Pressure Grows on Biden to Act on Crisis in Tibet

Administration has yet to take on Chinese human rights abuses in Tibet

A pro-Tibet protester / Getty Images
March 27, 2021

Activists and former Trump administration officials are urging the Biden administration to respond to the growing human rights crisis in Tibet.

Robert Destro, former president Trump's special envoy for Tibet and assistant secretary of state for human rights and labor, accused the Biden administration of neglecting Tibet, which remains tied as the least free country in the world, according to one human rights group. Even with an emerging human rights crisis during the 2020 American presidential election, then-candidate Biden's campaign platform did not include a commitment to Tibet until days after a Washington Free Beacon report showed it had failed to do so. Destro's former position remains vacant, which he said will only encourage Chinese aggression against Tibet.

"We need to do everything we can to keep the Tibetan community together," Destro said. "The question is: what is the orientation of the [personnel]? Are they serious about who they are dealing with or not? Are they going to learn from history? How do you do business with people who will sell your kidneys?"

"You really need that assistant and under secretary level filled in because those are the people that do all of the heavy lifting," Destro said.

The State Department told the Free Beacon it is prepared to appoint an envoy for Tibet, but did not specify a timeline.

"The Biden Administration will stand up for Tibetans. China's government has relentlessly assaulted the human rights dignity of Tibetans," a department spokesperson said. "The Secretary is committed to appointing a United States Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues in a timely manner and to empowering that individual."

Human rights groups have accused Chinese authorities of raping Tibetan nuns, forcefully living with Tibetan families, and attempting to suppress Tibetan language and religion out of the country. Sam Brownback, Trump's ambassador at large for religious freedom, echoed Destro's concerns and urged the Biden administration to consider a genocide declaration for the human rights situation in Tibet. Brownback also said it is critical that the White House push back against China's attempts to pick the next Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetans.

"During my time at the State Department we worked with the Dalai Lama to counter [Chinese Communist Party] attempts to exert control over their selection of the next Dalai Lama," Brownback said. "I hope President Biden carries this work forward, even reviewing if what has been done to Tibetan Buddhists rises to the level of genocide. The office of a special envoy was a good step. I think it should be continued."

Pema Doma, the campaigns director for Students for a Free Tibet, said China's human rights abuses should be a "red line" for the Biden administration. She said the United States should boycott the Olympics if necessary to pressure the regime.

"The occupation of Tibet should be a red line for the Biden administration," Doma said. "Agreeing to go to an Olympics in a country that is actively committing genocide is not a slippery slope. It's actively jumping off a cliff."

The State Department spokesperson did not commit to any action on an Olympic boycott, instead saying that the administration will consult with allies and partners to "establish our shared approach to China."

Many activists say the roadmap for the Uighur genocide can be traced back to Tibet. Chen Quanguo, the Chinese Communist Party official who oversees labor camps and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, previously served as Beijing's top official in Tibet.

"Tibet is the original blueprint for the Chinese Communist Party's broader efforts to destroy ethnic and cultural diversity," said House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Michael McCaul (R., Texas). "They are now using that blueprint to conduct a brutal genocide against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities."

Tibet has gained bipartisan support in the past. The International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, said Biden can maintain that tradition by appointing a diplomat to fill Destro's role.

"For decades, the Tibetan cause has had strong support from both the Congress and the White House," the group said in a statement. "President Biden promised during his campaign to appoint a special coordinator for Tibetan issues, and we look forward to him keeping that promise."