In-Depth: Sponsoring Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced this bill to update and strengthen the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 to address emerging human rights, religious freedom, and other challenges faced by the Tibetan people:
“This much-needed bill updates U.S. policy toward Tibet amid new challenges posed by the Chinese Communist Party against Tibetans. We must continue to shine a bright light on the Chinese government’s repression of the Tibetan people and explore new tools to protect their religion, language, and culture, both inside and outside China.”
Original cosponsor Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) adds:
“I am proud to partner with Senator Rubio, Congressman McGovern, and House and Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle to introduce the Tibet Policy and Support Act. Our legislation expresses strong bipartisan congressional support for the human rights, religious freedom and self-sufficiency of the Tibetan people. The United States will not stand idly by as the Chinese government attempts to interfere with the Tibetan community’s religious freedom and autonomy, including the deeply spiritual process for succession or reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.”
House sponsor Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) says:
“I am proud to support this new legislation to strengthen U.S. support for the Tibetan people in their struggle for human rights, religious freedom and genuine autonomy. Chinese officials should be aware that efforts to interfere in the Tibetan Buddhist practice of choosing its religious leaders, including a possible 15th Dalai Lama, will be strongly opposed by the U.S. and subject to targeted sanctions including those in the Global Magnitsky Act.”
The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) supports this bill. Its president, Matteo Mecacci, says:
“For decades, the US has supported the Dalai Lama’s efforts to protect human rights and democratic freedoms for the people of Tibet, and with this new bill, Congress is saying to Beijing that it will continue to stand up for Tibetans once His Holiness eventually passes away. Not only does the Tibetan Policy and Support Act recognize that the Dalai Lama’s succession is a matter of universal religious freedom, it also establishes that Tibet is an important part of America’s national interests in the region. ICT would like to thank Rep. Jim McGovern, Sen. Marco Rubio and every cosponsor of this legislation. Now we call on ICT members, as well as all Tibet supporters and Tibetan Americans around the country, to ask their senators and representatives to sign onto this bill and pass it into law as soon as possible.”
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) supports this bill. USCIRF Commissioner Tenzin Dorjee says:
“USCIRF thanks Senator Rubio and Representative McGovern, as well as the bipartisan group of members of Congress who have already cosponsored the bill, for their leadership in protecting religious freedom in Tibet. I also welcome the recent passage of a resolution by Tibetan representatives at the Third Special General Meeting in India on His Holiness the Dalai Lama's next reincarnation. We have watched with alarm as the Chinese government increases its stranglehold not only over Tibetan Buddhists, but also over Uighur Muslims, Christians, Falun Gong practitioners and other religious communities throughout the country.”
Dr. Lobsang Sangay, president of the Tibetan government in exile, supports this bill. In a September 25, 2019 press conference, he thanked the U.S. lawmakers who introduced this bill on behalf of the people of Tibet:
“On behalf of the CTA (Central Tibetan Administration) and Tibetan people, I express my gratitude to the Chairs of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and all co-sponsors for introducing the Tibet Policy and Support Act of 2019. The legislation sends a powerful message of support for the Tibetan and sheds light on the repressive policies and hostile intent of the Chinese government in Tibet. I hope this legislation will deter the Chinese government and officials from carrying on with their hardline and counter-productive policies in Tibet and move them towards dialogue and a peaceful resolution of the issue.”
The Chinese government — which strongly opposes Tibetan independence — has criticized this bill. During his regular press conference on September 19, 2019, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said:
“The so-called ‘Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2019’ launched by some US lawmakers in the House of Representatives is a serious breach of basic norms governing international relations and a gross interference in China's internal affairs. It sends out a gravely wrong signal to separatist forces for ‘Tibet independence.’ China is firmly opposed to that. Tibetan affairs are purely China's domestic affairs. No foreign interference shall be allowed. We urge the US to fully recognize the highly sensitive nature of issues relating to Tibet, stop pushing the relevant act and stop meddling in China's domestic affairs with Tibet as a cover.”
