On “Petty Criticism”, “Trivial Matters” and “Establishing Authority” By Woeser

High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser written on March 5, 2012 for the Tibetan service of Radio Free Asia and posted on her blog on April 1, 2012.
This blogpost reflects on the nature of political leadership and governance in a democracy. The first paragraph refers to Woeser’s criticism of Kalon Tripa Lobsang Sangay, where at a public event he read a list of names of Tibetan self-immolators but “failed to mention the first case of self-immolation that happened inside Tibet in 2009; his list of names was missing the first person – Tapey.”

This picture is a screenshot from the official website of the Central Tibetan Administration

On “Petty Criticism”, “Trivial Matters” and
“Establishing Authority”

By Woeser

When I disagreed with the leaders of the Tibetan government in exile, it caused hitherto unknown hesitation and confusion, even though I only suggested that when counting the numbers of self-immolations in Tibet, one needs to go back and take into account the first case of Tapey in 2009. Some voices from outside Tibet self-confidently expressed that in times of hardship everyone should be united, no one should raise petty criticism and let trivial matters influence the general situation; at this moment, one needs to strengthen leaders’ authority and must therefore not criticise… these kinds of words are all too familiar to someone like me who lives under an authoritarian regime, the autocracy uses very similar reasoning to request all members of society to entertain “collective will, collective action, and collective discipline”.
However, the criticism of leaders is an elementary state of affairs in democratic societies. By suppressing this criticism, regardless of what the motivations or reasons are, the result will always run counter to democracy. Mature democracies will never refer to a newly elected leader as the “mighty leader”, but as an object that needs to be controlled. “Don’t trust the President” is the starting point of democratic philosophy, taming the government and leaders is the basic task of democracy. And in order to achieve this, one must, above all, rely on the freedom to criticise. Hence, in democratic societies people constantly confront their leaders with “petty criticism”, regardless of how important the matter really is.
Indeed, we are in a difficult situation but this is not a reason to reject criticism; on the contrary, we need criticism to prevent leaders from making mistakes. If criticism does end up destroying unity, then it is always the leader who has to take responsibility for this, because as long as the leader accepts criticism, unity will improve. Aristotle once said: “virtue is one integral whole” – people do not respect virtues when it comes to “important matters” and then, for practical reasons, reject these exact same virtues when dealing with “trivial matters”. In fact, any abandonment of virtues, no matter how insignificant they are, represents the beginning of a whole moral degeneration. In the same line, the “general situation” and “trivial matters” are one integrated whole; the problems that “trivial matters” reflect do just as much exist within the “general situation”, criticising “small matters” does not only influence the “general situation”, it, in fact, positively contributes to it.
Of course, democratic societies can also generate great leaders, but these merits are only granted after a leader leaves office and not when he or she is newly elected. Being elected cannot serve as proof of greatness, it is merely the beginning of a process of inspection. Looking back at history or around the world today, there are many examples of leaders who have squandered the trust they enjoyed when initially elected. By accepting to learn from the mistakes of predecessors, those who have been elected should regard criticism as a kind of positive remedy, enabling them to avoid entering the list of those who have failed and hence, they should appreciate criticism.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s authority is inherent and supreme and enjoys unconditional recognition from Tibetans. The reason why His Holiness withdrew his authority from the political realm is not to have a different person replacing it. Neither is this necessary nor would the people accept this. His Holiness wants a fundamental transformation, just like the Taiwanese democratic slogan says “the people are the greatest”, he wants the people to turn into the political authority with leaders only being public servants, serving the people.
The way to inspect the level of democratisation of a specific society is by looking at its leaders’ attitudes. If they are arrogant, conceited and arbitrarily denounce other ideas and opinions it means that the leaders have not yet understood what democracy is really about and it also means that the society has not yet achieved the empowerment of the people.
Unlike the unshakable legitimacy of His Holiness, it is an inherently difficult task for the political leaders of the Tibetan exile government to establish their legitimacy as representatives of the 6 million Tibetans living inside Tibet after the Dalai Lama withdrew from politics; but their source of existence comes from Tibet and hence, the issue must be resolved. Only relying on several ten thousands of votes from exiled Tibetans is not sufficient. As long as Tibetans living in Tibet cannot themselves vote for their own leaders, the legitimacy to represent them has to be created and embodied through the close exchange and communication between the exiled leaders and the Tibetan people inside Tibet. This exchange includes praise as well as criticism and it is a process in which the leaders of the exile government should at the very minimum show their modesty, benevolence and active engagement.
A higher level of legitimacy would be achieved by providing Tibetans living in Tibet with real guidance and useful methods and by performing an effective role as leaders. Everyone knows that this is very difficult, but it is precisely those, and only those who can achieve a breakthrough in such a challenging and difficult matter that will one day become great political leaders.
I am waiting.
March 5, 2012

