A Strategy for the International Defense of Tibet

Remarks by NED President Carl Gershman to The Seventh Meeting of the World Parliamentarians Convention on Tibet in Riga, Latvia            

May 9, 2019

Just a month ago a memorial meeting sponsored by 17 organizations was held in New Delhi to remember the life and legacy of Lodi Gyari and George Fernandes, two great champions of democracy and Tibetan freedom who died recently within three months of each other – Lodi Gyari on October 29, and George Fernandes on January 29.  The organizers called them “Heroes of Freedom, Democracy and Equality,” as indeed they were, and many of the speakers said they were “great souls” who lived for the cause of “humanity, democracy, and freedom,” and they were that, too.

I count myself among those of us here today who knew and admired Lodi and George, and I believe that we would do well to think about the standard they set as we consider how to respond to the continuing and worsening oppression of the people of Tibet.

Lodi Gyari and George Fernandes shared a passion for democracy and justice, and they each regarded the Tibetan cause as a critical focal point in the global struggle for freedom.  They were smart and strategic, politically astute, and focused on Tibet, yet also universalist in their vision and commitment.  Most of all they were fighters – freedom fighters, to be precise – who were driven by core moral values and deep democratic convictions.

Five years ago Lodi shared with me a letter he had written to George in 1977.  George had just helped lead the resistance to Indira Gandhi’s emergency decree and had been overwhelmingly elected to parliament from a prison cell and then appointed a government minister.  He was Tibet’s greatest friend in India, and Lodi was writing to him to share his concerns about the parlous state of the Tibetan movement.  Lodi said that while the Dalai Lama had “an unreserved commitment towards the freedom struggle,” the Tibetan leadership had a “defeatist attitude” and its “apathy and timidity…undermined” the Dalai Lama’s vision and work.  The Tibetan movement, he told George, needed to benefit from the example of India’s democracy, which had “spiritual overtones” that made it “most conducive to the Tibetan political situation” and gave it “much to offer towards the future Tibetan nation.”  To that end, he said he wanted to create a democratic studies center that would train a new generation of Tibetan leaders, and he asked George to bless the initiative and to help recruit prominent Indian leaders to associate themselves with it.

In the years that followed Lodi played a central role in strengthening and modernizing the Tibetan movement in accordance with the vision he conveyed to George.  In 1990, he brought his vision and political skills to the United States, where he created the International Campaign for Tibet and built a powerful base of support for Tibet in the U.S. Congress – all the while conducting nine rounds of negotiations with Beijing over the status of Tibet.

The position of Tibet on the international stage is vastly stronger today than it was four decades ago when Lodi wrote that letter to George.   The Dalai Lama is now a global leader, arguably the world’s pre-eminent moral voice.  The 2002 Tibet Policy Act and the recently passed Tibet Reciprocity Act show how broad and deep the support for Tibetan freedom is in the U.S. Congress.  That support also exists in many other countries throughout the world, including Latvia, which is hosting this conference.

At a “Thank You, America” event held in the U.S. Congress last February, I said that it was really Americans who should thank Tibet for placing before us the issue of the rights of the Tibetan people – an issue where the distinction between right and wrong, between freedom and oppression, is so clear that it has become a unifying cause bringing together both of our political parties at a time when politics in the United States is otherwise very polarized.

I am aware that China is a rising global power, and that Beijing uses its military and economic muscle to force other countries to bend obsequiously to its will and accept its position on Tibet, even as   it destroys the language, culture, identity, and religion of the Tibetan people.  These  actions constitute a crime against humanity.

As we think about how to respond, we need to bear in mind Beijing’s vulnerabilities.  Many China scholars have called attention to the increasing evidence of the regime’s decay, from the collapse of communist ideology in the period after Mao’s death, to the erosion of the regime’s performance-based legitimacy as economic growth has slowed to the lowest rate in thirty years, to splits within the party leadership caused by Xi Jinping’s radical centralization of power.  Xi told party officials earlier this year that the regime “faces major risks on all fronts and must batten down the hatches.”

Nowhere is the regime’s fixation on survival more apparent than in its battle against what Xi calls “historical nihilism,” which involves forbidding any account of the past that diminishes the prestige of the Communist Party and the legitimacy of its monopoly on power.  Examples include the suppression of public commemorations of the sixtieth anniversary of the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward, which killed thirty to forty million people, or of the coming thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre.  The historian Glenn Tiffert has called Tiananmen a source of “inner trauma” for the regime, which remains fixated on the demise of the Soviet Union and dreads anything remotely similar to what it fearfully calls a colored revolution.

On no historical issue is the regime more vulnerable than the history of its invasion, occupation, and annexation of Tibet.  When it rejected the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach, which Lodi pursued with such patience and persistence in nine rounds of negotiations with Beijing, the regime said that it would not speak with His Holiness until he acknowledges that Tibet has been a part of China since antiquity.

Beijing’s position on this issue is entirely groundless historically.  Michael Van Walt and his colleagues at Kreddha have spent almost a decade studying the history of Inner and East Asia.  They brought together forty of the world’s leading scholars on the region and international lawyers who specifically addressed the question of whether Tibet was ever historically a part of China.  The conclusions of this research that are being presented to this conference are unambiguous, unequivocal, and categorical: Tibet was never a part of China, at any time, before China invaded Tibet in 1950.  Beijing has not tried to prove otherwise, and it cannot.  It can only make declarations and assertions.  Let us be clear – these statements are groundless.  They are total lies.

Beijing’s demand that His Holiness provide a patina of legitimacy for its aggression exposes its own insecurity.  Why would the conqueror demand not just the acquiescence of the conquered but also its acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the conquest if it didn’t know that without such an acknowledgement the conquest has no legitimacy whatsoever?

China knows that, yet it has brazenly put the issue of history on the table.  As a result, I believe it is incumbent on all people who believe that respect for international law is a precondition for peaceful relations among states to challenge the Chinese regime’s blatant rewriting of history.

We should look for every opportunity to raise this issue and to challenge the legitimacy of China’s invasion and annexation of Tibet and its continuing denial of the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination.  Scholars and international lawyers have authoritatively rebuked the specious claim that Tibet has always been a part of China.  It is now the job of the Tibetan movement and its supporters among parliamentarians and human rights defenders to mobilize an international campaign defending Tibetan rights and identity based on historical truth and international law.

This is a battle that George and Lodi would have loved to fight.  We’ll have to do it now without them, but let their memory be our inspiration and our guide.

When the Soviet dissident and great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn accepted the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature, he said something profoundly relevant to our discussion today.  Violence, he said, “does not and cannot exist by itself: it is invariably intertwined with the lie. They are linked in the most intimate, most organic and profound fashion: violence cannot conceal itself behind anything except lies, and lies have nothing to maintain them save violence.  Anyone who has once proclaimed violence as his method must inexorably choose the lie as his principle.”

This is especially true in the modern world, Solzhenitsyn said, because violence “can no longer exist without veiling itself in a mist of lies, without concealing itself behind the sugary words of falsehood.  No longer does violence always and necessarily lunge straight for your throat; more often than not it demands of its subjects only that they pledge allegiance to lies, that they participate in falsehood.”

This is what Beijing has demanded of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.  The response, Solzhenitsyn said, should be clear: “to defeat the lie!”  This is what we must strive to do.  At stake is not just the fate of the people of Tibet but also the future of world peace.