Since 1965 Tibet has been administered by the Chinese government as the Tibet Autonomous Region. The government is led by the regional Communist Party secretary, the most powerful figure in Tibet who is sort of like a state governor in the U.S. He is appointed by the Communist Party in Beijing. The Communist Party, aware that Buddhism is central to Tibetans, has tried to select and prop up lamas who will support the government while still retaining legitimacy among the people.

The governor is the figurehead regional leader in Tibet. In January 2010, Beijing announced it choice for the new governor of Tibet, Padma Choling, an ethnic Tibetan who served for 17 years in the People’s Liberation Army. Qiangba Puncong, the governor of Tibet during the uprising in 2008, was also a Tibetan.

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Tibet is a highly sensitive region, not just because of continued local opposition to Chinese control, but because of the region's strategic position next to neighbors India, Nepal and Myanmar. China rejects criticism of its policies in Tibet, saying its rule, since Communist Chinese troops "peacefully liberated" the region in 1950, ended serfdom and brought development to a backward, poverty-stricken region.

China tries to keep control in Tibet by making sure there is at least one Chinese official in even the most remote corners of Tibet. Even though Tibetans make up about two thirds of the government employees in Tibet, Chinese officials hold all the important administrative positions. The Chinese government demands loyalty among its Tibetan employees. Tibetan officials that speak up for the use of the Tibetan language or cultural or religious rights run the risk of being labeled as separatists and being demoted, fired or even arrested. Every March Tibetan work units are ordered to warn people not to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday. Employees that don't go along risk being fired from their jobs. Government employees also can not display pictures of the Dalai Lama without risk of being dismissed.

Chinese propaganda often refers to Tibet as “a once remote and backward place.” Videos show Tibetans singing in Mandarin of their love for the Chinese motherland. Pictures of Chinese President Hu Jintao have been Tibetanized with the Chinese President wearing a khatang, superimposed over images of Potala Plaza and enthusiastic Tibetan dancers in traditional costumes. The phrase “parent of all gods” entered the news during the crisis in Tibet in 2008, when the “autonomous region's” party secretary declared that the Communist Party was the “real Buddha” for Tibetans.

Websites and Sources: Official Dalai Lama site ; Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan government in Exile) ; Chinese Government Tibet website; Wikipedia article on Tibet Wikipedia ; Tibet Activist Groups: Free Tibet ; Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy ; Friends of Tibet

Chinese Policy in Tibet

Chinese poet and blogger Tang Danhong wrote: After the Party invaded the homeland of the Tibetan people, it looted their property, deprived them of their economic sovereignty, and caused them to fall into destitution. Now, it offers “sustenance stipends” and “welfare” in order to cast itself as a “savior.”[Source: “Fire Between the Dark and the Cold” by Tang Danhong, Hong Kong’s Open Magazine, January 2013, China Digital Times, January 9, 2013. Tang Danhong is a poet and filmmaker from Chengdu, Sichuan. She currently lives in Israel. She blogs at Moments of Samsara]

Stefan Halper and Lezlee Brown Halper wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Beijing has poured billions of dollars money into Tibet in an attempt to shift attention from its systematic deconstruction of Tibetan culture. Though the Dalai Lama's likeness cannot be displayed and other cultural expressions have been banned, roads and rail services have been improved. Hot water is now commonplace, and housing and schools have been modernized in the larger cities where most of the Han Chinese live. Naturally, these rapid changes have introduced tension within Tibetan society, as some seek to benefit from the "opportunities" Beijing presents — business licenses, municipal jobs, etc. — while others in villages across Tibet struggle to limit the erosion of their heritage. [Source: Stefan Halper and Lezlee Brown Halper, Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2014; Stefan Halper is director of American studies in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. Lezlee Brown Halper is a research associate at Corpus Christie College, Cambridge. They are the authors of "Tibet: An Unfinished Story."]

