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China's Quagmire on Tibet Issue and the Dalai Lama


Amidst varying estimates of triumph of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the global esteem in the first decade of the new millennium, there has been a sobering tale of a fiasco in its six decades long tryst to seal the political future of Tibet to its favour. March 14, 2008 witnessed riots in Lhasa, the aftermath of which has continued to reverberate and make headlines all through in different forms and shapes, including how the accused persons were given capital punishment in just few hours long trials and execution taking place in quick intervals.[i] The critique often drew parallel to the incidence to March 6, 1989, which, inter alia, stood witness to massacre of 380 Tibetan demonstrators.[ii] As the PRC of this millennium stands on a different footing than the preceding one, the development is per se cataclysmic.

In the recent past, the PRC has been holding the world powers at diplomatic ransom as and when the Tibet issue, and for that matter, the Tibetan traditional leadership, in particular the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso have had programmes to meet foreign dignitaries. On notable such event was that of the US President Barack Obama receiving him in the Map Room of the White House on Feb 18, 2010. Emptying the last but one diplomatic arrow from its quiver, the Chinese vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai summoned the US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and lodged a solemn representation with little diplomatic nuances. The culmination came after a fortnight with a long rhetoric mongering in the Chinese media.

For seasoned China watchers, both native Chinese and foreigners, such as Prof Tao Wenzhao, Senior Fellow, Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Prof Robbie Barnett, Director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, and a lot many others, the end outcome was on expected lines. China’s leadership must not have been naïve either to think otherwise. Nevertheless, the Chinese diplomatic stride went ahead at war footing, which, in parts, reflected China’s new found assertiveness and bellicosity

The paper is aimed at exploring China’s quagmire on Tibet issue and plausible raison d’etre behind China’s such often repeated knee jerk diplomatic response. In the run up, the paper examines whether such Chinese diplomatic articulations were in sync. with the accepted diplomatic practices and values, or ran counter to China’s much publicized refrain of seeking a ‘harmonious world’.

The paper is, accordingly, structured to focus on: the Chinese Strategy on Tibet and the fall out; the Tibet Issue and the Centrality of the Dalai Lama; and, Coercive Diplomatic Maneuvers and the net outcome. The assumptions include: China’s territorial ambition is but historic; China and Tibet carry mutually exclusive social system; and, the roadblock to China’s territorial ambition in Tibet transcends beyond its obsession on the Dalai Lama.

Chinese Strategy on Tibet and the Fall Out

China’s multi-pronged strategy to secure legitimacy to its political control over Tibet remains fragile. Much of it tends to erupt out no sooner the 14th Dalai Lama would like to step out and his itineraries could include his meeting with a public figure. The event literally sends shudder into the spine of the Chinese state, and who then come to resort to ‘diplomatic ransom’ as a palliative. Interestingly, it betrays what followed Han China’s southward territorial expansion from its original home in the Yellow River basin in antiquity.[iii] It has not been going on Yunnan or Xinjiang way either. [iv] It is all then of a series of savaging policy onslaughts, meticulously lashed out in the last six and odd decades. The phenomenon is hypothesized to be an outcome of ‘skewed Chinese strategy mix’, which, for want of sync with ground realities, tends to breed contempt with end result of distancing the common Tibetan masses from the Han rule of Tibet.

In tandem with China’s past southern expansion for nearly 2000 years under different dynasties, in particular during two foreign dynasties such as Yuan (1279-1368) and Qing (1644-1911) and in between the native Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the PRC had put military strategy at the forefront of socio-economic and cultural strategies to annex Tibet.[v] The development sounded last post to what is known as ‘Chos-yon’ or Priest-Patron relationship that historically otherwise endured co-existence of China and Tibet throughout the said epoch of Yuan Dynasty, the Ming Dynasty, and the Qing dynasty, and trampled the institution of the Dalai Lama to the chagrin of generations of Tibetans for times to come.[vi] Notwithstanding, against all diplomatic propriety, it annulled China-Tibet Peace Treaty of AD 821, signed between the Tibetan ruler Trisong Dretsen and the Chinese Emperor Wen-Wu that proclaimed “Tibetans to be happy in Tibet and the Chinese in China”.[vii]

