Tibet has been on the Western mass media quite frequently during the last few weeks. Many American and other Western politicians have also voiced very strong opinions regarding Tibet. With very few exceptions, the view expressed in the Western mass media and the Western politicians basically can be summarized with the following three viewpoints:
- Tibet was an independent country until Communist China invaded Tibet in 1950.
- Before 1950, Tibet was a Shangri-la country, where its citizens lived peacefully and happily with their religious and political leaders.
- Various revolts and demonstrations in Tibet, beginning with the 1959 revolt, were popular revolts by the ordinary citizens of Tibet without any outside influence and support.
In this article I would like to let history to assess the validity of these three viewpoints.
Was Tibet an Independent Country or Part of China?
In almost every part of the world and every country, if one goes back far enough in time, it is very likely that the national boundary of a country was not the same as that country’s boundary today. That country as a united political/military/economic unit might not have existed at that time, or part of its current territory might have been an independent country or part of another country at that time. However, if for an extended period, especially over several centuries, a territory has been part of the sovereignty of a country and other countries had recognized that sovereignty, then one should conclude that from a legal perspective that territory is part of that country.
Now let’s examine the historical records regarding Tibet. Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan who was the initiating leader of the Mongolian Empire, conquered China (as well as many others parts of Eurasia) and established the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD) which included Tibet, as shown in the map below:
Map of Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)
(Kublai Khan of Mongols established the Yuan dynasty)
Tibet, in the southwestern part of the red area, was clearly part of China.
What was the history of Tibet before the Yuan Dynasty? A number of competing nomadic tribes lived in Tibet. They developed a religion known as Bon that was led by shamans who conducted rituals that involved the sacrifice of many animals and sometimes humans. There were frequent battles among these tribes for better grazing lands. The losers of these battles often became slaves of the conquering tribes. These tribes often roamed far beyond the border of Tibet into areas that are in modern China’s provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Xinjiang, Gansu, and Qinghai. Later, one of these tribes, the Tubo, took control of all of Tibet (as a matter of fact, the name Tibet comes from Tubo). There were frequent interactions (trades, cultural exchanges, and wars) between China and Tibet in the pre-Yuan Dynasty period.
During China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), to improve relations between China and Tibet, the emperor of China in 641 gave one of his daughters, Princess Wenzheng, in marriage to the Tubo king, Songtsen Gampo. Princess Wenzheng, as well as all of the Tang emporors, was a Buddhist. She and her entourage introduced Buddhism to Tibet. Buddhism as a religion in Tibet had its ups and downs during the period from 641 to the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty in 1271, depending on whether the ruler(s) in control of Tibet were pro-Buddhism or pro-Bon.
Tibet being a sovereign part of China has continued from the Yuan Dynasty to the present during the last 700+ years, although the degree of control and interaction between the central government and the Tibet region varied depending on the strength of the central government, and the degree of autonomy granted (officially or de facto) to various territories. For example, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), there was significantly more autonomy for the various heads of different parts of Tibet. During the Republic of China period (1911-1949), with the attention of the central government focusing on foreign occupations of China, its civil war with the Chinese Communists, and the 14-year World War II with Japan (1931-1945), Tibet was left with a lot of autonomy from the central government.
During these 700+ years, many foreign countries tried to invade Tibet and take it away from China. These included the invasion in 1337 of Mohammed Tugluk of Delhi (in what is now India), the invasion in the second half of the 18th century by Nepal, and the invasions in the late 19th century and again in the early 20th century by Britain (in competition with Russia). One of the consequences of the last British invasion in 1903 was a Convention that Britain signed with China in 1906 that stipulated that Britain would no longer interfere with the administration of Tibet and that China had sovereignty over Tibet. Britain, however, exhibited its colonial trickery by signing a Convention with Russia one year later in 1907 that specified British “special interests” in Tibet. This was just one of many trickery actions taken by Britain to try to split Tibet from China or to increase their own influence in Tibet. It would take much longer than this article to elaborate on these trickery actions.