About 90 percent of the Tibetan budget is covered by the central government. Many towns and cities have military garrisons on the outskirts of towns manned by soldiers ready to respond if trouble erupts. One high-level official told Reuters, “All the people of Tibet, especially the Tibetans, say that social stability is the best thing. Only with stability can there be development.”

Hannah Beech wrote in Time, The Chinese government’s efforts to tame the Tibetans, ranging from brutal crackdowns to economic enticements, have failed. Despite decades of so-called patriotic education, Tibetans still revere the Dalai Lama and see themselves as “completely Tibetan, not even 1 percent Chinese,” as one Kardze resident tells me. Access to the region’s plentiful natural resources go to Han migrants. Police officers tend to be Han, as are many bureaucrats. “If we don’t do something, our Tibetan culture will be extinguished,” says a high-ranking monk at a Kardze monastery popular with Han tourists. “That is why the situation is so urgent. That’s why we are trying to save our people and our nation.” [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, November 15, 2011]

Chinese Position on Tibet

China has long defended its iron-fisted rule in Tibet, saying the region suffered from dire poverty, brutal exploitation of serfs and economic stagnation until 1950, when Communist troops “peacefully liberated” Tibet and introduced “democratic reforms” in 1959. In a lengthy policy paper released in 2013, the government said that Tibet under Chinese rule had achieved a great deal. “Today’s Tibet is developing economically, making progress politically, has a flourishing culture, a harmonious society and a good environment; its people are happy and healthy,” it said. “Tibet’s development cannot be separated from this correct path,” the white paper added. [Source: South China Morning Post, October 22, 2013]

The government in Beijing claims that Tibet (whose name in Chinese is Xizang, or "Western Treasure") has been an "inalienable" part of China since the 13th century. In the early 20th century, Tibet became important to China for nationalist reasons as Chinese battled imperialism and foreign occupation. Many Chinese intellectuals believed China's historical claims on Tibet were being usurped by Europeans, particularly Britain which invaded Tibet in 1904.In this way Tibet was viewed in the same light as Japanese-occupied Manchuria and British-occupied Hong Kong. The pioneering, early 20th century Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen described China’s main ethnic groups — the Han, Manchu, Hui, Mongolian and Tibetans — as the “five fingers” of China. With one of these five fingers missing the Chinese feel their nation is not whole. See History

Most Chinese have long since absorbed the government side of the Tibetan issue promulgated in textbooks, on television and in newspapers.Orville Shell told Atlantic Monthly, "I don’t think there is any more sensitive issue with the possible exception of Taiwan, because it grows out of the dream of a unified motherland — a dream that historically speaking has been the goal of almost every Chinese leader. The issue touches on sovereignty, it touches on unity of Chinese territory, and especially it touches on the issue of the West, a predator, the violator of Chinese sovereignty."

The Chinese insist that their army freed Tibetans from theocratic slavery and that Tibet is inseparable from China. The Chinese government has released a series of papers on how its rule has created a safer and more prosperous Tibet. Some Chinese have admitted that maybe they went too far in Tibet and say it was a mistake to invade Tibet. Others believe that China has been too soft on Tibet. Many officials in Beijing believe that liberal cultural polices have only encouraged the Tibetans to more actively seek independence. By limiting cultural and religious expression, many Chinese believe, they also limit calls for independence. See Religion.

Chinese know little about the Tibetan interpretation of Tibetan history because their textbooks only present the Communist Party’s interpretation of events. They also feel that Tibetans receive special subsidies and benefits that other groups in China don't receive and for the Tibetans to complain is seen as ingratitude.

The Chinese believe they have brought progress to Tibet. A show at the Cultural Palace of Nationalities in Beijing called “Tibet: Past and Present” was divide into two parts: the first, called “The History of Tibet and Feudal Serfdom in Old Tibet” featured images of peasants maimed and crippled by lords and Buddhist lamas; the second, “New Tibet Changing With each Passing Day” showed modern Tibet in all its glory. Tibetan Buddhism is dismissed by the Chinese as an “outmoded superstition.”

