Area Studies
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Monday, October 5, Second Morning Session


Recent Sino-Tibetan Dialogue / Democratization

Evolution of the Chinese Democracy Movement and

     the Tibetan Issue

Elliot Sperling, Moderator

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Thank you very much.   We seem to be adhering very well to the time 
limits, so I think that we should have a good deal of time for discussion 
afterwards.   Our last speaker in this historical section - I don't mean 
the meeting is historic, but we're dealing with history - well, maybe it 
will be historic, I don't know.

We're dealing with history here, and our last speaker is Tsering Wangyal 
who is well known as the editor of _Tibetan Review_, a journal he has 
edited since 1976.   He's a graduate of the University of Bristol.   
Among other things, he has served the Tibetan exile administration in the 
1970s, and he was most recently in 1986 in this country as an Alfred 
Friendly Press Fellow.  So I'd like to welcome Tsering Wangyal.



Democracy is the fashionable way to govern and be governed these days.  
All other forms of governance have been rejected as evil and abnormal, 
something imposed on a section of the world by force, and going against 
human nature.  Democracy also has many drawbacks but, as the cliche goes, 
this is the best we've got.  Many of the countries freshly into democracy 
face tremendous problems, but these problems were essentially there 
before democracy was ushered in and not created by it.  They would have 
come to the fore sooner or later, and democracy, because of its emphasis 
on openness, only made them emerge sooner.  Of course, most other forms 
of government, including communism, also claim to have virtues associated 
with democracy.  But when we usually talk about democracy everyone knows 
that what we mean is the sort of thing that is practiced in the United 
States and most other countries in the West.  This kind of democracy 
takes a long time to evolve if it is trying to replace something 
completely different, and there will be all sorts of complications in the 
beginning which, if you are not careful, can lead to the kind of serious 
troubles that we see in Eastern Europe and elsewhere today.

Tibet has not had democracy so far.  Old Tibet was governed by a system 
which was a unique blend of theocracy and feudalism.  Judging by what the 
ordinary people who lived under that system have to say, the result was 
not as bad as it could have been, and certainly not as bad as the Chinese 
try to make it out.  However, that could have been only because the 
people did not know any better and did not know if they were entitled to 
anything better.  The system was by no means democratic.  Since 1959 it 
has been a colony of the People's Republic of China and by now there 
should be no doubt left in the minds of all free-thinking people that 
there is not even a trace of democracy in Tibet under Chinese rule; and 
no Tibetan, except for those who chose to collaborate with the Chinese 
for one reason or another, is happy under their system.  Tibetans under 
Chinese rule do not enjoy any democratic rights:  they are less than 
equal before the Chinese law, they have no freedom of assembly, press, 
religion or speech.  As far as well-known democratic rights are 
concerned, the country might as well be a vast prison.

But the Tibetans there want democracy - they have made it clear by 
risking their lives by staging peaceful but forbidden demonstrations even 
when surrounded by armed policemen and soldiers.  Of course, they have 
not used the term democracy as their primary objective when holding such 
demonstrations.  They are demanding independence and they want the 
Chinese to go back to their own country so that Tibetans could once again 
rule Tibet.  When that time comes, the Tibetans of course would not wish 
a resumption of the system that existed before the Chinese marched in.  
Even if under alien rule, they have learnt a lot over the last three 
decades or so.  They may not know what exactly democracy is.  They've 
heard of the term and since they've also heard and read of the term often 
being used by the Dalai Lama as something desirable, they think it is the 
best system.  They are also naturally attracted to the concept of 
democracy because one thing they know for sure is that it is a system 
totally opposed to the only other modern form of governance they have 
experienced and reject - the Chinese communist system.  

However, they are not in a position to be able to get democracy by 
themselves.  First of all they'll have to become free and then only can 
they worry about the kind of government they are going to have in future.  
For both these purposes they would have to depend a lot on the Tibetans 
in exile.  Tibet can only become free by gaining enough political support 
from the outside world, and it is only through Tibetans in exile that 
those in Tibet can get their voices heard in the world.  Once that goal 
has been achieved, for the next stage they would need the initiative of 
those who have returned from exile.  Although the exile community is not 
a real democracy, some of its members have been working hard towards it, 
having had the opportunity of observing and understanding how real 
democracies work.  Fortunately, this group is led by the Dalai Lama 
himself, so no one can openly oppose the idea.  The Dalai Lama was, in 
fact, thinking of reforming the Tibetan government even in the Fifties.  
He wanted to make a beginning towards ending feudalism by redistributing 
land through the government instead of leaving a major portion of it in 
the hands of the landlords.  However, he could not go very far along this 
line because of the Chinese presence, their plan of collectivization and 
the increasing resentment followed by open acts of rebellion from the 

So when he came into exile, from the very beginning he wanted to make 
his society a real democratic one.  In 1963 he issued a draft 
constitution, meant for use in the future free Tibet, probably because at 
that time everyone thought the exile is not going to last long.  But of 
course it is still continuing.  So last year he issued a charter for the 
Tibetan people, a kind of guide on how Tibetans should govern themselves 
while in exile; and this year he issued a detailed guideline on how 
future, free Tibet should be ruled.

