The Tibetan Plateau is the planet’s “Third Pole”


A global environmental catastrophe can be avoided, but we must act now to ensure that the Tibetan Plateau and the world’s fragile ecosystem are protected.

Tibet is facing the impact of climate change:

retreating glaciers
deteriorating permafrost
increasing desertification
warming at a rate three times the global average
The effects of climate change on the Tibetan Plateau are far-reaching–affecting billions of people. Tibetans need to be stewards of their own land and their expertise must be taken into consideration when tackling climate change.

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Finance Minister Mr. Tsering Dhondup of CTA to visit Tibetan-Americans in Vermont.

FPal-Kalon_square1inance Minister(Paljor Kalon) Mr. Tsering Dhondup of the Central Tibetan Administration will visit Vermont on Wednesday September 30th,  and meet with Tibetan- American community to solve the Tibetan Green Book issues. There will also be a public talk in the evening at 7 p.m.

The venue of the gathering will soon be announced.

For more information or questions, please contact the Board Members of the Tibetan Association of Vermont.

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Bhutanese and Tibetans in Vermont Seek Own Community Centers

Bhutanese and Tibetans in Vermont Seek Own Community Centers

click to enlarge A Hindu gathering last week – MATTHEW THORSEN
MATTHEW THORSEN A Hindu gathering last week
On Sunday mornings at the Burlington Friends Meeting House, a small gathering of Vermont Quakers communes in silence with God. This has been a familiar scene in New England for a few hundred years. The congregation that worships in the adjacent Bassett House on North Prospect Street is much livelier.

Since mid-July, the Vermont Hindu Temple — an organization seeking to build its own gathering place — has been holding services as part of weekly meetings in the historic home that once belonged to Mary Martha Fletcher, namesake of Burlington’s library and, until recently, its hospital.

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At the beginning of the group’s first meeting in July, a Hindu priest set up a small altar on a fireplace mantle. Beneath a framed print of animals filing into Noah’s ark, he placed a small painting of the four-armed Hindu god Vishnu, a miniature statue of the elephant god Ganesha, candles, a coconut husk and two vases of flowers. Two helpers handed out more flowers to the group of nearly four dozen worshippers. Most of them were Bhutanese men in their fifties and sixties who came to the United States in recent years from refugee camps in Nepal. Many wore long cream or beige tunics and Dhaka topis, traditional Nepali hats.

The priest then led the group in worship in Nepali. They prayed for peace and health and honored their ancestors. At the end of the ritual, the devotees placed their flowers at the altar.

The somber mood gave way to joy as the group began its kirtan session — meditative singing of devotional hymns. They clapped their hands as they chanted the names of Hindu gods and goddesses, sang about them and praised their qualities. They sang:

Gopala Gopala, Devakinandana Gopala. Devakinandana Gopala. Devakinandana Gopala.

Translated from Sanskrit, it means: “Baby Krishna, baby Krishna, is the joy of his mother.”

Guitar, harmonium and flute players accompanied the rising and falling voices, along with a percussionist on the tabla, a traditional hand drum. The tabla player’s face glistened with sweat as he matched the tempo of the chanting.

Although most of these Hindus have a private altar at home, they still wanted to come together to pray. In Vermont, that’s not always possible. The nearest Hindu temple is in Albany, N.Y., and only a fraction of the area’s current Hindu worshippers can fit in their new weekly meeting spot at the Bassett House.

In an interview before the initial, mid-July service, Basu Dhakal, a member of the Vermont Hindu Temple’s interim executive committee, explained that for the first meeting, they invited 30 pandits, or priests. These were the people who would ultimately run the temple. Others had wanted to attend that gathering — and they may be able to attend future meetings — but the space is limited.

“We couldn’t even invite our own mothers,” Dhakal said.

Dhakal is an enthusiastic 33-year-old nursing student who lives in Burlington. A Bhutanese Hindu, he came to Vermont in 2012 and is active in the newly organized effort to establish a temple in the area, a place where the community’s elderly can socialize and carry out religious practices at any time of the day, and where the younger generation can learn the Nepali language and customs.

The Bhutanese aren’t alone in wanting to find a place that can be used to fulfill their religious, cultural and educational needs. Tibetans in Vermont are seeking to build their own community center, too.

Both groups arrived in the Green Mountain State from the Himalayan region of southern Asia, though at different times and for different reasons. They’ve established businesses and restaurants — Seven Days food writers reviewed five of them last week — and have woven themselves into the fabric of the community, especially in the Burlington area. Now they’re seeking to build spaces of their own.

Raising the Temple
click to enlarge The Vermont Hindu Temple in Bassett – KYMELYA SARI
KYMELYA SARI The Vermont Hindu Temple in Bassett
Bhutanese refugees began arriving in Vermont in the last decade. Most of them are descendants of ethnic Nepalis who settled in Bhutan in the 19th century to cultivate the land. They developed the area and prospered, with some becoming high-ranking government officials. The Citizenship Act of 1958 granted them citizenship rights.

