Articles‎ > ‎

Tibetan Freedom and the Day After

posted Oct 17, 2011, 7:58 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Oct 19, 2011, 8:27 AM ]
By the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review

The Time to Plan is Now

Although the revolution in Libya is no longer in the headlines, that country’s attempt to move from dictatorship to democracy holds important lessons for Tibet.  One lesson is that political change can come quickly and unexpectedly, especially in an autocratic regime that relies on brute force.  Another lesson is that a revolution must succeed not only in overturning the old regime, but also establish a new and more enlightened one.

Imagine the possibility that, at long last, Tibet is on the verge of achieving freedom through independence or real autonomy.  How will the Tibetan people manage this transition from the old regime dictated by the Chinese Communist Party to a new order controlled by the Tibetan people?  How will Tibet set the groundwork to become a self-sufficient democracy?  It is this issue of “the day after the revolution” that is the topic of this editorial.

For anyone who believes that Tibetan freedom is truly achievable, these are necessary questions deserving serious answers.

We set aside for now the debate between independence and autonomy for Tibet.  It is a historical truth that all empires crumble, and the fall of the Soviet Union and Libyan ruler Muammar Qadaffi tell us that seemingly-strong dictatorships are often rotten from within.  It is also true that if the Chinese government actually wanted to resolve the Tibet issue, it is theoretically possible to reach a settlement now.

Therefore, the subject of this editorial is not whether Tibet will achieve political change through independence or through autonomy.  Regardless of the specific form of the change, it is necessary to ask: Do I truly believe real change will come to Tibet?  If the answer is “yes” then the stage must be set beforehand.  It is critical to ensure that this change leads to a truly better life for the Tibetan people.

While Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet continue to work for the day that Tibet regains freedom (in whatever sense of that rather squishy word), they must also set the stage for the Day After when Tibetans become self-governing.

Institutionalize the Planning Process: A CTA Think Tank

How to set the stage then?  Tibetans should develop the best possible ideas now for the way the political and economic system will be set up in the future.  The development of such plans does not mean that things “must” be done that way.  Rather, these plans should be thought of as proposals for the 6 million Tibetans to consider once they have the political freedom to discuss them.  Ideas can be developed and improved now, so there is a starting point later when a final decision will be taken up by the entire Tibetan people.

In order to lay this groundwork now, we believe that an excellent starting place would be a structure institutionalized by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) to develop these plans.  Compared with the Tibet Support Groups, the CTA has the full-time resources to achieve this.  Since the CTA policy currently supports autonomy, the plans would presumably be based on how an autonomous Tibet can transition to internal self-rule.

Groups who believe in independence can take any plans developed by the CTA and modify them.  Remember, these are only proposals for the 6 million Tibetans to consider later.  And many of the questions will be the same in either the independence or autonomy scenario; for example, Tibet will need to populate government positions and develop a self-sufficient economy from the starting point of deep dependence on China.

What might the CTA think tank look like?  It could be conceived of as an institution tasked to design a set of concrete, practical proposals for how Tibet could move from dictatorship to autonomy.  This CTA think tank could be modeled in part on South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, which is tasked with establishing long-term plans and policies for national reunification with North Korea.

Such a professional body within the CTA could identify the key social and political challenges for when political change arrives in Tibet.  It could develop a detailed set of proposals on how to address these challenges.  It should work with sources in exile, conduct quiet consultations inside Tibet, and seek input from international experts in relevant fields.

Again, the resulting plans from the CTA’s think tank should be promoted as merely one vision for how Tibetans can take charge of their own destiny.  The think tank should not claim that its ideas will necessarily have precedence; rather, it should stand for the proposition that the Tibetan people have the right to choose their own destiny.  If Tibetans choose to accept any proposed plans of the CTA’s think tank, then so be it.  If they choose another route, then so be it too.

Ultimately, the important point is this: The Tibetan people will demonstrate that they firmly believe that they will one day be in a position to choose their own destiny, and are actively making plans for that day and the promising days thereafter.

Some Concrete Examples of Tibet the Day After

In the spirit of discussion, we have identified just a few of the numerous issues that will have to be dealt with on Tibet’s Day After.  We stress that our intention is to spur discussion and thought, not to definitively decide anything.  We also stress that we are not experts in fields like economic restructuring, so these are merely the amateur ideas of some concerned Tibetan citizens.