Because of the Dalai Lama's insistence, we have a sort of a parliament 
in our exile set up - known as the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies.  
The idea of holding elections to choose office bearers have also been 
taken up by lesser organizations like various political and welfare 
groups in our society.

This of course does not mean that Tibetans in exile are determinedly 
heading for real democracy.  No, most of them are only making a show of 
doing so because it is the wish of the Dalai Lama.  Not many Tibetans, 
including those in the government and in the Assembly, have a clear idea 
about what exactly is democracy.  And most of those who are firmly in 
power are not too pleased with what they suspect real democracy entails.  
So what one Tibetan understands by the term democracy may be quite 
different from what his neighbor thinks it is.  The concept is so alien 
to us that the average Tibetan mind does not have a slot where it would 
fit in.  In other countries where there were no democracy, many people 
may have got a fairly good idea of it through popular literature and the 
media.  But Tibet was not only so isolated that it did not know much 
about the outside world but also did not have popular reading materials 
or mass media.

However, it is slowly penetrating the Tibetan mind that whatever they 
may understand by democracy, and whether they like it or not, there is no 
getting away from it.  It is not just because the Dalai Lama is so 
partial to it.  The failure of feudalism and communism everywhere has at 
last drummed this point home.  Of course communism has not yet failed in 
China, but that is all the more reason why Tibetans should show real 
interest in a system opposed to the one that they have every reason to 

When Tibet becomes independent, of course, the work of democratizing 
ourselves must go ahead with more enthusiasm.  Future Tibet cannot remain 
isolated like old Tibet.  We have intermingled too much with the outside 
world.  We have asked for and received too much assistance, sympathy and 
support from them to ignore them once we have achieved our aim.  And if 
we want to maintain a cordial and mutually beneficial relationship with 
the world, it will have to be done through the democratic set up.

We must also remember that with the achievement of independence, our 
dependency on foreign aid will not end.  In fact, for many many years, we 
should be needing even more aid in order to rebuild our country.  Even if 
we can do without high-tech gadgetry and pollution-generating 
super-affluence, we would at least need to install the basic modern 
amenities there, such as running hot water.  Unlike in the past, these 
aid agencies - governmental as well as non-governmental - are not willing 
to generously pour money into the developing world without demanding any 
proper accounts for it.  Donors now realize that the old method has only 
resulted in pleasing a few people at the top in despotic societies 
without bringing any benefit to the ordinary masses.  So even the process 
of aid giving has moved from elitism to democracy.  Before parting with 
their money, the donors want to make sure that the receiving country has 
a stable economy with free market, and a stable society with open 
politics.  Tibet is not likely to get much sympathy and foreign aid if 
its government does not emerge as recognizably democratic, open and as 
free of corruption as is humanly possible.

But even if all these things are generally agreed to, there may still be 
other obstacles to democracy.  We can even get some idea of what these 
obstacles are going to be by looking at the experiment in democracy that 
is going on in exile.

Democracy is not the automatic next step after gaining freedom.  There 
are many examples of countries which have become independent after 
remaining under foreign rule for a long time.  But they have not become 
democracies, even though some of them may have adopted the label as 
official policy.  Independence in such countries have not improved the 
lot of the people, have not prepared them for active participation in the 
government, and have not made them aware of their rights.  In many cases 
in fact as the situation turned out, it looks as if many of them would 
have been much better off remaining under foreign rule.  For instance, 
look at Somalia now, after 30 years of independence! Similar examples 
abound in the developing world, particularly in Africa, such as Uganda, 
Nigeria, Sudan, Congo, Mozambique, etc.  Almost all these countries have 
become worse off and their people have been suffering much more after 
independence than they were as colonies of Western powers.