But in 1989, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck implemented the “One Nation, One People” policy, as fear of the burgeoning Nepali community grew. He imposed the culture and religion of the local majority, the Buddhist Drukpas, on the Nepali settlers. Tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis were stripped of their Bhutanese nationality and expelled from Bhutan, and an entire generation was born and raised in refugee camps in Nepal and India.

The refugee crisis lasted 16 years before, in 2006, the U.S. offered to resettle the refugees; other countries including Canada and Australia subsequently followed suit. Between 2008 and 2013, Bhutanese refugees were one of the three largest groups to be resettled in the U.S. To date, the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration said about 80,000 Bhutanese refugees have been admitted to the country.

The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Project puts the local number at 1,653. But because refugees often relocate to be closer to family members, the temple group estimates there are about 2,200 Bhutanese in the state.

And that’s expected to grow — VRRP is anticipating resettling additional Bhutanese refugees in Vermont, in particular those whose family members are already here.

Some of these new arrivals are Buddhist and Christian, but most are Hindu. For these Hindus, their daily life, culture and religion are intrinsically linked — just like “nail and flesh,” said Bidur Dahal, another member of the Hindu temple’s executive team. Dahal, 40, arrived in Vermont in 2012 and lives in Colchester. He works as a medical case manager and interpreter at VRRP. “If there is no temple in the community, the life of the people will be difficult and spiritually hollow,” he said.

The temple will fulfill multiple needs — spiritual, social and cultural — in ways that nonprofit groups can’t, Dahal said. The temple will be particularly important to the elderly Bhutanese, who tend to spend most of their time indoors and feel isolated, especially during Vermont’s long winter months.

Even so, Dhakal emphasized that the temple isn’t just for the Bhutanese. Although the refugee community is spearheading the creation of the Vermont Hindu Temple, the executive team welcomes all Hindus and anyone who’s interested in Hinduism.

He pointed out that the Bhutanese organizers invited members of local kirtan groups to participate in the temple’s inaugural service. One of them, Jeffrey Reicker, gushed about leading the group while being accompanied on guitar. He said the experience was “wonderful.”

State Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington), who works as a public engagement specialist for Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office, is also Hindu. In her spare time, she serves as a volunteer adviser for the temple. Ram, who attended multiple temples while growing up in Los Angeles, came to Burlington in 2004 to study at the University of Vermont. She said it is important for the Bhutanese to have their own space.

“For many Hindus, particularly for those who are new to the U.S, it’s difficult to separate their cultural and social needs from their religious and spiritual ones,” Ram said. “The temple is also a civic gathering place for people.”

Building a temple will require serious fundraising. Ram expects it will take five to 10 years.

Constructing a Center

click to enlarge Tseten Anak with a student – KYMELYA SARI
KYMELYA SARI Tseten Anak with a student
Compared with the Bhutanese community, Vermont’s Tibetan group is smaller — albeit more established. Many Tibetans have been in the state for two decades.


A crackdown by the Chinese government against a Tibetan uprising in 1959 forced thousands into exile, including the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of six million Tibetans. Under the Immigration Act of 1990 and through a Tibetan lottery, 1,000 Tibetan exiles in Nepal, India and Bhutan received U.S. visas. Twenty-six of them immigrated to Burlington in 1993.

However, unlike other immigrants who arrived in Vermont as refugees, the Tibetans were classified as “displaced people” and did not receive financial assistance from the U.S government. Rather, Burlington’s nonprofit Tibetan Resettlement Project was created in 1992 to help them get established. The community now consists of about 160 individuals — close to 40 families.

The Tibetan Resettlement Project is now defunct. Its former director, Jim Kelley, a science teacher at Edmunds Middle School, is cochair of the Tibetan Association of Vermont committee tasked with establishing a community center.

Although the Tibetans have used the Burlington Shambhala Center and the Vajra Dakini Nunnery in Lincoln, they still want a space of their own.

A gathering space will give the Tibetans “a sense of permanence,” said Kelley, whose wife, Yangchen, is Tibetan. “People have to have a place to do things together to keep [them] alive.”

With the help of a local architect, Kelley’s committee now has a blueprint for a proposed facility. It also has a three-phase plan and is looking to buy a plot of land. With that, it could begin constructing outbuildings, such as a pavilion, and a main structure with a classroom, prayer hall and shrine. The space will be modeled on those found in India, where the community can gather to pray, have tea, catch up on news, and dance and sing traditional songs.

“We feel good about our plan,” Kelley said, adding that he expects the committee’s efforts to take between 10 and 15 years to come to fruition.

