Tibet in the 20th Century – by John Rowley

This article appeared in ‘The Gandhi Way’ Issue Nos.65-66 Newsletter of the Gandhi Foundation.

The year 2000 marks the 50th anniversary of the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. For the previous 40 years, from the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Tibetans had enjoyed all the attributes now taken to define nationhood. Not only had their Government quickly declared independence but by 1914 had also extended control over the vast majority of ethnic Tibet (that is, where the Tibetan language is spoken and Tibetan Buddhism practiced). It up-dated the army, created a currency, and conducted foreign policy discussions with other governments (principally China, the British Raj, Russia, the USA) and in many international forums.

The British Foreign Office privately acknowledged this fact in 1950 (see FO Note 37l-84454) when Tibet wanted to appeal to the UN for help against the Chinese occupiers. Tibet was not a member of the UN (nor indeed was China) but, as the FO knew, qualified for help as a State under Artide 35(2) and needed just one sponsor to support them. Apart from India and China, Britain was the only nation familiar with the country – we had invaded it ourselves in 1904 when Colonel Younghusband’s expeditionary force had killed a number of Tibetans on the way to Lhasa and we knew in 1950 that the Chinese had invaded. Pusillanimously but very tactically, the FO recommended that no action should be taken unless India or the US took an initiative. Neither, of course, did for other more understandable reasons and so Tibet was left to the mercy of 50,000 well-armed troops; they showed none.

So when, by the end of 1950, the Chinese had forced the Tibetan Government “to negotiate Tibet’s peaceful liberation” or, from the Tibetan point of view, surrender, no help in any form was offered. In May 1951, the Chinese took a small Tibetan delegation to Beijing and encouraged them to sign the so-called 17-Point Agreement. This ‘officially’ incorporated Tibet into China at the same time “guaranteeing the Tibetans their autonomy”.

Within ten years, India, the second most important nation for the Tibetans, had recognised Chinese sovereignty, the Chinese had completed roads into Tibet, the Tibetan Government had been dissolved and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) – an area excluding much of the provinces of Kham and Amdo in the east – had been established.

Revolt and Oppression

The first wave of the Tibetan revolt began in 1956 in Kham where democratic reforms had first been imposed. The CLIP funded the Khampas for a few years but to little effect. During the Great Leap Forward (1958-60), collectivisation was enforced across the country and the revolt spread to the TAR. This culminated in the Lhasa revolt of 1959 and the consequent, almost immediate, flight of the Dalai Lama to India. By this time, tens of thousands of Tibetans had already been killed in the fighting and the Dalai Lama’s first concern was to save lives.

Unfortunately, throughout the next decade, tens of thousands more were to die or be imprisoned or both. Thousands more were to starve as a result of economic mismanagement or be killed or tortured by vicious tactics of repression. Meanwhile, the monasteries were depopulated and looted of their treasures; the forest began to be systematically felled and shipped back to mainland China with disastrous consequences one of which, flooding, is only now being felt downstream of the Brahmaputra, Salween, Yellow, Mekong and Yangtse Rivers.

And all this even before the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 destroyed 6000 monasteries and monuments, communised property and the means of production and caused the deaths of yet more hundreds of thousands of Tibetans though famine, torture, extra judicial and arbitrary executions. In 1986, Dr Michael van Walt calculated that one sixth of the population, 1,200,000 Tibetans, had died as a result of the Chinese occupation (433k combat, 343k – famine, 173k – prison, 157k – execution, 93k – torture, ok suicide). This is a higher proportion than those who died under the Pol Pot terror.

In 1976, Zhu De, Zhou Enlai and Mao Tse-tung all died. Within three years, Deng Xiaoping had begun his programme of liberalisation and a dialogue with the Dalai Lama had begun, along with a revival of Tibetan Buddhism, culture and nationalism. In a spirit of hope that the worst was over, the Dalai Lama announced his Five-Point Peace Plan in 1987 in Washington DC, modifying it slightly in Strasbourg a year later.

Chinese Settlement

By then, however, the Chinese had begun to implement their policy of population transfer. This was to become one of the most frightening policies of all. The influx of millions of impoverished peasant farmers from mainland China, subsidised by travel expenses, removal and setting-up grants, tax relief and higher wages, began not only to marginalise and create unemployment amongst the Tibetans but also closed down what small openings existed for training and education and economic advancement. By the mid-1990s, the Han Chinese, including 500,000 troops, police and other ‘security services’, came to outnumber the estimated 6 million indigenous Tibetans. The policy of population transfer, at least, has been a success for the Chinese.

