In such a repressive environment, how do Tibetans in Tibet hold onto their cultural identity? How does the world find out what is happening there? How do exiles stay connected with their families and homeland? Where can we find hope for the future of Tibet and Tibetans? CDT has launched this interview series as a way to explore these questions and to learn more about current conditions in Tibet, efforts to preserve Tibet’s religious and cultural heritage, and the important work being done every day by activists, writers, researchers, and others to help and support Tibetans inside and outside the region. Read previous interviews in the series.
Bhuchung K. Tsering was born in Tibet and fled with his family to India in 1960. He graduated from the University of Delhi and later worked as a journalist in India. He then worked with the Central Tibet Administration (CTA, the official Tibetan government-in-exile) in Dharamsala, India, and served in the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well as at the Office of Tibet in Switzerland. Since 1995, he has worked at the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, D.C., where he currently serves as head of the Research and Monitoring Unit. Between 2002-2010, he was a member of the team representing the Dalai Lama in dialogue with the Chinese government. He has testified in front of the U.S. Congress numerous times about the situation in Tibet and has written for publications around the world. In June 2023, he was awarded the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom from the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. He recently spoke with CDT about how Xi Jinping’s policies are impacting Tibetans’ lives and cultural identity, and why continued international attention is critical to the survival of Tibet. This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
China Digital Times: I’ve been pretty shocked in recent years by how little news and information there is about Tibet in the global media, and how it is not always included in the bigger conversation about China, especially compared to 20 or 30 years ago. There are of course many complex reasons for this. But from reports I do see, it seems like the situation there is in many ways worse than ever.
Bhuchung Tsering: There is this feeling growing that we are being neglected again, and the reason I say again is because in the early days of Tibetans’ lives as refugees there was quite a bit of international attention, including covert assistance from the United States. And then when political winds shifted, Tibetans were neglected and left to fend for themselves. And then in between, things also changed in a sense that, in the initial phase, those who were supportive of Tibet, a quite sizeable number, were supporting them because they were anti-Communist. Those were the days of the Cold War. So I think they found Tibet to be useful. And thereafter when that changed and when Nixon altered the U.S. policy on China, I think Tibetans felt a little bit neglected. But in between there was another set of people who came up and were interested in Tibet, not because of anything to do with Communism or anti-Communism, but because of what was really happening to the Tibetan people. And right now the critical mass of supporters are this section of people. As you know, anything that is nonviolent, that doesn’t create news headlines, tends to be ignored, even though it merits attention.
CDT: You’ve witnessed the entire arc of the Tibet movement from the beginning until now. From that perspective, in brief, how would you evaluate the current situation in terms of the CCP’s attitude toward Tibet and prospects for the future?
BT: I would say three things. First, the Chinese Communist authorities have a clearly outlined strategy to see how they may find closure, if I can use that term, for the Tibet problem. Their Final Solution seems to be the Sinicization of the Tibetan people–not just the people, the very Tibetan identity. So anything to do with Tibet which was considered different from China or Chinese in the past is now being made into Chinese. Tibetan Buddhism, for example, which has its own unique history, now is being projected as part of the broader Chinese Buddhist community. Then the Tibetan way of life, culture, are all being projected as being part of the broader Chinese mosaic. It’s less noticeable in English, but when we use Tibetan, the way we say “China” now is “Gyanak” but there is another term, that you know, “Zhongguo” which they use for China in Tibet so they can create a subtle differentiation. So they can say “Yes, there is a Tibet, there is China, but both belong to the same Zhongguo.” So that kind of identity creation is taking place, in all walks of life, like the teaching of languages, the boarding schools which are in the news currently, are part of that effort to make the Tibetans believe that their identity is something else. And the Chinese authorities have realized that the Dalai Lama plays a special role in this continuation of the Tibetan identity. And as long as people remember him, as long as people recall him, as long as people have a relationship with him, [the CCP] realizes their aim will not be fulfilled. And therefore over the last several decades, you have seen that the Chinese authorities are banning his photos, as part of the effort to make the Tibetans forget this Dalai Lama. They know they cannot change the minds of the present generation of Tibetans, but they are looking at the next generation. The present generation, some of them have heard [the Dalai Lama], some of them have seen him in person, and some of them have seen him in photos, etc. But now they are banning everything so that the next generation won’t know who this Dalai Lama is, and they won’t have the continuation of that relationship. So that’s the Chinese strategy.
