More than 130 people from 23 states converged on Capitol Hill to lobby for Tibet the week before Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida on April 6.
Although the leaders' meeting is expected to focus on trade and the need for China to do more to rein in the nuclear and missile programs of its neighbor and ally North Korea, Tibet remains a contentious issue between the two nations.
"Congress has shown a strong interest in Tibet since the 1980s, passing dozens of laws and resolutions related to Tibet, speaking out about conditions in Tibet, and welcoming visits by the Dalai Lama," according to a 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service. "Such actions have long been a source of friction in the U.S.-China relationship. China charges that they amount to support for challenges to Chinese rule in Tibet."
Bhuchung Tsering of the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, which organized Tibet Lobby Day, said, "Looking at the meeting of President Xi of China and President Trump, we want to send a message to President Trump, through Congress and to Trump directly, that there is traditional bipartisan support for dialog with China on Tibet," he said, adding "Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson says he is committed to promoting dialogue on Tibet and receiving the Dalai Lama."
Tibet Lobby Day was held simultaneously in Washington, Brussels and Canberra, Australia, March 27-29.
"U.S. policy has not changed," Anna Richey-Allen, a spokeswoman for the State Department's East Asia and Pacific Bureau, said Friday, adding that the U.S. recognizes the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan autonomous prefectures to be a part of the People's Republic of China.
"We remain deeply concerned about human rights abuses and restrictions, including those imposed on religious freedom, in the TAR and elsewhere in China," she said. "We remain committed to supporting meaningful autonomy for Tibetans and the preservation of their unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions.
"The United States encourages the People's Republic of China to engage with the Dalai Lama and his representative without preconditions."
Ngawang Norbu of Boston, Massachusetts, was one of the Tibetan-Americans and Tibet supporters who spoke with more than 250 members of Congress and their staffs during Tibet Lobby Day.
The activists asked them to continue funding Tibet programs and to promote efforts to gain access to Tibetan areas for U.S. officials, citizens and journalists. They also want the Trump administration to implement the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 (TPA), which has the stated purpose of supporting "the aspirations of the Tibetan people to safeguard their distinct identity."
"The important thing today is that there's a new administration in America and, along with that, the exile Tibetan administration in India has declared 2017 to be a year of action for Tibet, and so that's why I'm here," Norbu told VOA on Wednesday. "It's our responsibility and obligation to lobby for Tibet, and whether our requests are responded to or not is, of course, up to the leadership here, but in our mind we think our objectives and efforts will bear fruit."
Bhuchung expects to see the reintroduction of the proposed Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act by Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts; Representative Randy Hultgren, a Republican from Illinois; Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican; and Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat.
North Carolinian Marah Litchford, who has expressed concern about religious freedom in Tibet, participated in the Washington movement. "They listen," she said. "You just have to talk loudly."
Nike Ching and Steven Herman contributed to this report, which originated with reporting by Dondhon Namling of the VOA Tibetan service.