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Tashi Delek Comrade? The Sikyong Accepts Communist Rule in Tibet

posted Jun 4, 2013, 5:56 AM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Jun 4, 2013, 5:36 PM ]
By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review  

In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC on May 8, 2013, Sikyong Lobsang Sangay made three startling statements: a) democracy for Tibet was out and Communist Party rule was okay, b) genuine autonomy for Tibet could be for a limited duration, and c) China would have discretion over military deployment in Tibet.  Specifically, the Sikyong stated:

[I]f the Chinese government implements their own laws, we could take that as genuine autonomy, and we don't challenge or ask for an overthrow of the Communist Party.  So we don't question or challenge the present structure of the ruling party.


We are not asking that democracy be implemented or be allowed inside Tibet.  What we're asking is rights, as per the provisions of the Chinese constitution.  So democracy is what we practice, but this is what we aspire.  But that's not part of what we're asking to the Chinese government.<FN1>

During his speech, no one asked Sikyong Sangay about these remarkable statements except the host, Jerome Cohen, who asked Sangay: “So how do you maintain autonomy if you have continuing party control of the government?”  Mr. Sangay replied: “As long as Tibetans are in charge in the leadership”.  This prompted a response from Prof. Cohen: “Well, they have Tibetans in charge now in their autonomy.”  Mr. Sangay countered by saying: “The party secretary is the most powerful person, and the party secretary of Tibet autonomous region has never, ever been a Tibetan.”  Prof. Cohen then asked:

Do you think you can institute democracy in a genuinely autonomous Tibet?  Will there be real, free political elections, freedom of expression?

Sangay replied that “we” are asking for the rights under the Chinese Constitution but not democracy in Tibet and that “we” want the same deal that China gave Hong Kong and Macau.  Cohen then pointed out that Hong Kong may have freedom of speech but it does not have democracy, and that Hong Kong’s autonomy has a time limit of 50 years from 1997.<FN2>  Sangay implied that he would accept a time limit for genuine autonomy in Tibet as long as China agreed to the principle of genuine autonomy (if it can still be called autonomy).

In addition to accepting the concept of a limited duration of autonomy for Tibet, Sangay made another startling statement towards the end of the Q&A period in which he stated: “[M]ilitarization, it will be at China's discretion, but at the same time we wish to see less of it in the border areas.”  Sangay, therefore, conceded that China would have discretion on military deployment in Tibet.  We can only assume that Sikyong Sangay's comments are in accord with the CTA's current Middle Way Policy and reflect the official view of the CTA. 

In 2008, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) submitted a Memorandum on Genuine Tibetan Autonomy to the Chinese Government.  This was the first major update and revision to the 1988 Strasbourg Proposal.  The Memorandum called for genuine Tibetan autonomy for all three regions of Tibet under one administration within the framework of the PRC Constitution.  Although the Memorandum did not specifically address what political system should be in Tibet, it stated:

The exercise of genuine autonomy would include the right of Tibetans to create their own regional government and government institutions and processes that are best suited to their needs and characteristics.  It would require that the People's Congress of the autonomous region have the power to legislate on all matters within the competencies of the region ... and that other organs of the autonomous government have the power to execute and administer decisions autonomously.  <FN3>

The word democracy is not used anywhere in the Memorandum.  China rejected every point in the 2008 Memorandum.  In 2010, the CTA submitted a follow-up Note which stated:

The Memorandum also does not challenge the socialist system of the PRC.  Nothing in it suggests a demand for a change to this system or for its exclusion from Tibetan areas.  As for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s views on socialism, it is well known that he has always favoured a socialist economy and ideology that promotes equality and benefits to uplift the poorer sections of society.

Once again, nowhere is the word democracy used.  While the Note does not challenge a socialist system in Tibetan areas, even a socialist system can have democratic elections and universal suffrage.  (E.g. Scandinavian countries have socialist economies and democratically-elected governments.)  There are such things as socialist democracies and the Note does not explicitly reject a democratic form of government for Tibet.

The abandonment of democracy for Tibet as a condition of genuine autonomy is a dramatic change from  His Holiness’ 1988 Strasbourg Proposal, the foundation of the Middle Way proposal, in which the Dalai Lama stated: “The Government [of Tibet] should be comprised of a popularly elected Chief Executive, a bi-cameral legislative branch, and an independent judicial system.”<FN5>  It also runs counter to His Holiness’ many prior statements extolling democracy:

I personally have great admiration for secular democracy.

