Although Tibet is internationally recognized as one of China’s autonomous regions, there is still an overwhelming amount of discussion about the critical issues involving Tibet and mainland China. People are still asking, “Historically, was Tibet recognized as an independent nation from China? Do the Tibetan people think they are Chinese?” “Has the Chinese central government forced the Tibetans to be a part of mainland China, and why?” Obviously these questions have been elaborated on for many years in the books of Tibetan scholars such as Eric Teichman, Sir Charles Bell, and George N. Patterson. I shall only briefly elaborate on these issues, and then discuss the possibilities of Tibet’s independence.
Brief History of Tibet’s Sovereignty Status
Since Tibet emerged as its own nation in the seventh century under the emperor Srong-tsen Gampo, Tibet has been primarily an independent state despite being under the Manchu’s rule (1271-1368, 1644-1911), and when the Chinese Communist Party declared Tibet a part of China in 1959. For hundreds of years, Tibet was not considered a part of China. Interestingly, virtually since the time Tibet became an organized state, it has been in constant war with the Chinese state. There are many times in history where Tibet was a powerful nation conquering many parts of Western China.
The history of Tibetan and Chinese relations clearly indicates that for the majority of history between the two nations, China has viewed Tibet as an equal. In the ninth century, Tibet and China had much contact with each other, and a peace treaty was established between the two countries stating equality between them. It was not until the thirteenth century that Tibet, under Genghis Khan, became a vassal. Tibet’s vassal state status did not last long. In the seventeenth century, the fifth Dalai Lama visited Peking at the invitation of the new Qing, Manchu emperor. According to Tibetan records regarding the event, the Dalia Lama was regarded as an independent sovereign.
Up until 1959, the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama have each demanded their own right to govern Tibet by pointing to specific historical events to argue their claims. The Dalai Lama points to the time right after the Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion to claim sovereignty over Tibet. After the Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion, Chinese influence rapidly weakened. When an inter-tribal battle erupted in Tibet, a Tibetan army crushed it and retook power.
The Chinese have argued that after the death of the Sixth Dalai Lama, Tibet became a part of China. Sometime after the death of the sixth Dalai Lama, the Chinese emperor dispatched troops to Tibet defeating remaining Mongols and installed the Seventh Dalai Lama of their choice. The Chinese emperor considered Tibet a part of China due to its successful conquest of the region.
Of course, as most of us already know, legally, Tibet is a part of the People’s Republic of China. It has been since the 1959 Tibetan’s Uprising. The Chinese government is aware because of the historical tensions between the Tibetans and the Han Chinese, the Chinese government sinicizied the Tibetan region in order to control Tibetans’ desires of independence.
The Chinese government has sent waves of Han Chinese into Tibet to build the economy, and more importantly, to culturally and politically assimilate the region. On the one hand, the Chinese have argued that this has brought unprecedented economic growth to the region that could not have been accomplished without their assistance. On the other hand, many Tibetans have argued that the Chinese have implemented their new military, economic and political power to incrementally erode and weaken Tibet’s culture. They point towards the fact that the Chinese government has sent thousands of Han Chinese to live and work in Tibet. Today, the Hans control the highest levels of Tibet’s government, and heavily controls their economy.
It is my sense that the Chinese government is doing everything it possibly can to ensure that it maintains control of its conquered lands. If a rational person simply looks at a Tibetan person, one could not possibly argue that he or she looks like a Han Chinese.
Is Tibet’s Independence a possibility?
The chances of Tibet becoming an independent nation are thin to none. Some scholars have argued that Tibet’s riots against the Hans in the last fifty years, particularly the ones in 2008, and in 1959, demonstrates a clear possibility that the Tibetans could overcome the Chinese rule. But the Chinese have consistently skillfully suppressed all of them in a matter of days. The Tibetans rebellions have been unorganized and relatively week, especially compared to the Chinese military.
Besides using military force, the Chinese government has implemented controversial policies with the apparent goal of geographically and socially dispersing the Tibetans. Since the Chinese 1990s, the Chinese government has sent waves of Han Chinese migrants to live and work in Tibet. Tibetans have called this cultural genocide, but the Chinese government has argued that the Hans have brought in unprecedented economic wealth. Han Chinese can rarely be seen in villages, but in the larger cities, especially the capital, they are controlling the economic, social and political spheres.
The lack of support from foreign nations, and the Chinese hardliners stance to maintain Tibet’s “stability,” will almost certainly maintain the status quo. After the U.S. President Barack Obama had his yearly meeting with the Dalai Lama, Obama said in a speech that he recognizes that Tibet is a part of China. Obama recognizes the Tibet’s unique cultural aspects, but does not see the region as a sovereign state. There appears to be no hope in the U.S supporting Tibet’s independence, which used to be a strong supporter of some of Tibet’s causes.
Xi Jinping, the man who will probably be China’s next President, publically supported the status quo and the fact that the Chinese Communist Party has brought Tibet from the dark to the light. China’s two main online mouthpieces, the China Daily and Xinhua, have indirectly supported the Chinese sovereignty over Tibet and its Communist Party’s plans to maintain unity and harmony.
The last main hope for Tibet’s sovereignty was the Dalai Lama. His mere presence has kept the exiled Tibetans and the Tibetans in Tibet unified. But the Dalai Lama, who just stepped down from his position, has lost his radical views of sovereignty for Tibet to mere “one-country, two-system” model outlined in the 17-point agreement. The only hope for Tibet’s independence lays only one place, in them.