Second, in terms of the Tibetan community, we have understood the Dalai Lama, but not understood him totally. He emphasized democracy as a way for us to establish ourselves now and forever, so there will be continuity even with or without the Dalai Lama. So we have a structure in place in Dharamsala which is a democratic setup with elections, etc. Our people are good at participating in that, but now we are also somehow embodying the negative aspects of electoral politics, forgetting that we have a movement, and that we are not like any other independent entity, where we can afford to be, to use a crude term, slinging mud at each other and bringing each other down. Right now the situation is not bad, but if this continues, and we reach a period where there is no longer any Dalai Lama, we have to continue with this process. It may not really work well in terms of the unity of the people as such. So that’s the overall feeling I have of the Tibetan community.
And the third is the international community. I think the international community is also to some extent feeling that maybe there is nothing else they can do on Tibet, that they have tried everything. I know they haven’t tried everything, but maybe that’s their assumption. Because I’ve heard some politicians here in DC mention a similar thing, “What can we do now? Whatever we do doesn’t seem to help.” But they are also now moved more by a political agenda than by the merits of the case. Because if you look at the merits of the case, as you rightly said earlier, nothing has happened in Tibet that would warrant less attention from governments. In fact, if you look at it, there is a subtle strengthening of Chinese control, and governments should be more involved in it. But governments see that pushing the Tibet issue right now doesn’t seem to be of any use to them in the current challenges they face with China. Also they are looking at other issues that can be a bit more visible to use against China.
CDT: On your second point about electoral politics, have you seen any examples of the Chinese government interfering with the electoral process, even subtly trying to change people’s attitudes toward the CTA?
BT: Nothing visible, nothing even which can be referred to as being indirect. And that is to be expected because ours is a small community. For example, even Tibetans traveling to Tibet, even without any political agenda, without even wanting to be supportive of the Chinese, they have been looked upon with suspicion by the Tibetans. So in this small community, if there is anybody who has some sort of connection with the Chinese in any way, that will not be looked upon favorably. Therefore I don’t think we will see any evidence the way we see Chinese interference in elections in the Western countries. But at the same time, it is very possible that issues that come up in the community, rumors that start tensions or debate, like the issue of the propitiation of a certain spirit [Dorje Shugden], in the Tibetan community, at one time it was very much out there. That was a direct Chinese hand, but that didn’t have anything to do directly with elections as such. Then there are people now who either directly post on social media or without identifying themselves post on social media–here we may definitely have Chinese doing something, but for that we don’t have any evidence, because it could be anybody. That creates issues.
CDT: The formal dialogue between representatives of the Dalai Lama and Beijing has been stalled since 2010. What is the current status of exchange and dialogue between the government-in-exile and the CCP?
BT: I should preface this by saying that I no longer have any formal role in that process. At one time I used to be a member of the task force that worked on the dialogue process. But after this president came into office, he disbanded that group and started another committee, with fewer people, mostly serving officials in Dharamsala, to deal with it. But having said that, this elected leader, the Sikyong, has said publicly he is receiving overtures from the Chinese authorities and they are looking into it. For that matter, even the Dalai Lama himself has said that he feels that there may be an opportunity for him to travel to Tibet. So it means that though there is no formal direct contact, there is some sort of informal outreach that’s happening. And I think there would be a basis to this, even without knowing the inside story. Because from my days of participating in the dialogue process as a member of the team that Mr Lodi Gyari led to China, I know for sure that the Chinese also want to find a solution, because they don’t want this issue to be left like this. But the solution they want is something that goes in their favor. So their understanding of dialogue is not meeting halfway, but the other side meeting full way to their goal post. So despite the fact that they say they don’t recognize the CTA, or that His Holiness is a splittist, they still know that the CTA and His Holiness are influences for the people in Tibet, and therefore they would certainly be trying to reach out in different ways.
