The Tangled History of the ‘Tibet Card’

Recent Features

Features | Politics | East Asia

The Tangled History of the ‘Tibet Card’

It is impossible to understand the transformation of a population into a political “card” without understanding Tibet’s early 20th century.

The Tangled History of the ‘Tibet Card’

An Indian official greets the Dalai Lama, spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet, on the latter’s arrival at a military camp on the frontier of Assam April 18, 1959 in India. In the center is Mr. P.N.Menon of the Indian department of external affairs, who represented Nehru.

Credit: AP Photo

The Dalai Lama and the “Tibet Question” now seem to have returned to the Indian agenda, after the Tibetan religious leader was marginalized in recent years, and even let slip that India pushed against any meeting of his with President Xi Jinping in 2014. Indeed, scarcely a month after the now-famous Galwan Valley clash, policy experts were already suggesting India play the “Tibet Card” for leverage against China — that is, promoting an independent and free Tibetan state, undermining Beijing’s geostrategic position, and perhaps finding a definitive solution to the Sino-Indian border dispute in the process through supporting a (likely) friendly buffer.

It is impossible to understand the transformation of a population into a political “card” without understanding Tibet’s early 20th century. Before the People’s Republic of China, the Tibetan regime in Lhasa, with pan-Tibetan spiritual reach but limited practical power, considered its relationship with China to be essentially one of dynastic clientage. Through an agreement between Sakya Pandita Günga Gyeltsen (1182–1251) with the Mongol Empire before the Mongol conquest of China proper in 1279, the argument ran that Tibet, and specifically the Dalai Lama from the mid-17th century on, held a “priest-patron relationship” with dominant outside powers, effectively serving as religious tutor while remaining governor of an internally autonomous principality. This assertion, as John Powers noted, is replicated in exile literature today, much of which blends Tibetan with English-language material to support its assertions.

Chinese dynastic historians past and present have disagreed. Chinese primary material consistently interprets the relationship from the 13th century as a classic tributary one with the Chinese Yuan (Mongol) Empire, as per China’s long history as a center to which external regimes submitted. In many ways, these parallel histories of Tibet could be allowed coexist before the fall of the Qing. After all, Beijing also conveniently interpreted the 1793 trade mission of Sir George Macartney from Britain to China as a tribute mission. China’s representatives in Lhasa (ambans) considered governors by the Qing and ambassadors by Lhasa, could in some ways be both.

Qing decline turned a modus vivendi into a problem. Britain, aiming to secure India’s boundaries, decided to cultivate Tibet as a buffer state between the British Raj and Russia. Through both the Younghusband Expedition (1904) and negotiations culminating after the Qing collapse in the 1914 Simla Convention, British India demarcated a still-contentious border. In the process, the British (to quote Lord Curzon) “regard[ed] the so-called suzerainty of China over Tibet as a constitutional fiction.” As the 1911 Revolution toppled the Qing, resulting in Lhasa, with no patron to minister to as a priest, declaring independence, Britain played an early form of the “Tibet card,” leveraging its recognition for Yuan Shikai’s new government in Peking (today’s Beijing) in return for accepting Tibetan participation at the Simla talks and a maximal degree of autonomy for “Outer Tibet” (roughly the present Tibetan Autonomous Region). The result was de facto Tibetan independence 1911-1950.

Pro-PRC sources since 1959 have routinely portrayed notions of Tibetan difference as instigated by foreign imperialists, yet the proto-“Tibet Card” sketched above — the perception of Tibet as a zone for international contention and Tibetan self-assertion — truly took its modern form as a result of Chinese state action during the early 1950s itself.

The early Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had adopted a nationalities policy that accepted secession, stating in Article 14 of its 1931 constitution, “The Soviet government of China recognizes the right of self-determination of the national minorities in China, their right to complete separation from China, and to the formation of an independent state for each national minority.” But by 1949, when the CCP actually came to power, founding the PRC, reconstituting a strong, multinational polity over as much of the former Qing empire as possible became a priority.

In 1950 Chinese troops defeated Tibetan forces at the Battle of Chamdo and negotiated the 17-Point Agreement. In force from 1951-1959, the Agreement stipulated gradual socialist transformation, “step by step in accordance with the actual condition in Tibet.” “Actual conditions” became a catch-all term for Tibet’s special status. While in Han-majority regions of China traditional elites were subjected to land reform, struggle sessions, and often executions, those same indigenous elites were in Tibet co-opted as “progressives” into the CCP’s state-building project even more than they were in normal ethnic minority regions.

