Tibet under Chinese Rule

The deal with Tibet, commonly referred to as the “Tibet Question,” is a point of controversy both within China and for the international community at large. The two main points of concern are Tibet’s quest for self-determination and Tibetan quality of life under Chinese rule. While Tibet’s struggle for self-determination can be linked with the questionable treatment Tibetans face under the Chinese government (hereafter referred to as Beijing), the two issues are not exactly the same.

Tibet’s quest for self-determination has its roots in Beijing’s invasion and takeover in 1950. No doubt this has contributed to the grievances the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE) and the Tibetan people have with current Beijing rule.

The important role self-determination plays in the psychological well-being of Tibetans can be deciphered from the current Dalai Lama’s discussions with the international community, as well as from his persistent efforts to negotiate with Beijing for greater self-determination allowances. The Tibetan people’s strong support of the Dalai Lama can be interpreted as collective agreement with his views.

The quest for self-determination also leaves open the question of whether or not Tibetans and the TGIE would seek greater autonomy even if they felt they were treated fairly by Beijing. However, it is clear Tibetans are not always treated well or fairly. In many ways, Tibetans are marginalized and oppressed, both intentionally and inadvertently, by Beijing and the hegemony of Chinese culture. Resentment over Beijing’s historical takeover likely exacerbates the Tibetans’ sense of being wronged, but the present-day human rights problems Tibetans experience at the hands of Beijing are issues in their own right.

Tibet’s Quest for Self-determination

Tibetan national sovereignty is one of the festering disputes between China and Tibet. Tibet had all the characteristics of a sovereign nation, with its own system of governance, culture, religion, and ethnically distinct population prior to Beijing’s invasion of Tibetan territory in 1950. Tibet also conducted its international relations separately from China, even signing its own treaties and agreements with other nations.

Since invading, Beijing asserts Tibet has been a part of China for several centuries and, therefore, China is its proper ruler. Furthermore, Beijing asserts its invasion was meant to free an oppressed people from a cruel system of feudal serfdom and pro-imperialist that went against the desires of the Tibetan people. Consequently, Beijing paints itself as Tibet’s liberator, though the veracity of this claim is questionable. In 1951, Tibetan delegates sent to Beijing to negotiate for Tibetan independence were tricked and intimidated into signing a “17 Point Agreement.” The agreement, while stating that Tibet would retain most of its culture and practices, also included a provision stating Tibet would become part of the People’s Republic of China. This was not clear to the delegates and when they tried to question Chinese authorities on contradictory aspects of the agreement, they were told that failure to sign would result in the dispatching of the People’s Liberation Army (Blondeau 2008).

Since 1950, China has enacted a number of development projects and policy reforms in an effort to stabilize Tibet and bring it into its fold. Many of these policies and projects had disastrous effects for the Tibetan people. The Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s, which promoted secularism, had a particularly devastating effect on Tibetan culture, which is rooted in religion.

Economic gains for Tibetans, most of which have only occurred since the 1980s, still leave them in positions of a relative disadvantage when compared to their Han Chinese counterparts.

Though their leader is in exile, Tibetans still look to the current Dalai Lama for direction. One of his main endeavors since his escape from Tibet in 1958 has been his struggle for Tibetan self-rule. While he has sought full independence in the past, the Dalai Lama tried to find a compromise in 1988 by offering the Strasbourg or “Middle Way” Proposal.

This proposal forgoes independence, allowing China to determine international relations and security issues, but asks Beijing for true autonomy to self-govern in all other areas including, but not limited to, education, religion, economy, environment, and culture. Beijing has not accepted this offer and, in fact, has tirelessly continued to assert its claims of sovereignty over Tibet. While the international community treats Tibet as part of China and does not officially recognize it as a sovereign nation, there is at least some international sentiment that Beijing’s claim to Tibet is invalid. Unfortunately, Beijing considers the international community’s treatment of Tibet as part of China to be one of the validating reasons for its right to govern the region.

