I have been asked by the editors¹ to prepare an essay that sums up some of the positions I’ve taken on Tibet issues over the years. I am happy to do so, and offer this commentary as a synthesis of a few points that I’ve made in several articles, mostly linked to the theme of “self-delusion.” It’s a particularly relevant theme given the muddle and incoherence that often enough characterize the pronouncements of many within the community of Tibet supporters and in the Tibetan exile leadership itself. Indeed the downsizing of what was once a government-in-exile, it’s self-designation as the “Tibetan People’s Organization” (I refer here to the actual Tibetan term that is used, not the more euphemistic “Central Tibetan Administration”), is emblematic of a refusal to see what is obvious: that whatever else one might claim for the Middle Way Approach of the Dalai Lama and the exile leadership, it has been divorcing itself from any reasonable interpretation of the idea of a “Free Tibet” for some time. That much is indisputable: after all, Lobsang Sangay has himself stated with total clarity that his organization seeks to maintain Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule over Tibet, with the sole modification of having ethnic Tibetans in visible positions in the local party organization. (As if the CCP couldn’t find loyal Tibetans for such a pro forma mission; and as if the local party organization weren’t structurally subordinate to the national party!). So, fifty-plus years after the beginning of an exile struggle rooted in the idea and idealism of Tibet as a nation, and 25 years after the Middle Way Approach scuttled that idealism (but still asserted that the goal was to achieve a Tibet that was “a democratic political entity … in association with the People’s Republic of China”), the goal now is not any sort of democratic system in Tibet; it is rule by the Communist Party, albeit with Tibetan party members staffing the leadership positions.
But this trajectory ought to have been visible from the beginning, from the start of the Middle Way Approach. Frankly, if anything that I say here comes as a surprise or even as a shock, it simply bears out Orwell’s oft-cited dictum: to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.
One might say that when the Dalai Lama announced an end to the struggle for Tibetan independence in 1988, saying that the goal of the movement he was leading was to see Tibet as the above-mentioned democratic “entity” within China, the apparatus of self-delusion kicked in almost immediately. Some of his officials discreetly told exiles that the Dalai Lama’s proposal actually offered Tibetans a way to return to Tibet and continue an independence struggle from within (delusional seems too kind a word for such thinking), while others fed the desperate desire of many exiles to avoid seeing in all this the end of the struggle for a country of their own that they thought they had been waging for decades, by resorting to explanations claiming that the Dalai Lama would leave the final decision up to the Tibetan people, thus convincing those who wanted to be convinced that his statement was not opposed to the struggle for independence. And many held on to that hope, which was indeed an act of self-delusion.
One can argue about the way this has all come about. But a large part of it surely derives from the societal difficulties inherent in disagreeing with the Dalai Lama, difficulties which result in cynicism and … addictive self-delusion, the latter an attempt to avoid the problem just alluded to: the disconnect between what Tibetan exile society is being told by its leaders and what unfiltered reality would otherwise reveal. It is the product of a society in which the pronouncements of the Dalai Lama have a sanctity that deprives them of the serious scrutiny that would otherwise be the normal state of affairs in a functional liberal polity.
It goes without saying that the Dalai Lama has been the decisive figure for the maintenance of a cohesive Tibetan society in exile, and indeed for the very fact that there is a Tibet Movement. His historical role in that movement and his contemporary role as the anchor of exile society have been undeniably crucial. But the notion of infallibility—spoken or unspoken—that attends his ideas and pronouncements has been damaging on many levels. It has amounted to a cult of personality and demonstrated (as if such were needed) that even when the figure at the center of such a cult is a decent or benevolent person—someone such as the Dalai Lama—the effects can still be injurious. Dissent is stifled and adherence to the positions advocated by the leader is mandated not out of logically reasoned conviction, but simply because of the person from whom the positions originate.
