Article: Intro to & History of Tibet

In Articles, Education, Religious Persecution, Xinjiang & Tibet by TechnoOwl


Geographically, the Tibetan world is considered to extend past what is today the Tibetan Autonomous Province (TAR). The TAR encompasses the traditional central Tibetan provinces of Ü/Wü, with its central city being Lhasa, and Tsang/Zang, its central city being Shigatse/Xigazê. The two remaining provinces, Amdo and Kham, are known more for rich pastures and lush land, and thus are historically and currently the domain of Tibetan nomads. Amdo roughly corresponds with modern Qinghai province, but is also part of southwestern Gansu and northern Sichuan provinces. Kham is found in eastern TAR, western Sichuan, southern Qinghai, and a sliver of northern Yunnan province. [consult Land of Snows blog for informative photo-guides of Amdo and Kham]

Tibet has long been recognized as part of China. The relationship goes back until at least the 13th century, in an arrangement whereby the Tibetan rulers exercised local autonomy while the central Chinese government conducted Tibet’s foreign affairs and defense.

This arrangement began with the Mongol Yuan dynasty. For brevity’s sake, Tibet at this point in history was long past its glory days as an expansive empire under the likes of the Three Dharma Kings who could challenge the Tang Dynasty and occupy the capital of Chang’an. It had been divided into petty kingdoms and tribes, and thus quickly capitulated without a fight to the Mongol armies. The long-term effect of this interaction was, ironically, the beginning of the bringing the Mongol people into the fold of Tibetan Buddhism, given several Tibetan religious figures high statuses in the Mongol royal courts. The reliance of Tibetan factions on foreign actors also became pattern in this era and the next.

This close relationship between Tibet and Mongolia would continue after the overthrow of the Yuan dynasty, in an era in what best can be described as a constantly feuding/warring feudal Tibet, beset by rival nobles and priests. One of these factions was the Yellow Hat school, or the Gelugpa, founded by Tsongkhapa/Zongkaba in the early 15th Century (Ming Dynasty era). Constantly under scrutiny under the then dominance of the Karma Kagyu, among other rival sects, the Gelugpa leader Sonam Gyatso/Soinam Gyaco met with Altan Khan, a Tümed Mongol ruler, in 1578 around Qinghai Lake, where Sonam Gyatso became the priest-patron of Altan Khan and given the title Dalai Lama/Dalä Lama (the 3rd Dalai Lama). In return, the khan, interested in reviving Mongol imperial dreams, gained powerful imperial religious legitimacy (Buddhism as a universal religion), and was apocryphally recognized as the reincarnation of Kublai Khan by the Dalai Lama.

Tibet was reunited under a single ruler in 1642 under the Khoshot Khan Güshri, who had supplanted Altan Khan’s descendants as the main benefactor of the Gelugpa, now under the 5th Dalai Lama, marking the point in which the Dalai Lama finally became the spiritual leader of Tibet as is now commonly known. Given a flurry of circumstances (in a word, the 5th Dalai Lama’s regent Sangye Gyatso/Sanggyê Gyaco allied with his school friend Galdan Khan, a Dzungar khan who warred with the now powerful Qing Dynasty, alienating both the Qing Dynasty and the overlord Khoshot Khanate), Lhazang Khan of the Khoshot Khanate moved to consolidate his control over Tibet, setting up a pretender 7th Dalai Lama (his own son) along the way, and causing a war between the Khoshot Mongols and Tibetans loyal to Sangye Gyatso (who would not survive the conflict). In this chaos, the Qing backed the 7th Dalai Lama recognized independently of the Khoshot Khanate.

At this time, the Dzungars invaded Tibet and defeated the Khoshot in 1717, killing Lhazang Khan and his son. The Dzungar looting of Lhasa, their unwillingness to install the 7th Dalai Lama, and persecution of Tibet’s religious schools gave rise to Tibetan resistance, bolstered by the Qing expedition to Tibet to install the 7th Dalai Lama in Lhasa in 1720. It is after this year that Qing rule over Tibet remained steady, ensured by the ambans (resident governors of the Qing), who became the sole secular governors of Tibet following an anti-Qing and anti-Dalai Lama Lhasa riot in 1750.

Please note that the above history is largely restricted to the Tibetan regions of Ü-Tsang (today TAR). The Tibetan regions of Amdo and part of Kham were integrated and governed separately into the Qing Empire in the 1720s, falling more in line with the tusi (土司) system, which relied on local chiefs and lords to govern Qinghai and Western Sichuan provinces. [Please refer to Matthew Kapstein’s The Tibetans for a general overview of this history]

In 1906, Britain signed a formal recognition of China’s sovereignty over Tibet. [Convention Between Great Britain and China Respecting Tibet]

This formal recognition is muddled (and provides some but shaky grounds for multiple hot issues) by the Simla Accord of 1914. Two very good overviews are this article and this blogpost, both by the same author.