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “China has narrowed its own options: by educating its citizens to perceive any concession where Tibet is concerned as an existential threat, China has left itself little room to bargain. So, for the moment, the two sides remain locked in a war of patience: the Dalai Lama waiting to win over enough ordinary Chinese followers to alter Chinese policy, and the Chinese government waiting to win over enough ordinary Tibetans to keep Lhasa stable. Chinese leaders are betting that, if they wait for the Dalai Lama to die, whoever comes after him will be less galvanizing...and they are probably right. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]

How the Collapse of the Soviet Union Shapes China's Hardline Tibet Policy

Beijing’s hardline towards Tibet is based partly on its analysis of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which they partly blame on a policy of granting too much ethnic groups there too much autonomy. When protesters in Kazakhstan took to the streets in 1986 to declare that “Kazakhstan belongs to Kazakhs,” Mikhail Gorbachev first sent in the military but then tried to appease the rioters by installing a Kazakh apparatchik and changing unpopular language laws. Other ethnic groups then demanded more freedoms and concessions. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]

Ma Rong, an influential sociologist at Peking University told The New Yorker the chain of events “reminded the P.R.C. leaders of the political risk in managing ethnic relations, and made them very cautious.” “The former Soviet Union took a great risk by handling its nationality/ ethnicity issues the way it did,” Ma wrote in an academic journal in 2007. The Soviets wrongly assumed that Communism would bind their ethnicities together, but the “nation was at risk of disintegrating if the ideological linkage among the ethnic groups collapsed.”

In 2008, when President Hu Jintao said, “stability in Tibet concerns the stability of the country” he had China’s 56 officially recognized ethnic groups in mind not only Tibetans. Chinese arguments that cracking down on Tibet are necessary to maintain national security and stability make sense to a population that recalls the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

Beijing Statements Regarding Tibet

One of the key elements of the 15-year plan for Tibet released by Beijing in 1996 was the silencing of the Dalai Lama, who is accused of trying "to overthrown the people's government and split the motherland." In a chapter concerning "The Struggle against Splitism," the plan proclaimed: "A great number of facts testify that the Dalai is the chief villain of the political clique that is promoting Tibetan independence...We must expand and deepen and publicly expose and criticize the Dalai Lama, stripping away the cloak of being a 'religious leader.'"

The plan continued: "We must ensure that the broad masses of the people clearly understand that what he is advocating with his so-called 'Tibetan independence' 'high level autonomy' and 'greater Tibetan region' is really opposition to the Communist Party."

Strike Hard, a law and order campaign launched by Jiang Zemin in 1996, not only targeted criminals it also crackdown on "splittists" in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. The Tibetan Daily warned "a long-term, bitter, complex, 'you die. I live' political battle with no possibility of compromise."

The Communist Party has used nationalism as an ideology to keep China together.” When Tibetans and other groups question or attack the nation," Tibetan scholar Dibyesg Anand of Westminster University in London told the New York Times, Chinese see it “as an attack on their core attack on what it means to be Chinese. Even if minorities don’t feel like part of China, they are part of China’s nationality.”

Before the riots in March 2008, Chinese President Hu Jintao said, “Tibet’s stability has to do with the entire country’s stability. Tibet’s safety has to do with the entire country’s safety.”

See Dalai Lama and Politics, Dalai Lama

Why Doesn’t Beijing Open Up More on Tibet?