Even before the Tibetans rallied around the idea of building a community center, they were already working toward preserving their culture. In January 2011, the Tibetan Association of Vermont started a weekend school so that the younger generation could learn Tibetan language and traditions. Today, the school has 12 pupils in pre-K and second grade. Wearing variations of the traditional Tibetan dress, mostly brought from India, the students meet every Sunday at the Association for Africans Living in Vermont, at 20 Allen Street next to St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral.

In late July, during their last class before the summer break, the children started their morning by singing the Tibetan national anthem. Sitting upright, with their palms facing each other and resting against their chests, they then chanted Buddhist mantras and prayed for the Dalai Lama’s health. A teacher intermittently called out students’ names, and they would immediately straighten their backs and bring their slackening hands closer. Most of the girls wore ankle-length robes bound at the waist by a sash, while the boys wore bell-sleeved shirts to go with their less-than-traditional athletic shorts.

The pre-K pupils traced letters of the Tibetan alphabet, while those in second grade practiced writing the days of the week. The students conversed with one another in English, though they mostly spoke in Tibetan with their instructor, Tseten Anak. Born and raised in a Tibetan settlement near Mysore in southern India, he now lives in South Burlington and works as a nursing assistant. Anak is vice president of the Tibetan Association of Vermont. “At school,” he said, speaking in his measured voice, “it’s a reminder of where they came from.”

Merging Multiple Identities
click to enlarge The students in the Tibetan Association of Vermont’s weekend school – KYMELYA SARI


KYMELYA SARI The students in the Tibetan Association of Vermont’s weekend school While the Tibetan and Bhutanese groups are keen to preserve their cultures, they are not trying to remain distinct and separate from American society.

Although cultural preservation may be “seen as a sign of separation,” that’s “not really the case,” said Noriko Matsumoto, an immigration scholar in the sociology department at the University of Vermont. Matsumoto explained that current scholarship views preservation of one’s native culture and assimilation into a new society as being consistent with each other. “The maintenance of ethnicity is compatible with being American,” he said.

Tenzin Lhakhang, secretary of the Tibetan Association of Vermont, credits the U.S. for “helping us when we couldn’t stand on our own.” But, he said, “We need to remember we are Tibetans.”

Using the Jewish population and its cultural centers as an example, Lhakhang said it’s possible for any individual to have multiple identities. A person can be Jewish and American. Kesha Ram is Hindu and Jewish; she calls herself a “HinJew.” In the same way, a person can be Tibetan or Buddhist and American.

The older Tibetans came to the U.S with their customs and want to pass them on to their children. They’re aware they need to learn the ways of their new country, too.

Both the Tibetan and Bhutanese groups said that the new spaces they envision will serve as hubs of cultural exchange — other communities would be welcome to use them. That’s the long-term vision. For now, they know a huge task lies ahead: achieving financial solvency. Both communities plan to hold fundraising events and seek private donations to bolster those from their own members.

Although assuming the burden of a mortgage is a “scary undertaking,” according to Kelley, the Tibetans said the project is worthwhile because the community center would be theirs.

Dahal, speaking for the Bhutanese executive team, said the temple would mark an end to what he describes as the Bhutanese refugees’ “spiritual homelessness.”

There is clearly a demand within the community. Although the Hindu Temple group restricted attendance at its inaugural service, a few extra congregants tagged along. Eighty-three-year-old Ganga Maya Dahal was one of them. Through a translator, she said she enjoyed the gathering. “We had many people,” she said. “We were together and it felt nice.”

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Heart of Compassion with His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche



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US Lawmakers Rebuke China over Death in Prison of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche


WASHINGTON DC: U.S. lawmakers held a moment of silence on Tuesday, expressing anger and sadness over the death in prison of Tulku Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a prominent Tibetan political prisoner and spiritual figure, during a hearing on Tibet at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.

US lawmakers lamented that U.S. criticism of China’s policies in Tibet is failing to stop repression of the minority group and called for a tougher U.S. policy to pressure China at the hearing on the human rights situation inside Tibet.

They also demanded Chinese authorities to return the body of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche to his family members for his last rites according to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Congressman McGovern and Pitts, the co-chairs of the Human Rights Commission opened the meeting by stating that Chinese government was making a wrong calculation in believing that the Tibet issue will whither with the passing of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Congressman McGovern reiterated strongly that U.S. Congress would not forget the issue of Tibet until it is resolved.

Congressman Pitts shared his grave concerns with implementation of strict restrictions on basic civil rights of Tibetans in Tibet; freedom of religion, freedom from guilt by association, hard restrictions on domestic and foreign travels.

Ms. Sarah Sewall, the State Department’s special coordinator for Tibetan issues, said she shared the “anger and sadness” of the Tibetan people and the US lawmakers over Tenzin Delek’s death. She said the “horrific self-immolations” of Tibetans in recent years were an expression of their desperation over the deteriorating situation in Tibet.

She also elaborated on the four major priorities of her office namely resuming dialogue between the Chinese government and representatives of His Holiness the Dalai Lama; promoting Human Rights in Tibet; promoting religious freedom; and ensuring diplomatic and public access to Tibet and preservation of distinct culture, rich tradition and linguistic heritage of the Tibetan people.

