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Tibetan Sikyong (or Prime Minister) Lobsang Sangay expresses concern over China’s hardline policies against Tibet. New Delhi, India, 27th November 2012.Simon de Trey-White

China should look at Canada's example to allay its fears of Tibetan aspirations for freedom, the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile says.

In an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail, Lobsang Sangay, a Tibetan refugee and legal scholar, expressed cautious hope that the change of leadership in China next spring will start to reverse increasingly hardline policies toward Tibet. There is a "basis" for optimism, he says, even though China is going through a period of rising nationalism.

Mr. Sangay also lamented the "desperate" protests against Chinese rule that have taken shape in a wave of self-immolations by Tibetan monks, but said those acts reflect the environment of repression in which Tibetans live.

Mr. Sangay was elected last year as Sikyong, or prime minister, of the exiled Tibetan government based in Dharamsala in northern India. In that post, he has taken over management of the diaspora's political affairs from the Dalai Lama and in effect now heads the Tibetan campaign for autonomy. He spoke to The Globe after the first group of Tibetans were chosen to immigrate to Canada next year, under a government that may bring to Canada up to 1,000 Tibetan refugees now living in India.

Q. How are you feeling about the new leadership in Beijing, installed at the 18th Congress of the Communist Part a few weeks ago, and what do you think it may mean for Tibet?

A. I think it's too early to say. Of the seven leaders, most of them are in their mid-60s. ... So in the 19th Congress there will be more wholesale changes – the 18th Congress is a continuation of the same people from the 16th and 17th. So if you are really looking for real changes you have to wait for the 19th. The likelihood of continuing the same policy is high. Particularly the fact that some of the more "liberal" people, who are of younger age and more open-minded, were not included … We might get some hint when Xi Jinping takes over the presidency in March of next year … He will give a speech and that's where he will indicate his line of thinking. Otherwise it's so opaque.

Q. The Dalai Lama has suggested he is optimistic about Mr. Xi Jinping, perhaps because he had a warm relationship with Mr. Xi's father.

A. Optimism is too strong. As a human being you should always remain hopeful. Optimism you have some basis for. Xi Jinping is the son of [former Chinese deputy premier] Xi Zhongxun, who received His Holiness in Beijing in 1954 and was with His Holiness many times, and His Holiness gave him a watch that he kept even during the Cultural Revolution and after. They took a picture and Xi Zhongxun saved it … so it seems the [warm feeling towards the Dalai Lama] was genuine … Xi Zhongxun also had a close relationship with the late Panchen Lama … and he would tell him, 'Have patience, don't get angry, things will take time to change.'

Q. So there is a history of these personal ties – does that make you a little bit hopeful?

A. For any leader to make any decision you have to have the familiarity with the issue because it's a judgment call, and if you know the issue well and if you are familiar with it, it becomes easier to sort through the issue and make a decision. Xi Jinping's father was a supporter of Hu Yaobang, the most liberal Chinese leader … and he supported him until the end, he was the last man standing with Hu Yaobang. So now the big question is, Will the son be like the father?

There are a lot of dynamics happening inside China. There is this nationalism on the rise and military adventurism in the South-China Sea, and then market forces driving China towards one goal and yet socially people are becoming more assertive, more open and more free, social networking is taking place. And yet politically, instead of advancing, they have retrenched in many ways, especially on Tibet. They have maintained hardline policies, and imposed more hardline policies – there is some movement on many trends but on Tibet there is backwards movement.

Q. What can you offer them as a plan with which to engage you that might be acceptable to Beijing?

A. I think Quebec is a good example, and also the north, Nunavut. The Chinese government argument is based on an underlying suspicion that if you grant anything to Tibet, they will ask for more and more and ultimately they will secede or separate. But then ultimately if you reach that equilibrium where people get what they want, the majority will decide to stay within the country. Even in Quebec, there is always this strong passionate number of people who are advocating independence, but two referenda were held and both times people decided to stay within Canada – meaning that the majority thinks that you have reached the equilibrium.

Having said that, this is a complex issue and the demand for nationhood will always be there. So how do you lessen it and increase cooperation? I think if the Chinese government grants us autonomy for Tibetans and the majority of Tibetans feel that this is a good deal they will choose to stay within. It's not that voices of independence will disappear, they will not. In that respect I think Canada is an example that the Chinese government could look at. Because the Chinese government example seems to be, 'repression, more repression, much harsher repression, and the solution will be found.' And it has not worked since the 1950s.

And now the self-immolations are a clear reflection of the entrenched resentments of the Tibetan people towards hardline policies. The self-immolators are a younger generation – they have never met the Dalai Lama, they have never heard him speak, they have never met me, they didn't vote for me, they could not. But still the sense of Tibetan identity, and Tibetan dignity – the assertion of their basic freedom – is so strong that they say, 'This precious life that I have, I'll give up to send a message to the Beijing government that what is happening is unacceptable.' So the Chinese model is clearly not working.

