On July 4 Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, will turn 84 and he is expected to celebrate his birthday outside his motherland once again. Tibet is an open wound that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is still working to erase from history, together with the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 and Taiwan, the “three Ts” on which authorities willingly turn a blind eye.
One of the “dark anniversaries” in 2019 recalls March 10, 1959, when a revolt flared in Lhasa, which ended in the departure of the Dalai Lama to Dharamsala. The regime’s version represents the military campaign as an anniversary of “democratic reform”, a liberation from the “feudal serfdom” epitomised by Buddhist theocracy.
On May 1951, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) affirmed its sovereignty over Tibet, after the “Seventeen Point Agreement” was signed between Beijing and the local government. From the Chinese Communist standpoint, this event turned a backward land into a “new beautiful home”; on the other hand, Tibetans considered the agreement a forced submission to the local authorities of the time. Beijing’s crackdown in 1959 forced the Dalai Lama to seek asylum in India, but the Communist government and Tibetans embarked on new negotiations to discuss the political status of the region. In August 1979, a delegation formed by officials of the government-in-exile established a first contact with the central government and paved the way for bargaining, but Sino-Tibetan relations deteriorated when Beijing did not bother to reconsider Tibet’s political status outside the framework of the PRC. Since then, Chinese authorities have carried out a vast array of arrests and executions in Tibet. The situation became far worse in 1989: Tang Daxian, a former Chinese journalist, says that security forces killed more than 450 Tibetans in Lhasa and more than 3,000 were arrested.
China showed massive restraint even in the spring of 2008, opposing the use of “big sticks.” Violent protests were said to have been orchestrated by followers of the Dalai Lama to wreck Beijing’s vaunted “Olympic Year.” The protests were staged by supporters of recognition of Tibetan cultural identity, although the Dalai Lama officially pressured protesters to soften their stance towards Chinese rule. Human Rights Watch recently affirmed that Chinese authorities arbitrarily detained Tibetan monks, students, and religious teachers taking part in protests erupting at the monasteries. The prisoners’ families have not been allowed to visit them, health conditions are precarious, and it is said that they are still suffering physical abuses. Since the 2008 uprising, Lhasa has been more restricted than even Pyongyang. The central government has broadened the powers of local paramilitary forces in an apparent bid to prevent social unrest.
The 14th Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace laureate, reiterated that he is not seeking independence for Tibet, but would consider the idea of a “reunion” with China under mutually acceptable terms. Lobsang Sangay, the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, asked for “genuine autonomy” without questioning or challenging the political structure of the party-state. China’s Constitution recognises five autonomous regions, one of which is the “Tibet autonomous region” (or Xizang Zizhiqu). Beijing has attempted to harmonise the variegated ethnic mosaic and preserve the national cultural autonomy scheme by recognising ethnic communities. But ethnical regional autonomy lessens under the unified leadership of the central government.
China’s President Xi Jinping agreed to meet the Dalai Lama during a state visit to India in 2014, but the meeting was quashed by India. The reincarnation of the Dalai Lama must abide by Chinese laws, regulations, and religious rituals. Moreover, it stands in stark contrast to Xi’s cult of personality. China should have theoretically protected traditional Tibetan culture and fully guaranteed freedom of religious belief over the past six decades. Conversely, the US Ambassador to China, Terry E. Branstad, criticised Chinese officials for interfering in religious freedom.
China’s leaders think that India has now refrained from supporting pro-Tibet rallies. China’s tricky relationship with India regarding Tibet is nothing new. During the Cold War, India believed Beijing was using Tibet as a gateway to the subcontinent. India admitted the Dalai Lama after the 1959 rebellion and upheld him in establishing the Tibetan government-in-exile. This was one of the most important reasons that led to the China-India border war in 1962. During Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the north-eastern border state of Arunachal Pradesh, also claimed by China as Southern Tibet, China said it “resolutely opposes” activities of Indian leaders in the disputed region. But India does not want to sever relations with China because of the Tibetan issue. Despite years of mistrust, a booming India is seeking closer economic partnership with China, which is now one of its biggest trading partners.
Nevertheless, the past tumultuous riots are not just about ethnic and political reasons. One of the sparks of 2008 unrest can be attributed to uneven and disruptive economic development over the past three decades. Tibet has emerged as one of the fastest growing provinces in China. Almost forty years on, poverty rates have been falling, employment levels rising, and the service sector moderately improving. In 1980 the ruling party launched a training and development programme to spread the use of traditional Tibetan medicine, and afterwards it set up profit-oriented businesses to create a pharmaceutical hub. The Belt and Road Initiative would ensure investments in the field of mining (copper and gold) and a well-connected railway network (“Sichuan-Tibet Railway project”) to boost the local economy. Nevertheless, not only has the economic momentum put a strain on social integration, it has also augmented discrimination between Chinese and Tibetan workers.
Most Tibetans complain that the benefits of economic growth favoured the Han majority more than the locals. The Beijing government, through the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, operated a relocation policy in Tibet, favouring the Han people’s move from neighbouring areas to change Tibet’s ethnic and political composition, thus tightening its grip on the periphery. From the political point of view, it is getting harder to subdue local resentments of the Han majority and to throw some light on past events on the Tibetan plateau.
At least to date, it is unrealistic to think that Xi’s “Chinese nation revival” will entail a softer approach to ethnic minorities. Xi has so far been “tone deaf” to such an issue and there are indications that as long as Beijing does not seek a new compromise with the Dalai Lama and religious authorities, the Chinese flag will keep on flying above the Portala Palace. With time, it will get harder for Tibet to re-gain any additional level of autonomy.
The views, opinions, and thoughts expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of ISPI