By Elliot Sperling (May 15, 2013)
Readers who have made it to the end of this admittedly long blog post [see: Incivilities] have, I hope, grasped the central point: the civil society deficit within China and within Tibetan exile society is deep and damaging. As regards exile society, there was a stunning display of what this means only a few days after this post was put up. At an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington D.C. on May 8, Lobsang Sangay was discussing the position that he and the exile administration take towards China. The event was presided over by Prof. Jerome Cohen of New York University, perhaps best known at the moment for the help he extended to human rights activist Chen Guangcheng. The proceedings were recorded and the video is available online.
At approximately 26 minutes into the recording Lobsang Sangay states: “We are not asking that democracy be implemented or be allowed inside Tibet. What we are asking is rights as per the provisions of the Chinese Constitution. So democracy is what we aspire, but that’s not part of what we are asking to the Chinese Government” (sic). In other words the Tibetan struggle is no longer one that even seeks basic democratic rights for Tibetans. “We are not asking that democracy… be allowed inside Tibet.” Sadly, no one in the audience, at least none among those who rose to ask questions, thought to even query this. Only Jerome Cohen pressed him on the matter. At 28 minutes he notes “It’s very interesting to see what this would amount to if there’s no freedom of speech for the people in Tibet.” He gets no further explanation or qualification on this point from Lobsang Sangay. Later on (40 minutes and 50 seconds in) he tries again: “Of course one problem with Tibetans is if you give them freedom of speech they may not shout ‘autonomy,’ they may shout ‘independence.’” “Not necessarily,” responds Lobsang Sangay, reeling off a few examples of what he considers comparable conflicts (e.g., Quebec, Northern Ireland, “Catalina” [sic; one assumes he means Catalonia]) that have found resolution. Aside from the fact that these conflicts—whatever relevance they may or may not have for the Tibetan Issue—all involved parties that subscribed to fundamental ideas about democracy and rights (and which therefore made the violations of those rights potent elements in the disputes), Lobsang Sangay concludes simply that if an agreement is reached the people will abide by it. Of course! In fact he had earlier in the discussion (21 minutes and 45 seconds in) made it clear why he assumes as much: “If the Chinese Government implements their own laws we take that as a genuine autonomy and we don’t challenge or ask for an overthrow of the Communist Party…” (sic). When Jerome Cohen then asks “How do you maintain autonomy if you have continuing party control of the government?” the answer begins: “As long as Tibetans are in charge in the leadership…”
So this is what it has come down to, fifty-plus years after the beginning of an exile struggle rooted in the idea and idealism of Tibet as a nation, and 25 years after the Middle Way Approach scuttled that idealism (but still asserted that the goal was to achieve a Tibet that was “a democratic political entity… in association with the People’s Republic of China). The goal now is not any sort of democratic system in Tibet; it is rule by the Communist Party, albeit with Tibetan party members staffing the leadership positions. The idea of civil society rights and norms has no part in this. And the reaction in the exile community? A comment here and there, but otherwise mostly silent acquiescence so far to the exile leader’s endorsement of party dictatorship with a Tibetan face as the solution to the Tibet Issue. Not that this will make any difference to the Chinese authorities. Surely it only confirms their assumptions about the inherent weakness of the exile political structure. To the list of strengths that it lacks (political, military, financial, etc.) they can now add moral.
Published by author's permission.