China's oppression of Tibetans and their culture is preventing China from becoming a modern, pluralistic, free, and democratic nation, according to Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of Tibet's government in exile, who added that the current Chinese system and policy in Tibet is destined to fail.
"If Tibet is granted autonomy, that could be a catalyst for moderation of China because if the Chinese government grants autonomy to Tibetans, for the first time they are accepting diversity within and accepting a distinct if not different people," Sangay, who is also known as the Kalon Tripa, told The Cable in an exclusive interview during his visit to Washington last week.
"I think no system which is authoritarian, or one-party rule, can last long. Ultimately, other people have to be taken into consideration, have to be empowered and respected by the system, because universality of freedom is established now," he said. "In that sense I do believe the universality of freedom will prevail and justice will prevail in Tibet as well."
For now, Chinese repressive and violent treatment of Tibetans inside China is increasing and tensions between Tibetans and Han Chinese are reaching new and dangerous levels, Sangay said. The Tibetan people, dedicated to nonviolence, have resorted to self-immolations in record numbers this year to protest their treatment at the hands of the Chinese government, he said. Forty-four Tibetans have self-immolated over the last 18 months and 34 of those have died.
Meanwhile, Tibet has been closed off to foreign tourists, Tibetan visitors are being expelled from the Tibetan capital Lhasa, and thousands of Han Chinese are being brought into Tibet to artificially alter the demographic balance there.
"That means the Chinese government is really cutting off Tibet and Lhasa from the rest of the world," said Sangay, who came to Washington to meet with administration officials and lawmakers to rally support for the region's plight.
Unlike his first visit to Washington since becoming Tibet's first ever competitively elected prime minister last year, when no U.S. officials would meet with him, this year Sangay was able to meet with two top Obama administration officials. The White House confirmed that Sangay met with NSC Senior Director for Asia Daniel Russel and the State Department confirmed he met with Under Secretary of State Maria Otero.
Both meetings happened in non-U.S. government buildings, however, in a likely effort to stave off a diplomatic blast from Beijing. Sangay also met with several lawmakers, including Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
Sangay said there's no reason for U.S. officials to be wary of meeting Tibetans.
"Meeting Tibetans and receiving his Holiness the Dalai Lama is not zero-sum," he said. "Some have this mindset that if I meet a Tibetan I'll be in trouble with the Chinese government, but the Chinese will meet with you and do business with you because they get a good deal. Tomorrow if they get a better deal from some other country, they'll do that too."
"And at the larger level, if Tibetans are ignored, essentially what you're ignoring is nonviolence and democracy," he said. "So in that sense I think from a democratic point of view, from a nonviolent point of view, supporting Tibet is vital because we are trying to be and we have proven in the last five decades to be a torchbearer of nonviolence and democracy."
During his meetings with officials and lawmakers, Sangay updated them on what he sees as a ramping up of Chinese government persecution of Tibetans, which included the arrest and detention of thousands of Tibetans who traveled to India in January to hear a teaching from the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, and violence against Tibetans who protested in February during the Chinese New Year that resulted in at least 6 deaths.
"Unfortunately, instead of the Chinese government addressing the issues, they're resorting to the blame game and saying these protests are instigated from outside, that self-immolations are happening because of influence from the outside," he said. "But even the generation of Tibetans who grew up under the Chinese system who have not met outside Tibetans and the Dalai Lama are protesting against the Chinese government, which clearly indicates the failures of Chinese government policies."
Chinese repression of Tibetans is not just a human rights issue, he said. The Tibetan plateau houses 10 major rivers that provide water for over a third of the world's population and the Chinese government is damning those rivers in ways that are sure to alter the environment unpredictably. The Chinese government has built the second-largest mine in Asia in Tibet, he complained, destroying historical and also sacred mountains.
"Some experts say that wars were fought over land before, now wars are fought over energy and soon wars will be fought over water, and Tibet constitutes if not the largest than one of the largest sources of freshwater," Sangay said.
Sangay's message to U.S. officials and lawmakers was to ask for a fact-finding mission to be sent to Tibet to investigate the situation there.
He also repeated his call for limited Tibetan autonomy within the Chinese system, similar to how China treats Hong Kong, a former British colony that was returned to China in 1997 but still enjoys some control over its own affairs.
"We are asking for genuine autonomy within China, within the framework of the Chinese constitution. We are not challenging Chinese sovereignty or territorial integrity so we are willing to accept the One China concept," he said.
Chinese officials are in Washington Monday and Tuesday for the semi-regular U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue, a set of talks Washington insists are productive but that critics see as routine and light on deliverables. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly urged the Chinese government to reopen a dialogue with the Tibetan people last week during a meeting in Cambodia.
"The secretary's been forthright, the president has been forthright, that we have serious, ongoing concerns about a variety of human rights issues and rule-of-law issues in China, and we are always open and clear about those with Chinese officials," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at Monday's press briefing.
Sangay wrote in a July 13 Washington Post op-ed that such statements are welcome but not nearly enough to help the Tibetan people.
"The time has come for the world to shut out the noise of China's influence and to hear the Tibetan cries: that repression is unbearable and unacceptable," he wrote. "Because we know that the democracies of the world recognize basic human rights and freedoms to be universal values, we ask the international community to intervene before our situation deteriorates even further."
In his interview with The Cable, Sangay also noted the irony of the Chinese government's attempts to choose the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, even though the Chinese government denies the validity of organized religion.
"The communist party thinks of religion as poison, and his Holiness is called the Devil, so why are the Chinese so interested in the reincarnation of the Devil?" he said. "So we think they have no business in reincarnation because they don't believe in it to begin with, and even if they try to intervene, Tibetans will not believe it. It's like Fidel Castro saying I'll select the next Pope and Catholics should believe it. That's not going to happen, so the Chinese government might try, but it's bound to fail."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.