Tibet’s Long Fight for Freedom
Photo by Daniele Salutari on Unsplash

Tibet’s Long Fight for Freedom

Aaron Sarin
Aaron Sarin

In the eyes of Tibetan Buddhists, Tenzin Gyatso is the flesh-and-blood reincarnation of Avalokiteśvara, the thousand-armed bodhisattva of compassion. In the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party, he is “a wolf in monk’s clothing, a devil with a human face but the heart of a beast.” Tibet’s 14th Dalai Lama has been polarising opinion for well over half-a-century now. During these years, the country he lost has been leading a similarly Janus-like existence. Tibet presents the outside world with the most dramatic picture of Beijing’s oppression and of the fightback against this oppression. It is a picture of a country overrun; of children kidnapped and monks on fire; of a beloved leader living in exile and waiting for the day he can return. Meanwhile the CCP would have us believe that Tibet is just another Chinese province—albeit one that requires an unusually heavy degree of security.

Tibet was often the primary cause célèbre for China-watchers in the past, but the struggles of the Hermit Kingdom and its exiled figurehead have been overshadowed in recent years by a long list of alternate dramas—Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Huawei, the South China Sea, the origins of COVID-19, and so on. That may be about to change. NBA basketball star Enes Kanter is making headlines after posting a video on Twitter calling for the freedom of the Tibetan people (a video which prompted Chinese streaming service Tencent to remove from its platform all games involving Kanter’s team, the Boston Celtics). And two Tibetans were among the handful of activists arrested in Greece for protesting the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. They had displayed Tibetan flags among the ruins of Olympia and at the Acropolis.

It would certainly be appropriate if the world were to turn its attention back to the story of Tenzin Gyatso and the stolen realm at the Roof of the World. Tibet is the scene of some of the Chinese Communist Party’s worst crimes—crimes that began in the days of Mao Zedong, in a China now unrecognisable, and continued ever since, right up until the present day.

The CCP claims that the Tibetan Autonomous Region is part of China’s eternal and unchanging territory, but others, including the Dalai Lama, counter that Tibet is a distinct and ancient nation. Certainly it had its own empires in the past, one of which even managed to (briefly) conquer the Tang dynasty capital in what is now called China. While some later dynasties exercised administrative control of Tibet, they always left it alone politically, and the region was not directly controlled by any “Chinese” emperor until the Qing (the last dynasty). In fact, the emperors were considered students of the Dalai Lamas.

After the Qing collapsed in 1912—and the entire dynastic system along with it—Tibetans remained free until mid-century. Then the Red Disaster fell upon them. Exactly one year after the Communists had taken Beijing, soldiers swarmed through the mountain passes onto the Tibetan plateau and subdued the Dalai Lama’s government. It would seem reasonable to surmise that the Party had at least one eye on the region’s large deposits of lead, zinc, silver, lithium, copper, and gold, not to mention some of the world’s most important uranium reserves (just one year later Beijing would sign an agreement with Moscow to provide uranium ore in exchange for Soviet help with developing nuclear technology).

There was a time, of course, when the British Empire might have been relied upon to crush such an upstart invasion with a minimum of fuss. Back in the days of the Raj, Tibet was seen as a key buffer zone protecting India’s north-east. But this was 1950, India was newly independent, and Western interest in the region had cooled considerably. No one was coming to the defence of the Hermit Kingdom. Tibet’s leaders had little choice but to sign the infamous Seventeen-Point Agreement, which stated that “the Tibetan people shall return to the family of the Motherland, the People’s Republic of China.”

That ominous opening line was cushioned with a series of promises: “the central authorities will not alter the existing political system in Tibet … the religious beliefs, customs, and habits of the Tibetan people shall be respected … in matters relating to various reforms in Tibet, there will be no compulsion on the part of the central authorities.” And indeed, Mao moved softly at first. He recognised the Dalai Lama’s unique influence over the Tibetan public, so Party leaders spent much of the next decade attempting to win the young monk’s approval. Meanwhile, Tibetan guerrilla forces urged their spiritual leader to cut ties with Beijing completely. Tensions rose as the decade wore on, and then in 1958, despite all the fine promises of the Seventeen-Point Agreement, communism finally arrived in Tibet—public struggle sessions, forced collectivisation, failed harvests, famine, and mass death. Tibetans who lived through it called this apocalyptic period dhulok—the Collapse of Time.

