Tibet and International Law

Tibet: International Law Is On China’s Side

By Gwydion M. Williams

Tibet’s claims to independence or autonomy is popular round the world, especially in California. Rumour has it that California had native inhabitants before the arrival of the current Anglo and Latino settlers, but almost all of them were slaughtered with none of the drama of Native American resistance elsewhere in the continent. There is an interesting account of the life of one lone survivor, Ishi: The Last of His Tribe by Theodora Kroeber, whose daughter is noted Science Fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin. One Le Guin’s numerous novels deals with the awkward matter of people making a new life for themselves on land that already had inhabitants: The Word for World Is Forest. Elements of it were unofficially borrowed for the SF film Avatar, but the book is a lot grimmer and more realistic. Without invoking magic or magic dressed as “psionics”, she is forced to assume that the defenders have to become quite as violent and brutal as the invaders if they are to have any hope of winning.

In the case of Tibet, the Chinese army were not invaders but a Central Government creating modern political norms in a country which had been fragmented for decades. It had been more than a thousand years since there was a recognised independent government in the Lhasa Valley, the well-populated core of the Tibetan Plateau. Much of the time, there was nothing except a collection of local rulers, some of whom found it convenient to be recognised as nominal underlings by whoever ruled China at the time. And that’s just Western Tibet, the Tibetan Plateau and the Lhasa Valley. The Dalai Lama’s claims extend to Eastern Tibet, the territories Tibetans view as Kham and Amdo, provinces when Tibet was an empire. But those territories had been ruled as parts of Chinese provinces and had not been ruled from Lhasa, though they had religious links to it.

Confusion on the matter of Tibet is helped by the English habit of using the single word ‘Chinese’ to cover two distinct things. The Empire and the various Republics that replaced it are known to the Chinese as Zhongguo, literally the Central Country or Middle Kingdom. Most of the land’s inhabitants have fused into a single identity, Han or Hanren, commonly viewed as a single ethnic unit, even though North Chinese and South Chinese are genetically more similar to their neighbours outside Zhongguo than to each other. Within Zhongguo, there are many other ethnic identities, some of which have supplied ruling dynasties across the centuries.

The Tibetans came close to creating a ruling dynasty for Zhongguo in the declining days of the Tang Dynasty. They had been interactions all through the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries of the Christian Era. The Tibetan Empire was extensive and non-Buddhist, with the native ‘Bon’ shamanism originally dominant. It was gradually replaced by a version of Buddhism that arrived with a Tang-Chinese princess who was married to the Tibetan King. This ‘Greater Tibet’ defined itself as a major kingdom within Zhongguo and briefly held the Tang capital. They might have created a new ethnic-Tibetan ruling dynasty for Zhongguo, but the Tang recovered while the Tibetan Empire fell apart. The last-but-one Tibetan King defined the relationship between the Tibetan King and Chinese Emperor as one of “nephew and uncle”: accepting Tibet as a powerful peripheral part of Zhongguo.

The very last Tibetan King was assassinated by a Buddhist hermit – Buddhism in lands where it is powerful has as many moral ambiguities and deviations from the ideal as Christianity ever had. And over the centuries, Tibetan Buddhism had changed from its Han-Chinese roots, importing ideas from other versions of Buddhism still present south of the Himalayas. It also compromising with Bon Shamanism to produce a distinctive hybrid very different from older Buddhist forms.

Meantime after the fall of the Tang Dynasty, Zhongguo fragmented, with most of the fragments aspiring to rule the whole territory. This was true not just of the Han-origin Song dynasty, but also of the Liao Dynasty, monarchs of Khitan tribalists who were related to the later Mongols. The Liao Dynasty actually began before the Song; they became official claimants in 907 or 916, while the Song emerged only in 960. But the Song conquered and united most of the Han areas of Zhongguo and become accepted by the Confucian scholars who formed the core of the state.

Warfare was continuous, with the Sung unable to conquer all that the Tang had ruled and with the Liao a constant threat. The Song unwisely allied with the Jurchen tribalists, who had rebelled against the Liao but soon attacked the Song as well, capturing their capital Kaifeng in 1127. The Song fled south and held out there for another eight generations. It was in this era that the city now known as Beijing (Northern Capital) first became important – though in its origin, it is about as old as Jerusalem. For the Liao, the future ‘Beijing’ was Nanjing, the ‘southern capital’, a name later re-used by a completely different city far to the south on the Yangtze. For the Jurchen it was also useful, as Zhongdu or “central capital”.

