Tibet - an "independent" nation?

By Yo Tong on February 12, 2012
An image from Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The banner on the armored vehicle reads "Tibetans and Chinese are the same family". It seems that domestic violence is not a big issue for this family.

Tibet's independence has been at the center of East Asian attention for centuries. Since the 7th century A.D., the area was contested with China, the Mongols, the Nepalese during the invasions of the late 18th century, and the British in the 19th century. Although the nation has vied for independence throughout its history, its foreign and domestic policies, aspirations and cooperations have fallen in and out of step with those of its neighbor to the east. This should make us think. Perhaps, Tibetan independence was and is not as one-sided as we may often be led to believe. This article will investigate what is meant by “independence“ in Tibet.

Supposedly, one of the most important texts regarding Tibet's independence is the Proclamation of Independence of Tibet, a five-article decree written in 1913 by Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama. In it, he proclaimed:

Now, the Chinese intention of colonizing Tibet under the patron-priest relationship has faded like a rainbow in the sky. [...] We are a small, religious, and independent nation.

Whether or not this can truly be seen as a proclamation of independence came under scholarly scrutiny. As the Chinese scholar Shi Shuo claims

Michael van Walt van Praag quoted the 'Proclamation Issued by His Holiness the Dalai Lama XIII' in 1913 [...] as proof of Tibetan independence, but this was nowhere near the truth. First, the proclamation was not open to the public, but only an internal speech by the Dalai Lama, so at that moment no outsider had any knowledge about it. That is why some British still use the expulsion of all Chinese from Tibet as proof of Tibet's independence. Second, the Dalai Lama published this 'internal speech' in the form of a letter in 1932 [...] in which the original word 'bod ljongs' was used, which refers to the geographical location of the Tibetan area, and not 'rgyal khab', which means 'nation'. It was Tsepon W. D. Shakabpa who translated the word 'bod ljongs' as 'nation'...

Tashi Wangdi, retired Professor of China's Minzu University, also argued that the original Tibetan word used is “bod ljongs”, a reference to the geographical location of Tibet, and not “rgyal khab“, or “nation”. Some Chinese even argued that the Tibetan word “rang dbang” has a wide range of meanings, that varies from autonomy in one's existence, freedom, the power of one-self, free will, control, command as well as independence.

We must bear in mind, however, that these scholars (Shi Shuo and Tashi Wangdi) both taught in Chinese universities, so their views should be read with a critical eye.

In addition, some Chinese and Western scholars have argued that the allusion to an end of a “patron-priest relationship“ should be interpreted in a historical context. During the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, which saw the overthrowing of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China (ROC), many outlying provinces such as Fujian, Guangdong, Shandong and Sichuan decided to secede from the Qing regime thereby declaring independence. Tibet's proclamation of independence occurred in parallel with the declarations in other provinces, though there were differences in nature. In fact, in 1913, a popular insurrection saw the expulsion of Qing dynasty figureheads from Tibet, and the Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa thereafter. The newly formed ROC extended its apologies to the 13th Dalai Lama for the actions of the Qing, and offered to restore him to his former position. The Lama rebuked this offer, and assumed the spiritual leadership of Tibet with his followers' support.

In essence: as Alfred P. Rubin - Professor of International Law at Tufts University - underlines, 

(The points in the Proclamation of Independence of Tibet) were not political-legal declarations at all, but merely the 13th Dalai Lama’s affirmations that the mchod-yon (priest-patron) relationship between Dalai Lamas and Chinese emperors had been extinguished due to the end of the (Qing) empire.

In the epoch preceding the Qing, namely the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Sinologist Josef Kolmas described China's policy towards Tibet as one of “laissez-faire” (Chinese historians summarized the policy as “多封眾建,因俗以治” in Chinese, which roughly means “conferring many titles and governing in line with local customs”). During this time, Tibet lived in relative peace with Ming China, and Ming China did not have a strong military or political presence in Tibet besides conferring titles to Tibetan leaders and aristocrats. When China was under the rule of the ROC, some historians argued that, the non-interference policy adopted by Kuomintang can be interpreted as a revival of such “laissez faire” policy. Others have attributed the lack of Chinese intervention in Tibet as an inability to govern the region, caused by the infighting of warlords in China (1916-1930) and followed by the Japanese invasion in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Be it as it may, from 1913 to 1948, Tibet remained fairly autonomous both from British and Chinese rule, until 1949 when Mao Zedong threatened Tibet with “liberation”.

