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Tibet - A Reality Check

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N. RAM writes, after a five day visit to the Tibet Autonomous Region of China.

"The sky is turquoise, the sun is
The Dalai Lama is away from the Potala,
Making trouble in the west.
Yet Tibet's on the move.

FOR an Indian in Tibet who has no sympathy whatsoever for the Dalai Lama's separatist, revanchist and backward-looking agenda, this passable adaptation of an old Tibetan song seems to fit contemporary realities. A careful reading of the facts of the case reveals that this ideological and political agenda, pursued essentially through external agency, is three projects rolled into one - splitting Tibet from China, carving out a 'Greater Tibet' through ethnic cleansing, and restoring a moth-eaten theocracy , the ancien regime with some modest, if not quite cosmetic, 'democratic' changes. Each one of these projects can be seen to represent a pipe-dream, especially if one remembers that - unlike in the case of Kashmir - there is not a single country and government in the world that disputes the status of Tibet, that does not recognise Tibet as part of China, that is willing to accord any kind of legal recognition to the Dalai Lama's 'government-in-exile' based in Dharmasala.

An array of apartment and office buildings in central Lhasa. The transforming effects of modernisation are very visible in Tibet's capital.

Yet there can be little question that there is a Tibet question, that it has a problematical international as well as Sino-Indian dimension, that it continues to cause concern to the political leadership and people of China, and that it serves to confuse and divide public opinion abroad and, to an extent, at home. This is essentially a function of the coming together of a host of objective and subjective factors. These are the Dalai Lama's religious charisma combined with the iconic international status of Tibetan Buddhism; his long-lastingness and tenacity; the ideological-political interests and purposes he has served over four decades and more; his considerable wealth and global investments and resources mobilised from the Tibetan diaspora in variou s countries; the grievous cultural and human damage done, in Tibet as much as in the rest of China, during the decade of the 'Cultural Revolution' (1966-76); the nature of the 'independent Tibet' movement that has rallied around the person and office of the Dalai Lama; the links and synergies 'His Holiness' has managed to establish with Hollywood, the media, legislators, and other influential constituencies in the West; the plausible, yet demonstrably tendentious and false, propaganda material generated by this anti-China and anti-Communist campaign in the post-Cold War era; and (from an Indian standpoint, not the least troubling aspect) the Dalai Lama's continuing Indian base of operations.

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Historically, from the second half of the thirteenth century when China came under the Mongol Yuan dynasty founded by Kublai Khan, Tibet has experienced the merging of religious and temporal power in a peculiar type of theocracy. With the ascendancy of t he Gelug, or Yellow, sect of Tibetan Buddhism, the honorific 'Dalai' (meaning 'Ocean'), conferred on the leader of the sect by the ruler of a Mongol tribe, appears during the Ming dynasty in the sixteenth century. Historical records show that the institu tion of the Dalai Lama as an 'incarnate' politico-religious supremo - recognised and indeed empowered by the Chinese Central Government - dates back to the middle of the seventeenth century, when the Great Fifth received a formal title and a golden seal of authority from the Qing Emperor whom he visited in Beijing. From that time, there have been Dalai Lamas powerful and inept, ascetic as well as pleasure-seeking, learned as well as shallow, masterful as well as manipulated, long-lived but also cut off in youth (possibly poisoned) in several cases.

The fourteenth Dalai Lama, like his predecessor who was caught up in powerful currents of history involving British imperialism, a China undergoing big socio-political change, the ambitions of Tsarist Russia, an India moving towards freedom, and conflict ual processes within Tibet itself, is one of the longest lasting in the series. As the pre-eminent Tibetan Buddhist leader, 'His Holiness' has a hold among the faithful and a wider influence that must not be underestimated. But, as the Chinese official v iew makes clear, given the protracted experience of dealing with him, he cannot be treated merely, or even primarily, as a religious leader. He is a consummate politician leading a movement that seeks to take 'Greater Tibet' away from China - an anti-com munist and separatist political figure masquerading as a compassionate man of religion and 'art of happiness' guru.

The Dalai Lama has several balls in the air at the same time, a retired senior Indian diplomat who admires him observed to me recently. Thus, 'His Holiness' has been able to maintain in a recent interview to Time magazine (issue of July 17, 20 00): Let's follow the middle path. We don't want complete independence. Beijing can manage the economy and foreign policy, but genuine Tibetan self-rule is the best way to preserve our culture. The Dalai Lama has claimed he has been consistent in his post-1959 stand. But that has not prevented him from running a 'government-in-exile', or accommodating an 'independent Tibet movement, or sponsoring a great deal of hostile propaganda material, or soliciting and accepting any kind of external help to destabilise China's sovereignty or control over Tibet.

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As early as September 1959, the Dalai Lamag against Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's specific advice, sought, unsuccessfully, to get the United Nations to intervene in Tibet. Over the past 25 years, following a decision taken by his 'government-i n-exile' in Dharmasala, he has travelled extensively abroad to rally support for the internationalisation of the Tibet question and made various 'realistic' proposals for its 'satisfactory and just solution'. These have included a 'Five Point Peace Plan' unfurled in a September 1987 address to members of the U.S. Congress; the elaboration of these five points in the so-called Strasbourg Proposal, presented in June 1988 in an address to members of the European Parliament; the withdrawal, in March 1991, o f his personal commitment to the ideas expressed in the Strasbourg Proposal on the basis of the allegation that the Chinese leadership had a closed and negative attitude to the problem; and an abrasive and propagandistic open letter written to Deng Xiaoping in September 1992. In all his major public pronouncements, the Dalai Lama has taken the stand that Tibet has been an independent nation from ancient times, that it has been a strategic 'buffer state' in the heart of Asia guaranteeing the region' s stability, that it has never 'conceded' its 'sovereignty' to China or any other foreign power, that China's control over Tibet is in the nature of 'occupation' by a 'colonial' power, and that 'the Tibetan people have never accepted' the loss of 'our na tional sovereignty'. He has also repeatedly spoken of 'six million Tibetans' and put forward the demand for the re-constitution of a 'Greater Tibet' known as 'Cholka-Sum' and comprising the areas of 'U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo'.