During this time, there was no known government on the Tibetan Plateau or the Lhasa Valley. Presumably there were local rulers, but the records are vague. There was also a Western Xia kingdom, covering parts of Gansu, eastern Qinghai, northern Shaanxi, northeastern Xinjiang, southwest Inner Mongolia, and southernmost Outer Mongolia. They called themselves the “The Great Xia State of the White and the Lofty”. Its ruling core are usually described as Tanguts, close to Tibetans and influenced by them. Most of their records are lost, so it’s unclear whether or not they viewed themselves as part of Zhongguo.

The Western Xia were conquered and devastated by the Mongols. Tibet and most of the Han core of China were also conquered: North China early on and South China much later. But the Mongols, unlike other step nomads on the borders of China, viewed Zhongguo as just one part of their conquered territories until part-way through the reign of Kublai Khan. He claimed to be the 5th Great Khan of the Mongol when his elder brother the 4th Great Khan died in 1260. Kublai’s younger brother Ariq Boke made the same claim, but lost the consequent civil war. Yet Kublai was never in solid control of the Mongol Empire, and so decided to establish himself as Emperor of Zhongguo, re-founding what became Beijing as a new capital called Khanbaliq or Dadu. It replaced Xanadu, his earlier Summer Capital, the place that Coleridge dreamt of.

Kublai Khan was officially Emperor of China from 1271, a claim strengthened when the last of the Southern Sung were conquered and the dynasty officially ended in 1279. The Confucian scholars accepted that the ‘mandate of heaven’ had moved to the new dynasty, despite its exotic origins. Some Chinese histories even extend Kublai’s “Yuan Dynasty” backwards and list the first four Great Khans as Emperors of China, which is rather like listing Adolph Hitler as President of Poland. But Kublai and his successors did act as regular Chinese emperors, while also keeping ethnic privileges for Mongols and lesser privileges for other non-Han Central Asians, including Tibetans. It was a complete hierarchy, with North Chinese ranking below Central Asians but above South Chinese.

Tibet remained part of the dominion of Kublai Khan, with the Sakya lamas having something of the role of the later Dalai Lamas. For modern politics, the key issue would be whether the Sakya lamas reported to Beijing as subjects of ethnic-Mongol Emperors of Zhongguo, or as subjects of a Mongol Great Khan who was also separately Emperor of Zhongguo. There is no clear answer, and I doubt anyone would have seen the difference as important at the time. Tibetan Buddhism certainly played a role in the religious life of the entire realm.

From 1368, Tibet was vaguely under the control of the Ming Dynasty, Han who overthrew the Mongol dynasty. Various Tibetan rulers recognised successive Ming Emperors as their overlord, but were otherwise left to run their own lives. Since Tibet was poor and thinly populated and the capital city Lhasa about a year’s journey from Beijing, no Emperor would care much what happened so long as he was hailed politely as superior.

Things changed with the Qing or Manchu dynasty that took over China after a Han bandit and Imperial claimant sacked Beijing, forcing the last significant Ming Emperor to suicide. The Quin were Jurchen and had formed a state that blended Jurchen, Mongol and Han settlers north of the Great Wall under a common Manchu identity, and with a military organisation as Bannermen. They were let through the Great Wall by a Ming general who viewed the Han bandit as the greater enemy, or perhaps hoped to become Emperor himself in the longer run. It took a long hard struggle before the Manchus won out. But even before being let through the Great Wall, they had claimed to be the legitimate rulers of Zhongguo, forming their own Imperial Court while also retaining their Manchu identity.

If Tibet had remained marginal and fragmented, concerned just with living its own life, it might have been left alone after nominal submission to the new dynasty. This was what happened with the well-organised kingdom of Korea. But the newly established Qing dynasty faced a long challenge from the Zunghars, a tribal coalition led by Mongols in what is now Xinjiang. The Zunghars might easily have emerged as the new rulers of Zhongguo rather than the Manchus. And they broadly created the office of Dalai Lama, giving their support to one particular line of Buddhist abbots with a new ‘Yellow Hat’ brand of Buddhism. After some complex politics, the Manchus persuaded the 5th Dalai Lama to switch, and thereafter ensure that the combined government of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama would rule Western Tibet, the Tibetan Plateau. Other Tibetans in Eastern Tibet were ruled separately, usually in ethnically-mixed provinces with Han or Manchu governors appointed and freely replaced by the Emperor.