I think it is fair to conclude that history supports that Tibet has been part of China since the Yuan Dynasty more than 700 years ago
Was Tibet a Shangri-la Society?
What kind of society was Tibet before 1950? Before we answer that question, let’s first refresh our memory of world history. During the 14th-17th century, Europe underwent a transformation from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance Period (sometimes also called the Early Modern Period). The transformation affected literature, philosophy, art, science, religion, and politics. In particular, it gradually ended the feudal system where at the top of the hierarchy were the very few, very rich, great landlords, and at the bottom of the hierarchy were the large masses of poor peasants or serfs who worked the land subject to the will of their masters (the great landlords). The religious leaders, e.g., the bishops, were also at the top of the hierarchy, because they were among the greatest medieval landowners. This transformation in the political/economic area later led to the emergence of the capitalism economic system from the feudalistic economic system.
Under its various dynasties, China was also a feudal society where at the top of the hierarchy were the small number of upper class consisted of the nobility and the very large landlords, and at the bottom of the hierarchy were the large number (around 80-90%) of poor peasants and laborers. Like Europe, China also underwent a major transformation except that it occurred two, three hundred years later, when the feudalistic dynastic system of rule was overthrown with the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911 by Dr. Sun Yat-sen. The Republic of China never really established itself, due to a variety of factors, including ambitious warlords who wanted to revert back to establishing a new dynasty, foreign powers’ ambitions and interventions in carving pieces of China for themselves, the long 14-year war (1931-1945) with Japan, and the long civil war with the Chinese Communists. It was not until 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was established that there was a strong central government with the ability to unify the country and to resist foreign interventions.
Similar to medieval Europe and the Chinese dynastic periods, Tibet until 1950 was also a feudal society. At the top of the hierarchy were the very few, very rich, great landlords, and at the bottom of the hierarchy were the large number of serfs. There were also two significant differences between the pre-1950 Tibet and medieval Europe or the pre-1911 China. One was that not only the religious leaders, such as the Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama (the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama were the leaders of the two most important religious sects in Tibet), and other lamas, were among the largest landlords, they also had the most political power, i.e., Tibet was a theocratic feudal society. The other difference was the existence of slaves, who were even lower in the hierarchy than the serfs. The slaves were like properties owned by the masters who could treat the slaves completely as they wished.
Like other feudal societies, there were also tremendous differences in wealth between the small ruling class at the top of the hierarchy and the large (about 90%) serf/slave class at the bottom of the hierarchy. Furthermore, in theocratic feudal Tibet, the existence of such disparity was justified based on religion, because a poor person deserved that fate because he/she was a bad person in an earlier reincarnation, and a rich person deserved that fate because he/she was a good person in an earlier reincarnation. Therefore, one should not complain and it was useless to complain; one should just accept that fate as God’s will and behave properly hoping that one will end up in a better reincarnation in the future. In other words, the unfairness in this life was explained away as completely logical and reasonable.
For the serfs and slaves, there was no chance to be educated, as the schools were only for the ruling class and the monks. So there was essentially no opportunity for them to escape from their poverty, with the possible exception of young boys joining the monasteries to become monks. There were also very few health clinics or doctors, and whatever they had were usually for serving the ruling class and the monks. The average life expectancy in pre-1950 Tibet was about 35 years.
Besides great economic disparity, there were also a lot of extremely harsh and inhumane punishments. For example, if a slave or serf attempted to run away and was caught, he would suffer severe physical punishment, and often would have his hand(s) cut off, or his eye(s) gouge, or even be killed. Such cruel instruments of torture can still be seen in the museums in Tibet. Furthermore, sexual exploitation was common among the landlords and the religious elites. Many young boys working in the monasteries or living in the monasteries as monks-in-training were sexually molested by senior monks and other religious leaders. A well-known example was documented in the book The Struggle for Modern Tibet: The Autobiography of Tashi-Tsering, Copyright 2000, by Melvyn C. Goldstein, William Siebenschuh, and Tashi-Tsering. Women also did not escape from sexual molestations. Pretty serf girls were usually taken by the owner as house servants and used as he wished.