On why Beijing doesn’t allow Tibet to open up more, Tibetan filmmaker Losang Gyatso told the Los Angeles Times: “There is the view expressed that perhaps there is a disconnect between Beijing and the leadership in power in Tibet. Some of these regional leaders have a lot to lose if there is legitimate resolution of the Tibetan issue. The whole idea of there being a separatist movement fueled from outside served to bring in funds from the central government that they used to further implement policies that Tibetans resent. It’s cyclical in nature. [Source: Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times, June 6, 2013]

“As remote as a resolution might seem today, if some boldness and vision on the part of the leadership in Beijing were to emerge, it’s possible. Many of the points within the 17-Point Agreement the Chinese authorities signed with the Tibetan government in 1951 reflect the main ideas in the Dalai Lama’s proposal for genuine autonomy for a Tibet within the Chinese state, and that therefore a solution to what appears to be an intractable problem is not as far off as it seems if Beijing were serious in resolving the issue.”

Efforts by the Chinese to Help Tibetans

Between 1959 and 2010 the Chinese government has spent more than $30 billion in Tibet and increased life expectancy from 35.5 to 67 years and raised GDP from 142 yuan to 13,861 yuan. The government has built hundreds of villages outfit with modest but relatively comfortable homes that cost around $7,500 and are vast improvement over the houses villagers lived in before.

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Street signs in Gyantse

Tibetans are allowed to ignore the one-child policy and have three children. They pay virtually no taxes, receive tax-free leases on land, low-interest loans are duty-free imports from Nepal. Tibetans have also been afforded the same affirmative action policies afforded other minorities: in some cases they have been given preferences for university admission and government promotions. In recent years a program to resettle Tibet’s nomads into apartments or cinder-block houses and fence off their vast grasslands has gathered pace.

Development in Tibet

The Chinese believe they have helped the Tibetans progress and modernize at a great expense. Before the arrival of the Chinese, Tibet had no roads, no electricity, no modern medicine and no education outside the monasteries. The Chinese are credited with ending feudalism, slavery and theocracy in Tibet and introducing land reform. Under the Chinese, life expectancy among Tibetans has doubled, a greater variety of food is available, and the levels of illiteracy have been greatly reduced.

The Chinese spend several billion dollars a year in Tibet to provide subsidies and build roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure projects. This is more than in any other province. Although the Chinese have taken minerals and timber out of Tibet, they have spent far more in Tibet than they have received and have also ordered every Chinese province and several state companies to invest in Tibet. In spite of the money poured into Tibet, however, it remains one of the poorest regions in China.

In a major speech marking the opening of National People’s Congress in March 2010, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao promised to expand growth and development in Xinjiang and Tibet. The central government invested $3 billion in the Tibet Autonomous Region in 2009, a 31 percent increase over 2008.

Tibetan infrastructure has helped unit a people divided by harsh terrain. Tibetan towns are now more modern—in terms of electrification, education, hospitals, and other public facilities— than they were before.

The Chinese have a hard time understanding why the schools, factories and roads they built in Tibet are not appreciated more by the Tibetans. What they have failed to realize is that many Tibetans do not want their help and would rather modernize and progress on their own terms as the Bhutanese, a people similar to the Tibetans, have been able to do in Bhutan.

Some Western observers villianize development. But Tibetans don’t necessarily see it that way. They don’t resent development, they mainly object to the way they have been left out. Increasingly Tibetans are torn between their desire to get rid of the Chinese and their dependence on the jobs, opportunities and development that the Chinese bring.

Development in Tibet in the 2000s and 2010s

In 2011, the Chinese central government plans said it would invest $21.38 billion in Tibet from 2011 to 2015 “to support the region's development and improve local people's lives.” The investment primarily supported 226 major construction projects in Tibet that included construction of facilities for the region's public services, as well as infrastructure such as railways, highways, airports and hydropower plants such as the such as the Lhasa-Shigatse railway, an extension line of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, and the Laohuzui Hydroelectric Power Station. The Chinese government said the investment would also be used to promote the region's local industries and protect the environment, the statement said. [Source: Xinhua, July 20, 2011]

