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A Review of Dr. Lobsang Sangay’s Published Scholarly Works

posted Jan 7, 2011, 7:02 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Jan 10, 2011, 6:33 AM ]
By the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review

Dr. Lobsang Sangay recently stated to the Harvard student newspaper that “Who I am now, as a scholar and an activist and a diplomat, is mainly because of Harvard. It seems that one of the main attractions of my [Kalon Tripa] candidacy is because of my Harvard credentials and credibility."  Setting aside the Harvard label for a moment, Sangay’s campaign has placed special emphasis on his position as a legal scholar. It has served as a response to criticism that he lacks experience or judgment, and in radio interviews and the recent New York debate it has allowed him to be introduced as khewang (learned one).

Understanding Sangay’s candidacy therefore requires understanding his position as a scholar/
khewang. Unfortunately, there has been little analysis of his actual scholarship among the Tibetan electorate so far (in contrast to the other two Katri candidates, whose past performance is a matter of public record). Scholarship is measured primarily by published output. Therefore, in order to help Tibetan voters better evaluate Sangay’s performance as a scholar, the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review sets out a brief review of Sangay’s published scholarly works.

This review is in two parts: general and specific. We first conduct a general survey of Sangay’s published scholarly works.  Then, we conduct a specific review of each of the works.  To summarize, since Sangay’s graduation with his S.J.D. degree in 2004, he has published three scholarly articles, although none in established legal journals.  In those three articles, one finds relatively more historical information and advocacy, and relatively less legal or scholarly analysis.  One also finds a writer focused on democracy and seeking autonomy for Tibetans within the People’s Republic of China.


We set out to locate all of Sangay’s published scholarly works, excluding non-scholarly pieces such as newspaper op-eds.  Our search was as comprehensive as possible.

We first consulted
Westlaw, the standard legal research tool used by legal scholars and practicing lawyers, containing 40,000 databases covering legal journals around the world. One would expect to find in Westlaw all scholarly articles by any legal scholar at an American university.  A Westlaw search for scholarly works published by Sangay returned zero (0) results.

Next, we broadened our search beyond legal journals by searching the Social Science Research Network, a database covering social science publications. A search for scholarly works published by Sangay returned zero (0) results.

Then, we searched in Google Scholar, resulting in the following two (2) articles and one (1) chapter from a book, but all published while he was a student prior to 2004:


1. Tibet: Exiles’ Journey (2003), in Journal of Democracy. This journal is not run by a university but rather by the National Endowment for Democracy, which has given grants to various Tibetan organizations including NDPT. That may explain why this journal does not show up in an academic search.

2. One chapter in 
Human Rights: Positive Policies in Asia and the Pacific Rim, by J.D. Montgomery (2001). We have been unable to obtain a copy of this book. 

3. Human Rights and Buddhism: Cultural Relativism, Individualism & Universalism (1996). It is unclear where, if anywhere, this article was published.

Lastly, we consulted the autobiographical blurbs contained in  Sangay's non-academic articles in Phayul, which led us to three (3) scholarly works, all written after his graduation in 2004. The articles were not published in established legal journals, but rather in two student publications and a South Korean journal begun in 2008:


1. China in Tibet: Forty Years of Occupation or Liberation? (2004) in Harvard Asia Quarterly.  This student publication is affiliated with the Harvard Asia Center and covers diverse topics related to Asia. Articles have ranged from Islamic education in China to girls’ graffiti culture in Japan.

 China’s National Autonomy Law and Tibet: A Paradox Between Autonomy and Unity (2006), in Harvard South Asian Journal. This journal is an undergraduate publication run by a South Asian student association.  

 Legal Autonomy of Tibet: A Tibetan Lawyer’s Perspective (2008), in Journal of East Asian International Law. This journal, begun in 2008, is run by a South Korean research organization called the Yijun Institute of International Law.