CDT: It’s easy to see the CCP as a monolith with one single viewpoint, but are there any individuals within the current CCP administration that are more supportive of Tibetan autonomy? Are there any current reasons for hope or optimism on this front?
BT: Surprisingly I would say Xi Jinping himself, not because he is supportive of anything, but because of his background. ICT came out with a report just two weeks back, with everything negative, but then also [questioning] if he respects his Chinese culture and tradition of filial piety, because his father Xi Zhongxun was someone who was a moderate on Tibet, and in the beginning Xi Jinping also showed or indicated his desire to understand the Tibetan people, including why Buddhism holds sway over the Tibetan people. Also because the Dalai Lama seems to be having some hope in Xi Jinping. Not in recent times but in the past we used to hear him talk about Xi Jinping in those terms; [I am] somebody who believes in the Dalai Lama having special insight which I as a mortal being would not understand. As a practical reality, if Xi Jinping wants to resolve the Tibetan issue and if he has that thought then his having total control would be the best opportunity to resolve it. That’s because the Tibetan issue is a major thorn in the flesh of Chinese politics, and no Chinese leader so far has dared to touch upon Tibet in any way other than the strong arm tactics they have used so far, because anybody who does anything else, like Hu Yaobang tried to do, will face problems later on
CDT: That ICT report you just mentioned talked a lot about how under Xi, the policy of ethnic autonomy has been replaced with one focused on cultural assimilation, Sinicization, and securitization. Could you explain how that looks on the ground in Tibet, and what government control and interference look like on a daily basis for a typical Tibetan family these days?
BT: It’s a few things that I mentioned earlier–putting the mindset into people that their Tibetan identity is subordinate to their broader Chinese identity. In that context, their Tibetan Buddhism is part of Chinese Buddhism, meaning that they should turn East instead of turning South in terms of their spiritual heritage. Linguistic priorities–that it would be in the better interest of their families to have their children grow up in a Chinese-speaking environment rather than someone who is taught Tibetan. The use of the term Zhongguo to describe the difference between Tibet and China, to resolve that problem in the Tibetan language. Behind them are policies that are aimed at making all these things possible, whether it’s through management of the monasteries, or through indoctrination in the schools. And I think they have been trying to do that for a long time; it’s coming into realization now but they have been doing it step by step, gradually.
CDT: Other than those you have already discussed which are obviously at the forefront, are there any other urgent issues Tibetans in Tibet are currently confronting that you wish the world paid more attention to?
BT: All these together make it critical that the survival of the Tibetan identity is at stake, or the Tibetan identity that we know of. What the Chinese authorities will end up doing, if it’s not stopped, is tomorrow there will be a Tibetan identity, but that will be a Chinese Tibetan identity, and they will say that yes, Tibetan identity survived. That is what they are trying to say now.
CDT: How much dissent is there on the ground in Tibet now? How often do you hear about on the ground protests in Tibet, even by just one or two people, and what are they generally about?
BT: In Tibet unfortunately the very existence of the people as Tibetan is a political statement, so there’s no way people can do anything beyond that because it will be clamped down on immediately, even if there is no political context. We know of rallies in major Chinese towns, for example on rising prices or in Guangdong language demonstrations in the past over the position of Mandarin; such things used to exist in Tibet in the past but not in the way we see them in other areas. For example, in Amdo, there were cases of Tibetans wanting to study Tibetan language in school and holding rallies, but no longer are such things tolerated. Anything to do with Tibetan identity is suspicious. So we don’t hear of anything at all now, unfortunately.
At the same time, I think one way the Chinese authorities are making Tibetans forget their political issues is trying to attract people through economic incentives. We hear of this from Tibetans, saying, “as long as you don’t involve yourself in politics, you can get rich.” So that could also be one way the Chinese are trying to do this. But everything again is connected, because Chinese may think they are succeeding in a way, but if Tibetan culture is really to survive, if Tibetan Buddhism is to really survive, if Tibetan medicine is really to survive, then unless these have the freedoms that there used to be outside of Communist control, they cannot survive. So with Tibetan Buddhism, for example, now authorities are making it a convention that the Communists have to be the one who authorize reincarnation. They may succeed in one or two or 20 cases, whatever it may be, but as these people grow up, they will show themselves whether they are true reincarnations or not. And that will eventually end up having no value, even if people end up respecting the authorities’ [decision]. We have seen that clearly in the case of the Panchen Lama. The Chinese appointed one is doing things that may seem religious in a visible way, but he doesn’t have that spiritual authority that his institution demands, that will enable him to hold sway over the people
CDT: So for some reincarnations will it be the case that there will be one illegitimate one picked by the Chinese government, and then people within the Tibetan Buddhist community will pick a second one? So there will be two different reincarnations, and only one will be acknowledged by the Chinese government?