At the same time, the Dalai Lama has made himself out to be a moderate and realist committed to the Buddhist 'middle path' and to non-violence despite contra-acting tendencies among Tibetans. Thus, he has claimed on various occasions that he is not seeki ng total independence from China; that he is not seeking any active political role for himself in 'future Tibet'; that he is willing to negotiate a future for Tibet as a self-governing democratic political entity founded on law by agreement of the peop le for the common good and the protection of themselves and their environment, in association with the People's Republic of China; and that he might settle for full-fledged or high-grade autonomy, with the China's Central Government having charge of me rely defence and foreign affairs.

During a period of economic reform, opening up to the outside world and the pursuit of socio-political stability, China's renewed interest in arriving at an amicable settlement with the Dalai Lama and creating reasonable conditions for him to return was framed by two major policy statements by top leaders. In December 1978, Deng Xiaoping announced in a media interview that the Dalai Lama may return, but only as a Chinese citizen and that we have but one demand - patriotism. And we say that anyone is welcome, whether he embraces patriotism early or late. In May 1991, Prime Minister Li Peng clarified, also in a media interview, that we have only one fundamental principle, namely, Tibet is an inalienable part of China. On this fundamental issue, there is no room for haggling... All matters except 'Tibetan independence' can be discussed. But after several rounds of informal talks and contacts with the Dalai Lama's emissaries and fact-finding delegations between 1979 and 1992 and after watching the Dalai Lama's performance on the international stage, the Chinese Government came to a sort of tentative conclusion by the time it held the Third National Conference on Work in Tibet in 1994. This conclusion was that the 'Dalai clique' was demonstrab ly insincere, that it was working overtime to separate Tibet from China and destabilise the situation in the autonomous region in concert with 'China's international enemies', and that its actual demands were tantamount to independence, 'semi-independenc e' or 'independence in disguise'.

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What is clear to any objective observer is the following. In his political role, the Dalai Lama has performed like a confidence trickster whose utterances and actions spring from a practised repertoire of misrepresentations, half-truths, and demon strable falsehoods about the facts of the case.

A FIVE DAY visit to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in July 2000 provided me a rare journalistic opportunity to attempt some reality testing of Dharmasala's main campaign themes. In psychology and psychoanalysis, reality testing is the technique of objective evaluation of an emotion or thought against real life, as a faculty present in normal individuals but defective in some psychotics. Here, the reality testing is not against what the protagonists and victims of the 'independent Tibet' campai gn feel or believe, but against what is systematically put out by the campaign as defining themes. Even if they have little formal official backing, these themes have acquired some kind of cult status on the world stage and shaped the p erceptions of considerable numbers of people who have no contact with the realities of Tibet. What direct observation, discussions with a cross-section of Tibetan as well as Han Chinese people, the factual testimony provided by numerous western visitors (especially those representing non governmental organisations, including teachers, doctors, medical workers and volunteers participating in poverty-alleviation projects), and an examination of salient verifiable data, published as well as unpublished, r eveal is the political conmanship that underlies much of the international campaign against the record of the Chinese Government and the Communist Party of China in Tibet. Frontline presents, in this Cover Story, the main findings of this r eality testing.

Theme No. 1
A major theme in the 'independence for Tibet' campaign is that China's role in Tibet is that of a 'colonial' power exploiting the occupied land's wealth and resources, subjugating its people, and suppressing its freedom. Part of this theme is the asserti on that even for the post-1979 period, when some economic improvements took place, official statistics and the Chinese Government's claims of social and economic development in Tibet cannot be taken at face value; and that in any case it is not the Tibetans who benefit from the economic development of Tibet but Chinese settlers in Tibet, their Government and military, and their business enterprises.

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Chinese Vice-President Hu Jingtao, Premier Zhu Rongji, President Jiang Zemin and Chairman of the National People's Congress Li Peng.

This theme links up opportunistically with a long-observed tendency in colonial and post-colonial western attitudes towards Tibet. Idealising Tibet's far-from-the-madding-crowd isolation, primitive impenetrability, frozen-in-time traditions and Lama-led spirituality and treating its denizens as chosen people holding the key to happiness, peace and spiritual liberation (at least until the Chinese arrived) is one side of this tendency. The other side is hostility, mostly of the patronising kind, vented bo th against unification with China and the process of modernisation that you see at work everywhere in Tibet.

Aside from the fact that this first major theme of the 'independence for Tibet' campaign is identical to one of the core arguments of the Pakistan-supported extremist secessionist movement in Kashmir, reality testing for Tibet on the set of issues addres sed by this kind of argument can be on its own merits, sui generis so to speak.

Observed Reality
Flying into Gongkar airport, Tibet's major airport located in Shannan Prefecture, is a novel as well as sobering experience. Towards the end of a three-hour flight originating in Xian, China's ancient capital (which used to be known as Changan), you catc h a spectacular glimpse of topographies and landforms that seem straight out of Browning's strangest poems. Nothing you have read or seen in photographs prepares you for the vastness, the remoteness, the unnatural natural beauty, the flat-versus-mountain ous, dry-versus-riverine, fertile-versus-barren singularity of this once-great sea that has become a high altitude plateau averaging 4,000 metres, the 'roof of the world'. Tibet has less oxygen, more sunlight, longer hours of daylight, lower temperatures , less precipitation, more changeable weather, more great mountains and rivers, a larger collection of lakes and nature reserves, and a lower density of population than most people are used to.