Now that they had seen the Party’s true face, many of the Dalai Lama’s followers were understandably fearful that he might be assassinated. In March of 1959, protesters began camping outside his residence at Potala Palace. Soon enough—and with a certain wearying inevitability—the People’s Liberation Army opened fire with anti-aircraft guns, and the Dalai Lama’s options narrowed to one. At midnight on March 17th, 1959, he slipped out of his palace and left Tibet forever, heading for the mountains of northern India. There he remains today, along with a coterie of Tibetan Buddhist leaders: the government-in-exile. After his departure, the Party crushed all opposition. “Religion is poison,” Mao had once whispered in the teenage Dalai Lama’s ear, and sure enough Tibetans would now lose the last of the precarious religious freedoms that Beijing had permitted during the charm offensive of the 1950s.

The Dalai Lama relinquished political leadership of his government-in-exile in 2011, but he still holds his position as one of the most visible and potent symbols of resistance to the leaders of the Communist Party. They fear him, they fear his influence, and even as he enters his twilight years, they fear that his reincarnation will be found beyond China’s borders, and therefore beyond their immediate control. In keeping with tradition, the High Lamas will go searching for Tenzin Gyatso’s soul as it wakes in the body of a child, and their search can hardly take place in Communist-occupied Tibet.

The CCP has made preparations for that day. A database has been created containing 1,300 officially approved Buddhas, so that when the Dalai Lama dies, these (no doubt handsomely compensated) Buddhas will be happy to endorse the Party’s alternate choice for his replacement. It gets more surreal. According to an order from the State Administration for Religious Affairs, anyone wishing to be reborn must first get permission from the authorities. “The temple management organisation or the local Buddhist association where the living Buddha is to be reincarnated shall submit an application for reincarnation to the religious affairs department of the county-level people’s government.” Perhaps Beijing’s endless, blind, insatiable grasping for power was always destined to lead them to this comical moment: the Communist Party has formally extended its domain over the afterlife.

Whether or not the spirit world submits to the authority of the Party, we can be sure that the High Lamas will still set out in search of Tenzin Gyatso’s successor. One day in the not-too-distant future, some child will receive the dubious pleasure of being identified as the 15th Dalai Lama. He (or plausibly she) will immediately require protection from the long arm of the Beijing government. This sad lesson was learned back in the 1990s, after the Dalai Lama declared that six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was the latest reincarnation of the Panchen Lama (Tibet’s second most important spiritual figure). Within three days, the child and his entire family had been kidnapped from their home. They have now been political prisoners of the Chinese Communist Party for 26 long years—if indeed they are still alive. The unfortunate Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was last seen in public on May 17th, 1995.

The CCP has significantly increased its standing on the world stage in the years since occupation. By 2008, it was possible for the authorities to murder hundreds of Tibetan protesters and then bask in the plaudits of the international community at the triumphant summer Olympics in Beijing. And by the time Barack Obama was sitting in the White House, efforts were being made to publicly humiliate the Dalai Lama—and by implication the entire notion of Tibetan independence—just to please Beijing. Tenzin Gyatso was not invited to the White House until 2010, more than a year after Obama had begun his first term. When he finally arrived, he was received in the Map Room instead of the Oval Office. At the end of the meeting, Tibet’s spiritual leader was ushered out the back door rather than through the main entrance, and photographs were taken of him walking past piles of garbage bags. Beijing must have been delighted with the symbolism.

Such treatment has not been unusual of late. The Dalai Lama is routinely snubbed at the behest of the Communist Party, the world’s paymaster. In 2014, South Africa was set to host a gathering of Nobel Peace Prize laureates, but the authorities balked at the idea of granting a visa to Tenzin Gyatso. The gathering was moved to Rome, but even then Pope Francis refused to meet him in person. In 2013, the University of Sydney forced his planned visit off-campus, and administrators made absolutely sure that the university’s logo would appear nowhere at the event “in the best interests of researchers across the university.”