In summary, in the wake of immediately post-revolutionary Chinese weakness, the Western empires sought to break parts of China away for their own interests and add to their own spheres of influence (and this would continue until the People’s Republic re-asserted itself in 1949 – even the Soviets attempted to establish an exclusive sphere via the Second East Turkestan Republic, while the British attempted to wiggle into Kashgar – see Xinjiang section). During this period, Outer Mongolia began its march towards independence from Qing/Republic of China. The British attempted to do the same with Tibet, both to have a buffer state between the British Raj in India and the Russian Empire and to have a “special relationship” on the path from the British Raj into the Chinese heartland. The British solution was the Simla Accord of 1914, in which the British attempted to have tripartite negotiations between Britain, Tibet, and the new Republic of China. The takeaway is that China likely sent an envoy to entertain these negotiations only to stall their progress. The envoy initialed a draft of the agreement and a map but failed to sign the final agreement, meaning the Simla Accord of 1914 was concluded only between Britain and Tibet, with China unbound, resulting in Simla’s failure.

The Simla Accord was revived some 24 years later over Tibetan authorities’ arrest of a British citizen. It has since been taken as sacrament by the Republic of India government, particular in respect to the McMahon line, fueling the ongoing border conflict between India and China. The Simla Accord also provides the grounds for Tibetan independence movement given the seeming Chinese tacit recognition of Tibetan de facto independence. The hard fact remains, however, that no Chinese government has agreed to be bound by Simla 1914, and that the Accord was considered a failure in its own time and weakly enforced, making these grounds very thin (and also bitter grounds, considering that India now uses Simla to justify its hold on Tawang, traditionally Tibetan lands, to the consternation of both China and the exile government).

During an exchange of diplomatic statements between Britain and the United States in 1943, Washington stated: “For its part, the Government of the United States has borne in mind the fact that the Chinese constitution lists Tibet among areas constituting the territory of the Republic of China. This Government has at no time raised a question regarding either of these claims.” [The Making of Modern Tibet by A. Tom Grunfeld, 258]

Tibet seems like as a celestial paradise held in chains, but the west’s tendency to romanticize the country’s Buddhist culture has distorted our view. The popular belief is that under the Dalai Lama, Tibetans lived contentedly in spiritual non-violent culture, uncorrupted by lust or greed: but in reality, society was far more brutal than that vision. Until 1959, when China cracked down on Tibetan rebels and the Dalai Lama fled to northern India, around 98% of the population was enslaved in serfdom. [Sorrel Neuss, What We Don’t Hear About Tibet] Drepung monastery, on the outskirts of Lhasa, was one of the world’s largest landowners with 185 manors, 25,000 serfs, 300 pastures, and 16,000 herdsmen. [Jeff Hay, Tibet, 140] High-ranking lamas and secular landowners imposed crippling taxes, forced boys into monastic slavery and pilfered most of the country’s wealth – torturing disobedient serfs by gouging out their eyes or severing their hamstrings. [Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 113]

Many progressives in the United States believe that Tibet is severely oppressed by the government of the People’s Republic of China. They have been convinced that the Dalai Lama is a man of peace who has been ruthlessly suppressed by China and that he has the allegiance of nearly all Tibetans. Most of these individuals in the US sincerely believe in the right of self-determination and believe that the People’s Republic of China has violated this right.

The National Endowment for Democracy funds the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan opposition. [Mann, J. “CIA Funded Covert Tibet Exile Campaign in 1960s.” The Age (Melbourne), 16 Sept. 1998. 21 Jun. 2007] It also funded the pro-U.S. opposition to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez[Bolivarian Turtle article (in Spanish)], the fascist opposition to former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide [World Socialist Web Site Editorial Board, The overthrow of Haiti’s Aristide: a coup made in the USA] and the opposition to the Cuban Revolution[Jules R. Benjamin, Interpreting the U.S. Reaction to the Cuban Revolution, 1959–1960,]. The NED also funded Ronald Reagan’s contra war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua [See: Iran-Contra Affair]. From 1995 to 2005, the NED gave $2,047,479 to opposition Tibetan publications, radio stations, organizations and other institutes[China, Tibet and U.S.-sponsored counterrevolution]. The Dalai Lama has a long history of working closely with the U.S. government. In fact, he and his supporters have been on the CIA payroll since the 1950s[NY Times Associated Press, World News Briefs; Dalai Lama Group Says It Got Money From C.I.A.].

Media Coverage

Demonization is the imperialists’ preferred tool to delegitimize their targets and prepare the ground for a destabilization campaign and possible military intervention.

The demonization tactic has been consistently applied preceding regime changes, coups and invasions: the invasion of Panama in 1989; Iraq in 1991 and 2003; Haiti in the first half of 1990s; the aerial destruction of Yugoslavia in 1999; the military coup in Venezuela in 2002; and the new threats against Iran. The pattern is crystal clear.

Some in the liberal camp might argue that, though U.S. motives may be impure and even imperialist toward China and Tibet, this does not diminish the legitimacy of Tibet’s fight for independence.

