U.S. Visa Restrictions Over Tibet Access Draw Threat of Tit-For-Tat Chinese Response

China said on Wednesday it plans to implement visa restrictions on U.S. citizens, a day after the U.S. issued travel bans on Chinese officials who restrict foreign access to Tibet.

The tit-for-tat moves by Beijing and Washington are the latest spat in deteriorating relations over trade, the coronavirus, the treatment of detained Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Beijing’s displays of military might in the South China Sea and what the U.S. and others see as China’s overreach in Hong Kong.

China’s visa measures would go into effect for “U.S. individuals with egregious conduct related to Tibet issues,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, but he did not elaborate on the threat.

“We urge the U.S. to stop interfering in China’s internal affairs with Tibet-related issues … so as to avoid further damage to China-U.S. relations,” Zhao told reporters at a daily news briefing.

Beijing’s move followed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement of U.S. restrictions on selected Chinese officials a day earlier in Washington.

“Unfortunately, Beijing has continued systematically to obstruct travel to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and other Tibetan areas by U.S. diplomats and other officials, journalists, and tourists, while PRC officials and other citizens enjoy far greater access to the United States,” Pompeo said in a statement Tuesday.

“Therefore, today I am announcing visa restrictions on PRC government and Chinese Communist Party officials determined to be substantially involved in the formulation or execution of policies related to access for foreigners to Tibetan areas,” he added.

The U.S. move is in accordance with the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, which was passed unanimously in both houses of Congress in 2018.

Washington has long complained that Chinese diplomats, scholars and journalists enjoy unrestricted travel in the United States, while China tightly restricts the access of U.S. counterparts to Tibet and other areas.

Foreigners wishing to travel to Tibet must apply for special permits from the Chinese government. Limiting travel makes getting information out of the remote western region more difficult, which human rights activists say enables a campaign by Beijing’s to eliminate Tibet’s indigenous culture and religion.

“Access to Tibetan areas is increasingly vital to regional stability, given the PRC’s human rights abuses there, as well as Beijing’s failure to prevent environmental degradation near the headwaters of Asia’s major rivers,” Pompeo said.

A message to China

The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the Dharamsala, India-based Tibetan government in exile, suggested other governments could enact similar moves.

“The US government’s strong position on Tibet access could also influence many foreign countries to follow the same footsteps, and that could be a great victory for Tibetans if that takes place,” CTA spokesman Tsewang Gyalpo Arya told RFA Wednesday.

“China claims that the living conditions inside Tibet have drastically improved and Tibetans are living happily, but foreign diplomats, UN delegations, foreign journalists, visitors have been barred from visiting Tibet,” he added.

With the Tibet visa policy, “the U.S. is sending Beijing a clear message that it will face consequences for its human rights abuses and continued isolation of Tibet from the outside world,” said Matteo Mecacci, president of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet.

“The Chinese government has for a long time taken advantage of the freedoms—and access to markets—provided by democracies, without reciprocating, while building an Orwellian system of control. It is now critically important for the U.S. and like-minded countries to demand China provide the same openness it receives from others,” he added.

Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, said the visa sanctions are “a way of sending a message to the Chinese government that other governments are frustrated by the impediments Beijing throws up to accessing Tibet.”

“It’s an interesting experiment and it will be very interesting to see how Chinese authorities respond to it, and how it plays into the thinking on Capitol Hill about other legislative approaches to certain kinds of rights abuses in China.”

Reported by Tashi Wangchuk for RFA’s Tibetan Service.