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Analysis
Last Updated: 05/01/2008
China's Death Grip on Tibet
Scott Lowe

Recent unrest in Tibet and the protests which followed the Olympic Torch relay around the world have attracted a new level of international attention to the long standing struggle between Tibet and China. Scott Lowe gives some insight into the history of this struggle and addresses the question that baffles so many in the West - why the PRC is so unwilling to consider Tibetan independence.


Tibet and the cause of Tibetan autonomy have been prominent in the news since 10 March 2008, the day the most recent popular protests against Chinese control of the Tibetan culture area began. The protests, which were apparently triggered by destructive street riots in Lhasa, the capital of the so-called Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), have since spread globally, leading to calls for a boycott of the Chinese Olympic Games, or at least the opening ceremonies, and repeated, effective attempts to obstruct the public display of the Olympic Torch.

In general, the western media have been sympathetic to the Tibetan cause, much to the chagrin of the Han Chinese, both in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and throughout the Chinese Diaspora. This has led to counter-protests, with patriotic Chinese denouncing the Tibetans, and especially their de facto leader, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, as "splittists," criminals, and worse.

Most non-Chinese tend to take the side of the Tibetans. We sympathize with the underdog and side with the oppressed; it is clear to impartial observers that the Tibetan people are victims in this whole sorry business, though careful readers will have noticed that the riots in the Tibetan areas of China, like riots everywhere, have been fairly indiscriminate in their violence. (Though the numbers of casualties are disputed, both Han Chinese and Tibetans have been killed or injured.) We are offended and baffled by the clumsy Chinese efforts to demonize the Dalai Lama, probably the best known and most widely revered Buddhist leader in the world. Above all, we are amazed by the tenacity with which the Chinese cling to Tibet and find their vehement insistence that Tibet is an integral part of the Chinese fatherland to be historically weak and psychologically puzzling. Why can't ordinary Chinese citizens see that Tibetans are religiously, culturally, economically, and politically very different from themselves? Why do they support their government’s suppression of Tibetan culture and religion? And more fundamentally, why do they cling so desperately to Tibet?

I am not going to argue for greater cultural and religious autonomy in the Tibetan areas of China in this essay, though I support this cause. (Actual independence for Tibet is extremely unlikely, but it is reasonable to hope for the survival of Tibetan religion and culture within China.) Instead, I will attempt something different: to explain why so many otherwise rational Chinese are unreflectively self-righteous in the defense of their government's policies in Tibet.

First we should look at the background setting. For the last few thousand years, Tibet has been a cultural area more than a nation, in the modern sense. The modern TAR is a creation of the PRC and is perhaps half the size of the predominately Tibetan cultural sphere, what we might call "Old Tibet." The Tibetan people speak a number of related, though often mutually unintelligible, dialects and share broad cultural similarities. In this they resemble the Chinese, who also are divided by dialects and inhabit a culture realm that has alternately contracted and grown (mostly grown) through the millennia. The modern PRC is roughly the size and shape of the Qing empire (1644-1911) at its greatest extent. So the Chinese nation is itself fairly new and in some ways still fragile.

China's claims to Tibet are shaky, though few Chinese understand how weak they really are. This is due to a controlled educational system in the PRC that presents a highly selective history of China's relations with its immediate neighbors. In some ways, the PRC's indoctrination of the Chinese people is impressive.

From the earliest periods of Chinese history we see evidence that the Han Chinese were threatened by the people on their borders. The many walls and fortifications the Chinese erected at enormous expense show this clearly. Over time, several strategies were developed to manage the border peoples. One of the most effective was the tribute system. This required the border people to pledge fidelity to the Chinese state and make small annual payments of "tribute" to the Chinese. In return, they received gifts of Chinese goods, in amounts that were significantly more valuable than their tribute. Basically, they were paid to leave the Chinese in peace, but on paper at least, they were vassals of the Chinese state. At different times, the Mongols, the Tibetans, the Uigurs, Korean and Vietnamese groups, and many others were considered by the Chinese to be "vassals" of the Chinese empire. Modern Chinese have cited these relationships to demonstrate that all these groups were once part of the Chinese fatherland.

