Tibet Since the Chinese Invasion
Almost a half a century ago, Chinese troops invaded Tibet, bringing a sudden and violent end to Tibet’s centuries old isolation beyond the Himalayas. Tibet’s unique brand of Buddhism formed the core of Tibetan culture and society, a radical contrast to the materialist anti-religion dogma of the Chinese communists.
In the wake of the invasion, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual and temporal leader, and nearly 100,000 Tibetans fled into exile to India. In the years after, Tibet’s remarkable culture and its inhabitants have been systematically persecuted. Alexander Solzhenitsyn described China’s rule in Tibet as “more brutal and inhuman than any other communist regime in the world.”
Despite forty years of Chinese occupation and various policies designed to assimilate or signify Tibetans and to destroy their separate national, cultural and religious identity, the Tibetan people’s determination to preserve their heritage and regain their freedom is as strong as ever. The situation has led to confrontation inside Tibet and large scale Chinese propaganda efforts internationally.
1949-51: The Chinese Invasion
China’s newly established communist government sent troops to invade Tibet in 1949-50. A treaty was imposed on the Tibetan government acknowledging sovereignty over Tibet but recognizing the Tibetan government’s autonomy with respect to Tibet’s internal affairs. As the Chinese consolidated their control, they repeatedly violated the treaty and open resistance to their rule grew, leading to the National Uprising in 1959 and His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s flight to India.
The international community reacted with shock at the events in Tibet. The question of Tibet was discussed on numerous occasions by the U.N. General Assembly between 1959 and 1965. Three resolutions were passed by the General Assembly condemning China’s violations of human rights in Tibet and calling upon China to respect those rights, including Tibet’s right to self-determination.
After 1959: Destruction
The destruction of Tibet’s culture and oppression of its people was brutal during the twenty years following the uprising. 1.2 million Tibetans, one-fifth of the country’s population, died as a result of China’s policies; many more languished in prisons and labor camps; and more than 6000 monasteries, temples and other cultural and historic buildings were destroyed and their contents pillaged. In 1980, Hu Yao Bang, General Secretary of the Communist Party, visited Tibet – the first senior official to do so since the invasion. Alarmed by the extent of the destruction he saw there, he called for a series of drastic reforms and for a policy of “recuperation”. His forced resignation in 1987 was said to have partially resulted from his views on Tibet. Relaxation of China’s policies in Tibet came very slowly after 1979 and remains severely limited.
Attempted Tibet-China Dialogue
Two delegations were sent by the Dalai Lama to hold high-level exploratory talks with the Chinese government and party leaders in Beijing between 1979 and 1984. The talks were unsuccessful because the Chinese were, at that time, not prepared to discuss anything of substance except the return of the Dalai Lama from exile. The Dalai Lama has always insisted that his return is not the issue; instead, the question that needed to be addressed was the future of the six million Tibetans inside Tibet. It is the Dalai Lama’s opinion that his own return will depend entirely upon resolving the question of the status and rights of Tibet and its people.
Alarming Chinese Influx
In recent years, the situation in Tibet has once again deteriorated, leading in 1987 to open demonstrations against Chinese rule in Lhasa and other parts of the country. One of the principle factors leading to this deterioration has been the large influx of Chinese into Tibet, particularly into its major cities. The exact number of Chinese is difficult to assess, because the vast majority have moved without obtaining official residence permits to do so. Thus, Chinese statistics are entirely misleading, counting as they do only the small numbers of registered immigrants. In Tibet’s cities and fertile valleys, particularly in eastern Tibet, Chinese outnumber Tibetans by two or sometimes three to one. In certain rural areas, particularly in western Tibet, there are very few Chinese. Regardless of the figures, the overall impact of the influx is devastating because the Chinese not only control the political and military power in Tibet, but also the economic life and even cultural and religious life of the people.
The Chinese military as well as the civilian build up in Tibet has been a source of great concern to India, as it impacts directly on India’s security. Tibet acted for centuries as a vital buffer between China and India. It is only when Chinese troops faced Indian troops on the Indo-Tibetan border that tensions, and even war, developed between the world’s most populous powers. The more Tibet is converted into a Chinese province, populated by Chinese, the stronger China’s strategic position along the Himalayas will be. China’s growing military reach has now become a source of concern to many Asian nations as well as to India.
The Legal Status of Tibet
Recent events in Tibet have intensified the dispute over its legal status. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims that Tibet is an integral part of China. The Tibetan government-in-exile maintains that Tibet is an independent state under unlawful occupation.
The question is highly relevant for at least two reasons. First, if Tibet is under unlawful Chinese occupation, Beijing’s large-scale transfer of Chinese settlers into Tibet is a serious violation of the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which prohibits the transfer of civilian population into occupied territory. Second, if Tibet is under unlawful Chinese occupation, China’s illegal presence in the country is a legitimate object of international concern. If, on the other hand, Tibet is an integral part of China, then these questions fall, a China claims, within its own domestic jurisdiction. The issue of human rights, including the right of self-determination and the right of the Tibetan people to maintain their own identity and autonomy are, of course, legitimate objects of international concern regardless of Tibet’s legal status.
