Friday, 12 November 2010

"Chinese Obama": A Mountain out of a Molehill

Much has been made in the last few weeks (especially on Tibetan websites and blogs) about a parenthetical remark by Dr. Lobsang Sangay during a panel discussion at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars (WWICS), in Washington DC on 27th October, 2008. That day, after having spoken on the topic “China’s Tibet Policy in the Aftermath of Last Spring’s Unrest”, and as an answer to a question from a member of the audience, Dr. Sangay came up with the following light-hearted banter:

“...Jiang Zemin said that their treatment of Tibetans is better than the American treatment of African-Americans. Then I nominate myself as the next president of China. At least I have a credential. Obama is from...Harvard Law School, and I also graduated from Harvard Law School, you know, so we have si[milarities].”

When his good-humored pun was recently brought to our knowledge by Jamyang Norbu la through his thoroughly incisive opinion piece: Some Thoughts on the Upcoming Kalon Tripa Elections”, Dr. Sangay’s detractors went berserk, condemning him for harboring duplicitous ambitions of becoming a “Chinese Obama”. Jamyang la himself wrote:
“It makes you wonder if he doesn’t see the kalon-tripa election as a stepping stone to a larger political arena. But maybe I am being cynical here. The statement might be construed as Walter Mitty like blossoming of previous (though less ambitious) expressions by our leaders about their desire to be citizens of the PRC.”

I can completely understand Jamyang la’s cynicism. It is not at all surprising for a staunch rangzen advocate like him, who wears his heart on his sleeve, to disapprove of, on ideological grounds, anyone who so much as hints at the possibility of finding a solution for the Tibet issue within the confines of the Chinese Constitution. Jamyang la, though intellectually gifted and extremely well-read, is a creature of habit for he has an incorrigible tendency to transform every issue, no matter how trivial, into a manifestation of the middle way versus rangzen schism. One could half-expect Jamyang la’s take on the issue given his unwavering and admirably resolute stance on the issue of Tibetan independence. But what came as a complete bolt from the blue for me personally was the subsequent assessment of Dr. Sangay’s aforementioned remark by the editors of the Tibetan Political Review (TPR) in “Investigating Lobsang Sangay’s ‘Obama of China’ Statement”, which I thought was simply egregious.

In the run up to this October’s preliminary round of elections, I, like many amongst us, had grown quite fond of reading insightful analytical articles posted on the TPR’s website; they gave me much food for thought. That said, I am baffled by the TPR’s interpretation of an innocuous comment by Dr. Sangay to ascribe to him a ludicrous grand design which, it alleges, envisages our total assimilation into the Chinese society and political system. The TPR stops only just short of branding him a “Bhoe-Tsong-Khen” (Tibet-Seller, literally). This, in my book, is by far the worse attempt at concocting a conspiracy theory and an equally dismal one at fear mongering to sway public opinion against him. It pains me to say that, while I applaud the TPR for providing an avenue for popular deliberation on pressing matters of our national interest, I find its editorial analysis of the “Chinese Obama” issue totally hypothetical, misguided and unbefitting of a nonpartisan forum that it proudly claims to be. It is, therefore, my endeavor in this article to offer a reasonable and comparatively less speculative, yet not an expert, assessment of this issue which, if you ask me, has been completely blown out of proportion.

Any remark, no matter how light-hearted, taken out of its context could appear extremely sinister, especially when it is embellished with unsubstantiated claims by a popular media apparatus and used as a basis for formulating a whole set of logically distorted hypotheses. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel in the US is adept at engaging in such overt manipulation tactics directed at influencing impressionable viewers, while masquerading as a mainstream media outlet. (Watch the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart satirically dismantle Fox News analyst, Glenn Beck’s eccentric conspiracy theory about the advent of Marxism and Fascism in the US government circles below). The TPR has tried to put a Fox News-like spin on the issue under analysis here, which for the benefit of the general electorate, I think, needs to be unravelled.