Further Reading: 

“Why Didn’t Kalon Tripa Read Out Tapey’s Name?”: http://highpeakspureearth.com/2012/why-didnt-kalon-tripa-read-out-tapeys-name-by-woeser-2/
“Why Are Different Numbers of Self-Immolations in Tibet Talked About?”: http://highpeakspureearth.com/2012/why-are-different-numbers-of-self-immolations-in-tibet-talked-about-by-woeser/
“Remembering the First Person who Self-Immolated Inside Tibet, Tapey”: http://highpeakspureearth.com/2012/remembering-the-first-person-who-self-immolated-inside-tibet-tapey-by-woeser/


  1. I respect Tsering Woeser la, but this writing is way over done, I think she herself crossed the fine borderline detailing democracy with heart shattering analogies that destroys the Tibetan unity from the root (CTA).

    • Do you really respect Woeser la? I don’t see any respect in your writing. You did the same blunder that she persuaded against; charging different ideas/criticsm a destroyer of tibetan Unity. Criticsm strengthens democracy and governance. One should always look for the underlying message rather the subject of criticsm. Otherwise, you will love/respect her when she criticise your enemy(China), and hate/disrespect when she criticises your friends(CTA).
      By the way, where is that fine borderline in terms of free speech, and who drew that? I hope its not CTA because we are not a part of a dictatorship.

  2. For some reasons, it makes me think Woeser is a narcissist? If Tapey is to be included, what about Pawa Thupten Ngodup? The point is when writing media reports, emphasis is given on the immediacy of an event, place or people to create a sense of urgency. Since Tapey’s immolation happened in 2009 and the wave of this immolation started only from March 2011, I think Tapey was not included in the head count of self-immolation protests. I am pretty sure that TGiE doesn’t mean to discount the sacrifice of Tapey. Woeser’s concern is about just Tapey and that makes me question about the selective nature exhibited here by Woeser whom I have utmost respect nonetheless. Why didn’t voice her concern for Pawo Thupten Ngodup? Or it didn’t occur to her?
    Secondly, I feel it is unwarranted to go for public when voicing this “criticism” given the importance or intensity of the mistake. A letter addressed to the Kashag would have solved the issue instead of going public which created unnecessary furor. Or at worst, I am questioning the scenario that Woeser is yet to come to terms with the fact the Lobsang Sangay is the Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile?

  3. Woser has the right idea that in a democratic society we should feel free to criticize our political leaders. For Tibetan democracy to grow, it must allow for free speech, even negative criticism of the TGIE, the Kalon Tripa, the Kashag and the TPIE. No political leader is above criticism. Those who say we should not criticize the TGIE or the Kalon Tripa or are elected leaders for the sake of unity don’t understand how democracy works. That the majority of Tibetans, including Woser, are all united for a free Tibet & want an end to Chinese human rights violations is without any doubt. That doesn’t mean that all Tibetans must simply obey without question the policies & directives of the TGIE. It’s good to have a free & public flow of ideas which advances society. Without reasonable & free discourse, society will stagnate such as China’s society is doing under the CCP. I hope Woser and other Tibetans will continue writing about TGIE & our elected leaders (both praise & criticism) as well as criticizing China for its actions in Tibet.