But it is equally true that those who warn you about Tibet - against breathing difficulty, against altitude sickness, and against any kind of physical exertion upon landing - exaggerate for the most part. Unless specific health problems (even a transient problem like a bad cold) contra-indicate a flying visit to Tibet, acclimatisation is hardly the arduous challenge that anecdotal evidence and some guidebooks make it out to be. Further, you discover soon enough that geographically, physically, climatica lly, socio-economically, culturally and politically, the Tibet Autonomous Region of China is far from being a world apart - far-away, impenetrable, and inscrutable - that Hollywood's fantasising about Shangri-la, 'Seven Years in Tibet', 'Kundun', and Lam aic Buddhism suggests.


Tibet is on the move. This becomes clear as soon as you are on the road, either to Lhasa, a smooth, asphalted 95 km northward drive from Gongkar, or to Tsetang, a somewhat longer drive to the east that we took straight from the airport. As you spe ed along the highway, you are offered rapid frame alternations of the new and the old, the modern and the traditional, in what can be a heady brew of first impressions. In Tibet, as in most parts of the world, you can end up seeing and feeling, more or l ess, what you are pre-disposed to seeing and feeling. And much of this pre-disposition in the West, especially in the United States, is the outcome of prolonged exposure to the 'independence for Tibet' propaganda campaign orchestrated by the Dalai Lamad and abetted by Hollywood, by a certain genre of highly subjective travel writing, and, at a more sophisticated level, by 'manufacture of consent' in the media passing off as professional reportage and analysis.

Discrediting modernisation through selective, tendentious description has become a favourite device in recent first-hand western writing on Tibet. Whether it is Tibetan Tragedy, a Time magazine cover story written by Anthony Spaeth (issue of J uly 17, 2000), or a more pretentious two-part essay by Ian Baruma in The New York Review of Books (Found Horizon in the issue of June 29, 2000 and Tibet Disenchanted in the issue of July 20, 2000), discos, karaoke bars, brothels, gambling casinos and so forth loom large in the reportage and analysis. It is as though these are the distinguishing features of the modernising process that is on in Tibet, as part of China's gigantic, Deng Xiaoping-led post-1979 economic transformation. In Baru ma's evocative account, the dominant image of modernising Tibet under China's 'colonial' rule is sleaze associated with wild frontier 'Chinese-style capitalism': Chinese carpet-baggers, hucksters, hookers, gamblers, hoodlums, corrupt officials, and oth er desperadoes lusting after quick cash.

Unless the visitor chooses to get obsessively trapped in such images that are a small part of the reality, what he or she sees is a different kind of modernisation. New or improved schools, a system of compulsory schooling for nine or six or three years (depending on the area and the stage of objective development), and quite competitive higher educational institutions. A bewildering range of consumer goods and shops. Modern blue-tinted office buildings, new residential complexes, and a great deal of co nstruction activity in town and country. Hospitals and health centres dispensing both modern and a flourishing Tibetan indigenous medicine. Surplus grain production, new agricultural methods and practices, tractors, surplus-producing peasants, commoditis ed agriculture, water conservancy, irrigation, hydroelectric, geothermal, horticulture, and animal husbandry projects. Small and medium-sized industries and businesses. Ambitious infrastructure projects. A sustained economic growth rate close to 10 per c ent per year. Nascent scientific research, surveys, and social science activity. A substantial Tibetan Archives, active promotion and use of the Tibetan language (written and spoken), and big projects, funded largely by the Central Government, to record, collate, edit and publish Tibetan literary classics, such as King Gesar, and Buddhist sacred texts. Extensive repair, renovation, restoration and protection of cultural treasures under a strict and elaborate cultural protection regime. A splendid Tibet Autonomous Region Museum in Lhasa, with a floor space of 21,000 square metres, constructed during 1994-97 at a cost of $12 million. Environmental consciousness and concerns expressed in strict regulations, policies, an Environmental Protection Bur eau, afforestation, greening. New roads, highways, cars, two-wheelers, tractors, speeding trucks and every kind of modern vehicle. Newspapers, radio, television, mobile phones, twenty-first century telecom, even a few Internet bars. A nascent interest in biotechnology. Hotels for various budgets, organised tourism, and a host of other modern tertiary activities.


The Dalai Lama.

This is not surprising given the post-1979 policies of reform and opening up, which have brought enormous economic changes across China. Under the impact of these policies, over the past six years the economy of the Tibet Autonomous Region has grown at a n annual rate close to 10 per cent, which is above the national average. Last year, the Region's GDP grew at 9.6 per cent. Recently released data on GDP growth for the first half of 2000 revealed that Tibet's 8.9 per cent was again above the national ave rage (8.2 per cent). Economic growth during the second half of the year is expected to be higher.

At the same time, the traditional is very much on view in town and country. As you speed along the highway to Tsetang, you catch a glimpse of how the bulk of Tibetans live, in mud and stone houses, cultivating small plots and tending livestock; prayer fl ags fluttering; primitive farming and nomadic practices; poor living conditions; colourful long skirts, striped aprons and beads; people squatting road-side; children working at home, in the fields, or tending livestock. This reflects the truth that the level of economic development, the development of productive forces, and the living standards of the people in the Tibet Autonomous Region are visibly lower than the Chinese average.

Tibet is clearly at a preliminary stage of modernisation. To ask it to remain frozen in its traditions, as romantic disillusionment with the process of modernisation demands, is to be unrealistic as well as unfair to the mass of Tibetan people. For all t heir observable religiosity, they are as keen as people anywhere else to solve basic problems of food, clothing, shelter, transport, education, health, and decent work, and to improve living standards as quickly as possible.

