message, describing RATA and suggesting cooperation between the US and Europe on the issue of access to Tibet.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) delivered a video message to the “Access to Tibet and the Practice of Reciprocity” conference in the European Parliament.

McGovern’s message showed that RATA’s supporters did not merely view the bill as a goal in the US.

Instead, they saw it as the start of a global movement.

CLEARING THE COMMITTEE

Bob Corker and Matteo Mecacci

ICT President Matteo Mecacci thanked Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved RATA on Nov. 28.

The doors to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Room remained closed on the afternoon of Nov. 28.

But when they opened, the good news came rushing out: The committee had unanimously approved RATA. Now the bill was heading to the floor of the Senate for a final vote.

After the hearing, ICT President Matteo Mecacci personally thanked the committee chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), for getting RATA past this important milestone.

The committee vote also helped bring greater public attention to RATA. The vote was covered by Congressional Quarterly (behind a paywall), one of the most highly read publications in the world of Washington, DC politics.

SUPPORT FROM THE STATE DEPARTMENT

It was the start of December, and RATA was running out of time to become law before the legislative calendar ended. Nevertheless, the bill’s growing momentum could not be denied.

That much was evident during an incredible question-and-answer session at “The China Challenge, Part 3: Democracy, Human Rights, and the Rule of Law,” a hearing on Dec. 4 hosted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific and International Cybersecurity Policy.

The questioner was Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who presided over the hearing.

The answerer was Laura Stone, acting deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Department of State.

Gardner, who had recently signed on as one of RATA’s cosponsors, noted that the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 required American officials to visit Tibet on a regular basis, but few had been able to do so because of Chinese restrictions.

Gardner asked Stone what level of access to Tibet her agency had received over the past three years.

While Stone said she would have to look into that and get back to him, she told Gardner: “I do want to state very clearly that I do understand the Senate is considering the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act. We do want to continue to work very closely with Congress and with your staff with the goal of seeing that Americans do have access to Tibet.”

Laura Stone and Cory Gardner

Laura Stone of the State Department (top) told Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) (bottom) that her department supported RATA’s goals and would implement the bill.

That was a remarkable endorsement of RATA from the department that would be responsible for implementing it. But the discussion between Gardner and Stone didn’t end there.

Gardner stated that “Chinese officials who purport to represent Tibet have been freely coming to the United States” and asked Stone if the State Department shared RATA’s goals.

Stone answered yes, and when Gardner asked if the department would work to implement the bill, she replied, “Of course.”

Stone’s responses were a sign that RATA had the backing of one of the most important agencies in the federal government.

The State Department was willing to enforce RATA. Now the bill just had to become law.

THE SWEET SMELL OF SENATE SUCCESS

“The Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act is an important statement of our values, and I am happy to see it sent to the President’s desk before the end of the year.”

So said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), one of 14 Senate cosponsors of the bill.

And he was able to say it because on Dec. 11, the Senate unanimously approved RATA, thus ending the legislation’s long journey through Congress.

Patrick Leahy and Sonam Chophel

Sonam Chophel, president of the Vermont Tibetan Association, met with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) the same week that Tibet supporters visited their Senators’ offices around the country to ask them to pass RATA.

Finally, ICT organized a special Lobby Day on Oct. 17, during which Tibet supporters visited the offices of all 100 Senators to let them know why RATA was so important.

Unlike other Tibet Lobby Days, this one took place around the country, with Tibet supporters calling on Senators in their home districts in California, New York, Virginia and other states.

Earlier in the week, members of the Vermont Tibetan Association met with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in the city of Burlington, Vermont. Leahy was a cosponsor of RATA and one of Congress’ staunchest supporters of Tibet.

All the campaigning made a difference. On Nov. 13, Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) signed on to cosponsor RATA, raising the overall number of cosponsors to 10—and raising hopes that the Senate would pass the bill before time ran out.

CONFIDENCE AND HARD WORK

The report made damning conclusions.

The Chinese government was arresting Tibetans for protesting peacefully. It was restricting their freedom of religion and freedom of movement. And it had not negotiated with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in almost nine years.

Those were just some of the stark findings in the Congressional-Executive Commission on China’s 2018 annual report.

The recommendations in the report were equally clear: The US should push for renewed dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama’s representatives, the report said. And it should demand reciprocal access to Tibet.

At a press conference for the report’s release on October 10, 2018, Sen. Rubio, the commission’s co-chair, was even more direct.

Asked about RATA’s chances of becoming law, Rubio said he believed the Senate would pass the bill unanimously before the end of the year and that President Trump would sign it into law.