Considering routine discussions of the Dalai Lama as a “wolf in monk’s robes” today, the extent to which he was painstakingly cultivated by the PRC in the 1950s can appear jarring. He enjoyed personal correspondence with Mao Zedong, toured interior China to view its development from 1954-55, appeared as a Tibetan delegate to the National People’s Congress in 1954, and was appointed chairman of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region (PCTAR) in 1956, all as a religious leader in an atheist, communist state. Among the declassified folios of Western diplomatic agencies, it is clear this program was perceived to be working. One 1954 U.K. Foreign Office report noted, “Their [The Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama] praise of the new regime undoubtedly is genuine, and their followers probably will accept their glowing reports on the ‘New Order’ at face value.” For a while, it truly seemed that a “Tibet Card” as a geopolitical weapon would be stillborn.

It was not to be. As mentioned above, Tibet as defined by the PRC under the 17-Point Agreement was permitted a moderate and gradual transformation; however, Tibet as defined by the PRC in 1950s did not encompass the 25 percent of China’s landmass inhabited by ethnic Tibetans. These minority regions from 1955 were to be brought in line with interior China, experiencing socialist transformation in the push toward the communalization of agriculture. In one area specifically, Kham (approximately western Sichuan in Chinese cartography), Melvyn Goldstein has noted that this push for homogenization, including gun confiscations and coerced land reforms organized by zealous “left” tendency communist cadres, sparked an uprising. Driven back, Khampa refugees and rebels congregated around Lhasa, their reports destabilizing the delicate warming between some members of the Tibetan traditional government and the PRC state. The Dalai Lama’s circle was particularly horrified by the aerial bombing of monasteries such as Lithang held by rebels as fortified strongpoints.

As this continued, India — the future holder of the “Tibet Card” — was growing concerned. Despite reiterating his support for Tibet-within-China when he relinquished residual British rights to Tibet in 1954’s Panscheel Agreement, Jawaharlal Nehru’s government was piqued that this endorsement didn’t buy PRC border concessions, and from mid-1954 began to clandestinely fund an organization of Tibetan exiles in India, Jenkhentsisum (JKTS). Congregating at Kalimpong in particular, figures such as Gyalo Thorndup (the Dalai Lama’s brother) interacted with dissidents within Tibet, from Alo Chondze to the Lord Chamberlain Phala, to agitate against continued Chinese control. This, plus growing violence in Kham by the later 1950s, caught the attention of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who supported JKTS and provided supplies to what became Chushi Gangdruk, a Pan-Khampa resistance group operating throughout Tibet. Even as Nehru urged the Dalai Lama in a 1956 visit to India to return to Tibet rather than claim asylum, the poisoning of the Sino-Tibetan relationship was underway, drawing in India and the United States.

By the late 1950s, parallel histories had returned. The PRC was growing increasingly frustrated at Indian hosting of secessionist actors and the passive refusal of the Dalai Lama’s government to aid in the crackdown on Chushi Gangdruk, while an exasperated Tibetan traditional government saw promised protections of Buddhist institutions broken and the light touch of the 17-Point Agreement fragmenting in favor of a brewing counterinsurgency. Disillusionment trickled down to the wider Tibetan population. Earlier concern within the U.K. Foreign Office around a “genuine” conversion of the Dalai Lama to the CCP’s cause was replaced by glee in 1958 as they related the abolition of Tibet’s traditional forced labor corvée. This happened after an incident in Gyantse in September 1957, where a traditional government official beat a young Tibetan CCP cadre-in-training for failing to perform it. Rather defending a representative of the CCP’s “New Order” who was being forced to perform his feudal dues, “liberated” peasants stood by and watched, throwing “an interesting light on the esteem in which the Communist neophyte is held in Tibet today.” Considering the continued need for TAR’s comprehensive securitization today, it seems little esteem has been garnered for the CCP since.

1959 is world famous as the year Tibet’s strained relationship with the PRC snapped. After the Dalai Lama was to attend a function with only one bodyguard by PRC officials, widespread rumors among the local population that His Holiness was about to be kidnapped resulted in mass demonstrations in Lhasa and then a popular uprising from March 10-14, displacing some 70-80,000 Tibetan refugees across the border and creating the modern Tibetan-in-exile as the paradigmatic “victim diaspora,” with their own state-within-a-state centered in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. The 1950s also crystallized the “Tibet Card” as we know it now, pulling Indian, American, and Chinese actors to the Land of Snows to offer support for different and conflicting visions of the Tibetan future.

The return to the rhetoric of the “Tibet Card” today is hardly a novelty, but a continuation of moves and mistakes made nearly 70 years ago.

Ben Hales is an MPhil Modern Chinese Studies postgraduate at the University of Oxford and a Hudson Institute Political Studies Summer Fellow. He has written for numerous publications, including Oxford Political Review and Human Rights Pulse. His dissertation on the TIbetan experience in 1950s has recently been selected for publication by the Oxford University History Society.