This evening’s report by CTV news on the return to Canada of the Tibetan freedom activists who demonstrated in Beijing was followed by a brief interview with Hari Sharma, described as a member of the Asian Studies Department at Simon Fraser University. He claimed that: “Tibet has been part of China for a long time.”
Professor Sharma is a sociologist whose work has focussed on his native India, not a historian and not a specialist in Tibet or China. He’s rather an odd choice for an authority on the status of Tibet. In fact, there are many reasons to disagree with his claim that Tibet has long been a part of China.
If you’re not familiar with it, you can get a good idea of the Chinese government’s position here.
Some of the arguments might be valid if the underlying facts were true, but others are simply infantile. One argument is that prior to the Chinese invasion Tibet was an oppressive, feudal society. That was, in many ways true, but it hardly justifies colonization. Here’s an identical argument: in the nineteenth century, China was an oppressive, corrupt, feudal society. The European powers would therefore have been justified in invading China and incorporating it permanently into their countries.
The people who take the opposite view include the Nobel Prize Committee. Here are a couple of excerpts from the Dalai Lama’s Nobel Prize citation, with my emphasis added:
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, the religious and political leader of the Tibetan people.
The Committee wants to emphasize the fact that the Dalai Lama in his struggle for the liberation of Tibet consistently has opposed the use of violence. He has instead advocated peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people.
There are actually two issues here. First, has Tibet historically been a part of China, and second, even if Tibet has been part of China, are Tibetans entitled to national self-determination? As for the first issue, the claim that Tibet has been part of China since time immemorial, or even for the past seven hundred years, is utter nonsense. Tibet has been independent of China for most of its history. Imperial China claimed nominal sovereignty over every state with which it had diplomatic relations, on the theory that the Emperor could only enter into the relationship of master to vassal, including Japan, Okinawa (an independent country until 1609), Korea, and Vietnam. If you aren’t familiar with Chinese history, you can get an idea of the Imperial style from this letter sent in 1839 by Imperial Commissioner 林則徐 Lín Zé Xú to Queen Victoria demanding that she put an end to the opium trade.
In spite of China’s nominal claims of sovereignty over Tibet, Tibet was de facto an independent state and did not acknowledge Chinese sovereignty. That is why, for example, China under the Manchus attacked Lhasa in 1720 and again in 1910. Tibet also fought wars with Jammu in 1841-1842 and with Nepal in 1854-55. Making war is of course one of the defining capacities of a sovereign nation.
The first point at which Tibet was actually ruled by the same government as China was during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), when both Tibet and China were under Mongol rule. It was, however, the Mongols who conquered Tibet, not the Chinese. The Mongols took over Tibet before they took over China, and once they were in power administered the two separately. In China they exerted direct control, while in Tibet they ruled via the local rulers. When the Mongol Empire disintegrated, Tibet regained its independence.
In the period leading up to the Chinese invasion, it is clear that as a matter of international law Tibet was an independant state. It had a distinctive population occupying a well-defined territory under the effective control of its own government. The government of Tibet issued coins, currency and passports that were internationally recognized. It entered into diplomatic relations as a sovereign nation with other countries, including Nepal, Mongolia, Great Britain, and Ladakh. Even the Republic of China negotiated with Tibet as a sovereign nation at the Simla Conference in 1913-1914.
The second issue is whether Tibet is entitled to independence, whatever its prior status may have been. Surely the answer is yes. Tibetans have a distinctive language, culture, and sense of identity. As defined in international law, they are a people with a right to self-determination. To this China opposes two claims. First, it claims that the independence of Tibet would violate China’s territorial integrity. International law does not recognize claims of territorial integrity by illegitimate governments. Since China does not govern Tibet with the consent of Tibetans and has engaged in massive violations of human rights in Tibet, China cannot legitimately make any claim of territorial integrity. The second is the argument already addressed, that Tibet was a backward country in need of enlightenment.
For a detailed examination of the question of Tibetan self-determination I recommend Tibet’s Sovereignty and the Tibetan People’s Right to Self-Determination by Andrew G. Dulaney and Dennis M. Cusack of the Tibet Justice Center and Dr. Michael van Walt van Praag of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. You can download the entire document as a PDF file or read it online here.