The Chinese military strategy on Tibet has had three components: the military operation, code named heping jiefang xizang (peaceful liberation of Tibet) in October 1950, where it mobilized 52, 53 and 54 Division of the then Eighth Route Army to cross Tibetan frontier; the transformation of peaceful land, referred as Shangri-La, into a military base with as many as 17 secret radar stations, 14 military airfields and 11 airstrips, 8 missile bases with at least eight intercontinental missiles besides 70 medium range and 20 intermediate range missiles, and a nuke base, believed to be located in the vicinity of Lake Ko Ko Nor; and, often repeated military crackdown. Replete in Tibetan folk tales and accounts of knowledgeable section of the people, the Chinese military operations in Tibet in 1950s, through March 1959 Lhasa Uprising and the unrest of eastern Kham and Amdo of 1956 besides the encounter Tibetan Regular Army and Khampa militiamen at the frontier post, main ferry point of the Drichu river and river crossing near Markham, claimed as many as 432,000 Tibetan lives. [viii] It included 85000 men, women and children, who perished in the precincts of the Potala Palace after the PLA artillery shelled on March 10, 1959.[ix] Nevertheless, 10,000 Chinese regulars did as well lose their lives at the hands of small but highly motivated Tibetan Army and Khampa militiamen.[x] From the accounts of various sources including wikipedia, 432,000 lives have been lost in various extreme dealings of the Chinese armed forces such as imprisonment, execution, torture, suicides and the like.[xi] Not surprising, down the stream, the Tibetan populace look at the PLA as an aggressor.

China’s political strategy on Tibet is primarily ensconced in the ‘Seventeen Point Agreement’, signed in Beijing on May 23, 1951. It followed ‘surrender’ of the miniscule Tibetan Army to the imposing Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the battle of Chamdo.[xii] In their organization and management, the political system, brought to bear upon, emitted spectra of an ‘exogenous implant’ rather than some thing of the order of ‘endogenous offshoot’ to the age old socio-cultural milieu and/ or conscientious popular ‘will of the people’ of the land.

In popular image, beyond what the adherents of Beijing lines say, the Agreement is rather one sided. It is not hard to configure out. Kaloon Ngabou Ngawang Jigme, who led the Tibetan side for the talks in Beijing, was not allowed to communicate the text of the agreement to Lhasa much less suggest any alteration. The delegation was not authorized by Lhasa to sign. They succumbed to pressure and signed on the dotted lines. Even the seals were made then and there for the use.[xiii] The agreement was not ratified by Lhasa even subsequently.[xiv]

Notwithstanding, even content wise, the ‘Seventeen Point Agreement’ carried little sanctity of the wishes of the Tibetan people and their local leadership. Where it speaks some ‘autonomy’/ or ‘freedom’, it is all with a rider and/ or caveat that nullifies the end positive impact of the agreement on the lives of the native Tibetans. Last straw on the Camel’s back has been the decimation of the social, cultural and economic wherewithal at will. The agreement just worked to pave the way for the PLA and the Communist Party of China (CPC) to have a free ride. In the structure and function, the ethnic Tibetan does have a place but as titular head of the local government. Actual power rests with the First Secretary of the CPC in the region, who is invariably a Han Chinese. Not surprising then that the Chinese political strategy, thus far, has failed to earn much needed ‘legitimacy’ and ‘validity’ even when ‘authenticity’ is given the benefit of doubt. The clamour for ‘real autonomy’ spearheaded by the Tibetan folk now is thus the outcome of ‘lacunae’ in the agreement.

China simultaneously got to pursue an array of ‘socio-economic strategy’, each of which was meticulously crafted with specific political end. Balkanization of ‘Tibet proper’ referred in certain circle as ‘cultural Tibet’ stood out as the king pin. Accordingly, ‘U-Tsang’ (central and south Tibet) and small part of ‘Kham’ (south eastern Tibet) region, covering 474,300 sq mi/ 1,228,400 sq km, got carved as Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and the rest 2.24 million sq km stretch, constituting whole and/ or parts of Amdo and Eastern Kham, incorporated into the adjacent existing Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan.[xv] This measure was essentially aimed at ‘neutralizing’ the future demographic factor for political control.