Since, the allegation that the TPR has levied against Dr. Sangay is quite a serious one, we- the voters might be better advised, rather than relying on hearsays, to do some independent fact-finding to ascertain the content of Dr. Sangay’s speech that day. A good place to start at would be the website of the WWICS, the organiser of the event at which Dr. Sangay spoke. In its summary of the said event, the WWICS website states following in relation to Dr. Sangay’s main contentions on the topic:

“Lobsang Sangay, senior fellow at Harvard Law School’s East Asian Legal Studies Program, spoke about the absence of Tibetan representation in PRC governance at the local, regional, and national levels. For instance, only one Tibetan has held a vice chairmanship in the National People’s Congress, no Tibetan has ever been elected to the Politburo, and the CCP Secretary in the Tibetan Autonomous Region has always been Han Chinese. Therefore, Sangay said, the Tibetan issue ‘is not just related to identity,’ but is becoming a highly volatile ‘bread and butter issue,’ because Tibetans, like other minorities, have no voice in the Chinese government. Sangay argued that the Dalai Lama’s ‘middle path’ doctrine—advocating Tibetan autonomy and the preservation of Tibetan culture—is the ideal solution for all Tibetans, despite the failure of the eight meetings between the Chinese and the Tibetans since 2002 to produce significant breakthroughs. He remains optimistic that the various factions of Tibetans will unite to support the Dalai Lama’s doctrine. In conclusion, Sangay said that if China desires to emulate the United States as a superpower, it should follow the American model of respecting minorities and implementing policies to benefit minorities. He declared that ‘China’s great nation status cannot be forced or bought—it must be earned’.”

It is patently clear from the above synopsis that Dr. Sangay was, in essence, arguing how the Chinese government has made a complete mockery of its own constitutional provisions relating to racial equality, regional self-rule and ethnic autonomy in order to keep Tibetans and other minorities on a tight leash. He was lamenting the total lack of say for Tibetans at all three levels of governance in China and the absence of any meaningful recourse to justice for ordinary Tibetans residing in various autonomous provinces and prefectures. Also, note his optimism for the prospect of resolution of the Tibet issue predicated upon His Holiness’ middle way approach, constituent features of which could be comfortably implemented by the PRC, if it sincerely wished so, without any prejudice to its Constitution. There appears to be not even a shred of ambiguity in what Dr. Sangay said that day. Yet how the TPR managed to miss the plot so badly is beyond me.

Let me now put Dr. Sangay’s “Obama of China” statement in its proper context. The concerned panel discussion was held about a week before Barack Obama, an African-American of Kenyan descent, notched up an unprecedented and historic win in the 2008 US presidential elections. In the late October 2008, the exit polls were already predicting Obama’s victory. There was an air of optimism at that time and the entire American nation was gripped by a frenzy of popular emotions unforeseen since September 11, 2001. Dr. Sangay had this backdrop in mind, when he used as a comparative analogy the experience of African-Americans in the United States to explain the situation in Tibet. Far from equating American Civil Rights Movement with our struggle for freedom, as the TPR claims he does, Dr. Sangay was simply drawing a contrast between overall socio-political trends in the US and China; while the former, according to him, had transformed itself into an inclusive liberal democracy with increasing respect for individual and minority rights (leaving behind the dark legacy of racial segregation and prejudice against black minorities), the latter had been extremely reluctant to take the plunge fearing popular dissent and challenge to its legitimacy. The PRC’s proclivity to cling on to its old repressive self even as the entire world changed around it seems to be the central theme of Dr. Sangay’s presentation that day. It was the reference, after that talk, to the former Chinese president Ziang Zemin’s preposterous claim that Tibetans have more freedom and rights in China than the African-Americans do in the US that prompted Dr. Sangay’s droll assertion that he, in that case, would like to run for the office of Chinese president just like Obama did in the US. It was his way of saying sarcastically, without resorting to the use of King Louis the XIV’s French, how delusional Ziang Zemin’s view was, given the PRC’s “rule of terror” in Tibet and its deliberate policy of denying Tibetans independent decision-making portfolios at all three levels of the government. 

