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The Prospect of Deliberative Democracy for the Tibetan People?

posted Jun 6, 2011, 5:54 AM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Jun 6, 2011, 6:10 AM ]
By Jigme Tenzin

What is the state of Tibetan Democracy in Exile? I want to address this question in this short article by testing some of the ideas of Deliberative Democracy (DD) . The interest to write on the subject is following a recommendation from an individual who share deep concern for the future of Tibet.

Basic Proposition and Definitions

I will first simplify some of the core elements of the Deliberative Democracy (DD), realizing that oversimplification might lose some of its meaning. Deliberation relies on the power of reasoning among citizens, rather than on aggregation and strategic behavior via voting in elections and bargaining among elite leaders. Deliberative democracy can be defined as public deliberation of free and equal citizens and where public policy outcome for the public good are deliberated and discussed. The outcome or ‘reasoned agreement’, if any, is based on rational discussion among citizens on free, open and clear information. (The open source of information on the web is one example, though not perfect).

Successful deliberations would include principles of reciprocity, publicity and accountability. Reciprocity basically means ‘give and take’ between opposing sides of a debate. A stronger, legitimate and reasoned argument should be given the opportunity to influence policy and decision making. Publicity is the notion that information of public concern should be provided to citizens. After clear information is given, the citizens will have a better understanding of an issue which would thereby create unbiased and reasoned discussion/deliberations amongst the citizen. Finally, the consensus that follows the discussion would be the legitimate voice of the people. This legitimate voice and consensus should therefore guide decision makers on policy issues.

The Critique of Modern Democracy

Scholars who write on ethnic conflicts and conflict resolution, especially in majority-minority conflict argue that the agreements often exclude the people who are affected by the actual conflict. Their views, objections and solutions are not integrated in the elite deliberations/agreement that takes place between the leaders of the group. In the case of Tibet, it would mean that the leaders (Chinese and Tibetans) exclude many issues and views from some minorities groups and individuals with moderate or extreme views.  (Some scholars argue that elite led deliberation moderate extreme views while some argue that extreme views should be engaged in the discussion for long term peace and stability).

Supporters of DD argue that the thought is often created that leader and representatives knows what best for the people. Therefore, they argue that legitimate decision making occurs through active participation and involvement of the people in actual decision making.  Furthermore, they argue that the processes of developing the public interest are captured by the elites to full-fill some narrow interest or short-term goal (though I still have difficulty of agreeing to this argument because the elites can also be a responsible player in moderating and representing the people).

The foray into Deliberative Democracy in China

There has been some interest and practical implementation of Deliberative Democracy mechanism in China. The practice consists of citizen participation in decision making process through deliberative polling and other mechanism. He Baogang, a scholar based in Australia have tried deliberative democracy experiment by bringing Tibetans and Chinese students to deliberate and create a better understanding on issues of autonomy. He’s experiment was not able to break down deep distrust on deeper issues of values and solution for Tibet. Instead, He Boagong mentions, the best short-term approach would be “irrelevant discussion”, an idea proposed by John Dryzek among Tibetan and Chinese, to break down barriers and resentments, encourage mutual understanding, trust, and cooperative behavior and lay the ground work for more official work. (The dialogue approach being taken by H.H. the Dalai Lama is one example, though the dialogical approaches have not been very effective either out of the lack of interest, resource or weak framing of the dialogue initiative).

The effectiveness of citizen participation in China and Tibet is still unclear. Some of the practices such as village elections are influenced by the party and power interests. An active democratic movement may occur only when there is mass buy-in into the ideals of democracy and freedom of fear and prosecution.

Democracy in Exile

I am no expert on democracy so I can only provide a surface view of democracy. Furthermore, I don’t pretend to know the full scope of the practice of democracy among Tibetan exile population,which make me an amateur observer. However, I can just state that some basic elements include the proper representation of the people through voting, the freedom of expression/associations/information; active civil society free of state interest and so on.