A VISIT to a surplus-producing peasant family on the outskirts of Tsetang in Shannan Prefecture makes clear these aspirations. The head of the ten-member family, seven of whose members still live in this unpretentious but spacious and traditionally decor ated house, is 56-year-old Lhodru. He and his wife are illiterate, but four of the five children have been to school. (The girl is the exception.) In the 1950s, the family had no land of its own and subsisted on raising donkeys and some cattle, although, as Lhodru noted, it was not a family of serfs and did not belong to the poorest of the poor. The family acquired some land after the Democratic Reform in 1959, but until the late 1970s it produced just enough to keep its head above water.


Today, Lhodru's family owns 22 mu of land, that is 1.46 hectares, operates a tractor bought with a bank loan, owns six pigs and five heads of cattle, and sells grain as well as milk in the market. The proof of its improving living standards can be seen i n the main living room, in the elaborately decorated furniture and a range of consumer goods. According to Lhodru, electrification arrived here around 1979 and the basic improvements came after the whole village was shifted to this location at the end of the 1970s. Of the five children, three, including the young woman, live with the parents. The youngest member of the family, a boy, is in high school; the young woman has a job in the country administration; and of the three remaining sons, one works in the fields, another is a tractor-driver, and the third makes a living riding a rickshaw in the local market. Lhodru observes that as living standards improve and the market economy develops, attitudes, beliefs and aspirations undergo a significant chang e, especially among the young. Secondly, he notes, how specific families fare in the new situation depends very much on capabilities within the family, which vary considerably; his family has done quite well in response to the new economic opportunities, benefited from the Central Government's preferential policies towards Tibet, and lifted itself above a subsistence status, but it is by no means a rich family.

In Lhasa, the transforming effects of modernisation are much more visible, whether you visit a factory, the main bazaar or a large department store or a high school or a hospital, or simply look around and observe the new office buildings, the new-style residential blocks, and the extensive construction in progress.

These realities are profoundly different from those that used to prevail in old Tibet. One of the recurrent complaints of the 'independence for Tibet' campaign is that the Chinese Government has sought to 'justify its policy on Tibet' by 'painting the da rkest picture of traditional Tibetan society.' But the facts are indisputable.

Historical and social records and the accounts of foreign visitors show that before the 1959 Democratic Reform, which might have actually come later had there not been an armed uprising and had the Dalai Lama not fled to India, Tibet was a feudal serfdom . Land as well as most means of production were in the hands of the three categories of estate-owners - government officials, nobles, and upper class Lamas - who comprised merely 5 per cent of the population. The mass of the population, serfs and slave s, lived in extreme poverty, as appendages to estates owned by their masters, lacking education, health care, personal freedom, any kind of entitlement, obliged to provide unpaid labour services or ulag, an expansive Tibetan term for extortionate taxes, corvee and parasitical land rent. Agriculture was largely of the slash-and-burn kind, modern industry was virtually non-existent, and transportation was chiefly on animal or human back. Life in general was brutish and short, with diseases r ampant, the population stagnant, and life expectancy at birth hovering around 36. At the top of this profoundly inequitable and oppressive system sat the institution and person of the Dalai Lama (whatever be the 'reformist' fourteenth Dalai Lama's subjec tive claims and feelings on this state of affairs).


Inside the Potala Palace, surely one of the world's surviving wonders. The palace was listed in 1994 as a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO.

As against these basic realities, the 'independence for Tibet' campaign advances the argument that there was plenty of Buddhist kindness, compassion, and caring in old Tibet. While this may be true, there is only so much that kindness, compassion, and ca ring can achieve in the face of overpowering objective realities in a feudal serf-owning society and an extremely backward economy, where 95 per cent of the population was illiterate and the overwhelming majority lacked the ways and means to meet basic - even subsistence - needs.

Since Liberation in 1949, China's economic, political and social policies have gone through some sharp swings, twists, and turns. Such volatility has taken a considerable toll of the economic and social development effort, with the decade of the Cultural Revolution bringing nothing short of all-round calamity. Nevertheless, the record of four decades of democratic reform in the economic field in the Tibet Autonomous Region has been solid. Basic needs have been met to a substantial extent; social and hum an development indicators have risen impressively; poverty has been reduced; Tibet has acquired the fundamentals of a modern economy with briskly growing primary, industrial, and tertiary sectors; infrastructure, especially roads, highways, the energy se ctor, and telecommunications, have been developed on an ambitious scale; free medicare has been provided to a large proportion of the population; and Tibetan society, which is, in its composition, younger than most other parts of China, has become a lear ning society.

According to an official publication, there have been four waves of accelerated economic development since the early 1950s.

The first wave, which came in the 1950s, saw large-scale infrastructure construction especially in the field of transport; this wave saw the rapid completion of three major highways linking Tibet to Sichuan, Qinghai and Nepal, and the Gongkar airport, wh ich helped end the isolation of Tibet.


The second wave came in the mid-1980s, triggered by two National Conferences on Work in Tibet held in 1980 and 1984 jointly by the Communist Party of China and the State Council. In 1980, the Central Government decided on two policies towards Tibet that would not be changed for a long time to come -the land will be used by households, and will be managed by them on their own and livestock will be owned, raised and managed by households on their own. These policies have been extremely popular amo ng farmers and herdsmen who make up four-fifths of TAR's population and have led to an upsurge in agricultural production. In 1984, the Central Government mobilised manpower and material resources from nine provinces and municipalities to help Tibet bui ld 43 projects as part of the 'Golden Keys Programme'. The total investment involved was about 480 million yuan.

