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The Interesting Issue of ³Cross-Pass Relations² Between Tibetans

March 30, 2010

Bhuchung K. Tsering
March 26, 2010

This blog posting is inspired by delegations of Tibetans, sent by the
Chinese Government, that are currently visiting Europe, Australia and New
Zealand. One is led by Jampa Phuntsok, the head of the Tibet Autonomous
Region¹s People¹s Congress in Lhasa, while the other is led by Tanzen
Lhundup, a scholar at the China Tibetology Research Center in Beijing. As I
monitor their trips, I am beginning to mentally compare the work these
delegations seem to be doing not only on the familiar ³cross-strait
relations² but also with a less known development, which I would call
³cross-pass relations² between Tibetans in Tibet and those outside of Tibet.

When we talk about China¹s role in the international community one of the
issues that comes up is that of cross-strait relations, namely China¹s
contact with Taiwan. Much has been written on this, including developments
where increasing people-to-people contact are being established between
Taiwanese and Chinese. Several thousand Taiwanese have not only been allowed
comparative freedom to visit China but also to undertake business ventures.
During one of the visits of envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to China
(I was a member of the team), we visited Kunshan in Jiangsu Province where
we were informed about the many Taiwanese people who have resettled there.

Similarly, Chinese citizens have more freedom in getting passports and
visiting Taiwan to meet their friends and relatives or for tourism purposes
than in the past. In order to facilitate these relations, direct flights to
Taiwan have been established by the Chinese government.

Although there is no doubt that the Chinese authorities have officials
monitoring the Taiwanese, there does seem to be some space given to them to
undertake regular activities without political interference. In short,
despite the political difference between Taiwan and China, the Chinese
government has been making serious efforts in encouraging people across the
strait to establish cordial relations.

But then take a look at the situation on relations between Tibetans in Tibet
and ³overseas² Tibetans. Even though the basis is more or less similar, the
approach the Chinese government has adopted shows a bias against the

Just as there are many Taiwanese who have ethnic roots and relatives in
China and thus have an emotional connection, the ³overseas² Tibetans look to
Tibet as their homeland and have relatives there. Just like the Taiwanese,
the Tibetans have a political disagreement with China. Again, just as is the
situation among Taiwanese, there are Tibetans who favor rapprochement with
China and those who don¹t.

Despite these similarities, the Tibetan people, whether in Tibet or outside,
are being looked upon by the Chinese authorities with suspicions and
mistrust. Tibetans in Tibet are second class citizens without any enjoyment
of equal rights as their Chinese neighbors. A case in point is freedom of
movement. Despite relaxations in passport rules that has facilitated
acquiring the document for millions of ethnic Chinese, when it comes to
Tibetans they seem to have a different set of rules that makes it much
harder. It is only a handful of Tibetans in Tibet who are able to attain
passports and whose desire to go on pilgrimages to Nepal and India (where
most of the sacred Buddhist sites are located) are fulfilled. While on this,
the Hui people in China get better consideration as the Chinese government
itself makes arrangements for their annual pilgrimages to Mecca. This is
what we were informed when we visited the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

As for Tibetans abroad being able to visit their relatives in Tibet or to go
on pilgrimages to Lhasa and other sacred sites, again only a handful of
people may get permission from the Chinese authorities. Tibetan Americans or
Tibetans who are citizens of other countries are discriminated against by
the Chinese embassies, with their visa applications being processed
differently and more often than not being rejected, merely because of their

In short, when it comes to Tibetans, instead of any official support for
better contact, the Chinese government does everything to create division.

The delegations that the Chinese government sends, like the one that
inspired this blog, have the task of creating the impression to the domestic
Chinese audience that the international community, as well as the ³overseas
Tibetans,² recognize them as Tibetan representatives. This is achieved by
the government-controlled Chinese media hyping low-level official meetings
and projecting meetings with some Tibetans residing abroad (who may be
indebted to the Chinese authorities) as indicators.

However, at a personal level, there has been and continues to be very
creative ³cross-pass relations² between the Tibetan communities residing
across the two sides of the Himalayan range. At one level we find many
Tibetans from Tibet risking their lives to cross the Himalayan passes to
visit their friends and relatives outside, to receive the blessings of His
Holiness the Dalai Lama, and to go on pilgrimages in India and Nepal.

At an unofficial level, for every ³China¹s Tibetan² delegation that is sent
abroad there may be dozens more Tibetans in Tibet, individuals and groups,
who are able to interact with their brethren abroad. Unfortunately, given
the way the Chinese government has been acting towards Tibetans these are
done behind their watchful eyes. I am not saying these interactions have a
political motive or are being done to collude against the Chinese
government. Rather, these are the product of the natural desire by people
who have much in common but are being kept divided on account of the
political exigencies of the Chinese government. I have been part of such
meetings and have always found them emotionally charged. There is the
outpouring of feelings from both the sides. The admiration of those Tibetans
abroad at what the Tibetans in Tibet are able to do under the very
constrained situation goes without saying.

Many Tibetans in Tibet are inspired by the achievements of their fellow
brethren in exile, whether it is something that the Tibetan diaspora take
for granted, like being able to speak English fluently, or getting admission
to Harvard University (apparently the Chinese leadership considers that to
be the mother of all universities). They are fans of music composed by young
Tibetans abroad and acknowledge the efficacy of traditional Tibetan
medicines that are produced in Dharamsala (compared to those produced in
Tibet) as they incorporate the necessary spiritual component. Of course,
they also have admiration for institutions that Tibetans in exile have set
up that have not only preserved and promoted Tibetan culture but also
brought international fame.

But these are things that you would not get to hear from the official
delegations because all Tibetans ­ on both sides of the passes ­ know of the
dire consequences in Tibet for revealing ³state secrets.²
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