The Question of Tibet

By Jayshree Bajoria
Jayshree Bajoria South Asia Researcher, Human Rights Watch.

The March 2008 anti-government clashes in Tibet and other regions in China brought the decades-long dispute once more into the international spotlight demonstrating the depth of historical disagreement over the territory. Tensions between China and Tibet have persisted since People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. China says Tibet has been a part of China for many centuries now, a claim refuted by many Tibetans. Chinese authorities use this claim to support their sovereignty over the territory while proponents of the Tibetan independence point to periods in Tibetan history when it enjoyed self-rule. Meanwhile, Chinese government policies in Tibet have fed the conflict. These inlude restrictions on cultural and religious freedoms of Tibetans, attempts to change the demographics of the region through migration of ethnic Chinese, and an unwillingness to open dialogue with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Experts believe the dispute over Tibet will persist as long as China refuses to speak to the Dalai Lama, who has been in exile in neighboring India since 1959. China, however, has sought to bypass the 73-year-old Dalai Lama and concentrated instead on efforts to control the process that will determine his successor.

Unresolved Political Status

The contemporary dispute over Tibet is rooted in religious and political disputes starting in the thirteenth century. China claims that Tibet has been an inalienable part of China since the thirteenth century under the Yuan dynasty. Tibetan nationalists and their supporters counter that the Chinese Empire at that time was either a Mongol (in Chinese, Yuan) empire or a Manchu (Qing) one, which happened to include China too, and that Tibet was a protectorate, wherein Tibetans offered spiritual guidance to emperors in return for political protection. When British attempts to open relations with Tibet culminated in the 1903-04 invasion and conquest of Lhasa, Qing-ruled China, which considered Tibet politically subordinate, countered with attempts to increase control over Tibet’s administration. But in 1913, a year after the Qing dynasty collapsed, Tibet declared independence and all Chinese officials and residents in Lhasa were expelled by the Tibetan government. Tibet thenceforth functioned as a de facto independent nation until the Chinese army invaded its eastern borders in 1950.

But even during this period, Tibet’s international status remained unsettled. China continued to claim it as sovereign territory. Western countries, including Britain and the United States, did not recognize Tibet as fully independent. After founding the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the new communist government in China sought reunification with Tibet and decided to invade it in 1950. A year later, in 1951, the Dalai Lama’s representatives signed aseventeen-point agreement with Beijing, granting China sovereignty over Tibet for the first time. The agreement stated that the central authorities “will not alter the existing political system in Tibet” or “the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama.” While the Chinese government points to this document to prove Tibet is part of Chinese territory, proponents of Tibetan independence say Tibet was coerced into signing this document and surrendering its sovereignty.

“Experts point to the years from 1913 to 1950, a time when Tibet behaved like a de facto independent state, to argue that Tibet was not always part of China.”

Experts also point to the years from 1913 to 1950, a time when Tibet behaved like a de facto independent state, to argue that Tibet was not always part of China. But China blames the British influence at the time for provoking the idea of Tibetan independence and refuses to be bound by any treaties signed between Tibet and Britain during that period. This includes the 1914 Simla convention where the British recognized Tibet as an autonomous area under the suzerainty of China.

The political status question is also complicated by uncertainty about what constitutes Tibet’s borders. The Chinese only accept the term Tibet for the western and central areas, the area which is now called the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). This area was directly ruled by the Lhasa government when the Chinese invaded in 1950. But Tibetan exiles have been demanding a Greater Tibet which includes political Tibet in modern times (TAR) as well as ethnic Tibetan areas east of TAR, most of which Tibet had lost in the eighteenth century.  These areas, earlier known as Amdo and Kham, are now scattered among parts of Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Yunnan and Gansu. The March 2008 anti-government protests, which started in Lhasa, soon spread among the ethnic Tibetan areas in these provinces.

Experts say there is no document in which the Tibetan people or their government explicitly recognizes Chinese sovereignty before the invasion of 1950. But Robert Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University, says the importance of this argument lies not in its role in the legal debate, but in what it indicates in terms of the political realities on the ground. “The fact is that most Tibetans seem to have experienced themselves and their land as distinct from China,” he says.

Conflict with China

Since China’s invasion, Barnett says, “China’s policies towards the Tibetans can perhaps best be described as a mix of brutality and concession.” The first Tibetan uprising of 1959 resulted in the flight of the Dalai Lama and about 80,000 Tibetans. During these years thousands of Tibetans were allegedly executed, imprisoned, or starved to death in prison camps. So far no Chinese official has publicly acknowledged these atrocities. This period also included a policy of induced national famines that resulted from tenets of the so-called Great Leap Forward, when Beijing set up communes in agricultural and pastoral areas. The Cultural Revolution, the next phase of Mao’s revolutionary politics, followed in 1966 and continued in effect until1979 in Tibet. During these years, all religious activities were prohibited and the monastic system in Tibet was dismantled. The campaign included an attempt to eradicate the ethnic minority’s culture and distinctive identity as a people.

