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A Response to Lobsang Sangay

August 4, 2009

By Elliot Sperling
August 3, 2009

Lobsang Sangay's rejoinder to my op-ed from the
Times of India actually makes my primary point
rather neatly, even if he himself never gets
around to engaging with it in his rush to make
the distracting charges that I am both what he
calls an "Orientalist" and at the same time
someone who's afraid to criticize China. Apart
from the silliness of these charges (he must
assume Phayul readers have never read anything by
me on China) might one not suppose them to be,
perhaps, mutually exclusive? Actually, Lobsang
Sangay is really complaining about the act of a
Westerner (me) criticizing the TGIE, rather than
about the content of that criticism. And such
complaints favor incompetent people who pursue
ineffective policies. They do nothing to advance
the ability of Tibetans to gain full control over
their national destiny; indeed, they obstruct it.

The main point of my op-ed was that the
TGIE-including its experts and representatives-is
oblivious to the importance of direct knowledge
of the body of interpretive literature
surrounding China's regional nationality laws. In
that regard I pointed specifically to Ma Rong's
April piece on the issue, which Lobsang Sangay
brushes aside, saying "an English version of his
article was published in 2007." As should have
been obvious from the brief reference I gave to
its contents in my op-ed-as well as from Woeser's
posting of the essay (one may see also
for the final version, released April 19, 2009)
the piece is informed by (among other things) the
Tibetan risings of 2008 and developments in the
U.S., specifically the election of Barack Obama
in November of that year, and culminates with a
particularly strong call for scrapping
nationality autonomous regions altogether. This
2009 (and definitely not 2007) Chinese-language
essay reflects, as Woeser pointed out in her
post, very important recent developments in
Chinese thinking on the whole question of
regional nationality autonomy. To get the whole
gist of it, one would need to have read it.
Lobsang Sangay apparently has not, and his
dismissal of a need to do so by reference to an
English-language article exemplifies the whole
problem, which is not just a question of one or
another article. It's a question of the TGIE
being unwilling to see the need for access to the
full body of available, relevant Chinese-language
documents in print and on the web. And that
access, it goes without saying, also requires the
ability to read said documents.

Lobsang Sangay responds to this basic point with
silence, as if he were unaware of the issue
raised. He doesn't assert that Dharamsala
actually has the requisite databases and books,
or that the people in question can read them.
Neither does he deny that the databases and
books, as well as language competence, are
vitally necessary for dealings with China. My
guess-and it's only a guess-is that he doesn't
want to face the embarrassment of admitting the
former, or the ridicule that would greet an assertion of the latter.

So he tries to change the subject with bluster
and thrashing. I do indeed have no expertise
whatsoever in jurisprudence-one of the straws he
grasps at-but then again I have no expertise in
chemistry either. Still, I can tell when a school
has no science laboratories and the faculty is
ignorant of the periodic table. He mentions his
broad theoretical legal research, which may be
all well and good, but it's irrelevant to the
issue at hand if it ignores the large body of
Chinese writing on nationality autonomy.

If one can imagine a Western dharma student who,
having read the biography of Milarepa and some
related works in English, pays a call on a
particularly learned Tibetan monk and then
begins, oblivious of the sea of Tibetan religious
literature but with great self-assuredness,
expounding the dharma to the monk, one may start
to see what I'm getting at (and what Lobsang
Sangay seems not to have understood).
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