The political entanglement of Lhasa with the wider world began with the man considered to be the 3rd Dalai Lama. He was viewed as 3rd incarnation of a powerful leader of the Yellow-Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. He formed an alliance with the Zunghar Mongol leader Altan Khan, who was a threat to the declining Ming Dynasty. But the politics of the time were complex: he was also recognised by and had dealings with the Ming Emperor, even as his Yellow Hat sect spread among Mongols. He then died in his 40s, perhaps poisoned, and was supposedly re-incarnated as Altan Khan’s great-grandson. This was too much for many Tibetans, the position of the new “incarnation” was never secure and he died at 27. Yet Tibetan histories list him as a valid 4th Incarnation.

The next Dalai Lama was conveniently a Tibetan again, the Great 5th Dalai Lama, the man who put the office on a solid footing. His time overlapped the fall of the Ming Dynasty and the victory of the Manchus in the succession struggle. The 5th Dalai Lama was a major player, sometimes in alliance with the Zunghar Mongols, but eventually settling for being ruler of Western Tibet under loose Manchu overlordship. That was in the 17th century: in the 18th century saw an invasion of Tibet by Nepal. After defeating this, the Central Government got a stronger grip and established a pair of Ambans, direct representatives in Lhasa appointed by the Emperor. This was significantly different from the position of Korea and Vietnam, where the King of Korea and the Emperor of Vietnam offered tribute when they felt like it but didn’t have any permanent representative of the Chinese Emperor to meddle with their lives.

Colonial expansion in Asia in the 19th century saw the links with Vietnam definitely repudiated as France took it over, and those with Korea broken as Japan took it over and officially absorbed it. The Tibetan Plateau was eyed with interest by the British Raj, but the government in London must have disliked the idea of annexing it. Such a blow against Chinese pride might have threatened the vastly more important and profitable British position in the Yangtze Valley, where opium and cheap foreign manufactures were being pumped into the Han core. This was through Shanghai and other ports under foreign control, though nominally under Chinese sovereignty. It was a delicate situation, and London saw no need to increase Chinese anger and feelings of national humiliation for the sake of possessing the economically marginal Tibetan Plateau.

Had the Chinese Empire been divided and annexed by the various intruding Western Empires – which was seriously considered in the late 19th century – then it’s highly likely that at least Western Tibet would have gone to British India. It might then have become a province of independent India. But it didn’t happen.

When the 1911 Revolution began in South China, it incidentally derailed a Quin attempt to get a firmer grip on Western Tibet. The Quin suspected the 13th Dalai Lama of conspiring with the British in India, who had invaded and occupied Lhasa in 1905. The Dalai Lama had been driven into refuge in British India. In 1913 he returned and declared Tibet independent, on the ground that his tie was to the Quin Dynasty that had stepped down in 1912. The new Chinese Republic did not accept this, and the norms of International Law were on their side. No sovereign state recognised Tibet as independent: no one except a parallel secessionist movement among traditionalists in part of Mongolia, the part that later had a Communist revolution and became the Mongolian Republic under the protection of the Soviet Union. In Tibet the situation remained ambiguous, because there was no government in solid control of even the Han core of Zhongguo between 1912 and 1949. Chiang Kai-shek for part of the 1930s was nominally ruler of all China outside foreign control and not part of the Communist Red Bases. But in much of China, the local warlords did as they pleased and Chiang’s Central Government had little power.

Tibet was one of many self-governing fragments of what was officially a sovereign republic, but the Lhasa government had aspired to independence. 1914 saw the Simla Conference, organised by the British Raj and with representatives of both the weak government in Beijing and the Dalai Lama’s government in Lhasa. The Dalai Lama’s people arrived claiming to be the independent government of Greater Tibet, the territories that Tibetans called Kham and Amdo as well as the area that the Dalai Lama actually controlled. When the British refused to support this, the claim was reduced to the idea of the Tibetan Plateau being autonomous under Beijing’s ‘suzerainty’, while Kham and Amdo were agreed to be under Central Government sovereignty. This was agreed between Lhasa, the British in India and Beijing’s representative, but Beijing repudiated it and it was not considered binding. This also left open the border between British India and the Chinese Republic: Lhasa was quite happy to give away “South Tibet”, the territories that are now the Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh. But no Chinese government has ever accepted this.