The third wave came in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the state invested more than 3.2 billion yuan in huge infrastructure projects focussed on energy and transportation. Among other things, this has brought a comprehensive development project in t he Three River Area, that is, the area around the Yarlung Zangbo, Lhasa, and Nyang Rivers encompassing agriculture, water conservancy, and afforestation. The ambitious project is expected to benefit more than 45 per cent of TAR's cultivated land, 18 coun ties and a population of 830,000, to lead to the development of a new base of commercial agriculture and light industry, and to spur development in the rest of Tibet.

The fourth wave, initiated at the Third National Conference on Work in Tibet held in July 1994, has been by far the most ambitious in the series. It has meant more investment, more projects, wider coverage of areas, and a greater emphasis on quality and accountability. The Third Forum set an annual growth target of 10 per cent for Tibet's economy over the medium term and decided that the Central Government together with 29 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities would help TAR construct 62 proj ects without compensation, involving a total investment of more than four billion yuan. Virtually all these projects have been completed ahead of schedule. The target of quadrupling the 1980 GDP by 2000 was actually fulfilled two years ahead of sched ule.

A new wave of economic development in Tibet is expected to be generated once China's Western Development campaign, a strategic push for large-scale development of the western region during the Tenth Five Year Plan (2001-2005), gets into full swing. For a year, Tibet's Development and Planning Commission has been working on a detailed plan to fit into this strategy. The plan is expected to be ready in early 2001. It will then go to the CPC Central Committee and to the TAR government for approval.


Colonialism, invariably, involves a huge drain of resources and wealth from the colony or semi-colony. In the case of Tibet, between 1950 and 1998, the Central Government invested an estimated 40 billion yuan, provided major financial subsidies, and tran sported vast quantities of material. Particularly after some stock-taking in the early 1980s by the Communist Party of China, which came to the conclusion that conditions in Tibet were unacceptably poor and backward and the level of development in Tibet was unacceptably low, the stepping up of assistance to TAR from the Central Government and provinces and municipalities has made all the difference, quantitatively as well as qualitatively, to TAR's economic performance.

Tibet, like other autonomous regions, is a major beneficiary of preferential policies that have been in operation since the mid-1960s and been firmed up by the Central Government over the past two decades. Among other things, this involves a low tax poli cy, a no-ceiling policy for loans given to the region, preferential interest rates, and a 100 per cent retention rate for the region's export earnings.

The devout elderly turning prayer-wheels at Shol village, the entrance to the Potala Palace at the southern foot of Marpo Ri.

The results, gleaned from the China Statistical Yearbook, 1999 (published by China Statistics Press, Beijing), are revealing. Tibet's GDP at the end of 1998 was 9.12 billion yuan, with the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors contributing 34.3 per cen t, 22.2 per cent and 43.5 per cent respectively. The region's per capita GDP was a creditable 3,716 yuan. Per capita income in rural households was 1,232 yuan, which was 57 per cent of the comparable national average. Tibetan rural households spent signi ficantly more of their living expenditure on food and clothing, and significantly less on education, culture and recreational articles and services, than the comparable national average. Rural Tibetans consumed more or less the same quantity of grain per capita as other Chinese, but significantly less vegetables, poultry, eggs, aquatic products, and liquor. They had a lower consumption of almost all consumer goods, including bicycles, sewing machines, watches, washing machines, refrigerators and TV sets , but scored higher with respect to radio sets and radio-cassette players.

The statistics suggest that people in urban Tibet are quite advantageously placed. They have greater per capita gross living space than the national average. About 73 per cent of them have access to piped water. Access to public transportation, paved roa ds, public green areas and other civic amenities is, in per capita terms, better than the national average.


BEFORE 1951, Tibet had nothing like a modern educational system. Monastic education, going back a thousand years and focussing on the study of Buddhist scriptures and to some extent the Tibetan language, was the leading form of education. In addition, ab out 20 schools run by local governments and some 100 small-scale private schools together catered to a total student body of less than 1,000 in Tibet. These schools outside the monastic system were meant for the training of lay and monk officials or for imparting a modicum of basic education - reading, writing and arithmetic besides the recitation of Buddhist scriptures - to the children of aristocratic, wealthy, and business families.

After the Revolution of 1911 put an end to the Qing dynasty in China, the thirteenth Dalai Lama decreed the establishment of a Tibetan language primary school in every county in Tibet, stipulating that "all children aged 7 to 15 must attend government-ru n schools." This experiment led to the setting up of several Tibetan language primary schools but on account of local government corruption and opposition from reactionaries, the schools were closed and the programme was abandoned. Prior to peaceful libe ration in 1951, a pathetic two per cent of school-age Tibetan children were in school and the illiteracy rate was an estimated 95 per cent.

Modern education made progress in Tibet after peaceful liberation, but the Cultural Revolution represented a major setback. Over the past two decades, developing education in Tibet has been identified at the highest political level as a strategic task.

According to official educational statistics, in 1999 the Tibet Autonomous Region had 820 primary schools, 101 middle schools, and 3,033 teaching centres with a combined enrolment of 354,644 students. A comprehensive modern educational system going up fr om kindergarten to university level and including technical and vocational secondary schools had taken initial shape. A teaching and administrative staff of more than 22,279, including 19,276 full-time teachers, represented the backbone of the school sys tem. Of this staff, 80 per cent was drawn from ethnic nationalities, chiefly the Tibetan nationality. There were four institutions of higher learning (Tibet University, the Tibet Ethnic Institute, the Tibet Institute of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry, and the Tibet College of Tibetan Medicine) with a combined enrolment of 5,249 students. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, more than 20,000 students have graduated from Tibet's higher educational institutions and over 23,000 from its secondary voc ational schools; and the overwhelming proportion of this qualified workforce has been Tibetan, contrary to what is alleged by the Dalai Lama-led campaign.


