Tuesday’s visit by Tibetan prime minister Lobsang Sangay, LL.M. ’95, S.J.D. ’04., drew a packed crowd to Tsai Auditorium to hear his thoughts on Tibet’s relations with China.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nation & World

A middle way on Tibet

7 min read

Leader of government in exile seeks dialogue with China

It is not unusual for Harvard to host a head of state. During one recent week, there were five on campus in five days.

But it is unusual for Harvard to host the leader of a government in exile, as in Tuesday’s tightly guarded Tsai Auditorium lecture by Lobsang Sangay, LL.M. ’95, S.J.D. ’04. The 44-year-old Harvard Law School graduate is sikyong, or prime minister, of the Central Tibetan Administration, the government in exile’s top political official.

The late afternoon talk was his first in the United States as a head of government and his first in a university setting. “It feels more like a reunion,” he said, “than giving any formal kind of speech.”

Before the election in April 2011, Sangay worked at Harvard Law School’s East Asian Legal Studies Program. He was the first Tibetan — there are 6 million — to earn the doctor of juridical science (S.J.D.) degree, the Law School’s most advanced degree. After the election, he became the first Tibetan prime minister to hold primary political authority. In May 2011, the 14th Dalai Lama officially transferred such authority to the elected leaders of the Central Tibetan Administration.

To set up a democratic government in exile “has been his long-cherished goal,” said Sangay of Tibet’s revered Buddhist leader. After the transfer, Sangay added, the Dalai Lama enjoyed nine hours of dreamless sleep.

“It is striking to imagine” such a structure, said Sangay’s Law School mentor Henry J. Steiner: a government in exile that was a theocracy and that now embraces the ideal of a secular, democratic state. Steiner, an authority on human rights and international law, is the Jeremiah Smith Jr. Professor of Law Emeritus. He was Sangay’s dissertation adviser.

The government in exile is in Dharamshala, a mountainous city in northern India. Thousands of refugees settled there after the failed uprising by Tibetans against China in 1959 — so many that the city is called “Little Lhasa,” named after Tibet’s traditional capital.

“It runs like any government,” said Sangay of his administration, which has a parliament, a court system, and seven cabinetlike departments. It employs 1,000 civil servants, runs more than 60 schools, and oversees a diaspora of about 1.8 million in 70 settlements throughout India, Nepal, and Bhutan. The government in exile has foreign missions too, though it is not formally recognized by any nation.

A sturdy, handsome man, Sangay displayed a knack for incisive, fine-tuned arguments during his talk. But he started by inviting everyone in the audience to Dharamshala, with its clean streets and pure mountain air. He included a warning though. The city on the threshold of the Himalayas is so cold in the winter that it can be warmer outside a house than inside.

Sangay’s main task is to warm the Chinese government to the idea of resuming talks on the future of Tibet. In the past decade, the government in exile had nine rounds of talks with Chinese officials. The last round came in January 2010. The stalled talks became so frustrating that two main envoys resigned this May.

At issue is the status of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, a place so heavily guarded and constrained politically, said Sangay, that there are “more surveillance cameras than windows.” He said there are no foreign journalists allowed in, there are police checkpoints at every 20 meters, and protest is often met with arrest, torture, and disappearances. Since March 2011, he said, 54 protesters have set themselves afire, and 43 have died. All this, he said, “reflects how desperate Tibetans are.”

The desperation has an economic side too, said Sangay. Seventy percent of private enterprise in Tibet is owned or managed by the Chinese; half of Communist Party members are Chinese; 40 percent of educated Tibetans are unemployed. There is a toll on the environment too, he said, including excessive damming projects. There is also a cultural cost to Tibetans, said Sangay, including in schools, where he said the required “medium of instruction” is Chinese.

Officially, Tibet’s government in exile does not support any form of protest inside Tibet. “But once it takes place,” said Sangay, “it becomes our sacred duty to support the aspirations” that protesters have. There are two main aspirations, he said: the return of the Dalai Lama to his homeland and freedom for Tibet.

“It’s quite difficult at the moment,” said Sangay of conditions within Tibet and of the rising pressure since talks stalled. But he still hopes that his government will win China over with its “Middle-Way Approach,” which includes dialogue backed by a promise of nonviolence. “We can solve this problem through dialogue,” said Sangay.

His government has no ambitions beyond being a peaceful enclave within a larger nation, he added, using the French-speaking province of Quebec in Canada as an example. “If genuine autonomy is granted, then people choose to remain within.”

It’s not as if Tibet is a military threat, said Sangay, who imagined how well a nation of 6 million would fare against mighty China, with 1.3 billion people and a huge standing army.

Reopening talks would be to China’s advantage, Sangay argued. “We all know China is rising” and spending billions on soft-power initiatives to create a narrative of a regime focused on peace and prosperity. “The counter-narrative is Tibet,” a flashpoint of violence and friction that he said tarnishes China’s reputation. “You would like to be seen as good human beings,” said Sangay in a rhetorical address to the Chinese. “But what is happening in Tibet negates all that.”

There are precedents for what the government in exile wants, he said. China has made political concessions in Hong Kong, Macau, and even Taiwan. “They have the political will,” said Sangay of Chinese leaders, so why not for Tibet as well?

There are no constitutional, political, or cultural impediments to solving the issue, he said, but there may be “an ethnic or racial factor” impeding progress.

Part of the answer to the deadlock may come in November, said Sangay, when the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China meets in Beijing. Seven out of its top nine leaders will retire, and younger leaders will emerge. “I remain hopeful that this new Chinese leadership will bring new perspective,” said Sangay, and that by next year serious talks can begin.

After the lecture, there was nearly an hour for questions, all of them polite and some of them pointed, about territorial boundaries, protest, Indian sponsorship, Hong Kong parallels, Chinese tourism in Tibet, and economic advances in Tibet since 1959.

Sangay conceded that there were more roads in Tibet, more electrical power, and new housing, but he said the Chinese benefit more than Tibetans do.

Besides, there is a more fundamental issue than infrastructure, he said. “You don’t exchange power, roads, and toilets for freedom.” There is the issue of a fundamental attitude as well. “Tibetan people’s will is very strong,” said Sangay, and has lasted three generations to become “stronger than before. … The Tibetan issue will not fade away.”

In the end, resolving conflict in Tibet is up to the Chinese, said Sangay. “It’s a simple issue, if they want to solve it.”