In our case the situation may not become quite so dismal because the 
Chinese system is without any redeeming feature whatsoever; after this, 
there is nowhere to go but up.  But we are going to have other kinds of 
problems.  We are definitely going to have some dogmatic conservatives - 
even among young people - who would not like to see changes in the way 
things have been done traditionally.  This is because they have mastered 
the technique of survival and prosperity in the old system, and even if 
they may pay lip-service to the need for democracy they would try to 
defend some of the components of the outmoded system by invoking 
religion, custom and tradition.  By definition, they would tend to detest 
some of the outstanding features of democracy, such as freedom of speech, 
strikes, demonstrations and other forms of challenge to the establishment 
views.  Especially in our society it would be far too easy to describe 
such activities as blasphemous and treasonous.  By such deliberate 
misinterpretation of facts, they can easily manipulate gullible sections 
of the community for their own gains.  This kind of misuse of democracy 
can only cause discord and unhappiness in the society without really 
preserving anything worthwhile from the old system.

In our exile democratic set up, so far we have had 11 Assemblies of 
Tibetan People's Deputies.  Some of them were composed of more-or-less 
democratically elected members while others had to be appointed by the 
Dalai Lama as no other form of representation would satisfy the diverse 
groups engaged in meaningless feud.

The problem with our democracy is that we do not have a multi-party 
system; we do not even have a one-party system.  We have a no-party 
system.  The deputies are made to represent the exile community on the 
patriotic but unrealistic basis of their home provinces in Tibet.  Thus 
there are no deputies to represent any segment of the 100,000-odd 
Tibetans in various parts of India, but there are deputies to noisily 
speak for people in Lhasa, Kham and Amdo although there is no way that 
under the present realities they could claim to represent those people.  
And as if this artificial division among the laity were not enough, the 
monks and nuns are further divided on the basis of their sects.  On the 
one hand we claim that there is no real difference among the various 
schools of Tibetan Buddhism, yet on the other hand we go out of our way 
to highlight the small differences where they exist and create new ones 
where they don't.  People take up priesthood as their vocation, just like 
others choose to become doctors or lawyers or pop singers.  Since the 
other professions are rightly not represented in the Assembly, why should 
the clergy be made an exception? It is true that in Tibetan society there 
were and still are more monks and nuns than followers of any other single 
profession.  But that still does not justify giving them special 
representation in the parliament.  For instance, in America I believe 
there are more lawyers and psychiatrists than any other professionals.  
But nobody believes that there should be separate seats allocated for 
them in the Senate and the House.  And this "negligence" has not 
undermined the importance or usefulness of lawyers and psychiatrists in 
this society.  So if the Tibetan clergy are treated just like other 
Tibetans with their different vocations, it would not mean that we are 
suppressing religion.  If we are sincere about adopting democracy, then 
our religious convictions should have no bearing on our political set-up.  
So far we have been acting as if only by granting extra political powers 
to those who are supposed to have renounced the world can we live up to 
our reputation of being the most religious people on earth.  I think such 
an idea can become a serious obstacle to real democracy because it can 
make many types of situations vulnerable to misguided criticism.

Another obstacle to democracy in our society could be the attitude of 
our leaders.  In any democracy which is not a real democracy, its leaders 
tend to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude to disguise their autocratic 
high-handedness.  They pretend that they know better than the masses and 
that is why they are up here and the masses are down there.  Our elected 
leaders are especially susceptible to this kind of self-aggrandizement.  
This is because it is not enough for them to be elected but their rise to 
high office also has to be confirmed by the Dalai Lama.  This is not at 
all like elected officials of other countries going through the formality 
of being confirmed by presidents or kings.  The Dalai Lama is special and 
for the Tibetans he is even more special.  Being anointed by him allows 
the officials to creep out of tricky situations by pointing out that they 
have been appointed by His Holiness.  In fact in their speeches, many of 
these leaders proudly confess that they are ignorant village bumpkins but 
they are in those posts because His Holiness has deemed them fit for 
them.  In other words, "so who are you to criticize me?"

Now, since they can't go on hiding behind this excuse each time they 
need to do some explaining, they try to ensure that there are as few such 
occasions as possible.  They want to have everything under government 
control so that there is nobody to oppose their policies; they don't want 
private sector because they find it difficult to deal with competition.  
In short, the guardians of Tibetan democracy happily go around violating 
every democratic principle in the book.

In a true democracy you cannot adopt certain aspects of democracy and 
leave out the rest.  If you are going to give people the right to choose, 
you must give them that right wholeheartedly.  If you hold elections, you 
cannot hire hoodlums to rig them, as so often seems to happen in the 
practice of democracy in India.  You cannot have real democracy in a 
one-party system.  You must allow formation of various political parties 
with differing stands on important national issues and let the people 
decide for themselves which among them they find most capable of 
providing them with good leadership.  So you must not regard opposition 
political groups as enemies of the country.  You must treat them as 
necessary and respectable part of the system and accept the fact that you 
may one day find yourself in their shoes.