In parallel to this, the minds of Tibetan children were being transformed by the imposition throughout the education system of a Chinese curriculum taught in Mandarin: Tibetan language, culture and religion are derided or ignored.

Major demonstrations and riots in Lhasa began again in 1987 in support of the Dalai Lama’s Five Point Peace Plan and Tibetan independence. They continued to occur until Martial Law was imposed in 1989 shortly before the Tiananmen massacre. The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October of that year. It proved to be a bad year for the Chinese leadership, for despite their loud and repetitive protestations that Tibet (and Tiananmen) were ‘internal matters’ and that no country had any right to interfere or to host any of the participants (especially the Dalai Lama), international opinion was firmly against them. However, no government with any real power actually did anything to upset the rulers of the great Chinese treasure-house and, within two years, normal relations to plan mutual economic and political gain were re-established.

Throughout the 1990S, Chinese rule hardened yet again, as the popularity of the Tibetan cause continued to escalate in the West. Further restrictions were imposed upon all aspects of Tibetan nationalism, language, culture and religion. Rigid policies of economic development, geared to favouring the immigrant Chinese, were enacted, for example, in the creation of the Lhasa Special Economic Zone. And fierce attempts are still being made to eradicate the influence of the Dalai Lama, both spiritually and politically, through intensive re-education programmes in the monasteries and schools; there are severe punishments for anyone found with his image in their homes or found practising Buddhism, a policy that has been Vigorously reinforced yet again in the spring of this year. Chen Kuiyuan, Tibet’s Party Secretary, was quoted earlier this year in The Tibet Daily as saying: “Religion is the main element of destruction in Tibetan society because it represents anti-Chinese sentiments. Superstitious beliefs impede economic development in the region. For example, farmers do not kill insects nor slaughter their livestock during the (15 day Sagadawa Buddhist) Festival.”

Two Perspectives

As we know, it is important that every party to a conflict stands back occasionally to gaze at the whole situation. We have the privilege of being able to do that as third party observers to this one. Tsering Shakya’s scholarly history is essential reading. I am grateful to him for the following insights:

The majority of Tibetans today see the presence of the Chinese both as an embodiment of state power and as a malevolent force ultimately seeking to destroy Buddhism and Tibetans. The Chinese on the other and see their presence as benign and as contributing to the growth and prosperity of Tibet.”

What motivates the Chinese leadership and what is their vision of the future? Shakya goes on to present two ideas which ain themselves have shaped modern China” and which I think helps answer these questions.

The first is nationalism. Nurtured by resentment at the historical humiliation by Western imperialism, the Chinese see the Tibetan demand for independence as an externally generated conspiracy to dismember China, an opinion held by successive Chinese regimes from the Qing to the Guomindang, as well as by the Communists. All these dynasties have adopted policies designed to integrate Tibet within the greater polity of China, a perspective which sees Tibet as a prior part of China and which therefore does not allow for consideration of the views and wishes of Tibetans.”

The second idea is the narrow Marxist economic-determinist view of national identity. This holds that nationality is a product of economic disparity and that once that is removed there would be a withering of ethnic distinctiveness.” This means that as political and economic differences disappear then the importance of race, religion, even gender, in defining who you and other people are, also diminish. For the Chinese leadership and their followers, the more complex realities of identity and self-image of Tibetans and their religion find no place in a Communist understanding of Tibetan nationality.

So long as the communists retain power in Beijing and Lhasa then the future of Tibet is “inextricably linked to the ebb and flow of ideology and power at the centre of the Party.”

What has the Outside World done about Tibet?

1999 marked not only the 50th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s seizure of power in Beijing but also the 40th anniversary of the Tibetan national uprising against the invaders. The even harsher repression that then resulted forced many Tibetans, including many great Buddhist Teachers, to escape. This exodus, which continues to this day, can be argued to have “truly saved Tibet from a silent and uneventful extinction” (Norbu, 1999) for, unlike any other oppressed minority, the comparatively small Tibetan diaspora that managed to reach and settle in the outside world has been highly effective – not only in bringing global attention to its plight (second only here to the Jews) but also in attracting converts to its core system of cultural values i.e. Tibetan Buddhism. The effect of both achievements has been to strengthen the assertion of Tibetan cultural identity and independence back inside Tibet.