“I’m confident that if we can get it onto the floor of the Senate in some form, it would pass without even a vote,” Rubio said.

But for that to happen, he said, the bill would first need to be approved by a Senate committee.

“We want to get it there,” Rubio said. “We believe there’s support for it, and we’re working hard to get it accomplished.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was confident RATA would pass—if it got to the Senate floor.


EXPANDING IN EUROPE

As RATA made progress in the US, we looked for expanding the initiative to other countries as it would take a global movement to end China’s isolation of Tibet.

On May 9, 2018, ICT President Matteo Mecacci visited London to take part in the roundtable discussion on the issue of access to Tibet hosted by All-Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet. It was attended by several members of Parliament and Mecacci provided an insight into how the UK government can press for a more reciprocal and fair relationship with China

Again on Nov. 21, ICT led a conference inside the European Parliament in Brussels on “Access to Tibet and the Practice of Reciprocity.”

The conference, which was co-organized by the International Federation for Human Rights, not only got European leaders talking about passing their own versions of RATA; it also advanced the idea that reciprocity from China should move beyond the issue of trade to include the issue of access to Tibet.

European Parliament

ICT jointly organized a conference in the European Parliament on access to Tibet and the practice of reciprocity.

The conference was hosted by Members of European Parliament Thomas Mann, chairman of the Tibet Interest Group, and Cristian Dan Preda, vice chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights, who stressed that “The [European Union] should refer to reciprocity as a key principle in terms of our bilateral relations with China.”

There were also presentations by former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak and by several journalists who talked about the extreme difficulty of getting access to Tibet.

“There is no reciprocity with China…It is, for instance, incredible that a huge phenomena such as self-immolation has not been covered adequately,” said Ursula Gauthier, a French reporter. “This is a scandal.”

The conference also got a special message from the US.

Rep. McGovern spoke to the conference via video message, describing RATA and suggesting cooperation between the US and Europe on the issue of access to Tibet.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) delivered a video message to the “Access to Tibet and the Practice of Reciprocity” conference in the European Parliament.

McGovern’s message showed that RATA’s supporters did not merely view the bill as a goal in the US.

Instead, they saw it as the start of a global movement.

CLEARING THE COMMITTEE

Bob Corker and Matteo Mecacci

ICT President Matteo Mecacci thanked Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved RATA on Nov. 28.

The doors to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Room remained closed on the afternoon of Nov. 28.

But when they opened, the good news came rushing out: The committee had unanimously approved RATA. Now the bill was heading to the floor of the Senate for a final vote.

After the hearing, ICT President Matteo Mecacci personally thanked the committee chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), for getting RATA past this important milestone.

The committee vote also helped bring greater public attention to RATA. The vote was covered by Congressional Quarterly (behind a paywall), one of the most highly read publications in the world of Washington, DC politics.

SUPPORT FROM THE STATE DEPARTMENT

It was the start of December, and RATA was running out of time to become law before the legislative calendar ended. Nevertheless, the bill’s growing momentum could not be denied.

That much was evident during an incredible question-and-answer session at “The China Challenge, Part 3: Democracy, Human Rights, and the Rule of Law,” a hearing on Dec. 4 hosted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific and International Cybersecurity Policy.

The questioner was Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who presided over the hearing.

The answerer was Laura Stone, acting deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Department of State.

Gardner, who had recently signed on as one of RATA’s cosponsors, noted that the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 required American officials to visit Tibet on a regular basis, but few had been able to do so because of Chinese restrictions.

Gardner asked Stone what level of access to Tibet her agency had received over the past three years.

While Stone said she would have to look into that and get back to him, she told Gardner: “I do want to state very clearly that I do understand the Senate is considering the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act. We do want to continue to work very closely with Congress and with your staff with the goal of seeing that Americans do have access to Tibet.”

Laura Stone and Cory Gardner

Laura Stone of the State Department (top) told Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) (bottom) that her department supported RATA’s goals and would implement the bill.

That was a remarkable endorsement of RATA from the department that would be responsible for implementing it. But the discussion between Gardner and Stone didn’t end there.

Gardner stated that “Chinese officials who purport to represent Tibet have been freely coming to the United States” and asked Stone if the State Department shared RATA’s goals.

Stone answered yes, and when Gardner asked if the department would work to implement the bill, she replied, “Of course.”

Stone’s responses were a sign that RATA had the backing of one of the most important agencies in the federal government.

The State Department was willing to enforce RATA. Now the bill just had to become law.