The future head of the Tibetan Government must be someone popularly elected by the people.

Modern democracy is based on the principle that all human beings are essentially equal, that each of us has an equal right to life, liberty, and happiness.

[T]he political, social and cultural freedom that democracy entails is of immense value and importance.

No system of government is perfect, but democracy is closest to our essential human nature.  It is also the only stable foundation upon which a just and free global political structure can be built.  So it is in all our interests that those of us who already enjoy democracy should actively support everybody's right to do so.<FN6>

His Holiness has also criticized communist one-party rule:

Although communism espoused many noble ideals, including altruism, the attempt by its governing elites to dictate their views proved disastrous.  These governments went to tremendous lengths to control their societies and to induce their citizens to work for the common good.  Rigid organisation may have been necessary at first to overcome previously oppressive regimes.  Once that goal was fulfilled, however, such rigidity had very little to contribute to building a truly cooperative society.  Communism failed utterly because it relied on force to promote its beliefs.  Ultimately, human nature was unable to sustain the suffering it produced.<FN7>

While the 2008 Memorandum and 2010 Note are not new, the Sikyong's recent comments are the first time, to our knowledge, that any CTA official has confirmed that the Middle Way Policy now envisions a limited duration, militarization at China's discretion, and - most importantly - no democracy



Sikyong Sangay’s comments brought some scathing responses.  Woeser wrote on her Facebook page:

If this is what he really said, then I have a strong recommendation: Sikyong Lobsang Sangay, please submit an application to join the Communist Party!  If you want to be the Obama of China, how can you not join the Chinese Communist Party?  121 self-immolators have paid the price!  I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut!  This is too painful!<FN7>

Buchung D. Sonam,<FN9> Elliot Sperling,<FN10> and Maura Moynihan<FN11> also criticized the Sikyong’s recent remarks.  It is also worth noting that, of the Tibetan self-immolators, all have called for rangwang (freedom) or rangzen (independence) – none have called for rangkyong (autonomy), let alone marshok ringluk (communism).

Such criticism prompted the CTA to issue a “clarification” of Mr. Sangay’s remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations:

In his talk at CFR, the Sikyong was referring to the socialist system of China at the national level.  The Middle-Way policy seeks genuine autonomy within the framework of the Chinese constitution which obviously requires restructuring of the existing system to include all the Tibetan areas under one single administration and implementation of Chinese laws.<FN12>

However, this appears to be nothing more than a poor attempt at spinning the Sikyong’s remarks.  No clarification was actually needed because there was no ambiguity in his remarks.  There is a full transcript of his statements at the CFR website, and Mr. Sangay was clearly not speaking about China’s political system at the “national level”.  Mr. Sangay clearly stated that he is not challenging Communist Party rule in Tibet, and is not seeking democracy for Tibetans in Tibet.

The CTA’s “clarification” also noted: “His Holiness the Dalai Lama had stated that he can accept the socialist system of China if genuine autonomy is granted to Tibetans”.  Obviously, accepting socialism in China does not require accepting Communist Party dictatorship in an autonomous Tibet.  The whole point of autonomy is that the autonomous area is different.  So the “clarification’s” invocation of His Holiness does not buttress the Sikyong's position. 

The Sikyong is a well-educated and fluent English speaker who has given many public interviews and speeches, so presumably he chose his words carefully and deliberately.  We can only assume Mr. Sangay meant what he said.  Moreover, the so-called “clarification” was issued by the CTA Press Officer and not from Sangay himself.  There was no press conference to allow the media to ask questions about the CTA’s “clarification” or Sangay’s original remarks.



