By the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review
At his August 8 inauguration as the new Kalon Tripa, Lobsang Sangay gave what was probably his best public speech so far. His words struck a tone that was confident, optimistic, and cognizant of the challenges facing the Tibetan people in the years ahead. His speech also provided a preview of the key policies on which his administration will focus. With some important exceptions, we believe these policies are good ones. We encourage you, our readers, to write in with your own thoughts.
The duties of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) can be broadly divided into two areas, internal and external. Internal duties involve administering the Tibetan refugee community, while external duties involve furthering Tibet’s political struggle. Clearly, both are important, although it is possible to take more initiative on internal areas for the simple reason that decisions can be made by the CTA without reference to the position of China.
A FOCUS ON EDUCATION
Sangay stated that his “number one priority” would be in the internal area of education. It is hard to think of a more important long-term goal. Education is the most critical component in a society’s improvement of its human capital, without which little else is possible.
It is now going to be up to whoever Sangay appoints as Sherig Kalon (Education Minister) to implement an agenda of specific reforms to the Tibetan education system in exile. As with any program of reforms, one must first ask: what is the goal? In our view, the goal should be a new generation of graduates who are grounded in Tibetan culture, able to compete internationally, and able to understand both the reality in Tibet and the language and mentality of the Chinese.
Taking this goal as the starting point, we suggest that the reforms include focusing on: ways to advance creativity and leadership, more support for higher education like university and professional school, and using technology to ensure that Tibetan graduates can compete on the global playing field.
Additionally, reforms should include providing Tibetan students the option of deepening their knowledge of the Chinese language, given the need to understand one’s opponent. Focusing resources in this field could also have the benefit of providing employment as teachers for some of the Tibetans who have recently fled Tibet. Such new refugees often have a good knowledge of Chinese and the reality in Tibet. These new refugees also sometimes have trouble settling into refugee life in India. They should be seen as the valuable resources they are (while maintaining supervision of all teachers, to ensure that what is being taught is appropriate).
IDEAS NEEDING SHAPE: MORE PROFESSIONALS AND “SISTER SHICHAKS”
A related goal is Sangay’s statement that he will “strive to reach 10,000 professionals”. Presumably, Sangay has a plan to accomplish this (likely involving analogies to the Jewish and Armenian experience). One also expects that this number is based on a concrete projection, rather than being the sort of aspirational target that one used to find in Soviet five-year plans.
Everyone will agree that it would be valuable to have 10,000 professionals in the exile community. And even partial success will be beneficial. The question is how to get there. Right now, we must suspend judgment until Sangay is able to present his plan to do so.
Sangay also proposes setting up “sister shichaks” to strengthen solidarity between Tibetans in India and the West. The problem this presumably intends to address is economic development in the shichaks (settlements). This is an interesting idea that will depend primarily on implementation and participation. It may require arm-twisting of the Tibetan communities in the West, including their leadership, as well as the Chitues (Members of Parliament) and Dhonchoes (Representatives) for North America and Europe.
TWO PROMISING NEW INSTITUTIONS...
Sangay proposes the creation of two new institutions: Tibet Corps and the Tibet Policy Institute. We have already written about our enthusiasm for Tibet Corps, mirroring as it does something we wrote about last year.
Tibet Policy Institute is also a good idea. Sangay suggests that it will be an “intellectual platform to envision, develop, and execute policies that will strengthen Tibet.” Generally, it is always positive to inject rationality, deliberation, and expertise into policy-making. We imagine that this Institute will function as a think tank. However, it should avoid acting as an extra-governmental authority to “execute” policies, since democratic accountability must remain with the elected leadership. Likewise, its work must remain transparent.
Additionally, Sangay suggests the Institute will focus on work on “strengthen[ing] Tibet” rather than the exile community. However, a policy-based think tank would also be useful for the internal policies of the CTA’s administration of the refugee community, and far more possible to implement than in Tibet. One therefore hopes that this Institute would also cover policies in exile.
...BUT THE SAME OLD MIDDLE WAY?