[faculty photo]By comparison, Sangay’s supervisor at Harvard Law School, Professor William Alford, has written ten (10) articles or chapters and three (3) books since 2004, and also teaches classes, directs the East Asian Legal Studies Program, is vice dean, and chairs a project on disability. This is not meant as criticism of Sangay, but rather as context. While publication is the primary measure of an academic, there are other scholarly pursuits beyond publication (teaching, directing research centers, administration, speaking, organizing conferences, etc.). Sangay has certainly spent time speaking and organizing conferences; this other work should be taken into consideration when evaluating his scholarly output of 3 articles over six years.
Professor Alford


1. China’s National Autonomy Law and Tibet: A Paradox Between Autonomy and Unity (2006)

This article had Sangay’s best legal points.  Sangay essentially takes a close reading of China’s National Regional Autonomy Law of 1984 (NRAL), and concludes that “when a conflict manifests between the supremacy of either unity or autonomy… unity trumps autonomy.”  What he means is that Chinese autonomy law favors the requirements of Beijing over the requirements of “minorities” like Tibetans.

The best example that Sangay gives is that under the NRAL, any modification of a national law made by an Autonomous Region must be “reported” to and “approved” by the National People’s Congress (NPC), whereas a province can make a modification by only “reporting” it to the NPC.  Sangay also spends time looking at ethnicity statistics for legislators and officials in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), concluding that non-Tibetans are dominant.

National People's Congress, Beijing

There are, however, several areas in which Sangay’s article falls short.  For instance, he bases his legal arguments on reading merely the text (or English translation) of the NRAL.  Sangay could have shown how laws such as the NRAL are actually enforced, understood, and debated in China itself (where any implementation necessarily must take place).  Looking at the text is a good first step but not enough.  By analogy, a non-American can read the “free speech” provision of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, but they would miss the entire body of First Amendment case-law that deals with subtleties and interpretations not present in the words on the page.

Moreover, Sangay could have situated his arguments within the debate taking place in the larger field of Chinese legal studies.  This includes scholars looking at China's "minority" policy generally.  In effect, Sangay’s article stands alone.  Good scholarship does not simply make a point, but adds to an ongoing discourse of knowledge and ideas among many scholars.

Lastly, we understand that Sangay cannot cover everything in a four page article, but he should be careful about using the percentage of Tibetan officials in the TAR as a proxy for genuine Tibetan self-rule.  What matters is how those Tibetans are chosen and how much freedom they have to design policies to benefit their constituents.  A 100% ethnic Tibetan TAR government full of Chinese collaborators like Ragdi, Legchok, and Pema Choling is not the goal.  Even if the TAR legislature were granted the power to simply “report” to the NPC, there would be no real change unless Tibetans can choose their own legislators.

T.A.R. Governor Pema Choling

2. China in Tibet: Forty Years of Occupation or Liberation? (2004)

In this article, Sangay presents clearly and concisely many of the arguments that the Tibetan movement makes about Tibet.  While we fully agree with most of this article, it is basically a clear, well-written repackaging of what many Tibetans and supporters have already said.

He summarizes his article as follows: “I will focus on … the Communist Chinese government’s justification for their occupation of Tibet, and show how Tibetans view themselves as distinct from Chinese.  I will also show how Tibetans and Chinese hold widely divergent perspectives on the Chinese government’s claim that they have improved religious, educational, and economic conditions in Tibet.” 

It is not possible to call this article a piece of legal scholarship -- or scholarship more broadly -- since it is basically an advocacy piece.  Advocacy is absolutely valuable.  However, advocacy and scholarship are two different things: one is passionate and opinionated, and one is dispassionate and objective.

Sangay does make a prominent argument, but it is one that is questionable.  He writes of the Sino-Tibetan “harmony” that reigned during the marriage of Emperor Songtsen Gampo and Princess Wencheng, which harmony he says should be “revived” in spirt.  He also states that Tibetan prostration before a statute of Emperor Songtsen Gampo and Princess Wencheng in the Tsuklhakhang show that “there is no inherent hatred among Tibetans towards the Chinese per se.”

Emperor Songtsen Gampo with his Nepalese and Chinese wives

In our view, it is problematic to portray Princess Wencheng as a symbol of unfettered harmony.  Tang Emperor Taizong reluctantly gave Princess Wencheng in marriage only because of Emperor Songtsen Gampo’s military strength, not through feelings of Sino-Tibetan friendship.  And “harmony” between Tibet and Tang China was short-lived, as Songtsen Gampo’s successors frequently battled Chinese forces.

