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The Question of Tibet


The question of Tibet has always been a very delicate and sensitive issue for China and is one of the main issues at the heart of the human rights debate between China and many Western nations, human rights organizations, activists, and Tibetans, both inside and outside China. Worldwide protests surrounding the March 2008 Tibetan riots and the Olympic Torch relay, and the subsequent backlash from the Chinese people over western media coverage of the events highlighted the apparently vastly different perspectives held by the different sides. The question is whether some of these differences can be overcome and a greater mutual understanding emerge so that the issue of Tibet can be resolved in an acceptable and beneficial way. Following is a brief summary of some of the issues in this debate.


The Original Controversy: Independence


Though there are many issues in the debate about Tibet, the main one is over independence. There are currently three main camps with different goals. The first is the pro-Tibetan-independence camp, consisting of Tibetans in exile ,arguably a majority of Tibetans in China, and at least openly, the majority of human rights organizations and advocates, and many “Free Tibet” supporters in the west. There is within the Tibetan community a slightly different second perspective, advanced by the Dalai Lama (the Tibetans’ spiritual leader) himself, who says he no longer seeks independence for Tibet, but rather autonomy. The third perspective is advanced by the Chinese Government, which soundly rejects independence for Tibet, maintaining that Tibet has always been a part of China since Mongol rule in the 13th century.[1] (Many Tibetans and their supporters, by contrast, regard Tibet as always having been an independent country, and view the Chinese as having invaded Tibet in 1950.) Any calls for independence or even autonomy, therefore, are seen by the Chinese government as attempts to split up the country. (Most countries recognize China’s sovereignty over Tibet, though hedge on whether this means China actually has some legal right or whether it is simply a recognition that China is already ruling Tibet. Only Great Britain recognizes the “suzerainty” of China.[2])

Tibet’s Unresolved Political Status — What History Shows: According to Elliot Sperling, Director of the Tibetan Studies program at Indiana University’s Department of Central Eurasia Studies, Tibetan history shows that Tibet was not independent during either the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty or the subsequent Qing (Manchu) dynasty, as it was subject to the rules and laws of both dynasties.[3] At the same time, however, documentary records show that neither dynasty actually had control over Tibet in practice. Early 20th century Chinese writers describe Tibet under the Qing as more of a “feudal dependency” than an important part of the country. When the Qing dynasty fell in 1911, Tibet arguably became independent. From the birth of the Chinese republic in 1912 to 1949 when the Communists established the People’s Republic of China, what is today’s Tibet Autonomous Region was effectively ruled by the Dalai Lama’s government. (China does not recognize this argument that Tibet was a de facto independent state, but rather blames Britain, which had recognized Tibet as an autonomous area under the “suzerainty” of China in the 1914 Simla Convention, for instigating notions of Tibetan independence.[4])

In late 1950, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army entered the eastern Tibetan region of Chamdo and defeated the Tibetan Army. In 1951, the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama’s representatives (the Dalai Lama, born in 1935, was 15 at that time) signed a “17 point agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” which granted China sovereignty over Tibet,[5] but also was to allow for regional autonomy under the leadership of the Central People’s Government (Article 3).[6] In 1958-1959, the first Tibetan uprising resulted in the escape of the Dalai Lama and about 80,000 Tibetans to India and places beyond. During this time, thousands of Tibetans were allegedly imprisoned, tortured or killed, though no Chinese official has thus far acknowledged this publicly.[7] During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) that befell the whole country, all religious activity was banned and monasteries were closed. By most accounts, many Tibetans and Chinese all suffered greatly during this time.


Tibetan Grievances


Between the first Tibetan uprising in 1958-1959 and the March 2008 Tibetan riots, there have been other documented protests such as the 1987 pro-independence protests that ended with the declaration of martial law in Tibet in 1989,[8] and possibly many more unreported protests. In the last 30 years of Chinese rule over Tibet (since Deng Xiaoping’s ascension to power in 1978), controversy and disagreements have coalesced around two main issues: religion and culture, and economics.