It is the strength of Tibetan cultural identity that the Chinese authorities fear most. Understanding this fear will serve to explain why they resort to such cruel and inhuman methods of control – what they themselves have called policies of Merciless Repression” and “Strike Hard”: namely “the slave labour camps laogaidui), the police, the Public Security Bureau (gonganju), the People’s Armed Police, the military and the ‘danwei’ (mutual watch) control system implemented through work units, re-education teams, neighbourhood committees, neighbourhood security departments and informers. All of which operate freely and openly, unfettered by anything remotely resembling independent courts, a free press, civic bodies, the presence of even a single representative of the world’s media, moral or religious voices or rumbustious university students. Possession of a picture of the Dalai Lama is a criminal offence, punishable by a lengthy prison term and the few remaining monks are forced to undergo political re-education” (Norbu, 1999).

“Tibetan cultural identity is the enemy” admits Chen Kuiyuan, Tibet’s Chinese Party Secretary “preventing full integration with the Motherlands and when the Dalai Lama dies, the fear is that the forces then unleashed will rival if not exceed those harnessed by the PLO, the IRA, Chechnya and other freedom movements around the world. So, on top of their merciless repression against all things “Tibetan”, the Han Chinese have implemented the most effective policy of all – “Population Transfer”. After 25 years of unremitting enticements, subsidies, favourable housing, education and jobs, the Han Chinese from the mainland now outnumber the Tibetans. The effect has been devastating but still the Tibetan identity persists, especially outside Lhasa and Shigatse, and hope for Rangzen, nationhood, stubbornly refuses to be crushed.

So what has the outside world done in response to this appalling situation? Unfortunately, recent events in Washington and New York epitomize what many governments and international bodies end up doing for Tibet. On 20 June, the Dalai Lama met President Clinton and Madeleine Albright in The White House; no observable action by either resulted. On 24 August, Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General, confessed that the Dalai Lama had not been invited to attend the grandly-named Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders (1000 others had been invited including a group from China) “because it would draw strong protests from China”. The Wall Street Journal commented: “The UN has shamelessly kowtowed to China again, just as they did in 1993 at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna… Such is the pedantic framework of the UN which, in deference to authoritarian regimes, often constrains the very principles of rights and freedoms it claims to espouse as universal.” The UN passed three Resolutions in 1959,1961 and 1965 which was before the People’s Republic of China became a member. These were not acted upon and none have been passed since China joined the Security Council.

The European Parliament, on the other hand, has passed twelve resolutions since October 1987, the latest being in April of this year. The other most active assemblies have been the US Congress and Senate which, together, have passed eleven, including one in March, but this is due to the support of the extreme right. Then come the Australians (six), the Germans (two), and Ireland, Czechoslovakia, Italy and Belgium one each. Nobody seems to have properly assessed the impact of any of these high-minded resolutions but it appears to be minimal as no government, except the Czechs, has been prepared to risk the wrath of a phalanx of Chinese diplomats that would inevitably descend upon them.

Even Britain’s current so-called ethical foreign policy failed the rhetoric yet again this summer when the British Government refused to support a motion condemning human rights abuse in China at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Genera. And this, despite the fact that the Earl of Carrick, the new President of the Tibet Society, has stated that he knows the Prime Minister is ‘genuinely concerned’ about Tibet and did raise it with President Jiang Zemin when he visited the UK last October.

The vast bulk of support for the Tibetans comes, it has to be noted, from ordinary people wanting to hear and see the Dalai Lama. 50,000 turned up in the Mall, Washington on 3 July. This is repeated wherever he goes. The Dalai Lama is justifiably a world celebrity and he attracts to the cause of Tibetan independence prominent, most often thoughtful, people from every walk of life, not least those of other faiths and the multiplying adherents around the world to Buddhism itself.

The Gandhi Foundation too can claim to have made its small contribution when 1100 people came to hear him deliver the Annual Lecture in 1994. His main purpose, he says, is to give teachings on Tibetan Buddhism, at the core of which, of course, is the concept of Nonviolence. In fact, His Holiness regards Gandhi as one of his teachers.

Despite the fact that most governments, including our own of both hues, explicitly demand that he restricts his public talks to religious matters, the political situation in Tibet inevitably arises both at the talks and in private conversations with parliamentary politicians. These can help. For example, his discussions with Clinton might possibly have caused the World Bank to withdraw from funding a Chinese population transfer project of $8,000 impoverished peasant farmers to Qinghai Province earlier this year. But there is no proof of this yet.