Admittedly, Sangay’s recent remarks are not entirely inconsistent with the CTA’s 2008 Memorandum or the 2010 Note.  However, his interpretation of the Middle Way goes much further down the road of concessions than is required by a reading of either document.  This is the first time an elected leader of the CTA has publicly stated that the CTA is not seeking democracy for Tibetans inside Tibet and will accept Communist Party rule in Tibet.  The CTA has not disavowed the Sikyong’s remarks nor has Sangay retracted them.  It is abundantly clear now that the CTA has abandoned one of the core provisions of the original Middle Way Proposal.  The irony of a democratically-elected institution of 130,000 Tibetan exiles abandoning democracy for 6 million Tibetans in Tibet is not lost on us.  Some might use stronger words than “irony.”<FN13>

Interestingly, Mr. Sangay's comments on having Tibetans in the communist leadership recalls the so-called "Obama of China" controversy that Woeser cited.  A 2010 TPR editorial noted that Sangay's October 2008 speech at the Wilson Center, read closely, "transforms the Tibetan struggle from one for freedom and self-determination, into one for civil rights and 'representation in … government.'  In that respect it differs from His Holiness’ Middle Way vision, which is for a distinct and internally autonomous Tibet."<FN14> 

The Middle Way Proposal was sold to the Tibetan people as a reasonable compromise between complete independence and the intolerable status quo in Tibet.  It was presented as a solution to China’s insistence on sovereignty over Tibet while protecting civil, cultural, and religious rights for Tibetans and providing a measure of self-rule.  Democracy with an elected legislature and chief executive was originally part of the Middle Way proposal. 

The poll of Tibetans-in-exile in 1997, in which 64% supported whatever the Dalai Lama thought was best,<FN15> was based in part on the premise that the Middle Way included a demand for a democratically-elected government in Tibet.  In 2008, after the Special Meeting of Tibetans, the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile (TPIE) passed a unanimous resolution in support of the Middle Way.  Once again the TPIE, the participants of the Special Meeting, and the Tibetan public were presumably still under the impression that the Middle Way included democracy for Tibet.

Moreover, the Sikyong has now stated that even this interpretation of Tibetan autonomy could be of limited duration as it is in Hong Kong (50 years).  To our knowledge, this is the first time anyone in the CTA suggested or stated that Tibet’s autonomy would be limited in duration.  No mention of a limited duration is in the 2008 Memorandum or the 2010 Note.  The CTA apparently still wants Tibetan autonomy, but would accept it for a limited period of time (after which: what?).

Mr. Sangay also conceded China would have “discretion” on the deployment of military forces in Tibet.  This means that the PLA and the PRC decide how many and of what type of military forces it would place in the Tibetan Plateau, not the Tibetan Government.  Sangay’s statement is a greater concession than the the 2010 Note which merely says that there is no proposal for the “withdrawal” of the PLA from Tibet.

The Sikyong’s recent comments raise more questions than they answer.  If Tibet were governed by one-party communist rule, how would Tibetans guarantee their autonomy?  Even if all the Party leaders in Tibet were ethnic Tibetans, why would they not follow the instructions of the central Party leadership, since all government and Party officials are appointed by Beijing.  Would the Tibetan communist leadership simply be full of self-serving collaborationists like Legchok and Sither?<FN16>  Promotion and assignments in the Party are based on approvals from the central Party Organization Department.<FN17>  If Tibetan Party members want to get promoted or obtain leadership positions, they have to obey the policies and rules of the central Party.

What about the Communist Party requirement of atheism?  Would Tibetan Party members in autonomous Tibet have to give up their religion to join the Party?  How can one be both a communist and a Buddhist since atheism is central to Party doctrine?  Would the Tibetan Communist Party still impose controls over monasteries and require all monks/nuns to take “patriotic” tests to insure they love the "motherland" and the Party?  Would the Party still impose “democratic management committees” in the monasteries, and Party cells in all other social organizations?

Would this mean Tibetans cannot form an opposition political party, and if they did, would they be arrested?  Opposition parties are currently illegal in China and calling for an end to Communist Party rule will get you arrested.  What about protests against the Party or calls for Tibetan independence and democracy?  Prof. Cohen brought up free speech at least three times in his questions, but Mr. Sangay repeatedly avoided the issue.  Would Tibetan communist leaders allow Tibetan citizens to demonstrate against the Party or against Chinese rule? 

What if China insisted that protests for Tibetan independence threatened Chinese sovereignty, demanded that the Tibetan Government arrest protestors, and threatened to mobilize the PLA if the Tibetan Government refused?  Would the Tibetan Government, run by Tibetan communists, dutifully obey the Party and suppress its own citizens?  This is the dilemma of many puppet regimes, and the results are usually ugly.