Progressives should think about this issue more thoroughly. America’s foreign and military policies focus exclusively on achieving and maintaining its global aspirations. It is not tenable for progressives to view the issue of self-determination in the abstract; we must account for the strategic designs of imperialism.

The popular presentation of old Tibet is the Hollywood version of a fictitious reality. It is both Orientalist and racist. Old Tibet is viewed as a nation founded on peace and spiritual harmony, populated by gentle monks who lived humbly side-by-side with a rustic peasant population at one with nature. In this mythical depiction, the brutal communist government of China is cruelly occupying this idyllic Shangri-la.

Chinese Initiatives

The Chinese government’s initial attitude toward Tibet was one of extreme caution on the matter of reforms. The government was cognizant of the profound control that Tibetan rulers wielded over the serf population, as well as the historic resentment of the Tibetan nationality towards the Han nationality.

The 1951 “Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” signed by the new revolutionary government (CCP) and local Tibetan leaders provided for economic development, education and health care programs.

At first, the old, reactionary social relations were not disturbed. The pact established that “the local government of Tibet shall carry out reform voluntarily, and, when the people demand a reform, shall settle it through consultation with the Tibetan leaders.”

Public projects were inaugurated almost immediately. The first two roads ever built in Tibet began construction in 1950 and took almost five years to complete. One crossed 14 mountain passes over 1,500 miles from Ya’an in Sichuan province to Lhasa. One truck could transport in two days what it used to take 12 days for 60 yaks to haul. Formal Schools and hospitals were built for the first time.

After 1959, it abolished slavery, serfdom and unfair taxes. Creating thousands of jobs through new infrastructure projects, China built Tibet’s first hospitals and opened schools in every major village, bringing education to the masses. Clean water was pumped into the main towns and villages and the average life expectancy has almost doubled since 1950, to 60.

But by 1959, the ruling priesthood, still owners of virtually all the country’s wealth, strongly opposed any attempt to reform their system. Counterrevolutionary bands opposed to change waged paramilitary attacks. [China, Tibet and U.S.-sponsored counterrevolution]

Despite the obstacles imposed by the Tibetan ruling circles, the central government continued the development projects. It firmly believed that the impoverished Tibetan masses, gaining from the progress, would eventually take part in their own emancipation.

There were tremendous difficulties, as one directive from the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party to the reformers showed in the early 1950s: “As yet, we don’t have a material base for fully implementing the Agreement, nor do we have a base for this purpose in terms of support among the masses or in the upper stratum. To force its implementation will do more harm than good. Since they are unwilling to put the agreement into effect, well then we can leave it for the time being and wait. …” [Mao Tse-Tung, from Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, Volume 5]

The Chinese government, which has a long experience in handling the issues confronting national minority peoples in a multi-national state, has also dealt with the problem of chauvinism and racism emanating from the Han population as well as the government.

Members of the Han ethnicity living or stationed in Tibet exhibited chauvinism in their relations with the Tibetans at times. Ignorant of the Tibetan language, culture, and religion—the latter deeply permeated into all facets of life—the cadre had to be intensively trained at the initiative of the Communist Party leadership.

In “The Making of Modern Tibet,” A. Tom Grunfeld writes: “They were taught to respect local customs and etiquette, never to defile temples and holy sites, and to never criticize the Dalai Lama or religious practice. They were told not to bring up communism and class struggle. They arrived carrying whatever provisions they could, and paid for everything they purchased. They paid wages to the Tibetans who worked for them and practiced egalitarianism among themselves to set an example.” [The Making of Modern Tibet by A. Tom Grunfeld, 127]

Infant mortality has dropped from 430 deaths per 1,000 births, to a range of 6.61 to 24.5 per 1,000 in 2002. Where only 2 percent of school-age children in the 1950s were in school, today the figure is 85.8 percent [Tibet’s March Toward Modernization]; however, there is still a need to increase secondary-level educational levels. The region’s 6,348 hospital beds and 8,948 medical personnel exceed China’s national per-capita average. Beijing is intensifying its development programs in Tibet, with substantial investments in housing, medical care, infrastructure and restoration of cultural sites. [Tibet’s March Toward Modernization]

The Ninth People’s Congress of the TAR put forth a housing plan for farmers and herders—the backbone of Tibet’s economy—that will build 52,000 housing units in 2008. By 2010, new housing has been constructed for 80 percent of farmers’ households. [The China Journal, No. 63, January 2010 Beijing’s “People First” Development Initiative For the Tibet Autonomous Region’s Rural Sector—A Case Study From the Shigatse Area] In 2006, the annual income of farmers and herders grew 13.1 percent, the fourth double-digit growth in as many years. [Tibet Facts and Figures 2015]

Tourism has increased greatly, especially with the construction of two main railroad lines from central China—the world’s highest elevation. Four million tourists traveled to Tibet in 2007, up 60 percent from 2006 [Facts and Details: Tourism in Tibet], adding substantially to the region’s income.