Saturday, February 22, 2014

Obama and the Dalai Lama

President Obama met with the Dalai Lama at the White House yesterday. Predictably, the meeting drew a sharply critical response from the People's Republic of China. Prior to the meeting, a spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry said the meeting would "grossly interfere in the internal affairs of China, seriously violate norms governing international relations, and severely impair China-U.S. relations." The Obama administration has correctly concluded that (1) on matters of importance to the United States, China doesn't help much even when the Dalai Lama isn't stopping by for a visit and (2) on matters of importance to China, an Obama-Lama conversation won't keep the Chinese from dealing with the U.S.

Nonetheless, it's worth asking what's behind China's bluster on Tibet? In a nutshell, China fears the possibility that Tibet will assert a claim to self-determination and, worse for China, that others in the world will support the Tibetan desire for autonomy.

As with many places where there is a self-determination claim pitted against a claim of sovereignty and territorial integrity, Tibet has a history that is subject to multiple interpretations. Furthermore, as the introduction to the Tibet Oral HistoryProject at Case Western Reserve’s Center for Research on Tibet states, “Our understanding of the social and political history of Tibet during the second half of the Twentieth Century has been distorted by politically driven polemics.” In reality, much of Tibet’s history is shrouded in mystery, in part because it has not been reliably recorded.

What we know can be summarized this way: Tibet has had an independent existence and even an empire in the age of great, amorphously bounded Asian empires. For at least the last 1500 years, its existence has been interwoven with China's imperial ambitions in Asia. At times, at it does now, China has dominated the relationship. At other times, Tibet has clearly been set apart and even independent. There is a myth, based like all myths on at least a partial truth, that the Tibetan-Chinese relationship has been one of priest and patron, with Tibetans having been invited by both Mongolian and Chinese emperors into a spiritual and political relationship of equals.

Tibetan Buddhist monks
Another thing we know is that modern Tibet's history, like China's and India's, was compromised by European imperialism. At a time when Tibet had walled itself off from the outside world, the British forced their way in, demanding free trade and tribute. In 1886, 1890, and 1893, the British entered into treaties with China regarding Tibet. The Tibetans refused to accept the legitimacy of these agreements. In 1904, a British force led by Col. Francis Younghusband invaded Tibet and occupied Lhasa in order to head off possible moves by the Russians. This led the Chinese to formally declare their sovereignty over Tibet, the first such formal declaration. When the Dalai Lama fled to Beijing to escape the British invasion, the relationship between Tibet and China was further complicated. (He later determined that the Chinese were a greater threat than the British and moved from Beijing to India.) Britain forced the Chinese in 1906 to accept a treaty calling for Beijing to pay the 2.5 million rupees that had been demanded of the Tibetans in a treaty that followed the 1904 invasion.

Finally, to conclude this very brief summary of an earlier period of Sino-Tibetan relations, it is worth noting that the collapse of China's Qing Dynasty in 1912 brought de facto independence to Tibet. From 1912 to 1950, Tibet functioned as a separate state under the leadership of the Dalai Lamas. Its independence was not, however, acknowledged by China, Britain, or India, in part because Lhasa was closed to foreigners during this period.

During its de facto independence, China remained in control of large parts of Tibetan territory. China's Tibet Autonomous Region is roughly half of Tibet as defined by the Tibetan government in exile. The Qinghai province, a part of Sichuan, and other areas inhabited by Tibetans are also considered to be Tibet by the Tibetans although they lie outside of the TAR. The area beyond the TAR was never, during the twentieth century at least, under Tibetan control, although a Tibetan army was sent to try to seize territory in Qinghai and Xikang in 1932. China’s National Revolutionary Army repulsed the attack.

In 1950, a year after the Communists emerged victorious in China's civil war, the People’s Liberation Army entered Tibet, defeating token resistance from the Tibetan army. The so-called Seventeen Point Agreement was negotiated between the Chinese Communists and the leaders of Tibet resulting in Chinese sovereignty over the region with little social and cultural change being forced on the Tibetans. During the 1950s, the Chinese established secular schools, built infrastructure (running water and electricity were introduced to Lhasa), and abolished serfdom. Otherwise, the Dalai Lama was allowed to maintain life in Tibet much as it had been prior to 1950.

Beginning in 1956, small uprisings against Chinese authority began occurring in Tibet. Some of these were organized and funded by the CIA. To this day, the extent to which trouble in Tibet during the 1950s was indigenous and spontaneous or the result of outside provocations remains contested. There were guerilla attacks on PLA convoys beginning in 1957, leading to a Chinese crackdown on Tibet. This prompted the Lhasa Uprising in March 1959, an episode in which revolt spread throughout the country. It was at this point that the current Dalai Lama fled to India. He has not been permitted to return to Tibet since then.