For all the good that the Dalai Lama has done (and indeed he has done much good), this hindering of dissent manifests itself in so many ways that it has become a part of the general environment of exile society. Thus, on any number of occasions exile Tibetans (especially, but not exclusively, in the leadership) have voiced the sentiment that exile democracy, such as it is, is a gift that the Dalai Lama has granted to the Tibetans. Not, mind you, a natural right of the Tibetan people, but a gift from the Dalai Lama. Such a mind-set, actively encouraged by the exile leadership, hardly bolsters the idea of unalienable popular rights.
A few days ago there appeared a curious statement by the former Tibetan “Prime Minister” in exile, Samdhong Rinpoche. Having previously denounced some Rangzen advocates as dangerous, he was now asserting that advocates of Rangzen are not necessarily anti-Dalai Lama. The sense of this is clear: opposition to the Dalai Lama’s position—loyal opposition, at that—has been interpreted by the establishment as disloyalty to the Dalai Lama. But now the former Prime Minister was benevolently granting dispensation.
This glides over the concept of simple loyalty to Tibet—to a Tibetan identity—and buries it under the idea of loyalty primarily to the Dalai Lama who, to justify the inherently undemocratic nature of this line of thinking, is positioned above it all by some Tibetans as the Giver of Democracy. (One may perhaps be forgiven for seeing Samdhong Rinpoche’s dispensation against the backdrop of a history of clumsy attempts by the exile leadership at triangulation: at times whispering encouragement to Rangzen advocates in order later portray them as a fringe in contrast to which the leadership could manipulatively pose as the middle and reasonable party.)
Of course there have been some real and noticeable democratic developments within exile society. But there is still a certain degree of exaggeration (and self-delusion) about the extent to which the exile establishment and exile society have actually internalized democratic thinking and democratic norms. This is a reasonable conclusion if one finds that the idea of peaceful disagreement with the Dalai Lama requires—50+ years after the exile community came into being—the shelter of a condescending indulgence. A cult of personality is inherently debilitating; its atmosphere has led to the use of the Dalai Lama as a prop by some, and to mention of his name as the crux of an argument’s merits by others. (The very mentality fostered by a cult of personality is perhaps manifest in the interior decorating style of the current leader, Lobsang Sangay. Recent publicity photos taken of him in his office, show he has hung at least two thangka of himself on his walls.) Of course none of this implies any sort of equivalence, moral or actual, between the PRC and the Tibetan exile political structure, such as it is. Whatever valid criticisms of exile society and the exile community one might make, arrests, executions, and torture are in no way part of it; on the most obvious level there is simply no meaningful or honest comparison to be made between what transpires inside Tibet and what transpires in exile. But that should not deter anyone from being blunt about the ills of exile society, including the less than complete grasp on the part of many exiles as to what makes up a functional democratic civil society.
One of the more commonly encountered instances of self-delusion vis-à-vis the Middle Way Approach is the assertion (by now, perhaps a desperate assertion) that this policy is responsible for winning over large numbers of Chinese. Indeed, Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan Service (in the affairs of which the exile authorities have unabashedly meddled) carried a ludicrous story in the spring headlined “Many Chinese Sympathetic to Tibet: RFA Poll” and stating that “Mainland Chinese are largely sympathetic to the cause of Tibet …” The headline and opening phrase certainly express sentiments that feed into the exile establishment’s view that the Middle Way is an effective policy, one that is winning popular Chinese support because of its “conciliatory” nature. Yet when one reads the story closely one discovers that it is based on telephone questioning of … 30 Chinese respondents! This is rather illustrative of a delusional view of China: the notion in some exile quarters that growing interest in Tibetan Buddhism on the part of some Chinese within the PRC is a manifestation of support for the Tibetan cause (as defined by the Middle Way Approach) inside China.
This view, however, ignores the fact that many of the people in China who take an interest in Tibetan Buddhism do so with little or no awareness of the Tibet Issue and its implications (not unlike some of their counterparts in the West, actually).
