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Newly-released documents show US government believed improvements would come in Tibet

March 4, 2013

Posted - February 28, 2013

Edited by Robert A. Wampler, PhD

  • ·         U.S. Officials Hoped Chinese Liberalization Program for Tibet in Early 1980s Would Bring Significant Improvements.
  • ·         Declassified Embassy Cables Assess Rationales for Beijing's Short-Lived Policy and Reasons for Its Collapse
  • ·         China's Proposed Inducement – to Elect the Dalai Lama to the Chinese Legislature – "is not to be compared with being a living god in Lhasa," U.S. Embassy Wrote

Excerpt: National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 414 

Washington, D.C., February 28, 2013 – U.S. officials had hopes thirty years ago that a political liberalization and economic reform program China had initiated in Tibet could lead to real improvements in that country, according to declassified documents posted today by the National Security Archive.

The documents describe a path diametrically at odds with the one Beijing has pursued in recent years – suppressing violent protests, arresting scores of ethnic Tibetans in the Qinghai province, which borders Tibet, sentencing one to prison for 13 years, and renewing accusations that the Dalai Lama is encouraging anti-Beijing actions (despite the fact that the Tibetan exile government has specifically urged protesters not to engage in them). In part due to this crackdown in China, the protests, including self-immolations, have spread to other countries, with the most recent occurring in Nepal's capital, Katmandu.

As the number of self-immolations since 2009 recently climbed over 100, the documents raise questions about whether Beijing's pursuit of a more flexible policy toward Tibet could have mitigated the downward spiral in that country's wretched political and economic conditions.

U.S. interest in the Tibet protests was underscored in October 2012 when news reports revealed that in late September U.S. Ambassador to Beijing Gary Locke (himself a third-generation Chinese American) had visited the Aba Prefecture in Sichuan Province, the center of the self-immolations, and met with Tibetan monks. That act surely displeased China, which considers Tibet to be a "core interest" and always protests vehemently whenever U.S. officials meet with the Dalai Lama.

The National Security Archive obtained the documents – cables from the U.S. embassies in Beijing and New Delhi – through the Freedom of Information Act. They provide a fascinating window into the short-lived liberalization campaign of 1982-1984, assessing China's motivations for pursuing it, the impact on the people of Tibet, and the parallel efforts to reach a modus vivendi between the Dalai Lama and Beijing that might pave the way for his return to Tibet and China. U.S. officials hoped that major political changes affecting China from the 1970s - such as Nixon's visit to Beijing in 1972 (which also ended U.S. covert aid to Tibetan rebels), Mao Zedong's death in 1976 and the rise of a less ideological leadership under Deng Xiaoping - might provide the basis for such a shift. But events developed in a different direction, largely because of Chinese domestic politics.

Among the points made in these embassy reports are:

  • Assessing the first year of the new liberalization plan, the U.S. embassy summarized the Chinese plan as "Pump in more funds from central government coffers, adopt a series of flexible economic measures which encourage individual initiative, and give Tibetans a larger voice in administering their own affairs as well as a measure of religious freedom." Yet in practice, religious liberalization remained a sensitive and slow process, due to Chinese concerns about unleashing potentially destabilizing forces, based on the public response to the Tibetan fact-finding team in 1979, and the embassy had no doubt Beijing would crack down hard on any large-scale unrest (a prescient observation). (Document 1)
  • Some Tibetans viewed the effort to expand education with suspicion or cynicism, with one claiming the Chinese minorities institutes' main goal was "simply to train Tibetans to be the agents of the Chinese," while the need to learn Chinese and attend Chinese schools to secure any hope of advancement could result in the Tibetan culture being "virtually extinguished" within a decade. (Document 2)
  • Embassy officials and some Tibetans felt the Chinese reforms were motivated both by fears that Russia might exploit Tibetan nationalism, as well as the desire to "erase Tibet as a negative example of what happens to autonomous areas in China," as the Panchen Lama put it, in order to facilitate Beijing's concurrent negotiations with Taiwan. (Documents 1, 3 and 4)
  • In assessing China's offer to allow the Dalai Lama to return to China to live, with occasional visits to Tibet, on the same terms as in 1959 before he was forced to flee the country, the U.S. embassy in Beijing wryly noted that "although the Chinese promise equivalent treatment for the Dalai Lama as pre-1959, being vice-chairman of the NPC Standing Committee in Beijing is not to be compared with being a living god in Lhasa." (Document 11)
  • It was becoming clear by late 1984 that the talks on the Dalai Lama's return were mired in irreconcilable differences, as Tibetans in Dharamsala told the U.S. embassy in New Delhi that the Chinese were "historically obtuse" and were likely waiting for time to take its toll on both the Dalai Lama and Tibetan culture. (Document 12)

In hindsight, it is likely that this experiment in liberalization and rapprochement between China and Tibet was foredoomed, as some of the cables suggest. Yet at the time, there seemed to be grounds for hope, however slight. Under Deng and his close colleague, Hu Yaobang, China began to tackle major issues including economic modernization, addressing security concerns with Russia and India, moving toward normalizing relations with the U.S., and a new relationship with Taiwan.


