Should Tibet become a sovereign nation again

Background current

On May 23, 1951, representatives of China and Tibet signed the so-called 17-point agreement, with which Tibet came under the control of Beijing. From the Chinese point of view, the agreement marks the "liberation" of Tibet, from the Tibetan point of view the new beginning of Chinese foreign rule.

The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, was the winter residence of the Dalai Lama from 1649 to 1959. Today the red flag of China flies over the museum, which has been a World Heritage Site since 1994. (& copy picture alliance / Sergi Reboredo | Sergi Reboredo)

The 17-point agreement represents a turning point in the history of Tibet. The international legal status of the region in the Central Asian highlands - the question of whether it is formally part of China - is still controversial today, and the Tibetan government-in-exile is not recognized internationally. At least two views exist - the dominant are the Chinese and Tibetan ones - and determine the view of the agreement and the events that followed it.

China believes that Tibet never existed as an independent state. This is based on a special Chinese definition of the term nation and state: According to this, all peoples who lived on the territory of the Chinese Empire until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911 are Chinese. As a result, Tibet was not a sovereign state until the Republic of China was proclaimed on January 1, 1912. However, it is difficult to describe the status of Tibet using today's international legal terms. On the one hand, Tibet had been in a kind of vassal relationship to China since 1720, politics was co-determined by governors from Beijing. On the other hand, Tibet continued to administer itself, albeit without the possibility of shaping its own foreign policy.

Tibet's 1912 Declaration of Independence

Tibet sees itself as a centuries-old cultural nation. Nevertheless, the Tibetan government-in-exile also takes the view that there was no fully independent Tibetan state until 1912. It was only with the return of the 13th Dalai Lama, who lived until 1933, and the subsequent declaration of independence, that Tibet was free of Chinese influence. Thereafter, Tibet was a sovereign state that became a theocratic monarchy and maintained an army.

In fact, the central power of the Qing dynasty over the entire Chinese empire disappeared as early as the 19th century when Western powers tried to expand their influence in China. In 1903, Britain initiated a military expedition to Tibet to reduce Russia's diplomatic influence. During the so-called "Younghusband Expedition" (British Tibet Campaign), the British temporarily occupied parts of Tibet and concluded an agreement with the Tibetan government.

Mao lets troops invade Tibet

Soon after Mao Zedong (also: Mao Tse-tung) proclaimed the People's Republic of China in 1949, Beijing intensified efforts to gain control of Tibet. The Chinese government invoked "a long history of attachment" of the Tibetan people to the Chinese.

In October 1950, soldiers of the National People's Army marched into the eastern Tibetan region of Qamdo. The order for the People's Liberation Army to march into Tibet was given in order to eliminate the influence of the "imperialist forces" and to "liberate" the Tibetan people. The vastly outnumbered Tibetan Army had nothing to counter this.

Even then, the Tibetan government tried to involve the United Nations. India initially promised support for Tibet, but then withdrew to the position that the Tibet issue could still be resolved "by peaceful means" at this point in time. On November 24, 1950, the United Nations postponed the subject.

China: Agreement formally guarantees autonomy and freedom of belief

On May 23, 1951, representatives of the communist government in Beijing and the Tibetan government signed the so-called "17-point agreement" (official title: "Agreement of the Central People's Government with the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet"). In the agreement, the government in Beijing was given extensive sovereignty. Point 1 regulates the "return" of Tibet "to the great family of the People's Republic of China". In addition, the People's Liberation Army for Tibet is supposed to "consolidate national defense" (point 2). The foreign policy representation of Tibet was to be taken over by China from now on (point 14).

Source text

17-point agreement between China and Tibet

1. The Tibetan people will unite and expel the imperialist aggressive forces from Tibet; the Tibetan people will return to the bosom of the great family of the People's Republic of China.

2. The local government of Tibet will actively assist the People's Liberation Army in reaching Tibet and strengthening the national defense.

3. According to the nationality policy recognized in the joint program of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the Tibetan people have the right to exercise national territorial autonomy under the unified leadership of the Chinese People's Government.

4. The central authorities will not change the existing political system in Tibet. Nor will the central authorities change the existing status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama. The officials of the various ranks remain in office as usual.

5. The existing status, functions and powers of the Panchen Ngoerhtehni are to be retained.

6. The existing status, offices and powers of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Ngoerhtehni refer to the status, offices and powers of the 13th Dalai Lama and the 9th Panchen Ngoerhtehni when they had friendly and trusting relationships with one another.

7. The policy of freedom of religious belief is determined in accordance with the joint program of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. The religious beliefs, customs and habits of the Tibetan people will be preserved and Lama monasteries will be protected. The central authorities will not change the income of the monasteries.

8. Tibetan troops are gradually being integrated into the People's Liberation Army and become part of the armed forces of the PRC.

9. The spoken and written language and education of the Tibetan nationality will be developed step by step in accordance with the existing conditions in Tibet.

10. Tibetan agriculture, animal husbandry, industry and trade will be developed step by step, and people's livelihoods will be gradually improved in accordance with the existing conditions in Tibet.