“If India is indeed a liberal democracy, it must be willing to speak out about gross Chinese human rights violations.” — Sumit Ganguly, Indiana University

Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in China in 1978 brought forth a new initiative to resolve the Tibet question. Besides reaching out to the Dalai Lama in exile in India, the Chinese authorities also initiated a more conciliatory ethnic and economic development policy. Tibetans were encouraged to revitalize their culture and religion. Infrastructure was developed to help Tibet grow. But pro-independence protests in Tibet that started in 1987 led to the declaration of martial law in the region in 1989. After martial law was lifted in May 1990, Chinese authorities adopted a more hard-line policy with stricter security measures, curtailing religious and cultural freedoms. At the same time, a program of rapid economic development was adopted which included much resented incentives encouraging an influx of non-Tibetans, mostly Han Chinese, into Tibet. This, Beijing hopes, will result in a new generation of Tibetans who will be less influenced by religion and consider being part of China in their interest, wrote Tibet expert Melvyn C. Goldstein in Foreign Affairs in 1998. “Even if such an orientation does not develop, the new policy will so radically change the demographic composition of Tibet and the nature of the economy that Beijing’s control over Tibet will not be weakened.”

Government-in-exile in India

When the Dalai Lama sought exile in Dharamsala in northern India in 1959, India arguably became a key player in the conflict. India now is home to about 120,000 Tibetans, the world’s largest Tibetan community outside of Tibet. But since 1952, India has always regarded Tibet as an integral part of China and does not encourage overt criticism of China by Tibetans in exile. Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University, is openly critical of the Indian policy. “If India is indeed a liberal democracy,” he says, “it must be willing to speak out about gross Chinese human rights violations.”

Ganguly believes India’s administration can exert pressure on China by allowing Indian Tibetans to demonstrate peacefully without interference, and by treating the Dalai Lama as a head of state instead of a spiritual leader. But there are many Indian analysts who believe otherwise. “There is interest on both sides, very deep interest, to see that what is happening is not allowed to upset the apple cart—the present momentum of India-China relations,” says Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea, former director of the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi. Relations between India and China, long fraught with resentments including a short border war in 1962, recently have warmed. China became India’s biggest trading partner in 2007. The two countries have also seen a thaw in diplomatic relations.

The United States and the West

Experts say U.S. policy has done little to help resolve the Tibet issue. According to A. Tom Grunfeld, a professor of history at Empire State College,  Washington’s policy is inherently contradictory. “While officially recognizing Tibet as part of China,” he writes, “the U.S. Congress and White House unofficially encourage the campaign for independence.”

“While officially recognizing Tibet as part of China, the U.S. Congress and White House unofficially encourage the campaign for independence.” — A. Tom Grunfeld, Empire State College

Goldstein writes Washington has been opportunistic in its dealings (PDF) with Tibet. During the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) covertly funded and armed Tibetan guerilla forces to fight against communist China. But even during this period of covert support, Washington’s official position on Tibet did not change. It continued to recognize it as a part of China. CIA’s covert funding stopped in 1971 as U.S. interest in Tibet waned due to warmer relations with China. But pressure from the Tibet lobby complicated the policy environment, argues Grunfeld. In the 1980s, Tibetans in exile launched a new strategic initiative with an aim to secure increased political support from the United States and the West to exert pressure on China.

An important element in this new strategy was visits and speeches by the Dalai Lama in the West. In September 1987, the Dalai Lama spoke before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in Washington. The following June, he made another important address at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. For the first time publicly, he laid out a willingness to accept something less than independence for Tibet. Calling for genuine autonomy for Tibet within the framework of China, the Dalai Lama proposed that Tibet have full control over its domestic affairs but that China could remain responsible for Tibet’s defense and foreign affairs. He reiterated this “middle-way approach” in a 2001 address to the European parliament. The Tibet issue has also won popular sympathy in the west including interest of Hollywood actors like Richard Gere who actively lobby for the Tibetan cause. But the success of the international campaign for Tibet has bolstered hard-liners within the Chinese government, experts say, thereby worsening conditions for the Tibetan people.

A Difficult Solution

Tibet is very important to China’s sense of nationhood, says CFR’s China expert Adam Segal. “There is a fear that if Tibet gets independence, Uighurs and Taiwan will want independence.” Segal notes that Chinese authorities have frequently suggested that they are just waiting for the Dalai Lama to die, expecting Tibetan nationalism to disappear after his death, but says this may be a miscalculation. “I think the more radical Tibetans would direct the movement for independence after Dalai Lama’s death.”

Experts agree that unless there is political reform within China, the resolution of the Tibetan question remains bleak. “The historical question was never unsolvable,” says Barnett. “It would not have been a problem necessarily if China had been able to develop policies for Tibet that were acceptable to most Tibetans.” In November 2008, the Dalai Lama said his efforts to bring autonomy to Tibet had failed so far and called for a meeting of Tibetans from around the world to consider the future of the Tibetan movement. The meeting, which took place Nov. 17-22 in Dharamsala, India, drew more than five hundred Tibetans. Though the meeting closed with what was described as a “strong endorsement” of the Dalai Lama’s “middle-way” approach, participants also “clearly stated” they might seek independence if talks with China do not bring progress “in the near future.”


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