By the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review
Lobsang Sangay, the new Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister) of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), just wrapped up a five-day trip to Washington, DC. The media headlines have primarily been about Sangay urging the U.S. government to press China to allow access to Tibet. This is not surprising given that his visit comes at a time when Tibet is under lock-down and twelve Tibetans have recently self-immolated. (For example see the AP, BBC, and VOA reports). Consequently, overshadowed have been potentially important statements that Sangay made in Washington that indicate the new administration’s policy on relations with China.
This editorial is a modest attempt to fill in this gap.
On November 2, 2011, Sangay gave a news conference at the National Press Club (NPC). The NPC is a Washington institution that hosts about 150 such “newsmaker” events a year. Two days prior, Republican presidential candidate and former pizza executive Herman Cain spoke there at an event dominated by explosive allegations of sexual harassment. In short, the NPC is one of Washington’s centers of power and action. |
Sangay stood at a podium flanked by the American and Tibetan flags, and he spoke to a crowd of mostly journalists. Sangay’s topics included the self-immolations, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s devolution of power, the issue of His Holiness’s successor, and the CTA’s “Middle Way” (Tib.: Ume Lam) policy of seeking autonomy for Tibet under Chinese sovereignty.
The NPC event was not open to the general public and there is no public transcript. (One TPR editor attended the NPC event merely as a guest in his personal capacity.) Therefore, as a public service, the TPR editors present the following description of Sangay’s statements about his administration’s position on the CTA’s Middle Way policy.
China Hasn’t Resolved the Tibet Issue Because of Identity and “Ethnicity”
Sangay stated that in order to resolve the issue of Tibet, there is no constitutional, institutional, or territorial problem. Rather, he cast the issue as a problem, from China’s perspective, of Tibetans’ distinct identity and “ethnicity”. He also reiterated that Tibetan envoys are ready to meet with the Chinese government “any place, any time”.
Sangay noted that Article 31 of the Chinese constitution allows for the creation of special administrative regions like Hong Kong and Macao. Therefore, he stated, what Tibetans are asking for in the form of genuine autonomy is already provided for under the Chinese constitution.
He also noted that there is no institutional problem. Some Chinese have argued that Hong Kong had strong pre-existing institutions like the rule of law at the time China resumed sovereignty in 1997, whereas Tibet today has essentially no self-sufficient institutions (in our view, an argument akin to cutting off someone’s legs and then blaming them for being a bad runner).
Sangay argued that, unlike Hong Kong, Macao had far weaker institutions when it reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1999. This shows that, in theory, a territory does not need a Hong Kong-level of institutional strength to succeed as a special administrative region under Article 31.
Lastly, Sangay stated that there is no territorial problem because Tibetans are not asking for independence. He did not, however, address the Chinese fear that giving Tibetans autonomy would allow them space to push for independence. (An official Tibet Daily editorial in 2008 vehemently denounced Hong Kong-type autonomy for Tibet as a "deception".) Rather, Sangay appeared to take this point as a given.
Sangay concluded by asking rhetorically what the problem was, if there is no constitutional, institutional, or territorial problem. China gave Hong Kong and Macau autonomy, and has promised Taiwan a similar status. Sangay noted that all these territories are ethnically Chinese or Han Chinese. His conclusion was that this indicates that China is not willing to treat Tibet the same “because we’re Tibetans” and not Han Chinese.
Therefore, the Tibet issue, Sangay argued, is essentially a problem from the Chinese government’s perspective because of the Tibetan people’s unique identity and “ethnicity”.
The Middle Way and Self-Immolation
Sangay was asked a question from a reporter about Sangay’s assertion that the Tibetans who self-immolated called for “freedom for Tibetans or freedom in Tibet”. The question was regarding whether the calls were for “freedom” or for “independence” (in Tibetan, the difference between rangwang and rangzen, respectively) and what difference this might make to the CTA’s policies.
Sangay first noted that his election platform clearly supported the Middle Way policy of seeking autonomy (Tib.: rangkyong) rather than independence (Tib.: rangzen). He also noted that the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile has passed three resolutions supporting the Middle Way, and that therefore this is the democratically-chosen policy of the CTA.
Sangay then said that, with respect to the self-immolators, he read that only one self-immolator actually called for independence, but that everyone is entitled to their view. (The Tibetan-language news website Khabda counted at least two calls for rangzen and no calls for rangkyong.) Sangay stated that a “majority [of self-immolators] seem to be saying freedom for Tibetans or freedom in Tibet”. He also noted that in a democratic society, there is freedom of speech so Tibetans should have the right to express other views.
Conclusion: Just the Facts
This editorial has attempted to present a simple factual recounting of Sangay’s statements at an important but non-public forum in relation to how the new CTA administration intends to pursue its Middle Way policy. In order to ensure accuracy, we asked several people present at the NPC event to review our recollection of the above facts. Thus, we are confident that our description of Sangay’s statements is accurate. We hope that this report will shed some light on the new administration’s views on relations with China.