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Two Sides to the Tibet Issue


Two Sides to the Tibet Issue

Tibetan supporters wave flags and signs in Tokyo Japan in may 2008.

Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
The issue of Tibet is a centuries-old debate that appears to have no resolution at hand. At the heart of the conflict are deep cultural divisions and distrust on the part of Chinese and Tibetan alike.

Located in the Qinghai-Tibet plateau in southwest China in the highest region on earth, Tibet has long been isolated from its neighbors and existed as an independent kingdom for much of its early history.

Circumstances changed when it fell under Chinese control in the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty in the 1200s.

In the modern era, the Chinese People's Liberation Army defeated Tibetan fighters in 1950, then initiated policy to bring the region of Tibet even further into the People's Republic of China. After a failed Tibetan uprising in 1959, Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India and leads a government in exile.

Since then, there has been tense relations as ethnic Tibetans watch as Chinese migrants populate their traditional homeland, bringing economic development and greater commercialism.

The issue flared up again in March 2008, as Tibetans led a series of demonstrations and riots in protest of the anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising in Tibet against Chinese rule. The riots were violent and when it was over, hundreds of Chinese and Tibetans were injured and there were several deaths reported on both sides.

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The Chinese government reported that 18 civilians and one police officer were killed and 382 were injured. Additionally there was an estimated $244 million yuan ($35.7 million) in damages.

Meanwhile, the Tibetan government in exile has said that the Chinese response to the riots have led to more than 140 deaths and thousands of arrests.

Since the riots, Chinese officials and representatives of the Dalai Lama have met three times to find some solution to the conflict

The most recent meeting began in early November 2008, but during the talks, the Dalai Lama, who was visiting Japan, told reporters that his faith in the Chinese government was becoming "thinner and thinner". He also said that he will no longer talk with China about Tibetan autonomy and that he has lost faith in any negotiation between the two sides.

In response, Chinese officials blamed the Dalai Lama for failing to stop separatist activities and continuing to push independence. The talks were still taking place as of November 4, 2008.


At the heart of this conflict lies conflicting historical perspectives on who has the right to govern Tibet. Prior to the mid-1800s, Tibet was viewed has having a priest-patron with China where Tibet, as a vassal state that paid tribute to the emperor. In turn, the emperor protected the region when it was needed.

In the modern era, this type of relationship could not last. The relative ambiguousness of the priest-patron relationship allowed for both sides believe they were in charge, but in an era of global warfare, trans-national markets, and colonialism in China, the definitions of who governed what got more dicey.

By the mid 1800s, China had suffered greatly at the hands of foreign powers. The British took advantage of China’s weakness and took Lhasa in 1904, forcing a treaty with Tibet alone. That treaty would ultimately be rescinded, but it was a blow to China and many leaders would push for control of Tibet even more.

When the Communists won the civil war, Tibet became a special case for leader Mao Zedong who thought there could be a "liberation by agreement" by winning over Tibetans. To the atheist Chinese, Tibet was a feudal state, and its theocracy and history of serfdom was outdated. They attempted to indoctrinate and assimilate the Tibetans through social and land-reform policy. For deeply religious Tibetans, this was a form of cultural genocide.

In May 1951, Tibetan representatives signed an agreement with China which Chinese scholars argue documents China's sovereignty over Tibet. Years later, Tibetan leaders would counter that the treaty was imposed by force and never valid. Tibetan nationalism grew in the late 1950s and aided by the CIA, Tibetans started a rebellion in 1959. They were defeated by the Chinese military and the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India and established the Tibetan government in exile.

The subsequent Cultural Revolution led to the closing of thousands of religious sites further isolating Tibetans. The ban on religious practices and monasteries lifted in 1976 after the death of Mao.

The aim of the next Chinese leadership became convincing Tibetans to industrialize. Due to economic incentive programs, Han Chinese have flooded Tibet. While this has led to greater economic opportunity for them, to many Tibetans there is a feeling that their land has been invaded and that they are discriminated against by the ruling Chinese. Skirmishes continue to erupt, only to be faced with an even greater return of force by Beijing.

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