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China's Tibet Policy in the Aftermath of Last Spring's Unrest

Elliot Sperling, Indiana University; Lobsang Sangay, Harvard University; Allen R. Carlson, Cornell University

Date & Time

Oct. 27, 2008
3:30pm – 5:30pm ET


What are the prospects for Tibetan autonomy following the March 2008 riots on the Tibetan Plateau? Three Tibet experts, speaking at an October 27, 2008 Asia Program event, agreed that such prospects remain bleak, despite multiple rounds of Sino-Tibetan talks.

Interpreting history is essential in determining Tibet's status, according to Elliot Sperling, associate professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. Beijing claims that Tibet became a part of China during the Yuan dynasty (13th century), and that subsequent rulers assumed China held sovereignty over Tibet. Beijing formalized this opinion with the 1959 communiqué "Concerning the Question of Tibet." However, Sperling observed that this is a recent formulation: Tibet was not included as a part of China on any Yuan-era map; the subsequent Ming dynasty identified Tibet as a "foreign country"; and documents from the Chinese Republican period (1911-1949) stated that Tibet's accession took place during the Qing dynasty, contradicting the PRC's current claim.

Tibetan historical accounts, on the other hand, maintain that Tibet was independent for its entire history until the 1949 invasion by China. Tibetans view their relationship with the Chinese prior to 1949 as a "priest-patron" relationship, according to Sperling. To wit, Tibetans were the spiritual advisors to the rulers of various Chinese dynasties. During that time, Tibet's status was not clearly defined as either independent or politically subordinate.

Therefore, the Dalai Lama's October 2008 declaration that he was "losing hope" in the Sino-Tibetan dialogue reflects the spiritual leader's acceding to the Chinese interpretation of history, according to Sperling. Beijing, in getting the Dalai Lama to change positions on Tibet's historical status, made the Tibetan spiritual leader appear insincere and lose credibility among his supporters. Moreover, Sperling said, Beijing has unofficially designated the Dalai Lama as the spokesperson for all Tibetans, effectively marginalizing those who advocate for an independent Tibet.

Allen Carlson, associate professor of government at Cornell University, discussed Beijing's position towards Tibet during the regimes of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. Deng, having consolidated power over the CCP, was free to act on his own and take risks in domestic and international policies. From 1978 to 1982, Deng implemented Tibet policies that were relatively liberal, permitting limited religious freedom in the region and conducting talks with the Dalai Lama. These relaxed policies allowed space for dissent up until the late 1980s. Unlike Deng, Jiang operated in a more circumscribed political sphere, with an increasingly collective CCP leadership. At the same time, his Tibet policy became more restrictive, possibly because he had less ability to act independently, according to Carlson. Therefore, the fact that Hu Jintao works closely with the CCP leadership suggests that a breakthrough in Sino-Tibetan talks is unlikely.

Lobsang Sangay, senior fellow at Harvard Law School's East Asian Legal Studies Program, spoke about the absence of Tibetan representation in PRC governance at the local, regional, and national levels. For instance, only one Tibetan has held a vice chairmanship in the National People's Congress, no Tibetan has ever been elected to the Politburo, and the CCP Secretary in the Tibetan Autonomous Region has always been Han Chinese. Therefore, Sangay said, the Tibetan issue "is not just related to identity," but is becoming a highly volatile "bread and butter issue," because Tibetans, like other minorities, have no voice in the Chinese government.

Sangay argued that the Dalai Lama's "middle path" doctrine—advocating Tibetan autonomy and the preservation of Tibetan culture—is the ideal solution for all Tibetans, despite the failure of the eight meetings between the Chinese and the Tibetans since 2002 to produce significant breakthroughs. He remains optimistic that the various factions of Tibetans will unite to support the Dalai Lama's doctrine.

In conclusion, Sangay said that if China desires to emulate the United States as a superpower, it should follow the American model of respecting minorities and implementing policies to benefit minorities. He declared that "China's great nation status cannot be forced or bought—it must be earned."

Drafted by Susan L. Levenstein, Asia Program Assistant
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program, Ph: (202) 691-4020


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Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

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