In the PRC today, the Chinese Communist Party controls the Central Government, all the provincial, autonomous and local governments, the military, the judiciary, the police, major academic institutions, the national press, national TV stations, and a large number of state-owned business enterprises.  The Party censors the media, the Internet, films and TV.  Many Chinese intellectuals and dissidents have criticized the Party’s absolute monopoly on political power.  Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years because he called for democratic reforms in China.<FN18>  The problems of one-party rule are obvious even to a casual observer.  We are unaware of any example of workable autonomy in a one-party system of government.  Yet, somehow the Sikyong believes Tibet can be genuinely autonomous under a one-party state.

Paradoxically, even after the Sikyong’s May 8 remarks, CTA officials are still talking about the values of democracy.  His Holiness’ Special Representative to Europe, Kelsang Gyaltsen, stated in a speech in Berlin on May 31, 2013 that: "Human rights, democracy and the rule of law have become today universal aspirations of people suffering from oppression and persecution."<FN19>  Is the CTA leadership saying that all people aspire for democracy but not Tibetans?  Why should Tibet alone be left out of the fundamental goal of democracy?  If the CTA leadership is now saying that Communist Party rule is acceptable in Tibet, then why are CTA officials not lauding the values of communism and the Chinese Communist Party?  This indicates deep confusion - or perhaps internal contradictions - in how the current CTA leadership is now envisioning the Middle Way.  


The Middle Way Proposal has been transformed from genuine autonomy for Tibet with democracy and demilitarization into a proposal for no democracy, Communist Party rule, limited duration of autonomy, and militarization of the Tibetan Plateau at the discretion of China.  The Middle Way has undergone significant modifications since 1988 but the recent abandonment of democracy is arguably the most significant.  It remains to be seen whether the Tibetan people, in exile and in Tibet, will accept the Middle Way in its present form.



1 http://www.cfr.org/tibet/conversation-sikyong-lobsang-sangay/p30679

2 See also TPR’s editorial making a similar point about the limited duration of Hong Kong’s autonomy: Dim Sum Surprise: Why the Hong Kong Model Won't Save Tibet, http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.org/editorials/dimsumsurprisewhythehongkongmodelwontsavetibet

3 http://www.savetibet.org/policy-center/topics-fact-sheets/memorandum-genuine-autonomy-tibetan-people

4 http://www.savetibet.org/policy-center/topics-fact-sheets/note-memorandum-genuine-autonomy-tibetan-people

5 http://www.dalailama.com/messages/tibet/strasbourg-proposal-1988

6 http://www.dalailama.com/messages/buddhism/buddhism-and-democracy

7 Id.

8 https://www.facebook.com/tsering.woeser/posts/10151597119384802

9 http://www.phayul.com/news/article.aspx?id=33440&article=Must+We+love+the+Party%e2%80%a6By+Bhuchung+D+Sonam&t=1&c=4

 10 http://www.rangzen.net/2013/05/08/incivilities/ (See postscript)

 11 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/myth-can-devastate-tibet-182

 12 http://tibet.net/2013/05/16/clarification-on-sikyongs-talk-at-council-on-foreign-relations/

 13 It is also interesting to note that the CTA maintains the Middle Way was adopted through a democratic process.  (See The Middle Way & Related Documents at pp. 5-8 http://tibet.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/MIDWAY-ENGLISH.pdf).  Therefore, it is a now proposal that was adopted by a democratic institution via a purported democratic process that has abandoned democracy for Tibet.

14 TPR: Investigating Lobsang Sangay's "Obama of China" Statement, http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.org/project-updates/investigatinglobsangsangay%E2%80%99s%E2%80%9Cobamaofchina%E2%80%9Dstatement

15 http://tibet.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/MIDWAY-ENGLISH.pdf at p. 6

 16 See http://www.chinavitae.com/biography/Legqog_%7C432  and http://www.phayul.com/news/tools/print.aspx?id=13925&t=1

17 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organization_Department_of_the_Communist_Party_of_China_Central_Committee

18 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liu_Xiaobo

19 http://tibet.net/2013/05/31/preventing-cultural-genocide-the-case-for-genuine-autonomy-for-tibet/


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