During the 1930s, the Tibetan Plateau drifted into anarchy. The Panchen Lama was driven out, the 13th Dalai Lama died, then the exiled Panchen Lama also died. Meantime Eastern Tibet – Kham and Amdo – were ruled by various non-Tibetan warlords, all of whom recognised some sort of Central Government for Zhongguo. In 1938, the Central Chinese Government – officially based at Nanjing since 1927 – was driven into the interior of China by the invading Japanese and chose to take refuge in Chongqing (Chongking) in Sichuan, on the borders of Tibet. This may have persuaded them to take a closer interest in Tibet, which was among other things a possible link to British India. A railway link across the Tibetan Plateau was seriously considered as a means of bringing supplies to the blockaded Chinese Republic, but it was never in fact built.

It was anyway time to find the “reincarnations” of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lamas. Recognition depended in part on a child recognising as his own objects that belonged to the last “incarnation” when they were mixed among other similar objects. That’s to say, it is either a genuine miracle or a cynical fraud arranged between the monks and the child’s parents. Unlike concepts like Transubstantiation or healing at Lourdes, there is no middle ground whereby a sceptic could say that believers were sincere but mistaken. A small child might forget and believe it was all real, but for the initial performance they would have had to be carefully trained by their parents and by monks who knew which were the correct objects to choose and who were confident that it was safe to rig the succession of their religion’s most senior leader. It is either that or a remarkable piece of real magic, not matched anywhere else outside of Tibet. Well before the status of the Dalai Lama became an issue in Cold War politics, people had suggested a wholesale fraud.[1]

As it happened, the successful candidate who did recognise objects that had belonged to his “previous body” was the younger brother of a senor Buddhist monk, and came from a part of Eastern Tibet that was ruled by a warlord more or less loyal to Chiang Kaishek. So it was not surprising that the Central Government supported him and insisted that he be established as 14th Dalai Lama, the man who still presides as such. There was an alternative system, with several names put into a Golden Urn on the assumption that the Dalai Lama’s magic would ensure that the correct lot was drawn. This was not done for the current Dalai Lama: the process was traditionally controlled by the Central Government, which could decide not to apply the ‘Golden Urn’ rule and chose to do so.

The Kuomintang Central Government maintained a weak presence in Tibet up until 1949, when the Lhasa government expelled them and resumed its claim to be an independent state. As with previous attempts, none of the world’s established sovereign states were willing to accept this. Meantime the Communist’s People’s Liberation Army was expanding into almost all of what was officially Zhongguo. This was broadly what had been the new Chinese Republic in 1912, but with an independent Mongolian Republic recognised in the territory once known as Outer Mongolia. This state had for decades been under the protection of the Soviet Union, though it was also based on home-grown Mongol radicalism. Chiang Kaishek had conceded the independence of the Mongolian Republic at the end of World War Two, then went back on it. But Mao chose to accept it – he really had little choice, badly needing Soviet support in the early 1950s. Mongolia still had to wait till 1961 to get into the United Nations,[2] with Chiang Kaishek still holding China’s UN seat and claiming this and other border territories, including some that Mao was not claiming. (This includes the territories still disputed between China and India.)

The Mongolian Republic had made its own future, and continues to do so. Tibet was different, it had not had a home-grown modernisation and the government in Lhasa had intermittently accepted that it was part of Zhongguo. The matter could be left hazy when there was no strong or coherent Central Government in China, but now Beijing insisted on being in full control of what was its own territory under International Law. This included Tibetan areas in ethnically mixed territories in Eastern Tibet, but Western Tibet’s traditional autonomy was accepted. It was left to the Dalai Lama to rule and reform, and in fact he did very little, not proposing even in principle to abolish the serfdom of a majority of Tibetans and the outright slavery of a minority.

