Tibet (November 1999)
by Humanitarian Practice Network November 1999

In mid-October, Chinese president Jiang Zemin visited six countries, including the UK and France. In both these countries, police kept public protesters over Chinese human rights abuses in Tibet well out of sight.

The attitude of the UK government is all the more surprising given that Britain was the first to introduce the concept of autonomy for Tibet in a message to the Chinese authorities in 1912, and during the Simla conference of 1913–1914. Of course imperial politics dominated at the time, and the British position was motivated by the concern to secure the northern border of India by interposing an autonomous Tibet between China and India, and a Chinese territory between the British and Russian empires at a time when the latter two were concluding a treaty with Mongolia. But to the surprise of both the British and Chinese delegations, the Tibetans at Simla presented a demand for independence. Neither Britain nor China was prepared to accept this, so discussions centred on a distinction between ‘Outer Tibet’ (western Kham and central and west Tibet) enjoying substantial Tibetan autonomy, and ‘Inner Tibet’ (eastern Kham and Amdo), with a stronger Chinese presence.


Although the three parties did not reach formal agreement on all detail, the Simla conference for the first time discussed Tibet’s relationship with China from an international perspective. Between 1912 and 1950 the Tibetans enjoyed de facto independence, mainly because China was occupied with revolution and civil war. But in 1950 victorious Communist forces entered Tibet by force – an act not challenged by the international community, itself still in imperial mode. The Chinese have since claimed that Tibet was historically a part of China. This is incorrect.

In 1951 the Tibetans and Chinese came to a Seventeen Point Agreement, but Chinese-imposed ‘democratic reforms’ and ‘socialist transformation’ in subsequent years revealed the profound differences between the two countries about the meaning and implementation of the agreement. A Tibetan revolt in 1959 was brutally repressed with over 80,000 killed. The Dalai Lama and some 100,000 Tibetans fled abroad, repudiated the 1951 agreement, and established a government-in-exile. The UN adopted rather meek resolutions about the right of Tibetans to self-determination and their own identity (www.tibet-society.org.uk/un.html).

The Seventeen Point Agreement discussed the status of Tibet in terms of the Chinese concept of ‘national regional autonomy’, and led to the creation of a Preparatory Committee Tibet Autonomous Region (PCTAR). The latter was formally created in 1964. The term is misleading. Territorially, the TAR is limited and excludes significant parts in the more resource-rich east which, together with its substantial Tibetan population, has been administratively incorporated into Chinese provinces. Second, the Chinese policy towards Tibet in practice has been one of assimilation, not of autonomy.

Two major strategies for assimilation have been adopted: the first went beyond ‘communising’ the feudal structures of old Tibet to a deliberate attempt to destroy the Tibetan identity, through attacks on its cultural and religious manifestations and beliefs. The strategy is to ‘sinocise’ the Tibetans – that is, enforce a Han cultural identity on them. Following aggressive repression during the years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the Tibetans were again allowed more cultural autonomy. However, just as with Soviet attempts to ‘russify’ its non-Russian minorities (like those in the Caucasus) the assault on the Tibetan’s cultural identity achieved the opposite. Tibetan nationalism, closely linked to its cultural and religious identity, revived in the early 1980s. At the Tibet Work Meeting in 1984 China therefore changed policy. The pursuit of assimilation through cultural and political change was replaced by a more aggressive policy of assimilation through physical and biological colonisation. Han colonists now began pouring into the TAR region, taking over all key economic positions, while coercive birth control policies – including enforced abortion and sterilisation – were added to turn the Tibetans into an insignificant minority in Han China. The World Bank (unwittingly?) collaborated when, as part of its poverty reduction campaign, it agreed a £100m loan to Beijing this year to resettle several thousand Han Chinese and Chinese Muslims to more fertile western Qinghai, once a part of Tibet proper but left out of the TAR (www.savetibet.org).

Since 1988 the Dalai Lama has adopted a ‘middle way’, accepting Chinese authority over foreign and defence policy but seeking advanced domestic autonomy for Tibet. The hopes subsequently raised by the collapse of the Soviet empire, the pro-democracy movement in China and award of the Nobel Prize to the Dalai Lama, have not yet yielded tangible results. The destruction of Tibet, as a territory, culture and race, continues. The powers that challenged Milosevic over his repression of the Kosovars have not challenged China. The NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade maybe a background reason. The negotiations for a trade deal to open the Chinese market, and bring China into the WTO, was probably a more prominent reason. Presumably the trade agenda is more important.

For further information read Smith, W (1996) Tibetan Nation (Boulder, Westview Press) and see www.tibet-society.org.uk