It is fair to conclude that the pre-1950 Tibet was a far cry from a Shangri-la society. The truth is that it was a theocratic, semi-feudal and semi-slave society with great disparity between the small ruling class of religious leaders and great landlords on the one hand and the masses of serfs and slaves on the other hand. There was essentially no educational opportunity for the overwhelming majority of people. Many people were abused, molested, and tortured, and often justified in the name of religion. Furthermore, before the Chinese Communists moved into Tibet in 1950, there was no intention by the local Tibetan government to make fundamental changes in that type of society.
Are the Revolts/Demonstrations in Tibet Spontaneous and Generated from Within?
As previously mentioned, the People’s Republic of China was established on October 1, 1949. But the Chinese army did not move into Tibet right away, probably because they were busy consolidating their control over the other parts of China. In 1950 the Liberation Army entered Tibet. In the latter part of April 1951, negotiations between representatives of the Central Government and representatives of the Tibetan Local Government (including the Dalai Lama’s and the Panchen Lama’s representatives) took place in Beijing. On May 23, 1951, the “Seventeen-Point Plan for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” was signed by both sides.
The Seventeen Points included:
- “… that the Tibetan people shall return to the big family of the motherland – the People’s Republic of China.”
- “The Central Authorities will not alter the existing political system in Tibet. The Central Authorities also will not alter the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama. Officials of various ranks shall hold office as usual.”
- “The established status, functions, and powers of the Panchen Ngoerhtehni shall be maintained.”
- “By the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama and of the Panchen Ngoerhtehni is meant the status, functions and powers of the 13th Dalai Lama and of the 9th Panchen Ngoerhtehni when they were in friendly and amicable relations with each other.”
- “The Tibetan troops will be reorganized step by step into the People’s Liberation Army, and become a part of the national defense forces of the Central People’s Government.”
- “Tibetan agriculture, livestock raising, industry and commerce will be developed step by step, and the people’s livelihood shall be improved step by step in accordance with the actual conditions in Tibet.”
- “In order to ensure the implementation of this agreement, the Central People’s Government will set up a military and administrative committee and a military area headquarters in Tibet …”
This seemed to be a workable agreement to proceed forward, acknowledging that Tibet is part of China, and granting a great deal of autonomy to the Tibet Local Government. What happened during the subsequent years, especially during the next eight years?
I think there were three major factors that kept this agreement from being implemented in full.
- Knowing what the Central Government was doing in the rest of China, especially in terms of land reforms, the Tibetan Local Government was concerned that in order to improve significantly the livelihood of the average Tibetan, sooner or later significant land reforms, as well as other reforms, must be made in Tibet, thus potentially greatly altering the distribution of wealth and power in Tibet.
- Some of the Central Government’s domestic policies, such as the “anti-rightist movement” of 1957-1958, that were applied to the rest of China were chaotic and disruptive. Later, the Cultural Revolution created great havoc and seriously hurt or destroyed a lot of innocent people all over China, including in Tibet.
- Foreign interference to try to weaken China. Keep in mind that China and the U.S./UN fought in the Korean War during 1950-1953, and that it was mostly due to the U.S.’s support of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang government that kept Taiwan from being a part of the People’s Republic of China. It has been well documented that the CIA was heavily involved in training, arming, and providing airlifts to armed Tibetan bands.
