Critical Issues Confronting China Summary– "China Views Tibet–Past, Present and Future: Light at the End of the Tunnel?"

October 24, 2016
Melvyn Goldstein

When the People's Republic of China (PRC) was founded in October 1949, Tibet was a de facto independent country. How to persuade the Tibetans to accept becoming part of the PRC was a major issue confronting Chairman Mao and his top aides. What was his decision and what are the consequences in the ensuing decades? What does the future hold for the status of Tibet vis-a-vis Beijing? Dr. Melvyn C. Goldstein, John Reynolds Harkness Professor of Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University, Co-Director of the Center for Research on Tibet and member of the National Academy of Sciences, reviewed the modern history of Tibet's relationship with Beijing and suggested an uncertain future as Beijing tries to win Tibetans’ loyalty through an "internal strategy" that does not include the Dalai Lama and Tibetans in exile.  

Goldstein first distinguished “political” Tibet, the kingdom traditionally ruled by the line of Dalai Lamas (basically today’s Tibet Autonomous Region), from “ethnographic” Tibet, the ethnic Tibetan area in today’s Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan. His talk delineated the vicissitudes in the relationship between Beijing and political Tibet over more than six decades.

In 1949, Mao set out to incorporate Tibet peacefully, using a carrot and stick approach that combined negotiations with a threat of invasion if the Dalai Lama did not cooperate. After the Dalai Lama refused Beijing's offer, the PLA to invaded Tibet in October 1950 and quickly won. This forced the Dalai Lama to negotiate, which led to the signing of the “17-Point Agreement for the Liberation of Tibet” in May 1951. This Agreement was a compromise. It allowed the Dalai Lama to continue to rule Tibet internally with its own officials and laws, and with no changes to the traditional socio-economic system, but Tibet had to accept Chinese sovereignty and allow Chinese troops and officials to enter Tibet peacefully.

Having incorporated Tibet, Mao pursued a “gradualist” policy which sought to gradually win over the Dalai Lama and the elite to accept land and other socialist reforms. The 17-Point Agreement stated that reforms would be implemented when the Dalai Lama, the elite and the masses were ready to accept change, but it didn’t specify how long that would be. This ambiguity led to a major dispute among Chinese officials stationed in Tibet. On one side was General Zhang Guohua, who strongly agreed with Mao’s policy. On the other side was Fan Ming, who disagreed. He believed that the Dalai Lama and the elite would never agree to reforms with an indefinite time table, so he sought to use the Panchen Lama to push through reforms quickly in his own territory. Fan thought this would prompt the peasants in the Dalai Lama’s territory to demand the same, thereby pressuring the Dalai Lama to agree to reforms. Fan's plan was stopped by Mao and Deng Xiaoping, who asserted that the gradualist policy was best for China in the long run.

Meanwhile, in 1954, the Dalai Lama visited inland China for a year and was so impressed with China’s development that he asked if he could join the CCP. However after returning to Tibet in 1955, the Dalai Lama found too much opposition to change, so Mao concluded that the time was still not ripe for reforms. In 1956, when Fan Ming was in charge of the CCP office in Lhasa, he tried again to start to implement reforms on his own, bringing over 3,000 Han cadres to Tibet and recruiting thousands of Tibetans to become party members. But his hopes were again thwarted by Mao, who felt that they should still wait. Fan was arrested as Tibet’s “Greatest Rightest” later and was sent back to Xi’an, where he spent 16 years in prison and labor camps. After Fan's removal, Mao’s gradualist policy dominated and the Dalai Lama’s government continued to administer Tibet internally right up to the Tibetan Uprising of 1959, at which time the Dalai Lama and his top officials fled to exile in India.

Yet Fan Ming's views lingered. After the uprising, many in the party felt deceived by the Dalai Lama and the elite who, they believed, had really been plotting an independent Tibet. In an interview with Goldstein in 1993, Fan Ming asserted that the current conflict over the status of Tibet would not exist if his ideas had been implemented during 1956-57 — there would have been no uprising, the Dalai Lama would not be in exile, and Chinese sovereignty over Tibet would not be an issue on the international stage.

Since Tibet was fully incorporated into the PRC in 1959, there was no contact between the Dalai Lama in exile and Beijing until 1978 when Deng Xiaoping came to power. Deng and his right-hand man, Hu Yaobang, returned to a more moderate policy in Tibet, in a sense, a return to Mao’s conciliatory policy. Internally, religious practices and monasteries were again permitted. Externally, Deng Xiaoping invited one of the Dalai Lama's brothers who lived in Hong Kong to visit Beijing and allowed him to visit Tibet. Beijing's basic line then was that anything could be negotiated except Tibet's independence. Things began to look promising. In 1979, the Dalai Lama sent a fact-finding mission to Tibet. But to the shock of Beijing, it was greeted warmly by the Tibetans with affection and support for the Dalai Lama. Beijing was stunned that the Tibetans' ethnic identity still trumped their class identity.

Not surprisingly, the negotiations with Beijing did not go anywhere. The exiles wanted at least extreme autonomy wherein the Dalai Lama would return to administrate a new Tibet that included political and ethnographic Tibet, which would have its own democratic form of government. Beijing totally rejected this demand. Then the Dalai Lama tried to bring pressure on Beijing by waging an international campaign. He made his first visit in 1987 to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in Washington, and called for China's withdrawal of its troops from Tibet. Meanwhile, Tibetan monks in Lhasa started to demonstrate their support for him and his cause. This quickly ended in a major riot in Lhasa in 1987. After three additional serious riots, Beijing declared martial law in 1989. As a consequence, many of the hardliners in China who had warned against Hu Yaobang’s policies felt vindicated. The cultural-religious-linguistic reforms started by Hu Yaopbang were again limited. Several attempts at new talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama were tried, but failed. At present, there seems no likelihood of initiating negotiations anytime soon.

While Bejing has not given up on Mao’s basic policy of trying to win over Tibetans to be satisfied citizens of multi-ethnic China, its main focus now is on economic development and rapid improvements in the standard of living of average Tibetans. This is what Goldstein called Beijing’s “internal strategy” to solve the Tibetan Question without dealing with the Dalai Lama. Initially large infrastructure projects were implemented in Tibet. Since the 12th five-year plan (2011-15), Beijing has carried out "People First" programs, spending vast sums to provide better housing, health care, electricity, and poverty alleviation projects for rural Tibetans at the village level.

Yet, this effort has not produced greater loyalty among Tibetans. According to Goldstein, Mao's goal of gradually winning the trust of the Tibetan people is no closer to being realized today than in the 1950s. Tibetans, although materially much better off than they have ever been, still resent Han Chauvinism and Han domination of political and economic life in Tibet, as well as a host of strict restrictions on Tibetan religious practices and language use. However, Goldstein envisioned a different trajectory in which that Beijing could shift its tactics after the Dalai Lama dies and make a third attempt at a Gradualist Policy (1st was Mao, 2nd was Deng-Hu Yaobang) because it is fair to assume that the risks of giving more culture and religious freedom to Tibetans will be much diminished with no adult Dalai Lama in exile.