Section 4 of the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018 of P.L. 115-330, enacted on December 19, 2018, requires the Department of State to provide a report to Congress, within 90 days of enactment and annually thereafter for five years, regarding the level of access Chinese authorities granted U.S. diplomats and officials, journalists, and tourists to Tibetan areas in China. This report covers the period of 2018, with comparisons to 2017 as applicable.
The Chinese government systematically impeded travel to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan areas outside the TAR for U.S. diplomats and officials, journalists, and tourists in 2018. The central government required all international visitors to apply for a Tibet travel permit to visit the TAR and regularly denied requests by international journalists, diplomats, and other officials for official travel. Approval for tourist travel to the TAR was easier to secure, but was often restricted around sensitive dates. U.S. official visits to the TAR, when permitted, were highly restricted. Travel to Tibetan areas outside the TAR did not require a permit or, for diplomats and officials, prior notification by diplomatic note. However, Chinese security forces used conspicuous monitoring to intimidate U.S. diplomats and officials, Chinese government-designated minders followed U.S. diplomats and officials at all times, prevented them from meeting or speaking with local contacts, interrogated them, and restricted their movement in these areas. Tibetan-Americans regularly faced restrictions on their travel to Tibetan areas. Journalist access to these areas remained restricted and limited.
Comparison with the level of access granted to other areas of China
Diplomats and other officials
In 2018, the TAR was the only area of China for which the Chinese government required diplomats to request permission to visit. Diplomats could not purchase air or train tickets without official TAR approval. Chinese security personnel ensured vehicles’ passengers had approved travel permits. In 2018, the Chinese government denied five of the nine official requests from the U.S. diplomatic mission in China to visit the TAR, including the Ambassador’s request to visit. Of the four trips approved for U.S. diplomats and officials in 2018, two were for routine consular access and one for the Consul General in Chengdu. A fourth was for regional security officials to advance a visit by the Ambassador, which Chinese authorities cancelled twice in 2018 without providing alternative dates or a reason for the cancellation. The Chinese government permitted one visit of a U.S. delegation of Congressional staffers in 2018. When U.S. diplomats received permission through the TAR Foreign Affairs Office (FAO) to travel to the TAR, FAO and security personnel tightly chaperoned their trips. In 2017 and 2018, local authorities in Tibetan areas of Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP) in Sichuan province and Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) TAP in Sichuan province interrogated U.S. diplomats and denied them access to local Tibetan monasteries despite the prior reassurance from provincial authorities that international diplomats were free to travel in these two prefectures without presentation of diplomatic notes.
The Chinese government regulated travel of international visitors to the TAR for tourism, a restriction applied by no other provincial-level entity in China. In accordance with a 1989 central government regulation, international visitors, including U.S. citizens, were required to obtain an official confirmation letter issued by the TAR government, which reports to the central government in Beijing, before entering the TAR. Most tourists received such letters by booking tours through travel agencies officially registered with the Chinese government. The Chinese government mandated that a designated tour guide had to accompany international tourists at all times in the TAR. Foreigners rarely obtained permission to enter the TAR by road. Authorities denied access to the TAR for many international tourists during periods the Chinese government considered politically sensitive, including the March anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising against China’s invasion of Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July.
The TAR FAO and the Tourist Monitoring Section of the TAR Tourism Bureau refused multiple requests to provide complete records of statistics on U.S. tourists’ access to the TAR. According to a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, between 2015 and 2018, a total of 170,000 international tourists visited the TAR, 40,000 of which were U.S. citizens. In his November 2018 meeting with the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, the Lhasa Party Secretary said the TAR attracted 30 million tourists in 2018, only 10,000 of which held U.S. nationality. During a 2018 consular visit to Shannan, in the southern part of TAR, local authorities stated that 521 U.S. citizens traveled to Shannan in 2017. In another consular trip to the TAR in 2017, the TAR Entry and Exit Bureau Deputy Chief said there were 18 U.S. citizens with permanent residency permits living in the TAR. According to media and other reports, Tibetan-Americans, when applying for Chinese visas at PRC embassies, underwent a strict screening process in 2018 which was different from other Americans.
Members of the Tibetan-American community reported that they self-censored their behavior in the United States out of fear of retribution against their family members in Tibet or fear of losing future access to Tibet. The U.S. government received several reports of instances in which Chinese authorities denied entry into China of U.S. citizens of Tibetan heritage in 2018, despite these U.S. citizens possessing valid Chinese visas and travel documents.