In March logo, the Gandhi Foundation’s previous Chair, Lord Ennals, convened a Conference on Self-determination in Tibet which was sponsored by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Tibet of which he was then Chair. Delegates from 51 countries spent three days together and there is reason to believe that the higher profile this gave to the Tibet issue led to His Holiness meeting George Bush two months later; but no real evidence for that has emerged and no proof whatever that it had any impact. In January 1993, the Group sponsored a second conference on Tibet this time of international Lawyers. The outcomes, “The London Statement on Tibet” and a book Tibet: the Position in International law did set a precedent in international legal circles by showing how the the recent 1989 UNESCO definition of a people and the prevailing individual human and collective rights law could be applied coherently and cogently to a real and complex live issue. Conclusion: Tibetans are a people and do have a right to self-determination. The Tibetans knew that, of course, as did anyone of intelligence. The presumption was that if international lawyers could reach a consensus, even outside the courts, somehow this would impact on ‘official’ international political, judicial and commercial circles.

Most of the constructive work that is, collecting, assessing and presenting facts about Tibet and the views of Tibetans is done by NGOs. These cover a huge gamut of issues and manifest themselves in many different ways. To sample just a few from this country: Amnesty international, Asia Watch and Tibet Information Network (TIN) all produce regular and reliable reports; Save the Children, Appropriate Technology for Tibetans (ApTibet) and the Tibet Society have projects both in Tibet and amongst the exile community in India; the International Commission of Jurists have published two influential publications on Tibet, and in addition, there are the grassroots campaigning groups in every country in Europe, the Americas, Australasia and the Far East.

It still only be through the persistence of all these groups that leaders and members of governments, especially the Indian and British, and of international organisations, especially the UN, will be persuaded to take a truly moral stance and to act, as it were, as collectives of Satyagrahi or Bodhisattvas or Saints, oblivious to political or material gain. To help create a leadership of this quality and calibre must be the aspiration of us all and an integral part of the Foundation’s collective vision of the future.

More realistically, Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike must understand that the fight for Tibetan freedom is a fight for the freedom of oppressed peoples around the globe. The “New Ageing” of Tibetan culture and its contrived blending with ‘global concerns’ is condescending, more often displaying personal needs for a cause of some kind and to be ‘in fashion’. The real battles for freedom are fought in local and mostly desperate struggles by people prepared to give up not just respectability and careers but even their lives.
Our role

But what can we and our Government do now to help ensure that the Tibetans do not have to wait another fifty years for a negotiated settlement? How can we help them create the Zone of Peace the Dalai Lama envisages where Tibetans and Chinese can live in harmony and mutual respect and where all flora and fauna are protected? The answers involve:

  • learning more about the Tibetans and their culture and their relationship with the Han Chinese;
  • actively confronting the Chinese Government’s tyranny;
  • encouraging the Tibetan diaspora to move to a more secular democracy;
  • ensuring that any western organisation working or investing in Tibet make public statements committing themselves to uphold the UN Covenants on Human Rights for all direct and indirect employees;
  • be mindful of the reality for Tibetans of Chinese violence.

The likelihood of Tibetan nationhood becoming a reality, however, depends more on instability in China than any Tibetan heroics. “History shows that a riotous and out-of-control Chinese society allows the Tibetans to reassert themselves. The troops in Tibet lose morale and logistics support, the Han settlers with their families in the mainland are likely to leave at any sign of trouble and Tibetans in any position of influence will throw away their masks of collusion and fight for their country.” (Wang Lixiong wrote that in January 1999 and has been detained ever since.)

The Dragon in the Land of Snows: a history of modern Tibet since 1947; Tsering Shakya, Pimlico, 1999.
Rangzen Charter: the case for Tibetan independence; Jamyang Norbu, http://www.rangzen.net

The Tibet Society; 114 Tottenham Court Road, London W1; Tel – 020 7383 7533
Free Tibet Campaign, 1 Rosoman Place, London EC1; Tel- 020 7833 9958

Two weeks before the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s enthronement (4 December) the Chinese Government has announced a multi-billion dollar campaign urging settlers to move into Western China, especially Tibet, modelled on the conquest of the American West. It will almost certainly extinguish all but touristic trappings of the Tibetan way of life.

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One Comment on “Tibet in the 20th Century – by John Rowley”

  1. Lasitha Silva
    November 3, 2008 at 10:58 am #

    I see Ghandhi as a holy man with courage to raise his voice against the ruling English. Along with his followers he made history.
    Even thought this humanitarian was assassinated, his voice, teachings and pathway cleared the Indian freedom from the colonization.



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