The PRC makes no claim to sovereign rights over Tibet as a result of its military subjugation and occupation of Tibet following the country’s invasion in I949-I950. Thus, China does not allege that it has acquired sovereignty by means of conquest, annexation or prescription in this period. Instead, it bases its claim to Tibet solely on their theory that Tibet has been an integral part of China for centuries.
The question of Tibet’s status is essentially a legal question, albeit one of immediate political relevance. The international status of a country must be determined by objective legal criteria rather than subjective political ones. Thus, whether a particular entity is a state in international law depends on whether it possesses the necessary criteria for statehood (territory, population, independent government, ability to conduct international relations), not whether governments of other states recognize its independent status. Recognition can provide evidence that foreign governments are willing to treat an entity as an independent state, but cannot create or extinguish a state.
In many cases, such as the present one, it is necessary to examine a country’s history in order to determine its status. Such a historical study should logically be based primarily on the country’s own historical sources, rather than on interpretations contained in official sources of a foreign state, especially one claiming rights over the country in question. This may seem self-evident to most. When studying the history of France we examine French rather than German or Russian source materials. I am making the point, however, precisely because China’s claim to sovereignty over Tibet is based almost exclusively on self-serving Chinese official histories. Chinese sources portrayed most countries with whom the emperor of China had relations, not only Tibet, as vassals of the emperor. When studying Tibet’s history, Tibetan sources should be given primary importance; foreign sources, including Chinese ones, should only be given secondary weight.
The Political System in Tibet Today
Tibet is strictly governed by the Chinese Communist Party, with the active support of the military. The Party rules through branch offices in each province, autonomous region and autonomous prefecture. Subordinate to the Party is the government, which carries out policies designed by the Party. China has established the full panoply of Party and government offices to administer Tibet as exists in China. In Lhasa alone, there are over 60 departments and committees almost all of which are directly connected to their national offices in Beijing. Thus, Tibet is “autonomous” in word only; in fact, the Tibet Autonomous Region has less autonomy than Chinese provinces. The top T.A.R. post, the Party Secretary, has never been held by a Tibetan.
China maintains an occupation army in Tibet of at least a quarter million strong. Military and police are often overwhelmingly present in Lhasa and elsewhere, though as of February 1992, security in Lhasa is dominated by undercover and plainclothes police. The military plays a greater role in the administration of Tibet than any Chinese province, and no Tibetan serves in the leadership of the military district governing Tibet.
Even though the Party still controls Tibet, its control is beginning to slip. There is a pervasive disillusionment with, and contempt for, the Communist Party and the government in Tibet which can even be found among Party members and government functionaries. Inefficiency and corruption have consumed some government operations to the extent that they barely function and are an enormous waste of government funds. During ICT’s one-month tour of eastern Tibet, it became apparent that the Party’s goals have been drastically reduced from its once grandiose plans of social, human and economic transformation to simply holding onto power, taking care of Chinese settlers and extracting Tibet’s natural resources.
The Party now seems to have little left to offer Tibetans other than the repression which keeps Tibetans from mass rebellion. Nobody in Tibet is talking about how the Party can reform itself, for it has become something that most Tibetans must just tolerate and avoid. Some Tibetans use the Party for their own personal and professional advancement and try to improve conditions for Tibetans from within the system. The late Panchen Lama succeeded in wresting enough power from the system to improve conditions in a number of areas. The Panchen Lama was the only Tibetan who the Chinese feared, unlike current Tibetan leaders such as Ngawang Ngapo Jigme, Mao Rubai and Raidi who have little power. Recent reports from Lhasa indicate increasing alienation and disaffection among middle and lower level Tibetan bureaucrats and a corresponding loss of trust in them by their Chinese superiors.
Human Rights Situation in Tibet
Human rights conditions in Tibet remain dismal. Under the Chinese occupation, the Tibetan people are denied most rights guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights including the rights to self-determination, freedom of speech, assembly, movement, expression and travel.
China’s consistent use of excessive military force to stifle dissent has resulted in widespread human rights abuses including multiple cases of arbitrary arrests, political imprisonment, torture and execution. Human rights groups have documented at least 60 deaths of peaceful demonstrators since 1987.
Human rights groups have confirmed, by name, over 700 Tibetan political prisoners in Tibet, although there are likely to be hundreds more whose names are not confirmed. Many are detained without charge or trial for up to four years through administrative regulations entitled “re-education through labor”. Over the past year unrest has spread from urban areas into the countryside.
Credible reports of mistreatment and torture of detainees and political prisoners in Tibet are widespread, including beatings, shocks with electric batons, deprivation of sleep or food, exposure to cold and other brutalities. Human rights and humanitarian organizations are denied access to prisons and detention centers in Tibet.
