By Vivian Nguyen ’21
The Reciprocal Travel to Tibet Act, a conglomerate of strategies to “confront Chinese economic aggression, military expansion, internal repression and overseas political interference,” currently lies face up on President Donald Trump’s desk, awaiting his approval.
Congress recently passed the bipartisan bill as a nonviolent yet definitive declaration in opposition to Chinese authoritarian attacks against minority groups. According to Josh Rogin, columnist for The Washington Post, the legislation would “compel Beijing to open Tibet to U.S. officials and journalists or face restriction on some Chinese Communist Party officials’ ability to visit the United States.”
According to Roseanne Gerin, editor for Radio Free Asia in Washington D.C., the bill earns its name as so-called “reciprocal,” because it is a “response” to the Chinese prevention of free travel for “U.S. diplomats, NGO workers, journalists reporting on human rights abuses, and others” against our own policies of free travel for all Chinese citizens in the United States.
Handily, the term “reciprocal” also communicates an attitude of defensive non-aggression rather than offensive action. Vice President Mike Pence recently emphasized “fairness” and “sovereignty” in justifying intervention on behalf of the oppressed Tibet population and the government’s “internment of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region.” For Congress, this remains the foremost purpose to pass the bill.
Likewise, the Reciprocal Travel to Tibet Act gained its own version in the Senate. In shoring support for the Senate version of the bill, Florida Senator Marco Rubio stated, “The Chinese government and Communist Party use far-reaching, intrusive surveillance, and pervasive military and police force in Tibet, so no one should be surprised by their reluctance to grant access to American diplomats, journalists and others who might expose their egregious violations of human rights and religious freedom violations against the Tibetan people.”
In the House, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi expressed her support for the act, while Republican Congresswoman Ileana Lehtinen of Florida also stressed that the bill would “send a clear message that we will not let Beijing’s immoral, unjust, and destabilizing treatment of the Tibetan people go unaddressed.”
Tibet’s political climate in regards to Chinese authority has heightened in past years. Formerly autonomous from China, Tibet was taken over and incorporated into China nearly 70 years ago when the spiritual leader of Buddhist Tibet, formally called the “Dalai Lama,” was driven into exile with 80,000 of his followers. According to Gerin, currently Chinese authorities “maintain a tight grip on the region, restricting Tibetans’ political activities and peaceful expression of ethnic and religious identities, and subjecting Tibetans to persecution, torture, imprisonment, and extrajudicial killings.”
The bill would demonstrate Congress’ concerns in the issues abroad and expose the Chinese government to the world, says Matteo Mecacci of the International Campaign for Tibet.
The history of U.S. foreign policy holds that Tibet is the central form of U.S. assistance to China. Congressionally mandated, the United States has provided support for Tibet at least for the past few decades despite “the Chinese regime’s consistent opposition to such aid,” according to political reporter Paul Huang at The Epoch Times.
In late March of 2018, US Congress approved a spending bill that includes $17 million to support Tibetans “in and out of Tibet.” The U.S. Department of State reports that money was shared through the “Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018” for the primary goal of protecting and preserving Tibetan culture, and promoting sustainable livelihoods and market integration in Tibetan communities — specifically, sustaining natural resources-based livelihood options; advancing environmental standards and protections; and advancing the rule of law and human rights.
As mobilized by United States interventional support, the social revolutions in Tibet that rose as a consequence have had major implications in checking Chinese authoritarianism. The financial assistance “has been a lifeline for one of the world’s most vulnerable populations” over the past few decades, according Tenzin Dorjee of the Tibet Action Institute.
In spite of President Trump’s proposals to reduce financial support to Tibetan programs in the fiscal year 2018 budget, Congress continues to push forward support for the Tibetan “nonviolent struggle against tyranny and oppression.” Dorjee argues, “The Tibet aid program is not charity, it’s a reparation of sorts.” When China invaded Tibet, the United States used Tibetans to “contain the Communist expansion and to secure intelligence about China.” The intelligence haul significantly aided American forces in the Cold War of the 1950s. On a larger scale, aid to Tibet remains instrumental to check authoritarian regimes of China, and to defend “freedom and democracy,” which “are the very words and ideas for which people are laying down their lives.”
If approved by Trump, the Reciprocal Travel to Tibet Act, as Dorjee and others argue, would provide tangible improvements for reporting on suspicious Chinese activity abroad and would be a firm step in strengthening long-held American values of the Fourth Estate.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Hamid Sardar of Dream Catcher Motion Productions “Tibet, Le Chemin Des Vents”