Theme No. 2
A key theme of the 'independence for Tibet' campaign is that China's 'colonialism' in Tibet is expressed in a state-sponsored policy of population transfer and Hanisation, that is, bringing in large numbers of Han settlers, administrators, and military a nd security personnel so as to swamp sparsely populated Tibet and render Tibetans a minority in their own land. This allegation goes hand in hand with references to 'six million Tibetans' - which reads like an egregious absurdity until one realises that this dishonestly cited number is connected with the project of establishing 'Greater Tibet' through ethnic cleansing and re-constituting the boundaries of four existing Chinese provinces or autonomous regions, Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan.

The Dalai Lama himself has repeated the allegation of state-sponsored Hanisation and population transfer in various forums, with the result that over the long term it has become a staple of international anti-Chinese and anti-Communist propaganda in rel ation to Tibet. For example, he asserted in his September 1987 address to members of the U.S. Congress while presenting his so-called Five Point Peace Plan: The population transfer of Chinese into Tibet, which the government in Peking pursues in order to force a 'final solution' to the Tibetan problem by reducing the Tibetan population to an insignificant and disenfranchised minority in Tibet itself, must be stopped. The massive transfer of Chinese civilians into Tibet in violation of the Fourth Genev a Convention (1949) threatens the very existence of Tibetans as a distinct people. The next year, in his address to members of the European Parliament which saw the unveiling of the so-called Strasbourg Proposal, the Dalai Lama asserted that the curr ent Chinese leadership was, while implementing certain reforms, promoting a massive population transfer onto the Tibetan plateau and that this policy had already reduced the six million Tibetans to a minority. More recently, in his interview to Time magazine (issue of July 17, 2000), he claimed that now, in many of the bigger towns like Lhasa, Tibetans are a minority, adding for good measure: Their lifestyle is changing; their language is half-Tibetan, half-Chinese.

Street scene in Lhasa.


The Dalai Lama's extremist dissatisfaction with any scepticism about his assertions on 'population transfer policy and practices' was conveyed in a formal comment sent by T.C. Tethong, member of the 'Kashag' and 'Minister, Information & International Rel ations, Central Tibetan Administration, Dharmasala' to the Secretary-General of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) on the organisation's December 1997 report on Tibet: Human Rights and the Rule of Law. Indicating that he was sending the comment at the instance of the Dalai Lamag asserted: As for the figures of Chinese and Tibetan population in various parts of Tibet, the ICJ relies heavily on Ch inese statistics of dubious validity since China has consistently denied and tried to hide its population transfer into Tibet. Even the figures cited from the report by the Tibet Support Group UK greatly underrate the number of Chinese currently in the s o-called Tibet Autonomous Region. As of today, there are 7.5 million Chinese settlers in Tibet as opposed to six million Tibetans. In addition, there are an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Chinese troops stationed in Tibet, a figure quoted as the nearest ap proximation of the actual number by research institutions around the world.

For well over a decade now, the Dalai Lamad the 'independence for Tibet' campaign literature, have made play with the phantom number of six million Tibetans - who they claim have been reduced to a minority in 'Tibet'. Swallowing this figure witho ut any independent verification or exercise of mind and without even waking up to the loaded political context in which this figure is cited by the Dalai Lamae Time magazine cover story makes this assertion: In the so-called Tibetan Autonomo us Region, ethnic Tibetans now number 6 million, or only 44 per cent of the population, according to the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile. China disputes those figures, but its own census data is from 1990, before the most recent waves of Han Chinese imm igrants (July 17, 2000). This means TAR's population is 13.64 million!

Population Realities
The truth about the population and demographic profile of any country, or any significant region in a country, can be studied only on the basis of the data available in that country. Typically, over the past century and more, these data have been generat ed by decennial censuses. (The first Census of India was conducted in 1871.) Whatever be the methodological limitations and shortcomings of censuses of population, and interim estimates and projections based on their findings, there is no gainsaying the greater reliability of data generated by censuses compared with guesstimates of the kind put out in 1951 and 1953 by the Dalai Lama's government, which simply lacked the ways and means to conduct censuses, or even scientific sample surveys, in Tibet. Sel f-evidently, the truth about the population and demographic profile of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China (or, for that matter, the population and demographic profile of Tibetans distributed across provinces and autonomous regions) cannot be gleaned fr om fanciful assertions of the kind put out by the 'independence for Tibet' campaign, by the Dalai Lama himself, or by Time magazine.


The latest Chinese official estimate of the population of TAR is 2.64 million, of which people of Tibetan nationality are estimated to be 94 to 95 per cent. What can explain the sensational gap between this population estimate and the figure put out in Time magazine's cover story on Tibet? No demographic expert, no honest lay observer of Tibetan realities believes that the problem is with China's 1990 Census. No expert or honest lay observer takes seriously the speculation that the decade-old Cen sus findings might have drowned in 'waves' (note the racial connotation of the phrase) of Han Chinese migrants. The last Census of India was conducted in 1991, but that does not invalidate expert updates and projections on the Indian population, or its r egional or spatial or social profile. Such estimates and projections can, of course, be verified against the actual findings of the 2001 Census. It is Time magazine's ideologically blinkered, propagandistic and wildly inaccurate representation of Tibetan realities that suffers from a credibility gap. Further, Tibet is not a hermetically sealed remote fastness where, if it is true that Hanisation in 'waves' or state-sponsored population transfer over four decades has rendered Tibetans into a minor ity - let alone in the whole autonomous region, even in one Prefecture or one urban centre such as Lhasa or Xigaze - that social truth can be covered up, or kept a state secret. This is particularly so in a situation where demographic and social realitie s are increasingly transparent and verifiable by, among others, NGOs with access to Tibet, teachers, doctors, medical workers and others working as volunteers at the ground level, visiting experts and academics, and representatives of governments and mul tilateral agencies like the World Bank.

