Excerpted from Reins of Liberation: Geopolitics and Ethnopolitics of China, Central Asia and the Asia Pacific, by Xiaoyuan Liu. Full text available here.
Having constituted one of the Qing Empire’s ethnopolitical constituencies, Tibet was claimed by successive regimes of the Republic period only nominally. Prior to 1949, the CCP had little influence in Tibet. In his youth, Mao had advocated “assistance to the self-government and self-determination of Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Qinghai”. But he changed his mind shortly after the CCP was organized under Comintern guidance in the 1920s. He then believed that Tibet was under the influence of British imperialism and its self-determination could only benefit the British. By the time of China’s war against Japan, the CCP had already shelved the slogan of national self-determination and began to promote unity between the Han and all “minority nationalities” within the territory of the Republic of China. In 1949, the CCP victory was marked not only by its defeat of the GMD but also by its success in abolishing separatist movements in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. For a moment Tibet became the sole ethnic frontier still estranged from Beijing. CCP leaders immediately set out to change this.
In early 1950, He Long, commander of the Southwest Military District, encouraged the advance troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to enter Tibet with these words: “You must be resolved to go to Tibet and become the first ancestors of the Han people in Tibet.” These words reflected a general sense of unfamiliarity with Tibet among CCP cadres. Yet, although leaders of the New China chose to view the PLA’s advance into Tibet as an unprecedented feat, they were actually renewing an unfinished business of recovering “administrative power” in Tibet initiated by the Qing government at the beginning of the century. The CCP’s initial strategy was also a perfect copy of the GMD’s unfulfilled orientation toward Tibet — “virtuous affection preceded by power coercion” (de hua wei fu). In October 1950, the PLA occupied Tibet’s doorway in the east, Chamdo, and thus put into effect a scheme that the GMD had only theorized.
CCP implementation of the historical agenda initiated by the late Qing and GMD regimes is indicative of the fact that China was at last emerging from the dark valley of continuous decline of recent centuries. Taking advantage of the greatest achievement of the GMD regime’s diplomatic success in gaining international recognition of China’s officially claimed territorial domain, the CCP was able to wield coherent state power within China’s political borders. In the Cold War era, the PLA’s march into Tibet was termed “aggression” in the West, but “liberation” in China. But in view of the policy continuity between China’s central governments since the Qing, Tibet’s incorporation into the PRC in the mid-20th century was not simply a one-act play in the wake of the establishment of communist ideology and socialist system in China. In this episode two much longer historical threads converged. One was China’s century-long evolution into a national state under Western pressure and influence; another was the readjustment of Asia’s geostrategic relations caused by the two world wars and the rise of revolutionary movements in Eurasia. These developments caused the great powers to retreat from China’s peripheries, with the result that those “gray areas” between China’s domestic and foreign affairs, such as Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang, began to assume new significance in a resurgent China as well as in regional perspective.
Nevertheless, Beijing was unable to immediately complete its claims to sovereignty over Tibet. Political scientists define sovereignty as a compound conception, consisting of the state’s effective domestic authority and its legitimate international status and rights. Historically, in a given national history, these elements are not necessarily achieved simultaneously. In the early PRC, the new Chinese government did not fully achieve the domestic aspect of sovereignty in Tibet. Having detached itself from China’s political authority for nearly four decades, Lhasa had no intention of changing the status quo. Another serious obstacle was the mutual exclusiveness between the Dalai Lama-centered sociopolitical system of Tibet and the political culture of “New Democracy” promoted by Beijing. In the early years of the PRC, Beijing hewed to a moderate course toward minority nationalities in general and Tibet in particular.
Before the PLA entered Tibet, the Lhasa regime strived to maintain Tibet’s existence outside Chinese authority. The only concession that it was willing to make was to have a tanyue (secular sponsor-religious teacher) relationship with the Chinese government. Conversely, Beijing’s goal in Tibet, as in the rest of China, was for the PLA to occupy Tibet and “reform Tibet into a people’s democracy.” The battle of Chamdo left no room for even a slim hope that Lhasa could resist the PLA with armed force. The negotiations in the next few months eventually produced an “Agreement between the People’s Central Government and the Local Tibetan Government on the Measures of Peaceful Liberation of Tibet,” signed in Beijing on May 23, 1951. The seventeen-point agreement constituted a compromise between change and continuity. Through these measures, the central government in Beijing achieved territorial and diplomatic sovereignty over Tibet and abolished Tibet’s de facto separation from China. The Chinese empire’s historic “loose rein” policy toward frontier “dependencies” was thereby relegated to history and Tibet’s own “nationalizing” effort was crushed. Thus, the PRC basically restored the territorial domain of the Qing Empire except for Outer Mongolia and Taiwan, but in the form of a modern “geo-body.”
