After a State Department report this week showed how China oppressed Tibetans for following their religious beliefs and leaders in 2019, a key Senate committee chairman criticized China for interfering in the Dalai Lama’s succession.

The department’s 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom, released June 10, documents the Chinese government’s religious repression, violence and discrimination last year against the people of Tibet, a historically independent country that China has brutally occupied for more than six decades.

In the Tibet Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas under Chinese rule, “there were reports of forced disappearances, arrests, torture, physical abuse, including sexual abuse, and prolonged detentions without trial of individuals due to their religious practices,” the report’s Tibet section says.

The report adds that China forbids Tibetans from “accepting domination by external forces” and harming “national security” by showing loyalty to the Dalai Lama, whom China forced into exile in 1959.

China is now plotting to appoint its own successor to the Dalai Lama once the Tibetan Buddhist leader, who turns 85 next month, eventually passes away.

In a statement on Wednesday responding to the State Department’s report, Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said China’s plan is a threat to religious freedom worldwide.

“From destroying Christian houses of worship, to imprisoning millions of Uyghur Muslims, the [Chinese Communist Party] goes to great lengths to silence religious groups,” he said. “The CCP is also seeking to interfere in the succession of the next Dalai Lama, which would undermine the religious freedoms of Buddhist practitioners around the world.”

Tibetan Policy and Support Act

Risch is chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, a bipartisan bill that will dramatically upgrade US support for Tibetans.

The TPSA will make it official US policy that only the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhist community can determine his succession. If any Chinese officials try to name their own Dalai Lama in the future, they will face sanctions from the US government under the bill.

The TPSA—which will also push for a US consulate in Tibet and address climate change and humanitarian needs in the region—passed the House of Representatives by an overwhelmingly majority in January.

Risch’s statement offers new hope that his committee will soon approve the bill and send it on to the Senate floor for a vote. Committee members Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ben Cardin, D-Md., introduced the TPSA in the Senate.

Last week, during the International Campaign for Tibet’s “Tibet Talks” series, Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass.—who introduced the TPSA in the House alongside Rep. Chris Smith, R-NJ—said he believes the committee and the Senate will pass the bill this year, and President Trump will sign it into law.

“I am very hopeful that we will get this through the entire process this year,” McGovern said.

Religious freedom violations

The State Department report notes that Chinese officials routinely denigrated the Dalai Lama last year and accused him and his followers of trying to “split” Tibet from China.

“In official statements, government officials often likened supporters of the Dalai Lama to terrorists and gang members,” the report adds.

The report chronicles numerous other ways China violated religious freedom in Tibet last year, including:

  • Forbidding Tibetan schoolchildren from taking part in religious activities during their two-month winter break, as ICT reported.
  • Forcing monks and nuns to dress in military uniforms and undergo political re-education in detention centers.
  • Increasing scrutiny of social media posts about religious belief.
  • Punishing Tibetans for owning photos of the Dalai Lama and requiring monasteries in the Tibet Autonomous Region to prominently display the Chinese flag and images of five Chinese Communist Party chairmen, from Mao Zedong down to current leader Xi Jinping.
  • Instituting committees and working groups of CCP members and officials to manage general administrative affairs in monasteries, which the monks themselves traditionally managed.
  • Preventing religious leaders and lay worshippers from traveling to monasteries outside their home regions and making it difficult for them to travel to India to take part in religious events with the Dalai Lama.
  • Continuing a campaign to “Sinicize” Tibetan Buddhism, meaning to make it Chinese in character. The report quotes a source who told ICT that the campaign “is now much stronger and penetrates religious life more deeply, bringing immense difficulties for the religious community.”
  • Requiring Tibetan lamas to get “approval” from government entities in order to reincarnate. This absurd requirement also forbids “foreign” individuals—among whom China includes the Dalai Lama—from recognizing reincarnated lamas.
  • Forcing about 100 monks from 73 monasteries to take part in a training on reincarnations led by Gyaltsen Norbu, China’s fake Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama is one of the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism, and the Chinese government appointed Gyaltsen Norbu to the role after it abducted Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the real Panchen Lama, whom the Dalai Lama recognized in 1995.
  • Continuing to withhold information on the status of the real Panchen Lama, whom Chinese authorities kidnapped alongside his family just days after the Dalai Lama recognized him. Neither he nor his family have been seen in public since. This year, on the 25th anniversary of his abduction, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a strongly worded statement calling on China to “immediately make public the Panchen Lama’s whereabouts.” In response, a Chinese government spokesperson claimed the Panchen Lama and his family did not want to be disturbed, while ICT demanded that China let the Panchen Lama speak for himself.

US support for Tibetans

The report says US officials repeatedly raised concerns about the lack of religious freedom in Tibet with their Chinese counterparts, including during rare diplomatic trips to Tibet. The Chinese government routinely forbids access to Tibet by foreign diplomats.

The report adds that Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback—who also took part in ICT’s special Tibet Talk for Tibetan American youth last week—visited Dharamsala, India in October 2019 to meet with the Dalai Lama and the leaders of the Tibetan exile community.

While there, Brownback emphasized that the United States believes no government has the right to interfere in the Dalai Lama’s succession and called on the international community to “stand unequivocally with the people of Tibet.”

The report also notes that Nyima Lhamo—a former Tibetan political prisoner whose monk uncle died in a Chinese prison—spoke directly to President Trump in the Oval Office last year during the State Department’s second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.

“Tibetan need America’s support, please,” Nyima Lhamo told the president. “We need support.”

ICT quote

Matteo Mecacci, president of the International Campaign for Tibet:

“The State Department’s new report shows both the pervasive repression China inflicts on Tibetan Buddhists, as well as the important role the United States must play in protecting religious freedom in Tibet and around the globe in the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s war on religion.

“As Sen. Risch’s statement makes clear, the Chinese government targets all people of faith, and its plan to interfere in the succession of the Dalai Lama threatens religious freedom not only in Tibet but everywhere in the world, as there are countless followers of the Dalai Lama in virtually every country, including the United States.

“We are hopeful that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Sen. Risch chairs, will soon approve the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, and that the Senate will pass the bill and President Trump will sign it into law this year. That way, the United States will send Beijing a clear message that its selection of a future Dalai Lama will not go unchallenged, and that the world will not stand idly by as China persecutes religious believers.”

Read the Tibet section of the State Department’s 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom.