The conflict in between Tibet and the Chinese government has quickly become a hot topic covered by American and international news media. As the Olympics draw near, threats of boycotts and attempts to extinguish the Olympic flame as it travels to Beijing has highlighted how the violent situation is being handled by the Chinese government. But, how exactly did this whole mess begin? We turn to Douglas Stiffler, associate professor of history for the back story.
Has Tibet always been under Chinese rule?
Tibet was largely independent for most of its history. From the early 18th century to the early 20th century, however, Tibet was under the suzerainty of China’s Qing dynasty. The Qing substantially controlled the foreign relations of Tibet, but Tibetans controlled most of their own internal affairs.
What are the roots of the conflict happening today?
The Chinese communist government came to power on the mainland in 1949, and was bent on incorporating Tibet into a new nation in China, not just by controlling its foreign affairs, but by controlling and transforming Tibet domestically. Tibet was militarily conquered by China. Over the next several decades, Chinese communist policies in Tibet were disastrous for Tibetans in terms of destruction of their culture and loss of their independence.
Has Tibet’s plight been an issue for decades?
American interest in Tibet is a relatively recent phenomenon of the last 20 years, for the most part.
How is this conflict portrayed to Chinese citizens?
In China you don’t get media coverage on what is really happening there. The Chinese government emphasizes its modernization of Tibet in the areas of industry, transportation, and education. That is where China would say their takeover of Tibet has helped. In the recent disturbances, the government has emphasized Tibetan attacks on Han-Chinese businesses, Tibetans attacking Chinese, and blamed the Dalai Lama for behind-the-scenes manipulation. This is traditionally the way the Chinese government explains popular uprisings, that is, seeking a “black hand” behind the scenes, manipulating the public.
Have Tibetans always protested their rule by China?
I think it is fair to say that Chinese rule of Tibet has never been popular among the majority of the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama is generally popular among the Tibetan people, in large part as a symbol of an independent Tibetan identity. Part of the reason for resentment of Chinese by Tibetans is because of the Cultural Revolution 1966-76. A lot of monasteries in Tibet were attacked and destroyed. The mainland government has had and will have a very hard time getting over these acts. In its public pronouncements, the Chinese government usually does not admit that it created the conditions in which these protests have erupted.
Why do the Chinese feel so strongly that Tibet must be a part of China?
For most Han Chinese today, the issue of Tibet being a part of China is a straight-forward nationalist/patriotic issue (despite Tibet’s cultural, linguistic, and historical differences). That is to say, for Han Chinese, it would be as logical to talk of splitting the American South from the North, or permitting the secession of Hawaii.
I believe that, for the Chinese elite, control of Tibet is a geo-strategic issue in which control of Tibet – irrespective of the desires of its people — is vital to China’s national security. Also, Chinese quite justifiably see it as hypocritical of the West to criticize this instance of Chinese “imperialism,” given the long history of Western imperialism in Asia.
Rather than accuse the Dalai Lama of “splittism” and making up accusations about the “Dalai Lama clique,” however, it would be more productive for the Chinese government, and the Chinese people, to recognize the historical inequities in the relationship. That would mean Chinese government negotiations with the Dalai Lama to come up with a long-term solution: real Tibetan autonomy within a federal (Chinese) framework.
Adam Stanley, ’08, Juniata online journalist