Yet the agreement did not genuinely accomplish Beijing’s goal of “recovering administrative power” in Tibet. In granting the Tibetan people the “right to exercise regional nationality self-government,” the agreement pledged not to change the current political system of Tibet. An implicit contradiction between these seemingly congruent contents could be understood only in the recent historical context of Inner Mongolia, the only region in China at the time where Beijing administered through “regional nationality self-government” while exercising important elements of central authority as in other Chinese provinces. Therefore, the no-change pledge in the 1951 agreement reflected Beijing’s recognition of the wisdom of the late Qing’s policy of limiting central authority in light of regional ethnopolitical and ethnocultural conditions. There was however an important difference between the CCP and the Manchus: Whereas the Manchus intended to maintain their authority over a stable, layered multiethnic enterprise, the CCP made concessions over “domestic sovereignty” only temporarily for the sake of achieving Lhasa’s submission to China’s territorial and diplomatic sovereignty.
Potala Palace in Lhasa
In these years the only change in the original structure of Tibet was the presence of the PLA. The Tibetan government retained most of its functions. Beijing had no official administrative office in Lhasa. Its connection with Lhasa was mainly maintained by Zhang Jingwu, who traveled frequently in his dual capacity as director of the General Office of the CCP Central Committee and the Central Committee’s representative in Tibet. Even the CCP’s lower-level organizations under the Tibet Working Committee had to operate in the name of the PLA. This situation was reminiscent of the CCP’s experience in the pre-1949 years in dispatching military work teams to the GMD-controlled “white areas.” Thus, in the early years of the PRC, despite the seventeen-point agreement, Tibet remained the only area in which the Chinese government was unable to exercise domestic sovereignty.
The so-called “paradox of state power” depicts a phenomenon in which the unilateral strengthening of state power may proportionally weaken its effectiveness at the societal level. That is, the effectiveness of state power can be enhanced only through coordination with society. This means both the state’s avoidance of arbitrary behaviors and society’s active participation in policy making. A policy enforced solely with state violence nullifies social participation and is consequently ineffective in the constructive sense. In 1951 Tibet’s incorporation into the PRC without undue difficulties reflected the degree of effectiveness of China’s new government. Beijing’s military-political operations (battle of Chamdo + negotiations for the seventeen-point agreement) had roots in Chinese statecraft of “inducement with both benevolence and power” (en wei bing zhong). Viewed from the premise of “paradox of state power,” the 1951 reconciliation between Beijing and Lhasa indicates that the Tibetans were by no means passive in arranging the seventeen-point agreement. In reality they actively participated in fashioning the first “one country, two systems” of the PRC.
Yet, because the Inner Mongolia model, which was an ethnopolitical mechanism for Beijing to exercise central authority, paved the way for the multiethnic system of the PRC, the Tibet model of 1951 with its much higher level of autonomy had slim chance to succeed. In the final analysis, the “one country, two systems” in Tibet in the 1950s could not become a stable state mechanism of the PRC because Beijing and Lhasa represented two forces that would prove utterly incompatible in terms of ideology and political goals. Beijing’s pursuit of complete sovereignty would eventually lead to an attempt to “Inner Mongolize” Tibet. Conversely, Lhasa did not give up the goal of maximum autonomy. Ideologically, the Tibetans followed their religion and gurus as guides in the incarnate cycles. The CCP on the other hand was committed to thoroughly reforming Tibetan society and synchronizing the land of snow with socialist China. Indeed the PLA marched into Tibet under a slogan of “carrying the revolution to the end” and with a goal of “liberating” the Tibetan people from the “feudal” system of Tibet. The CCP was not the first to attempt to “reform” Tibet. Both the Qing government in the 1900s and various regimes of the Republic period made efforts or showed intentions of reforming the Tibetan society. Evidently, although their concepts of reforms for Tibet differed, the late Qing court, the GMD, and the CCP shared the goal of transforming the Tibetan theocratic system.
Actually, the CCP approach to revolution was such that confrontation between Beijing and Lhasa did not happen right away. The CCP approach differed from that of the Qing and GMD governments in seeking to start its revolution from the bottom of the society. It viewed “mass basis” as the precondition for policy implementations. This created a contradiction in Beijing’s Tibet policy from the onset. On the one hand, more than the Qing and GMD regimes the CCP leadership stressed materialization of the central government’s authority in Tibet through meaningful reforms. On the other, also more than its two predecessors, the CCP was sensitive to the social obstacles to reforms in Tibet. The CCP believed that the wide popular support it enjoyed in China was the precondition for the “liberation” of China in 1949 and legitimized the PRC. Yet after the seventeen-point agreement was concluded, Mao realized that the “material basis” and “mass basis” for implementing the agreement did not exist in Tibet. Beijing was superior militarily, but it was weaker than the Tibetan authorities in “social influence.” For the CCP, the difficulty in promoting its policies in Tibet was not limited to the lack of Han masses in the region. An even greater obstacle was the tenacious spiritual tie between the Tibetan masses and the Tibetan theocracy. In Mao’s words, “They [Tibetan people] have a much stronger belief in Dalai and in local headmen than in us. . . . They support their leaders absolutely, and hold them sacred and inviolable.” In 1954 the United Front Department of the CCP held a three-month conference in Beijing on Tibet. It concluded that in Tibet “the superstructure of the feudal serfdom is a theocratic dictatorship by the clergy and autocrats. Today it rules the Tibetan nation and can still represent the Tibetan nation. . . . Thus our various policies in the Tibetan region have necessarily to serve the most important task of winning over the Dalai clique.” In a word, CCP leaders recognized the need for a policy of inter-ethnic cooperation. This policy of patience involved working with the upper strata of the Tibetan society and postponing mobilizing the masses in class struggle.
Beijing’s “Dalai line” collapsed after the Lhasa incident of March 1959. But the seeds of change were sown throughout the 1950s. The delicate inter-ethnic collaboration in Tibet was then replaced by intense class struggles. Although the status quo of Tibet proper was temporarily maintained, in the mid-1950s the CCP began pushing reforms in the Tibetan areas of Qinghai, Xikang, and Sichuan (Amdo and Kham to the Tibetans). These reforms provoked local resistance. In the face of PLA attack, members of the resistance movement retreated into Tibet. The spillover seriously undermined the fragile political balance in Tibet, and eventually contributed to the Lhasa incident of March 1959. Melvyn Goldstein’s research further reveals that the extremist tendencies of the hardliners within the Lhasa regime and among CCP officials in Tibet eliminated any chance for a stable compromise between Beijing and Lhasa.
Dalai Lama (r.) and Panchen Lama flank Mao Zedong
in Beijing, 1959
From Beijing’s perspective, the 1951 arrangements served the purpose of ushering Tibet gradually toward its socialist transformation and for transition to the central government’s complete “domestic sovereignty.” There is evidence that as early as in 1956 and 1957 leaders in Beijing were quite optimistic and started to encourage its Tibetan Working Committee to initiate reforms in Tibet. Yet when full-scale preparations for reforms caused strong objections among the Tibetan aristocracy, Beijing ordered the working committee to beat a speedy retreat. At the same time Beijing promised Tibetan leaders that there would be “no reforms for the next six years.” In response, opponents of reform raised a demand for “no reforms for ever” and asked all Han to leave Tibet. About two months prior to the Lhasa incident, Mao apparently had lost patience with the “Dalai line.” Now he held that “a general showdown will be necessary.” Noting the presence of rebels in the Lhasa area, Mao pointed out that this was a good thing “because now war can be used to solve the problem.” Such thinking clearly jettisoned the one country-two systems formula.
Its military superiority was always the CCP’s strongest asset in dealing with the Tibetan question. After the battle of Chamdo, Beijing prioritized the peaceful political approach to integrating Tibet. Following the Lhasa incident of 1959, the PLA quickly suppressed the Tibetan rebellion. Yet the ensuing reforms were a far cry from Beijing’s hopes to achieve inter-ethnic cooperation in Tibet. The earlier orientation, as described by Deng Xiaoping, was “not to agitate so-called class struggles within minority nationalities by outsiders” and “not to carry out reforms by outsiders.” That stance, which apparently took account of the “paradox of state power,” had been superceded by 1959.
In 1959, an immediate historical result of the Lhasa incident was to sever the connection between CCP Tibet policy and Qing practices. From that moment, differences between ethnopolitical cultures no longer restrained Beijing. The completion of China’s domestic sovereignty with the extension of its power to Tibet would have enormous impact internationally.
Interestingly, the ideological and military conflicts of the Cold War era notwithstanding, the most important significance of Beijing’s Tibet policy in global perspective was to make China a more “Western-like” actor in international relations. Among the consequences of the events in Tibet from 1951 to 1959 was to shed China, as an international-political entity, of vestiges of the by-gone empire. Such an effect could also have been achieved through Tibetan independence, but that has not, of course, come to pass.
Since China’s territorial and political reintegration after 1949 was presided by the CCP and took place in the Cold War, a dual paradox occurred: the further Beijing advanced its anti-Western ideology and developed its revolutionary social system in China, the more complete PRC domestic sovereignty became and thus the closer the PRC came to the West in normative terms; at the same time, the more closely the PRC resembled Western “nation-states” in its international behavior, the more Beijing’s foreign policies targeted the Western bloc centered on the United States as enemies. Akira Iriye’s “power and culture” analysis of Japan’s international experience may shed light on this paradox: In the late 19th century, Japan rose during the era of imperialism, and its subscription to the prevalent international relations culture of the time eventually led to its power confrontation with the West. In the mid-20th century, the PRC learned to stand on its feet in an era of the Cold War, and it could not exempt itself from the conventions of the age. Therefore, in 1949 the CCP’s “leaning to one side” was probably historically inevitable, but its leaning to the Soviet side was a choice of the moment. The PRC’s alliance with the Soviet bloc in the early Cold war was surely a challenge to the West. It should not, however, be understood as a reversion to China’s historic convergence with the norms of international relations.
Friday, February 01, 2008
Excerpted from Reins of Liberation: Geopolitics and Ethnopolitics of China, Central Asia and the Asia Pacific, by Xiaoyuan Liu. Full text available here.