Let us now look at the best information available over half a century on the size of Tibet's population as well as on the proportion of Tibetans in this population.

In 1951, when the Dalai Lama's regime in Tibet lacked any arrangement or scientific basis to come up with an accurate figure, it announced Tibet's total population as close to one million. This was regarded as a realistic figure. In 1953, China conducted its First National Population Census, but found it impracticable to extend this exercise to Tibet. However, the local government headed by the Dalai Lama sent up for inclusion in the National Census an estimate of 1.274 million as the population of Tibe t (including the Qamdo Prefecture). The impression among Chinese demographic experts was that this was an overestimate.

China conducted its Second National Population Census in 1964. This was five years after the Armed Rebellion had been put down in Tibet. This Census also could not be conducted in Tibet because the Preparatory Committee, preoccupied with the work of foun ding the Tibet Autonomous Region (which would come into being the next year), could not take up the job. This time an estimate of 1.251 million was sent up. The decrease of 23,000 from 1953 reflected, to a small extent, the assessment that the 1953 figur e was an overestimate. But more importantly, the decline was the outcome of the flight of more than 90,000 Tibetans, including 74,000 former residents of Tibet, following the collapse of the 1959 Armed Rebellion.
An ambitious infrastructure construction project in progress in a rural area in central Tibet. Over the past six years, the economy of the Tibet Autonomous Region has grown at an annual rate close to 10 per cent.

Gyaltsap as Dorje Lopon.jpg

Tibet's second and most reliable census to date was conducted in 1990, as part of the Fourth National Population Census. The population of TAR was now found to be 2.196 million. A significant finding of this census was that there were now 2.0967 million people of Tibetan nationality in TAR, constituting 95.48 per cent of its population. The Han population had actually declined to 80,800, representing merely 3.68 per cent of the autonomous region's population. As in the previous census, people belonging to other ethnic groups made up less than 1 per cent.

No population can remain completely unchanged in its structure and profile for any length of time, and indeed in recent decades some changes are reported to have taken place in the distribution of Tibetans and Han Chinese across TAR. But the pattern as r ecorded in the first two real censuses of Tibet is the opposite of what the Dalai Lama and the 'independence for Tibet' campaign allege. The 1982 and 1990 Census data on the Tibetan and Han Chinese population of Tibet's six Prefectures and Lhasa Municipa lity reveal two interesting truths. (See Table 1.) First, in every prefecture and in Lhasa, Tibetans constituted the overwhelming majority of the population in 1982 as well as 1990. In fact, only in Lhasa and Nyingchi Prefecture did Han Chinese exceed 1 0 per cent of the population; in every other Prefecture, they were an insignificant proportion. Secondly, between 1982 and 1990, the proportion of Tibetans in the population increased in every one of TAR's Prefectures as well as in Lhasa Municipality.

So where does the Dalai Lama get his population data from? Neither he nor anyone else has been able to produce a shred of evidence to show that the 1982 and 1990 Census data for Tibet were concocted or fraudulent, which they would have to be if either of Dalai Lama's assertions - that a population transfer policy had reduced the six million Tibetans to a minority and that in many of the bigger towns like Lhasa, Tibetans are a minority - were true. Further, Census data and demographic indexes ca n be tested for internal consistency. No expert has found anything suspicious about the 1982 and 1990 Census data for Tibet.

Theme No. 3
The Dalai Lama and the 'independence for Tibet' campaign have frequently referred to 'six million Tibetans' as a kind of proxy for 'Greater Tibet'. They counterpose this number to '7.5 million Chinese settlers' who, by implication, need to be expelled fr om what is described as 'the whole of Tibet'. They have also specifically put forward the revanchist political demand that 'the whole of Tibet known as Cholka-Sum (U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo)' should be 'restored' as a separate political entity. This is, by implication, a demand for breaking up three Chinese provinces, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan, and the Qinghai autonomous region, and for ethnic cleansing.


It is true that Tibetans in China live overwhelmingly in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. According to data available from China's 1990 National Population Census, Tibetans in TAR make up 45.65 per cent of China's Tibetan population of 4.59 million. Sichuan Pr ovince (1.09 million), the Qinghai Autonomous Region (0.91 million), Gansu Province (0.37 million), and Yunnan Province (0.11 million) together account for the majority of Tibetans in China. The Central Government has adopted the policy of national auton omy for areas where people belonging to minority nationalities live in concentrated or compact communities. Thus, there are autonomous regions, autonomous prefectures, and autonomous counties (in some cases, an autonomous administrative unit is designate d jointly for the benefit of two minority nationalities that form compact communities in the area). Under this policy, there are outside TAR ten Tibetan nationality autonomous prefectures and two Tibetan nationality autonomous counties. Estimates based o n the 1990 Census data and on observed trends suggest that China's Tibetan population today may be a little over 5.5 million.

The historical record shows that the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau was never populated exclusively by Tibetans. While most of the plateau is legitimately termed 'Tibetan', it is also home to a large number of other Chinese ethnic groups and tribes, including not ably the Han, Mongol, Tu, Hui and Qiang. The current administrative division of Tibetan areas is not part of any Chinese Han conspiracy to render Tibetans a minority in 'the whole of Tibet' - for the simple reason there was never, at any time, an independent country with all these Tibetan areas included. Nor is the administrative division the handiwork of Chinese Communists. It is, as a Chinese historical publication points out, the result of a unified administration enforced by the (Chinese) central government toward Tibet since the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Further, the area controlled by the local government of Tibet (the Gaxag government) under the leadership of the Dalai Lama did not extend beyond the Jinshajiang River in the west and the T anggula Mountain in the south.