Nonetheless, the TPR subtly brushes aside the drift of the point Dr. Sangay was trying to make and instead cherry-picks the incidental Obama analogy as a subject for its lengthy editorial review and, on that filmsy basis, reaches an absurd conclusion that Dr. Sangay goes one step further than His Holiness in proposing our total integration into the PRC, while secretly harboring dreams of becoming the president of a democratic China. This claim, while ingeniously crafted, is so fantastically fictive that it could well be the plot for the US drama 24’s next season and an interesting case of high treason and subversion for Jack Bauer to solve.

Since the TPR makes use of a myriad assumptions to arrive at its “total integration” hypothesis, and to attribute Dr. Sangay with a malign intent of becoming a Chinese stooge, let me make some parallel assumptions of mine to elaborate my contention that the notion of a Tibetan running the future democratic China is not necessarily contradictory to the idea of a genuinely self-ruled Tibet under a new, democratically formulated constitution of China. (I will be following the TPR's methodology, albeit to support a contradictory position. I am forced to make this point in a rather long-winded fashion since we are, after all, dealing with assumptions and hypothetical scenarios here. I hope the readers will bear with me.) Such a hypothetical scenario will neither require our total assimilation into China nor will it undermine our autonomy. Let me elaborate further on this point. Suppose we were to reach some form of consensus with the the future democratic regime in Beijing based on the Middle Way Approach and a corresponding Chinese proposal for the establishment of an internally autonomous Tibetan entity (including all three traditional Tibetan provinces of U-Tsang, Do-Toe and Do-me) within the framework of its new democratic constitution. Such a political arrangement will result in the devolution of power and give rise to two centres of authority: one at the sub-national level comprising of a democratically elected Tibetan executive and legislature assigned with the task of regulating issues directly affecting ordinary Tibetans in the fields of education, health, welfare, taxation, migration, environment, culture etc, and another at the national level largely dominated by the Han Chinese which would oversee foreign policy and defense on behalf of Tibet and the entire Chinese state. Having said that, the delimitation of power between the autonomous Tibetan government at Lhasa and the Central government at Beijing under such an arrangement will not always be straightforward and unproblematic. It will, therefore, be vitally important for us to partake in Chinese national politics with as much vigor as we will do in our own internal Tibetan governance, if anything, to safeguard our interests in the event of a clash of jurisdictions. For instance, in order to consolidate China’s defense in the face of an imminent external threat, Beijing might contemplate carrying out a series of nuclear tests at a remote mountain site in, let us say, Jangthang. Such an action, although coming under Beijing’s exclusive constitutional prerogative (the defense and foreign affairs exception), might infringe upon Lhasa’s right to address environmental issues and secure good health and welfare of Tibetan nomads dwelling in the vicinity of the proposed test site. It is likely that in cases like this Beijing would, more often than not, prevail over Lhasa, especially if Tibetans do not pursue untapped democratic avenues at the national level to influence, if not change, a particular defense or foreign affairs policy adversely affecting us.

Assuming that China becomes a multi-party parliamentary democracy with constitutional provisions for proportional representation of Tibetans in the Chinese National Congress (on top of granting an autonomous status to Tibet), Tibetans will have the opportunity to run for not only the Tibetan parliament in Lhasa but also for the National Congress in Beijing as candidates from Tibetan constituencies either representing a national party or a regional one. Once elected to the National Congress, they might then be able to shape parliamentary debates on defense and foreign affairs over which the autonomous Tibetan government in Lhasa will have little sway. In the aforementioned nuclear tests example, these Tibetan parliamentarians can use their knowledge of local realities to draw the attention of the Congress towards grave environmental risks and dangers to general health and subsistence of the people in the event the tests are conducted; they can also, along with opposition parties and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), warn the government of the prospect of a nuclear arms race and further escalation of hostilities with the concerned adversary. They could, I am sure, with a degree of success, channel public outcry against the conduct of nuclear tests and put pressure on the government to relinquish this policy and instead neutralize the impending threat using other means, primarily, diplomatic. As this putative example demonstrates, it might become imperative for us, instead of restricting our participation to internal Tibetan politics, to actively seek representation in Beijing primarily as a countermeasure against its excessive intrusion in our affairs.