China carried out ‘land reform campaign’, under the banner of ‘democratic reforms’, which, by China’s own account, involved ‘abolition of the feudal land ownership’, and making serfs and slaves masters of the land’.[xvi] The decision is said to have been arrived at by the ‘Preparatory Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region’ in Sep 1959. The legality of the decision is contested as it was brought to bear upon in absentia of the Chairman, the Dalai Lama.[xvii] 2.8 million mu (1 mu is equal to 1/15 of a hectare) of land was confiscated from 200,000 households what China calls serf-owners, and was distributed to 800,000 landless farm workers what China calls serfs or slaves. It was all done under a campaign, which included thamzing (struggle) sessions that forced 1300 targeted household, holding 900,000 mu of land to undergo public humiliations before parting with their possessions.[xviii] The process was little different from what had happened in China from 1950 until the spring of 1953, where 700 million mu were confiscated and distributed among 300 million landless farmers. While the estimates of death toll vary, it is but incontrovertible fact that the measures were not blood less therapy.[xix] While the merit of affirmative action while undisputable, it failed to strike the desired dividend for the Chinese for two reasons: first, the implementation machinery blamed the 14th Dalai Lama for what was wrong in the system for millennium in Tibet as elsewhere for various reasons; and last but not the least, the Chinese did not attach damn worth to distinctive socio-cultural milieu of Tibet while implanting its own experiments. It has eaten up hosts of positive developments in economic, social and cultural lives of Tibet. Some of the policy instruments which favour Han migrants and/ or stand to strengthen China’s control over the resource base of Tibet do as well bear blame for the phenomenon.

China’s Achilles heel and Centrality of the Dalai Lama

In addition, incorporation of Tibet into China suffers inalienable disabilities of two opposite social systems coming face to face. Modicum of discernible changes in the life and living standards as much as impacts of modernizing and modernizing factors in the broad contexts of developmental sweep notwithstanding, the Tibetan populace at large suffer a psychological barrier of its kind to get along and feel at home with Han Chinese, much less the Chinese rule. A host of scholarly works bear out, the phenomenon of several factors, in particular, victor-victim syndrome that breeds alienation. Scholars tend to argue and testify about the Han Chinese as being racist and/ or politically incorrect in creating a cleavage to the detriment of China’s national agenda to incorporate Tibet into China. Notwithstanding, China’s dream has turned a distant reality also for its faux pas on the centrality of the Dalai Lama. It first permitted the Dalai Lama’s to run the Tibetan government with all symbols of authority, the legal base of which lay in points 3-7 and 9-11 of the said otherwise questionable ‘17 Point Agreement’ of May 23, 1951 (Box-1). It then repudiated it by an array of unilateral actions under the banner of so called ‘democratic reforms’ that ended up in near permanent disconnect between the heart and mind of two entities.

Box-1: 17 Point Agreement

The established status, functions and powers of the Panchen Ngerhtehni shall be maintained. By the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama and of the Panchen Ngoerhtehni are meant the status, functions and powers of the thirteenth Dalai Lama and of the Panchen Ngoerhtehni when they were friendly and amicable relations with each other. The policy of freedom of religious belief laid down in the Common Programme of the CPCC shall be carried out. The religious beliefs, customs and habits of the Tibetan people shall be respected and lama monasteries shall be protected. The central authorities will not effect a change in the income of the monasteries. Tibetan troops shall be reorganised step by step into the PLA and become a part of the national defence force of the CPR. The spoken and written language and school education of the Tibetan nationality shall be developed step by step in accordance with the actual condition in Tibet. Tibetan agriculture, livestock raising, industry and commerce shall be developed step by step and the people’s livelihood shall be improved step by step in accordance with the actual condition in Tibet. In matters related to various reforms in Tibet, there will be no compulsion on the part of the central authorities. The local government of Tibet should carry out reforms of its own accord, and when the people raise demands for reform; they shall be settled by means of consultation with the leading personal of Tibet. In so far as former pro-Kuomintang officials resolutely sever relations with imperialist and the Kuomintang and do not engage in sabotage or resistance, they may continue to hold office irrespective of their past. The PLA entering Tibet shall abide by all the above-mentioned policies and shall also be fair in all buying and selling and shall not arbitrarily take a needle or thread from the people. The CPG shall have centralised handling of all external affairs of the area of Tibet; and there will be peaceful Co-existence with neighbouring countries and establishment and development of fair commercial and trading relations with them on basis of equality, mutual benefit and mutual respect for territory and sovereignty. In order to ensure the implementation of this agreement, the CPG shall set up a Military and Administrative Committee and a Military Area HQ in Tibet. And-apart from the personnel sent there by the CPG- shall absorb as many local Tibetan personnel as possible to take part in the work. Local Tibetan personnel taking part in the Military and Administrative Committee may include patriotic elements from the local government of Tibet, various districts and various principle monasteries; the name-list shall be set forth after consultation between the representatives designed by the CPG and various quarters concerned and shall be submitted to the CPG for appointment. Funds needed by the Military and Administrative Committee, the Military Area HQ and the PLA entering Tibet shall be provided by the CPG. The local government of Tibet should assist the PLA in the purchase and transport of food, fodder and other daily necessities. This agreement shall come into force immediately after signature and seal are fixed on it —–