Hollywood actor Richard Gere, an ardent advocate of the Tibetan cause and Chairmen of International Campaign for Tibet, also gave a testimonial before the Commission, referring to Tulku Tenzin Delek’s death in prison as a “stark reminder of who we are dealing with here.”

The US lawmakers also discussed the possibility of restrictions on the movements of Chinese officials in U.S. to reciprocate for restrictions on American diplomats traveling to Tibet.

Audience members held up photos of Tenzin Delek, as the hearing was underway. Tenzin Delek Rinpoche died on Sunday, 12 July, while serving the 13th year of a life sentence for what rights groups and the Tibetan people say were false charges that he was involved in a bombing.


Co-Chairmain McGovern and Pitts leading the hearing on Tibet by Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.

Co-Chairmain McGovern and Pitts leading the hearing on Tibet by Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. Photos/ Letitia


Hollywood actor Richard Gere at the hearing on Tibet’s human rights sitaution at Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.
Hollywood actor Richard Gere at the hearing on Tibet’s human rights situation at Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.


Audience members holding up photos of Tulku Tenzin Delek Rinpoche during the hearing. Photos/ Letitia

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Happy 80th Birthday His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama


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Senator Feinstein….” His Holiness is a singular figure among world leaders, moral authorities and religious mentors. His message of peace, compassion and nonviolence has resonated throughout the world, bridged divides and inspired millions to recognize the common humanity among us. To my dear friend, I wish you a very happy birthday and many more years in which your teachings can touch even more lives.”

Senator Kirk” The Dalai Lama is an international symbol for peace and human rights. His leadership for the Tibetan people’s quest for religious freedom and fundamental rights despite adversity is an inspiration to us all.”

Sikyong Dr. Lobsang Sangay… “Your Holiness, you call yourself a simple Buddhist monk. But for people around the world, you are the beacon of hope and light to all the people. For Buddhists, you are the human manifestation of the Boddisattva of compassion. And above all, for Tibetans, you are the life and soul of Tibet.”

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His Holiness to Grace Glastonbury Festival, Anaheim in California and Tenshug Prayer in New York by NATA


DHARAMSHALA: His Holiness the Dalai Lama will visit the UK from 27 – 30 June 2015. The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate’s brief visit include a guest appearance at the Glastonbury Festival and a public teaching in Aldershot.

The key themes throughout this visit will be the promotion of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s message of compassion, non-violence and the oneness of humanity.

On Sunday 28 June, His Holiness will visit Glastonbury Festival as a guest of the festival. Emily Eavis said: “We’re honoured to welcome the Dalai Lama to Glastonbury 2015. He will be talking in the Green Fields and exploring the farm this Sunday as part of his trip to the UK. What a special moment for the Festival!”

The Tibetan spiritual leader will visit Aldershot on Monday 29 June at the invitation of the Buddhist Community Centre UK (BCCUK). The BCCUK is a new centre in Aldershot, which has a large Nepalese Buddhist community. This will be His Holiness’s second visit to Aldershot following the visit in June 2012.

H.H the Dalai Lama will give a public talk at the ESS Stadium Aldershot in the afternoon on the theme of ‘Buddhism in the 21st Century’ at an event hosted by the BCCUK. The audience of over 6,000 people will include many members of the Nepalese Buddhist community, and other Buddhists and followers of HH the Dalai Lama from the UK and elsewhere. The Nepalese Buddhist community, like Buddhists across the Himalayan region, consider HH the Dalai Lama to be their spiritual leader and have a deep reverence for him.

The 29 June programme will begin with His Holiness’s inauguration of the BCCUK temple followed by prayers, with the Nepalese Buddhist community and leaders of other religious faiths, for the victims of the recent Nepal earthquakes.

Kaji Sherpa, Chair of BCCUK, said: “We are greatly honoured to be welcoming His Holiness the Dalai Lama back to Aldershot. This visit is an occasion for great excitement and joy for the Nepalese Buddhist community, and for the many other Buddhists and followers of His Holiness here in the UK. We know that the prayers that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will lead during the visit to the BCCUK will provide great solace to the family, relatives and friends of the victims of the earthquakes that tragically struck Nepal recently.”

Following his visit to the UK, His Holiness fly to the United States where he will participate in a moderated discussion hosted by the George W. Bush Presidential Center and SMU at Dallas, Texas.

During his visit to the United States, His Holiness the Dalai Lama will also participate in the tenshug prayer offering.

Tibetan communities from around the United States and Canada will join together for two days of special events in New York City July 9 and 10 to celebrate the 80th birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In honor of His Holiness’ 80th birthday and in the presence of the Dalia Lama, Buddhist monks will chant prayers, participants will dress in traditional regalia and vendors will offer statues of Buddha, religious scroll paintings called thangka, incense and other religious artifacts.

