The repression of the recent demonstrations in Tibet has shocked international public opinion. Thousands of Tibetans took to the streets, first in Lhasa, then in other towns, waving the Tibetan flag and chanting slogans demanding independence. They represent a clear rejection of 60 years of Chinese domination.
However, the presence of monks among the movement’s leaders has prompted questions about the real nature of the uprising, often described as a “Buddhist revolt”. Despite the brutality of police counter-measures, the unusual violence of many demonstrators has also blurred the image of a reputedly non-violent struggle. Rioters have targeted Han Chinese and Hui Muslim civilians, suggesting the revolt may have ethnic or religious motives. (China defines itself as a multi-ethnic country with 56 ethnic groups, Han Chinese making up 92 per cent of the population. The People’s Republic established various autonomous regions for Tibetans, Hui, Uighurs and Mongols: Tibet, Ningxia, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.)
Symbolically the demonstrations started on March 10, the anniversary of the 1959 uprising in Lhasa against Chinese intervention. The repression of this popular movement precipitated the flight of the Dalai Lama and his government to India. Thousands of refugees followed their example. However, although prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru welcomed the government of Tibet, he did not recognize it. Nor did the United Nations.
The invasion of Tibet in 1950–or its “peaceful liberation” as the Chinese prefer to put it–raises historical questions that have yet to be resolved. It is emblematic of the recurrent difficulties encountered by the Chinese in their attempts to occupy and settle the region, and of the Tibetans’ failure to convince the modern world that their claims to independence have a historical basis.
China first claimed Tibet in the 13th century under the (Mongol) Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), then again in the 17th century under the (Manchu) Qing dynasty (1644-1911). During these two periods the Chinese empire reached its furthest extent westwards, thanks to successful military campaigns waged by the Yuan, who built on the remains of the Mongol empire that once dominated Asia, China and Tibet.
During the interim period, on the sidelines of China’s Ming dynasty (1368-1644), which was more interested in maritime conquest, Mongol princes left a lasting mark on Tibetan politics. Intervening in a domestic religious conflict in 1578, Altan Khan backed the Gelugpa lineage, bestowing on its head the title of Dalai Lama (ocean of wisdom). In 1642 Gushi Khan confirmed the political authority of the fifth Dalai Lama, strengthening existing links between Tibet and Mongolia, based on the choyon (guide and protector) relationship in which both parties are considered equals. The Mongol prince protected Tibet with his armies and in exchange Tibet’s spiritual leader offered guidance to Mongolia. This type of relationship also worked with Manchu China and, depending on the alliances in force, other neighboring kingdoms.
Tibet has a long history of foreign interference, more often Mongol than Chinese, which explains its vulnerability. In 1720 it appealed to Manchu China for help driving out the Mongols. It resorted to the same expedient in 1792 to rid itself of the Nepalese. During this period the Chinese strove to reorganize the Tibetan system of government, but without establishing a permanent foothold. After the collapse of the Manchu Qing dynasty, the Chinese political leader Sun Yat-sen established the Nanking republic in 1912. Tibet proclaimed its independence a year later.
In 1914 envoys from the United Kingdom, China and Tibet signed a tripartite agreement at Shimla, in northern India, recognising a form of Chinese sovereignty. But the Chinese refused to treat the Tibetans as equals at the signing ceremony.
De facto independence
Tibet enjoyed de facto independence from then till 1949. China lapsed into internal disorder–conflict between warlords, followed by civil war between nationalists and communists–and foreign invasion by the French, British, Russians and Japanese. Only a few months after proclaiming the People’s Republic of China Mao Zedong ordered the invasion of Tibet in 1950. At the recently formed United Nations the representatives of Nationalist China (Formosa, now known as Taiwan) convinced the Security Council that this was a domestic Chinese matter .
In 1951 Mao used the threat of military action to obtain Tibetan approval of a 17-point plan. It stipulated that “the Tibetan people shall return to the big family of the motherland”. In exchange the plan granted autonomous status providing for the continuation of the “existing political system… and the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama.” But for the Tibetans he remained the country’s spiritual and temporal leader, contradicting the agreement. Moreover the Chinese failed to uphold any of their commitments.
When the Dalai Lama went into exile in 1959 he formally repudiated the agreement. He reinstated a government, set up a parliament and organised the refugee community, which remained determined to continue the struggle for independence. At the same time the Dalai Lama made it clear that he sought “the creation of a favorable climate by the immediate adoption of the essential measures as a condition precedent to negotiations for a peaceful settlement”
Following the Lhasa uprising the UN passed three resolutions, in 1959, 1961 and 1965. The 1961 resolution called for “the cessation of practices which deprive the Tibetan people of their fundamental human rights and freedoms, including their right to self-determination.”
In 1979 China’s new leader, Deng Xiaoping, made it known that “apart from independence, all issues can be discussed”. (His message sent by Deng Xiaoping to the Dalai Lama’s elder brother, Gyalo Thondup, in Beijing in March 1979.) Between then and 1985 four Tibetan delegations were allowed to visit their home country, which became an autonomous region in 1965, to observe the progress that had been achieved. They returned unconvinced. (The autonomous region covers the central part (U-tsang) of historical Tibet. The other two provinces (Kham and Amdo), traditionally considered part of the country, have become part of the Chinese province of Qinghai or the western extremities of Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan.)
