When former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a surprise congressional delegation to Tibet last month, the Chinese government took major steps to mask its repression of Tibetan sentiment on the ground while framing an orchestrated reality for the visiting parties.
Chinese media in Tibet reported that Pelosi “highly praised” the “progress” the ruling Communist Party had made in “guaranteeing religious freedom, protecting ethnic culture and protecting the ecology and environment.”
Although the democratic former speaker took caution not to offend Chinese President Xi Jinping and called the visit an important first step toward solving the Tibetan issue, Pelosi said she suspected parts of the tour were staged including “set-up” Tibetan families that met with the delegation.
Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who was among the traveling group, said American lawmakers had “heated discussions” with Chinese officials.
Nonetheless, Tibet’s exiled leadership in India said the visit was a missed opportunity for members of Congress to inform ordinary Americans about the cultural and religious suppression suffered by Tibetans at the hands of Chinese authorities.
For weeks before the visit, the Chinese government clamped down on dissent throughout the capital Lhasa before decreasing the visibility of their security forces, according to Bloomberg News. The congress members’ visas were approved by the Chinese embassy in Washington D.C. just days before the trip.
“There was a clampdown in Lhasa for several weeks,” said Lobsang Sangay, and Tibetan political leader in exile, citing his network of contacts inside Tibet. “People were puzzled as to what was happening, then they found out there was a congressional delegation they were preparing. They never got the true picture, that’s obvious.”
According to Lobsang, the Chinese government has enacted a grid-system of surveillance and control throughout Tibet. Neighborhoods are divided into clusters of families and each cluster has an appointed representative in charge of maintaining stability and the rule-of-law. Neighbors are encouraged and incentivized for turning in their neighbors for crimes such as having books about human rights or having a picture of the Dalai Lama.
“Essentially, they are making your neighbor your spy,” Lobsang told Bloomberg News. “That’s a very uncomfortable way of living.”
The Chinese government has also been vamping up efforts to alter Tibet’s demographics by encouraging Han Chinese to move in, open businesses and marry Tibetans. New rail lines and cities are part of this project.
“You get subsidized home, jobs, promotion if you marry Tibetans, in order to assimilate Tibetans with Han Chinese,” Lobsang said. “That’s a dilution of Tibetan identity… It’s cultural assimilation.”
The Tibetan leadership hopes more such delegations would visit Tibet with more coming home with a clearer picture of what’s really going on under Chinese rule.