You may know the basic story – that Mao Zedong’s China invaded Tibet in 1950 and annexed it as part of China, and that the young Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 and has lived in exile since. After all this time, why do the Tibetans continue to resist Chinese rule?
China claimed ownership of Tibet based on a history of sporadic Chinese possession of Tibet. However, Tibet was a independent nation in 1950, and Tibetans maintain a separate language, culture and ethnic identity from China.
A Pattern of Brutality
According to GlobalSecurity.org, the People’s Republic of China had guaranteed no alteration of Tibetan political, cultural, and religious systems and institutions. China failed to live up to this agreement, however. The Tibetans began to revolt against Chinese rule in 1956. From that time, through the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, an estimated 1,200,000 Tibetans were killed and more than 6,000 religious sites were destroyed by the Chinese.
So-called “democratic reform” led to an uprising in Lhasa in 1959. The response by China was harsh; approximately 87,000 Tibetans were killed, arrested, deported to labor camps, or sent into exile.
“The Chinese Government strictly controls access to and information about Tibet. Thus, it is difficult to determine accurately the scope of human rights abuses. However, according to credible reports, Chinese government authorities continued to commit serious human rights abuses in Tibet, including instances of torture, arbitrary arrest, detention without public trial, and lengthy detention of Tibetan nationalists for peacefully expressing their political or religious views.”
Tibetans can be arrested merely for possessing a photograph of the Dalai Lama. See also “The Tragedy of the Panchen Lama.”
Since 1950 China has moved ethnic Chinese into Tibet, and today Tibetans are an ethnic minority in their own country. Tibetans have been forced to assimilate to Chinese culture. Tibetans say the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which began operations in July 2007, is accelerating the cultural genocide of Tibet.
Is Tibet Better Off With the Chinese in Charge?
Among what pockets of Marxism exist in the West’s far Left is a popular notion that China was correct to invade Tibet and that the Tibetans are better off for it; see, for example, the widely read “Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth” by Michael Parenti.
It is a fact that before 1950, Tibet’s was a feudalist society in which most people were kept in the status of serfs. Many westerners have romantic notions of old Tibet as a place where everyone was peaceful and happy, when in reality there was the same sectarian enmity, corruption, and exploitation of the weak by the strong one finds just about everywhere else.
China apologists go off the rails, however, when they ignore the atrocities and oppression to which Tibetans are subjected by the government of China. Two wrongs do not make a right. Tibet could have been reformed without mass slaughter.
The title “God-King” given the Dalai Lama by western media misstates his actual status. The fourteen Dalai Lamas had less than absolute power in old Tibet. Although the Dalai Lamas were Tibet’s chief administrators, much power was in the hands of old aristocratic families who were the feudal overlords as well as a deeply conservative monastic establishment.
In the past the Dalai Lamas had to walk a fine line not to displease the overlords too much. And, in fact, some past Dalai Lamas met with sudden and unexplained deaths, possibly for political reasons. It was also true that most of the Dalai Lamas had themselves led sheltered lives and knew little about the world outside Tibet.
The Great Thirteenth
That changed with Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama, who assumed administrative authority of Tibet in 1895. The Great Thirteenth was a reformer.
He increased the number of lay officials to reduce the political influence of monasteries. He established a secular school system. He built a new medical college. He took steps to reduce corruption. He abolished the death penalty, reduced corporal punishment, and improved conditions in prison. He introduced electricity and telephones.
Even so, the work of the 13th Dalai Lama met with stiff resistance from the conservative monastic establishment and the aristocratic overlords. His authority may have been absolute in theory, but it was limited in practice. He died in 1933.
The 14th Dalai Lama
The current Dalai Lama was born in 1935. A month after the invasion of Tibet by China in 1950, Tenzin Gyatso was enthroned as the ruler of Tibet. He was 16 years old at the time. We cannot know if the 14th Dalai Lama would have continued the reforms of the 13th, as he was never in control of his own country.
For the next nine years, the young Dalai Lama “ruled” under the thumb of China. Although China had promised autonomy and religious freedom for Tibetans, the Chinese did not abide by their promises. After a failed uprising against the Chinese in 1959, the Dalai Lama left Tibet, believing the Chinese were planning to assassinate him.
Events in recent days should tell us the people of Tibet are not grateful the Chinese are in control of their country. Yes, most Tibetans led wretched lives before 1950. Yes, the Chinese have made considerable investments in Tibet to modernize the backward country. But today Tibetans face economic inequality and discrimination by the Han Chinese who have moved into Tibet.
As Ed Douglas writes in the March 16, 2008, Observer, “Life might have got better for some Tibetans, but they see Han Chinese migrants doing a whole lot better and at their expense.”
As long as some scrap of Tibetan identity remains, it is unlikely the people of Tibet will accept Chinese rule without genuine freedom and economic equality. Yet the government of China has a long pattern of rigid denial of this simple fact. The only way they know how to keep “peace” is through brutality.
The current unrest may be put down, but the Tibetans’ desire for freedom will not be appeased with anything less than freedom.