In their book The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet, copyright 2002, Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison described in detail how the CIA encouraged Tibet’s revolt against China (especially the 1959 revolt), and eventually came to control its fledgling resistance movement. They discussed training camps in the Colorado Rockies, clandestine operations in the Himalayas, securing the Dalai Lama’s safe passage to India and subsequent initiation of one of the most remote covert campaigns of the Cold War. Kenneth Conboy is a former policy analyst and deputy director at the Heritage Foundation, and the late James Morrison was a thirty-year Army veteran and the last training officer for the CIA-sponsored Unity project.The CIA continued to provide all kinds of support (including financial, intelligence, propaganda, and military support) to the exiled Dalai Lama. This support continued at least to the early part of the decade of the 1970s when it was reduced significantly when President Nixon was trying to improve relationship with China. However, the U.S. government has continued to this date to support the exiled Dalai Lama and the Tibet independence movement via less obvious government-controlled organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The NED was established by Congress in 1983, when the CIA was accused of covertly bribing politicians and setting up phony civil society front organizations. Allen Weinstein, who was responsible for setting up the NED during the President Reagan Administration was quoted in the 9/21/91 issue of the Washington Post: “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” Tibet-related organizations that the NED has continued to fund include the International Campaign for Tibet (founded in 1988 in Washington, D.C. and currently with offices in Washington, D.C., Amsterdam, Berlin, and Brussels) and the Students for a Free Tibet (founded in 1994 in New York City).
Besides the U.S., Britain has for a whole century tried to carve Tibet from China to become either a part of the British colonial empire or an independent state. To keep the article from being excessively long, we will not elaborate on Britain’s involvement.
The Western press has repeatedly reported that the demonstrations were completely peaceful, that they were all internally generated, and that Tibet has every reason to be independent. But they almost never mentioned about the destruction of properties and lives by the demonstrators, about the decades-long effort by the Western powers to carve Tibet off from China, about their long-standing financial and military support of the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s former ruling class, about China’s efforts to redistribute land and wealth in Tibet, about China’s efforts to educate the masses in Tibet, about the rise of the life expectancy of Tibetans from 35 years in the pre-1950 to the present 67 years, or about the arguments supporting China’s claim that Tibet is part of China.
From the recent Western press coverage and their politicians’ comments about Tibet, it is fairly clear that it has been very much one-sided of pro-Tibet-independent and anti-China. Whether or not one agrees with China’s position, any objective analysis should conclude that it is definitely not as one-sided as what has been covered in the Western press or as voiced by opportunistic politicians.
Because of the Western powers’ long history of trying to carve Tibet out of China and to weaken China, because of the well-documented CIA’s support of the Tibet revolts, and because of the completely one-sided and often distorted negative reporting of the history and recent events related to Tibet, one can only conclude that the revolts/demonstrations in Tibet were at least partially cultivated and supported by the Western powers to try to achieve their decades-old objective to carve Tibet out of China and to weaken China.
Even though I am very critical of how the Western press and politicians have portrayed Tibet and its recent events, I am not saying that the Chinese Communist government has not made serious mistakes in Tibet. The most obvious mistakes were all the havoc, destructions, and injustices that occurred during the decade long Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) that occurred all over China, including in Tibet. Many Tibetan people were arbitrarily and unjustifiably accused of various wrong doings. They lost their jobs or positions, and suffered disgrace, humiliation, physical punishments, and deaths. Many monasteries were destroyed. However, it is important to understand that in general the Tibetans were not singled out, but that these injustices occurred all over China, and usually to the Han majority.
China’s mistakes are not just limited to those of the Cultural Revolution. In its current effort to modernize and to emerge as an economic world power, China must pay significant more attention to the disparity between the rich and the poor, to corruption, to government bureaucracy, to environmental pollution, to freedom of the press, to freedom of religion, to individual rights, and to the rule of law. To win the heart and mind of the people in Tibet, as well as in other parts of China, China must make significant progress in these areas.
The U.S. is currently experiencing a great financial crisis, and this financial crisis is not going to go away easily, because the main cause is that the U.S. government for many years has been spending much more than it has been taking in (for more discussion on this issue, see the article “Government Spending and America’s Future” under the “Archived-Other Topics” page of this website. To keep its economy and government operating, the U.S. has borrowed more and more money. However, this at most can only be a short-term solution, because one cannot continue to mortgage one’s future. The long-term solution is that the U.S. government must responsibly manage its budget, i.e., spend within its means, and at the same time the U.S. must increase its competitive productivity.
