Tibet’s Uprising 50 Years Later

A failed Tibetan uprising on March 10, 1959, in the capital Lhasa led to the expulsion of the religious leader the Dalai Lama and continues to reverberate throughout China’s efforts to become a major world power.

Robert Barnett, an adjunct professor at Columbia University, describes the significance of the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan revolt.

ROBERT BARNETT: I’m Robbie Barnett, and I’m the director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York.

March the 10th is a really important day in modern Tibetan history. It marks the 50thanniversary of a popular uprising in Lhasa that had spread across the country in 1959 against Chinese rule in Tibet. The Chinese sent an army into Tibet some nine years earlier, in 1950, to take over Tibet, claiming it as part of China’s territory. This hadn’t worked out very well, and there was a lot of anger among ordinary Tibetans. An army was formed that was a religious army and within the capital there was a popular movement against the Chinese. It failed. The army opened fire on the rebels, and the Dalai Lama had to flee to India along with about 80,000 other people. And those Tibetans still live in exile in India, and have done ever since.

But March the 10th is also important because it’s been the day on which several occasions in recent years, 1989 particularly and last year, 2008, Tibetans staged protests, initially peaceful in Lhasa and other parts of Tibet, against contemporary Chinese rule. And so it’s become a very significant day for Tibetans who are unhappy about the Chinese presence there.

In the early 1980s after Mao (Zedong) died and Deng Xiaoping took over, who now seems as a kind of visionary leader of China at the time, there was really a lot of hope in Tibet and a lot of good conversation between Tibetans and Chinese about a new dispensation that would be workable for Tibetans within China where they’d be allowed to develop their own religious institutions and ideas, and develop business and the economy according to local needs.

That collapsed in the late ’80s and by the 1990s a new vision had emerged in China’s policy circles that was never openly discussed but clearly visible by actions from the ground where Tibet would be very strongly run by Chinese leaders from China and particularly the Tibetan culture would be trimmed. Certain elements would be cut out to avoid the risk of Tibetan nationalism, which was then connected by this new generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders to things like Tibetan language, and Tibetan religion, in particular the Dalai Lama.

So in 1994, China began for the first time in some 15 years a ban on worship of the Dalai Lama and a ban on his photograph and a ban on any kind of religious worship or religious practice at all for anyone who worked in the government, even if they were the person who cleaned the floor in a government office. Since then, in Tibet, they’re not allowed to practice any religion, and that also applies to all students in Tibet.

So this is a very hard-line policy. It didn’t apply to all areas of religion and culture. Ordinary people were allowed to go to temples and so on. But this has meant a very, very tough regime for Tibetans, except those who just want to earn money and not get involved in these aspects of their traditions. So Tibetans have been living under very hard conditions for the last 15 years especially. And this seems to have led to a lot of tension and frustration.

Competing viewpoints
One of the big problems behind this issue is it involves a lot of deep-seated emotion on all sides. Of course, Tibetans who are very passionate about independence and about the huge numbers who have died fighting for that in Tibet in the last 50 years. It’s a really significant issue for them.

But there’s also Chinese people who feel deeply angered and even embittered by what they understand or are taught to have been — the so-called 100 years of humiliation by Western powers attacking China in the past. And they now see the Tibet issue as part of that history of the West trying to humiliate China, trying to contain it and clip its wings by encouraging independence (in Tibet).

And we do see among Westerners a strain of anti-Chinese feeling. There’s this anxiety about China emerging as a rising power, possibly an aggressive one. So there are big emotional issues here. The hard thing to remember in all of this is that from the Chinese point of view — whatever one feels about its rightness or its rationality — they believe and they are entitled to believe — there’s evidence for this — that they have been helping Tibetans. They believe they helped them in the 1950s by freeing them from Imperialists — that’s the British and the Americans — although there were only six of those present in the country at that time.

And then in 1959, they changed the terms they used, but they believed they were then freeing them from some imagined terrible brutality of the serf society, although the evidence of that is rather lacking in terms of brutality. They still now are talking about having given this great gift to Tibetans, and in recent decades they argue that they brought these backward people to modernity, and they certainly have given them massive improvement in infrastructure and wealth in the cities to the middle classes — no question of economic benefit there.

So I think it’s very difficult for Chinese people to put that aside and say “why are these people so ungrateful to us? Why are these Westerners interfering when we’re giving so much?” Of course, outsiders and Tibetans will say “well, why should we have to pay for this? This is what every state gives its citizens.” In China it’s welcomed as something that ought to be encouraged. But you shouldn’t have to co-opt people’s religions or emasculate their traditions or not allow them to run their own areas — that would be the reply I think from the Tibetan people.

And one of the big questions for China is why bother attacking the Tibetan religious leader when he claims to give people religious freedom? And also a more difficult and important question perhaps is why did China push the Tibetans to go for rapid GDP growth with massive infrastructure construction in the last 15 years instead of pushing for human-capacity building? That’s the kind of development you need in Tibet.

And even the Chinese leaders have said that’s what they want inside China as well but it hasn’t happened in Tibet. Instead, the Chinese have encouraged a lot of migration into Tibetan towns and so they’ve enflamed the situation there rather than cooling it.

Global repercussions
The significance of the Tibet issue covers a lot of people, and here at the university, I often have colleagues discussing it. A lot of people think the Western interest in Tibet and the film stars and the Buddhists and so on are involved because of the kind of mystical fascination with a kind of imagined group of people who are seen as special in some way. But that certainly is an effect that influences a lot of people.

But I think the real question is why is this issue on the front pages of the policy books for people who deal with China and America and the West. Why is it a major issue in international relations? This is an anomaly almost on an unprecedented scale for a country that is not on the front lines of strategic world interest. I think the answer to this is nothing to do with the religion or even to do with the very successful publicity and PR activities of the Dalai Lama over the last decades. I think it’s to do with the perception that China is becoming the emerging world leader and major member of the world community.

Increasingly so now we have really a collapse of the claim of the West. You have a successful functioning capitalist system with the current economic crisis that makes China even more important and even more confident. But that importance and that confidence is constantly undermined by the running sore that is Tibet. And that sore, that Achilles’ heel of China occupies a third of its land territory. It’s also the land between the two giants of Asia — China and India.

And this becomes hugely important because China’s rule of that territory, the rule of the Communist Party, is actually an unsettled claim. It’s a very young dynasty, it’s only been there for 50 years, and it depends, unlike most states, on producing the goods for its citizens — economic or local freedoms or whatever they demand — it had to produce to keep the claim to be the rightful rulers of China. And it’s not producing the goods that it promised Tibetans.

So China’s looking somehow to be at risk of wobbling as a successful state, and I think that’s very serious for the international community. Even though the issues aren’t usually seen in this way, that’s the underlying question here, I think.