The strongest objective evidence for China's "right" to Tibet is provided by the Yuan (1277-1367) and Qing dynasties. During these dynasties both Tibet and China were ruled by governments based in Beijing. Unfortunately for the PRC's claims, neither dynasty was Chinese. The Yuan were Mongols and the Qing were Manchus. Both the Mongols and the Manchus supported Tibetan Buddhism and brought high lamas to the capital to teach the imperial families. Consequently, the Mongols and Manchus had a stake in Tibet's internal religious affairs and frequently meddled in them. Given the religious base of Tibetan government, this meant that the Yuan and Qing rulers played significant roles in Tibetan politics. They even controlled the selection of some of the great tulkus (recognized reincarnations of ecclesiastic dignitaries) who wielded political and spiritual authority within Tibet. (The Dalai Lama is probably the best known of the several thousand tulkus in Tibetan Buddhism.) The current Chinese attempt to select the reincarnations of recently deceased tulkus is nothing new, though unlike the Qing emperors, the leaders of the PRC are openly hostile to the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism.

Back in their own times, the Mongol and Manchu-led dynasties were viewed as "barbarian" conquerors by the Chinese, so it is misleading for the Chinese to claim that they ruled Tibet during the Yuan and Qing. It would be more accurate to say that China and Tibet were both conquered by non-Chinese rulers. This is a far cry from the modern claim that Tibet was an integral part of China for most of the last 1,000 years. (Imagine how ridiculous it would sound for the French government to claim that Poland was a part of the French Fatherland, because both had been dominated by Germany during WWII! On one level, the Chinese claim is equally absurd.)

It is also true, however, that Tibet was far too insular for its own good in the last several hundred years. Instead of establishing its statehood through the normal means of diplomatic relations, international treaties, exchange of ambassadors, and the like, the Tibetan government looked inward, allowing Chinese governments—both the Qing dynasty and the Nationalists—to make largely uncontested claims that Tibet was under Chinese control. This left Tibet with no legal status to request international assistance when the Red Army began its conquest in 1950.

One result of this long, convoluted history—grossly oversimplified here—and the official interpretations of it taught in the Chinese schools is that nearly all Chinese are convinced that Tibet is a part of China. Even many Chinese dissidents who reject other claims made by the state still believe that the Chinese conquest of Tibet in the 1950s was just, moral, and in the best interests of the Tibetan people. The Chinese treatment of Tibet seems to be a huge blind spot for many otherwise perceptive Chinese. In turn, a great many Chinese are convinced that we westerners have been misled by Tibetan propaganda and media bias against China. From their perspective, we're the ones who inexplicably "just don't get it."

So one obvious question is, Was Tibet an independent nation before the communist invasion? Unfortunately, the answer is both yes and no, depending on whom you ask and what criteria you use.

Another, more important, question is, Why are the Chinese so intent on keeping Tibet? Again, the answer is complex. Here are just a few of the underlying reasons.

Resources: Like the USA, China has a sense of manifest destiny. Tibet, known as Xizang, or the "Western Treasury," is a fabled land of riches in old Chinese tales that still influence the Chinese popular imagination. The Chinese have long coveted the mineral wealth, forests, and other natural resources of Tibet. Much as European settlers viewed the lands of America as vacant, unused, barely inhabited, and ripe for development, the vast open lands of the Tibetan Plateau have beckoned to ambitious Chinese for centuries. Tibet is part of China's Wild West, a land of opportunity. It has the space so missing in the rest of East Asia. In recent decades several million Han Chinese have migrated into Tibetan lands seeking economic opportunities denied them further east. Tibet is also a place where the one-child policy is largely ignored, for Han people anyway, so the incentives to immigrate are great. The Han now greatly outnumber ethnic Tibetans throughout Old Tibet.

Strategic Significance: The Tibetan Plateau provides a buffer between China and India. It was a major prize sought in the "Great Game" for the control of Central Asia that Britain and Russia played in the 19th and early 20th century. Military strategists claim that Chinese missiles based in Tibet can hit all of the Middle East. Conversely, missiles placed in Tibet by a foreign power could easily strike into the heart of China. For this reason alone, China feels it needs to exert permanent control over Tibet.

