Tibet vs. China: A Century of Uneasy Deadlock

Lhasa, Tibet and the Himalayas
Lhasa, Tibet and the Himalaya Mountains

Before Communist China, for over a 1,000 years, Tibet was a ‘protectorate’ of China’s Manchu/Qing Dynasty.  Tibet maintained its own language, governor, laws, army, and paid no taxes. China’s control over Tibet weakened during the 1800’s, as China had more external assaults from the likes of the Japanese and British Empires.  By the turn of the 1900’s, its protectorate was largely symbolic.

When the Manchu Dynasty was finally overthrown in 1912, it gave the Tibetan government the chance to expel all Chinese troops and officials. Tibetan soldiers drove the Chinese military out, back across its borders. For the first time in a millennium, Tibet was an independent nation, with Lhasa as its capital, and without Chinese interference.  It maintained diplomatic relations with neighboring Nepal, Bhutan, and India, as well as Great Britain.  Relations with the new Chinese Republic, however, were tense and strained. 

After the death of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1933, Tibet fell under the rule of a corrupt Regent.  Political unrest plagued the nation until a new Lama was found.  In 1937, a young candidate was discovered on a poor farm in the Chinese-controlled province of Amdo.  It took 2 years of negotiations with China, and a ransom to be paid, before the young boy, Tenzin Gyatso, and his entourage of lamas, were allowed to leave for Lhasa.  He was ordained and declared the 14th Dalia Lama in 1940 … at only 5!   The government would remain under the control of the Regent till he came of age.

The Chinese Republic continued to claim to the world that Tibet was one of China’s Five Races, and forever a part of China.  It sought to “liberate” Tibetans from their serf-like existence and return Tibet to the “motherland.”  Western countries, including Britain and the U.S., refused to recognize Tibetan independence. With the government still in chaos, and the country in need of modernization, Tibet was unprepared for a new and very different wave of Chinese pressure.

The Founding of Communist China in 1949 changed everything.

The Communists once again claimed Tibet as part of Red China, and this time had the military power to enforce it. China wanted more than a simple conquest – it wanted a formal agreement from the Dalai Lama himself towards reunification.  The Tibetan government refused, and the Chinese military invaded. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the new Communist regime crossed Tibet’s eastern border. The small Tibetan army was quickly defeated and China occupied half the country.  As the Chinese army advanced towards Lhasa, religious leaders urged state power be transferred to the young Dalai Lama.  A month later, at age 15, the Dalai Lama assumed full political power in Tibet, with control of over 6 million people.

China sent a military delegation to Lhasa calling for reunification.  Tibet pleaded to the world for help, but neither the US, Britain, India or the United Nations responded. Tibet faced the entire might of Communist China alone.  The Dalai Lama reluctantly sent a small negotiating team to Beijing. Once there, the Tibetan negotiators were NOT allowed to communicate with Lhasa, and pressured to sign an agreement, despite having NO authority to do so. Under threat of a full scale military invasion, they had no choice but to sign the 17-Point Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet in 1951.

The young Dalai Lama chose not to flee into exile and abandon his people, but rather stay and reluctantly accept the terms.  It forced Tibet to return to Chinese jurisdiction, while maintaining some domestic autonomy, including religious freedom.   The presence of 40,000 Chinese troops in eastern Tibet, the threat of an occupation of Lhasa, and the obliteration of the Tibetan state, left him little choice.

Because it was signed under duress, the agreement lacked validity under international law.  The 17-Point Agreement also proved difficult to implement.  Throughout the 1950s, China’s Communist Party expected Tibetans to convert to Socialism.  ‘Reforms’ sparked resistance when authorities tried to take land from Buddhist temples and monasteries.  Relations between Tibetan Buddhists and Chinese Communists worsened as monasteries turned into places of resistance and shelter for rebels.  As resistance escalated, Chinese repression increased, including destroying religious buildings and imprisoning monks. 

The Dalai Lama even visited Beijing in 1954, and met with Chairman Mao Zedong.  

