Against a backdrop of political tensions between the People’s Republic of China and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, a handful of students from Chinese and Tibetan backgrounds formed an organization last spring to build bridges between the two nations.

Coined the “China-Tibet Initiative,” the group aims to provide a forum for Chinese and Tibetan students at Emory to interact on a bimonthly basis, forming friendships and participating in an intercultural exchange on campus.

Co-founder and Tenzin Gyatso Scholar Ngawang Norbu said the organization is unique because it does not focus on political change, which is different from the goals of other groups on campus such as Students for a Free Tibet, which advocates for greater Tibetan autonomy under Chinese rule.

“Ours is a non-political but rather a friendship group where those who believe in dialogue can take part,” Norbu clarified. “[The] range of activities is not limited … We are open to talk on any subjects on friendly ground, respecting each other’s differences.”

According to College senior and President of Students for a Free Tibet Kathryn Breazeale, the China-Tibet Initiative is important to have on campus, and while apolitical, could ultimately help lead to a solution for Tibet’s political problem.

“Individual respect and understanding can help create global change,” she said.

The idea for the China-Tibet Initiative was born when College junior Bart Qian – a native of Shenyang, China – met with Norbu and Tenzin Gyatso Scholar Lodoe Sangpo last spring in an effort to reach out to the Tibetan community.

The meeting was an eye-opening experience for Qian, he said, and clarified many beliefs that he previously held about Tibetans in general and Tibetan Buddhist monastics in particular.

“When I first saw them in their red robes walking around on campus, all I can imagine is the mysterious and holy-land Tibet,” Qian admitted. “Later on, when I found out that all the monks have Facebook, watch Hollywood movies and go to amusement parks, I was totally amazed … There [is] so much more to explore, to learn and to exchange.”

Given the success of this initial interaction, the three decided that conversations should occur regularly. They have since organized a series of bimonthly meetings in the Dobbs University Center (DUC).

These meetings are open to all, but the organization especially values Chinese and Tibetan membership because, according to Qian, Chinese and Tibetan people hardly communicate with each other.

“There is a clear divide between the two groups … [They] have little interaction on campus, as well as anywhere in the world,” Qian said. “I want to change this mentality.”

The group held a number of meetings in the spring, which Qian said he feels have been successful. Topics of discussion included Chinese and Tibetan experiences of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, self-immolations in Tibet and personal life stories shared by both Chinese and Tibetan group members.

Qian said Sangpo told the group about his escape from Tibet to India and the dangers involved.

“[This] shocked many of us,” he said.

The meetings are scheduled to continue, and the group’s goals for this semester include plans to improve membership, add more topics of dialogue and include Tibetan-Buddhist meditation as part of the group’s regular activities.

Sangpo said he hopes the meetings will shed light on the question of Tibetan freedom.

In addition to holding bimonthly meetings, the group plans to develop a newsletter.

According to Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership, organizing dialogues such as this one is crucial in building understanding between groups of people from different backgrounds.

“I fully concur with His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s conviction that dialogue … is the only and proper way to resolve the Tibet issue,” he said. “Emory’s China-Tibet Initiative has enormous potential to lead this movement and to be an example for greater understanding and peace everywhere.”

Negi said the model being used by Chinese and Tibetan Emory students could be used as a model for other institutions.

Norbu agreed, noting that the China-Tibet Initiative model can spread to other institutions to help mitigate any conflicts.

“Dialogue opens the door for better relationships and more harmonious society,” Norbu said.

– By Rajiv Velury