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24th Jun 2018

Tibet leader to EU: Do not believe myth of Chinese supremacy

Tibet's new political leader, Lobsang Sangay, has said EU politicians should not bow to China in the belief it is becoming the next world superpower.

Fresh from a high-profile trip to Washington, Sangay spoke to EUobserver in Brussels on his first tour of EU capitals after the Tibetan diaspora in April voted him prime-minister-in-exile, ending a centuries-old tradition of theocracy under the Dalai Lamas.

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  • Sangay is touring EU capitals after his election earlier this year (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

The 43-year-old Harvard University law scholar, now based in India, said his election heralds a new wave of secular diplomacy on behalf of Tibetan autonomy: "I am a Tibetan and a Buddhist. I know my prayers, but I do not pray for hours each day. I pray from time to time, but I am modern and secular in my orientation."

Sangay on Tuesday (29 November) addressed the European Parliament's foreign affairs committtee, which billed him as the "Prime Minister of the Central Tibetan Administration" despite grumbling by the Chinese EU mission. He met other MEPs and EU officials in an "unofficial capacity", but his interlocutors did not want their names made public after receiving Chinese complaints.

"Before and after such visits, we get letters saying the Tibetans are wolves in sheep's clothing - that kind of stuff ... I hope it doesn't one day come to what happened in South Africa," a parliament official said, referring to South Africa's decision in October to decline a visa for the Dalai Lama.

Asked if he is concerned the EU is going soft on values for the sake of strategic relations, Sangay said EU politicians should not believe the narrative that China is becoming an economic superpower.

He pointed to studies which say the Indian model of organic growth, next to China's model of foreign capital and state-run firms, will see India move ahead of China in the coming years: "As long as a process is democratic and based on rule of law, rather than top-down, there is more chance of its being fair and sustainable. Because of censorship, we do not see the damage [the Chinese government] is doing. We don't understand the ramifications of the economic and political decisions made by the leadership."

Lack of proper oversight on dams built on rivers such as the Brahmaputra and the Mekong could cause environmental chaos in future, he warned.

Political persecution and mass-scale mineral exploitation in Tibet is also causing "a scar on the psyche of the people" that could end in upheaval, he added: "I am not predicting anything, but the Arab Spring also came out of nowhere."

He noted that Chinese statisticians have been caught lying on GDP growth: "The Chinese economy might seem to be booming. But what is really happening on the ground is difficult to asses ... Reports say they are spending $1.4 trillion on an internal stimulus package. But at the same time, China is also spending more on internal security than on external security."

For his part, the spokesman of the Chinese EU mission, Wang Xining, rubbished Sangay's views.

"He's not a 'prime minister of the Tibetan government' because his government is not recognised by any legal state in the world. The only people who call him 'prime minister' do not understand the Tibetan problem," Wang said.

Asked if the sudden increase in self-immolations by Tibetan protesters - 11 this year - is a bad sign, Wang accused Sangay's movement of inciting unrest: "They are encouraging young people to do this. About one hour after it happens, images are put on their website. The so-called Tibetan government is behind this. They are taking young people's lives - for me, it's crazy."

China on 12 December is bringing its man in charge of Tibet - Zhu Weiqun - to the EU capital to tell EU officials its side of the story. It has not decided if he will face press.

Commenting on Chinese diplomacy, Sangay said officials give a false impression they are unmoved by questions on human rights.

"That's how good they are. They have this imposing manner and some people buy it and submit to it. But each question asked, each article written gives hope to people. [Chinese vice foreign minister] Fu Ying might act tough, but I'm sure when she gets home it's like 'oof' - it's tiring as a human being ... When the questions stop they will think they have prevailed."

Sangay blamed the self-immolations on "desperation" caused by "isolation". "Since my trip to the US, we haven't had a single self-immolation. So I think my trips are sending a message back home that there is hope," he said.

Asked what is his strongest asset against China's diplomatic machine, he answered: "Really, the truth."

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