The developments as of now have rather exposed threadbare the basic strength of the Chinese strategy on Tibet. It sought to alienate and substitute the traditional leadership of the Dalai Lama with an array of Machiavellian articulations. Incidentally, the assumptions were too simplistic to strike a win-win situation. Successive three generations of Chinese leadership downplayed the institution of the Dalai Lama, where the game plan included creating a wedge in the Tibetan temporal and spiritual leadership of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama, and whenever it failed, the Chinese state did not hesitate to inflict exemplary punishment.[xx] China has then played ‘deify and win side’ game. The case of Soinam Puncog, enthroning as Reting Lama, made headlines in Jan 2000. This has gone to the psyche of ordinary Tibetan as gross interference to divine ways of identifying incarnates in Tibet.

The wound has been lacerated further by a set of policy measures, which has led to side lining and subordination of traditional eemographic dominance of Tibetan stock in the region.[xxi] Worse still, the higher wage regime, special housing, business and pension benefits for the Han migrants stand a reference for deferential treatment for the generations of Tibetan populace. For every two registered, there is one unregistered Han in Tibet. This is what has gone in making Han populace a target in successive riots in Tibet. Young and old Tibetans in the natural villages as much as township carry grouse on different unending grounds, restrictions on traditional practices, neglect of Tibetan at the expense of Chinese language, destruction of ecosystem in the name of development of modern infrastructure, discrimination in employment and business opportunities and the like included.

Coercive Diplomatic Maneuver and the Net Outcomes

Chinese government portrays the Dalai Lama as a separatist, and all those who subscribe to his thought as the ‘Dalai Clique’. The articulations of the Chinese state machinery including its ‘fourth estate’ are intrinsically aimed at striking bargains.

Barack Obama is discernibly not the first US President to have met the Dalai Lama amidst China’s stern warning. All his predecessors beginning from Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have drawn flak for meeting the Dalai Lama.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu charged Obama administration of having “seriously violated the fundamental practices of international relations, the three communiqués agreed upon by China and the U.S., the principles of Sino-US joint statement and broken b U.S. government’s repeated commitments of recognising Tibet as part of China and not supporting Tibetan independence.” Ma called upon U.S. to “seriously consider China’s stance, immediately adopt measures to wipe out the adverse impact, [and] stop conniving and supporting anti-China separatist forces.” Zhu Weiqun, a senior Communist Party leader in charge of ethnic and religious affairs, went a step further. He warned US of “corresponding action”, capable of making the Obama administration “see their mistakes”. In the Chinese print and electronic media, there were umpteen numbers of insinuations.

Jeffery Washerstorm, Prof of History, University of California, has explained China’s obtuse diplomatic play up of the kind as a ploy meant for “domestic audience”.[xxii] Yan Xuetong, Director, Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, looks at the development as rather a natural diplomatic behaviour as the two are “competitors as much as partners. I also do not read too much into China’s coercive diplomatic refrain. I see China in a wind. It can not fray its ties with the US that it has been able to secure after decades, in particular in economic life, manifest in two way average trade value crossing US$ 366 billion and added fringe benefits. It can not stop whipping public passion either lest it should suffer legitimacy for all the excesses. Alas! It is all not in sync with China’s professed commitment for “harmonious world”.

(The writer, Dr Sheo Nandan Pandey, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi).

Footnotes [i] According to Chinese official version, the riots in Lhasa on Mar 14, 2008 were most serious incidence in the region for decades. The vicinity of Ramoche Monastery was first to witness the rampage at around 11 o’clock (local time). It subsequently engulfed all around, notably Jokhong Monastery, Yutuo Road, Beijing East Road, Duoseng Road, Chomsigkhang Market and the like.

[ii] On March 5, 1989, a small group of Tibetan Monks, Nuns and common people staged a protest march in the Barkhor area of central Tibet. Chinese security forced hurled bottles to scare the demonstrators who responded with pelting of stones. The Chinese riot police fired indiscriminately. Crowd started pouring into Lhasa. Unmindful of the killings and future at stake, Tibetan masses poured into Lhasa from all where, chanting slogans to the effect of ‘freedom’ from the Chinese yoke and the return of the Dalai Lama. They waved Tibetan flag. Hu Jintao, the then First Secretary of the region’s party committee and present President, also the general Secretary of the Communist Party of China and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, declared Martial Law on March 8, 1989. It was lifted only a year later.

[iii] China originated in the Yellow River Region and expanded into Yangtze and Pearl River Region with several tides of military conquests and colonization. During the course of time, many native people disappeared as they got absorbed into the Chinese, and their land was attached to the middle kingdom. There is typical case of disappearance of Chu people in the middle Yangtze and Yue people in the lower Yangtze.

