Zhen Wang is a strong believer in the power of dialogue to make lasting change.
So, when she discovered Tibetan political leader Dr. Lobsang Sangay would be at the University of Minnesota for an open discussion on the Chinese-Tibet conflict, Wang — a Chinese doctoral student — made sure she was there.
The Tibetan leader’s two-day visit to the Twin Cities was his first to the state since coming to power in August 2011. Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, arrived at the University’s Law School on Friday to discuss an increase in violent protests by Tibetans and his hopes for fruitful dialogue on the Chinese-Tibetan conflict in coming years.
With a population of about 3,000, the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota reports that the Twin Cities is home to the second largest group of Tibetans in the U.S. In addition, there are more than 1,200 visiting Chinese students at the University, one of the largest populations on an American campus, according to the University’s China Center.
Wang said she liked how accessible the event was to different people from the University and wider communities.
“Everyone is included and respected,” she said.
Tibet has been under Chinese rule since 1951, resulting in what the 14th Dalai Lama called “a calculated and systematic strategy aimed at the destruction of their national and cultural identities.”
Sangay’s visit comes at a time of heightened tension in Tibet, with 55 cases of protest by self-immolation since February 2009.
The most recent case occurred Saturday in China’s Gansu province, the Associated Press reported. The protester, 52-year-old Tamdrin Dorjee, died at the scene after setting himself on fire in protest of Chinese rule.
“We all know life is precious, but now 54 Tibetans have burned themselves,” Sangay said Friday, before the most recent case was reported. “That is the level of frustration.”
According to the Associated Press, China has blamed the Dalai Lama for encouraging these protests, a claim he denies.
The Tibetan Government-in-Exile discourages self-immolation, Sangay said, but supports the protesters’ aspirations for a free Tibet.
Sangay, a Harvard University graduate, has worked extensively to create dialogue on the conflict through meetings with representatives from both China and Tibet.
Friday’s discussion, sponsored by the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, was meant to create this type of dialogue, said Tenzin Pelkyi, a first-year law student who helped organize the event.
It was also important to show the Tibetan perspective, she said — something Sangay said isn’t readily available through Chinese media.
“We wanted to show Chinese students that the Tibetan government is transparent and accountable,” she said.
The crowd of around 200 included many Chinese students.
One repeatedly questioned Sangay’s credibility on the situation in Tibet, given that his exiled government is based in India.
Sangay responded that it’s the Chinese government that will not allow him to enter Tibet, despite his requests to do so. Even when he asked to return and light a candle for his recently deceased father, he said, he was told there would not be enough people there to receive him.
Despite this, there are “plenty of sources” who provide information on Tibet, Sangay said, ranging from the hundreds of Chinese students and scholars that he met during his time at Harvard to Tibetans who fled their native country for India.
“I was impressed by the style of discussion,” said Antonia Poller, a psychology junior from Germany. “It was so open, and he stuck to the facts.”
Andrea Belgrade, also a psychology junior, said that by answering questions with facts, Sangay showed respect for the audience — unlike U.S. politicians, she said, who often stick to talking points.
“I think the U.S. government is not very transparent,” Wang said, adding that she wishes for more opportunities for dialogue between the U.S., Tibet and China.
Dialogue, Sangay said, is the only way to resolve the conflict. But while he is hopeful for the future, he isn’t necessarily optimistic.
When asked how he manages the stress of his work, Sangay said it’s his karma, his destiny and an honor given to him by the Tibetan people.
“When I go to sleep,” he said, “I think, ‘at least I tried something.’”