While the international community does its fawning best to please Beijing, the pressure rises back in Tibet. Over the past decade, this pressure has reached sufficient intensity to produce a spate of self-immolations: those most startling and instantly recognisable images of Tibetan resistance. One hundred and fifty-six monks, nuns, and ordinary citizens have set themselves on fire since 2009. A long tradition of self-immolation can be found in both Hinduism and Chinese Buddhism, but Tibetan Buddhism has generally frowned on suicide, viewing it as a disruption to the natural cycle of death and rebirth—an unnatural leap ahead.

The current situation is changing all that. Not unlike Hong Kong’s frontline protesters in 2019, with their street battles and Molotov cocktails, some Tibetans have realised they live in a time that calls for truly desperate measures. Perhaps, when confronted with an enemy that would rob you of both group identity and individual dignity, the pacifist approach seems less wise than it once did. Perhaps it appears merely weak and ineffectual. In such moments, an act of violence is surely the natural response, whether directed outward or inward.

Self-immolators who survive are subject to tortures at the hands of the Chinese police, first in the back of the van as they speed from the scene, and then as they lie with limbs amputated in their hospital bed. To avoid this fate and better achieve their objective, they have taken to wrapping themselves in quilts held tight with wire so that the flames are harder to quench. Some of them also now drink gasoline in addition to dousing themselves. This ensures they burn on the inside as well as the outside.

A couple of years after the burnings began, Tibet was introduced to its new Party Secretary: the vile Chen Quanguo, a man who would later achieve notoriety as the architect of the Uyghur gulag. Chen immediately began introducing clichés straight from the totalitarian playbook. Family members were encouraged to spy and report on one another, and a surveillance system was established that Chen blandly dubbed “grid-style social management.” Others described it as more akin to Jeremy Bentham’s hellish vision of the Panopticon. After five years, Chen was promoted to a similar position in Xinjiang, where he methodically ramped up the horror. When his system of cultural genocide had been perfected, it was transported back to Tibet, the original testing ground. (Lobsang Sangay, erstwhile president of the government-in-exile, calls Tibet “Patient Zero for human rights violations in China.”)

And so, since 2019, hundreds of thousands of Tibetan pastoralists and farmers have been forced into military-style “vocational training” camps in order to reform their “backward thinking” and “dilut[e] the negative influence of religion.” The process has been slower and quieter than in Xinjiang, due in part to the longstanding popularity of Tibetan culture throughout China. The Uyghurs are unloved, and so the Party fears no Han Chinese backlash to its actions up north. But the final goal of identity erasure appears to be the same in both provinces. Tibet may soon face its own creeping genocide, or as the Chinese Embassy in the US prefers to term it, “improvement in population quality.”

Also identical is the practice of draconian punishment for innocuous behaviour. Last autumn, four Tibetan monks were given sentences of up to 20 years in prison for the crime of sending money to a Nepalese monastery. At around the same time, a monk named Tenzin Nyima was arrested for contacting Tibetan exiles living in India. Nyima spent two months in the tender care of the Chinese police, after which his family was informed that his health had suddenly deteriorated—he had fallen into a coma, and it was left to them to pick him up and ferry him from hospital to hospital in the hope of saving his life. They were told by doctors that his injuries were beyond any possible treatment. In January of this year, Tenzin Nyima died at home. He was 19.

Similar stories now appear with sickening regularity. For a mother of three whose name has been given only as Lhamo, the charge was sending money to India. When Lhamo’s family were called to see her after two months in detention, they found her severely bruised and unable to speak; within 48 hours she was dead. Such incidents appear to have had the desired effect on the general population. Journalist Barbara Demick says her recent visits to Tibet remind her of the time she spent in North Korea—the same suffocating pall of fear hangs in the air. Locals are terrified of even speaking to tourists without government permission. I was told by one young Han Chinese woman who had lived there for a period that Lhasa is really “the biggest prison in the world.” And the situation seems destined to deteriorate further now that Beijing has announced the identity of Tibet’s new Party Secretary. Unpromisingly, it is the “butcher of Xinjiang,” Wang Junzheng, a man who has the dubious honour of being China’s most sanctioned official.