Based on Sangay’s speech and his recent op-ed in the New York Times, he will be promoting the Middle Way policy in a slightly new way. Specifically, Sangay’s use of the phrase “win-win” is important.
Although the concept of “win-win” is at the heart of the existing Middle Way policy as first elaborated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, this specific phrase has a different intellectual history. It is one of the concepts taught at Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation. For example, Harvard law professor Bob Bordone has written on using “win-win” to turn zero-sum, confrontational situations into value-enhancing propositions through cooperation.
In this sense, one can see Sangay’s attempt to give academic backing to the Middle Way policy, based on what he studied at Harvard. Sangay is doubling down on the Middle Way’s attempt to convince the Chinese government – and possibly the Chinese people – that it is in their best interest to grant Tibetans autonomy.
The problem with this approach is that any workable win-win arrangement seeks to develop a value-enhancing proposition to break a stalemate. However, the flaw that has prevented the Middle Way policy from succeeding is that the Chinese side does not see value in the proposition the Tibetan side is offering. Or, at least, the Chinese side sees the possible value as substantially outweighed by the definite risks.
It is always hard to convince someone that you know what is in their interest better than they do, regardless of whether you have studied negotiation in the classroom. In fact, the Chinese government’s attitude is that the “Tibet problem” is already on its way to being solved. This is described in a 2006 article entitled Independence as Tibet’s Only Option: Why the Middle Path is a Dead End:
Even Samdhong Rinpoche, one of the strongest proponents of the Middle Way, has implicitly agreed that the Middle Way policy is at a stalemate. In a recent interview with TPR, he stated: “sooner or later a sensible leadership of PRC shall have to accept and find resolution to the Tibet issue”. Rinpoche implicitly acknowledges that the current Chinese leadership will not accept the Middle Way proposition, nor is it possible to know when these conditions will change.
At its heart, therefore, Sangay’s “win-win” phrase represents an attempt to refresh the Middle Way policy by wrapping it in new language. Certainly it makes the policy even clearer, and even more likely garner rhetorical support in the West. Unfortunately, for reasons beyond Sangay’s control, the Middle Way policy remains in a stalemate.
All Tibetans should discuss what “Plan B” will look like.
HIS HOLINESS’S RETURN TO TIBET?
On a related note, Sangay has repeatedly called for His Holiness’s return to Tibet, which he lists along with – but distinct from – his other stated goal of restoring “freedom” (which is undefined) in Tibet.
His Holiness’s return to Tibet is a goal that Tibetans everywhere fervently desire. It is a constant refrain in protests in Tibet. Interestingly, it was the theme of a song by Skylar Grey (entitled “Coming Home”) dedicated at His Holiness’s July 2011 speech at the U.S. Capitol. Even more interestingly, His Holiness’s return to Tibet is also technically compatible with official Chinese policy; a Xinhua article a few days before His Holiness’s 76th birthday even mentioned Mao’s wish that His Holiness return.
Now that His Holiness has removed himself from any formal role within the Tibetan government-in-exile and is a private citizen, it remains to be seen what developments – however unlikely – there might be in this issue.
A GLIMMER OF HOPE?
Although we believe that Sangay’s “win-win” approach to China is likely to remain stalemated, there is a glimmer of hope that shines elsewhere in his speech. Sangay throws his weight behind the Lhakar noncooperation movement that started in Tibet and has been heavily promoted by Students for a Free Tibet (SFT).
This movement is incredibly promising, and it is good that the CTA will now support it. Change in Tibet will ultimately depend on empowering and supporting Tibetans inside Tibet. The Lhakar movement aims to do just that, and has the potential to develop into a truly Ghandian active nonviolence movement.
A CALL FOR YOUR IDEAS
As shown above, there is much work to be done by the incoming administration. As the new Kalon Tripa said, this is “no time for simply criticism and cynicism.” We agree. We have set out some of our reactions and thoughts, although in the interest of brevity we have cut some details.
We strongly encourage all our readers to send in your own thoughts in the form of letters and articles. One reader already submitted an interesting article discussing the need to ensure the CTA’s financial viability. How would you like to contribute to this important discussion?