Tibet’s Transition to the Modern World

In the 9th chapter of The Tibetans, Matthew Kapstein describes the recent history of Tibet, as they transitioned from an essentially autonomous state to one occupied and controlled by Communist China. He especially touches upon the loss of religious freedom and culture that Tibet is experiencing, due to strict Chinese rule.

First, Kapstein describes how Tibet was in a period of pseudo-turmoil right before the People’s Republic of China absorbed Tibet into their country in 1951. This period of uncertainty began when the Thirteenth Dalai Lama died in December 1933. The Dalai Lama is the head of the Tibetan state, and as his successor had not yet been found, it was unclear who would rule the region. In the interim that they were searching for the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the government decided that power “would be shared by a lama serving as regent… and a lay chief minister.” (271) The Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s nephew, Langdün, was selected for the lay chief minister position, and Reting Rinpoché would serve as the regent. Much more occurred at this time, as there were others in consideration to rule the government, controversies surrounding Reting which inspired a coup d’état by his supporters, and other power struggles in Tibet, making the region unstable and unprepared for the Chinese invasion.

Although Tibet was considered an autonomous region since the fall of the Manchu dynasty, when Chiang Kai-shek and the Guomindang government entered power, they considered re-absorbing Tibet under Chinese control. Communists, led my Mao Zedong, challenged the Guomindang government and a power struggle in China erupted. Even though they were fighting, “the need to restore Tibet to the motherland was in fact one of the few things that the Communists and the Guomindang seemed to agree about.” (273) When Mao Zedong defeated Chiang Kai-shek, taking control of Tibet was thus on his agenda. The Communist victory in China paired with the internal turmoil in Tibet created perfect conditions for the Chinese to occupy the region, as a divided Tibet stood no chance in defending itself about the new, powerful People’s Republic of China.

The Chinese exerted their control on the Tibetans very gradually, initially only holding negotiations and promising that existing systems in Tibet would remain unchanged. “Mao wished to avoid a prolonged conflict and urged instead Tibet’s “peaceful liberation.” (280) After some negotiations, there was some initial military action to ensure that the Tibetan army was immobilized; however they “did not push on with an actual invasion of Tibet. Their intention was just to make it clear to the Tibetans that they could not expect to resist” and that they would be under Chinese control. (280) Some of the initial promises that the Chinese made to the Tibetans included that “…the existing political system and military will not be changed…All members of the religious bodies of all classes, government officials, and headmen will perform their duties as usual… The PLA… will respect the religion and customs and habits of the Tibetan people.” (280) The Chinese government issued these words in a policy statement after the invasion, and later presented the Tibetans with the 17-Point Agreement, reinforcing these promises that they made but also confirming their control over Tibet. In Point 7, religious freedom was again promised. The Tibetans agreed, for they had few other options.

Once Tibet was officially a part of the People’s Republic of China again, things began to change. The promises that the Chinese made ensuring rights for the Tibetans began to break. The Chinese started to institute reforms to make Tibet more resemble the Communist empire that they were building and they attempted to rearrange Tibetan power structures. Leaders of Tibet became fearful of Chinese rule and many fled the country, including the head of the state, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

The greatest promise that the Chinese government failed to keep was their guarantee of religious freedom. The Chinese became stricter in their toleration of free religious practice, which affected many Buddhist monks and nuns, forcing many to leave their monasteries and nunneries. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 further worsened the situation. During this period, “all but a few of the thousands of Tibetan temples and monasteries were razed, their artistic treasures and libraries destroyed or plundered. Tens of thousands of monks and nuns, together with what remained of the aristocracy and the middle-class peasantry as well, were forced to undergo “reeducation.”” (290) Buddhism and religious practice were staples of Tibetan culture, the Chinese essentially took away their identity.

Once the Cultural Revolution ended, conditions became slightly better for Tibetans, in terms of religious freedoms, as some monasteries were rebuilt and people were allowed to more freely practice Buddhism. However, Tibet in no way has complete religious freedom, as they once did before. The Dalai Lama is still in exile and people are penalized for devotion to him. The nation is still not independent and their struggle for autonomy continues.

Something that I found very interesting in the chapter was the lack of international support that Tibet received in their struggle with China. Unfortunately the Chinese invasion and occupation occurred just as the Korean War was beginning and as India was in a dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir. The countries that might have offered aid and support were preoccupied, and thus Tibet remained vulnerable against the Chinese.