BT: Yes, that is a possibility, not even just a possibility, that may be happening. Because with the Chinese government, because of their political concern over anything to do with Tibet, they tend to ignore the fact that Tibetan Buddhism is beyond Tibet. In the past, because of the nature of the Tibetan polity, it was possible that you could have Tibetan Buddhism spread beyond the borders of Tibet and still survive. Therefore we had previous Dalai Lamas from Mongolia or from Arunachal Pradesh [India]. Today, Chinese authorities have the assumption that anything to do with Tibetan Buddhism has to be within Tibet, and then because it’s within Tibet, the CCP has to have a hand in it. That will not be possible because right now, even in India, a new generation of reincarnated Lamas are coming up, who have a history in Tibet but also have a history in India, so they will be the ones to have the spiritual authority, whereas the other set of reincarnations the Chinese authorities may bring up in Tibet may end up more as tokens. Now we are going into the territory of faith, and in faith anything is possible if it happens. For example, the previous 10th Panchen Lama, who was so revered by Tibetans in his later years, in his initial years, he was also not the one chosen by the Tibetan government in Lhasa. He was chosen by his monastery and then had the support of the Kuomintang government. But later, this Panchen Lama showed through his own activities, by his efforts at preserving and promoting Tibetan religion and culture even while serving the Chinese Communist system. And therefore he was challenging the Chinese system to deliver on all its promises to the Tibetan Buddhists. If anybody who is chosen by the Chinese authorities does that, then there will be a pathway for them, just as the previous Panchen Lama had. Right now the Panchen Lama selected by the Chinese government is mouthing their slogans about Tibetan Buddhism having to be Chinese Buddhism.
CDT: So in the future, Tibetan Buddhism will just be more dispersed throughout the world and it won’t be as centered in Tibet.
BT: Yes, that has been [the case] in the past. What was different in the past is the center was Lhasa, wherever it was spreading–Mongolia, the Russian Federation, the Indian Himalayas, Nepal, Bhutan. Lhasa was the Mecca, but now that may change and there may be other centers that are considered more crucial to the devotees. Even now, there are two reincarnations of the Karmapa outside, and they are coexisting not in an ideal way, but they are coexisting. But they can because none of them have a secular authority, least of all an atheist Communist CCP behind them.
CDT: There is almost no access allowed to Tibet for journalists and researchers especially since 2008. How has that impacted your work? Are you still able to conduct research within the region?
BT: Even after 2008, we had opportunities to have contacts inside Tibet. You could see this from the reports that came out during the self-immolations in 2009. People were able to do that. Now the Chinese authorities have really clamped down heavily and made it impossible for such information to be procured in the way we used to. Still there are some people who feel the need to let the world know. The age of trying to tell the world that Tibetans are being persecuted has passed. I think the world does know that Tibetans suffer. But information about the policy changes that are being made in Tibet, or policy changes made in Beijing that will have an impact on Tibet, is something that we feel there can always be access to in certain ways, and analyzed. For example, the Sinicization that I was telling you about, while it involves some understanding of the on the ground situation, it also involves the policy changes that are taking place, which don’t necessarily demand people to be out there on the ground to understand them. So these things we are able to do now. And it’s a challenge to us, but it’s also a contradiction for the Chinese government, because even though they want to tell the world that everything is normal in Tibet, they cannot keep Tibet closed forever, even if they only open it to Chinese tourists.
CDT: Are you aware of any efforts at exchange or communication between Han Chinese and Tibetans? Are there any online forums or other places where people can communicate on a person to person level and exchange perspectives in a productive and respectful way?
