By Lobsang Sangay
Elliot Sperling’s column, “Autonomy? Think Again”, (Times of India July 20th 2009) proves him functionally illiterate on legal jurisprudence. His condescending attitude of knowing it all while Dharamsala knows nothing would have Edward Said rolling over in his grave. His self-censorship also hints of Perry Link's anaconda in the chandelier.
On the one hand, Sperling argues that the Dalai Lama’s efforts to assert the Tibet issue within the framework of the Chinese constitution is fantasy because the Communist government does not take law seriously but merely as a dispensable tool to serve its political ends. On the other hand, he asserts that the debate (on the Chinese Constitution) that Ma Rong opened up in April (actually March) is of critical importance to China’s Tibet policy. If the Chinese Government does not take law seriously, then who cares what kind of debate Ma Rong initiated? If what Sperling said is true, then the Chinese Government can simply scrap the present minority law. Why even debate, if law is simply a tool to be dispensed at will? The fact that Sperling argues the critical importance (emphasis added) of the debate itself is an acknowledgment of the relevance of law.
Sperling cites Ma Rong’s reasoning that China’s Autonomy Law encourages minorities to exclude others from their regions, and privilege their own languages, religions and practices that differentiates them from others. In short, "the current system leaves minorities with little or no sense that they are Chinese." In that sense, Dharamsala's efforts to package the Tibet issue within the Nationality Law seems to have been validated because the memorandum on autonomy makes similar argument and ask its full implementation to preserve and protect Tibetan identity and distinct internal governance.
When Sperling bundles me with envoys Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, he exposes his lack of understanding of legal jurisprudence. First of all, I don't reinforce the exile government’s view and in a few forums with Elliot Sperling himself, I have presented critical analysis of the negotiation efforts under satiric titles as "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Waiting for God." Furthermore, he knows very well that I am familiar with Ma Rong, and debated with him about Tibet on many occasions, including conferences at Harvard that both Ma and Elliot attended. Actually, Ma Rong's view is not new, an English version of his article was published in 2007 which also proves Sperling is Johnny come lately on this issue.
If Elliot had read my writings, then he would have seen my analysis of the situation in Tibet more as an exposure of contradictions and violations based on the Chinese constitution. For example, in an article titled "China's National Autonomy Law and Tibet: A Paradox between Autonomy and Unity," I argued that whenever there is a clash between autonomy and unity, more often than not unity trumps autonomy and thereby exposing the illegitimacy of autonomy.
Contrary to Sperling’s simplistic label, my personal analysis of Chinese law is premised on Vaclav Havel’s seminal work "The Power of the Powerless," the bible of the Eastern European revolution. Havel argues that authoritarian regimes, no matter how cruel and oppressive, use law to justify their actions because legality is important to legitimize their lies. Hence the power of the powerless is to use the same law to assert their rights. Doing so will either force the regime to implement its law, thereby winning rights for the victims, or will expose regime's lie, thereby undermining its legality and legitimacy: a win-win proposition.
Advocacy of law as a strategy was comprehensively illustrated by Vaclav Havel among others in the Charter' 77, the foundation for revolution in the Eastern European countries. Its Chinese incarnation, signed by thousands of Chinese intellectuals, including the brave Tibetan poet activist Woeser, is Charter' 08, which advocates legal reforms. Similarly, Chinese lawyers’ unprecedented report on the Tibetan uprising in 2008 and representing Tibetan political prisoners and in one case freeing a prisoner (monk Jigme Gyatso) are examples of the power of the powerless. Hence it is imperative to recognize distinct usages of Chinese laws and debates within China at various levels.
Perry Link has written that scholars practice self-censorship by not criticizing China for fear of reprisal. Sperling’s article has self-censorship writ large. On the surface, the article appears sympathetic of the Tibetan people, but on closer look, one notices that regarding the Dalai Lama and Dharamsala, Sperling uses terms such as "ignorance, embarrassing fantasies, functionally illiterate, and wander quite blindly." Sperling concludes his piece with irreverent "best of luck with that one, guys." The article does not have a single critical term about the Chinese Government, the Communist Party and Chinese scholars. If his heart bleeds for Tibetans how come he cannot muster even a single term critical of China's policy in Tibet or even on failed talks? Is this simply Orientalism carried too far? Or perhaps Elliot Sperling sees the anaconda in the chandelier.
Dr. Lobsang Sangay, is a Senior Fellow at Harvard Law School. Dr. Sangay earned his Master's and PhD degree from Harvard Law School and in 2006, selected by Asia Society as one of the twenty-four young leaders of Asia.
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