Choosing the Interim Government:
How will the interim government be chosen? His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in his Guidelines for Future Tibet’s Polity, has suggested that Tibetans serving in the current regime keep their positions.  This may be a good idea to ensure a stable transition and to ensure that existing Tibetan officials do not feel personally threatened by the idea of Tibetan freedom.  But surely this cannot be a permanent situation if there is to be a transition to democracy.

Indeed, His Holiness also suggests the formation of an interim government, which implies that hold-overs from the current regime will only serve on a temporary basis until an interim government can be formed to draft a constitution and implement elections.  In order to ensure their continued loyalty, the new government should consider granting pensions to any terminated officials from the old regime.

What remains to be decided is who will serve in such an interim government. The exiles should not expect to return to run Tibet.  The leader of the Libyan transitional government is a defected minister from the Qadaffi regime, and certainly we should expect that there are competent and patriotic leaders within the current Chinese-dominated regime in Tibet.  The Chinese Communist Party’s standard operating procedure is to quash any alternative emerging leadership, but there are still inspiring leaders and individuals rising in Tibet.  This will remain a major issue requiring thought.

Security and Police:
How will security be ensured for the population once Chinese forces no longer hold sway?  The situation may be largely peaceful, but the interim Tibetan authorities should have plans to ensure there is no retribution against collaborators or violence against Chinese migrants. Iraq’s “de-Baathification” was a huge blunder, so Tibet will initially have to rely on the existing security forces.

Fortunately, the hated People’s Armed Police is largely ethnically Chinese and is under the direct authority of the Chinese Ministry Public Security.  Therefore, it may be recalled to China.  Lower levels of the police forces in Tibet are more ethnically-Tibetan, especially at the lowest levels of the force.  These officials will have to make up the backbone of the new Tibetan police force.

An Amnesty?:
On a related note the new Tibetan administration will have to decide whether to prosecute or forgive any rights violations that occurred under the old Chinese regime.  His Holiness is clear that he feels there is “no purpose … seeking retribution for their past deeds.”  We agree on pragmatic grounds that even the topmost collaborators like Pema Choling should be able to retire in peace or move to China if they wish.  However this is a decision that must be made by the entire Tibetan people.

Economic Restructuring:
How will the economy be transitioned?  Tibet’s current economy depends on massive, consistent infusions of Chinese capital to pay for large-scale infrastructure and most urban salaries.  This system is economically untenable because it is not self-sustaining.  In part, this is an outcome of official Chinese policy, which is to make Tibet dependent on – and thus tied to – China.  This system has been described by development economist Andrew Fisher as “boomerang aid” since any funds invested in Tibet by China go right back to China (the companies and workers who are hired are almost entirely Chinese).  Tibetans are left with infrastructure projects that they may or may not want, as well as a legacy of increased Chinese immigration.

Clearly, Tibet the Day After will have to move to a new economic system, in part because the withdrawal of massive infusions of cash from Beijing will be an economic shock.  Economic change is never easy, and sometimes it involves painful measures.  Tibetans should be prepared for this, and should be warned that the economic transition may be difficult.  However, if there is an identified goal, temporary pain may be worth bearing.

Again, Tibetans will be starting from a low baseline.  In 2010, the annual per capita GDP of Tibet was $2,300 for urban residents, and $639 for farmers and herders.  It is the urban residents whose income will be most threatened by a political transition.  A high percent of urban residents get their income or pensions from various Chinese state-controlled bodies, whereas rural Tibetans largely survive on self-derived subsistence income.  Therefore, the new administration will have to pay special attention to ensure that it retains the loyalty of the urban Tibetans whose personal economic situation may (if temporarily) decline in the transition to a new Tibetan order.

On the subject of property rights, legal scholars like Michael Heller of Columbia Law School have studied post-communist societies like Hungary, where the fall of communism left property rights unclear or even conflicting.  One of the tasks of the new administration will be to ensure that any uncertainty over property rights is resolved quickly and equitably.

In the longer term, if we were to make a recommendation on how the economy should be reshaped, we would suggest that the goal is a Tibetan economy that is diversified and grounded on free competition and equal opportunity.  We believe that the government should stick mainly to governing; it should help establish a fair playing field for the private sector, but should not generally run businesses itself.  Property rights should be protected, including intellectual property.  Regulation should be kept to a minimum.  There should be a strong antitrust enforcer to ensure that monopolies do not choke off innovation.  There should also be an independent anti-corruption watchdog to ensure that any state assets that are privatized are done so transparently, to avoid the “crony-capitalism” of many former communist states.