Indeed, to the question that is frequently asked—what do Chinese think about Tibet?—the answer is quite simple: Tibet does not occupy the thoughts of the vast majority of Chinese. And when it does come to mind, it is likely to be as a region whose people were liberated from a particularly horrendous form of feudal oppression, or as a land of apolitical mysticism. The fact is most Chinese don’t spend time thinking or caring about Tibet.
Indeed, when Tibet comes into broader view, as during the protests of 2008, this lack of serious reflection results in bafflement or, more commonly, resentment—resentment at the patent ingratitude of Tibetans for the liberation from slave-like servitude that China granted them. This is not to ignore those Chinese who do dare to reject what the official media and Chinese ultra-nationalism prompt them to think about the issue. They do indeed exist, but they are a terribly small part of the population and to see them as having a role to play in pushing popular sentiment (let alone official policy) in a certain direction is, at least at this moment in time, to misread the nature of civil society in China, as many in the exile community are inclined to do.
It is for this reason that the projection of Tibetan hopes onto the phenomena of visible Chinese protests—the perception that these protests are opening up a space for greater Tibetan freedom—has serious failings. Protests within the PRC—and there are many—are indeed striking. But Tibetans who think that they may foreshadow the growth of a Chinese society predicated on broad notions of justice and human rights that will work towards addressing the aspirations of Tibetans are misjudging much of their context.
Local protests in China are most commonly rooted in specific local issues; they are fundamentally different from protests that involve nationality issues and nationality discontents. Setting aside those few, brave souls who do look beyond their own group interests and raise their voices in support of broad human rights issues (and again, there are such people in China), the sort of civil society backing for issues that transcend the personal interests of particular protestors is still extremely weak. Broad white support for the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s was crucial to its progress in that era. Nothing similar exists in terms of Chinese support for Tibet in today’s China.
As already noted, delusion—self-delusion—was bound up with the utter failure of the MWA from an early point. The inability to see clearly—i.e., “to see what is in front of one’s nose”—actually allowed China to drag out the negotiation process on which the Dalai Lama and his government had placed all their bets since the late 1970s. Nothing has come of the process, but from the 1980s into the first years of the 21st century the standard explanation from the Tibetan leadership was that China simply didn’t understand that the Dalai Lama was not seeking independence. And so, especially in the 1990s, the Dalai Lama and his representatives repeatedly insisted to a variety of international leaders and political figures that the Dalai Lama did not want independence (and in doing so specifically painted Rangzen as an extremist position).
For its part, China simply availed itself of the naïveté in all this, asserting that the Dalai Lama’s rejection of independence was insincere; that he needed to restate his position sincerely. And he obliged, repeatedly and in all sorts of forums. Given the taint attached to China's incorporation of Tibet into its territory in 1951, and to Chinese spokespersons’ lack of credibility, the Dalai Lama was unwittingly turned into the prime spokesperson against Tibetan independence, to the benefit of China.
All the while the Tibetan leadership continued to explain China’s demands for repeated renunciations of independence by saying that China simply didn’t understand him, which was transparently ludicrous. With legions of officials working on Tibetan affairs in Beijing, one can rest assured that each word of the Dalai Lama’s was and continues to be carefully parsed. It is the Dalai Lama’s exile government, short on resources and talent, which was hard-pressed to understand China and Chinese policies. It seems that it took several years for the realization to finally sink in that the entire exercise was intended by China to fill the time until the Dalai Lama’s demise with meaningless moves, after which China would (as it had long ago decided) choose its own Dalai Lama.
Unfortunately, experience has not stopped delusional hopes from constant regeneration. A few months ago there was a flurry of optimistic comment when a minor figure in China raised the prospect of the Dalai Lama being allowed to visit Hong Kong. That was followed by breathless reports of permission for Tibetans in certain areas being officially permitted to display the Dalai Lama’s image in temples boding a major shift in Chinese policy towards Tibet. In both cases any hopes raised by these reports were proven empty.
