The State Department said on Tuesday that it was barring Chinese authorities from the United States who were found to have restricted journalists, tourists, or diplomats or other American officials from entering Tibetan areas.
The new visa restrictions are the latest set of sanctions that the Trump administration has imposed against China’s government and political leaders over the last several years, most recently to punish Beijing’s crackdown against protesters in Hong Kong.
In a statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said international access to Tibet was a matter of regional and environmental security. He did not say who or how many Chinese officials were now being blocked from the United States in retaliation.
He said the United States remained “committed to supporting meaningful autonomy for Tibetans, respect for their fundamental and unalienable human rights, and the preservation of their unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity.”
The frontier region in southwest China has been a flash point for generations.
Beijing considers Tibet as part of its historical empire, but many Tibetans and others believe the region was illegally incorporated into China in 1951. As some Tibetans press for independence, China’s Communist Party has responded over the years with heavy-handed tactics against protesters, prompting the Dalai Lama in 2008 to accuse Beijing of waging “cultural genocide” against his followers.
The visa restrictions are required under a U.S. law, approved in 2018, to respond to limits on Americans entering Tibet.
In a June 10 report, the State Department described access to the Tibet Autonomous Region as “tightly controlled,” although it noted that officials from the American Embassy in Beijing — including the ambassador — and from the consulate in Chengdu visited five times in 2019.
Requests by the American diplomats to visit two Buddhist institutes in the region were denied, however, and journalists’ applications were also regularly turned down, according to a State Department human rights report in March.
Separately, the Free Tibet activist group reported that only nine diplomatic missions and seven journalists asked China for permission to enter the autonomous region in 2018, reflecting what it described as “the futility of applying.” Of those, four diplomatic delegations and one trip by journalists were allowed in, the group concluded.
That did not include a February 2018 reporting mission by Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times, who was taken into custody for nearly 17 hours and questioned by security officers after entering an ethnically Tibetan region in neighboring Sichuan Province. Mr. Myers, who did not go into the autonomous region, was released unharmed.
“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, the president of the International Campaign for Tibet. “At the same time, the U.S. government is letting the American people know it will stand up for their rights against China’s discrimination, including the rights of thousands of Tibetan-American citizens who simply want the freedom to visit their family members and their ancestral land.”
In Beijing, China’s foreign ministry announced that it would retaliate by imposing similar restrictions on Americans involved in “egregious conduct related to Tibet issues,” a spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said.
“We urge the United States to stop interfering in China’s internal affairs,” he said, warning that it would cause further damage to relations between the two countries.
Between 2015 and 2018, nearly 176,000 foreigners had visited for business or tourism, including Ambassador Terry Branstad, Mr. Zhao said, claiming that China only imposed restrictions based on geographical and climatic conditions.
“China welcomes more foreigners to visit, travel, and do business in the Tibetan region of China,” Mr. Zhao said. “This policy will not change, but the premise is that China’s laws and relevant regulations must be followed and the necessary formalities must be fulfilled.”
Steven Lee Myers and Claire Fu contributed reporting and research.