Leahy Statement On The Senate's Passage Of The Reciprocal Access To Tibet Act

Mr. President, this evening the Senate unanimously passed the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018.  I was one of the earliest cosponsors of this bill, and I strongly support it.  For far too long, the Chinese government has tightly restricted access to Tibet, preventing U.S. diplomats and journalists from reporting on the systematic human rights abuses and destruction of Tibetan culture perpetrated by the Chinese government, and arbitrarily preventing Tibetan-Americans from visiting their families.  Passing this legislation today represents a strong, bipartisan step toward addressing that decades-long injustice.  I would like to thank Senator Rubio and Congressman McGovern for their work on this legislation over several years.

The Chinese government arbitrarily requires a special permit for a foreign diplomat, reporter, or tourist to visit Tibet – a requirement China does not impose for travel to any other provincial-level jurisdiction, even Xinjiang.  The Chinese government frequently denies requests for these permits to Tibet. And even when it does grant permits, it generally requires foreigners to be accompanied at all times by a government-designated guide.  This arbitrary system not only makes it exceptionally difficult to report on the situation in Tibet, but it also gives the Chinese government significant leverage – which it reportedly exploits in various ways – over persons who hope to obtain a permit.

In a 2015 white paper, the Chinese government claimed that, under Chinese rule, “Tibet has been transformed from a poor and backward society to one that is advanced in both economy and culture.”  Setting aside that this statement would look perfectly at home among the discredited justifications for 19th Century colonialism, if it were true then one would expect China to welcome the world to witness its rule in Tibet.  Yet in 2016, The Washington Post reported that Tibet “is harder to visit as a journalist than North Korea.”  International media cannot even enter Tibet except on infrequent, tightly-controlled tours organized by the Chinese government.  The situation is much the same for U.S. diplomats.

And it’s not just journalists and officials whose freedom of movement is restricted. Tibetan-Americans attempting to visit their homeland report undergoing a discriminatory Chinese visa process, different from what is typically required for American citizens, and often find their requests arbitrarily denied.  I have heard about this problem directly from my Tibetan-American constituents in Vermont.  I have spoken about it with the leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile. 

This issue has even touched a Tibetan-American member of my staff, Nima Binara.  His 89 year-old grandmother, Kaedungkhangsar Yangchen Dolkar, was a naturalized American citizen who hoped to see her homeland and her relatives one last time before she passed away, a visit the Chinese government refused to grant. Denying a person’s right to visit their homeland is a petty display of authoritarian control, and one that we should not tolerate in the 21st Century.

I vividly remember visiting Tibet in 1988 and meeting its warmhearted people, appreciating its profound culture, and seeing its breathtaking landscape.  With this legislation, we are now a step closer to the day when all American tourists, journalists, and diplomats can make such a trip without undue restrictions.  This legislation will also make it more difficult for China to hide its atrocious human rights record in Tibet behind a cloak of isolation.  It will make it easier for Tibetans inside Tibet to interact with the outside world, and more likely for the world to realize that Tibetans are a distinct people who deserve their right to self-determination.

The House has already unanimously passed this bill.  I urge the President to sign it into law without delay.

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