Investment: China has poured a fortune into Tibet. The high-speed railway to Lhasa is only the latest of many investments made in the infrastructure of Tibet. Before the 1950s Tibet seemed medieval, lacking roads, motorized vehicles, telephones, and electricity. Now it has roads, schools, hospitals, Soviet style apartment complexes, shopping malls, and an incredibly oversupply of karaoke bars. Tibetans claim that this development benefits Han immigrants, not native Tibetans. They are right, but China presumably will not willingly give up its investment in Tibet.

Internal Pressures/"Face": This is the biggest issue of all, I think. Like virtually everyone else, the Chinese have a great deal of national pride. As one of the world's oldest continuous civilizations and greatest early cultures, they have cause. However, the last few centuries have been rough on Chinese pride. Western powers imposed a number of unequal treaties on the faltering Qing dynasty, the Opium Wars demonstrated the military superiority (and questionable morality) of the Western powers, and China was humiliated by the Japanese in WWII. It's hard to read modern Chinese history and not empathize with the Chinese sense of outrage. This recent history of high handed and hypocritical treatment—well known to all Chinese though largely overlooked in the West—severely limits the ability of western nations to use moral suasion on the Chinese government. (When you add in China’s vital importance for the economic stability of Europe and the US, it is even more apparent how little leverage western governments can exert.)

Then there is the convoluted problem arising from the unintended consequences of decades of the one-child per family policy, coupled with the collapse of China's social welfare system, including most government pensions. It can be summarized as follows: If you can only have one child, and you know you will need a son to look after you in old age—girls still join their in-laws' family after marriage—there are major incentives to have a boy. The grim prospect of abandonment and destitution in old age has led to wide spread amniocentesis in the cities, where female fetuses are often aborted. In poorer areas female infanticide is common. Current estimates suggest that there are now 119 young men for every 100 women. In consequence, millions of young men are unable to find brides. Throughout China's long history, young unmarried men with little to lose have always formed the shock troops of peasant revolts. Knowing this history, China's rulers are deeply concerned about the potential threat to law and order posed by millions of angry single men. As long as the economy continues its unprecedented growth, there is hope, but with any slowdown the specter of rebellion looms. (Though hard data is unavailable, it appears that in the last decade China has had hundreds of riots and minor rebellions every year. All are quickly suppressed, and few are reported in the state media. Were the economy to slow or even contract, it's hard to imagine the disaster that might ensue.)

Now we return to Tibet. As part of their method of control, the leaders of the PRC have encouraged nationalist impulses and even xenophobia among the masses. The state uses this extreme nationalism as a way to channel the aggression and anger of frustrated underemployed men. Even before the recent protests, minority cultures were often targets of this xenophobia. Newspapers now report that large numbers of Han Chinese are angry at the concessions they believe their government has already made to the Tibetans, Uigurs, and other minority groups. They demand a crackdown. Having allowed Han xenophobia to flourish, the leaders of the PRC cannot turn it off at will. Even worse, if they seem to make concessions to the Tibetans, or yield to western pressure, their very survival may be threatened. Patriotism is a dangerous weapon of social control, of course, for it often turns against those who attempt to wield it. The leaders of the PRC are in a tight spot and must be feeling trapped.

So will current protests against the treatment of Tibetans and threats to boycott the Olympics produce positive changes in Chinese policies anytime soon? The answer is almost certainly no. China is far too concerned with "face" to back down in response to external pressure. The Chinese are justly proud of the enormous steps they have taken to transform their nation into an economic dynamo, and they still nurse legitimate grievances against past high-handed treatment by the western powers. More importantly, many millions of Han Chinese would feel betrayed by their leaders if they made concessions to the “ungrateful minorities” most Chinese believe they have "liberated."

Does this mean that the Tibetans should not protest or that we should not support them? Again, I think the answer is no. Tibetans must bring their case to the court of world opinion whenever they can, and this is the best opportunity they have had in decades. I believe that the Tibetan fight for a measure of true autonomy in the so-called TAR is just; furthermore it is critical for the survival of Tibetan culture in its homeland. Unfortunately, I do not believe that China can afford to make concessions that would lead to real Tibetan autonomy—at least not publicly, so any change that eventually comes will be incremental and quiet.

Scott Lowe is a Professor and Chair in the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.


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