Religion and Culture: After 1978, the Chinese government attempted a more conciliatory approach to Tibet, by reaching out to Dalai Lama in India, and by encouraging Tibetans to revive their culture, but the 1987 pro-independence movement hardened the Chinese stance, and after martial law was lifted in 1990, the government began curtailing religious and cultural freedoms.[9] In the last two decades, Tibetans have reported many religious grievances, including monks being required to denounce their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, or be physically expelled from the monasteries.[10]

Economics: After 1978, the Chinese government began to develop infrastructure to help Tibet’s economy grow. Economic development was expedited after 1990, incentives were given to non-Tibetans to move to Tibet, and a railway was built connecting Lhasa with Beijing. The government hoped that economic development and improved standards of living would create a group of Tibetans who were less religion-bound.[11] Tibetans, like all minorities in China, are also exempted from China’s one-child policy. Yet, while some Tibetans have certainly benefited from economic growth, many Tibetans, especially rural peasants had been left behind. Many Tibetans today still feel that they are largely treated like second-class citizens with incoming Han Chinese taking many of the better jobs. A Chinese policy maker actually admitted that much of the money the government had been pouring into Tibet had ended up in the hands of ethnic Han migrants, leaving an angry group of unemployed and undereducated Tibetans. [12]

A Fundamental Misunderstanding?: Several experts who have observed events in Tibet in the last 30 years argue that the “Achilles’ Heel” of China’s Tibet Policy is the unwillingness or the inability of the Chinese government to grasp the degree to which religion (and the Tibetans’ devotion to the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader) trumps economics for many Tibetans,[13] or put another way, the secular and economic-minded Chinese government is unable to understand “a society in which the spiritual is prioritized over the material.”[14]


Different Perspectives


Worldwide protests surrounding the March 2008 Tibetan riots and the Olympic Torch relay, and the subsequent backlash from the Chinese people over western media coverage of the events point to the vastly different views of the Tibet question held by the pro-Tibetan forces and the pro-China forces. Supporters of Tibet think that China has brainwashed its citizens into accepting its propaganda about Tibet. Yet, despite the mainstream media coverage that portrayed the Chinese has being unanimously behind their government and negatively anti-Western, the Internet and the blogosphere actually hosted a variety of different Chinese perspectives on the issue, some of which can be found translated into English by Roland Soong at his EastSouthWestNorth blog, here.

The majority of the Chinese who support their government’s position on Tibet also believe that western countries and pro-Tibet forces are trying to break up their country. To try to understand where the Chinese are coming from, author Kishore Mahbubani[15] suggests looking at the Tibet question against a historical backdrop of Western imperialism and Chinese humiliation in the 19th and early 20th centuries: with the memories of the British-instigated Opium Wars and subsequent Chinese humiliation at the hands of western governments still fresh in the psyches of many Chinese, it is not surprising that attempts by the British and Americans to train Tibetan guerillas in the 1950s and 1960s to fight the Chinese army in Tibet, and calls for Tibetan independence are seen by the Chinese as yet another attempt of foreign powers to split up China.

Many Chinese also accuse the western media and western supporters of Tibet of having a distorted overly romanticized view of Tibet as being an earthly paradise before the 1950s. The Chinese believe that renewed Chinese presence after 1950-1951 actually helped liberate Tibetans from a feudal slave society. In his book Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, scholar Donald Lopez sets about debunking what he perceives are a serious of myths Westerners have had about Tibet.[16] Most scholars agree that pre-1950 Tibet was indeed feudal.[17] The myth that Tibet was a non-violent society is also belied by the fact that Tibetan armies have fought numerous wars since the 17th century.[18]