BT: We at ICT did that for many years, particularly when Mr. Lodi Gyari was there, to help the dialogue process. When ICT began, one of the first things that happened was they sent Ngapo Jigme, the son of a prominent Tibetan aristocrat who then went on to serve the Chinese system and become the chairman of the TAR and one of the seniormost Tibetans in Beijing. His son who had come out to India was sent here to be outreach to the Chinese community. The reason was that His Holiness felt at the political level, even if we reach an understanding with the Chinese leadership, if there is no understanding between the people of both sides, then the political solution will not be lasting.Therefore, we at ICT also had a Chinese outreach and engagement program where we had Chinese-speaking colleagues who we work with to have dialogues, informal ones, with Chinese scholars. At the initial stages it was the democracy activists and advocates, then we moved into scholars outside China, then Chinese scholars and intellectuals inside China. Through that process, for example people like Wang Lixiong came to be more out there, and others, it would not be good for me to name them but there have been people in major Chinese think tanks and universities, with whom there has been engagement. Somehow the Chinese authorities have made the Tibetan issue so sensitive that people who want to touch it rationally cannot do that, for fear of retribution.
CDT: What about overseas currently? Is there any effort like that going on now?
BT: Yes, there is. Dharamsala itself has a Chinese desk, and quite a few of Dharamsala’s officers have Chinese-speaking staff whose sole task is to reach out to the Chinese community. I don’t know for sure now but they used to have someone in Geneva too, they used to have someone in Australia and obviously in Taiwan they have an office also that does that. Then there are Tibetan NGOs that have contacts with Chinese democracy activists. In Canada they had some sort of friendship society. In New York they have a group too that reaches out to Chinese democracy activists, to interact with Tibetans and even come to Dharamsala to talk to Tibetans about their perspectives. We at ICT also have a Tibetan youth leadership program where we bring Tibetan youth to Washington DC to understand the American political process, and oftentimes a part of that program includes interaction with Chinese democracy activists or scholars, to understand the perspective from the Chinese side.
CDT: Twitter and other social media platforms are often filled with anti-Tibet propaganda and vitriol, as was seen earlier this year with the allegations made against His Holiness the Dalai Lama. What do you think is the most effective way to counter this disinformation?
BT: The social media field is something that is hard to understand totally so that we can find a viable solution, because it doesn’t take more than one person to create a situation. So I don’t have a magic wand to say what should be done. But what I think should be done by Tibet supporters is while we should respond to these, we should respond on a rational level. By that I mean, oftentimes what ends up creating these social media storms is that the two opposing sides, rather than trying to clarify the issue, they raise the issue to a new level through allegations and counter allegations. That’s how social media thrives. If you say “I agree but there is this perspective” or “I beg to disagree but this is this way,” not many take an interest. And that’s the nature of the beast. So what I try to do in my own limited way is, yes, I respond to whatever is happening, if there is a need for a response, in a way that from my perspective doesn’t add to the problem but tries to reduce it. I told you before about the Tibetan democracy experience. Even there, social media plays an important role in creating unnecessary tension, because someone levels a charge against a personality, and then rather than clarifying, the other side makes a counter allegation, and then people end up trying to outmaneuver each other. But with the issue of the distortion of His Holiness’ video, at the end of the day, the Tibetan presence did help in providing a perspective that calmed it down. Even there there were counter allegations too, but more they were trying to make people understand the totality of the situation and what does it mean from the perspective of someone like the Dalai Lama. So these things we can do because as I said, it just takes one person to create a problem, but it also just takes one person with adequate facilities to have a positive impact. Even though internet connections with Tibet are virtually impossible, certainly people can continue to post, because somewhere somebody is able to look at something.
CDT: Speaking of access to information from inside Tibet, one of the facts that was most shocking to me in the ICT report you mentioned earlier is that only five refugees were documented crossing the Tibet border in 2022. Thousands used to flee every year. This obviously has far-reaching and dire implications for people both inside and outside Tibet. But what impact do you think this has on the world’s understanding of what is happening in Tibet, with a primary source of firsthand accounts now shut down?