When the United States did start giving support to Tibet in the 1950’s through the late 1960’s, they really only did so for their containment policy. The United States was not truly helping Tibet in their fight for freedom, but using them as “pawns in a much larger game.” (286) When the containment policy ended and Nixon and Kissinger “embarked upon the normalization of relations with China in 1971,” support for Tibet was severed. I was bothered by the United States’ selfishness and want to know what others think about their role in the struggle.

Although I didn’t go in depth in my summary of the chaos occurring in Tibet, I was shocked by the internal strife before the occupation. I had always considered Tibet to be a region of peaceful monks, but obviously there are more complex power systems and struggles that exist. I would be curious to know what others thought of this.

In class, we have been talking a lot about the spread of Buddhism by different individuals. This reading suggests that the Dalai Lama’s absence from Tibet and role in the international world as he advocates for Tibet has helped spread the religion even more. Has anyone considered how Buddhism would have spread if the Dalai Lama were not exiled and this conflict did not exist? What is the conflicts role in how Tibetan Buddhism has infiltrated the Western world?





Tibet & China: Then and Now

In the ninth chapter of the Matthew Kapstein’s book “Tibet in the Modern World,” he discusses in detail the great divide between China and Tibet and the civil unrest that Tibet faced as a result. Kapstein explains how the “interpretation of this history is still very sharply contested, even where there is consensus regarding what actually took place,” (Kapstein, 269). This is important to note because it indicates the multitude of sides to this particular part of history which makes it difficult to decipher the actual truth. I however found that Kapstein did an excellent job of profiling the history in an unbiased and truthful manner.

Kapstein begins by depicting how the widespread perspective of the United Sates and Western Europe of what took place between China and Tibet was that the “brutal machinery of Chinese communism invaded an independent, peace-loving land, and has since been determined to eradicate any trace of Tibetan cultural and religious traditions in China,” (269). Kapstein further explains how in this same perspective, though Tibet has continually faced hardship in recent decades, they still strive to “preserve” their “enlightened, spiritual civilization against all odds.” (269) Kapstein adds that of course the Chinese perspective is completely opposite. In China’s view, Tibet has “for centuries been part of China and the Tibetans now enjoy unprecedented liberty and prosperity,” (269). Kapstein goes on to tell how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) feels that this liberty and prosperity is in great contrast to what the Tibetan people experienced under the Dalai Lama’s rule. The CCP’s view is that the Dalai Lama is actually the source of divide, trying to split China apart by supporting Tibet’s independence.

Though Kapstein’s summary of what takes place between China and Tibet is a shortened version of all that happened, I can’t possibly summarize all that he does. So instead I have chosen a few of the main events that took place surrounding Tibet’s relations with China in order to give a decent scope of the all that is explained in the chapter. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama died in December of 1933, which marks the beginning of all that ensued. His death left Tibet in a sort of “vacuum” state, especially since the government had not found a proper successor to take the Dalai Lama’s place (270). During this period Tibet faced much conflict within itself about who should rise to power and how. The internal power struggles Tibet faced at this time left it weak to outside forces, and China saw this as an opportunity to reclaim Tibet.

Tibet had been technically independent from China ever since the Manchu dynasty lost power. However, as Kapstein puts it, “Chinese leadership never accepted this sate of affairs.” As a result General Musong was sent to Lhasa by the Guomindang government. Even though they presented it as a show of condolence in the wake of the Dalai Lama’s death, it was really a means to “open negotiations regarding Tibet’s status vis-à-vis China.” (273) Kapstein further writes how the Guomindang and Communists both agreed that Tibet was rightfully a part of China. Those in power in the Tibetan government were skeptical of negotiating with China, yet at the same time were also worried to completely end discussions with the Guomindang representatives. The Tibetan leaders knew that at some point soon the issue would need to be dealt with and therefore tried to maintain an unstrained relationship.

Meanwhile, the search for a new Dalai Lama was underway. A new Lama was found in a place that was not part of political Tibet, also under the control of the Chinese Muslim warlord, Ma, Bufang. After debate about being able to bring the boy they’d found from his home for further study to see if he was the Dalai Lama they’d been searching for, the Guomindang government assisted in getting Ma to allow the child to leave under certain “conditions so as to secure a role for China in the new Dalai Lama’s recognition and installation: the director of the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission was to participate in the ceremonies in Lhasa.” (275)

