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China's minority policy

Despite 70 years of Chinese oppression, Tibet continues to resist

Chinese paramilitary police march during a flag raising ceremony near the Potala Palace in Lhasa in western China's Tibet Autonomous Region.
Chinese paramilitary police march during a flag raising ceremony near the Potala Palace in Lhasa in western China's Tibet Autonomous Region. AP

Seven decades ago this week, the Chinese army invaded Tibet, a region that had been effectively independent since the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. But, since no country recognised Tibetan independence, China could go into the region unhindered, moulding Tibet into the province-like dependency it is today.

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After a vicious civil war with the Nationalists that ended with the victory of China's Communist Party (CCP) in 1949, Mao Zedong moved contingents of the People's Liberation Army(PLA) to the west, to conquer Tibet, an area China had claimed for centuries.

After the fall of the Qing dynasty, central control had weakened, and Tibetans had tried, in vain, to establish their own state.

This 1949 map by the Survey of India shows the boundaries of the Tibetan regions at that time. Neither India, nor the UK ever officially recognised Tibet's independence.
This 1949 map by the Survey of India shows the boundaries of the Tibetan regions at that time. Neither India, nor the UK ever officially recognised Tibet's independence. © Wikimedia Commons/Survey of India

But as no Chinese troops were strong enough to occupy the territory, Lhasa, ruled by religious Lamas, operated as a de facto independent state for four decades.

"Even the Chinese will accept, reluctantly, that it was de factoin practice independent from at least 1912," says Robert Barnett, currently a visiting scholar with the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London. 

But in October 1950, the status quo came to an abrupt end.

Troops of China's People's Liberation Army crossing the Mekong river near Chamdo, October 1950.
Troops of China's People's Liberation Army crossing the Mekong river near Chamdo, October 1950. © Wikimedia Commons, originally from China Pictorial, 1951, no. 5.

"The PLA were on the border of Tibet and China, and they had to try and carry out that invasion before the winter of 1950 set in," says Barnett.

"It was quite difficult for them." The troops, worn out after years of civil war, did not make it into central Tibet. The rest of the region, and the capital, Lhasa, remained untouched - for "at least another year".

"During that year, they persuaded the Tibetans to agree to surrender," Barnett says.

Robert Barnett on the 70th anniversary of the Chinese takeover of Tibet

"They had no choice," as none of the big powers of the time, the UK, the US, India, or neighboring Nepal, had recognised Tibet as an independent state.  

Initially the Chinese operated prudently. "Before they actually reached the capital, Lhasa, and during the following eight or so years, the Chinese were very careful not to interfere in Tibetan affairs, except foreign affairs," says Barnett.

"They let the Tibetan army remain; they let the Dalai Lama still run his government."

Troops of the Tibetan Army in Xigatze, central Tibet, 1950. Beijing allowed the Tibetans to keep their army until the uprising which ended in a brutal crackdown in 1959, ending all resistance against China's occupation of the territory.
Troops of the Tibetan Army in Xigatze, central Tibet, 1950. Beijing allowed the Tibetans to keep their army until the uprising which ended in a brutal crackdown in 1959, ending all resistance against China's occupation of the territory. © Bundesarchiv - Schäfer, Ernst via Wikimedia Commons

Brutal crackdown

But the Tibetans became increasingly nervous and suspicious of the Chinese presence.

This feeling escalated when reports reached central Tibet about how Chinese troops in adjacent regions, such as in the Tibetan areas of the Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Sichuan,were using increasingly aggressive methods to subject the Tibetans, confiscating land, breaking up the traditional class system, arresting landlords and bombing monasteries.

"Word spread rapidly, and by 1958, the Tibetans were terrified of Chinese plans for their society and began to organise rebellions and resistance," says Barnett.

The Chinese response was a brutal crackdown, in 1959, that resulted in the destruction of hundreds of monasteries, the killing of thousands of Tibetans. Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India where he continues to live in exile

This map in a 2016 Chinese Ministry of Commerce report on Tibet shows the location and boundaries of the "Tibet Autonomous Region" with the People's Republic of China. The red star indicates the location of capital Beijing.
This map in a 2016 Chinese Ministry of Commerce report on Tibet shows the location and boundaries of the "Tibet Autonomous Region" with the People's Republic of China. The red star indicates the location of capital Beijing. © Wikimedia Commons

"Autonomous regions"

Over the following decades, Tibetans staged numerous demonstrations protesting China's presence, the biggest ones taking place in1989 and 2008. China has always replied with brutal force. 

Today, Tibet, as well as other "autonomous regions" that are formally governed by members of China's minorities, but in practice controlled by the CCP, are being brought under increasingly tight scrutiny by Beijing.

This is a direct result of current Party Secretary Xi Jinping's apparent attempts to integrate China's minorities with the dominant Han-Chinese by means of "ethnic contact, exchange and blending," a catchphrase initially invented by Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao, but today made into a national policy intended to further subject the minorities - in some cases, as in Xinjiang, by brute force.

The Qinghai-Tibet railway opened in 2006 and contributes to the changing landscape and demography of the region.
The Qinghai-Tibet railway opened in 2006 and contributes to the changing landscape and demography of the region. © Jan Reuring, Wikimedia Commons

How will the Dalai Lama reincarnate?

The one crucial element Beijing does not control in spite of its seven decades in Tibet is the Dalai Lama. The spiritual leader fled in 1959. Today he is 85 years old. According to Tibetan Buddhism, his successor is his re-incarnation.

But who decides which newborn is the real reincarnation?

According to Barnett, Beijing "is demanding complete control of the process". A register of all possible re-incarnates is being set up, and "an enormous number of committees and organisations" was set up inside the Tibetan areas controlled by Beijing, "designed to persuade lamas to support China's decision" on the successor of the Dalai Lama.  

"Of course the Tibetans in exile say they want nothing to do with this process," that they will decide through their own, traditional religious methods. 

"It is going to be a big battle. And it means that there is going to be more than one Dalai Lama," suggesting that the struggle for control over the minds of the Tibetans is far from won.

Map of Tibet according to the Tibetan Government in Exile. It includes regions inhabited by Tibetan minorities living in Chinese provinces Qinghai (in pink,) Sichuan (in green) and Yunnan (in orange.)
Map of Tibet according to the Tibetan Government in Exile. It includes regions inhabited by Tibetan minorities living in Chinese provinces Qinghai (in pink,) Sichuan (in green) and Yunnan (in orange.) © Central Tibet Administration

 

 

 

 

 

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