BT: Obviously that has impacted it particularly in the context of visible understanding of the issue of Tibet. Because when refugees come out to Nepal into Dharamsala and [elsewhere in] India, and they are able to interact with the media and relay their experiences, it creates an attention that generates more awareness. That possibility is no longer there. And also in a deeper sense, we have an opportunity to understand certain developments from a social perspective. For example, if there’s a policy change, how do people in a certain village in Tibet look at it and what is the impact for them? They may not be thinking about it along those lines, but when they relay their experiences, we were able to glean from those, and that is no longer possible. Having said that, the virtual absence of newcomers from Tibet, is also a challenge for the Tibetan movement to find new ways to address the issue. Therefore when I mentioned about analyzing the policy changes, that’s one way of trying to address the gap.
CDT: What recent developments or events give you hope for the future of Tibet and Tibetans?
BT: I mentioned the contradiction that is there within the issue of keeping Tibetan culture intact and making Tibetan identity subservient to the CCP-created identity–irrespective of what the Chinese authorities are doing or may end up doing further, that contradiction will continue to remain. As long as we are able to utilize that contradiction, we–and I mean both Tibetans outside and, more importantly, Tibetans inside–can create change. Tibetans inside may not have an opportunity to talk about politics or autonomy or rights, but they can use other language, and I think they do realize they can do that to create that momentum. I’ll give you an example. Before 1959 when the Communists took over Tibet, the areas that were under the Dalai Lama were not the total Tibet that we are speaking of today, because for some time some of the areas in the east and northeast had already been taken away by local warlords or later on by the Nationalists. But at the same time, these people had the sense of a common Tibetan identity. And that became very much out there, in the post-1959 period. So today, irrespective of which Tibetan you speak to, we all have that same common Tibetan sense of belonging. And that’s also there inside Tibet, whether you are from the TAR, or the Tibetan areas in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu or Qinghai. That is something that Tibetans inside Tibet continue to feel strongly about. And that’s also something the Chinese authorities themselves mandated in the sense that if you look at the Chinese government’s ethnographic map of the People’s Republic of China, all those areas that are considered Tibetan, that is basically the common identity we are talking about. So I think people in Tibet will continue to find ways, and that’s why the Dalai Lama’s autonomy offer is important because he says in order to survive, all Tibetans need to be treated as one. You cannot have different policies for different types of Tibetans. So if there is a uniform policy for Tibetans irrespective of where they are living, in terms of their outlook, their culture, preservation of religious tradition, that they can do even under the present circumstances. And that can continue the survival of the Tibetan identity in a different way, with hope that saner counsel will prevail in Beijing.
We have heard that in China there are two schools of thought. One says, talk to the Dalai Lama, he’s not a problem. If we find a solution with him, then we will be able to find a solution to Tibet and everything that is there. There is another school of thought that says the Dalai Lama may have the solution but he’s more of a problem, because if he comes he may even be a threat to the Chinese Communist Party, and therefore they dread even talking about his coming back. So if we can somehow spread more thinking along the lines of Wang Lixiong, that the Dalai Lama is the key, that it is a mistake to think of him as a liability rather than an asset—if the authorities realize this and try to come to a solution within the lifetime of this Dalai Lama, there is every possibility of them addressing the issue of Tibet in a lasting way. But if not, they may be able to hold off for now, in the post Dalai Lama period, but then there will be friction points somewhere, and there will be no one to really calm the situation.
CDT: What can CDT and our readers do to help support Tibetans?
BT: China Digital Times has been out there trying to look at the issue of Tibet in a deeper way in your postings, and that has really helped the opinion makers and the policy makers understand the issue of Tibet. And you can continue in this direction, because we began with your point about less attention on Tibet. The policymakers tend to provide less visible attention to Tibet–and I say visible because I think internally the governments do have some sort of attention on Tibet but they don’t either look for or find a visible way of expressing it. You’re saying yes, Tibet is an issue that merits continued attention and that if there is a resolution to the Tibet issue, that does not just mean providing some sort of solace to the Tibetan people but, more importantly, it can have an impact on the future positive direction of China, on regional stability, and on the world at large. His Holiness says that because the Tibetan issue has adopted a peaceful way of struggle, if it succeeds, then it will be a good model for international conflict resolution. Whether it succeeds or not, much depends on government intervention.