On the afternoon of July 10, United States officials, members of Congress and prominent religious and civic leaders are invited to attend a public reception to celebrate with His Holiness. Attendees will also celebrate by participating in an ancient Buddhist ritual that dates back centuries, as well as receiving teachings from the Dalai Lama himself.

The Buddhist ritual, Tenshug in Tibetan, is a long-life offering and a moving ceremony comprised of prayers and a procession of symbolic offerings. The purpose of this prayer is to ask for a long and healthy life for His Holiness and to preserve his Buddhist teachings.

“In many ways, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has profoundly touched not only the lives of the Tibetan people, but also countless others throughout the world,” said Tashi Namgyal, North American Representative to the Tibetan Parliament and co-chair of the Gratitude Events Organizing Committee. “This birthday celebration honors the Tibetan leader for the wisdom and spiritual guidance he has provided to both Buddhists and non-Buddhist; and for his unwavering efforts to alleviate the sufferings of all sentient beings,” Namgyal added.

His Holiness is the living embodiment of the hopes and aspirations of many Tibetans for the survival of their endangered heritage. His contributions as an architect of the non-violent and peaceful Tibetan struggle seek to end the Chinese government’s oppressive rule in Tibet. In honor of his leadership in spearheading the peaceful struggle for Tibet’s freedom, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize.

Throughout the years, His Holiness has travelled to more than 67 countries spanning six continents spreading the message of universal responsibility, compassion, altruism and non-violence. Recognized as a man of peace, His Holiness has gained love and respect throughout the world and serves as an anchor for us in troubled times.

His Holiness will also participate in various talks, events and panel discussions at the Honda Center in Anaheim and the Bren Events Center at the UC Irvine Campus organized by Friends of the Dalai Lama in partnership with the Center for Living Peace and University of California, Irvine.

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China at the Tipping Point?

July 11, 2013 9:35 pm

Before a security crackdown, a demonstrator protests the construction of a 55.9 billion yuan (US$8.9 billion) chemical plant in Ningbo, Zhejiang province on October 28, 2012/AFP


The Turn Against Legal Reform


What will be the future of China’s authoritarian political system?

Many predicted that China’s rapid development over the past several decades would inevitably lead to gradual liberalization. Economic growth was expected to generate a cascade of changes—first to society, then law, and eventually politics. Events appeared to confirm these projections. As Chinese authorities opened up the economy in the late twentieth century, they also launched sweeping reforms of the nation’s legislative and judicial institutions.

The events of the past decade, however, have called these assumptions into question. From 2000 to 2011, per capita GDP in China more than quintupled, skyrocketing from US$949 to $5,445. But one-party rule remains intact under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and Chinese authorities have turned against many of the legal reforms that they themselves enacted back in the 1980s and 1990s. Lawyers have come under increased pressure. Political campaigns warning against rule-of-law norms have rippled through the courts. And under new policies making “stability maintenance” (weiwen) a top priority, central authorities have massively increased funding for extralegal institutions aimed at channeling, curtailing, and suppressing citizen discontent.

These shifts have choked off institutions for venting dissatisfaction and redressing ills that are key to the CCP’s continued resilience as an authoritarian regime. The changes have fueled social unrest, funneling citizen grievances into a rising tide of street protests instead of institutionalized legal or political participation. And they have led to new worries at the center regarding the danger posed by individual CCP officials (such as disgraced Chongqing CCP boss Bo Xilai) seizing parts of the weiwen apparatus for their own ends. For precisely these reasons, an increasing number of officials, academics, and activists have called on central authorities to revive flagging legal reforms in the wake of the November 2012 leadership succession.

China may indeed be at a tipping point. But it is not clear which way it will tip. Authorities may restart legal reform as part of a comprehensive program of political and institutional transformation. Or they may refuse, risking an escalating spiral of social and political turmoil. 1

In the 1970s and 1980s, CCP authorities turned their backs on decades of political radicalism and socialist economic policies. They launched extensive legal reforms aimed at building new structures to govern China.

Officials reopened law schools shuttered during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). They used academic and professional exchanges to aggressively import foreign legal concepts. They issued hundreds of new statutes and regulations, creating a comprehensive framework of civil, commercial, criminal, and administrative law. Authorities promoted court trials, conducted according to these newly promulgated laws, as the preferred venue for resolving ordinary civil or commercial grievances and disputes. In 1989, Chinese authorities even issued an administrative litigation law giving ordinary citizens limited rights to sue state authorities in court.

Reforms continued throughout the 1990s. Authorities professionalized the judiciary, moving away from the practice of staffing courts with former military officers. They removed definitions of lawyers as “state legal workers” and privatized the bar. By the early 2000s, the state-owned law firms of the 1980s had given way to an explosion of private firms, domestic and foreign alike. In 1997, central authorities adopted “rule according to law” (yifa zhiguo) as a core Party slogan. Parallel constitutional amendments followed two years later. Legal reform even emerged as a subject in China’s foreign relations, with U.S. and Chinese diplomats agreeing to initiate cooperative exchanges on legal reform.

