Tibetans have a new political leader. Here’s what to expect
After a four-month voting process that saw 83,000 Tibetan refugees around the world cast their ballots, 54-year-old Penpa Tsering, a former speaker of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, was declared the community’s new political leader.
Tsering’s election as the new head of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) – as the parliamentary government based in Dharamshala, India, is known – comes at a time when Tibetans have grown increasingly vocal in their opposition to China, from joining calls from US lawmakers and activists for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics next year because of alleged human rights violations, to asking New Delhi to boycott goods and services from mainland China.
This has coincided with greater support from Washington for the Tibetan refugee community, who number an estimated 130,000 worldwide, though about half of them live in India.
In December, the US Congress approved the Tibet Policy and Support Act, which backs the Dalai Lama on the issue of appointing his successor and calls for establishing a US consulate in Lhasa, in Tibet. The European Union has also implicitly backed the Dalai Lama’s position by saying that it “expects China to respect” his decision.
Tsering’s predecessor, Lobsang Sangay, was a vocal critic of Beijing during his 10-year tenure. Last November, he became the first Tibetan political leader to be hosted at the State Department where he met Washington’s special coordinator on Tibet. Beijing responded sharply, saying it was an attempt to destabilise Tibet and that it would not allow any interference in the region.
Now, all eyes are on Tsering and the approach he will take to dealing with Beijing, which governs Tibet as an autonomous region of China.
Already, he has listed as his priorities finding a “lasting solution” to the matter of Tibet’s status and facilitating a visit by the Dalai Lama to the region. He will also be in charge of managing the CTA’s US$45 million annual budget, the 3,000 to 4,000 Tibetans who work for the administration, and some 70 schools, 20 businesses and 46 settlements in India, Nepal and Bhutan, according to a commentary by researchers Robert Barnett and Allen Carlson published on the East Asia Forum website in March.
Jigme Yeshe, an assistant professor at the University of Calcutta’s department of political science, said Tsering’s main aim was to restart dialogue with Beijing and hence he might not be too strident in his criticism.
“He is a much more experienced administrator and has enormous political clout, so he’s likely to try and engage in a lot of backchannel diplomacy with Beijing as well as other countries,” Yeshe said.
In an interview last month with Indian magazine The Week, before he was declared leader, Tsering said he wanted to restart talks with Beijing – more than 10 years after they had stalled – to fulfil the Dalai Lama’s wish to visit Tibet. Beijing views the 85-year-old exiled spiritual leader, and 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, as a separatist causing social unrest.
Yeshe, however, said the chances of Beijing allowing such a visit were bleak, given its stance that the Dalai Lama should “give up his attempt to split the country”. Last week, the Global Times, a tabloid affiliated with the People’s Daily, quoted Zhu Weiqun, a Chinese politician who was part of the talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives, saying “no matter what happens in the Tibetan government-in-exile”, Beijing was unlikely to change its stance on issues connected to Tibet.
All this meant that Tsering’s administration faced an uphill challenge, said Yeshe. “The Dalai Lama’s age being a factor, all politicians-in-exile will focus on facilitating this visit. [But] all these are hurdles that will be difficult to overcome for them.”
Tsering has also made clear his intent to lobby foreign governments and the United Nations to support the struggle for Tibet’s freedom while highlighting the living conditions of Tibetans, where rights groups say repressive religious policies are being implemented.
In a five-page document released last year, Tsering urged Tibetans to unite under his leadership and said: “All our energies will be directed at our common opponent – the [People’s Republic of China] through new ways and means to achieve our common objective.”
Many in the community, however, believe that the approach Tsering eventually takes will depend on Beijing’s response to his overtures.
According to Lobsang Wangyal, a journalist and editor of Tibet Sun, a news website that closely reports on the community, Tsering might also seek to leverage increased hostilities in the West against Beijing.
The CTA, as government-in-exile, realises “fully that Tibet is a prickly issue for China,” Wangyal said.
He pointed to Tsering’s past role as the Dalai Lama’s representative to the US, adding that Tsering might rely on his influence among Democrat lawmakers to push the Biden administration to adopt harder stances. “Tsering can hit the right notes with the Biden administration,” Wangyal added.
Yeshe, the academic, said that the CTA is likely to get along better with the Biden administration. “We should expect the two administrations to work closely on issues like democracy, human rights and cultural and religious freedom inside Tibet,” he said.
However, even Tsering’s efforts might be seen as not hardline enough for those in the community who want a tougher approach than the Dalai Lama’s “middle way”, which favours greater autonomy for Tibet instead of full independence.
Many, especially younger, Tibetans no longer agree with this stance. This friction was on display during the recent polls, when many young, first-time candidates ran to be elected to the parliament-in-exile and publicly demanded “complete independence” from China.
Among them was 39-year-old Tenzin Jigdal, an international coordinator at the International Tibet Network, a coalition of more than 120 Tibetan organisations working human rights issues. Jigdal, who won a seat as a representative of the province of Dhotoe, said that while he backed Tsering’s move to re-initiate talks with Beijing “because every effort will be welcome”, he was not confident dialogue would result in a positive outcome.
Instead, he wants what he calls a more “strategic approach” that involves aggressive campaigning for Tibet, while nudging Delhi to adopt a tougher stance against Beijing. But while there is domestic support for Delhi to use Tibet as a diplomatic tool against Beijing amid their border dispute, it is unclear if India, which is in the throes of a Covid-19 surge that looks set to derail a nascent economic recovery after last year’s lockdowns, will take up the cause.
Still, Jigdal believes that India as “the moral compass of democracy in Asia” would take on China.
“We need to pick issues that are affecting the Tibetan communities but are or will also affect India, from the dams that China wants to construct upstream to the Belt and Road Initiative,” said Jigdal, referring to Beijing’s flagship infrastructure scheme to boost global connectivity. India has raised concerns that several of its neighbours are part of the belt and road plan, as it represents China’s growing presence in what has traditionally been its own sphere of influence.