11. With regard to various reforms in Tibet, there will be no coercion from the central authorities. The local government of Tibet will undertake reforms of its own accord and, if the people demand reforms, they will be initiated through consultation with the Tibetan leaders.

12. To the extent that formerly pro-imperialist and pro-Kuomintang-minded officials severely break ties with imperialism and the Kuomintang and do not engage in sabotage or resistance against China, they can continue to hold office regardless of their past.

13. The People's Liberation Army troops relocated to Tibet will honor all of the above agreements and be fair in all their purchases and sales, and will not arbitrarily steal a needle or thread from the people.

14. The Chinese People's Government will carry out all foreign policy tasks for the Tibet Territory; and there will be peaceful coexistence with neighboring countries and the establishment and development of fair business and trade relations with them on the basis of equality, mutual benefit and mutual respect for borders and sovereignty.

15. To ensure the implementation of this agreement, the Chinese People's Government is establishing a Military and Administrative Committee and Military District Headquarters in Tibet and will involve local Tibetan personnel as much as possible, regardless of the personnel dispatched by the Chinese People's Government. These Tibetan personnel who participate in the Military and Administrative Committee may include patriotic elements from the local government of Tibet, from various counties, and from various major monasteries; the list of names will be confirmed after consultation between the representatives of the Chinese People's Government and the various sides and submitted to the Chinese People's Government for the nomination of the chosen ones.

16. Costs incurred by the Military and Administrative Committee, Military District Headquarters, and People's Liberation Army forces relocated to Tibet will be borne by the Chinese People's Government. The local government of Tibet should assist the People's Liberation Army in buying and transporting food, fodder and other daily necessities.

17. This agreement will take effect immediately after it has been signed and sealed.

This agreement will come into effect immediately after it has been signed and sealed. Signed and sealed by the delegates of the Chinese People's Government:

Delegation leader: Li Wei-han (Head of the Interior Commission); Delegates: Chang Ching-wu, Chang Kuo-hua, Sun Chih-yuan Delegates of the Local Government of Tibet:

Delegation leader: Kaloon Ngabou Ngawang Jigme (Ngabo Shape); Delegates: Dzasak Khemey Sonam Wangdi, Khentrung Thuptan, Tenthar, Khenchung Thuptan Lekmuun Rimshi, Samposey Tenzin Thondup

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In purely formal terms, Tibet is also granted extensive autonomy rights. The political system of Tibet should remain in place (point 4), and the "existing status" of the Dalai Lama should also be retained (points 4 to 6). Freedom of belief is also explicitly guaranteed (point 7). The Chinese government believes that both the 17-point agreement and subsequent steps were made with the express approval of the Tibetan people.

Tibet: Agreement came about under "armed force"

Nevertheless, the 17-point agreement was controversial from the start. To this day, the Tibetan government-in-exile takes the position that China's military presence in Qamdo has actually forced it to sign. The Tibetan people saw the 17-point agreement as a "death sentence" for their independence. The 14th Dalai Lama only decided to work with the People's Republic of China to "save his people from total destruction". He agreed to the agreement in October 1951 - "under threat of armed violence," as he later said.

Since 1950, Tibet has been de facto under Chinese rule. The Tibetans' religious practice was restricted, land was expropriated, temples were converted into warehouses and the population was obliged to do forced labor. The Tibetan government-in-exile emphasizes that China has seriously violated the agreement. In addition to the existing Tibetan government organs, China has built up a second power center with its own organs controlled by the central government. Communist reforms were forced against the will of the Tibetan people and hundreds of religious institutions were destroyed. These and other events had led to an increasing resistance in the population. In the following years, isolated armed uprisings occurred in the eastern parts of Tibet.

Tibet uprising in 1959

Eight years after the 17-point agreement was signed, the so-called Tibet uprising began. The trigger was an invitation from the Dalai Lama to a theater performance in a Chinese military camp outside the capital Lhasa. However, the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetans should appear without a bodyguard. Many Tibetans feared the arrest and deportation of the Dalai Lama because of the existing tensions.

This led to mass protests on March 10, 1959. China claimed that the demonstrations were an uprising organized by the Tibetan leadership and gathered forces from the People's Liberation Army. On March 17th, a week after the protests broke out, the Dalai Lama fled to India. Since then, the Tibetan government-in-exile has had its seat in Dharamsala. According to Tibetan information, the Chinese army, led by Mao Zedong, murdered around 87,000 people in purges after the uprising, and numerous monasteries were destroyed.

In the period after the Tibet uprising in 1964, an "Tibet Autonomous Region" was formally established. In the political reality, however, the Tibetans can hardly assert their rights against the Chinese leadership.

To this day, the government in exile in Dharamsala advocates the interests of the Tibetan people. Meanwhile, major unrest continues to occur in the Tibet region. These escalated for the last time in 2008 when Buddhist monks rose up against central Chinese authorities. Amnesty International denounces human rights violations by the Chinese government. Tibetans are being "persecuted" with the argument that China must take action against "separatism" and "extremism".

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