Xi Jinping’s Visit To Tibet: Integration Or Intimidation?

President Xi Jinping, along with several other high-level government and military officials from China, made a visit to the Tibetan Autonomous Region on July 23rd. This visit, the first Xi has made to Tibet since assuming office, coincides with the 70th anniversary of the coerced peace agreement between Tibet and the invading China.

Xi toured several controversial Tibetan environmental, cultural, and spiritual sites, including the public square in front of the traditional home for the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader whom the Chinese government forced into exile in 1959. Several of the speeches Xi gave in front of these sites involved instructing local officials to make Tibetans identify more with the “great motherland, Chinese people, Chinese culture, [and] the Chinese Communist Party,” Microsoft News reports. Given the Chinese government’s extensively documented human rights abuses and cultural genocide in Tibet, critics have asserted that this visit is an attempt to intimidate Tibet and reassert China’s rigid control over the region.

According to Free Tibet, a non-profit N.G.O. based in London, China has long sought to put down the social justice rebellions of the “backwards masses.” Years of Chinese “anti-terrorist” policies muzzling Tibetan religious activists have more recently been joined by a series of “Sinicization” campaigns released from the mainland. A combination of economic and cultural integration processes, the Sinicization campaigns work to strip Tibetans of autonomy, over their resource-rich land and their culture and spirituality alike. As journalist Kate Saunders put it in an interview with Deutsche Welle, China is “obliterating the collective memory of what it means to be Tibetan and erasing the Dalai Lama’s influence … with a focus on … the emotional buy-in of Tibetans to an ideological re-moulding.”

Sinicization aims to make “ethnic-minority residents feel they belong to China” through a meticulous removal or undermining of religious and cultural grounding points, the China Digital Times says. In Tibet, this is accomplished through a targeted forced internment program, banning the Tibetan language and Tibetan history in schools, and urbanizing and commercializing important Buddhist sites (such as the Drepung Monastery, which Xi visited on his trip). Even the mention of “dangerous separatist” spiritual leaders, like the Dalai Lama, means being subjected to surveillance and state-sponsored censorship, both online and off.

China’s strategy for occupying lands it has no legal control over involves militarizing the area, coupled with “building infrastructure, business and investment networks” which directly benefit the mainland in order to back up tenuous territory claims, Deutsche Welle says. Xi has implemented a similar strategy in Tibet, where tourism has increased by 12.3% in the last year. Foreigners, the majority of which are from China, ignorantly vandalize and endanger environmental and cultural sites, the South China Morning Post says, and urbanization has grown rampantly. Dozens of infrastructure projects have been started during 2020 alone, under the guise of “catching up with other parts of the country,” according to China’s state news site Xinhua.

Given this context, Xi’s tour of major Tibetan cultural and environmental sites that have been commercialized for the benefit of the Chinese economy is framed in a new light. As Microsoft News says, “The underlying message is one of integration, signaling that Tibet is being physically and economically integrated into China with every passing day … a process involv[ing] … [the] cultural and psychological marginalization of the Tibetan people.”

China’s human rights abuses in the area obviously need to stop. A common solution Western officials suggest is tying trade rights to the promotion of human rights by imposing taxes and tariffs on Chinese officials and businesses who directly contribute to the abuses in Tibet. While this is an intriguing idea, the impacts of the Trump-era trade war in China have made that option a bit contentious. New economic sanctions might escalate tensions between the two countries further.

Human Rights Watch says that a united E.U. front against these abuses at the diplomatic level will get much more effective results. “Decades of experience should make clear … that Beijing responds only to the expectation of unpleasant consequences … And while many governments recognize Beijing’s abusive trends, few are willing to independently consider leveling meaningful consequences in response, often privately lamenting their lack of leverage,” the non-profit writes. President Biden’s new Indo-Pacific co-ordinator, Kurt Campbell, seems to agree with the need for a united approach. In an interview for Deutsche Welle, Campbell said that “coalitions of allies and partners are critical to confront China’s multiple challenges to the order and stability of the Indo-Pacific.”

This coalition can put pressure on the Chinese government by leveraging fears that China already has about internal and external conflicts. A report by Human Rights Watch found that the main points of contention which might serve as bargaining opportunities with China center around its desire for international cooperation: with its anti-corruption and counter-terrorism campaigns, its internal conflicts over the lack of democratic elections within the country, and Beijing’s “quest for pomp to protect its power” and “save its face.” China is too deeply entrenched, both economically and socially, in the machinations of foreign nations to afford losing that access. These are all opportunities to publicly, but not aggressively, make the E.U. and U.S.’s stance on China’s human rights abuses clear. Human Rights Watch suggests that, whenever possible, the E.U. involve or direct attention to the people most affected by the Chinese government’s censorship and oppression: by bringing in Tibetan activists to speak, by directly questioning the Chinese government about its most famous prisoners and torture victims while in session, or by directing attention towards programmers working to break through the “Great Firewall” of censorship separating Tibetans from the rest of the world. Even something as simple as setting aside funding can put direct pressure on China to acknowledge and make steps to curtail its abuses in Tibet.

Throughout all of this, we must pay close attention to how negotiations with China are framed. Discussions about Chinese human rights abuses frequently devolve into rhetoric about how “aggressive” or “barbaric” China is. Campbell stipulates that this anti-Chinese rhetoric is, in part, because of how foreign officials treat discussions with China. “The U.S. needs to turn away from a zero-sum ‘Cold War’ mentality,” he emphasizes, “in which every move from Beijing is seen in the context of a rivalry.”

Properly addressing China’s human rights abuses in Tibet will take a lot of work. As Campbell puts it, we must focus on “balancing competition and co-operation” to achieve peace talks with China.

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