It is likely that significant sectors of the Tibetan economy may continue to be dominated by Chinese migrants who have settled in Tibet.  This is something the government will have to deal with in a fair way that respects the human rights of all people living in Tibet.  It is also a fact that the economy will be deeply linked with the Chinese economy.  The infrastructure and the current development in Tibet are all geared to providing China with raw materials, and depending on China for basically all capital and manufactured goods and much of its human resources as well.  This is a truth that will have to be dealt with.

Overall, it is likely that the private sector will focus on agriculture and livestock, tourism, and manufacturing in industries where Tibetans have a comparative advantage such as carpets.  But this will not be enough to provide a better life for all.

Additionally, Tibet must develop capital-intensive sectors such as mining and hydropower.  Although environmental protection is critical, it must not be the only factor; the people’s right to a decent livelihood must also be weighed in.  Citizens of countries like Norway benefit from carefully-managed resource extraction.  The Asian Development Bank recently funded a $200m public-private hydropower project in Bhutan that will generate 114 megawatts annually for sale to India.  Tibet should explore similar deals for the benefit of its people.

Funding the Government:
How will government expenses be met?  According to official Chinese reports, the projected TAR government budget from 2011-2016 is RMB300bn, or about $9.4bn per year.  This figure is not very informative, however, as the vast majority of these funds will be spent on the massive infrastructure projects that the Chinese government is building.  For the five-year period 2006-2010, the TAR government spent approximately $258m on healthcare.  By comparison, the total revenue for tourism in Tibet in one year - 2010 - was about $1.05bn.

Of the above figures, the one that stands out the most is that the $258m spent for healthcare over a five year period, which works out to $51.6m per annum.  With a TAR population of 3m, that comes out to a miserly $17 per person annually.  Our suspicion is that education spending is similarly abysmal.  Clearly, a new government in Tibet will be starting from a very low baseline.

Even such a low baseline, however, will take significant money.  The 2010-2011 budget of the CTA in exile was only Rs. 916m, or $19.2m.  The question will be how much is needed for the Day After in Tibet, and how to raise this money.  First, some reasonable projections are needed of just how much will be needed in the first few years.  Then, the Tibetan people should consider how much can reasonably come through internal revenue, international loans, and other sources; for example holding international tenders for mining rights in certain carefully controlled areas of Tibet.

How will utilities stay on?  Currently, utilities in Tibet like power, urban water and sewer, and telecommunication are state-controlled, meaning that they are controlled by the government or government-owned companies like China Telecom and China Mobile.

For example, with electricity, Tibet for now remains disconnected from the Chinese power grid.  Much of Lhasa’s power comes from the awful Yamdrok Tso hydropower plant and the geothermal plant at Yangbachen. Other cities in Tibet get power from other renewable and nonrenewable sources.  It is likely that almost all power plants are run by Chinese managers and engineers.  Will these workers stay on, or will the new Tibetan administration be prepared to take over the operation of these plants?

Yamdrok Tso Power Plant

In another example, Tibet’s telecommunications are provided by Chinese state-owned companies.  In theory, there is nothing preventing these companies from remaining, but Tibetans should be wary of having all telecommunication at the mercy of China.

Telecommunications connections between Tibet and the outside world are all currently routed through China, meaning that regardless of whom the provider is, China controls Tibet’s links to the world.  These connections are provided through a Lhasa-Gormo fiber optic line that was laid in 1999, and supplemented by satellite teleports in Lhasa and probably other cities. 

Satellite Teleport, Lhasa, Tibet

There are solutions to this.  It is technologically simple to re-orient a satellite antenna to point toward any satellite above the horizon.  A new Tibetan telecommunications provider could contract with a global satellite company like Intelsat or SES for transponder space to connect to the world without going through China.  In the longer term, Tibetans will also probably want to look at laying a fiber optic line to India.


The above discussion is just a start and represents just some preliminary thoughts of the TPR Editorial Board.  We claim no more (or less) right to discuss these issues than any of the other 6 million Tibetans.  Moreover, we firmly believe that the final decisions cannot be made except with the full consent of the vast majority of Tibetans who live in Tibet.

Tibetans in exile should lay down suggestions for Tibetans as a whole to consider, and discuss and debate when they are free to do so, in preparation for the Day After when they have to make the decision.

We believe the day will come when all Tibetans will be able to freely decide their future destiny.  And it will help immensely to have already begun grappling with the difficult issues that will be forthcoming.  We believe that a think tank established by the CTA and tasked with this question would go a long way towards meeting this goal, but this is a discussion in which all Tibetans should participate in any way they can.

Email to a friend or share on Facebook, Twitter, etc.: Bookmark and Share