THE SWEET SMELL OF SENATE SUCCESS

“The Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act is an important statement of our values, and I am happy to see it sent to the President’s desk before the end of the year.”

So said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), one of 14 Senate cosponsors of the bill.

And he was able to say it because on Dec. 11, the Senate unanimously approved RATA, thus ending the legislation’s long journey through Congress.

ICT was quick to praise Senators on both sides of the aisle for getting the bill passed.

The organization also pointed out the urgency of the Senate’s action. Just three days earlier, a young Tibetan man named Drugkho had self-immolated, lighting his own body on fire while calling out for the long life of the Dalai Lama and freedom in Tibet.

It was the 155th self-immolation by a Tibetan inside Tibet and China since 2009 and the third in just 2018. But because of China’s restrictions, almost no Beijing-based foreign journalists had been able to travel to Tibet to cover the stories of the self-immolators, despite many efforts.

“China’s repression in Tibet includes keeping out those who can shine a light on its human rights abuses against the Tibetan people,” said Sen. Rubio.

With RATA through the Senate, Rubio expressed confidence that President Trump would sign it into law in the coming days.

But before that could happen, China was going to wage one final campaign to stop RATA dead in its tracks.

RED SCARE

China’s government was afraid.

RATA had passed both houses of Congress, and President Trump was expected to sign the bill into law.

In a last-ditch effort to derail the legislation, Chinese officials came out firing with propaganda denouncing RATA and threatening dire consequences.

“Tibet Act may further jeopardize China-US relations,” warned a Dec. 10 op-ed in Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party publication.

“China strongly condemns US resolution on Tibet issue,” proclaimed state-level news agency China News Service on Dec. 14.

Both pieces were written in English and available to American audiences—which was worth noting, since RATA was created in part because Chinese state media were free to operate in the US, but American media were barred from entering Tibet.

ICT called out China’s propaganda for what it was: a hypocritical attempt to interfere in the American legislative process and scare US politicians and ordinary citizens.

China was claiming that RATA interfered in its domestic affairs. In fact—as Mecacci noted in an ICT statement on Dec. 15—the Chinese government had interfered in the American legislative process when it wrote to some Senators urging them not to support the bill, as reported by The Washington Post.

“If the Chinese Communist Party propaganda about the situation in Tibet were true, why would they block American journalists, diplomats and politicians from traveling freely in Tibet?” Mecacci asked. “Why would they impose strictly controlled tours for all foreign tourists managed by state-approved travel agencies? Why don’t they allow Tibetan-Americans to visit their relatives, from whom, in some cases, they have been separated for decades?”

Needless to say, Chinese officials never responded to those questions. But soon, they would have a whole new reason to unleash a much bigger wave of propaganda against RATA.

A NEW ERA BEGINS

Dec. 19. Christmas was just around the corner.

For supporters of Tibet, an early present arrived: the White House announced that President Trump had signed RATA into law.

The four-year effort to get the bill through the legislative process had finally succeeded.

Trump had signed RATA into law

An official announcement on the White House website that President Trump had signed RATA into law.

ICT hailed the new law for what it was: the start of a new era in American support for Tibetans, as well as America’s relationship with China.

“This is truly a turning point for Americans, Tibetans and all who care about equality, justice and human rights,” Mecacci said.

“For too long, China has covered up their human rights violations in Tibet by restricting travel. But actions have consequences, and today, we are one step closer to holding the Chinese officials who implement these restrictions accountable,” said Rep. McGovern, RATA’s earliest and most enduring advocate in Congress.

Bhuchung K. Tsering, ICT’s vice president, praised everyone who took part in the four-year effort to pass the bill.

“Tibet supporters have played a vital role in this legislation,” Tsering said. “We would like to thank them for their tireless efforts, and we want to express our immense gratitude to Congressmen McGovern and Hultgren and Sens. Rubio and Baldwin for their indispensable leadership.”

Tibet supporters quickly got on social media to express their excitement.

ICT was quick to praise Senators on both sides of the aisle for getting the bill passed.

The organization also pointed out the urgency of the Senate’s action. Just three days earlier, a young Tibetan man named Drugkho had self-immolated, lighting his own body on fire while calling out for the long life of the Dalai Lama and freedom in Tibet.

It was the 155th self-immolation by a Tibetan inside Tibet and China since 2009 and the third in just 2018. But because of China’s restrictions, almost no Beijing-based foreign journalists had been able to travel to Tibet to cover the stories of the self-immolators, despite many efforts.

“China’s repression in Tibet includes keeping out those who can shine a light on its human rights abuses against the Tibetan people,” said Sen. Rubio.