In a press briefing in Beijing, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief of the Tibet autonomous region Wu Yingjie maintained that despite what others claim, Tibetans are free to practice religion, provided that their expressions of faith abide by regulations set by the regional government. Wu said, “The religious and spiritual freedoms and normal religious activities of the masses are protected by law.”
While human rights concerns have led to multiple China-focused bills in the Congress during the Trump administration, President Donald Trump has held back on human rights issues in conversations with China for fear of derailing trade talks. This is a source of concern for some in the Tibetan advocacy community, such as International Campaign for Tibet Vice President Bhuchung Tsering, was part of a task force that assisted talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama’s representatives in the 2000s. Tsering says, “There is that concern that this administration may sacrifice Tibet and human rights in general when it comes to some kind of reaching [of] an understanding with China [on trade].”
This legislation has four bipartisan Senate cosponsors, including four Democrats and four Republicans. Its House companion, sponsored by Rep. James McGovern (D-MA), has 18 bipartisan House cosponsors, including 12 Democrats and six Republicans.
The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) support this bill.
Of Note: The Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 (TPA), which this bill would update, is a core legislative measure guiding U.S. policy toward Tibet. It seeks “to support the aspirations of the Tibetan people to safeguard their distinct identity.” Among other provisions, it establishes the State Department’s position of Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues and defines the Special Coordinator’s “central objective” as being “to promote substantive dialogue” between the government of the People’s Republic of China and Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, or his representatives.
Among their other duties, the Special Coordinator is required to “coordinate United States Government policies, programs, and projects concerning Tibet”; “vigorously promote the policy of seeking to protect the distinct religious, cultural, linguistic, and national identity of Tibet”; and press for “improved respect for human rights.”
Since the TPA’s passage, three bills seeking it have passed the House of Representatives, but none have passed in the Senate:
- In the 113th Congress, H.R.4194, the House version of the Government Reports Elimination Act of 2014, would have eliminated a report required by the TPA, but that provision was removed in the Senate-passed bill.
- H.R. 2410 in the 111th Congress and H.R.2601 in the 109th Congress both included substantial revisions to the TPA, but the Senate didn’t act on either bill.
Recently, concerns over the health of the 84-year-old 14th Dalai Lama (who fled into exile in India after a failed Tibetan revolt against Chinese rule in 1959) have raised uncertainties about his possible successor after his death. China claims control over the selection, saying that the Dalai Lama selection process must comply with Chinese law. Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama himself has said that if he returns, his successor will be born in a country outside of Chinese control. According to Tibetan tradition, senior Buddhist monks and other high-ranking religious leaders are reincarnated in the body of a child after their deaths.
In early November 2019, the Dalai Lama said that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to reincarnated dalai lamas “should end now” because the hierarchy creates “a feudal system.” In a speech at his residence in Mcleod Gang, a small town on the outskirts of Dharamsala, India, he said, “Institutions need to be owned by the people, not by an individual.” Earlier, on October 25, 2019, he told college students from Bhutan and India that the tradition of reincarnated dalai lamas “should go” and “should not be concentrated in a few people only.”
In recent years, Beijing has sought to control the identification of other senior Tibetan religious leaders, including Tibet’s Panchen Lama. In that case, the Panchen Lama and his family were taken into Chinese custody in 1995, after which point Chinese officials installed another boy (of the CCP’s choosing) in his place. Today, the whereabouts of the Dalai Lama-appointed Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, are unknown.
Alice G. Wells, Acting Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of South and Central Asia, says, “The Chinese Communist Party claim that Dalai Lama's succession ‘must comply with Chinese laws and regulations’ is meritless. Tibetan communities, like all faith communities, should be able to select, educate, & venerate their religious leaders without government interference.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry takes issue with this view. After the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback met the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India in late October 2019, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, “We urge the U.S. official to stop contacting the Dalai Lama clique, making irresponsible remarks and using Tibet-related issues to interfere in China's internal affairs.”
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / RalfJodi)