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Lobsang Sangay's response to Elliot Sperling (2)

August 25, 2009

Lobsang Sangay
August 23, 2009

After reading Elliot Sperling’s assertion that I
may not have read Ma Rong’s paper, at first I
felt it would be a waste of time to respond.
However, the fact he could make such an
unsubstantiated allegation prompted me to suspect
that Sperling’s claim that Dharamsala does not
know anything about China was made without
substantiation as well. Unfortunately this turns
out to be true. For this reason, I decided that
it would be useful for me to respond to his claims.

First of all, let me make it clear that not only
had I read Ma Rong’s paper, but I also knew about
the debate first-hand. Several people engaged in
the debate are friends who both previewed and
reviewed the debate. Sperling, on the other hand,
indicated that he learned of it only through
secondary sources (Woeser’s blog). Given our past
contact and association, Sperling should have
known that I do keep close tabs on China and
Tibet through my friends from Lhasa to Beijing.

Sperling in his first column stated, "The debate
that Ma Rong opened up in April is of critical
importance to China's Tibet policy. But no one in
Dharamsala seems to have noticed.”(emphasis
added). Sperling made this the central point in
his argument and projected Dharamsala to be in
the dark ages, that both the Tibetan government
and NGOs have no clue about developments in China.

Given the seriousness of this allegation, I
talked to people in Dharamsala and, lo and
behold, Sperling seems to have used his
imagination to reach such an outlandish conclusion.

People with whom I talked include Tsegyam Ngaba
(Private Office), Dawa Tsering (Taiwan Office),
Tsering Wangchuk and Tashi Gyamtso (Kashag),
Kelsang Gyaltsen (MP, Tibetan Parliament),
Phurbya Tsering (Research and Analysis,
Security), Kunga Tashi (Office of Tibet, NY) and
Sangay Kyap (China Desk, DIIR).

After discussions with each of these talented
Tibetans, the following details emerged:

1) They all have read Ma Rong’s paper, and
continue to follow the ongoing debate about
nationalities in China. In fact they have
insightful documents authored by scholars inside
and outside China, critiquing Ma Rong. They all
disagree with Ma Rong’s argument that the right
of minorities is the problem; rather, these
Tibetans believe that the lack of implementation
is a cause of resentment and all of them see
assimilation as one of the main factors for uprisings in Tibet.

2) Yes, each of these Tibetans do monitor
developments in China on a daily basis and
compile documents and data which they and others
have been doing for a long time.

3) They were trained in the Chinese education
system and are well versed in Chinese language
and Chinese politics and policies. Additionally,
they are supported by more than twenty staff.

4) Except for one, none of them knows Elliot Sperling.

5) Sperling did not meet with or discuss Ma
Rong’s paper with any one of them, except Sangay
Kyap, with whom Elliot had a brief encounter-- but not about Ma Rong.

Every knowledgeable person in Dharamsala knows
these people to be the main
contacts/experts/staff on China and Chinese
literature. Without meeting any one of them, for
Sperling to allege that “no one in Dharamsala
seems to have noticed” (Ma Rong’s paper and debate) is simply mind boggling.

Is Sperling so condescending that he didn’t think
it worthwhile to talk to these dedicated Tibetans?

I agree with Sperling that not knowing about Ma
Rong’s paper and the debate would be a poor
commentary on any employee of the TGIE or
activist, as the debate was summarized by Woeser
on her blog in Chinese and also through her
weekly program in RFA with Tenzin Dolkar la, and
in English in the must-read website In addition,
NGOs in Dharamsala and outside also provide
Tibetan and English translations of important
literature published in Chinese, including Ma Rong’s paper.

I have refrained from responding to Sperling’s
comments on the envoys because that is not my
area of engagement. My earlier rejoinder was to
criticize Elliot for bundling me with the envoys,
and for his condescending attitude towards
Tibetans in Dharamsala. Personally, I respect
Sperling as a historian and accordingly, I have
invited him several times to speak about history
at my conferences at Harvard. Criticism is always
welcome as it helps any government or movement
become stronger, provided it is constructive, substantial and substantiated.
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