A multitude of events followed that presented civil unrest: a coup d’état took place lead by Reting, the appointed regent. Although that attempt failed, this set-off violent conflict between the two sides. A rebellion also took place at Reting’s monastery some time later. It was after these events, which the Dalai Lama found to be “deeply disturbing,” that the Dalai Lama truly realized the turmoil of the political system he was being “raised to rule.” (278). It was around this time that Mao Zedong claimed his victory in China. Mao’s “intention” became to “ ‘liberate’ ” the Tibetan people from the “grips of imperialism, which they found puzzling as no imperialists were known to be active in Tibet at the time.” (279) At first, the Chinese, made it clear that they wanted this transition to be peaceful, and they didn’t begin with an invasion. Instead they just wanted to make it clear that the Tibetans simply could not resist against China’s immense force. Negotiations between sides therefore commenced. An agreement was formed that encompassed the “17-Point Agreement,” which essentially established that although Tibet would return as a part of China, the Chinese government would respect and allow Tibet to uphold its cultural and political system. In light of this, the Dalai Lama’s advisers motivated him to make his return to Lhasa as well as publically accept the 17-Point agreement, after being in exile for some time.

However, the 17-Point agreement was highly controversial. Though much ensued following this, the essence of it all was that the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet, and following that, the United States became involved as support for Tibet. This was until Nixon and Kissinger wanted to ease tension with China and when aiding Tibet was no longer in their personal interest they ceased US presence in Tibet. Following this, the Dalai Lama, now 25-years-old, was thought to be in danger due to “declarations of oracles as well as astrological indications.” (287) Therefore, when the Dalai Lama was invited to a musical concert that was going to be held at Chinese military headquarters, the news spread through the Tibetan people like wildfire. Rumors began that this concert was to be the Dalai Lama’s doom, and that it was secretly an elaborate assassination or kidnapping. Though there was no “factual evidence,” that this was true, a “spontaneous demonstration of thousands” began “during which one leading Tibetan official was stoned and another, a prominent monk…was beaten to death,” (277-288). As a result of the protests, the Dalai Lama ended up cancelling his plan to attend the concert in light of all that was taking place. Demonstrations continued, and “disturbances” took place throughout the country (288). An oracle pronounced the Dalai Lama was no longer safe in Tibet, and so, as a result he fled from Tibet, arriving in South India. Though many events took place in much more detail than I will describe, the end result was that China lost its trust in the Dalai Lama and his ability to negotiate. With the Cultural Revolution in China at its peak, it was time for Tibetan traditional culture to take a massive hit. Kapstein illustrates this time as follows:

…all but a few of the thousands of Tibetan temples and monasteries were razed,     their artistic treasures and libraries destroyed or plundered. Tens of thousands of          monks and nuns, together with what remained of the aristocracy and the middle-class peasantry as well, were forced to undergo “reeducation.” Many thus perished under extraordinarily harsh conditions, or suffered prolonged maltreatment in prison. (289-290)

Furthermore, a Tibetan community had formed in India, the Dalai Lama at its forefront. Refugee camps were formed in parts of India, with the support of the Indian government. During this time, several major monasteries were able to reestablish themselves,” as well as making it a “priority,” now more than ever, to educate monks (290). Kapstein concluded by explaining that the “Dalai Lama himself emerged as a spiritual leader of international renown, struggling to use him prominence to call the world’s attention to his nation’s predicament” (290).

When I read the article, I was incredibly intrigued by the detail Kapstein was able to give. I had known generally about the Tibetan-Chinese conflict but I had no idea of the intricacy of it its complexity. I was really fascinated by the Dalai Lama’s role throughout. I really found it interesting how, at the end of everything he became an outspoken figure for what his people were facing, as well as a respected figure all over the world. Even though some of his decisions became catalysts for added conflict, he was always respected by the Tibetan people. I also found the relationship between the Dalai Lama and his people and vice versa to be really interesting because it seems to truly be one of epic care and compassion. Tibetan culture is so unique that I feel like this is part of why the Tibetan people have such an immense bond.

As Kapstein continues until the end of the article to describe the aftermath of the cultural revolution to present day, I also was interested by his discussion of re-education of children and how the Tibetan language is becoming less and less used in schools. This to me is a clear sign of China’s influence, even though the Tibetan people have fought so hard to maintain a sense of tradition. It made me really wonder what Tibetan culture will be like in the years to follow present day.

Discussion Questions are as follows:

  1. What, in your perspective, was the climax of the Chinese-Tibetan conflict and why do you think this?
  1. Do you think that there is anything that could have changed the course of events if something had gone just a bit differently?
  1. In your opinion, how do you feel about where Tibet and China stand today? What course of action do you think should be taken (if any) to try and come to some kind of compromise between the two sides?