With RATA through the Senate, Rubio expressed confidence that President Trump would sign it into law in the coming days.

But before that could happen, China was going to wage one final campaign to stop RATA dead in its tracks.

RED SCARE

China’s government was afraid.

RATA had passed both houses of Congress, and President Trump was expected to sign the bill into law.

In a last-ditch effort to derail the legislation, Chinese officials came out firing with propaganda denouncing RATA and threatening dire consequences.

“Tibet Act may further jeopardize China-US relations,” warned a Dec. 10 op-ed in Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party publication.

“China strongly condemns US resolution on Tibet issue,” proclaimed state-level news agency China News Service on Dec. 14.

Both pieces were written in English and available to American audiences—which was worth noting, since RATA was created in part because Chinese state media were free to operate in the US, but American media were barred from entering Tibet.

ICT called out China’s propaganda for what it was: a hypocritical attempt to interfere in the American legislative process and scare US politicians and ordinary citizens.

China was claiming that RATA interfered in its domestic affairs. In fact—as Mecacci noted in an ICT statement on Dec. 15—the Chinese government had interfered in the American legislative process when it wrote to some Senators urging them not to support the bill, as reported by The Washington Post.

“If the Chinese Communist Party propaganda about the situation in Tibet were true, why would they block American journalists, diplomats and politicians from traveling freely in Tibet?” Mecacci asked. “Why would they impose strictly controlled tours for all foreign tourists managed by state-approved travel agencies? Why don’t they allow Tibetan-Americans to visit their relatives, from whom, in some cases, they have been separated for decades?”

Needless to say, Chinese officials never responded to those questions. But soon, they would have a whole new reason to unleash a much bigger wave of propaganda against RATA.

A NEW ERA BEGINS

Dec. 19. Christmas was just around the corner.

For supporters of Tibet, an early present arrived: the White House announced that President Trump had signed RATA into law.

The four-year effort to get the bill through the legislative process had finally succeeded.

Trump had signed RATA into law

An official announcement on the White House website that President Trump had signed RATA into law.

ICT hailed the new law for what it was: the start of a new era in American support for Tibetans, as well as America’s relationship with China.

“This is truly a turning point for Americans, Tibetans and all who care about equality, justice and human rights,” Mecacci said.

“For too long, China has covered up their human rights violations in Tibet by restricting travel. But actions have consequences, and today, we are one step closer to holding the Chinese officials who implement these restrictions accountable,” said Rep. McGovern, RATA’s earliest and most enduring advocate in Congress.

Bhuchung K. Tsering, ICT’s vice president, praised everyone who took part in the four-year effort to pass the bill.

“Tibet supporters have played a vital role in this legislation,” Tsering said. “We would like to thank them for their tireless efforts, and we want to express our immense gratitude to Congressmen McGovern and Hultgren and Sens. Rubio and Baldwin for their indispensable leadership.”

Tibet supporters quickly got on social media to express their excitement.

For ICT, the timing was perfect. Dec. 19 had been chosen as the date of the office holiday party, so staff members and their families were able to celebrate RATA together that night.

The next day, RATA received coverage in The New York Times, Reuters and other publications. (For their part, Chinese state media responded with a new avalanche of negative propaganda.)

The news was so big that it reached the ears of the Dalai Lama, the 83-year-old spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and one of the most respected figures in the world.

Asked about RATA by the Hindustan Times, the Dalai Lama—who retired from politics in 2011—said that “both the US houses [of Congress] have been strong supporters of Tibet over the decades and so has been the American government. American people love Tibet.”
In one year’s time, the State Department will have to submit an annual report that identifies Chinese officials who deny access to Tibet for Americans and who have been denied visas to enter the United States.

ICT is working to make sure those requirements were met.

At the same time, we are looking to the global stage and thinking about campaigns to get other democratic governments to pass their own versions of RATA.

“We are already in discussion with political leaders in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and countries in Europe who are calling for a similar reciprocal access to Tibet law for the citizens of their respective countries,” Mecacci said.

While those are big goals, they seem attainable, given everything that’s already happened.

RATA has made it this far. Now the time is for us to work to take it even further.

For ICT, the timing was perfect. Dec. 19 had been chosen as the date of the office holiday party, so staff members and their families were able to celebrate RATA together that night.

The next day, RATA received coverage in The New York Times, Reuters and other publications. (For their part, Chinese state media responded with a new avalanche of negative propaganda.)

