Beijing's Soft Power Strategy on Tibet

A rights official says China can’t just sweep the Tibet problem under the carpet.

Two Tibetans (hidden) self-immolating in Dzatoe township in Qinghai, June 20, 2012.
Photo courtesy of Lobsang Sangay.

China is pushing its soft power agenda with an aim to quash debate on the issue of Tibet, where self-immolation protests will continue until Beijing ends its policy of state-sanctioned discrimination in the region, a Tibetan advocacy group said Wednesday.

The U.S.-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) said hundreds of Confucius Institutes, which Beijing set up in universities across the world to promote Chinese language and culture, are being used to influence the international debate on Tibet.

The Confucius Institutes are being used as “dissemination platforms for Chinese propaganda on Tibet,” Bhuchung Tsering, ICT vice-president, told a U.S. congressional hearing in Washington.

He cited a state media report by the Xinhua news agency in January which confirmed that a journal published by the official Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences had been distributed to the learning centers.

Tsering said that last year ICT had requested resource materials from a Confucius Institute at a U.S. university, only to receive books and DVDs “giving the Chinese narrative on Tibet” released by a state-supervised publisher—the main function of which is to “produce propaganda products,” according to an official Chinese website.

He told members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that in recent years, China has established more than 300 Confucius Institutes at universities around the world. Eighty-one of those institutes and more than 300 Confucius Classrooms have been set up at universities in the U.S.

But Tsering said that the institutes “come with strings attached, which create challenges to academic freedom.”

“We have seen reported, and heard anecdotal evidence, that discussion on sensitive topics such as Tibet is discouraged if not prohibited,” he said.

Tsering suggested that the House Committee on Foreign Affairs scrutinize Confucius Institutes to determine if the terms of their agreements result in reduced academic discourse and freedom of speech on topics such as Tibet, and whether the agreements violate any laws in relation to publicly-funded universities.

The hearing came a day after the conclusion of the U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue on Tuesday, and during which the U.S. said China’s rights record had continued to “deteriorate” and called on Beijing to allow dissent.

Likely to continue

Tsering suggested that the wave of self-immolation protests by Tibetans would continue until the underlying problems in the Tibetan-populated areas were addressed, saying that Beijing’s increased restrictions in the wake of the burnings have only served to increase the sense of injustice and discrimination felt by Tibetans under Chinese rule.

“As long as Tibetans continue to be denied the opportunity to live a life of equality, respect and dignity, it is clear that they will undertake actions to convey their feelings,” he said.

Tsering went on to say that rather than finding a solution to the issue, Chinese officials had sought to deflect blame by “humiliating” the Tibetans, labeling the self-immolators as “criminals” and saying that their protests had been instigated by the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader.

He said that Beijing had also played down the political significance of the self-immolators as part of a systemic effort to “replace organic Tibetan culture with a state-approved version to suit the Party’s ideological, political and economic objectives,” a policy ICT earlier this year labeled “cultural genocide.”

“The Chinese government’s aggressive security response has made the situation more unstable and potentially dangerous, risking more self-immolations,” he said.

The most recent self-immolation protest in Tibet occurred on July 17 and brought to 44 the number of Tibetans who have set themselves ablaze since Feb. 27, 2009 in protest of Chinese rule in the region.

Nearly all have called for the return to Tibet of exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and freedom for the Tibetan people, Tsering said, adding that they have challenged “political, cultural, religious and social injustices, the roots of which are not being acknowledged and addressed by the Chinese authorities.”

“Instead of addressing the genuine grievances of the Tibetan people, the Chinese authorities have responded to the self-immolations by increasing restrictions, torturing members of the self-immolators’ family or their acquaintances and taking several into custody without any judicial process,” he said.


On behalf of ICT, Tsering recommended that, in light of the self-immolations, Congress pass a resolution expressing support for the people of Tibet.

He also called on lawmakers to update and strengthen the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 to take into account new developments in Tibetan politics, including the election of full democratic governance in exile, and to consider enhancing Washington’s relationship with the Tibetan government in exile, the Central Tibetan Administration.

Tsering also called for the U.S. to make public a transcript of the closed door U.S.-China Human Rights dialogue to provide transparency on what steps the current administration is doing to push for human rights in China and Tibet.

On Wednesday, at a briefing on the U.S. China Human Rights Dialogue, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner said that Washington had stressed that China’s policies in ethnic minority areas “are counterproductive and aggravate tensions.”

“Our position is that … these minority communities and representatives of religious minorities are entitled to live freely, to express their religious views, to practice their religion, to express their cultural differences and customs,” Posner said.

“And this is an area where clearly the Chinese Government has a different view.”

Reported by Joshua Lipes.


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