[iv] Yunnan and Xinjiang fell into China’s colonial grip after a series of conquests during Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties and advent of the People’s Republic of China. Through out the period, the Chinese state encouraged large scale migration and created an ambience for replication of Chinese society. Yunnan fell first into the trap and lost its traditional identity. In the case of Xinjiang, the process started at a later date in the second half of the 19th century. This speaks why Chinese identity faces much less challenges in Yunnan than in Xinjiang.

[v] There normal pattern of Han China’s conquests under different dynasties included military colonization, peasant migrations, taking local chieftains into its side and control of the economy of the region. It has true all through and in all cases including control and annexation of present day Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Yunnan province.

[vi] Qing Emperor Qianlong, who sent Chinese armed forces to fight Amban Tibetan rebels in 1770 AD, recognized and respected the Tibetan spiritual and political institution of the Dalai Lama and made no attempt to integrate Tibet into the Chinese empire. Instead, Emperor Qianlong drew on Buddhism to bolster support among Tibetans

[vii] Stone pillar in front of Jo-Khang Monastery in Lhasa holds the inscription of the treaty. The Tibetan and Chinese version of the inscription finds place in quite a few publications including H.E Richardson, “The Sino-Tibetan Inscription of AD 821/823 at Lhasa”, Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1978. He has again referred Prof Fang Kuei Li’s write up in T’oung Pao, XLIV, 1956 and several monumental works in the past.

[viii] Rinpoche, Samdhong.Uncompromising Truth for a Compromised World: Tibetan Buddhism and Today’s World, World Wisdom Books, 2006.

[ix] Roberts, John. “Inside Story of CIA’s Black Hands in Tibet”, The American Spectator, December 1997.

[x] Laird, Thomas. The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama (2006) Grove Press; Shakya, Tsering. The Dragon In The Land Of Snows (1999) Columbia University Press.


[xii] The PLA overwhelmed the 9th Regiment of Tibetan Army in the battle of Chamdo on Oct 7, 1950. The force size of the Tibetan Army was 8500 officers and men, equipped with fifty and odd artillery pieces, 250 mortars and a couple of hundred machine guns. They were outnumbered by the elements of three regular divisions of PLA. The Tibetan Army did not get reinforcement from Lhasa. Provincial governor Ngabo Ngawang Jigme conveyed offered to surrender on Oct 19, 1950 when his repeated radio message for further instructions failed to secure an advisory from Lhasa.

[xiii] Powers, John. History as Propaganda: Tibetan Exiles versus the People’s Republic of China (2004) Oxford University Press

[xiv] UK Parliamentary review corroborates the position taken by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile that the Seventeen Point Agreement’ was never ratified by Lhasa (

[xv] Not until 1724, most of the area that is now Qinghai was under Tibetan rule. China came to exercise a measure of control over parts of the region only after the Qing defeated Dzungars. It became a province of the Republic of China for the first time in 1928. It has been subsequently the primary base for warlord Ma Bufang. The PRC incorporated IT subsequently as its province in 1949.


[xvii] The Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region was established in Lhasa, with the 14th Dalai Lama as the chairman, the 10th Panchen Lama the first vice-chairman and Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme the secretary in April 1956. However, Dalai fled Tibet in April 1959 where as the decision on ‘Abolishing Feudal Land Ownership System and Implementing Farmers’ Land Ownership” was arrived at in September 1959.

[xviii] Tibet did have large land owning individuals and institutions, which included monasteries. Drepung monastery is said to be the largest.

[xix] The Tibetan government in exile puts the figures of unnatural death in the wake of the land reform and certain other occasions at 1.2 million. Independent studies dispute the claim. The range is 0.6-1.2 million for Tibet. In China as whole, the figure runs to 44.5-72 million.

[xx] The Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, both of the Gelugpa lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, are on the top of the lama hierarchy in old Tibet. Ranked second, the Panchen Lama originally did not carry political authority. The 10th Panchen Lama who stayed back after 1959 Uprising while the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India, submitted 70000 character petitions to the then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, and pointed out the sufferings of the Tibetan masses. The Chinese government responded by awarding imprisonment for 9 years and 8 months followed by house arrest for 14 years.

[xxi] The statistics on Tibetan population in Tibet proper as such is under dispute. While the Chinese government claims a net increase of Tibetan stock from 2.7 million to 5.4 million since 1954, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile speaks of declines from 6.3 million to 5.4 million since 1959.


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