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Tibetan leader holds hope China can learn from Canada

December 3, 2012

by Stephanie Nolen in New Delhi

December 3, 2012 - China should look at Canada’s example to allay its fears of Tibetan aspirations for freedom, the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile says.

In an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail, Lobsang Sangay, a Tibetan refugee and legal scholar, expressed cautious hope that the change of leadership in China next spring will start to reverse increasingly hardline policies toward Tibet. There is a “basis” for optimism, he says, even though China is going through a period of rising nationalism.

Mr. Sangay also lamented the “desperate” protests against Chinese rule that have taken shape in a wave of self-immolations by Tibetan monks, but said those acts reflect the environment of repression in which Tibetans live.

Mr. Sangay was elected last year as Sikyong, or prime minister, of the exiled Tibetan government based in Dharamsala in northern India. In that post, he has taken over management of the diaspora’s political affairs from the Dalai Lama and in effect now heads the Tibetan campaign for autonomy. He spoke to The Globe after the first group of Tibetans were chosen to immigrate to Canada next year, under a government that may bring to Canada up to 1,000 Tibetan refugees now living in India.

Q. How are you feeling about the new leadership in Beijing, installed at the 18th Congress of the Communist Part a few weeks ago, and what do you think it may mean for Tibet?

A. I think it’s too early to say. Of the seven leaders, most of them are in their mid-60s. ... So in the 19th Congress there will be more wholesale changes – the 18th Congress is a continuation of the same people from the 16th and 17th. So if you are really looking for real changes you have to wait for the 19th. The likelihood of continuing the same policy is high. Particularly the fact that some of the more “liberal” people, who are of younger age and more open-minded, were not included … We might get some hint when Xi Jinping takes over the presidency in March of next year … He will give a speech and that’s where he will indicate his line of thinking. Otherwise it’s so opaque.

Q. The Dalai Lama has suggested he is optimistic about Mr. Xi Jinping, perhaps because he had a warm relationship with Mr. Xi’s father.

A. Optimism is too strong. As a human being you should always remain hopeful. Optimism you have some basis for. Xi Jinping is the son of [former Chinese deputy premier] Xi Zhongxun, who received His Holiness in Beijing in 1954 and was with His Holiness many times, and His Holiness gave him a watch that he kept even during the Cultural Revolution and after. They took a picture and Xi Zhongxun saved it … so it seems the [warm feeling towards the Dalai Lama] was genuine … Xi Zhongxun also had a close relationship with the late Panchen Lama … and he would tell him, ‘Have patience, don’t get angry, things will take time to change.’

Q. So there is a history of these personal ties – does that make you a little bit hopeful?

A. For any leader to make any decision you have to have the familiarity with the issue because it’s a judgment call, and if you know the issue well and if you are familiar with it, it becomes easier to sort through the issue and make a decision. Xi Jinping’s father was a supporter of Hu Yaobang, the most liberal Chinese leader … and he supported him until the end, he was the last man standing with Hu Yaobang. So now the big question is, Will the son be like the father?

There are a lot of dynamics happening inside China. There is this nationalism on the rise and military adventurism in the South-China Sea, and then market forces driving China towards one goal and yet socially people are becoming more assertive, more open and more free, social networking is taking place. And yet politically, instead of advancing, they have retrenched in many ways, especially on Tibet. They have maintained hardline policies, and imposed more hardline policies – there is some movement on many trends but on Tibet there is backwards movement.

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