Potala Palace, Lhasa
During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party demonstrated open hostility to all forms of religion, including, of course, Tibetan Buddhism. In Tibet, monasteries were closed (and in many cases destroyed along with temples), monks were forced to marry and thus violate vows of celibacy, and the Tibetan language was banned. Whether repression was worse in Tibet than in any other part of China during the Cultural Revolution is open to debate, but the Red Guards' hostility toward religious expression seemed especially significant in Tibet given its theocratic character.

After Mao died, Deng Xiaoping introduced a broad-based policy of liberalization in China. Certain religious freedoms were restored and, in Tibet, many monasteries were rebuilt. The Chinese government actually went so far as to promote Tibetan culture. There were talks between the Dalai Lama and the government in Beijing, but no progress was made toward satisfying the Tibetans' desire for autonomy.

Frustrated by the failure of negotiations, Tibetans began protesting in the streets in 1987. A promising young Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official named Hu Jintao was sent to Tibet. In February 1989, shortly before the anniversary of the 1959 Lhasa Uprising, Hu brought 1,700 People’s Army Police to Lhasa to clamp down on protests. On March 5, police fired on a crowd. Tibetans claim the shooting was unprovoked; Chinese claimed the police were acting in self-defense. On March 8, Hu asked the central government in Beijing to declare martial law. Three months later, on June 4, 1989, the People’s Liberation Army fired on protesters in Tiananmen Square. Some have suggested that Hu’s actions in Lhasa established the precedent for the otherwise unprecedented use of force by the Chinese government against its own people.

Hu Jintao left Tibet in 1990 due to altitude sickness—whether he had it or not is subject to some dispute—and went to Beijing. There he was brought into the inner sanctum of the CCP. In 2002, he became General Secretary of the CCP; the following year he assumed the presidency of China, a position he held until 2013. Hu's willingness to use force against Tibetans, some believe, is what led to his ascension to the top of the Chinese political system.

In 2000, China launched what was called the "Great Western Investment Strategy," a strategy designed to reduce economic inequality in the country while attempting to undermine political dissent through economic growth. This, arguably, was the same strategy that was applied to the country as a whole after the events of 1989. Of course, the "Great Western Investment Strategy" had a third purpose, and that was to develop the natural resources necessary to fuel eastern China's continued economic expansion.

For Tibet, the centerpiece of the regional development strategy was a plan to link Lhasa to the rest of China by rail. In 2001, construction began on a railway line running from Golmud to Lhasa (the section from Xining to Golmud having been constructed in the 1980s). The project cost $4 billion and was completed in 2006. With considerable justification, the Chinese regard the construction of the Qinghai-Lhasa railroad as one of the greatest engineering feats in their nation’s history. To advocates of Tibetan independence, however, the railroad presents a threat. It is the means by which more Han Chinese may come to Tibet and the means by which more of Tibet's resources may flow to the Han regions of China. It appears not to be a tool for Tibetan development as much as it is a tool for Chinese control of Tibet.

In 2011, China initiated a policy for the TAR called "the nine haves." Some of the "haves" involve development projects—"to have roads, to have water, to have electricity"—but one requires flying the Chinese flag—"to have a national flag." This is part of Beijing's effort to enforce its authority in Tibet. Even monasteries are required to fly China's flag (and to display portraits of Chinese leaders) under this policy.

PRC flag over Lhasa
In Driru, the people have resisted the edict to fly flags. On September 27, 2013, China reportedly sent thousands of troops to enforce the policy, with limited success to this point. Forty villagers were arrested. According to media reports, on Sunday, October 6, Chinese troops fired on a crowd protesting the arrests. Tibetan sources say that 60 people were injured in the incident.

Where do things stand today? In some respects, Chinese rule in Tibet is heavy-handed, as it has always been. The Tibetans regard the Chinese presence as an occupation and see the increasing presence of Han Chinese in Tibet as part of a deliberate strategy to dilute the influence of Tibetans in their own culture. The Dalai Lama has relinquished his political role in the Tibetan Government in exile, but he remains Tibet’s most visible and important leader. Some Tibetans believe the Chinese strategy regarding Tibet involves a waiting game. The Dalai Lama is 77. The Chinese may believe that dreams of Tibetan independence will die when he dies.

[Photos courtesy of Sandy Harrison]