  4. If anyone has earned the right to critique Tibet and Tibetan society, it is Tsering Woeser, especially when it is a constructive one like this blog post. We Tibetans have a saying that we should remember…..only those who love you will speak the truth to you. And the truth is often not sweet. We need to read and digest the whole article carefully and not get stuck on Tapey and Thupten Ngodup. She is discussing the nature of democracy, free speech, and the responsibilities of both elected leaders and society in a healthy democracy.

  5. I think Woeser comes up with interesting view points. As a true intellectual with no institutional attachments she has the freedom to criticize anyone she wants. It reminds me of other Tibetan intellectuals such as Gendun Choepel, Dawa Norbu and Jamyang Norbu and many others writers in Tibet.
    We should encourage them to more such writings. Only by carefully looking at our mistakes and errors can we improve and become stronger. During the election, Dr. Lobsang Sangay was very open and generous towards all types of criticism, both valid and unvalid. As long as we keep this open communication we have nothing to fear!

  6. from one narcissist to another? on serious note i think woeser wants to make sure we have a firm foothold in democracy. we all know too well how our tibetan mindset and sensibilities can be exploited by politically motivated people who always play to the gallery.

  7. Pingback: On “Petty Criticism”, “Trivial Matters” and “Establishing Authority” – by Tsering Woeser « Tibetan Blog Station

  8. It seems that our Katri is being a bit of a hypocrite, considering what it sounds like he wrote about “free speech” in his dissertation….
    Or is free speech too inconvenient, now that he is in office? Sad.

  9. Woeserla must know all too well the calling for ‘unity’ OR ‘HARMONY’ as the STATE’s idea of peace and stability. This so called ‘harmony’ and ‘unity’ is arrived at stifling citizen’s voices and independent thinking. You never hear democratic countries like the US or even India making it their top priority. Democracies value freedom over phony ‘unity’ and ‘harmony’.
    I also truly appreciate the contents of Katri Lobsang Sangyala’s dissertation on democracy and unity.
    It is in TOTAL unison with Woesarla’s ideas.
    However the fact is that this call for ‘unity’ has been drilled into us from the days of one’s schooling in exile. We should be more confident and secure in our newly democratic society. Only totalitarian regimes are obsessed with ‘harmony’ and ‘uniformity’.

  10. Democratic society means to be free to criticize its leader.I am really appreciated Tsering Woeser-la’s article about our leader’s political manner regardless of how good he is. She wrote what she feels about our leader, and that way every body should be free to think and criticize. If Kalon Lobsang Sangay is strong leader, he must take pleasure on criticize. If he takes pleasure on criticism, he can at least open his eyes on his own short-comings.So I must say Tsering Woeser-la is pure Tibetan who always cares Tibet. Again I am really appreciated Tsering Woeser-la and thank you.
    We must open to criticize to grow better democratic society.If any one can not take criticism and says without any point, “detailing democratcy with heart shattering analogy that destroys the Tibetan unity” this kind of people is narrow minded and won’t be worth to use.
    Otherwise, We, Tibetans, must check and balance on the Kalon Tripa.One my point is that I see Dr, Lobsany Sangyay was little arrogant. Why didn’t he want to run for Chithue when many Tibetans asked him? My own wish was should he run for Chithue first, and then if he is really capable to serve Tibetan people, he will definately be elected for Kalon Tripa. So I,personally, don’t trust him much about how he handle his position well. Of-course my pray and hope are always with Kalon Tripa to succeed to solve our very cause with bringing more unity on all Tibetans, and we will get blessing and teaching of H.H The Dalai Lama at Potala. Pure Tibetan

  11. Tibetan must keep eyes at Dharamsal.I did not like much about how our Chithues voted to confirm for all other Kalon members either. I feel like Chithues have not done checking their capability, their background checks and their mean motivations to handle their job with strong courage. Chithues just confirmed all the kalons as what Kalon Tripa pointed out. Chithues did not even ask much questions to confirm. If any Kalon will make major mistake, we all Tibetans go after Chithues. Next time we need law makers who we can rely on basis on strong thinking. Thank you

  12. Pingback: Woser and Lobsang Sangay Discuss “Unity” and the Freedom to Criticize | Tibetan Youth Congress

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