Tibet, China, and the west: empires of the mind

Dibyesh Anand
2 April 2008

The sudden escalation of protest by Tibetans in Lhasa and elsewhere in March 2008 has been accompanied by vigorous rhetoric from the Chinese state reaffirming its sovereignty over Tibet and strong counter-arguments from Tibetans claiming the right to self-determination. Both these positions crucially depend on historical references and evidence for their validation. But how far does history provide support for either?

One way to approach this question is to examine contemporary political claims over Tibet in light of the contending parties’ use of the idea of sovereignty. Such a reading might be said to complicate both sides’ political assertions. For example, in the early 20th century Tibetans took advantage of civil wars within China to throw out Chinese officials and troops and make their state de facto independent, a situation that lasted from 1913 to 1949. But this period did not see Tibet gain widespread recognition as an independent state, and de jure Chinese claims of political supremacy went unchallenged. In this sense, China retained valid historical and legal claims over Tibet.

Dibyesh Anand is a reader in international relations at Westminster University’s Centre for the Study of Democracy. He is the author of Geopolitical Exotica: Tibet in Western Imagination (University of Minnesota Press, 2007); his book Hindu Nationalism and the Politics of Security in India is due from Palgrave Macmillan in 2009.

His research interests include postcolonial international relations, Sino-Indian relations, China, Tibet and India.

At the same time, China’s political control of Tibet had never been absolute. Tibet had occupied a special place for China, whose emperors were often Buddhists and who also found the Tibetan lamas useful allies in efforts to pacify the Buddhist Mongols. The relationship resembled that of patron-to-priest; it had a religious-symbolic-political content that was alien to absolutist terms of sovereignty or independence (see Gray Tuttle, Tibetan Buddhists in the Making of Modern China [Columbia University Press, 2005]).

The Chinese use of the European concept of absolute sovereignty gave this relationship an extra charge. It was itself the product of two factors: the rise of nationalism in China in the early 20th century, and British-Indian attempts to name Sino-Tibetan relations using European vocabulary.

In this sense, Chinese control over Tibet can be understood through two different imperial trajectories – one Chinese and one western. The fact that the People’s Republic of China (PRC), while focusing primarily on historical-imperial ties to legitimise its control over Tibet, uses the modern concept of sovereignty – a product of European universalisation through imperialism and decolonisation – shows the significance of the western imperialist trajectory in the “scripting” of modern Tibet.

The crucial transition

Tibetan nationality/ethnicity was from a very early stage at the core of modern Chinese national consciousness - along with the categories of Han, Hui (used for all Muslims), Manchu and Mongol. Meanwhile, the combination of the impact of western (European, American and - in this context - Japanese) imperialism and awareness of China as being a “great continuous civilisation” made Chinese nationalism hyperconscious of any challenge to its imagined collectivity. Thus, Tibetans became an integral part of modern Chinese nationalism and then the nation-state well before military “liberation” in 1950 and the “seventeen-points agreement” in 1951. More broadly, today’s Chinese regime uses nationalism as a primary means of legitimising its rule as it seeks to combine authoritarian control with capitalist economic practices; as such, it cannot but be paranoid about ethno-nationalism taking a political form, in Tibet or elsewhere.

British imperialist activities in Tibet also played an important role in transforming Chinese attitudes toward Tibet. In particular, the Younghusband invasion of 1903-04 was instrumental in making the Chinese elite realise its vulnerability to hostile forces from beyond the Himalayas to the south. The most significant aspect of the British imperial policy practiced in the first half of the 20th century was the formula of “Chinese suzerainty – Tibetan autonomy”. But this calculated strategic hypocrisy, in nurturing ambiguity over Tibet’s political status, was not to last.

Also in openDemocracy on Tibet:

Ugen, “Tibet’s postal protest” (4 November 2005)

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

openDemocracy / 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)

George Fitzherbert, “Tibet’s history, China’s power” (28 March 2008)

The late 1940s was a crucial period in this respect. The British withdrew from India in 1947, and the communist victory in the civil war meant that a stable government emerged in China after 1949; together, these events meant that the context of the “Chinese suzerainty - Tibetan autonomy” formula was transformed. China since the start of the 20th century had maintained its sovereignty over Tibet, and now was in a military position to enforce this claim and (as it saw the situation) “liberate” Tibet. Britain, with the end of its empire in India, no longer conceptualised Tibet as strategic.

India at the dawn of its own independence was impelled by an anti-imperialist nationalism to see the Tibet issue as a remnant of British imperialism in the region; as a result, it was willing to accept Chinese control of Tibet without realising that what India thought was a settled border was in fact the product of the Simla agreement between British India and Tibet (which China, after initialling it, had then rejected as an unequal treaty). Thus, India’s recognition of Tibet as part of China opened up border issues between the two states.

The Tibetans’ belated attempts in the late 1940s to gain international support for recognition of their independent status came to nothing. The PRC completed the geopolitical scripting of Tibet as an autonomous but integral part of China by one of the most potent weapons of the European constitutional armoury: the idea of sovereignty. In effect, Tibet’s geopolitical identity got translated from “suzerainty-autonomy” to “sovereignty-autonomy”; and it was China, not Tibet, which found the concept of sovereignty most useful to its interests and ambitions.

The uses of history

The story of how the “Tibet question” has come to be framed by competing notions of sovereignty and autonomy makes clear that the intractability of political problems in the post-colonial world is due to other factors than longstanding historical animosity or “essential” cultural differences. The ideas of sovereignty and nationalism were originally western, but non-western actors have long appropriated them to transform their own sense of political community (for a fuller development of this argument, see my book Geopolitical Exotica: Tibet in Western Imagination [University of Minnesota Press, 2008].

In this project, the utility of “tradition” is as a resource for buttressing claims to modern statehood. Those like the Tibetans who lost out at the crucial moment of decolonisation find it hard to advance a convincing claim to be recognised as a separate nation-state unless an existing overlord state breaks up or other powerful countries support secession from established states. In the case of Tibet, neither of these conditions is in the realm of possibility; this leaves the diasporic Tibetans under the Dalai Lama with little room for manoeuvre. A contributor to their predicament is the fact that the west, through its imperial scripting of modern Tibet, has been an ally of China in the latter’s appropriation of the vocabulary of sovereignty.

The limits of the absolute

The historical contextualising of the Tibet question is important in helping to explain the background of contemporary political arguments. If history is understood as more than a buttress for current positions, it may still suggest elements that could be part of a way forward. For example, before the British imperial intervention, Sino-Tibetan relations often accommodated mutual interests; Tibetans did not usually feel political pressure from China and had considerable freedom (without calling it "independence"), while China had recognised overall political control (without needing to invest heavily in the region).

At some point, the international system and individual states will have to recognise that absolutist notions of sovereignty can do more harm than good. This would also open the way to a humane and effective solution for Tibet within China. For the time being, it must be hoped that the Chinese government can come to realise that a system which allows dissent and protest can produce durable solutions, whereas one that remains forever suspicious of its own citizens never can.

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