Tibet’s history, China’s power

George Fitzherbert
28 March 2008

The Chinese public's frustration at the western media's apparent anti-Chinese bias with regard to the reporting of the recent unrest in Tibet is understandable. The Lhasa riots of 14 March 2008 claimed several innocent Chinese lives and the destruction of many properties and businesses. But the Chinese public should not be blinded from an understanding of the wellsprings of the protest.

George Fitzherbert is a scholar of Tibet at Oxford University

Whenever there is any domestic turmoil in China, the government's instinctive response is always to lay the blame on external anti-Chinese influences "meddling in China's internal affairs". Yet it is very clear that the Dalai Lama has played no direct role in instigating the current wave of riots and demonstrations across the Tibetan plateau. It is, rather, the Chinese government's refusal to respect Tibetan aspirations with regard to the return of their leader that is is one root cause of the present unrest.

A historic moment

What has given this outbreak of protest such a violent and ethnically antagonistic dimension is that in many parts of the Tibetan plateau - which are undergoing rapid economic development - Tibetans are rapidly and reluctantly becoming a minority in their own ancestral homelands, in much the same way as Mongolians have already become an almost negligible minority in the equally "autonomous" Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. The central government is well aware that once outnumbered by Chinese immigrants, Tibetan nationalism will become, of necessity, an unviable anachronism, and the Tibetans will be forced to accept the status that the Chinese have always assigned to them - as inalienable members of the "big family" of the Chinese motherland.

Tibetans themselves are also acutely aware that in-migration to their lands and the establishment of Chinese economic concerns pose the greatest threats to the continuance of their culture, and these are therefore the primary targets of the protests. Despite rising levels of material livelihood, Tibetans across the plateau are experiencing a sense of colonial disenfranchisement and an increasing distance from their once-sacred and animate environment, which in traditional culture imbued life with value and meaning.

The fact that spontaneous protests have erupted across the Tibetan plateau, from Lhasa to the borderlands of Amdo and Kham (in Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces) marks the belated coming-of-age of a pan-Tibetan nationalism. In the past there was no Tibetan name, aside from khawachen gi yul (the "land of snows") to describe the entire Tibetan cultural world. The Tibetan name from which the name "Tibet" is derived, Bod (pronounced ) referred only to the central Tibetan provinces of U and Tsang, while excluding the more populous Tibetan cultural and linguistic regions of Kham and Amdo, whose loose governance was traditionally divided between many independent and semi-independent statelets and principalities, which were somewhat culturally and socially integrated with central Tibet through the system of federative monasticism.

Indeed, it was the coming of the Chinese communist regime that unwittingly fostered a sense of pan-Tibetan identity - a reaction both to the encounter with "the other" in the form of the Han and Hui (Muslim) Chinese, and to the implementation of the CCP's nationalities policy, based on the Soviet model, in which Tibetans of all regional shades are classified, quite correctly, as a single Tibetan nationality (minzu - these days more often translated in Chinese government documents as "ethnic group"). As a result, around 50% of the landmass of Sichuan province, over 80% of Qinghai and a sizeable portion of Gansu province are organised into so called Tibetan autonomous prefectures and counties; and it is these areas that have seen sustained protest and unrest since mid-March 2008.

The spectacle of Tibetans in far-eastern Amdo raising the Tibetan national flag (as caught on Canadian television), is a historic moment in the evolution of the Tibetan national consciousness - for the Tibetan "national" flag was in fact introduced during the reign of the thirteenth Dalai Lama (1895-1933) as the standard of the then nascent Tibetan army, an army which never had sway over these distant portions of the Tibetan world. In fact the forces of the central Tibetan government were viewed with considerable suspicion and antipathy in parts of eastern Tibet during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It would appear that Tibetans are now ready for the concept of a greater Tibet, which has not found political expression since the period of the Tibetan empire, between the 7th and 9th centuries.

The political prospect

Also in openDemocracy on Tibet:

Ugen, "Tibet's postal protest" (4 November 2005)

Jamyang Norbu, "Tibetan tales: old myths, new realities" (13 June 2005)

/ Tenzin Tzundue, "Tibet vs China: a human-rights showdown" (15 August 2006)

Gabriel Lafitte, "Tibet: revolt with memories" (18 March 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)

Donald S Lopez, "How to think about Tibet" (28 March 2008)

The aspiration for the political unity of the Tibetan areas within China is, however, extremely threatening to the Chinese state. An early advocate of such an administrative unification of the Tibetan areas was the veteran communist Tibetan from Kham, Bapa Phuntso Wangye, who was instrumental in the accession of Tibet to China in 1951. Expelled from Tibet for his agitations under the old regime, Bapa Phuntso Wangye led the People's Liberation Army forces into Tibet in 1950-51; he was a key player in winning over the captured commander-in-chief of the Tibetan forces, Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, who was later to become the most high-profile Tibetan legitimator of Chinese rule in Tibet; he was then the key intermediary between the Chinese government and the Tibetan delegation which signed the seventeen-point agreement in Beijing in 1951 which enshrined a now conveniently forgotten one-country two-systems settlement for Tibet; and he also served as the chief interpreter during the Dalai Lama's six-month tour of China in 1954-55, when the young Lama was so impressed with Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese communists that he even asked to be admitted to the Chinese Communist Party.

Despite his historic role in these momentous events in Tibet's history and its accession to communist China, however, it was Bapa Phuntso Wangye's aspiration for the unity of the Tibetan linguistic and cultural areas within China that was his undoing. In 1958 he was arrested, charged with the crime of "local nationalism", and kept in solitary confinement for eighteen years (longer, even, than Nelson Mandela).

The current Tibetan protests are unlikely to result in anything more that the temporary reimposition of military rule, further controls over Tibetan religion and a further intensification of the Sinification of the Tibetan plateau. However the resentment and simmering discontent among Tibetans will not abate. In blaming the current unrest in Tibet on the so-called "Dalai clique", the Chinese government is ensuring that the frustration and political alienation of Tibetans will continue. For there are very few Tibetans, throughout the Tibetan cultural world, who would not want to be associated with their exiled spiritual leader. If there was any political willingness on the part of the Chinese, the Tibetan problem could be solved. But demonising the Dalai Lama and refusing to compromise an inch on Tibetan aspirations, the Chinese will inevitably exacerbate the already fractious ethnic relations in this vast area of western China.

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