Democracy takes fragile root on China’s edge

Democracy takes fragile root on China’s edge

JIE CHEN sees similarities between Tibet and Taiwan in the Tibetan government-in-exile’s struggle to democratise.

At the invitation of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA)—better known as the Tibetan government-in-exile—I recently joined several overseas-based Chinese scholars on a visit to the CTA’s headquarters in Dharamsala, India.

We were warmly received by senior CTA members and some cabinet (kashag) ministers of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile keen to show us their achievements and provide us with an alternative history of Tibet. We were briefed extensively on the progress of democratisation among Tibetan exiles and the development of political checks and balances. Officials proudly explained how their Sikyong, or CTA leader, and members of their parliament-in-exile are now directly elected by exiled Tibetans, who number about 250,000 around the world, with about 120,000 based in India.

The Dalai Lama and me(resize)
The author, Jie Chen, meets the Dalai Lama,

The current Sikyong, Dr Lobsang Sangay, a Harvard law graduate, struck me as competent, and self-confident. As prime minister, the Sikyong has assumed substantial executive authority since the Dalai Lama’s dramatic move, in 2011, to relinquish political authority in order to concentrate on his role as spiritual leader, thus making the exiled regime function less like a traditional Tibetan theocracy.

But the climax of our visit was an intimate chat with the Dalai Lama himself (see picture). The ‘living god’ of Tibetan Buddhism spoke eloquently about his reincarnation, as well as about more worldly issues such as democracy and human rights.

In trying to conceptualise the democratisation of an exile entity, and make sense of it, I recalled an earlier visit to another new democracy on the edge of Greater China: Taiwan. In 1997, a pro-Kuomintang youth organisation invited me to join another group of overseas-based Chinese scholars on a visit Taiwan to witness the progress of democratisation on the island. Again, we were warmly received by officials and, on this occasion, taken to the Legislative Yuan—Taiwan’s unicameral legislative chamber—and inducted into its electoralmechanisms.

It occurred to me on my recent visit to Dharamsala that comparing the democratisation of Taiwan with that of exiled Tibetans could help highlight the uniqueness of Tibet’s predicament—and its strength. This idea was reinforced by a more recent visit to Taipei, shortly after my trip to Dharamsala.

The Dalai Lama and Kuomintang governments both fled their own homeland under attack from the People’s Liberation Army. The Dalai Lama went into exile in a foreign land and, while the Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek did not see Taiwan as a foreign land, many Taiwanese regarded his regime as alien.

The fact that the CTA is, purely and simply, a government-in-exile, and that the Kuomintang regime in Taiwan was arguably so, has resulted, nevertheless, in important differences in the substance and operation of the two democracies. In Tibetan democracy, all voters are either refugees or foreign citizens. The ‘Taiwanisation’ of the Kuomintang’s Republic of China (ROC), however, has meant that candidates and voters are citizens of their own country.

The CTA is based on exile. Taiwan’s democratisation is developed solidly on its own ground. Whether you could describe Chiang’s regime-in-exile as ‘alien’, Taiwanisation, nevertheless, laid the foundation for democratisation. ‘Indianisation’, however, would not make sense for the CTA. Taiwan’s elected government actually governs, but the elected officials of the CTA deal only with Tibetan refugees in foreign countries. Little wonder, with such floating and loose constituencies, there are no Tibetan political parties. In fact, the Tibetan cause is partly a transnational social movement, involving tens of thousands of activists in Western civil societies, with Dharamsala as the secretariat or headquarters.

Even though the CTA itself has achieved democratisation, the Dalai Lama continues to advocate a ‘middle road’ of seeking autonomy within China’s constitutional framework—a sort of Himalayan version of the ‘one country, two systems’ policy that applies to Hong Kong. On the other hand, even the new Kuomintang elite have used Taiwan’s democratic achievements to highlight the ROC’s fundamental difference from the People’s Republic—by trying to legitimise the coexistence of ‘two Chinas’. There is no urge to return to the homeland, for Taiwan is the homeland—a luxury denied to Tibetan exiles.

International pressure

Despite the religious trappings around the political development of the Tibetan government-in-exile, its democratisation—like Taiwan’s—has closely followed the major turns in Sino–US relations, as well as China’s rising diplomatic power and the global wave of democratisation in the post-Soviet era. Both entities have been pushed by international pressure to democratise in order to win more Western support.

The major difference is that the Taiwanese actively campaigned for democracy and capitalised on the ROC’s precarious international status. In Tibet’s case, it would be unthinkable for Tibetans, inside or outside the country, to push the Dalai Lama to democratise. The exercise of democracy in Dharamsala’s ‘little Tibet’ may have been driven mostly by the Dalai Lama’s ability to judge international political and moral trends in order to survive amidst great power rivalry.

While comparing Tibet and Taiwan may be seen as comparing chalk and cheese, the two entities, interestingly, are increasingly identifying with each other.

Officials in Taipei and Dharamsala like to claim that their system is the first and only democracy in the history of their nation. Democratisation has certainly increased their soft power, but in Tibet’s case, the Dalai Lama with his personal charisma, religious wisdom and status as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate arguably remains the main source of soft power.

The current Dalai Lama—compared to his 13 predecessors, or even his reincarnations—is no ordinary spiritual leader. He has reigned through the Pacific War, the Chinese Civil War, the Cold War and the post-Cold War era. In the 1950s, he rubbed shoulders with Mao Zedong and Xi Zhongxun (father of the current Chinese leader, Xi Jinping), and befriended many American presidents and other Western leaders. He is often treated as a rock star when visiting some Western cities—something a Taiwanese leader could only dream about.

However, the profile of the Dalai Lama, and his status as a spiritual leader, cuts both ways. In the eyes of Tibetans, the worship of him legitimises the system he cares to install, whereas Taiwan’s secular democracy constantly has to prove its legitimacy through regular elections. Without the current 80-year old Dalai Lama, Tibetan democracy—and the Tibetan cause at large—would be very different.

While comparing Tibet and Taiwan may be seen as comparing chalk and cheese, the two entities, interestingly, are increasingly identifying with each other. Even Beijing has noticed it, condemning the ‘collusion’ between the ‘Dalai clique’ and Taiwan’s independence sentiment.

A Tibetan youth leader in Dharamsala told me that Tibetans have held rallies in support of the students of Hong Kong and Taiwan demonstrating against China, and to commemorate the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989.

On my recent visit to Freedom Square in Taipei to witness the Tiananmen memorial service, I was moved by the Tibetan and Hong Kong speakers, and by the activities of Tibet support groups formed by Taiwanese students. Regardless of the different sentiments towards a ‘one China’ policy at the formal governmental level, activists from Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong argued that human rights and democracy are universal values.

In that sense, their solidarity is not something forced to the edges of Greater China, but a pointer to the future of the entire Chinese nation.

Main photo:
Dharamsala temple bazaar.

Jie Chen is an associate professor in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Western Australia.

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