Naturally, Chinese leaders aimed to advance their own interests through these reforms. Ideologically, they wanted an alternative source of legitimacy to Maoist revolutionary principles on which to ground their rule. Practically, they desired new mechanisms to help resolve the mounting social conflicts created by rapid economic development and urbanization. Law, litigation, and courts seemed to be the solution. Administratively, central leaders sought new ways to monitor their local officials and better respond to pervasive principal-agent problems within the bureaucracy. They also wanted to gather better information on domestic problems facing China. Allowing citizens a limited ability to challenge local officials through court channels, or to offer opinions through legislative ones, promised to help address these concerns.

As Andrew Nathan noted in 2003, these reforms helped to strengthen the internal stability of the Chinese state.2

They institutionalized CCP rule. They channeled popular discontent (regarding violations of citizens’ rights or official abuses of power) into institutions within the existing political system, rather than radical underground organizations seeking to overturn the party-state. Legal reforms also played an important role in foreign policy. Rule-of-law discussions with foreign governments, for example, provided a politically more acceptable forum for discussing human rights in advance of China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization.

Central reforms emboldened bureaucrats farther down the ladder to push institutional change forward under the rule-of-law banner. By the late 1990s, Chinese legal academia was abuzz with discussions of constitutionalism and constitutional supremacy (xianfa zhishang). In 2001, the Supreme People’s Court (China’s highest judicial body) took the groundbreaking step of authorizing a provincial court to actually apply the (otherwise nonjusticiable) Chinese constitution in an individual case. Some local courts began to push the boundaries of their authority, independently proclaiming the invalidity of local rules and regulations that contradicted national law.3

Citizens used the new channels to protect their own interests. Civil and administrative cases multiplied. Farmers employed central authorities’ rule-of-law rhetoric to challenge illegal local exactions and land seizures. By the early 2000s, a cadre of public-interest lawyers and legal activists (such as Chen Guangcheng) had emerged. They fused public-interest lawsuits and savvy media strategies to push for deeper reform, with some resounding successes. In 2003, after a migrant named Sun Zhigangdied at the hands of city authorities in Guangzhou (Canton), three legal academics mounted a petition to the national legislature challenging the legality and constitutionality of the extrajudicial administrative system used to detain him. At the same time, extensive media coverage generated a public uproar regarding official abuses in Sun’s case and similar ones. Remarkably, central authorities yielded—annulling the entire detention system nationwide.4

The Counterreaction

Despite the hopeful signs visible nearly a decade ago, officials have turned against their earlier reforms. Some concerns are practical. Late twentieth-century reforms were designed to steer civil and commercial disputes into trials before local courts. But rural China has limited legal resources. Trained judges and licensed lawyers are in short supply. Courts remain institutionally weak and commonly find it hard to enforce their verdicts. As China entered the twenty-first century, such problems led to violent showdowns between local courts and aggrieved citizens seeking justice, as well as surging numbers of extralegal petitions and protests to higher authorities regarding lower-court decisions.

Other concerns are explicitly political. State media have cautioned that “judicial concepts . . . not in accordance with [Chinese] national sentiment have ‘blown into the East from the West.’”5 Party authorities have warned that some judges have falsely used concepts such as “the supremacy of the law” as an excuse to avoid or oppose CCP leadership in judging cases.6

This has generated a backlash. Since the early 2000s, Chinese authorities have shifted citizen disputes away from court trials that are decided according to law. Judges face new pressures to resolve cases through closed-door mediation. Community mediation institutions dating from the era of Chairman Mao Zedong (d. 1976) have been dusted off and revived. New extralegal Party-led “coordination sessions” have been created, under the rubric of mediation, to handle those cases that officials fear are most likely to generate social protest.

In some areas, these efforts have permitted meaningful local experiments that may respond better to rural needs than the formal legal channels emphasized during the late twentieth century. In others, they have become convenient rationales for local authorities to abandon legal norms entirely as they seek to shore up social stability at all costs, whether by suppressing the legitimate grievances of individual petitioners or by caving in to mass complaints with no legal basis, but backed by many angry citizens.

Party authorities have also attempted to rein in politically wayward judges. In 2006, CCP officials launched new campaigns within the court system stressing loyalty to the Party and cautioning against Western rule-of-law norms. In 2008, central authorities installed a CCP functionary with no formal legal experience as head of the Supreme People’s Court. There followed the so-called Three Supremes (sange zhishang) campaign—an effort to remind judges that CCP policies and “the people’s will” are equal to (or above) the constitution. Lest anyone miss the message, both law school curricula and the national bar examination were amended to include the content of these campaigns as mandatory subjects.