When you consider that most of the modern scientific, technological, or business innovations have originated in the U.S. (some notable recent examples in technology and business include Google, Yahoo, YouTube, I-Pod, Instant Messaging, MySpace, Facebook), there is no reason why American cars and electronics cannot compete successfully against Japanese and German cars and electronics. Instead of trying to solve the underlying causes of the U.S.’s problems, many politicians and the mass media want to divert people’s attention from their own shortcomings by finding some scapegoat, such as the country (China) that has purchased the most of the U.S. government-issued IOUs. A recent example of using China as the scapegoat is the completely uncalled for and extremely biased remark by Jack Cafferty in CNN’s “The Situation Room” broadcast on April 9, 2008, when he blamed China for buying so much of the U.S.-issued IOUs, and also said in referring to the Chinese leaders “I think they’re basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years.”
The history of Tibet is definitely not as portrayed by the Western mass media and their politicians. China does have strong arguments that Tibet is and has been part of China for over 700 years. Tibet before 1950 was definitely not a Shangri-la society. It was a theocratic, semi-feudal, semi-slave society in which there was great disparity in wealth and power between the small number of religious leaders and great landlords on the one hand and the overwhelming majority of serfs and slaves on the other hand. The Western powers have tried for decades (in the case of Britain, for over 100 years) to carve Tibet out of China and to weaken China. The Western powers, and within the last almost 60 years especially the CIA, have provided all kinds of support (financial, intelligence, propaganda, training, and military support) to Dalai Lama and other members of Tibet’s former ruling class. The revolts and demonstrations in Tibet are not necessarily spontaneous and internally generated.
Boycotting the 2008 Beijing Olympics or its Opening Ceremony will not help the Tibet situation or cause China to make more and faster progress on the changes mentioned earlier. Instead, it would ruin the greatest sports competition in the world that occurs only once every four years, and more importantly it would just result in a deterioration of the relationship between China and those countries taking such step. It would destabilize the world and decrease the opportunity for world peace.
 Although China did not officially declare war with Japan until after the July 7, 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident outside of Beijing, Chinese usually consider the war with Japan started on September 18, 1931 when Japan invaded Manchuria, the northeastern part of China.
Recently the following poem has been circulating in the Internet with the note that it had recently appeared in the Washington Post. Although I have not been able to find it in the Washington Post or the name of the author who wrote this poem, I thought the poem summarizes the situation very well with respect to how the Western powers and mass media have been treating China during the last 100-plus years.
When we were the Sick Man of Asia, We were called The Yellow Peril.
When we are billed to be the next Superpower, we are called The Threat.
When we closed our doors, you smuggled drugs to open markets.
When we embrace Free Trade, You blame us for taking away your jobs.
When we were falling apart, You marched in your troops and wanted your fair share.
When we tried to put the broken pieces back together again, Free Tibet you screamed, It Was an Invasion!
When tried Communism, you hated us for being Communist.
When we embrace Capitalism, you hate us for being Capitalist.
When we have a billion people, you said we were destroying the planet.
When we tried limiting our numbers, you said we abused human rights.
When we were poor, you thought we were dogs.
When we loan you cash, you blame us for your national debts.
When we build our industries, you call us Polluters.
When we sell you goods, you blame us for global warming.
When we buy oil, you call it exploitation and genocide. When you go to war for oil, you call it liberation.
When we were lost in chaos and rampage, you demanded rules of law.
When we uphold law and order against violence, you call it violating human rights.
When we were silent, you said you wanted us to have free speech.
When we are silent no more, you say we are brainwashed-xenophobics.
Why do you hate us so much, we asked.
No, you answered, we don’t hate you.
We don’t hate you either,
But, do you understand us?
Of course we do, you said,
We have AFP, CNN and BBC’s…
What do you really want from us?
Think hard first, then answer…
Because you only get so many chances.
Enough is Enough, Enough Hypocrisy for This One World.
We want One World, One Dream, and Peace on Earth.
This Big Blue Earth is Big Enough for all of Us.