Chinese Hegemony

Beijing regularly points to various laws it has enacted purportedly to benefit Tibet, as well as to

several other concessions it has granted Tibetans. One law meant to benefit minorities is the Law on Regional National Autonomy (LRNA). Article 15 of the LRNA allows for “protection of minority concerns in the areas of language, education, political representation, administrative appointments, local economic and financial policies, and the use of local and natural resources” (Davis 2008). However, these allowances fall under the overarching control of Beijing, which can, and does, intervene in these protections when it deems certain activities go against its idea of national unity.

An additional challenge for Tibetans is that the rights and benefits they are afforded come with the stipulation of having to be done the “Chinese Way.” As a result, many of Tibet’s cultural traditions have been manipulated or diluted. For example, though China claims it gives Tibetans religious freedom, religion was banned until 1976. Although religious expression has since been allowed, Tibetans complain that their freedom in this area remains limited (Métraux and Yoxall 2007). In the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Tibetans are not allowed to display photos of the Dalai Lama and China has interfered in Tibet’s process of choosing reincarnated lamas. The standardized education system, which some claim Beijing uses as a tool for assimilation, is also problematic.

Though Beijing can point to increased literacy rates and school attendance in Tibet, Tibetans still struggle to complete school in part because they have trouble passing the Mandarin language exams required to advance through the education system. Unsurprisingly, situations like these serve to strengthen Tibetan national identity.

To perpetuate the notion that Tibetans ought to be part of China, the government released six State Council White Papers between 1991 and 2006 that reiterate China’s proper claim to Tibet and its role as a liberator. These papers also include various statistics and facts supporting Beijing’s argument that Tibetans’ circumstances have drastically improved under Beijing’s rule (Smith 2008). However, one must ask why the TGIE and the Tibetan people continue to fight for greater self-determination if Beijing’s claims of liberating and significantly improving the lives of Tibetans are true.

Though some Tibetans, mainly those in urban areas, have indeed experienced the quality of life improvements, this does not mean Beijing’s efforts have been a success. It has been speculated that, was Tibet a nation, it would rank at or near the bottom of the United Nation’s Human Development Index (Goldstein et al 2003). This is exacerbated by the fact that most development efforts in the TAR have been concentrated in the urban areas where Han Chinese are the majority.

Since most Tibetans live in rural areas, this makes it difficult for them to reap any substantial gains from Beijing’s modernization efforts.

Concluding Remarks: Why the “Tibet Question” Remains Intractable

It is important for the international community to realize that both Tibet and China view the “Tibet Question” through their own subjective lens. This does not mean there are not factual incidents of oppression and human rights abuse; nor does it mean there have not been measurable efforts on behalf of Beijing to improve the lives of Tibetans.

Though Tibetans have been undeniably oppressed and marginalized, it would be unfair to claim Beijing has not attempted to improve living standards in the TAR, even if its motivation is largely to harmonize Tibet with the rest of China. There is a strong disconnect between the TGIE and Beijing’s political philosophies, which is perhaps the main reason the “Tibet Question” stands at an impasse. The current Dalai Lama supports democratic policy in the TAR and the character of his negotiation efforts with Beijing serve as an example of his belief in conducting government affairs democratically. Simultaneously, Beijing’s laws and its treatment of its citizens stem from its strong belief in communist ideology, which holds that individual rights are secondary to the state’s right to uphold social order and protect society’s interest as a whole.

This means the government will often ignore individual rights and proper legal proceedings whenever it believes doing so will protect the state’s goals (Li2007). Setting the historical invasion aside, if we look at Beijing’s efforts to handle the “Tibet Question,” it becomes clear its policies toward Tibet stem from its inability to view governance outside communist parameters. This suggests it would take international pressure to get Beijing to reconsider its stance on Tibet. However, given China’s increasing economic and political power, this does not appear to be a possibility waiting on the horizon.

By Sanjida Jannat

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