Chinese regulations did not require international journalists to obtain prior permission to travel to any part of the country except for the TAR. The Chinese government heavily restricted and controlled access for U.S. journalists to the TAR, and directly threatened to expel U.S. journalists reporting on developments in the TAR. The Chinese government rarely granted requests from international journalists to visit the TAR, and when it did grant them, the government severely limited the scope of reporting. In 2018, the Chinese government organized only one reporting trip to the TAR for international journalists, and allowed two U.S. outlets, Bloomberg and NBC, each to send a single journalist on the trip. While in the TAR, Chinese security officials monitored and controlled these journalists’ movements at all times. Besides this single, brief trip, the government rejected all other U.S. journalists’ requests to visit and report from the TAR, according to data compiled by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC), the professional organization for the international press corps based in China. The FCCC’s 2018 annual report stated that coverage from “Tibet proper remains off-limits to foreign journalists.” A reporter for a UK media outlet told the FCCC, “I was explicitly told reporting on Xinjiang or Tibet was off limits.” The Chinese government further suppressed the ability of U.S. journalists to report about Tibet by intimidating and preventing its own citizens from interacting with foreign press. In 2018, the government sentenced Tibetan language activist Tashi Wangchuk to five years in prison for “inciting separatism” after he appeared in a New York Times documentary calling for linguistic and cultural rights in Tibet.
Journalists of Tibetan heritage also faced Chinese government restrictions on their personal travel to China. In February 2018, a Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalist reported that customs officials at the Baiyun International Airport in Guangzhou interrogated him at the airport in August 2017, seized his electronic devices, and denied him entry into China to visit his mother.
Comparison between the levels of access granted to Tibetan and non-Tibetan areas in relevant provinces
Diplomats and other officials
The Chinese government permitted U.S. diplomats and other officials to travel to Tibetan areas outside of the TAR without submitting diplomatic notes. Chinese security personnel used conspicuous monitoring to intimidate those traveling to the TAR. Government-designated minders followed these diplomats and officials at all times, prevented them from meeting or speaking with local contacts, interrogated them, and restricted their movement. In both 2017 and 2018, local authorities in Tibetan areas of Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP) in Sichuan province and Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) TAP in Sichuan province interrogated U.S. diplomats and denied them access to Tibetan monasteries. Consular officials at the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu who traveled to Tibetan areas in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces required significant advance approval in order to secure official meetings with local government officials. During visits to Tibetan areas in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, local authorities prohibited U.S. diplomats from entering certain monasteries, blocked off specific roads, prevented them from having meetings or conversations, and monitored their conversations. The Xiahe Public Security Bureau in Gansu Province’s Gannan TAP requested a U.S. diplomat on personal travel to Labrang Monastery in March 2018 provide a summary of planned activities for his two-day visit. Upon the conclusion of a trip by U.S. diplomats to Gyalthang, U.S. citizen residents of Gyalthang reported Chinese security personnel questioned them for speaking to U.S. officials.
International tourists sometimes faced restrictions traveling to Tibetan areas outside the TAR. U.S. tourists reported that authorities regularly denied tourist access to the TAR during periods the Chinese government considered politically sensitive. U.S. tourists were also prevented from adjusting their travel plans or adding new destinations to their permits once submitted. U.S. tourists perceived that Chinese authorities denied tourists permission to travel to the TAR based on applicants’ prior work or speech that was critical of Chinese government policies.
Although journalists were permitted to travel to areas outside of the TAR with significant Tibetan populations, journalists are subjected to arbitrary or unlawful surveillance, physically blocked from areas, and intimidated by the government when reporting from such areas. The 2018 FCCC report noted Chinese government representatives told many foreign journalists covering Tibetan areas outside of the TAR that the areas were “restricted or prohibited.” According to the 2017 FCCC annual survey, 80 percent of the 117 respondents said they encountered officials and security agents who prohibited or restricted them from reporting in Tibetan areas. According to the 2018 FCCC report, authorities told two of the four international correspondents in the survey who tried to report on Tibetan areas outside the TAR that their reporting was restricted or prohibited. The FCCC reported in February 2017 that Chinese authorities subjected the Le Monde bureau chief to intimidation in the Kardze TAP of Sichuan, including plainclothes police giving him a deadline to leave a town. In February 2018, security officials detained a New York Times reporter and photographer in Derge (Chinese: Dege) County of Kardze TAP in Sichuan province after they tried to cover a Tibetan New Year (Losar) ceremony at the Dzongsar monastery. Officials prevented them from using their phones while in detention and then escorted them to the closest airport. In March 2018, Ministry of State Security officials followed the Le Monde bureau chief multiple times during a reporting trip to Ngaba TAP in Sichuan province, and in one instance local officials attended a private interview the bureau chief was conducting.
