WHEN WAS TIBET NOT TIBET?
(A Historical Perspective)
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[This version: 3 November 1993]
by Michael C. Van Walt Praag
- Early History:
- Mongol Influence:
- Relations with Manchu, Gorkha and British Neighbors:
- Tibet in the 20th Century:
- The Invasion of Tibet:
The Tibetan Government-in-Exile, headed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama,
Tibet's exiled head of state and spiritual leader, has consistently held
that Tibet has been under illegal Chinese occupation since China invaded
the independent state in 1949/50. The People's Republic of China (PRC)
insists that its relation with Tibet is purely an internal affair,
because Tibet is and has been for centuries an integral part of China.
The question of Tibet's status is essentially a legal question, albeit
one of immediate political relevance.
The PRC makes no claim to sovereign rights over Tibet as a result of its
military subjugation and occupation of Tibet following its armed
invasion in 1949/50. Indeed, the PRC could hardly make that claim, since
it categorically rejects as illegal claims to sovereignty put forward by
other states based on conquest, occupation, or the imposition of unequal
treaties. Instead, the PRC bases its claim to Tibet solely on the theory
that Tibet became an integral part of China 700 years ago.
Although the history of the Tibetan state started in 127 B.C., with the
establishment of the Yarlung Dynasty, the country as we know it was
first unified in the 7th Century A.D., under King Songtsen Gampo and his
successors. Tibet was one of the mightiest powers of Asia for the three
centuries that followed, as a pillar inscription at the foot of the
Potala Palace in Lhasa and Chinese Tang histories of the period confirm.
A formal peace treaty concluded between China and Tibet in 821/823
demarcated the borders between the two countries and ensured that,
"Tibetans shall be happy in Tibet and Chinese shall be happy in China."
As Genghis Khan's Mongol Empire expanded towards Europe in the West and
China in the East in the 13th Century, Tibetan leaders of the powerful
Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism concluded an agreement with the Mongol
rulers in order to avoid the conquest of Tibet. The Tibetan Lamas
promised political loyalty and religious blessings and teachings in
exchange for patronage and protection. The religious relationship became
so important that when, decades later, Kublai Khan conquered China and
established the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), he invited the Sakya Lama to
become the Imperial Perceptor (sic) and supreme pontiff of his empire.
The relationship that developed and continues to exist into the 20th
Century between the Mongols and Tibetans was a reflection of the close
racial, cultural, and especially religious affinity between the two
Central Asian peoples. The Mongol Empire was a world empire and,
whatever the relationship between its rulers and the Tibetans, the
Mongols never integrated the administration of Tibet and China or
appended Tibet to China in any manner. Tibet broke political ties with
the Yuan emperor in 1350, before China regained its independence from
the Mongols. Not until the 18th Century did Tibet again come under a
degree of foreign influence.
Relations with Manchu, Gorkha and British Neighbors:
Tibet developed no ties with the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1386-1644). On
the other hand, the Dalai Lama, who established his sovereign rule over
Tibet with the help of a Mongol patron in 1642, did develop close
religious ties with the Manchu emperors, who conquered China and
established the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The Dalai Lama agreed to
become the spiritual guide of the Manchu emperor, and accepted patronage
and protection in exchange. This "priest-patron" relationship (known in
Tibetan as Choe-Yoen), which the Dalai Lama also maintained with some
Mongol princes and Tibetan nobles, was the only formal tie that existed
between the Tibetans and Manchus during the Qing Dynasty. It did not, in
itself, affect Tibet's independence.
On the political level, some powerful Manchu emperors succeeded in
exerting a degree of influence over Tibet. Thus, between 1720 and 1792,
Emperors Kangxi, Yong Zhen, and Qianlong sent imperial troops to Tibet
four times to protect the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people from foreign
invasions by Mongols and Gorkhas or from internal unrest. These
expeditions provided the Emperor with the means for establishing
influence in Tibet. He sent representatives to the Tibetan capital,
Lhasa, some of whom successfully exercised their influence, in his name,
over the Tibetan Government, particularly with respect to the conduct of
foreign relations. At the height of Manchu power, which lasted a few
decades, the situation was not unlike that which can exist between a
superpower and a satellite or protectorate, and therefore one which,
though politically significant, does not extinguish the independent
existence of the weaker state. Tibet was never incorporated into the
Manchu Empire, much less China, and it continued to conduct its
relations with neighboring states largely on its own.
Manchu influence did not last very long. It was entirely ineffective by
the time the British briefly invaded Lhasa and concluded a bilateral
treaty with Tibet, the Lhasa Convention, in 1904. Despite this loss of
influence, the imperial government in Peking continued to claim some
authority over Tibet, particularly with respect to its international
relations, an authority which the British imperial government termed
"suzerainty" in its dealings with Peking and St. Petersburg, Russia.
Chinese imperial armies tried to reassert actual influence in 1910 by
invading the country and occupying Lhasa. Following the 1911 revolution
in China and the overthrow of the Manchu Empire, the troops surrendered
to the Tibetan army and were repatriated under a Sino-Tibetan peace
accord. The Dalai Lama reasserted Tibet's full independence internally,
by issuing a proclamation, and externally in communications to foreign
rulers and in a treaty with Mongolia.
