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Tibetans in exile will elect the new president in April. The leader will need fresh thinking and expertise to navigate the challenges ahead.
The 150,000 Tibetans in exile represent only 2% of the Tibetan population — about 6.3 million remain in China — but have nevertheless placed significant damage to China’s standing at home and abroad. In January, 77% of the exile electorate cast their votes in the first round of elections for the next leader of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), based in Dharamsala, India.
The only woman in the race, Dolma Gyari, came third, leaving two remaining contenders, Penpa Tsering, former speaker of the exile assembly, and Kelsang Dorjee Aukatsang, special adviser to current leader Lobsang Sangay. In April, the second round of elections will decide who will manage the CTA’s US$45 million annual budget, the 3000–4000 Tibetans who work for the administration, and some 70 schools, 20 businesses, and 46 settlements in India, Nepal, and Bhutan.
The incoming leader will take office at a crucial moment. The current Dalai Lama, who gave up his political role in 2011, is entering his 86th year just as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rise has marked an assimilationist turn in Beijing’s approach to Tibetans and other non-ethnic Chinese nationalities. At the same time, there has been a dramatic rise in China–India tensions along the Tibetan border, a major increase in restrictions on people and information traveling to and from Tibet, and a sharp drop in reports of protests within the region.
Lobsang Sangay has had some success since taking office in 2011. His team secured an annual commitment of US$9 million and a US$23 million grant from the U.S. Congress to support the exile community. Sangay also gained publicity for the exiles through his travels and interviews in Western countries, and the U.S. Congress passed two supportive pieces of legislation during his tenure.
But Sangay had no success in the exiles’ primary objective: persuading China to allow Tibet a “high degree of autonomy” in return for the Dalai Lama accepting Chinese sovereignty over his former country. This aim has always been ambitious, since China insists it has already given Tibetans autonomy, refuses to accept even the exiles’ definition of Tibet, and continually increases its demands — it now insists Tibetans declare that China has held sovereignty over Tibet “since ancient times,” a demand that few Tibetans (or historians) could swallow.
The first problem facing the new leader is how to restart talks with Beijing. None have taken place since 2010. In this respect, Sangay has faced some difficulties. He began his campaign for office by asserting that his aim was to fly the Tibetan flag over the Potala, contradicting the exiles’ claimed objective of autonomy. He then called on Beijing to hold talks with him personally — anathema to China’s position of not recognizing any exile governments — and in 2012 suffered the abrupt resignation of the CTA’s most experienced diplomat, Lodi Gyari. Gyari’s departure severed a major line of access to Beijing and left a vacuum of skills and capacity within the exile leadership just as China was growing more powerful.
Given the understandable shift of international attention to Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang, Sangay’s strategy has been to present the level of abuses in Tibet as comparable to that in Xinjiang. While there are abusive and concerning policies in Tibet, there is no evidence of Xinjiang-style mass detention there, and recent reports of extra-legal labor camps appear to have been speculation.
This leaves the exiles with some difficult choices, revolving primarily around how to build alliances on more substantive grounds than appeals for sympathy from the United States and other Western countries. That approach saw considerable success in the late 1980s and late 1990s, but risks reinforcing Chinese perceptions of Tibetans as insincere and as stalking horses for Cold War antagonists, a perception that was likely not assuaged by the recent Congressional legislation or by Sangay widely publicizing his meetings with Trump administration officials in their final days in office.
The challenge for the exiles will be to shift from media and legislature-based campaigning to detailed, pragmatic strategies demonstrating shared interests with governments, thus converting rhetorical support into substantive political capital. In particular, relations need to be deepened with India’s leaders, whose support over the long term could prove more significant than Washington’s in enabling talks with Beijing. But, while India’s hospitality towards the exiles has been unwavering, its strategic interests generally converge with those of the exiles only when its relations with China sour. The opportunities these tensions create are often short-lived. A strategy needs to be developed that is seen by New Delhi as benefiting its interests in foul or fair weather.
Another diplomatic focus is on winning China over through backchannel diplomacy. This will require exceptional diplomatic and analytical expertise on the part of the exiles. Since neither the incumbent nor the leadership contenders speak Mandarin or have lived in China, they will need advisers with deep knowledge of Chinese politics and language. Above all, as other Tibetans proposed long ago, the Dalai Lama should be asked to resume leadership of the talks process.
These strategic questions pivot around a single priority: surviving the coming succession crisis. China claims the sole right to select the next Dalai Lama and its plans are well advanced — according to a source within Tibet, on January 12, China launched a 25-person “Preparatory Small Group” in Lhasa to oversee arrangements for selecting the next Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama is yet to announce his own succession plan. More importantly, India’s vision of the exiles’ future in a post-Dalai Lama world remains unknown. In addition, some 56% of Tibetan exiles formerly living in India have reportedly relocated to Western countries since the 1990s, dispersing and fragmenting the community.
If not addressed effectively, these factors could gravely weaken the exile project and minimize its impact in Beijing. Sixty years after fleeing their country, Tibetan exiles and their new leader will need fresh thinking and expertise to navigate the challenges ahead.
Robert Barnett is a Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and a former director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University. His recent edited volumes include Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution (University of Nebraska Press, 2020) and Conflicting Memories: Tibet Under Mao Retold (Brill, 2020).
Allen Carlson is Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University, Michael J Zak Chair of History for US–China Relations and Director of Cornell’s Brittany and Adam J Levinson ’92 China and Asia-Pacific Studies Program (CAPS).
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