There will be ample scope, under such an arrangement, for us to function as a completely separate self-governing entity while being involved in the larger Chinese politics. And who knows, within a matter of five or six decades, if perceptions and circumstances change, it might be possible for a charismatic Tibetan leader to rise through the ranks of a national party to become a prominent frontline candidate for the Chinese premiere-ship. Such an outcome, although almost unimaginable, is not entirely unforeseen in world politics. For instance, the United Kingdom was, until very recently, run by two Scotsmen i.e. Tony Blair (Half-Scottish) and Gordon Brown for three consecutive terms. In spite of a long history of altercation between England and Scotland, the British electorate publicly expressed their confidence in their leadership and elected their Labour Party to power not once but three times in succession. So, if the United Kingdom- an increasingly multi-cultural country with a population close to 70 million- can elect as its Prime Minister, with so little fuss, two Scottish nationals belonging to an autonomous sub-state of less than 5 million people, then why can’t we have a Tibetan Prime Minister or a President in an equally multicultural, ethnically diverse and democratically-run China of future?

A Tibetan head of government of a Chinese state might not be conceivable in the immediate future but it is certainly not impossible in the long run. And if such a momentous event were to happen in my lifetime, I would not see it with malice and suspicion but rather welcome it as an attestation of the ultimate reawakening of the Tibetan nation from its long history of, what renowned political philosopher, John Stuart Mill would refer to as, “collective mediocrity”. It would be the greatest triumph registered by us over our Chinese brethren since King Trisong Deutsen’s Tibetan army of 200,000 men took over the then Chinese capitial of Ch’ang-an (present day Xian) in 763 AD and forced the Chinese Emperor of the time to flee for his life. It would be a matter of pride not disgrace; an issue of moral conquest not political assimilation.

When I first read about the “Chinese Obama” issue in Jamyang la’s blog and the Tibetan Political Review, my knee-jerk reaction was to rule out Dr. Sangay as a candidate for our kalon-tripa. It was only after a thorough examination of this issue that I was able to restore my conviction in his propriety. In this investigative process, I discovered another reason why he might strike a chord with a whole generation of Tibetans who yearn for a dynamic new identity as a nation and who want to redefine what it means to be a Tibetan. Are we only a nation of fanatically religious, parochially divided, and politically naive people who “act under duress” and submit to the whims of outsiders in times of crisis? Or are we just a race of “filthy, superstitious, uncivilized and barbaric hordes” which needs to be “liberated” and dragged into modernity from the threshold of our self-inflicted Dark Ages (the Chinese perception of us)? This new generation of Tibetans both within Tibet and without refuse to be typecast as either and wish to effect a paradigm shift and prove to the rest of the world, and especially to China that there is more to us than meets the eye. In Dr. Sangay’s “Obama of China” remark, despite its jocular undertone, these identity-striken Tibetans will see the hope for such a paradigm shift. In his assertion that, if afforded an opportunity, a Tibetan with a decent qualification can run a country of 1.3 billion Chinese people, they will not see his arrogance but an exhibition of audacity and youthful exuberance, lying dormant within every Tibetan. More significantly, they will not see a timid leader submissively kowtowing to the PRC but rather a highly determined one hitting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) where it hurts the most by challenging its legitimacy to rule not only Tibet, but China as a whole.

Let me, in this final section of my article, examine the wisdom behind Dr. Sangay’s conscious effort to refrain from taking sides in the middle way versus rangzen debate. Much has been said and written on this issue by learned individuals from either side of the divide in the run up to the preliminary round of elections in October. I think, apart from the TPR’s flagrant misinterpretation of Dr. Sangay’s accommodating stance on this debate, most of the contributions have been intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking.

The middle way versus rangzen debate, as we all know, is not a recent creation; it has been raging unabated since the late 1980s and has been extremely polarizing to say the least. These two alternative routes to our nation’s future have engendered an inescapable dilemma for each and everyone of us and driven a huge wedge of divisiveness in our society. Many of us feel that this protracted discourse could seriously impede the momentum of our freedom movement and undermine the very purpose of our being in exile. These are valid concerns but I would not go so far as to claim that this divide will spell doom for our cause.