No doubt many Tibetans are starting to find that escape is never far from their thoughts. But those who flee in the hope of reaching neighbouring countries take their lives into their hands. In 2006, Chinese soldiers opened fire on a column of refugees as they waded through chest-deep snow at the Nangpa La pass, a few kilometres north-west of Mount Everest. A 17-year-old Buddhist nun named Kelsang Namtso was killed. More recently, at Xi Jinping’s insistence, the Nepalese regime has agreed to deport any Tibetan refugees found within its borders. We’ve seen the same thing with the Uyghurs, of course. The CCP seeks out individuals around the planet who it claims as Chinese, and then strong-arms governments into deporting them, or otherwise simply messages them directly, threatening elderly parents in order to manipulate the sons and daughters into returning. Once they have returned, the Party locks them away and begins the process of breaking down their personalities—all that effort in the service of a peculiarly spiteful control freakery.

The Communist Party’s preoccupation with command of Tibet is not solely due to paranoid ideological obsession over China’s “sovereign” territory (although that is certainly part of the story). There are also practical worries. The Tibetan Plateau is often called the “Third Pole” because its great glaciers and lakes contain the biggest reserve of fresh water outside the polar regions—a reserve that feeds many of Asia’s major rivers. Billions of people (nearly half the world’s population) live in the watersheds of these rivers, investing the Plateau with immense strategic importance. From the Chinese perspective, this value is rising in tandem with a deepening water crisis. Much of China’s territory is still desert, half of its rivers have now disappeared, and more than 50 percent of the country’s remaining river water and 90 percent of its groundwater is unfit to drink. Every year 190 million Chinese fall ill because of water pollution.

So the CCP has started piping the precious stuff great distances across China. Today, 33 percent of the total water supply for a city like Beijing travels a thousand miles upcountry from the Danjiangkou Reservoir (at the bottom of which rests the drowned city of Junzhou). The problem persists, however, and Tibet may provide the solution. The Party plans to build a multi-billion-dollar system of canals to tap water from the Himalayan snowmelt. Such a project would significantly decrease the water supply to the Indian subcontinent and parts of South-East Asia.

For all its geographical value to Beijing, Tibet is still an occupied territory. When the Chinese Communist Party falls—as one day it must—the case for Tibetan independence will become too strong to ignore. A subsequent breakaway state could be larger than the CCP’s designated “Tibetan Autonomous Region,” which only contains a portion of Tibet’s historic territory (a portion traditionally known as Ü-Tsang). The Tibetan Plateau stretches far beyond these provincial borders, spreading out into regions formerly named Amdo and Kham. Today, these regions have been divided up among the neighbouring Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Yunnan, and Sichuan, but most modern Tibetans still live here, outside “Tibet.” If the country regains its liberty, it will surely make sense for the borders to house not just Ü-Tsang, but Amdo and Kham also.

For now, with the Second Cold War gaining pace, we may dare to hope that American politics can leave behind the simpering cowardice of the Obama years. There are some encouraging signs. In November 2020, Lobsang Sangay visited the White House—the first visit of its kind in decades—and in December, Congress passed the Tibet Policy and Support Act, which calls for the right of Tibetans to confirm the identity of the next Dalai Lama, and also for the establishment of an American consulate in Lhasa.

The rest of the West should follow suit. Perhaps we also require a new public examination of the evidence: something similar to the ongoing Uyghur Tribunal. More generally, the time is now right for Tibet to become inseparable from Xinjiang in the public discourse. China is home to two large-scale humanitarian disasters and attempts at cultural genocide, not one, and it would be appropriate for the headlines and debates to reflect this.

PoliticsWorld AffairsChinaTibet

Aaron Sarin

Aaron Sarin is a freelance writer living in Sheffield, currently working on a book about the nation-state system, cultural universals, and global governance. He regularly contributes to seceder.co.uk.