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The historical trajectory of Sino-Tibetan relations, from the thirteenth century until present, is at the heart of Tibet’s disputed status. It is widely acknowledged, even by China, that Tibetans possess a distinct cultural identity. Whether certain territories within the People’s Republic of China (PRC), to which Tibet lays political claim, should separate and become sovereign is therefore the question that has surrounded Tibet’s modern history and informed China’s oppressive policies. Between the fall of China’s Qing Dynasty in 1912 and Tibet’s incorporation into the PRC as the Tibetan Autonomous Region in 1950, Tibet experienced a period of de facto independence. In 1950, communist China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invaded and occupied Tibet, and in 1951, a Seventeen Point Agreement – arguably imposed on Tibet – formally established China’s sovereignty. Resistance arose, most notably in the guerilla group originating in Eastern Tibet known as Chushi Gangdruk, or “Four Rivers, Six Ranges.” It operated between 1957 and 1974 with the assistance of CIA arms, ammunition, and training, although the United States was more interested in disrupting communist China than promoting Tibetan independence. On March 10, 1959, a national uprising in the capital city Lhasa led to a crackdown that resulted in the Dalai Lama’s flight to India and the deaths of between 10,000 and 15,000 Tibetans within three days.
Communist leader Mao Zedong’s policies, particularly the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1959-62) involving forced agricultural collectivization and failed industrialization attempts, caused widespread famine and the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese citizens, including Tibetans. The campaign in Tibet has involved government suppression, mass arrests and imprisonment, the creation of labor camp networks, torture, and execution. Furthermore, Tibet has been subjected to cultural attacks, such as the suppression of language and religion, forced relocation, the population transfer of Han Chinese settlers into traditional Tibetan territory, and systematic assimilation (Sinicization). The decade spanning 1966 to 1976 saw the devastating effects of the Cultural Revolution, which sought to eradicate the “Four Olds:” Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. The Communist Party also destroyed cultural artifacts and monasteries. By 1976, efforts to eliminate Tibetan Buddhism left only eight of Tibet’s more than 6,000 monasteries standing. The Tibetan government in exile in India estimates that the death toll since 1950 due to starvation, outright violence, and other indirect causes amounts to 1.2 million. However, some Tibetologists place the figure closer to half a million. The non-governmental International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) released a report to the United Nations in 1959, and another in 1960, which documented accounts of atrocities and accused the Chinese of religious-based genocide in Tibet. The ICJ further determined that China had violated the Seventeen Point Agreement, as well as sixteen out of thirty articles of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Several scholars point out that the CIA funded the Commission at the time, indicating a possible bias, although three UN resolutions reinforced the ICJ’s conclusions.
In the decade after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, there began a period of rapprochement between Chinese officials and exiled Tibetan leaders. In the late 1980s, the Dalai Lama and the government in exile initiated efforts to gain international support for human rights and self-determination in Tibet. The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his travels to spread information about the Tibetan cause and his advocacy of nonviolence, dialogue and reconciliation. The same year, martial law was imposed as a result of increasing unrest during the preceding two years. Beginning in 2000, the PRC launched an economic strategy to shrink the prosperity gap between eastern and western China that included infrastructure projects such as the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. Many Tibetans fear that such projects will increase the capacity for military mobilization and settlement by the Han majority. Indeed, because Tibet comprises 30 percent of China’s surface area while Tibetans represent only 0.004 percent of the population, motivations for official policy over the past half-century can be interpreted as extending beyond religious or ethnic reasons to include territorial ambition.
Revolt began anew in 2008, when what began as an annual commemoration of the national uprising on March 10, 1959 grew into unrest that continued until May. The strife peaked on March 14, when street protests in Lhasa devolved into Tibetans rioting, looting, burning, and killing, with the hostility channeled mostly toward Han Chinese and Muslim Hui civilians. Police intervened, but according to a correspondent for The Economist who happened to be in the area, the response of security forces was fairly tame. Chinese Communist Party authorities in Tibet stated that the uprising was motivated by separatism and orchestrated by the Dalai Lama, a claim which he denies. The Dalai Lama, eyewitnesses, and independent sources such as the China-based Open Constitution Initiative, cite broader reasons for the uprising: ethnic resentment, socioeconomic discontent, and religious sentiments primary among them. In the immediate aftermath, Amnesty International reported that major monasteries had been locked down and that over 1,000 people were being held in detention, while a few reports of torture and execution also surfaced.
The violence that erupted in 2008 reveals fractures within the Tibetan community. Some, especially in the younger generation, are dissatisfied with the Dalai Lama’s policy of peaceful resistance and seeking the Middle Way; that is, greater autonomy under the “one country, two systems” formula, rather than outright independence. Criticisms also stem from external sources. Barry Sautman, for example, is among a small set of academics that tends to defend Chinese actions on the grounds that the Tibetan case has been severely misrepresented. Many Tibetologists do acknowledge that the PRC tolerates a certain level of cultural activity and expression, and that all Chinese citizens – not only Tibetans – encounter restrictions, censorship, and human rights abuses. Nevertheless, the international non-governmental organization Freedom House, which conducts worldwide surveys of democracy, political freedom, and human rights, has listed Tibet in its annual “Worst of the Worst” publication every year since 2001. The report provides details about the “world’s most repressive societies” according to Freedom House. Without exception, Tibet has received the lowest ranking for political rights and civil liberties, earning the status of “Not Free.”