There are many amongst us who have already made up their minds on this matter and often defend their position with admirable conviction, but there is still a significant proportion of our people who have, until now, drifted between these two alternative, yet not mutually exclusive, pathways to our freedom. Perhaps, one possible reason for such indecision is the fact that both the middle way and rangzen as political strategies have virtues and vices unique to each of them. Since, they are both, in their present rendition, deficient in one way or the other, and since no one has a monopoly over truth, I think it is prudent that we allow this debate to take its course until a broad consensus is reached.

Such political contradictions and popular discourses revolving around them need not be detrimental to our cause. In fact, they are required for the evolution of our democracy in exile, which will in the long run only bolster our struggle not undermine it. What is, in actual fact, devastating for a young democracy like ours is not the diversity of views on various issues of national significance but lack thereof. I, therefore, feel- rather peculiarly you may say- that the rangzen-autonomy schism came as a blessing in disguise in our society at a time when our nascent democracy was paralyzed by our tendency to consign political decision-making on every issue to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I think this political discourse, although extremely polarizing, jolted many of us into action from our pervasive state of political lethargy and prompted a multitude to abandon the “Gyalwa Rinpoche Khenno” attitude and to take a reasoned political stand on the issue devoid of any metaphysical gobbledygook. More importantly, I think it created a god-less level playing field wherein every Tibetan was for himself, and wherein there was no prospect of a divine intervention. It gave us role models like Lhasang Tsering la and Jamyang Norbu la, and youth icons like Tenzin Tsundue la, Lhadon Tethong la and Tenzin Dorjee la.

In this respect, Dr. Sangay’s emphasis on our unity and his facilitative stance on the middle way versus rangzen debate will appeal to voters on both sides. It will actively engage individuals and groups of differing political persuasions in the democratic process and promote further public deliberation on this issue. Such an unwritten pact to agree to disagree will ensure that a “tyrannical majority” does not drown the voices of people on the margins and promote the advent of an inclusive, more tolerant democracy, in which people from every section of our society have a stake and role in its gradual evolution. Such a gradual transformation of our fledgling democracy will entail reforms to make it more participatory and relevant to the masses so as to enable us to confront and defy challenges of the future as a collectivity. And circumstances conducive for such an evolutionary and deliberative democracy, in my opinion, can only be fostered if society as a whole is involved in the process without someone in the position of influence accentuating the rifts already existing in our community. Therefore, I would not be so sceptical as to interpret Dr. Sangay’s deliberate attempt not to put his weight behind either rangzen or the middle way as masking his latent intention of our total integration into China but I would rather construe it as a manifestation of his genuine aspiration to create a united front while securing a free market of diverse ideas and views in our society. He is, in essence, driving home the fact that a thriving democracy does not require unanimity of ideas i.e. unity in diversity is more than feasible.

However, in a nascent democracy like ours there will always be individuals who will, every now and then, transgress the boundaries of decency and propriety by engaging in rabble-rousing and unwarranted hysteria. As the German poet, Heine has warned, the power of ideas is such that malicious ones, if allowed to flourish unchallenged, could destroy an entire civilization. Therefore, in this free market of ideas, it is incumbent upon every responsible Tibetan to take part and help common sense prevail. Silence may be golden but speech, in matters of national importance, is platinum.

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Rinchen said...

Wonderful piece, well dissected and gives a good overview. Also has great insights into the evolution of modern politics, at least the darker shades of it in the form of TPR, in tibetan electoral process. Wonderful..marvellous...hehehe

Anonymous said...

samdup lak, please send this article to our, so that voters can get the real fact about Obama-statement of Dr. lobsang sangay.

very well-expounded article, giving insight into the nuance and subtlity of political waves.

Nyima said...

Samdup la, very well written. i think you have talents that Jamyang Norbu la has and you are also in touch with the tibetan people. You also seem more open minded and able to see different points and provide constructive ideas which JN las seems to lack. but even better becuase JN la.

Excellent piece and i hope to be able to meet you one day in person.

Kyimo said...

Excellent piece.
I would strongly urge you to submit the article to TPR, for their education, among others.

Anonymous said...