Comparison of the level of access in 2018 to 2017
Diplomats and other officials
During official visits to Dartsedo and Litang, Kardze TAP in Sichuan province in 2017 and 2018, U.S. diplomats observed an increase in the level of Chinese surveillance over their movements and significantly less access to local Tibetan contacts. For example, while local security forces monitored the U.S. diplomats’ movements for the duration of their trips in 2017, they were still able to travel freely and meet with contacts. In 2018, U.S. officials were no longer able to meet with a range of religious leaders and practitioners or NGO representatives in Tibetan areas. Security personnel removed these individuals from their residences or monasteries before the visits. Similarly, U.S. Consulate officials discerned an increase in the number of plainclothes security officers between 2017 and 2018 visits to the TAR.
The FCCC noted only seven international journalists applied for permission to visit Tibetan areas in 2018, compared to dozens of applications in past years. The FCCC attributed the reduction in the number of applications to the apparent futility of applying.
Description of the required permits and other measures that impeded the ability to travel in Tibetan areas
In addition to the permits and other restrictions discussed above, visitors whose requests for a Tibet travel permit were approved by the Chinese government faced additional access barriers once in the TAR. According to travel agents operating in the TAR, the Tibet travel permit did not allow visits to all areas. Some areas that were generally closed to visitors required an additional alien travel permit from the TAR Public Security Bureau. Tourists planning to visit certain border areas also required a military area entry permit from the Military Affairs Office and a foreign affairs permit from the TAR Foreign Affairs Office (FAO).
The Chinese government did not disclose its decision-making process for granting permission to travel to the TAR, nor share the names of officials who were involved in issuing travel permits to U.S citizens to visit the TAR. The U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu observed political or economic reporting officers’ requests for travel appeared to face greater scrutiny and were more often subject to rejection or delay than requests for consular access.
Chinese authorities assessed each U.S. official request to visit the TAR on a case-by-case basis. The TAR FAO generally required a diplomatic note for any official visit, accompanied by a detailed day-by-day agenda and list of trip attendees. Once the TAR government received the request, it reportedly informed a foreign affairs leading committee, consisting of representatives at the prefectural, provincial, and central levels from the United Front Work Department, Ministry of State Security, Ministry of Public Security, People’s Liberation Army, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This committee reviewed the request and then instructed the TAR FAO to provide the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu with a formal response. This process typically took at least one month. In the interim, U.S. officials typically made dozens of calls to the TAR FAO to inquire about the status of the request. The TAR FAO did not provide a timeline for a decision and typically conveyed a verbal approval or rejection two or three days before the planned travel. The TAR FAO instructed U.S. diplomats also to request approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a U.S. Ambassador trip.
In 2017, a TAR FAO representative required an employee of the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu to retrieve written permission for travel at a pre-dawn hour from a TAR FAO official’s own residence just several hours before starting a trip. The official told the employee he could only come at that appointed time. The TAR FAO has also required U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu staff to fly to Beijing personally to pick up a TAR travel permit. The TAR FAO required official U.S. visitors to adhere to an agenda the FAO planned, but typically did not provide the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu with that agenda until arrival in the TAR. The Chinese government required U.S. officials to travel in FAO-arranged vehicles with FAO hired drivers, and sometimes selected lodging for U.S. officials. The FAO did not allow U.S. officials to add engagements to their trip, during which large contingents of Chinese security personnel followed U.S. officials at all times.
In July 2015, the Governor of Kardze TAP in Sichuan Province assured the Consul General in Chengdu that international diplomats were free to travel to all areas of the prefecture. The Consul General subsequently confirmed that statement with a senior official at the Sichuan FAO, who confirmed that the Chinese government had formally lifted all past restrictions on travel by diplomats to Kardze and Ngaba TAPs. Despite this reassurance, local authorities in Kardze and Ngaba interrogated U.S. diplomats and restricted their movement on at least two occasions in 2017 and 2018. In June 2017, Chinese authorities stopped a vehicle in which a U.S. diplomat was traveling at a police checkpoint in Seda, Kardze TAP. While local authorities confirmed the diplomat had not violated any laws, the officials stated Seda was off-limits to international visitors. The officials interrogated the U.S. diplomat at a police station for five hours before requiring the diplomat to drive 90 km to Rangtang County, in heavy rain and poor road conditions, after midnight. Similarly, in August 2018, Ngaba officials briefly interrogated U.S. Consulate General Chengdu employees at a local police station in Ngaba TAP to prevent them from traveling to local monasteries. Authorities cited “road safety and monastic regulations.”