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Election 2011: Investigating Lobsang Sangay's "Obama of China" Statement

October 25, 2010

the Editorial Board
October 21, 2010
The Tibetan Political Review

Thanks to Lobsang Sangay la and Jamyang Norbu la,
the Kalon Tripa race has its first Sarah Palin
incident. Palin, of course, is the defeated 2008
U.S. vice presidential candidate who supposedly
said she had foreign policy experience because
she could “see Russia” from her house in
Alaska.  That gaffe was taken somewhat out of
context to criticize the half-term governor for
her perceived weakness; in her case inexperience.

As readers will be aware, Norbu asserted that
Sangay stated that he wants to be the "Obama of
China."  To some observers, this paraphrase might
suggest that Sangay is over-ambitious or that he lacks political judgment.

While the "Chinese Obama" issue has generated
heated debate, the editors of The Tibetan
Political Review (TPR) believe that a battle of
sound-bites does not contribute to a
well-informed electorate.  Therefore, in order to
fight oversimplification, we set out to determine
what exactly Sangay actually said.  It is our
hope that the facts will encourage voters to
examine the candidates’ policy positions rather
than rely on sensational sound-bites.

Sangay’s Middle Way: Tibetan Integration Into China

Sangay’s response to Norbu was that his "Chinese
Obama" comment "was a JOKE and not meant to be
taken seriously." Based on our research, this is
true. However, in investigating the issue, it
also became apparent that a more important issue
is being overlooked that is not a joke; namely,
Sangay’s proposal for Tibetans to integrate into
the Chinese society and political
system.  Moreover, Sangay has not yet presented
this viewpoint to Tibetan voters.  Voters should
decide for themselves whether or not they agree,
but the issue should be addressed.

The event at which Sangay spoke was a panel
discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a
think-tank in Washington DC, on October 27, 2008
(eight days before the election victory of Barack
Obama). The topic was "China’s Tibet Policy in
the Aftermath of Last Spring’s Unrest." Sangay
suggests that Norbu check the facts with event
participants. Fortunately, an even more reliable
source is available. A TPR contact provided an
audio tape recording of the event (a partial transcript is available here).

Sangay spoke third, after professors Eliot
Sperling and Allen Carlson.  His speech began:

"I thought maybe I can relate Tibet to Obama"  So
60 years after Tibet was occupied by China,
America is on the verge of electing an
African-American president.  Look at the, what
you call, situation in Tibet.  Now can we ask
this question in China: can a Tibetan become the
next president of China?  Or a premier of
China?  One could say it’s impossible, right?"

Sangay’s speech then discussed in detail how
minority representation in the U.S. political
system has been increasing, while in China there
are basically no "minorities" (including
Tibetans) in power at the national or even
regional level.  He also discussed the Chinese
constitution and laws regarding minority rights
and autonomy, arguing that China should enforce its own laws.

He concluded:

"So why I say this?...  [T]he trajectory of
African-Americans, at least the political
representation in the U.S., U.S. government, has
been on the upswing.  As for Tibetans, it is going down"

"Again, bringing Obama and Tibet back together,
you know, China wants to [be a great power like
America].  But maybe China can try to emulate
some good things, some positive things which,
about America as well.  You know, that is
respecting and implementing the principles of
equality, freedom, and justice as far as
African-American representation in U.S. government."

Sangay’s approach is unique.  It transforms the
Tibetan struggle from one for freedom and
self-determination, into one for civil rights and
"representation in -- government."  It differs
from His Holiness’ Middle Way vision, which is
for a distinct and internally autonomous Tibet
able to preserve its unique culture and identity.

In contrast, Sangay’s proposal lays out a vision
in which Tibetans (like African-Americans in the
U.S.) are given equal rights as Chinese citizens,
and become integrated into the social and
political system of the People’s Republic of
China (PRC).  This equality would then, in
theory, allow an ambitious Tibetan to dream of
being elected president of a democratic China.

We agree with Sangay that China should treat its
"minorities" better and that all Chinese citizens
should have equal rights under the law.  However,
minority rights in the U.S. versus China are not
analogous.  Tibet’s history and status are very
different from that of African-Americans in the
U.S.  The PRC does not just discriminate against
minorities on civil rights; it also marginalizes
them by increasing the number of Han Chinese in
ethnic minority areas.  The U.S. minority
population is growing and stands around 25% of
the total population as of the 2000 census,
distributed throughout the country.  In the PRC,
the minority population is less than 10% of the
population, concentrated in certain geographic regions.

Additionally, Sangay’s views expressed at the
Woodrow Wilson Center do not account for the
Chinese tendency to look down on non-Chinese
peoples or cultures ("Han chauvinism"). It also
does not account for most Tibetans probably not
wanting to become Chinese or be seen as Chinese.

