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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

From Tibet to China’s Tibet: Is history an ally for Tibet?

April 5, 2008

Dibyesh Anand
The Hindu
Friday April 4 2008

Beijing needs to accommodate Tibetans’ aspirations within the Chinese
state. China’s Tibet need not be a repressive place; it can be turned
into a genuine showcase for the rising dragon’s inclusive nationalism.

The recent protests by Tibetans and China’s predictable reaction to them
have once again brought the question of Tibet into the international
limelight. There are heated discussions on ethnic violence, human rights
abuses, brutal state policies, China’s moral authority to hold the
Olympics, the Dalai Lama’s authority, good Chinese/bad Tibetans (within
China) or bad Chinese/good Tibetans (elsewhere). However, at the back of
all these lies the essentially p olitical question of what is Tibet’s
status vis-À-vis China. The framing of the Tibetan issue in human rights
paradigm reflects the fact of real politik since all the states in the
world recognise Tibet as part of China. However, a visible group of
Tibetans and their supporters reject the status quo and argue that China
does not have sovereignty over Tibet and hence the current control of
China over Tibet is a colonial, illegal occupation. This
anti-Chinese-sovereignty claim is multifaceted: history, religion,
democracy, morality, development, decolonisation, self-determination,
international law, nationalism, transnationalism, human rights, and
several other resources are marshalled to assert a historically
distinctive identity for Tibet and Tibetans with an implication that
such an identity makes Tibet deserving of a distinct political identity
deserving a state of their own. Is history their ally then?

The Dalai Lama’s position is indeed a ‘middle way’ since without giving
up the notion of historical independence of Tibet, he is willing to
accept Tibet’s present and future inside China. Is he making a virtue
out of a necessity or does he realise that Tibet’s history has always
been inter-linked with China and as a subsidiary? A critical study of
Tibet’s modern history complicates any Tibetan claims to independence
but it also challenges Chinese assertion of sovereignty.

When taking advantage of civil wars within China, Tibetans threw out
Chinese officials and troops and Tibet became de facto independent in
1913-1949, it was not recognised by anyone as an independent state. The
British who were in the best position to do so (and hence follow the
Russian precedent of recognising outer Mongolia as an independent
Mongolia) consciously discouraged any Tibetan attempt to gain
international recognition. A close study of British colonial documents
reveals that while an autonomous Tibet was useful as a buffer state to
secure British India’s northern frontiers, there was no wish to
encourage Tibetan independence since it would anger the Chinese elite,
upset other European powers, and not serve any strategic interest.
Russia with whom Britain played the ‘great game’ in central Asia at the
start of the century became an ally against rising Germany. Then after
the first world war, Britain did not want to offend the Americans who
were close to the Nationalists in China. Most importantly, Britain had
its own colonial prerogatives. For instance, in 1905, Brodrick, the
Secretary of State for India, observed that “the right of limitrophe
States to have diplomatic relations, independently of their Suzerain
Power, though no doubt it is historically true that it has been
exercised by Tibet, is hardly one which it would be expedient for His
Majesty’s Government to urge, in view of the position which they claim
in regard to the foreign regulations of Afghanistan.” Much later, a
secret letter from the British Indian government dated September 19,
1945 affirmed the policy that had been consistently followed over the
last three decades ­ the British must not intervene in Tibet’s internal
affairs since any modernisation would challenge the monastic order and
throw it into the hands of the Chinese as a “slow process of evolution
is suited to Tibetan mentality and to our interests.”

Thus, de jure Chinese claims of political supremacy went unchallenged at
the only time in modern period when Tibet was practically independent
(1913-1949). The blame lies as much with their British ’friends’ as the
Tibetan’s own inability to modernise and recognise that the rules of the
geopolitical game were rapidly changing.

China thus has historical and legal claims over Tibet that went
uncontested even when Tibetans were in best position to do so. At the
same time, the political control was never an absolute one before 1951.
Tibet had a special place for China-based emperors who were often
Buddhists and found the Tibetan lamas useful allies to pacify the
Buddhist Mongols. The relationship was one of patron-priest and had
religio-symbolic-political content that was alien to absolutist terms of
sovereignty or independence.

Chinese control over Tibet can be understood through two different
imperial trajectories ­ one Chinese and one western. While the People’s
Republic of China focuses primarily on historical imperial ties to
legitimise control over Tibet, the fact that it 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.

Thus, the Tibet question is intractable not due to historical animosity
or antagonistic cultures but a product of geopolitical changes in the
first half of the 20th century when Chinese nationalism emerged well
before Tibetan nationalism and British policy ensured isolation for Tibet.

Those like the Tibetans who lost out at the crucial moment of
decolonisation find it hard to struggle for a separate nation-state
unless there is a break-up of an existing state or the powerful states
support secession. In the case of Tibet, neither of these conditions is
in the realm of possibility, leaving the diasporic Tibetans under the
Dalai Lama with little room for manoeuvre. Therefore, their best option
is to struggle within the constitutional framework of China, which
allows significant autonomy to minority nationalities in principle.
Instead of struggling for ‘Free Tibet’, Tibetans may find it easier to
make “China’s Tibet” work for Chinese as well as for Tibetans. Of
course, this first requires a big change of heart inside China. Beijing
should realise that it cannot buy off Tibetans into a submissive role
within China and therefore needs to accommodate their aspirations within
the Chinese state. China’s Tibet need not be a repressive place; it can
be turned into a genuine showcase for the rising dragon’s inclusive

(Dr. Dibyesh Anand is a Reader in International Relations at Westminster
University and the author of Geopolitical Exotica: Tibet in Western
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