In the 1988 Strasbourg Proposal the Dalai Lama officially renounced independence, falling back on self-government and union with China. But in March 1989 the brutal repression of one of the largest demonstrations against the Chinese authorities since 1959 ended all dialogue. In repeated attempts to reopen negotiations the Dalai Lama proposed genuine self-government within the framework of Chinese sovereignty. Between 2002 and 2007 Chinese and Tibetan envoys met on six occasions, but the recent demonstrations and the authorities’ response suggest that history is repeating itself.
Hostility to China
The Buddhist religion is an integral part of Tibet’s identity but hostility to China now dominates nationalist sentiment. Though the majority of the population seems resigned, hatred of China is finding violent outlets. Beijing may accuse the Dalai Lama of being the main troublemaker, but a new generation is emerging over which the nation’s spiritual leader has less influence.
As China has strengthened its hold on the country, with a steadily increasing influx of settlers, Tibetans have been gradually sidelined. Development has not delivered its promised benefits and economic investment, largely colonialist in its aims, has failed to appease discontent exacerbated by persistent nationalism.
The violence that rent the Chinese quarter of Lhasa is not typical of the independence movement as a whole. Protests have brought together secular and religious elements, the latter brandishing portraits of the Dalai Lama as well as the Tibetan flag. Seen by his supporters as an exiled head of state, the spiritual guide has lost none of his authority, enjoying widespread recognition in and outside Tibet, even if some militants are advocating more direct action. He is still the cement of national unity. In their way even the Chinese authorities acknowledge his importance. As the Tibet Communist Party leader, Zhang Qingli, put it: “We are in the midst of a life-and-death struggle with the Dalai clique.”
The attitude of Tibetans living abroad to the Dalai Lama and the issue of independence is more complex. Independence has been a taboo ever since their leader officially abandoned the idea and confirmed his policy of openness and dialogue with Beijing. In October 2002 he explicitly appealed to militants to refrain from any form of anti-Chinese demonstration in public all over the world, in order to create a propitious atmosphere for dialogue. The call for restraint left many militants confused and discouraged.
Unsure what to do next
Until the outbreak of the recent unrest, China seemed to have achieved its ends, no longer the target of public criticism and credited with new respectability on account of its “goodwill”. Meanwhile, in the political arena, it arrogantly dismissed demands for self-government. The Tibetan independence movement has played on this behavior, though it seems in some doubt as to what to do next.
Among those in exile there is no unified movement pulling together the various organizations advocating independence. None of them has managed to set out new proposals, replacing or complementing the line adopted by the government in exile. Most pro-independence campaigning inside Tibet is the work of isolated individuals or spontaneous, unpredictable gatherings without any clearly formulated strategy or goal.
The media build-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing offered a unique opportunity to denounce Chinese hegemony to the world. In India the five main pro-independence organizations joined forces to organize a march back into Tibet, setting out on March 10. The Indian authorities promptly banned the operation, triggering the departure of another wave of marchers. Demonstrations started in Lhasa at the same time, gathering strength and spreading to other towns in Tibet and other provinces once occupied by Tibetans, which has not happened before. But though the movement has achieved a certain popular and militant synergy, it lacks political direction and visibility, raising the larger question of how Tibetans are represented and what means are available for them to express demands.
Most Tibetans still living in their home country see the government in exile as a legitimate entity, because it is consistent with the principle of the Dalai Lama’s sovereignty and rule. But they are wary of the government, blamed for not finding a solution to their present predicament and giving up the goal of independence. This disaffection spares the Dalai Lama himself.
However a distinction needs to be made between the government’s diplomatic efforts and the work of the Tibetan parliament in exile as a representative body. The parliament is supposed to represent the Tibetan people in its entirety, at home and abroad, if only symbolically due to the impossibility of organizing a vote in Tibet. Its only real electorate is the exiled community in India and Nepal, organized according to the three regions that traditionally formed Tibet. The five Buddhist schools also have their representatives, as do expatriates living in Europe and North America. The complex overlapping of constituencies does not make it any easier to determine quite what the parliament stands for.
The root problem is the Tibetans’ inability to institute proper political debate. The parliament operates without parties. The draft constitution does not condemn this. It simply does not refer to it, despite reforms on the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers, voting rights, and the election of MPs and the prime minister by universal suffrage. But setting up democratic institutions is not enough to achieve democracy, particularly without parties to defend contrasting political ideals or goals. It is immediately obvious that there is no way of voicing the underlying split between advocates of independence, and those in favor of self-government. At the last general election, in exile, in March 2006, some MPs backed independence, but they have made no attempt since to put their commitment into practice. Of course it is difficult to oppose openly the views of the Dalai Lama.
There is little chance of political parties being formed in the near future, even if an increasing number of MPs now support independence, with talk of a pressure group on the sidelines of the parliament. The present situation – the precarious condition of refugees, the limited tolerance India can afford as their host, pressure from foreign governments not to upset the status quo, and Chinese reprisals targeting Tibetans at home – leaves the pro-independence faction very little room for manoeuver.
The country may be on the brink of an uprising but it lacks the political direction without which the Lhasa spring will never bear fruit. Current events must bring back memories to the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, who was the Chinese Communist party leader in Tibet at the time of the 1989 demonstrations. He ordered out the troops and imposed martial law. He knows that a tremor on the roof of the world may be the precursor of a quake in Tiananmen Square.
The troubles are in danger of spilling over into other regions with separatist inclinations, particularly Xinjiang, with its Uighur population, and Inner Mongolia. Beijing must decide how best to reconcile its international image with measures to quell the domestic unrest that threatens its stability.
MATHIEU VERNEREY is a journalist with Le Monde Diplomatique.
Translated by Harry Forster
This article also appears in the April edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com The full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.