One key thing was done: roads were built, meaning that Lhasa was no longer many months travelling time from Beijing. An airport was also built – there was none in 1950, when the film Seven Years In Tibet shows Chinese generals flying in and being rude. The film is a lovely art-work, but also a pack of lies from beginning to end, starting with the actor playing Heinrich Harrer saying he was Austrian rather than German at the start of the film. The real Heinrich Harrer does not claim to have made any such remark, which might have got him arrested and would certainly have got him thrown out of the mountaineering expedition to British India which was the starting-point of his Tibetan sojourn.

The revolt of 1959 was sparked by upper-class Khampas who’d taken refuge from the Communist imposition of land reform and modern law-and-order in their home territories, which were parts of Chinese provinces. They seem to have pulled the Dalai Lama along with them – Beijing has a letter he wrote complaining that he had been kidnapped by “reactionary forces”, a matter that the Dalai Lama’s supporters don’t care to talk about. It seems, though, that he was won over and thereafter spent many years claiming independence, while a small force of exiles backed by the CIA tried and failed to get armed resistance going.[3] These efforts were dropped when Nixon made peace with China in the early 1970s, and it was only then that the Dalai Lama switched to claiming autonomy.

The West has chosen to treat Tibet as different to the case of other tribal peoples unhappy with a modernising and centralising government. A recent Guardian editorial referred to the Central Government’s assertion of authority over Tibet as ‘occupation’,[4] even though every established state including Britain recognised Tibet as part of China and continues to do so. In the same spirit, the BBC describes Tibet as ‘claimed by China’,[5] as if it were one of the numerous territorial disputes between states in Asia which outsiders can sensibly be neutral about. There is no legal basis for treating the question as open: Tibet was never a sovereign state in the modern sense and neither Britain nor any other state every said it was.

The popularity in the West of ‘Free Tibet’ is a curious fixation, given that it deeply offends almost all Chinese, including those who are hostile to Chinese Communism and keen to surrender to Western values on most issues. But it is in keeping with modern trends, whereby the current Western fashions are assumed to be the prime reality to which everyone else will in due course conform. Truth is what we say it is, so long as we shout loudest.

But with Chinese voices becoming increasingly loud, it would be wise for the current Dalai Lama to get the best deal he can while he can. It’s not being helpful to Tibetans to encourage them to hope for more.

[1] Lattimore, Owen and Eleanor. Silks, Spices and Empire: Asia seen through the eyes of its discoverers. page 142

[2] [http://www.un-mongolia.mn/web/]

[3] See The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet by Conboy and Morrison

[4] [http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/may/13/national-service-dalai-lama-tibet]

[5] [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-18055146]

First published in Labour Affairs, 2012.


  1. This treatise on the subject of Tibet is as close to neutral that I can ever find on the internet’s blogosphere. I am an ardent student in the history of China and thanks to Gwydion Williams, it has added to my knowledge in particular to the restive and troublesome Zizang province.

    The Chinese could easily solve the problems of Tibetan Uprising by adopting the much practised European method of Ethnic Cleaning but chose not to go that route.

    The history of Zizang have many threats and though Mr. Williams have dealt with many of them, it is by no means comprehensive and the British were no angels. They together with Russia, America and many other European nations cannot wish to see Zizang separated from the mother country quick enough.

    If the rebellious elements think they would get a better deal from the Euros, they obviously have not observed or fail to observe countries which undergone the yoke of imperialism of these nations and do not know how lucky they are being treated by its mother country.

    Every country in the West will mete out capital punishment to its traitors, betrayers and seditionists and the current Dalai Lama is guilty for obtaining bribes from the CIA for co-operating with it to permit spies and counter-espionage agents of both the Tibetan and American kind to infiltrate China and he now cries the loudest of being unfairly treated. As the West executes its traitors, the question must be asked why should the DL be any different? Is it because he claim to be “God-King and should be exempted from the laws of the Land? In the West today, what he has done is considered terrorism, so why do the West insist that China deal with this man differently from themselves?

    What kind of double standards is being practised by one side of the polarised world while the same rules are judged not acceptable for the other side?

    Who has the power to cajole or force China to accept Western BS and double standards as the norm it should adopt?

    Any projection for an independent Zizang is pure wishful thinking and unless China decides if and when it is prepared to severe it from the rest of the motherland, it will and always be China?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. In Pinyin translitteration, and I have also seen it in print in Chinese publications, Zizang is correct. Of course, it can also be pronounced the same sound whether you write Xi Zang or Xizang. Kambay?


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