The news was so big that it reached the ears of the Dalai Lama, the 83-year-old spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and one of the most respected figures in the world.

Asked about RATA by the Hindustan Times, the Dalai Lama—who retired from politics in 2011—said that “both the US houses [of Congress] have been strong supporters of Tibet over the decades and so has been the American government. American people love Tibet.”
In one year’s time, the State Department will have to submit an annual report that identifies Chinese officials who deny access to Tibet for Americans and who have been denied visas to enter the United States.

ICT is working to make sure those requirements were met.

At the same time, we are looking to the global stage and thinking about campaigns to get other democratic governments to pass their own versions of RATA.

“We are already in discussion with political leaders in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and countries in Europe who are calling for a similar reciprocal access to Tibet law for the citizens of their respective countries,” Mecacci said.

While those are big goals, they seem attainable, given everything that’s already happened.

RATA has made it this far. Now the time is for us to work to take it even further.

THE FUTURE

RATA was a true American success story. Despite considerable odds and strong opposition, as well as many delays and setbacks, it had finally become law.

Although RATA took more than four years to get through the legislative process, it needed less than four weeks to get the Chinese government to promise to make policy changes in Tibet.

On Jan. 10, 2019, China Daily—another one of the Chinese Communist Party’s numerous propaganda outlets—announced that the time it took to issue foreign travel permits to the Tibet Autonomous Region would be cut in half.

It was a sign that RATA had caught China’s attention. But it was hardly enough to satisfy RATA’s advocates.

THE FUTURE

RATA was a true American success story. Despite considerable odds and strong opposition, as well as many delays and setbacks, it had finally become law.

Although RATA took more than four years to get through the legislative process, it needed less than four weeks to get the Chinese government to promise to make policy changes in Tibet.

On Jan. 10, 2019, China Daily—another one of the Chinese Communist Party’s numerous propaganda outlets—announced that the time it took to issue foreign travel permits to the Tibet Autonomous Region would be cut in half.

It was a sign that RATA had caught China’s attention. But it was hardly enough to satisfy RATA’s advocates.

ICT said China’s announcement should be viewed with skepticism and called on the US government—and the American people—to continue pressuring the Chinese government to end its isolation of Tibet.

ICT was able to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2018 by seeing RATA become law. As 2019 began, the organization was focused on making sure the new law would be fully implemented.

On March 25, 2019, the State Department submitted its initial report to Congress, as mandated by RATA, in which it outlined how China was “systematically” impeding Americans’ travel to Tibet. The report is the first significant outcome of RATA.

“The report from the State Department shows that the United States government is serious about implementing the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, and that systematic discrimination against US citizens won’t be accepted in silence any longer,” said Matteo Mecacci, president of the International Campaign for Tibet, said.

In one year’s time, the State Department will have to submit an annual report that identifies Chinese officials who deny access to Tibet for Americans and who have been denied visas to enter the United States.

ICT is working to make sure those requirements were met.

At the same time, we are looking to the global stage and thinking about campaigns to get other democratic governments to pass their own versions of RATA.

“We are already in discussion with political leaders in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and countries in Europe who are calling for a similar reciprocal access to Tibet law for the citizens of their respective countries,” Mecacci said.

While those are big goals, they seem attainable, given everything that’s already happened.

RATA has made it this far. Now the time is for us to work to take it even further.

ICT said China’s announcement should be viewed with skepticism and called on the US government—and the American people—to continue pressuring the Chinese government to end its isolation of Tibet.

ICT was able to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2018 by seeing RATA become law. As 2019 began, the organization was focused on making sure the new law would be fully implemented.

On March 25, 2019, the State Department submitted its initial report to Congress, as mandated by RATA, in which it outlined how China was “systematically” impeding Americans’ travel to Tibet. The report is the first significant outcome of RATA.

“The report from the State Department shows that the United States government is serious about implementing the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, and that systematic discrimination against US citizens won’t be accepted in silence any longer,” said Matteo Mecacci, president of the International Campaign for Tibet, said.

In one year’s time, the State Department will have to submit an annual report that identifies Chinese officials who deny access to Tibet for Americans and who have been denied visas to enter the United States.

ICT is working to make sure those requirements were met.

At the same time, we are looking to the global stage and thinking about campaigns to get other democratic governments to pass their own versions of RATA.

“We are already in discussion with political leaders in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and countries in Europe who are calling for a similar reciprocal access to Tibet law for the citizens of their respective countries,” Mecacci said.

While those are big goals, they seem attainable, given everything that’s already happened.

RATA has made it this far. Now the time is for us to work to take it even further.

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