Students for a Free Tibet raise issue of Tibetan statehood


Every weekend of her childhood, Tenzin Tseyang, a Tibetan student currently attending UMass Amherst, was packed into her family car to go to the five-hour Sunday school with her Tibetan community in Boston. “I remember arguing with my dad on the way there and not wanting to go,” Tseyang said. “But now looking back I’m so thankful he made me go because now I can speak Tibetan and I have personal connections [to Tibet] — not just by being Tibetan, but also having a strong sense of a Tibetan identity.”

According to Tseyang, these Sunday afternoon activities — performing traditional dances and learning the language — are crimes punishable by incarceration for many residents of Tibet.

Tseyang, the president of the UMass chapter of Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), is working to organize political support abroad for Tibetan independence from China, which SFT argues was wrongfully taken away when China took over Tibet’s government in 1951.

The mission of SFT is to preserve Tibetan culture. They advocate for national independence through grassroots campaigns and lobbying in the U.S. SFT also focuses on “small things,” said Tseyang, like speaking the language at home and “celebrating Tibetan holidays and practicing cultural traditions.” They believe their efforts have had a positive impact on preserving Tibetan culture.

According to the Wall Street Journal, during China’s Cultural Revolution in 1966 Tibetan Buddhism came under attack: monks were killed, temples were destroyed and people were arrested for practicing the religion freely. In the 1980s, Beijing began to repair its relationship with Tibet. However, in 1988, when mass pro-independence protests were staged in the Tibetan capital Lhasa, the Chinese government instituted martial law, incarcerating any dissidents.

Many Tibetans believe the government’s definition of dissidence is too broad. According to Tseyang, a person can be arrested for learning Tibetan, displaying a picture of the Dalai Lama or flying the Tibetan flag. SFT campaigns to improve the lives of Tibetans living in Tibet at any venue they can, including Himalayan Night at Mount Holyoke.

Besides the annual presentation at the Nepali Student Organization’s (NESPO) Himalayan Night, SFT also organizes speeches given by Tibetan refugees. In 2016, SFT invited former political prisoner and activist Ngawang Sangdrol to speak. Sangdrol was incarcerated for peacefully protesting Chinese rule and subsequently spreading pro-independence propagands from prison. Sangdrol recounted the abuses she suffered in prison before she fled to the U.S. seeking political asylum. The audience at the event was a mixture of other Tibetan descendants and a number of Chinese students who came to protest.

Wu, a former UMass student who did not want to include his first name, helped organize a rally against Sangdrol. He said the Chinese students came forward because, as Chinese citizens, they “obviously should stand against Tibetan separatists.” People at the rally held signs with slogans such as “A Liar, A Traitor” and “UMass, Stop Splitting Our Country.” The Chinese students could not point to specific information to discredit the content of the speech or the speaker herself due to a lack of resources. According to Wu, “little of her detailed information can be found on Chinese domestic websites.” He also added that foreign websites “are mostly supportive of [Sangdrol].”

The protestors instead focused on narrating their knowledge of Tibetan history. “We educated people on the historical serfdom in Tibet and its modernization today,” said Wu. The Chinese government claims that by placing nomadic Tibetan farmers into urban spaces, they have improved the “serf-like” conditions people lived under during the Dalai Lama’s rule. At Mount Holyoke’s annual Himalayan Night, Chinese students face the same issue — many will walk out every year because they believe SFT is spreading misinformation through their presentation.

According to the BBC, the “Seventeen Point Agreement” that was signed in 1951 was Beijing’s compulsory establishment of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Since the government claimed Tibet had technically been part of China since the 13th century, they rationalized that the treaty constituted a “peaceful liberation.” Tibetan nationalists disagree. The Washington Post reported that Tibetans believe they had close working relationships with the Manchu and Qing empires, including offering them spiritual guidance, but were never under their control. In 1913, Tibet declared full political independence from China and had no influence from Beijing until the invasion in 1950.

Some Chinese students were irritated by the speech given by SFT’s event coordinator, Tenzin Tsedon, on Himalayan Night. “I did not listen to her full speech,” said a Chinese student who attended Himalayan night. “When she began to introduce the history of Han Chinese oppression in the region, I couldn’t stand it. I didn’t want to hear it, so I went out.”