Freedom of Religion
Prior to the Chinese invasion of 1950, Tibet was a country steeped in religion. Religious practice permeated the daily lives of the Tibetan people and formed the social fabric connecting them to the land. Recognizing this, the Chinese focused on destroying this cultural base of the Tibetan people in the hopes of quelling dissent to their rule. In 1960 the International Commission of Jurists found “that the Chinese will not permit adherence to and practice of Buddhism in Tibet…. [and] that they have systematically set out to eradicate this religious belief in Tibet.”
Over 6000 monasteries and sacred places were destroyed by the Chinese. Despite this and the over 40 years of restrain on their religion, the Tibetans continue to seek to practice their religion. Today the practice of religion continues to be severely limited in Tibet. Although there have been some outward improvements in this area, China maintains strict control over religious institutions and practices and the Tibetans are not free to practice and organize their own religion. ICT published Forbidden Freedom and A Season to Purge which took an in-depth look at the issue of religious freedom in Tibet.
China has shifted its religious policy in Tibet to actively suppress and restrict further religious growth. This shift involves measures to halt unauthorized rebuilding of monasteries destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, setting limits on the number of monks and nuns in all monasteries, enforcing restrictions on youths joining monasteries, prohibiting Tibetan Party members from practicing religion, and strengthen the control of the government and Party over each monastery through “Democratic Management Committees.”
The Environment in Tibet
The Tibetan Plateau is the largest and highest plateau in the world. It sustains a unique, yet fragile high altitude eco-system much of which remains unspoiled due to its remoteness and inaccessibility. However, human impact is now taking an unprecedented and devastating toll on the natural resources – the wildlife, forests, grazing lands, rivers and mineral resources are now at a point where they may never recover.
Pre-1950 travelers in Tibet compared it to East Africa, so vast were the herds of large mammals. Today, the herds are all but vanished, wiped out mainly by Chinese soldiers shooting automatic weapons from trucks in the 1960s. Poaching by Tibetans and Chinese continues, threatening the survival of some species. One Tibetan nomad told Dr. George Schaller, the foremost Western specialist on Tibetan mammals, “If the officials obey the law and stop hunting, we will too.”
Forests in Tibet are the third largest in China’s present day borders and government lumber operations are cutting at an unprecedented rate. Reforestation is neglected and ineffective, leaving hillsides vulnerable to erosion. Rapid and widespread deforestation has life-threatening consequences for the hundreds of millions who live in the flood plains of the major rivers of Southeast Asia, many of which have their headwaters in Tibet. Clear-cutting also threatens the habitat of Tibet’s other residents – the rare giant panda, golden monkey, and over 5,000 plant species unique to the planet.
The northern Tibetan Plateau was home to China’s “Los Alamos,” – its primary nuclear weapons research and development plant, and nuclear weapons were first stationed in northern Tibet in 1972. Today there are at least 3 or 4 nuclear missile launch sites in Tibet housing an unknown number of warheads. Nuclear waste from the research facility is feared to be dumped on the nearby plains where Tibetan nomads allege they have suffered illness and death from strange diseases consistent with radiation sickness. ICT’s ground-breaking report Nuclear Tibet, addresses this troublesome area.
Government-encouraged population migration into the northern Tibetan plateau, now under control of Qinghai Province, has caused massive and irreparable environmental damage to huge tracts of fragile tableland. Experts attribute the deterioration to overgrazing, irrational land reclamation, and wanton denudation of surface vegetation.
Large-scale agricultural development projects are now being carried out in Tibet which are disrupting traditional practices and the ecological balance maintained by farmers for centuries. Motivated by the need to feed the growing Chinese population in Tibet and reduce the costly wheat imports, the projects may ultimately harm Tibetans more than help them. One of the projects, which is funded by the United Nations World Food Program , employs hundreds of Chinese and few Tibetans and is opposed by local Tibetans, ICT and other Tibetan organizations.
Natural Resource Extraction
The extraction of minerals and wood from Tibetan regions is largely done by, or at the direction of, newly arrived Chinese workers and administrators. Some meager benefit may accrue to local Tibetans, but more often than not, the land is left despoiled and traditional Tibetan livelihoods disrupted. Moreover, roads built to access uncut forests or untapped minerals usually result in an increase in local Chinese government administrators who may then assume more control over the local monastery, probably leading to greater restrictions on religious freedom. Implementation of family planning policies may also increase, which could involve coercive methods.
Hydro-electric Construction Projects
China has plans to build dozens of hydro-electric dams on Tibet’s rivers and export the electricity to Chinese cities such as Chengdu, Xining, Lanzhou and Xian. The most heated environmental issue in Tibet may be a hydro-electric construction project on Yamdrok Tso, a sacred lake between Lhasa and Shigatse. A correspondent for The Independent wrote, “environmentalists fear this giant project will create one of China’s worst ecological disasters of the 21st century.”