Actually TPR wasn't making a mountain out of a molehill but just asking a question of Lobsang Sangay-la concerning his statement that China should treat Tibetans like the US treats African-Americans & if that means he is advocating integrating Tibetans into China as equal citizens & what the consequences from that might be. I think your article is making the "mountain" out of a simple & legitimate question. Moreover, even under the Middle Way Policy, there is no way to legally prevent Chinese from migrating to Tibet & becoming the majority because under a democratic China, that you envision, freedom of movement is a fundamental right. If Tibet becomes part of China, and that is what the Middle Way advocates, then ethnic Chinese would have every right to move to Tibet & even become the majority because limiting the number of Chinese in Tibet would be racial discrimination. Only an independent Tibet can control immigration into the country. The state of Hawaii is an example. It was once an independent kingdom before it was annexed by the US & eventually became a state. Once native Hawaiians were the majority but now they constitute around 8% of the population. That may be the future of Tibet if it becomes part of China, whether or autonomous or not. You hit the nail on the head when you said Lobsang Sangay-la has failed to state whether he supports the Middle Way, rangzen, or something else (other candidates have also failed to state their positions on this issue). It is difficult for voters to judge a candidate on perhaps this most important of all issues when the candidate refuses to state his or her position on the issues.

Dhondup said...

Well written ! TPR is definitely an another (modern) tool of Kudrak to put their candidate on the throne again.....had enough experience and learned alot...Please Dont try to sell out TIBET again.. "Give Change a Chance" while His Holiness is alive.

thuley said...

Well done,Samdup, I think you should exert yourself a little stronger in the Tibetan political arena with an academic credentials of your scale. Your language, political knowledge, general wisdom, and most importantly, open-mindedness ( without rigid arrogance) put you on par with the likes of Jamyang Norbu la.

may i suggest you researching for a book on Tibetan political development since 1960s till today, sort of sequel to Melvyn Goldstein's "Demise of Lamaist State" and Tsering Sakya's " Dragon in the land of Snow"?

please keep writing!

Anonymous said...

The anonymous person who mentioned "TRP was not making mountain out of molehill" is himself a part of that TPR.

Anonymous said...

well said Samdup or say... well dissected (in rinchen's words).
People should accept the counterpoint! Welcome to civilization people!
Hey! Rinchen! but m not supporting Mr Lobsang either...i hope u hv read my comment on your blog.
I don't want our beloved Mr Lobsang sangay la hurt but not retired like Mr Shashi Tharoor.
All the best boys...

Anonymous said...

You should learn how to make articles smaller and ideas more coherent. You went to accuse TPR of making a mountain out of a molehill, and then you embarked on a remake of the wizard of OZ with your fantasy futureland. Everybody know agrees it was a joke but it was a bad joke. The fight of the african-americans in US is no comparision to our situation and to imply thus is in bad taste. The problem isn't that it was said in jest but why he didn't clarify that it was in bad taste, just like Labsang Tsering mentioned. Do you want a Kalon Tripa who makes such faux pas on a regular basis? He has made quite a few in his usual hurry to sound cute and funny. His comparison to Obama not withstanding without any gounded experience to back that comparison. That alone should prove that he is not a competent candidate to head the very complex work of being a Kalon Tripa, which is in some ways more difficult than a real country.

Kyimo said...

@ Anonymous, 26 December 2010 23:04

Could you please answer the following?

1. If you know so much (which I doubt), why don't you run for the office yourself?
- May be you are afraid to loose?
2. What is wrong with LS joking?
- better than being dull
3. Why you hitting out at LS for daring to speak his mind?
- you yourself cannot even gather the courage to write a comment usign your real name
4. Just because other candidates don't make any comment doesn't mean they are wise.
There can be any number of reasons why the other candidates are not saying any thing at all.
- They may be coward like you
- They may not have the quickness of mind to comment on the spot
- They may not be as passionate as LS about Tibet and its future
- They are not sincere.
- They don't have any opinion to begin with

I can go on and on.

Whoever you are, whether an editor of TPR or its stooge,or a plain ignorant person, learn to think properly before you come charging at those who have the gut and the spine to stand up for what they believe in.


ten deden said...

kyimo,it was kindda nasty..but then..i loved ur outspokeness...wink wink...victory to Dr lobsang sangye lak..