US ambassador visiting Tibet raises concerns over restrictions on religion and culture

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The U.S. ambassador to China is making a rare visit to Qinghai and Tibet this week to meet local officials and address debated issues. This is the first visit by a U.S. ambassador since 2015, amid escalating trade tension between the two countries.

U.S. embassy spokeswoman announced Mr. Terry Branstad’s schedule and said in an emailed statement, “This visit is a chance for the ambassador to engage with local leaders to raise long-standing concerns about restrictions on religious freedom and the preservation of Tibetan culture and language.”

Branstad was traveling to Qinghai province and neighboring Tibet from May 19 to May 25 on a trip that will include official meetings as well as visits to religious and cultural heritage sites, the spokesperson said.

China has cited “geographic” and “climatic conditions” for keeping U.S. officials out of the sensitive region.

According to a March report by the U.S. State Department, China denied five out of nine official requests to visit Tibet in 2018. It was the only region of the country that Beijing required diplomats to obtain permission before visiting that year. The previous U.S. Ambassador to China, Max Baucus, visited Tibet in May 2015.

The visit follows the passing of the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act in December that requires the Embassy to deny visas to Chinese officials in charge of implementing policies that restrict access to Tibet for foreigners.

China denounced the United States for passing the law, which seeks to promote access to Tibet for U.S. diplomats and other officials, journalists and other citizens by denying U.S. entry for Chinese officials.

China hopes the U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad will have a deeper understanding of Tibet Autonomous Region through his visit, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang said Monday.

“We welcome Ambassador Branstad to visit Tibet and hope he will have a first-hand understanding of economic and social development, as well as significant changes in people’s livelihood over the past 60 plus years since the peaceful liberation of Tibet,” said Lu.

China hopes that Branstad does not take any “prejudices” with him on this trip and goes with an objective attitude so he can reach his own conclusions, Lu told a daily news briefing.

“Especially on the protection and development of Tibetan culture, religion, heritage, and history, I hope that he can respect the facts and draw his own conclusions, instead of being confused and disturbed by hearsay and certain long-standing rumors and smears.”

China says Tibet has been part of its territory for centuries, but many Tibetans say they were effectively an independent nation for most of that time. Beijing’s control was most recently asserted when the Communist Party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, invaded the region in 1950.

In recent years there has been a significant tightening of control over Tibetan Buddhism, use of the Tibetan language and traditional culture. Following anti-government protests in 2008, Beijing imposed a policy of “grid policing” that significantly reduces travel and social life, methods subsequently imposed in the traditionally Muslim neighboring region of Xinjiang, where hundreds of thousands of residents have been confined to detention centers.

At least 150 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 to protest Beijing’s presence in Tibet, most of whom later died.

This year is also the 60th anniversary of the exile of Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to India. Although the U.S. officially recognizes Tibet as part of China, American diplomats and politicians have decried the religious and cultural repression of the Tibetan people.

Miles Kwok has pledged that the new government after overthrowing the Communist Party dictatorship would immediately declare Tibet and Xinjiang’s autonomy with freedom in religion and governance.

By Winnie Troppie

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