Lawyers have come under increased pressure. Party campaigns have labeled them “socialist legal workers” and pressed for creation of CCP cells within law firms. Loyalty oaths to the Party are now required to obtain a license to practice law. Authorities have escalated harassment and abuse of well-known public-interest lawyers and legal activists by shuttering the organizations of some and subjecting others to imprisonment, house arrest, and periodic disappearance or torture.

In short, CCP leaders are trying to neuter the very rule-of-law pressures that they themselves unleashed in the late twentieth century. They have sought to close down rhetoric (constitutionalism), channels (court trials), and social forces (lawyers) that activists had used to mobilize for greater change. And they have reasserted control over state actors (judges and courts) who might have been tempted to forget the realities of Communist Party control.

Where such concerns are absent, reforms have continued. In the area of criminal justice, for instance, Chinese authorities have developed noncustodial pilot programs for juvenile offenders. The 2012 Criminal Procedure Law creates additional protections for juveniles facing interrogation and trial. With regard to death-penalty cases, Chinese judicial authorities have made efforts to increase transparency and improve judicial review. As a result, foreign experts estimate that the number of executions in China has dropped by roughly half since 2007, to about four thousand in 2011.7

Tough central policies have generated a range of perverse effects. Ironically, they have heightened social unrest. Many citizens with environmental or land grievances against local authorities have concluded that the best chance for obtaining redress does not lie within state legal institutions that have been gradually undermined. Instead, they are increasingly resorting to direct (and sometimes violent) collective street actions, seeking to force central officials to intervene and local authorities to cave in. In response, central authorities have greatly increased the funding and influence of domestic-security organs. This has permitted some local governments to devolve into quasi-feudal satrapies in which officials use massive funds (and the politically correct justification of “maintaining social stability”) to suppress legitimate citizen complaints, hide their own misdeeds, and enrich themselves through corruption.

Reform on the Rebound or Descent to Disorder?

The fall of rising Party star Bo Xilai in the first half of 2012 dramatically drew attention to these problems. Central leaders voiced concern about the ability of one of their own to amass huge, unchecked personal power and to challenge the low-key collective leadership norms that had prevailed since the beginning of the reform period two decades ago. Liberal scholars and officials used the Bo affair to criticize the CCP’s turn against legal reform since the early 2000s.

Over the past year, indications have emerged that the counterreaction against legal reform may have now generated a backlash of its own. Central authorities have moved to downgrade the power of the CCP political-legal apparatus. The new CCP general secretary, Xi Jinping, has begun to revive language regarding law and legal reform that had gone into eclipse in recent years. Top Party leaders have issued new calls for applying rule-of-law principles to the task of upholding social stability. A new State Council white paper suggests that recent political campaigns in the judiciary may be wound down.

If implemented, such changes might represent a tipping point in Chinese legal reform. Central authorities may have recognized that if China is to solve its pressing problems, it will need meaningful institutions that can place independent checks on official power and provide bottom-up channelsfor citizen participation.

China today might be on the verge of a complex transition that parallels developments in South Korea and Taiwan during the 1970s and 1980s. In both cases, authoritarian powerholders pursued gradual political reform, opened the institutions of government to increasing levels of external civic pressure, and slowly but successfully shifted to more liberal systems of government. Today, both countries belong securely in the ranks of the world’s developed democracies.

But it remains uncertain that China will steer such a hopeful course. The CCP’s ruling elite could end up rejecting reform rather than embracing it. If so, China in the twenty-first century might resemble nineteenth-century Russia more than twentieth-century South Korea or Taiwan.

Like China today, late nineteenth-century Czarist Russia enjoyed decades of economic growth at rates that outpaced those of the United States and European nations, notwithstanding a bureaucratic-authoritarian political system that foreign observers saw as badly outdated. As the century drew to a close, speculation ran rampant as to when Russia might surpass Western powers in economic and military might.

Russia also found itself in the throes of massive domestic change. Military humiliation at the hands of Western powers in the first international war of the industrial age (the Crimean War of 1853–56) had exposed Russia’s technological inferiority. As a result, the Russian imperial state initiated extensive economic and social reforms. Serfdom was abolished and peasants received more rights. Industrialization reworked the fabric of Russian life, bringing a tide of rural migrants to urban factories. Worker protests over conditions and pay began to erupt with increasing frequency. The new social media of the era—printed periodicals—permitted an educated elite to rapidly disseminate ideas throughout the country, often resorting to allusions or coded language to avoid imperial censors.

Czarist authorities launched sweeping legal reforms as well. They imported foreign legal institutions including models of legal education; a professional bar; Western-style courts and juries; and civil, commer- cial, and criminal codes. Excitement was palpable. “The slogans in the air in the 1860s were due process, open court proceedings, trial by jury, and irremovable judges.”8Officials even established local representa- tive assemblies with limited powers of self-government.