Unfortunately, none of these characteristics of a true democracy exists 
in our exile set up yet.  Some of them cannot really be achieved until 
you have your own country, of course.  But some others can easily be 
adopted.  For instance, there is no convincing reason why we cannot have 
political parties and why candidates from those parties cannot fight 
elections on the basis of issues.  There is no reason why the electorate 
cannot be divided into real geographical constituencies as they exist in 
exile instead of illusory divisions based on the past and possible future 
realities but not the present.  In the last elections for the Assembly, 
Tibetans in Europe and North America were represented on the basis of 
constituencies.  The reason why the same thing has never been tried in 
India is that sections of the government have tended to play into the 
hands of petty politicians who obviously are only interested in 
establishing and consolidating their power basis within the exile set up, 
even if it means harming the nation itself.  Of course such people also 
exist among Tibetans in the West, but there they don't hold much sway and 
also, by virtue of the surroundings, people there are much more aware of 
the ways of the world than they are in India or Nepal.  

So in the present state of affairs we have everything granted on paper 
but hardly anything that matters actually exists.  If it is left like 
this and everyone gets quite used to the idea and does not expect any 
change, then our democracy will not be any different from the Chinese 
system.  In their scheme of things also on paper everything belongs to 
the people.  They have all the democratic rights.  But even an increasing 
number of Chinese are now beginning to accept that in reality they have 
very few of those rights.

The traditional democracy is supported by three estates: the 
legislative, the executive and the judiciary.  In the exile set up we 
have the executive and a form of legislative and we have even started 
having a judiciary estate with the recent creation of the office of the 
Supreme Justice Commission.  However, nobody in our society have yet 
thought of the fourth estate, the Press, which has evolved into a most 
important and most powerful feature of modern democracy.  If our leaders 
understand little about democracy they understand even less about this 
particular component of democracy.  To them, a free press is just a 
nuisance that they have no use for.  We have a number of newsmagazines in 
our society but none of them have all the features of a truly free modern 
press.  Our government tends to resent the existence of any magazine that 
they cannot directly control.  So there is no question of providing them 
the support and encouragement that they would need just like anything new 
in a society would.  We are yet far from the stage of having our own 
Rupert Murdochs, but, lacking encouragement from the establishment, we do 
not even have our own versions of small-town newspapers.  We do not have 
someone like Thomas Jefferson who preferred a country with a free press 
and no government to a country with a government but no free press.

So once again, if the Tibetan government is serious about democracy, 
they should allow and even encourage the flourishing of privately-run 
newspapers and magazines both in Tibetan and in whatever other languages 
necessary to make the Tibetan people, wherever they are, aware of what is 
going on in their society so that they could actively participate in its 
development as they are supposed to.  At the moment there is no such 
thing as reliable channels of news in the Tibetan society - only rumors 
which keep on getting further embroidered as it is passed from one mouth 
to another.  To know what is really happening, people have to wait for 
government announcements, which of course never give the complete 
picture, or delayed, incomplete and haphazardly produced reports in what 
passes for press at the moment.  This situation has kept the broad masses 
perpetually confused about the exile politics and has only strengthened 
their belief that such things are best left in the hands of the rulers.  
That is why I said earlier that Tibetans, both the rulers and the ruled, 
find it difficult to accept a system that allows ordinary people to have 
a say in the government, however indirectly.

Many of our ordinary people are still so ill-informed about the 
mechanisms of democracy that they are actually afraid of them.  At 
election time they go to vote only because they have been ordered to do 
so.  They don't know what they stand to gain by it.  They don't know any 
of the candidates they can choose from.  They don't know where these 
candidates stand on important national issues.  But here they don't have 
to worry much because the candidates themselves do not have any stands.  
As I said earlier, they are candidates only on the basis of how loudly 
they can proclaim their loyalty to a particular region of Tibet, whatever 
that is supposed to mean under the circumstances.  When it is time for 
them to indicate their preference on the ballot paper, our ordinary 
electorate can often be seen asking the help of polling officers as they 
are not sure which of the names on the list is the most important person.

Recently the Tibetan Youth Congress has decided to launch the first 
Tibetan political party.  I don't know, and I don't know if even they do 
know, exactly how they are going to achieve this.  It will be interesting 
to see whether the party will actually function like an independent party 
in proper democracies or will just be yet another ceremonial institution.  
If it evolves into a real political party, inspiring formation of other 
parties also, and if the government comes out with a positive attitude 
towards their emergence and allows future elections to be fought on the 
basis of issues, then we can be fairly certain of being able to function 
like a true democracy when freedom returns to Tibet.  Of course, one must 
not forget that development of real political parties and real elections 
will be well-nigh impossible in the absence of a free press.


gv. A