Tibet in the 20th Century:
Tibet's status following the expulsion of Manchu troops is not subject
to serious dispute. Whatever ties existed between the Dalai Lamas and
the Manchu emperors of the Qing Dynasty were extinguished with the fall
of that empire and dynasty. From 1911 to 1950, Tibet successfully
avoided undue foreign influence and behaved in every respect as a fully
Tibet maintained diplomatic relations with Nepal, Bhutan, Britain, and
later with independent India. Relations with China remained strained.
The Chinese waged a border war with Tibet while formally urging Tibet to
"join" the Chinese Republic, claiming all along to the world that Tibet
was one of China's five races.
In an effort to reduce Sino-Tibetan tensions, the British convened a
tripartite conference in Simla in 1913 where the representatives of the
three states met on equal terms. As the British delegate reminded his
Chinese counterpart, Tibet entered into the conference as an
"independent nation recognizing no allegiance to China." The conference
was unsuccessful in that it did not resolve the differences between
Tibet and China. It was, nevertheless, significant in that Anglo-Tibetan
friendship was reaffirmed with the conclusion of bilateral trade and
border agreements. In a Joint Declaration, Great Britain and Tibet bound
themselves not to recognize Chinese suzerainty or other special rights
in Tibet unless China signed the draft Simla Convention which would have
guaranteed Tibet's greater borders, its territorial integrity and full
autonomy. China never signed the Convention, however, leaving the terms
of the Joint Declaration in full force.
Tibet conducted its international relations primarily by dealing with
the British, Chinese, Nepalese, and Bhutanese diplomatic missions in
Lhasa, but also through government delegations traveling abroad. When
India became independent, the British mission in Lhasa was replaced by
an Indian one. During World War II Tibet remained neutral, despite
combined pressure from the United States, Great Britain, and China to
allow passage of raw materials through Tibet.
Tibet never maintained extensive international relations, but those
countries with whom it did maintain relations treated Tibet as they
would any sovereign state. Its international status was no different
from, say, that of Nepal. Thus, when Nepal applied for membership in the
United Nations in 1949, it cited its treaty and diplomatic relations
with Tibet to demonstrate its full international personality.
The Invasion of Tibet:
The turning point in Tibet's history came in 1949, when the People's
Liberation Army of the PRC first crossed into Tibet. After defeating the
small Tibetan army and occupying half the country, the Chinese
government imposed the so-called "17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful
Liberation of Tibet" on the Tibetan government in 1951. Because it was
signed under duress, the agreement lacked validity under international
law. The presence of 40,000 troops in Tibet, the threat of an immediate
occupation of Lhasa, and the prospect of the total obliteration of the
Tibetan state left Tibetans little choice.
As open resistance to the Chinese occupation escalated, particularly in
Eastern Tibet, the Chinese repression, which included the destruction of
religious buildings and the imprisonment of monks and other community
leaders increased dramatically. By 1959, popular uprisings culminated in
massive demonstrations in Lhasa. By the time China crushed the uprising,
87,000 Tibetans were dead in the Lhasa region alone, and the Dalai Lama
had fled to India.
In 1963 the Dalai Lama promulgated a constitution for a democratic
Tibet. It has been successfully implemented, to the extent possible, by
In the course of Tibet's 2,000-year history, the country came under a
degree of foreign influence only for short periods of time in the 13th
and the 18th centuries. Few independent countries today can claim as
impressive a record. As the ambassador of Ireland at the UN remarked
during the General Assembly debates on the question of Tibet, "[for
thousands of years, or for a couple of thousands of years at any rate,
[Tibet) was as free and fully in control of its own affairs as any
nation in this Assembly, and a thousand times more free to look after
its own affairs than many of the nations here."
Numerous other countries made statements in the course of the UN debates
that reflected similar recognition of Tibet's independent status. Thus,
for example, the delegate from the Philippines declared, "It is clear
that on the eve of the invasion in 1950, Tibet was not under the rule of
any foreign country." The delegate from Thailand reminded the assembly
that the majority of states "refute the contention that Tibet is part of
China." The United States joined most other UN members in condemning
Chinese aggression and invasion of Tibet. In 1959, 1960, and 1961, the
UN General Assembly passed resolutions (1353 (XIV), 1723 (xvi), and 2079
(XX)) condemning Chinese human rights abuses in Tibet and calling on
that country to respect the fundamental freedoms of the Tibetan people,
including their right to self-determination.
Michael Van Praag is the author of "The Status of Tibet" available
through Snow Lion.
Reprinted, with permission, from the Spring 1989 issue of
Snow Lion Newsletter and Catalog.
Date: Mon, 01 Nov 93 17:43:44 EST
From: P. Calvert
Dear Dr. Ciolek:
I would like to submit the following article for inclusion in your
archives. I am not the author; however, I have obtained the permission
of the publisher to reproduce the article electronically.