Citizens took eagerly to these new channels. Reformers sought to use local assemblies to gradually push the imperial regime in a more liberal direction. Radical activists took advantage of legal novelties such as open court proceedings and independent judges in order to turn trials into platforms calling for greater political change. In 1878, a young anarchist named Vera Zasulich became an instant media sensation when, after her arrest for trying to assassinate an imperial governor, the trial judge resisted government efforts to tamper with the case; her lawyer managed to turn the public proceedings into an indictment of police brutality; a jury of sympathetic citizens returned a verdict of “not guilty”; and crowds erupted into public demonstrations upon her release.

Such developments caused serious worry among political elites. As in China today, rule-of-law institutions came under increasing suspicion from an authoritarian regime dead set against fundamental political reform—particularly after anarchists assassinated the reformist Czar Alexander II in 1881. Under his successor, Russian authorities launched a two-decade–long rollback of liberal policies. They curtailed public trials, limited the rights of juries, asserted control over bar associations, removed political trials from the regular court system, and drastically reduced the powers of local assemblies.

Beginning in the late 1870s, imperial authorities also built up an extensive police state (one might call it “social-stability maintenance with Russian characteristics”). They increasingly took responsibility for upholding law and order out of the hands of judges and gave it to the police, including the Okhrana (the Czarist secret service). Agents of the latter enjoyed dramatically expanded powers that allowed them to detain and internally exile anyone even suspected of political crimes.

Of course, these measures did not succeed in stamping out all dissent. The existence of private property meant that there were limits on imperial power. Wealthy patrons continued to employ reformist intellectuals, despite state efforts to isolate them. Dissident authors continued to find markets for their works, notwithstanding state efforts to censor them.

The key result of Czarist counterreform in the late nineteenth century was to radicalize society. The imperial turn against law convinced moderates that gradual reform of the regime was impossible. Decades of indiscriminate state repression pushed together liberal constitutionalists, anarchist terrorists, religious nationalists, radical socialists, and ordinary citizens outraged by violations of their rights. And it drove all of them to adopt ever more extreme political positions.

Further, as imperial rule entered its waning years, hard-line policies helped to prevent the emergence of any organized and institutionalized political opposition. Like China today, imperial Russia had no Taiwanese dangwai (outside the party) movement, no South Korean opposition political parties, no Polish Solidarity trade union. It crushed any effort to organize these. This produced a surface veneer of political stability. But it also ensured that no coherent force existed to step into the void and pick up the power lying in the streets once the Czarist state finally crumbled. Instead, there was only a chaotic assortment of military strongmen, popular mobs, radicalized intellectuals, and—detraining ominously at the Finland Station—committed underground revolutionaries hardened by decades of repression.

Of course, China is not there . . . yet. Despite increasing domestic unrest, slowing economic growth, and rising tensions with neighbors, central leaders retain a firm grip on the levers of power. And despite the recent official turn against legal reforms, most activists still hope for (and seek) gradual reform of the Chinese state. They do not desire a radical upheaval that would shatter it. They want a soft rather than a hard landing.

But the risk of a hard landing is real. Pressures are building. Open legal and political channels are needed to funnel them in the direction of gradual change. If China does not build these now, it will not simply tip into transition, but rather plummet into cataclysm.


  1. Some content and language are adapted from Carl Minzner, “China’s Turn Against Law,” American Journal of Comparative Law 59 (Fall 2011): 935–84.
  2. Andrew J. Nathan, “China’s Changing of the Guard: Authoritarian Resilience,”Journal of Democracy 14 (January 2003): 13–15.
  3. Keith J. Hand, “Understanding China’s System for Addressing Legislative Conflicts,” Columbia Journal of Asian Law (forthcoming 2013).
  4. Keith J. Hand, “Using Law for a Righteous Purpose: The Sun Zhigang Incident and Evolving Forms of Citizen Action in the People’s Republic of China,” Columbia Journal of Transnational Law 45, no. 1 (2006): 127–31.
  5. Wei Lihua and Jiang Xu, “Sifa shenpan zhong de renmin qinghuai yu qunzhong luxian” [Popular sentiment and the mass line in judicial trial work], China Court Web, 22 June 2011, available in Chinese only at
  6. Minzner, “China’s Turn Against Law,” 947.
  7. “Dui Hua Estimates 4,000 Executions in China, Welcomes Open Dialogue,” Dui Hua Website, 12 December 2011, available at
  8. Richard Pipes, Russia Under the Old Regime (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974), 295.154855232

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His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s 78th Birthday Celebration!

imagesThe Tibetan American community in Vermont celebrates the 78th Birthday Anniversary of the Noble laureate His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama on July 6th Saturday at the Faith United Methodist Church on 899 Dorset Street in South Burlington from 3 pm. At 10 am the same day, the community will gather at Oakledge Park for Sangsol (Incense Offering). Please join us to share this happy moment. Best Wishes!


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