Looking Ahead


The Tibet issue will continue to remain a highly emotional and sensitive one for all parties concerned. In the weeks leading up to the Olympics, the Chinese authorities in Beijing have met with representatives of the Dalai Lama, with little progress being reported. Observers like Warren W. Smith, Jr., author of the book Tibet’s Conundrum, believes that the latest meetings Beijing has had with the Dalai Lama’s envoys have been for show to placate Washington and London, and that Beijing has no intention of granting any kind of autonomy to the Dalai Lama because the “legitimacy of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet is so sensitive for China that it cannot be flexible on any issue relevant to that legitimacy, including the nature of Tibetan autonomy within the Chinese state.” [19]

Some observers believe that the Chinese government’s approach is to wait it out, tamping down whatever protests they have to until the Dalai Lama dies and is reincarnated. Because the Dalai Lama is traditionally named by the Panchen Lama, who is controlled by Beijing (in 1995, the Chinese arrested the Panchen Lama who has not been heard from since, and appointed another Tibetan youth as his replacement), this theoretically gives the Chinese government control over the Dalai Lama’s successor. [20]

These experts believe that the Chinese government fears that if they were to give Tibetans any kind of real even moderate autonomy, it could lead to demands by other ethnic and religious groups for the same, thus puting pressure on splitting up the country. Autonomy would also mean giving up the Chinese way of administration and party-led socialism. [21]

1 Elliot Sperling, “Don’t Know Much About Tibetan History,” The New York Times, April 13, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/13/opinion/13sperling.html (accessed 4/14/08).

2 Paul Harris, “Is Tibet Entitled to Self-Determination?,” Webb-site.com. April 26, 2008, http://www.webb-site.com/articles/tibetharris.htm (accessed 5/30/08).

3 Elliot Sperling, “Don’t Know Much About Tibetan History,” The New York Times, April 13, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/13/opinion/13sperling.html (accessed 4/14/08).

4 Jayshree Bajoria, “The Question of Tibet,” Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder, April 9, 2008, http://www.cfr.org/publication/15965/question_of_tibet.html?breadcrumb=%2Fbios%2F13611%2Fjayshree_bajoria%3Fgroupby%3D0%26hide%3D1%26id%3D13611%26page%3D1 (accessed 4/28/08).

5 Bajoria, “The Question of Tibet.”

6 Harris, “Tibet Self-Determination.”

7 Bajoria, “The Question of Tibet.”

8 Bajoria, “The Question of Tibet.”

9 Bajoria, “The Question of Tibet.”

10 Wang Lixiong, “Opinion: The Cry of Tibet,” The Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2008, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120666008071070097.html?mod=opinion_main_commentaries (accessed 4/14/08).

11 Bajoria, “The Question of Tibet.”

12 John Garnaut, “Rivers of money not flowing to Tibetans,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 26, 2008, http://business.smh.com.au/business/rivers-of-money-not-flowing-to-tibetans-20080525-2i1r.html (accessed 5/29/08).

13 “Benjamin Kang Lim, “China still has trouble reading Tibet’s pulse,” Reuters, March 29, 2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/topNews/idUSPEK20325620080330 (accesed 4/14/08).

14 Pallavi Aiyar, “Why Beijing just can’t grasp Tibet,” Asia Times Online, April 10, 2008, http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/JD10Ad01.html (accessed 4/14/08).

15 Kishore Mahbubani, “China’s view of Tibet,” Los Angeles Times, April 25, 2008, http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-mahbubani25apr25,0,6497421.story (accessed 4/25/08).

16 Donald S. Lopez, Jr., “7 Things You Didn’t Know about Tibet,” University of Chicago Press, http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/493105.html (accessed 7/25/08).

17 Harris, “Tibet Self Determination.”

18 Lopez, Jr., “7 Things.”

19 Jonathan Mirsky, “Bookshelf: Tibet’s Conundrum,” The Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2008, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121546741252233789.html (accessed 7/11/08).

20 Howard French, “Growing Gulf Divides China and Old Foe,” The New York Times, March 29, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/29/world/asia/29china.html (accesed 7/25/08).

21 French, “Growing Gulf.”