The Tibetans in exile do possess the above requirement, though it needs to be more developed through education and active mobilization. Of course we know that some or all the elements are either tightly controlled and/or non-existent in China. I do not oversee some of the recent positive developments. The recent election of the Tibetan Prime Minister and the Chitues is a milestone for Tibetans people. People of all age groups and background mobilized in a democratic process and the voters made a democratic decision at a critical phase. This is also the first time most of us got a taste of democracy, especially the younger generations. We should not fool ourselves with the relative success of the recent democratic process and outcome. Democracy does not end with a successful election and a leader. Democracy also means the ability for people of all background to engage and participate in a continuous manner. We have to further develop the process, especially the people ability to deliberate effectively on various policy issues or themes critical for the future. At times, during the elections it felt like Tibetans were more eager to hear what the three contending Kalons had to say, rather than pushing the Kalons to address broader issues, themes and challenges facing Tibet and Tibetans. While leadership is critical in democracy, it’s the will and power of the people that sustains democracy.

DD proponents argue that Democracy needs an active ‘public space’, which is an independent (formal or informal space) for people to come together and discuss issues related to the public good. Some might argue that there is a lack of public space in exile to have an active and informed decision on issues relating to many aspects of the future of Tibet as well as the well-being of the Tibetan people in exile, Tibet or the roles/responsibilities of TGiE. There might also be interest in restricting or limiting the scope of the public space for whatever reasons.One specific example could be the exclusion of the Rangzan voice in active discussion.

Often, the rare times when active discussions occurs is in time of crisis or major upheavals (elections, major protest in Tibet, HH decisions to devolve power). We are  waiting for crisis of some sort (notably the fall of the CCP) instead of actively engaging the present and preparing for the future. I might sound cynical here but anything that creates some discussion is worthwhile for an active citizenry. A way forward would be to create regular and active forums for Tibetan people to discuss various issues and communicate these issues to the Parliament. The Chitues and the PM, should develop new and innovative forums and public space as one of their core responsibility (practical approaches to deliberation involve citizen assembly, deliberative polling, referendums, and alternative electoral mechanism. For example, communities/individuals could try to create public space to discuss/deliberate on specific issues like socio-economic issues of people, future path of the movement, how to engage Chinese people and so on. Even if it does not lead to any substantial change, it is creating a practice among the people.


Democracy does not consist solely of voting during an election. It requires and active participation and engagement of citizens to influence power and bring changes in society. Tibetans in the free world should use every possible opportunity to be an engaged citizen, whether in their own community or outside their comfort zone. This can mean joining or volunteering in a political party, local citizen associations, NGOs, student clubs and so on. They provide us with the necessary experience and knowledge to contribute to a robust Tibetan democracy-first in Exile.

The basic ideals of democracy have already been instilled by HH the Dalai Lama and now it is time for us let a vibrant democracy that can lead to a Free Tibet and further. There will as always be the challenge of overcoming anti-democratic elements, but the    successful path is to overcome these elements is through peaceful dialogue and democratic means. This will mean having a strong ‘democratic attitude’ among the people and continuous participation and engagement.

While the experiment of democracy, as the practice and ideals is never static, in much easier outside China, there will be significant challenges in the Middle Kingdom, as some Han chauvinist would like to situate China. But the recent example in the Middle East shows, the will and power of the people can never be suppressed. Eventually, people power will surface and take a path of its own, such as the Spring Revolution which no one predicted would happen. (the Economist failed to give even a hint of the revolution in their yearly prediction).But the revolution did not come about suddenly. It needed careful planning, the use of social media and more importantly,not being pushed out from the Tahrir square.

Further Readings: See also

-Keane,John. The Life and Death of Democracy. London: Norton.2008 -
O’Flynn, Ian. Deliberative Democracy and Divided Societies. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.2006                                                                                        
-Noël, Alain. “Democratic Deliberation in a Multinational Federation.” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 9.3 (2006)                                                                                                                       
-Baogang, He. “A Deliberative Approach to the Tibet Autonomy Issue: Promoting Trust through Dialogue.” Asian Survey, Vol. 50.4. 2010. -Fung, Archon. Deliberation Before the Revolution: Towards an Ethics of Deliberative Democracy in an Unjust World. Political Theory, Vol 33.2, (2005)                                                                                                                                  
-Valadez, Jorge. Deliberative Democracy: Political Legitimacy and Self-Determination in Multicultural Societies. Boulder: Westview Press. 2000                                                                                                    
-Leib,Ethan and Baogang He. The Search for Deliberative Democracy in China. NY: Palgrave Macmillan,2006.
-Rosenberg, Tina. Revolution U. Foreign Policy Magazine. February,2011
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