Preceding Mao's threat, the Kashag - the Tibetan governing council - attempted to redefine the relationship with the ROC as a state-to-state diplomacy. They set up a Tibetan Bureau of Foreign Affairs in July 1942, and demanded that the ROC government communicate directly with the Bureau instead of passing through the Office of the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission (MTAC), which oversaw the ROC's relationship to its Mongolian and Tibetan dependencies. However, this plan was unsuccessful: after negotiation attempts with the ROC government, the Kashag gave in and abolished the Bureau a year later.

In many instances from 1912 to 1950, Tibetan leaders demonstrated an acknowledgement of China's sovereignty by sending delegates to numerous internal, political meetings, such as the Drafting Committee for a new Constitution of the ROC in 1925, the National Assembly of the ROC in 1931 and others. This was extremely significant. One of the main goals in the Constitution of the ROC, for instance, was to create unity between the five traditional ethnic groups in China (Han, Manchus, Mongols, Hui Muslims, and Tibetans) in an effort to step up to European and Japanese imperialism. By dispatching its delegates, Tibet was implying its status as a member of the Chinese apparatus.

Mao's threat of Tibetan “liberation” in 1949 implied coercive action and disdain for human rights in Tibet. In 1951, Tibet signed the Seventeen Point Agreement “under duress”, which formalized China's sovereignty over Tibet. In the mid-1950s, this led to outbreaks of armed resistance by Tibetans. In 1954, the Dalai Lama visited Beijing and asked for proper championing of the Seventeen Point Agreement, but China failed to honor its promise. In 1959, after an uprising in Lhasa, the 14th and current Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso went into exile in India, followed by most of his ministers and about 80,000 Tibetans. He administered in exile and taught his spiritual concepts to followers there. Among these was his idea of a “Middle Way” - a political and social stance towards China that fosters cooperation, and does not seek Tibetan independence as long as the Chinese government respects the distinctive character of the Tibetan people and allows them to enjoy genuine regional autonomy. This idea is, by and large, in line with the Seventeen Point Agreement, but whose promises had not been upheld on behalf of Beijing's government. Nowadays, given the lack of progress on human rights in Tibet as well as other parts of China, frustrated young generations of Tibetans are opting for a more radical approach: full-fledged independence through demonstrations and self-immolation.

Ironically, the 14th Dalai Lama is a self-proclaimed “half-Marxist, half-Buddhist”. When asked about his appeal of Marxism, he replied:

Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes - that is, the majority - as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation.

So what, exactly, is meant by “independence” in Tibet? The Dalai Lama is fighting for Tibet's autonomy, not its independence. The Seventeen Point Agreement was meant to grant Tibet autonomy, not independence. Wherein lies the difference? The Tibetans' struggle is one for freedom of religious belief, freedom of speech, freedom to preserve their traditions and local customs. Whether Tibet remains “Chinese” or not is besides the point. Tibet wants to be a truly autonomous region. Oddly enough, despite its official name (Tibet Autonomous Region), Tibet is neither independent, nor autonomous. This is a clear example of Orwellian Newspeak, and more importantly, the crux of the Tibetan debate.

If the Chinese Communist Party sincerely wants to reach a peaceful, long-lasting solution to the Tibet issue, it can: it must grant human rights and religious freedom instead of focusing on “gain and profitability” by investing heavily in tourism, spending on roads, railways and other infrastructure. It should also re-examine itself from a moral standpoint and decide whether it is, indeed, a Communist country with Marxist-Leninist ideals, or if the name is just a hoax. If these conditions are met, constructive dialogue with Tibetans as well as with the Dalai Lama may be successful.

For now, Beijing seems to have opted for the most dangerous solution by adopting a heavy-handed policy towards Tibet. The international community is watching; the clock is ticking. China may be playing with fire in its own backyard and if a peaceful solution is not charted, a worse catastrophe may unravel.