Perhaps most troubling, Sangay’s proposal does
not account for limiting Chinese migration into
Tibet.  If China were to treat Tibetans like the
U.S. treats its minorities, then Tibet would have
no right to limit the number of Chinese who
settle in Tibet.  There is no “African-American
autonomous region” in the U.S.  That would mean
that Tibet becomes an integral part of China,
with unlimited Chinese immigration.  This would,
in fact, be the opposite of the Middle Way’s goal
to create a Tibetan political entity where
Tibetans can control their own internal affairs.

Despite these gaps, it is logical to assume that
Sangay has thought through this plan, because it
forms such a prominent part of his speech.  Does
Sangay then accept Tibet integrating politically
into the People’s Republic of China, because this
is a prerequisite for a Tibetan to become
president of China?  Why broach the idea of a
Tibetan leading China, unless the concern is
simply with securing equal rights as Chinese
citizens?  Does Sangay also realize that any
Tibetan who is president of a democratic China
will need the votes of 1.3 billion Chinese more
than the votes of 6 million Tibetans?

Lobsang Sangay’s Conflicting Positions

We would like to know why Sangay has not
presented this position directly to the Tibetan
voters.  Certainly, Sangay’s approach is unique
enough to merit discussion so the voters can make
an informed decision. Voters are entitled to an
explanation from Sangay of a proposal he
apparently made only in the context of a Washington DC think-tank.

Sangay’s position is also in tension with the
position that he tends to express to Tibetan
audiences.  For example, Sangay has written in
Phayul of wanting to "witness the unfurling of
our national flag" on the rooftop of the Potala
Palace." Such a sentiment may be widely shared
among Tibetan voters, but it does not appear
compatible with Sangay’s proposal of Tibetan integration into China.

The question, therefore, is: why does Sangay
present one position to an audience of
policy-makers in Washington DC, and another
position to an audience of Tibetan voters?  The
"Washington DC Sangay" is the Harvard-trained
lawyer transcending nationalism, urging Tibetans
to join the Chinese system and demand equal
rights as Chinese citizens.  The "Dharamsala
Sangay" is the Harvard-trained lawyer who is
still a Tibetan Youth Congress activist at heart.

Although he does not say so, perhaps Sangay
simply believes that Tibet’s political
integration into China is a "third choice" if
independence and autonomy prove impossible?  If
so, this is a position that he has not yet
presented adequately to the Tibetan voters.

As it stands now, political integration appears
incompatible with the "Potala flag" scenario.  We
would appreciate Sangay explaining this apparent
discrepancy, and clarifying precisely where he
stands.  President Obama is a proponent of
telling voters not just what they want to hear,
but what they need to hear.  Obama has put his
faith in voters’ ability to understand nuances at
times even when it has cost him politically.  We
hope that Sangay similarly avoids political
posturing and double-messaging, and trusts the
voters to evaluate objectively his entire set of proposals.

If it were not for Norbu’s article about the
"Chinese Obama" comment, it is entirely possible
that Tibetan voters would not be in a position to
ask these questions.  But we believe these are
questions that must be asked.  Sangay would do
himself and the voters a service to clear things
up.  We formally invite him to respond in this forum.

Any candidate has a right to their views, but the
voters also have a right to evaluate the whole
candidate and not to be presented a
half-picture.  The voters should ensure that they
have thoroughly examined all sides of any
candidate they consider supporting; we strongly
hope that the Tibetan media will take the investigatory lead in this effort.

***          ***          ***

Postscript: The "Chinese Obama" Quote

Finally, voters may be curious whether Sangay
actually claimed he wants to be the “Obama of
China.”  In our view, it does not matter much compared to the above questions.

However, for the record, toward the end of the
event an audience member asked about Jiang
Zemin’s claim that the Chinese “liberation” of
Tibet was equivalent to President Lincoln’s
liberation of African-American slaves. After
Eliot Sperling spoke for several minutes, Sangay added:

"For the sake of time I’ll just say, you know,
now I got an excuse, now, Jiang Zemin said that
their treatment of Tibetans is better than the
American treatments of African-Americans.  Then I
nominate myself as the next president of
China.  At least I have a credential.  Obama is
from law school, Harvard Law School, and I also
graduated from Harvard Law School, you know, so we have si[milarities].”

Sangay claims this was "a JOKE," which it clearly
was.  On the other hand, Sangay’s joke reflected
themes that ran throughout his main speech.  So
it is reasonable for Norbu to place a certain emphasis on it.

Professor Carlson then replied, "Did you edit the
Law Review?" (President Obama edited the
prestigious Harvard Law Review).  Sangay asked
“pardon?” and then replied “I did the human
rights journal. Does that [count]?  Yeah, so.”

Carlson's remark reminds us that Sangay has drawn
parallels between himself and Obama during the
Kalon Tripa debates.  We do not think this serves
Sangay's campaign well, because we do not believe
he does himself a favor by inviting the contrast
between his record and President
Obama's.  Rather, we encourage Sangay to campaign
based on his own substantial record, of which he should be proud.
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