The Tibetan question has returned to the fore,  making its way high on the agenda of the European Union’s foreign ministers. Chinese officials have spent many years lobbying against Tibetan rights and blocking any political activities in favour of human rights in this Chinese occupied region.

Back in Europe, there is growing concern about the security threats related to China’s activities in Europe. Together with cybersecurity threats and the spread of Chinese propaganda through the China-funded Confucius Centres , Europe has expressed its concern about the situation of oppressed nations in China.

Tibet is an example of forced assimilation processes. China’s brutality is well known.

And now, the Xinjiang region in North-Western China shows how forced assimilation remains the ruling regime’s official policy. As many as two million Uyghurs and Muslims have been interned in re-education camps. In Europe, Chinese secret services allegedly target Tibetan and Uyghur activists.

In April, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on human rights in China. It called on the Chinese government to put an end to arbitrary detentions, without any charges, trial or criminal conviction, of members of the Uyghur and Kazakh minority and Tibetans.

During the 37th round of the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue in Brussels on 1-2 April, the EU delegation highlighted the deteriorating situation of civil and political rights in China. They noted the arrest and detention of a significant number of human rights defenders and lawyers.

Dr Lobsang Sangay, the president of the Tibetan-government-in-exile, officially known as Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), does not mince his words. In an interview with European Interest, he likened Tibet to a “huge prison under China’s unfettered rule”.

Sangay spoke about the situation in Tibet today, and EU efforts to support the rights of the Tibetans. He also said security issues threaten China’s economic expansion “is not without political ramifications”

European Interest: The European Union has expressed significant concerns about Chinese cyber security threats against the EU. Do you think the EU may become more sympathetic to the Tibet problem?

Dr Lobsang Sangay: I share the same concerns with the EU. The Central Tibetan Administration, which is based in Dharamsala, India and other Tibetan organisations outside Tibet, have been constant targets of Chinese cyberattacks.

As for the EU’s support for the Tibet issue, the EU has always been sympathetic. Tibet’s cause has a strong voice at the European Parliament. As staunch supporter, the European Parliament has adopted numerous resolutions, including the latest in April. In it, among others, it has called for China to respect human rights in Tibet. It also called on the member states to prevent harassment of European citizens of Tibetan origin by China.

There have been public statements on Tibet made by European Council President Donald Tusk.

Tibet’s cause has a strong voice at the European Parliament. In a way the EU’s stand on Tibet is reiteration of its basic values of respect for freedom, dignity and justice

The EU-China Human Rights Dialogue has been raising the issue of human rights and religious freedom in Tibet. In the 37th Dialogue recently in April the EU raised the personal cases of Tibetan activists, including Tashi Wangchuck and Lobsang Dhargye.

We are sincerely grateful to the EU and our supporters in the European Parliament.  In a way the EU’s stand on Tibet is reiteration of its basic values of respect for freedom, dignity and justice.

The “Belt and Road” initiative is seen as an attempt of China to influence EU member states. A few EU countries have already signed MoUs. Do you agree with those who argue China’s influence in Europe is growing? What does this mean for the Tibetan problem and the Tibetans in the EU?  

One road built by China into Tibet promising prosperity led to the invasion of Tibet. So, I think one should tread carefully. It’s well known that China’s economic expansion is not without political ramifications.

As the western world opens its door to Chinese investment, it is important to understand what kind of economic and political model China brings on to the table.  We see more and more reports and news of systematic Chinese influence through various channels and tools such as to co-opt the elites, media and academia.

China has been using its political and economic power to influence the dialogue on Human Rights at the United Nation. The very concept human rights is being brazenly sought to be re-modelled on Chinese characteristics.

However, we have remained undeterred for 60 years now and we will continue to be. And we have trust in the EU and other major liberal democratic nations that they will stand true to the values and principles that their nations are founded upon.

There have been many reports that the Chinese leadership – since Xi Jinping became president – intensified the persecution of the Muslim peoples of Xinjiang. Did the same occur to Tibetans?

Chen Quanguo, who is now the Party Secretary of Xinjiang was the Party Secretary of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). He is the architect of the expansive and pervasive security surveillance such as the Grid System, and the policy of forced assimilation that was implemented in Tibet. They are now being played out in Xinjiang. China employs learning-by-doing strategy. What we are witnessing in Xinjiang – from the system of intense security surveillance mechanism to the policies targeting the culture, religion and identity of the Uighurs – has been carried out in Tibet.

As the western world opens its door to Chinese investment, it is important to understand what kind of economic and political model China brings on to the table

What is the situation in Tibet today? Has the plight of Tibetans improved?

The situation in Tibet remains critical. Since 2009, 153 Tibetans have self-immolated in Tibet calling for freedom and return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

If you look at the 2019 Freedom in the World report by Freedom House, Tibet scored 1 out of 100 in the freedom index becoming the second least free region after Syria. For reporters, it is more difficult to get access to Tibet than North Korea. Tibetans in Tibet say that it is more difficult to get a passport than to go to heaven.

Tibet today is a huge prison under China’s unfettered rule.

What should we expect from the EU? Does the EU have the power to require China to respect human rights? Do you think the EU can efficiently help Tibetans and how?

The EU has, since the 1990s, engaged with China in the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue. However, these dialogues, which are held behind closed doors, have been undermined and cold-shouldered by China.

During the latest meeting in April, China did not show up at the routine meeting with civil societies.

Tibet today is a huge prison under China’s unfettered rule

The human rights situation in Tibet has gone from bad to worse. Human Rights must be at the forefront of the bilateral relationship with China.

As China’s influence “through both subtle and aggressive diplomacy” on democratic countries continues to endanger democratic values. And, as China pushes forward with its own take on human rights at the UN. It is not just about Tibetans, Uighurs and other repressed peoples under its rule, but it is also about the liberal democracies of the world.

The EU and the other nations must take a strong position against such attempts of undermining the fundamental values that their countries are founded upon.

Big powers like China need to be held accountable and responsible. Its impunity in trampling upon basic human rights and disregarding international principles of reciprocity must be challenged forthrightly.

There are hopeful signs lately though. Some cases of push-back against China are visible.