The recent Chinese military incursion into Ladakh was a painful reminder of the cost of losing Tibet. And this week Chinese officials announced plans to demolish what remains of Lhasa, Tibet’s ancient capital. Despite its inclusion in UNESCO’s World Heritage List, Lhasa is a symbol of Tibetan nationalism, and China’s Politburo has determined that Tibetan culture, religion and identity must be exterminated to ensure “stability.”
On May 8th, the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington hosted an evening with Lobsang Sangay, the head of the Tibetan government in exile. Sangay addressed a gathering of journalists, academics and lawyers, eager to discuss the escalating crisis in Tibet. (The proceedings were recorded and the video is available online). Most in the audience anticipated a repudiation of Chinese Communist rule from the Harvard Law student, but what Sangay had to say sent shock waves through the room, and later, the blogosphere.
When asked if he hoped to see free elections in a genuinely autonomous Tibet in the near future, Sangay replied; “We don’t challenge, or ask for, an overthrow of the Communist Party. We don’t question or challenge the present structure of the ruling party.” Jerome Cohen, the renown legal scholar from New York University, asked Sangay for clarification, stating; “It’s very interesting to see what this would amount to if there’s no freedom of speech for the people in Tibet.” Sangay provided clarification; “We are not asking for democracy for Tibetans in Tibet… we want rights as per the Chinese constitution.”
The internet swelled with questions about Sangay’s remarks, in particular, his flouting of democracy for the people of Tibet and China, and his disregard for the Chinese intellectuals who bravely signed Charter 08, which calls for the rule of law, democratic reforms in China and criticized the Communist Party for “clinging to authoritarian politics, it has caused an unbroken chain of human rights disasters and social crises, held back the development of the Chinese people, and hindered the progress of human civilization.”
To embrace Chinese Communist rule is to abandon the people inside Tibet who have waged a desperate battle of survival and resistance for over 60 years. Every man and woman who made the ultimate sacrifice of self immolation did so for independence, as their moving final testaments confirm. And it is in direct opposition to the stated goals of the Dalai Lama, who purposefully modeled his exile government on India’s democracy, not Mao’s one party dictatorship. When the Dalai Lama proposed the Middle Way Policy in 1988, he conceived of preserving Tibet as a buffer state and a de-militarized “zone of peace.” Sangay’s stated position eviscerates the relevance of the Tibet movement, and depreciates India’s burden of a long, tense border with an increasingly bellicose China.
There were Indian journalists present at the Council on Foreign Relations that evening, but none asked Sangay any tough or serious questions. When the matter of the recent Ladakh incursion was raised, Sangay blithely said that China’s military positions at the Indian border should be at “China’s discretion.” Excuse me, but Sangay resides in Dharamshala, and has recently been provided with a special vehicle with a red light on top, to indicate his VIP status in Himachal Pradesh. One would assume that these privileges come at South Block’s discretion.
There are some features of pre-communist Tibetan political culture that Sangay is actively deploying to build his myth; his official Facebook page declares that he is a “secular emanation” of the Dalai Lama and Guru Rinpoche. And at the Council in Washington he said; “Many artists inside Tibet have composed songs in honor of the election and my victory and they have put it on YouTube with English translation. Some have sent me scrolls where normally we put deities and gods and goddesses, only they have put a picture of me and that’s being distributed.” This would be risible if not for the mounting death toll in Tibet, and that Tibet’s ancient civilization is being destroyed by the day, as bulldozers tear into the holy Jokhang temple in Lhasa.
Beijing’s cadres are unwilling, or unable, to relinquish one party rule, as they cling to an obsolete Maoist world view that demonizes the Dalai Lama and calls the Buddhist faith “a disease to be eradicated.” That Tibetan culture is a force that so petrifies the great People’s Republic of China exposes the xenophobia, intolerance, and violence that infects the Maoist creed. Sangay’s categorical rejection of democracy in favor of Communist rule in Tibet could be a cynical power play, or maybe he thinks might makes right, and that power does come from the barrel of a gun, but then, how can he proclaim himself a secular emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, protector of Tibet?
Chester Bowles, the venerable United States Ambassador to India, published a memoir in 1969 entitled “A View from New Delhi.” Here is an excerpt: “Whereas India tried to dignify the individual as part of the process of development, China regarded him as an instrument of the state…whereas India sought to preserve and enrich her ancient culture and to modernize her society within the context of her traditions, Communist China attempted to replace the traditional Chinese culture and institutions with a completely new and alien social system. While India tried to minimize the amount of social dislocation caused by the development process, China sought to maximize it…While the Chinese were sure they could interpret the future, the Indian government has remained sensibly agnostic. Where the Chinese system has cracked under adversity, the Indian has simply bent…the long-suffering, exploited Chinese peasants and workers must be wondering how long the horror can go on, while they hope for the day when at long last they can be free of the shifting whims of a communist dictatorship.”