By 1958, rebellion was simmering in Lhasa, and the PLA military commander threatened to bomb the city.  After 8 years of occupation and repression, the Tibetan Uprising of 1959 began.  Tibetans rebelled in an attempt to overthrow the Chinese occupying government. The popular uprising culminated in March with massive demonstrations in Lhasa.  They were triggered by fears of a Communist plot to arrest the Dalai Lama and imprison him in Beijing.

Tibetans banded together in defiance and took to the streets to protest in front of the white Potala Palace. Chinese military officers invited the Dalia Lama to visit PLA military headquarters in Lhasa for an “official Tea,” including a theatrical dance show.  He was told however, he must come alone, with NO Tibetan military bodyguards allowed. The PLA would handle his security. Of course, the Dalai Lama’s staff feared he would be arrested once in their hands

300,000 loyal Tibetans surrounded the Norbulinka Summer Palace, protecting the Dalai Lama from accepting the PLA’s invitation.  In response, Chinese artillery was moved in and aimed at the palace demonstrators.  With allegations of Buddhist lamas being arrested in the night, the Dalai Lama, now 23 years old, reluctantly agreed with his advisors to flee from Lhasa that night.  Disguised as a common soldier, he fled with about 20 followers, including family and 6 members of his cabinet.

Fighting broke out in Lhasa 2 days later, with Tibetan rebels hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. The Chinese army began shelling Norbulinka Palace, slaughtering tens of thousands of Tibetan demonstrators, including women and children camped outside. The PLA executed the Dalai Lama’s guards and began destroying Lhasa’s monasteries and the Buddhist monks inside.  By the time China had crushed the uprising, 87,000 Tibetans were dead in Lhasa alone.

Dalai Lama in 1958
The Dalai Lama in 1959

After the imprisonment of the Panchen Lama, Tibet’s 2nd ranking spiritual leader, China no longer felt bound by its earlier promises.  China abolished Tibetan government, violated human rights, and instituted agricultural communes.  This has often been described by the Tibetan people as a cultural genocide

Indian Prime Minister Nehru agreed to host the Dalia Lama, and he has lived in exile in India ever since.  The Dalai Lama now heads the Tibetan Government-in-exile, headquartered in Dharmsala, India in the Himalayan foothills. About 80,000 Tibetans eventually followed him into exile.  In 1963, he released  a new Constitution for a democratic, semi-autonomous Tibet, implemented by his Government-in-exile. 

The Dalai Lama wanted a compromise with China that would maintain Beijing control of defense and foreign affairs.

No such compromise was ever made. The Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) attempted to completely destroy Tibetan religious life, including its temples and monasteries. Religious figures and other educators were forced into the infamous Re-education Camps. The vast Buddhist monastic system was dismantled, and religious activities prohibited. Tibetan monks were forced out of their monasteries and ordered to marry, a violation of their vows of celibacy.

After the death of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976, these hardline policies shifted a bit.  The 1980s were a somewhat better period of China-Tibet relations. Some monasteries were allowed to be rebuilt and Buddhist monks returned to them. People were again allowed to practice their religion publicly and Tibetan culture was even promoted. There were also tentative talks again between the Dalai Lama and Beijing … but as in the past, they broke down without any progress. 

“China can keep her troops on the frontiers of Tibet and Tibetans will pledge to accept a form of union with China.”

Tibetan Dalai Lama

Riots once again spread throughout Lhasa in 2008 and Martial Law was declared, resulting in the deaths of 400 protestors by Chinese military.   All foreign nationalists were evacuated.  Demonstrations for democracy and the exiled Dalai Lama, or even Buddhism, was seen again as treason in the eyes of the Chinese Communists. From India, the Dalia Lama proposed a compromise relationship with China, promoting autonomy, not independence.  One that would maintain Beijing control of defense and foreign affairs, and return domestic control back to him.  It went nowhere once again.

Over the last 70 years, about 1.2 million Tibetans have lost their lives (almost 1/6th the population) as a result of the Communist Chinese occupation. All throughout those 7 decades, China never succeeded in destroying the Tibetan people’s spirit to resist, or their culture and religion.  The newest millennial generation of Tibetans seems just as determined to regain their independence from China as did their parents and grandparents. 

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Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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