Nor do we think Sangay’s prostration argument works.  Perhaps Sangay aimed his argument to a Chinese audience, who tend to glorify Wencheng as the selfless Han princess who “civilized” the “barbaric” Tibetans and brought them into the “family of the Motherland.”  However, we caution Sangay against using an argument that is based on buying into China’s barbarian/civilization dichotomy.  It may seem clever at first, but any sophisticated Chinese will see what is going on.  It would be better to argue for a Sino-Tibetan resolution based on a confident assertion of Tibetan rights and identity.  China respects strength and confidence, not weakness and obsequiousness.

Devout prostrators in front of Tsuklhakhang, Lhasa

3. Tibet: Exiles’ Journey (2003)

Although this article was published in 2003 while Sangay was still a student, we include a review of it because Sangay cites it in his autobiographical blurbs.  This piece does not propose new academic ideas or broader theories of law or democracy generally, as many legal scholars might do.  Rather, Sangay presents observations on the specific case at hand based on a historical summary.

Sangay’s focus is on the efforts of His Holiness to bring about democratization, while also touching upon sectarian squabbles and the so-called “Taiwan affair” (which Sangay blames on the Chitue and Kashag creating “a factional football”).   Sangay describes how, in the aftermath of such scandals, “the [Dalai] Lama made his most dramatic moves on behalf of democratization” by dissolving Parliament and calling new elections in 1990.

Sangay concludes that, while “nothing is a given,” a secular democratically-elected leader might “help guide Tibetans politically while the next Dalai Lama fulfills a spiritual role.”  This vision of a role for His Holiness akin to a constitutional monarch, with the Kalon Tripa acting as the head of government, is a common progressive thought in Tibetan society, and it is apparent that Sangay shares it.

Sangay also makes some curious statements about the Tibetan aristocracy and monastic community.  For example, he makes the assertion that the “overwhelming majority of these [Tibetan government] employees are from ‘commoner’ backgrounds; only about one out of a hundred has ties to the traditional hereditary aristocracy.”  We are unclear why Sangay felt that a point about “commoners” versus “aristocracy” needed making.  We also noted Sangay’s question whether “the conservative Buddhist monastic community will accept secular democracy.”  This is a good question, and we wonder whether the time Sangay has recently spent in the monasteries of South India has provided any answers.

From NDPT: "Professor Dr. Lobsang Sangay lak at Ganden Shartse monastery school," June 20, 2010

Taking a more critical view, we disagree with Sangay’s description of pre-1959 Tibet as a “feudal realm” that was “shackled to feudalism,” with “monks and grandees” displaying “reactionary” anti-modern attitudes.  Feudalism is a term specific to the political and social system in Europe during the Middle Ages.  Pre-1959 Tibetan society had many substantive differences from European feudalism.  It is grossly inaccurate to refer to pre-1959 Tibet as being a “feudal realm.”  As Sangay should know, one does not need to parrot phrases from Chinese propaganda to show that one is a serious scholar of Tibet.

Lastly, we can only assume that Sangay’s 15 references to “the Lama” rather than “the Dalai Lama” must have been an editing mistake.

4. Legal Autonomy of Tibet: A Tibetan Lawyer’s Perspective (2008)

Unfortunately there is little that one can tell from three pages.  Clearly, Sangay is arguing for Tibet’s autonomy within the People’s Republic of China, but unfortunately the details are unavailable.


Judging from an output of three articles since his graduation six years ago, it appears that Sangay’s position as a scholar is not yet firmly established.  Moreover, Sangay has yet to publish the type of lengthy and rigorous article in an established legal journal, complete with legal citations, that one would expect of a legal scholar. This is not a criticism of Sangay’s capabilities, but rather a judgment of his performance to date.

As to the content of Sangay’s published articles, he generally shows a concern for democracy and to seeking a resolution to the Sino-Tibetan conflict that should be applauded.  While we see some of his positions as simplistic or underdeveloped, and while we do not necessarily share his specific views on autonomy, we also applaud his willingness to set out his positions on some critical issues facing Tibet.  We can only hope that more Tibetans do so in the future, and that such discussions incorporate a greater knowledge of international and Chinese law.

These are the opinions of the TPR editors, who are all lawyers (J.D. or J.D./LL.M.) with some degree of experience in evaluating legal scholarship.  We welcome other perspectives.  We also warmly invite Dr. Sangay to respond if he feels we have made any errors or omissions.