China's spent US$20.3 billion to boost Tibet's development from 2006 to 2010, the regional government said. The money funded 188 key projects covering infrastructure building, urban development, environmental protection and cultural conservation, the regional government said in a press release. Among these were eight new projects including a highway linking Lhasa's city center with the Gonggar Airport. [Source: Xinhua, July 28, 2010]

Xinhua reported: Chinese development in Tibet “helped 80 percent of Tibet's villages to be connected by road, provide safe drinking water for all its 2.76 million people and free education up to high school level for all children. The 2006-2010 funding also helped build power plants and telecommunications facilities in remote villages.and funded the building of 15,000 new homes for Tibetan farmers and herders, and 95 village hospitals. It also financed construction of Tibet's fourth airport, the Gunsa Airport in the northern Ngari Prefecture that opened on July 1, and a 100,000-kilowatt photovoltaic plant in Ngari.

In September 2020, Chinese official said that China was planning to spend almost $150 billion on infrastructure in Tibet that included new and previously announced projects. The plan to step-up development in the remote and impoverished region coincided with increased tensions between India and China and seemed part of an effort to beef up frontier security in Tibet alongs its border with India. [Source: Reuters, September 4, 2020]

Rural Development in Tibet

Beijing has a number of rural development programs going on in Tibet. These include efforts to help farmers and herders earn more income by finding new use for yaks and teaching highlanders how to grow profitable mushrooms (See Qamdo, Places).

Some Chinese projects — including gas stations that don't have working pumps and a cargo depot built across town from its suppliers — have been poorly planned and shoddily built.

Many Chinese have signed up to do Peace-Corps-style work in Tibet with Volunteers Aiding Tibet. Doctors, technicians and managers are sent to Tibet on three year contracts, often with promises of promotion when they return home.

When asked why he signed up to be a volunteer in Tibet one teacher told Atlantic Monthly, "Because all of us know that Tibet is a less developed place that needs skilled people." Other say they have gone adventure, the natural beauty of the place — reasons that are not all that different from the reasons American Peace Corp volunteers give.

Negative Reaction to Tibetan Development

Development programs are sometimes well received, and sometimes they create resentment. Robert Barnett, a scholar of Tibet at Columbia University , said the goal of maintaining double-digit growth in the region had worsened ethnic tensions. Of course, they achieved that, but it was disastrous, he said. They had no priority on local human resources, so of course they relied on outside labor, and sucked in large migration into the towns. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 24, 2010]

Barnett, told the Washington Post, “It’s misleading to just ask if there’s been economic progress. Who benefits from it? What is the cost locally, culturally and politically?” Woeser told the Washington Post, “In recent years, there has been improvements in housing, electricity and water supplies. But these improvements cannot compare withe price Tibetans pay.”

“Chinese think that developing Tibet's infrastructure will change the thinking of Tibetans, but they have always been forgetting the real issue - without the freedom to live our lives, such developments will bring no fruit,” Jamphel Sioche, a young Tibetan in exile, told the Asian Times. [Source: Saransh Sehgal, Asia Times, October 5, 2010]

All the development has benefitted Tibetans relatively little. Their illiteracy rate is still four times higher than that of neighboring Sichuan Province. There are one forth fewer vocational schools than in the rest of China.

Chinese Military in Tibet

Traditionally Tibetans merged politics and religion but left military matters to outsiders such as the Mongolians and Chinese. Today Tibet is important militarily to China particularly as front line against India.

Tibet is filled with army camps and gun emplacements. On the roads it is not uncommon to see convoys of grim faced Chinese troops in olive drab trucks. The Tibetans don’t even like to make eye contact with them. There are approximately 40,000 Chinese soldiers in the Tibetan Autonomous region and every town has an army or paramilitary police garrison.

Chinese army and government posts are called "administrative centers." To mark the 20th anniversary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Lhasa was sealed off from the foreign press and turned into a military compound with soldiers with automatic weapons stationed on top of Potala Palace.

Image Sources: Julie Chao , Tibet

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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