Q. About the self-immolations, of which there have now been 85: Do you view them as a legitimate form of protest? Do they clash with either your religious teachings or the policies of the Tibetan government?

A. We have made repeated appeals to Tibetans inside Tibet not to resort to drastic actions including self-immolations. Because life is precious. Now the self-immolation is not only continuing, it is escalating. So what do we do? As a person of faith – or even no faith – you pray for all those who died. And as a Tibetan you show solidarity, because they are doing it for Tibet. And then you support their aspirations, which are very clear: the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet; and freedom for Tibetan people. We say, 'It's better to preserve life and carry forward the movement' – that is the preferred option for us. But we are not saying it's not a valid form of protest, because self-immolation as a form of protest is a global phenomenon, it was done by monks the Viet Nam war, in Czechoslovakia in 1969, and then the undergraduate in Tunisia in the Arab Spring. Tibet is seeing one more chapter. But this is a sad form of protesting – and it is a desperate form of protest, because Tibetans are not given any option, or any space for any form of protest because the Chinese government does not allow them to go into the streets. If you shout a slogan, you get arrested. If you have a picture of the Dalai Lama, you go to prison. If they have a picture of me, it's more likely they'll get tortured. In that kind of environment, they are saying, the chances of me getting arrested, tortured, even disappeared, is high, so I might as well self-immolate.

Q. If Beijing gave you a chance to send a message to Tibetans inside Tibet, what would you say?

A. I would say we are committed to non-violence and democracy, these are our uncompromising principles. And that the grievances that they have are genuine, because they are the ones who are suffering. And the Chinese government should take note and solve the issue as soon as possible. I'd say, 'Tibet is a very old civilization, one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and Buddhism as a religion is very rich, and Tibet has very rich history of great kings …. So we ought to be proud of ourselves. And in this really challenging period when there might be questions, one should be in oneself. And our day will surely come.

Q. Have you had much interaction with the government of Canada?

I met with [Citizenship and Immigration Minister] Jason Kenney. … Also I was at a reception and the groups in that room was amazing, there were Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Indians and Tibetans – and he spoke about all of them, in one room – I thought, only in Canada is this possible! Everywhere where you talk to Tibetans, you don't mention Chinese; you talk to Chinese, you don't mention Taiwan … and there he was, 'this is our policy on China, it's good for you', round of applause, 'we've done this on Taiwan, it's good for you,' and 'I'd like to recognize my good friends from Tibet' … The fact that he could bring all these groups in one room and make them all applaud for each other when right outside the room they'd be on different sides of the protest groups … He says all the right things, and he says them to everyone.

Q. His government has refocused its foreign policy away from human rights to trade and economic interests – if you see Mr. Kenney again, or you do meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, would you have anything to say about that?

A. I don't know the details, but we believe that economic rights are important but human rights are equally important – Amartya Sen's argument: What's the use of having economic growth without human growth? Human rights are good for economies, and in that sense protecting them should all the more be at par with economic rights.

Q. What will you do, if the Dalai Lama is to pass away and Beijing announces that they have found his successor and installed him?

A. First of all that's premature because His Holiness is very healthy, he travels constantly and he has more stamina than people in their 30s and 40s. On this question, he issued a statement in September 2011 when all the top religious leaders came; there are three ways [in which a new Dalai Lama can be named]: reincarnation, he passes away, is reborn. Selection, where the top Buddhist leaders will come and select, like with the Pope. And emanation, where he could designate his own successor before he passes away. So these three options are on the table. But whatever it is, it doesn't matter what Beijing does, in the sense that faith is a matter of heart and mind, you simply can't buy it and impose it on people, you can't say 'this is the boy you should believe in from tomorrow on, follow him and you will get spiritual blessing' … Also His Holiness himself said Beijing will have no credibility because if they are serious about reincarnation first they should find the reincarnation of Mao Tsetung, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping – because they have contributed a lot more to China …

Q. But does it potentially pose a risk to the influence of your government – Tibetans inside Tibet are denied access to information about you, and they would be being told this was the new Dalai Lama.

A. The question is always, Who will believe? Even today after 50 years of occupation, the Chinese government has thrown in so much money, so much propaganda to the Tibetan people inside Tibet. These people who are protesting grew up completely under the Chinese system – they are protesting now, meaning there is something fundamentally wrong … Our spirit is as old as the Chinese, and just because they tell something us does not mean we will subscribe to it. In fact we will not. And the basis of our agreement has to be voluntary and mutual in nature.