This desire to see great changes in Chinese policy just over the horizon is a natural part of the Middle Way Approach’s general divorce from reality. Closely related to it has been a persistent grasping at straws in an attempt to see positive signs within the Chinese leadership. This goes back at least to the 1990s, when the Dalai Lama was in the habit of referring to Deng Xiaoping as his old friend. If Deng knew of this, he must have been bemused (or baffled) by such professions of friendship. Suffice it to say, it is hard to imagine what sort of amity this was intended to denote. Certainly the two had met. But “friends”? Did they visit each other’s homes? Talk over personal matters with each other? Discuss, perhaps, Deng’s commanding role in the 1950 invasion of Tibet? It is hard to imagine anything of the sort, but such comments about Deng Xiaoping make later hopes on the part of the exile community understandable, even if they were lacking in logic. Thus, the accession of Hu Jintao to party and governmental leadership in China was accompanied by comments that Hu’s tenure in Tibet—during a period marked by bouts of undeniably brutal repression, no less!—was a good sign, for he would bring an awareness of Tibet to his work. Unsurprisingly, the awareness of Tibet that he brought did not encompass any desire to come to terms with Tibetan aspirations.
But that didn’t delay the next bout of delusionary delirium. With the succession to power of Xi Jinping another set of rhapsodic hopes were added to the fantasy landscape. In this one, a positive change in Chinese policy, even acceptance of the Middle Way Approach was a hoped for possibility. This, it was explained, was because Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, a highly placed member of China’s revolutionary generation, was being described by more than a few Tibetan exiles as having been a good friend of the Dalai Lama; again, one has to ask: whatever can the word “friend” mean in such cases? In any event, the continuing (indeed, intensifying) repression in Tibet under Xi Jinping has made the question irrelevant.
Finally, we might end with a current bit of self-delusion, the insistence that the Tibetan leadership can make progress by explaining to China’s rulers that the autonomy provisions of China’s constitution and laws are fully consonant with the Middle Way Approach; as if those in power in Beijing were unaware of the intricacies of their country’s laws and its constitution, or (even better) unaware of their ultimate authority to interpret those documents in whatever way they prefer that they be interpreted.
The exile leadership’s approach is to bring the broad Tibetan exile community to believe that: a) if they teach China’s leaders what’s in their laws Tibetans can achieve “genuine autonomy” and; b) the exile government is actually seeking “genuine autonomy.” Actually, as described by Lobsang Sangay all the Tibetan exile leadership is asking for is a cosmetic change: the placement of Tibetan faces in leading positions within the local Communist Party in Tibet. They are explicitly not seeking the implementation of democratic practices (which, after all, would be the only way that anything qualified to be called “genuine autonomy” could function).
So perhaps the elite sector of the exile establishment is a bit less delusional after all. But only a bit. They still seem to think that demonstrations of supine cravenness will elicit engagement from China. Indeed, one can say that the pursuit of feckless policy options has become a permanent, unchangeable posture. The exile establishment has calcified into an entity that exists for the sole purpose of perpetuating itself.
ELLIOT SPERLING was the director of the Tibetan Studies program at Indiana University’s department of Central Eurasia Studies. Among others he wrote for the New York Times and the Far Eastern Economic and he is the author of “The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics”. A historian, Sperling has written many essays on Tibetan history and Sino-Tibetan relations. He is a widely-cited expert on Tibet and its relationship with China.
Elliot Sperling died in January 2017 at the age of 66.
- Elliot Sperling, scholar of Tibet and China history, dead at 66 – Rod Meade Sperry
- Remembering Elliot Sperling: Personal Reflections on a Public Loss – Tenzin Dorje
- A Chronicle of Elliot Sperling – Tsering Woeser
- Dorjee, Tenzin (2017) “Obituary: Elliot Sperling (1951-2017),” HIMALAYA, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies: Vol. 37 : No. 1 , Article 33.
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