Tibet since Mao Zedong

By Bowers, Stephen | The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Tibet since Mao Zedong


Bowers, Stephen, The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies


Following the victory of the Mao Zedong's forces in the Chinese civil war, Beijing's leadership established an ambitious set of priorities for Chinese foreign policy. One of their most important objectives was to reclaim foreign territories which they regarded as historically Chinese. Within the context of this policy, Tibet was an especially attractive target. First, while it is, in geographic terms, a large region it had a very small population, thus making it easier for a numerically superior Chinese military to overwhelm the small Tibetan security force. Second, the region had significant deposits of valuable minerals, resources which were useful as the Chinese leadership contemplated an ambitious program of economic transformation of China's mainland. Finally, the Tibetan plateau was, in strategic terms, especially valuable for the defense of China against enemies who would have to pass through this harsh terrain before they could enter the Chinese heartland. Adding Tibet to Beijing's empire was, therefore, an essential part of Mao Zedong's foreign policy for

China under the control of the Communist Party.

In pursuit of this objective, Chinese forces invaded Tibet in 1950 and, by 1951, forced the defeated Tibetan to sign a treaty which made this strategic border area part of the People's Republic of China. In the years following this military defeat, brutal Chinese policies stimulated great resentment of Chinese domination. In 1959, this resentment led to an uprising which was crushed by China's military forces. The Chinese military operations resulted in numerous casualties and prompted Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to flee to India rather than face the prospect of imprisonment by Chinese authorities. When he arrived in India, the Dalai Lama formally repudiated the "Seventeen Point Agreement", the treaty through which he had recognized Chinese control over Tibet.

In the years after the Dalai Lama's flight from Tibet, Chinese authorities began the political, economic, and social transformation of Tibet. Collective agriculture and other socialist innovations were imposed on the region which was, in 1965, formally constituted as an "autonomous region" of China. The Tibetans were subjected to policies of forced assimilation and Chinese was designated as Tibet's official language. Religious worship was banned and most monasteries and religious monuments were destroyed. Since 1980, Tibet has been formally governed by a "people's government" whose chief official has also been the chairman of the Tibetan Communist Party.

The collapse of communist power in the USSR and Eastern Europe carried the Tibetan crisis beyond the parameters of the four decades following China's invasion. This series of dramatic events which spanned the period from 1989 to 1991 raised questions about the territorial status quo within the communist empire of Central Eurasia and required a broader re-examination of the concept of what constituted a nation. Throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, nations are in the process of defining themselves. Nationalism, long thought to be eroded under the force of modernization, is now seen as one of the most powerful forces shaping the development of contemporary political structures. The collapse of Europe's communist regimes intensified nationalist aspirations in that region and undoubtedly revived the hopes of Tibetans who saw a parallel between their situation and that of the Baltic republics which had been forcefully taken into the Soviet Union.

Although China, with 56 different nationalities, is a multi-ethnic state, its minority population, 91 million people, accounts for only 8% of the national population. Therefore, a re-examination of the question of what constitutes a nation is less devastating for China than it was for the USSR. The Chinese situation is also less acute because China is a unitary state which is formally and in reality centralized. Chinese provinces, unlike their Soviet counterparts, are usually organized on the basis of territorial units instead of nationality groups. …

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