Most people associate Tibet, or Xizang in Chinese, with Shangri-La, the mystical Buddhist paradise. The Dalai Lama, since his exile, has become the foremost speaker for Buddhism in the Western World, advocating the virtues and philosophies of the religion. While it is true that most religious doctrine, when examined closely, do indeed advocate the good and the virtuous, the political history of Tibet is far placed from these.
One of the hot button topics in Western discourse when it comes to China is Tibet. The ‘problem’ seems to illustrate everything wrong with China and gives the chance to flaunt their “holier than thou” attitude when it comes to any non-western culture. How can a big powerful totalitarian state, diametrically opposed to the ideals of (religious) freedom and human rights, trample on such a poor, helpless culture? Never mind that this is exactly what western powers did for centuries (ironically, this even happened in China; which leads to the animosity that China holds against western powers). Plus the Dalai Lama is such a nice and kind person, how could he possibly be wrong?
The only thing ‘wrong’ here is that annexation became taboo in the 20th century. This is mostly because pointless attempts at expansion is what sparked both world wars, together accounting for more than 100 million war deaths. Thus the only ‘crime’ that China committed was that it ‘annexed’ a territory after it became unacceptable to do so (by about 5 years, when WW2 ended in 1945). However, there is no such crime; China did not annex any territories that didn’t already belong to the old Qing Empire. In fact, modern China is smaller than the Qing Empire, which also included Mongolia and parts of Vietnam.
The true ‘annexation’ occurred in the 17th century, when the Manchurians, which were all Tibetan Buddhists I might add, successfully breached the defences of the Ming Empire and entered China. At that time, Mongolia and Tibet were both allies of the Manchurians. After the Manchus successfully conquered China, Mongolia and Tibet officially joined the Qing Empire and since then, the Qing (Chinese) Emperor ruled Tibet, though Tibet was given autonomy. The political influence was definitely more than indirect. Indeed, at the end of the 18th century, the Qing Emperor Qianlong directly issued an edict to Tibet telling them how to run their government, and even the “golden urn” method of selecting Lamas was included in that edict. To drive it home, the Chinese Emperor made up the rule on how Tibetans should choose who is actually a reincarnated Lama, and this rule was followed for 150 years without question by the Tibetan clergy. It’s all here.
So the People’s Republic of China reasserting control of Tibet in 1950 was no more wrong than the Jews establishing the state of Israel. After all, the Jews were gone for two millennia, while the Chinese had only been absent politically in Tibet for less than 50 years.
As a continuation, I want to address a very basic issue: in the West there seems to be a belief that Tibet’s population is nothing but peacefully praying monks in isolated temples. This is not true. Most people in Tibet are not monks or even live in towns; they are nomads. The monks represent a political elite that ruled Tibet with an iron fist for centuries. Indeed, prior to the People’s Republic reasserting control in Tibet, literacy rates were barely above 10% and most of the population (see: not monks) lived in abject poverty. While today most people in Tibet are not exactly living the high life, literacy rates have dramatically improved, and the quality of life in the region has similarly benefited from China’s economic boom. If Tibet was an independent state, I believe that none of this would have been possible.