These wider concerns provided the context for Beijing's new direction in Tibet. In the 1950s, Deng had for a time advocated a gradualist approach to bringing Tibet into China, and one of his goals now was to put relations between Beijing and Tibet on a new path. To this end he met with Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama's brother, in Beijing in late 1978 and reportedly told him China was open to talks with the Dalai Lama about anything except Tibetan independence, a crucial proviso. These talks led to a fact-finding tour of Tibet in 1979 by representatives of the Dalai Lama's Central Tibetan Administration, based in Dharamsala, India, including another brother of the Dalai Lama, which revealed both the decimation of the Tibetan economy, culture and religion wrought by the past two decades of Chinese repression, as well as the incredibly deep reverence and devotion still held by Tibetans for the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism, exhibited in the exuberant demonstrations that greeted the Tibetan representatives at every stop of their tour. In a rueful, often-quoted observation, a Chinese official who witnessed such a reception in Lhasa concluded that "The efforts of the last 20 years have been wasted in a single day."

 In 1980, Hu Yaobang, now Party Secretary, made his own personal tour of Tibet and was shocked to discover the dismal conditions prevailing in the region. Hu prepared a report that damned China's own policies, and called for steps to move toward genuine autonomy for Tibet, including having at least two-thirds of the Tibetan government be made up of Tibetan party members, improving living conditions, instituting economic reforms, and providing support for Tibetan religion and culture, including requiring Chinese party members working in the region to learn the Tibetan language.

 As the documents below discuss, the new Chinese policies in Tibet and the efforts to engage the Dalai Lama in talks did not produce either a long-lasting improvement in the lives of Tibetans or the Tibetan leader's return from exile. The reforms did bring some advances. Tibetans were allowed to travel more freely between India and Tibet to reestablish family ties with the exile community. Beijing opened its coffers to fund economic development in the region. Respect for Tibetan culture, language and religion were made part of official policy goals, and Beijing took steps to repair monasteries badly damaged during the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s. Still, the region remained extremely backward with widespread illiteracy and virtually no technological progress. As one U.S. embassy cable remarked, "the wheel . . . remains out of vogue" in most of Tibet. (Document 6). In practice, the reforms did little to heal the social, economic and cultural splits within the region, as divisions between the native Tibetans and Han Chinese remained as deep as ever. Moreover, the program to foster economic development resulted in reinforcing Chinese primacy, as Chinese language skills and training remained key to advancement while Han Chinese surged into Tibet to reap the profits of Beijing's financial investment in the region, further diminishing the ability of Tibetans to find employment, especially in the urban areas.

Perhaps most important, decades of Chinese rule did little or nothing to diminish the reverence felt by the Tibetans for their spiritual and, to some, political leader, the exiled Dalai Lama. While it appeared in the early 1980s that the people of Tibet were reconciled to the fact that their political future lay with Beijing, it was also clear that "the last decades have demonstrated that they will not easily give up their traditional way of life, their unique religion, and their reverence for their religious leaders, up to and including the Dalai Lama." (Document 8) If the fear felt in Beijing that the Tibetan leader could become the rallying point for a resurgent Tibetan nationalism was not sufficient to hinder the talks about his possible return, the political steps that the Dalai Lama argued were necessary to protect and preserve Tibetan culture before he would return were anathema to Beijing. (And it is useful to remember that the Dalai Lama had his own followers to worry about, as he had to ward off criticisms that he was too forthcoming in even accepting talks with Beijing and should be pushing for full Tibetan independence.)

 In the end, time and circumstance worked to end the foreshortened Tibetan spring. By 1987 Hu Yaobang had fallen out of favor with Deng and lost his post as Party Chairman, and Beijing reverted to more repressive policies in Tibet. The Dalai Lama, rebuffed in his efforts to persuade China to grant Tibet an autonomy that would truly protect Tibetan culture and religion, turned increasingly to the world stage to press his claims, resulting in further entrenchment by the Chinese. With this shift, the Tibetan problem opened a new chapter.

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