China is very aware of the strength of the movement for Tibet's freedom. Inside Tibet, it uses repression and violence against that movement. Outside China, it uses propaganda.
These are the six key arguments in the Tibet sovereignty debate, which China relies on to justify its continued occupation of Tibet.
Read on to discover what China says versus the truth.
1. China says: Tibet is part of China
Tibet was absorbed about 800 years ago during the Yuan Dynasty, becoming an inseparable part of China. It has not been a country since and no country has ever recognised Tibet as an independent state.
It’s true that whilst Tibet maintained a unique culture, written and spoken language, religion and political system for centuries, it has never been a nation-state in the modern sense of the word.
At times in its long past, Tibet has influenced and been influenced by various foreign powers, including Britain and the Mongols, as well as China.
However, the Chinese government’s claim that Tibet has been part of China for around 800 years isn't supported by the facts.
Tibet was not ruled by the Chinese government prior to the 1950 invasion. In 1912, the 13th Dalai Lama - Tibet's political and spiritual leader - issued a proclamation reaffirming Tibet’s independence and the country maintained its own national flag, currency, stamps, passports and army. It signed international treaties and maintained diplomatic relations with neighbouring countries.
From a legal point of view Tibet remains an independent state under illegal occupation, a fact that China wishes it could whitewash from history.
2. China says: Old Tibet was backwards and needed China to liberate it
From 1950 to 1959 China peacefully liberated and democratically reformed Tibet, ending the old feudal serfdom where brutality was rife; a hell on earth with the backwards masses enslaved by landlords and priests. This culminated in Serf Emancipation Day in March 1959 when the Tibetan government was declared illegal.
In 1950, the newly established Communist regime in China invaded Tibet, which was rich in natural resources and had a strategically important border with India.
With 40,000 Chinese troops in its country, the Tibetan government was forced to sign the "Seventeen Point Agreement" which recognised China's rule in return for promises to protect Tibet's political system and Tibetan Buddhism.
Far from welcoming the Chinese as liberators, Tibetans across the country continued to resist China’s armed forces and China responded with widespread brutality.
Resistance culminated on the 10th of March 1959, when 300,000 Tibetans surrounded the Potala Palace to offer the Dalai Lama protection. This date is commemorated as National Uprising Day by Tibetans and supporters.
In 1950, many states that are today stable democracies were undemocratic and did not respect human rights. The 14th Dalai Lama was a teenager when his country was invaded and was never able to govern Tibet independently. In exile, he has won the Nobel Peace Prize and has entirely democratised the exiled Tibetan government. In contrast, the Chinese government continues to have no democratic authority.
China claims that its vision of a brutal past justifies its occupation. But Tibet under Chinese rule has experienced brutality on a massive scale – from the destruction of thousands of monasteries and the deaths more than one million Tibetans in Mao’s era, to torture, arbitrary arrests and the denial of fundamental freedoms today.
3. China says: Tibet already has autonomy
Tibet already has autonomy as the Tibet Autonomous Region of the PRC. Tibetans are free to follow their traditions and Tibetan Buddhism is protected.
This map shows historic Tibet – the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is only part of this and millions of Tibetans live outside it.
The TAR has autonomy in name only. In reality, the most senior political position there has never been occupied by a Tibetan and Beijing is in charge. The official language is Chinese, with many Tibetan children losing their ability to speak and write Tibetan. Resistance to China's rule - from singing to environmental protests – is met with repression and brutality.
As for the right to follow Tibetan Buddhism freely, monasteries are subject to monitoring and control by the Communist Party and monks and nuns are feared and often persecuted by the Chinese regime. Any Tibetan possessing an image of the Dalai Lama risks imprisonment.
4. China says: Tibetans are prosperous and happy under China’s rule
Since China peacefully liberated Tibet it has seen glorious development: there’s almost zero poverty, disease and hunger; life expectancy has doubled; literacy has risen from 5% to 85% and former slaves have been given land. There has also been huge investment in infrastructure, jobs, housing, schools and hospitals.
China’s propaganda images, like this one, are designed to show how happy Tibetans are. This couldn't be further from the truth, with Tibetans left disadvantaged in their own country. For example:
- Infrastructure projects enable the movement of China’s military, mass immigration of Chinese workers, Chinese tourism and access to Tibet’s rich resources. They enforce China’s control.
- Economic growth benefits Chinese businesses and workers, and the booming tourism industry aims to legitimise the Chinese government’s occupation.
- Millions of Tibetan nomads have been forced from their lands, ending their centuries-old way of life and leaving them dependent on the state as second class citizens in their own country.
- Education is primarily taught in Chinese, disadvantaging Tibetans who can only learn their mother tongue as a second language.
- The United Nations has repeatedly challenged China on human rights abuses in Tibet, including finding Tibet the worst area for child malnutrition in China.
- Since March 2011, more than 130 people have set themselves on fire inside Tibet in protest against China's repression.
- From shouting “Tibet needs freedom” in the street to attending a mass protest, Tibetans resist China’s policies daily. Despite more than 60 years of occupation this resistance to China remains undiminished and widespread.
Tibet has seen economic progress, as have most countries in the last sixty years, but Tibetans have benefited less than Chinese immigrants. Economic progress has not deterred them from rejecting Chinese rule and the evidence shows that Tibetans are far from “happy” under China’s rule.
5. China says: The Dalai Lama wants power, not peace
The Dalai Lama is the latest in a line of "God King Dictators" - he is a politician in monk’s clothing whose agenda is to secure an independent Tibet which he can rule again. Global Tibet supporters - and some Tibetans inside Tibet - naively buy into lies created by the "Dalai Lama clique".
The Dalai Lama is respected by people the world over. In exile, he has devolved his political power to a democratic institution and is a consistent advocate of friendship with the Chinese people and dialogue with the Chinese government. He does not seek an independent Tibet but a "Middle Way" approach (external link) which seeks greater freedom for Tibetans without independence.
Much of the global support Tibet has today is thanks to the Dalai Lama’s popularity. Despite persecution, the Tibetan people inside Tibet remain dedicated to him.
Desperate to maintain its grip on Tibet, the Chinese government is desperate to undermine the Dalai Lama’s credibility
6. China says: Free Tibet supporters are anti-China
The Free Tibet movement is supported by Western anti-China forces. Human rights are China’s internal affair and Westerners who have never been to Tibet have no right to speak against China’s policies.
Free Tibet supporters have no argument with the Chinese people. They support Free Tibet because they see Tibetans as victims of the undemocratic Chinese government and see Tibetans’ unwavering struggle for freedom as a just cause.
Chinese people are also victims of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule and many also face severe punishments in resisting its policies. When they learn the truth beyond their government’s propaganda, many Chinese people also support Tibet.
At Free Tibet we share the stories of Tibetans who resist China's rule and who are victims of China's human rights abuses. These voices are hidden from the Chinese government’s official communications. We receive no support from any government or political organisation.
We expose the truth and many people around the world choose to support Tibetans.
China is desperate to smother the truth
The truth is not on China’s side, so it must continue to lie.
Daily the Chinese government is spreading its arguments on Tibet through official statements and propaganda, paid online commentators and even fake social media accounts.
But Tibetans won't give up until they have freedom.
Until they do, our work - exposing China’s lies and sharing the truth – must continue.