The student felt Tsedon was biased and ignored facts. “As far as what I know, Tibet was peacefully liberated by Chairman Mao from [the] Dalai Lama’s feudal dictatorship.”

Yuming Wang ’22 refuted the speaker’s claims of religious practice suppression. “I have never been to Tibet but I have been to Ya Ding, a town in Yunnan province with a Tibetan community,” Wang said. “I don’t understand what the so-called suppression of religious freedom means, because people there were freely doing religious practices […] I don’t think they were suppressed at all.”

Many Chinese students did admit that some of their knowledge of Tibet is acquired from Chinese national websites, online news and comments by Chinese cyber activists.

Because media censorship in China is not a secret in today’s world, Chinese students who state their knowledge and opinions are often assumed to be influenced by biased media. Zikun Meng, who participated in the 2016 UMass protest, recalled that descendants of Tibetan immigrants among the audience “took [a]video of us, asking questions like ‘do you know the truth about Tibet? Who taught you the history?’” The clip was then posted on Facebook and captioned “Look at these brainwashed Chinese people.”

A 2016 UMass rally participant refuted this charge. “Having studied in the U.S. for seven or eight years, I educate myself on histories from an objective perspective.” She said she learned “many historical records proving Tibetans’ serfdom.”

Most Chinese students consider the term “brainwashed” to be humiliating. “I hate it when people assume we are hindered from the truth, controlled by the state media,’” said Zhaoqi Ren ’20, a Chinese student at Mount Holyoke. “I feel like I’m attacked, mocked as a fool who is not even capable of making my own judgment.”

Ren thinks people in the U.S. are “not in any rightful place” to judge Chinese media. “Western media is plunged with biases of political parties and interest groups. It doesn’t achieve any more objectivity than the Chinese media,” said Ren.

Lilian Lin ’21, a Mount Holyoke student from Xinjiang, sees undeniable strategic and security incentives behind the government’s claim on its borderlands.

The Tibetan Autonomous Area is a 965,000-square mile crucial security node sitting at the heart of central Eurasia. “Tibet is the buttress on our national frontiers — the hand which protects the face,” the Manchu government once claimed when it occupied Tibet in 1906. Such security concerns still remain for today’s Chinese government. Besides its security significance, the high plateau is also rich in natural resources and the origin of water of the 10 major river systems flowing in Central and South Asia.

Sovereignty issues in Tibet are tied with “every government’s political thoughts and strategic considerations,” said Lin. “Foreign influences stimulating the uprising in Tibet also have their own political incentives.”

“The communist party [is] putting in efforts to figure out, along with the locals, how they can simultaneously maintain regional stability and security while retaining civil liberty; how they can retain culture and identities while also [change] the economic development,” Lin added.

Just like the government’s strategic considerations, individuals’ opinions on the policies controlling and reforming the land hinge on how they conceptualize the gains and losses of occupation. Chinese modernization has connected Tibet to the rest of China by railway and has created affordable housing units in cities as well as national parks. “There must be a group of people who welcome the Communist party because of the modernization prospects,” said Lin. “And there [are] people [who] resent the policy because they are deprived of their previous benefits.” According to Human Rights Watch, to create those national parks Tibetans were relocated to urban centers where their agricultural skills are rendered obsolete. As more Han Chinese people populate the region, there are fewer and fewer job opportunities for native Tibetans, especially those who used to live nomadic lives and do not speak Chinese.

“[Displacing minority groups has] applied in every part of the world,” said Lin. She pointed out that China and Tibet may turn out similarly to the U.S. and Texas, where few people now question the annexation of the region from Mexico. But if it becomes a case like the Soviet Union — the ultimate collapse of which led to it being condemned throughout history for suppressing ethnic nations — Tibet’s story will be interpreted in a different way.

“Maybe after 100 years, people will become comfortable with [Beijing’s rule in Tibet] if they maintain a good regulation over the region,” said Lin. “But we can’t decide just yet.”