Lay women polishing butter lamps at Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.

The administrative divisions of Tibetan areas have, over centuries, been re-defined and altered for a complexity of reasons by Chinese central governments under Yuan, Ming, Qing, and Republican rule. In the nineteenth century, after China was reduced to the plight of a semi-feudal semi-colony by western colonial powers and the central government was greatly weakened, conflicts broke out between Tibet and Sichuan over administrative areas. After the 1911 Revolution, some areas changed hands.


It was at the Simla Conference of 1913 that British imperialism presented a blueprint for 'Outer Tibet' and 'Inner Tibet' that has created a good deal of confusion and trouble over the long term. For 'Outer Tibet', there would be 'full autonomy' under th e nominal 'suzerainty' of China but actually under British supervision and hegemony. On the other hand, the Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan would become part of 'Inner Tibet' whose political and administrative arrangements would be determined later. Despite British-sponsored armed aggression and manipulation, the Chinese government never accepted this blueprint and the arrangements demanded by Britain could never be put in place.

As Dr. Subramanian Swamy points out in an accompanying analysis, independent India's policy has inherited from the British Raj a kind of ambivalence if not duplicity on Tibet, and paid a heavy price for this in bilateral relations with China. Indians m ust get themselves debriefed and their minds purged of the British duplicity on Tibet, which was to keep Tibet's status nebulous in everyone's mind by concocting a feudal concept of 'suzerainty'... The purging of the imperialist perfidy is the responsibi lity of the Indian government. This is sound advice and the Indian Government as well as political parties like the Congress (I) must take it to heart and act sincerely on it.

The Dalai Lama's notion of 'Greater Tibet', which takes inspiration from the failed imperialist blueprint presented at the Simla Conference, is a provocative demand for breaking up existing Chinese provinces and autonomous regions, ethnic cleansing, and, in fact, 'returning' to a state of affairs that never existed.

Theme No. 4
The 'independence for Tibet' campaign and the Dalai Lama himself have made an astonishing allegation against the Chinese Government: that over one million Tibetans have keen killed since 1951.

In the course of presenting his 'Five Point Peace Plan' to members of the U.S. Congress in September 1987, the Dalai Lama twice used the word 'holocaust' and piled on the charges: After the holocaust of the last decades in which over one million Tibeta ns - one sixth of the population - lost their lives and at least as many lingered in prison camps because of their religious beliefs and love of freedom, only a withdrawal of Chinese troops could start a genuine process of reconciliation. He repeated t he allegation while presenting the 'Strasbourg Proposal' to members of the European Parliament on June 15, 1988: More than a million of our people have died as a result of the occupation. (Curiously, the Dalai Lama in his letter, dated September 11, 1992, to Deng Xiaoping makes no reference whatever to the loss of 'more than one million lives'). A 'White Paper', updated to February 1996 and posted on the Web by the Dalai Lama's 'government-in-exile', has improved on this charge: Over 1.2 million Tibetans have died as a direct result of the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet. Today, it is hard to come across a Tibetan family that has not had at least one member imprisoned or killed by the Chinese regime.


It can be seen that in making this allegation, the Dalai Lama and 'the government of Tibet in exile' are trying to have it both ways. Once again, the allegation straddles two Tibets: the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the 'Greater Tibet' of their revanchi st imaginings. The reference to 'the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet' suggests TAR, but the claim that the population of Tibetans is six million relates to 'Greater Tibet'.

Reality Testing
If even remotely true, the death of more than a million people in Tibet 'as a direct result' of the rule of the People's Republic China would, given Tibet's population base, amount to genocide of an unprecedented, near-total kind. If not true, then both the campaign and the Dalai Lama must be exposed for gross political fraud and an outrageous abuse of the latter's status of 'His Holiness'. It strains credulity for anyone to suggest that, in the present age, something as monstrous as what has been alleg ed can escape independent investigation, defy reality testing, and remain more or less opaque.

At the Potala Palace complex. Between 1989 and 1994, the government made available 55 million yuan for the repair and renovation of the palace.

Interestingly, a December 1997 publication of the International Commission of Jurists titled Tibet: Human Rights and the Rule of Law chooses to draw a veil of silence over this particular allegation made by the Dalai Lama and his 'government-in-ex ile' (even though the ICJ has made common cause with the 'independence for Tibet' campaign in levelling a plethora of allegations against China relating to human rights, freedom of religion, freedom of political activity, 'arbitrary arrest and detention' , 'torture and ill-treatment', the 'erosion' of the Tibetan language, 'degradation' of Tibet's environment, and 'increasing threats' to aspects of Tibetan identity and culture). So does the report titled The Case Concerning Tibet: Tibet's Sovereignty and the Tibetan People's Right to Self-Determination written by two representatives of the International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation and published in December 1998 by the New Delhi-based Tibet an Parliamentary & Policy Research Centre. Giving credence to the figure of 'more than one million' without any attempt at substantiation would have undermined the credibility of these organisations which have allied with the 'independence for Tibet' cam paign.


Let us now turn to the issue of how the alleged killing of more than one million people (between 1951 and 1979, according to 'the government of Tibet in exile') relates in scale to the population of Tibet during the relevant period. We have already seen that the population of Tibet as estimated by the Dalai Lama's government was close to a million in 1951 and 1.274 million in 1953. In 1983 and 1990, the National Population Census found the number of Tibetans in TAR to be 1.79 million and 2.10 million re spectively. It is inconceivable that a loss of 1.2 million people against such a population base will not express itself in huge distortions and gaps in the demographic indexes and population profile of TAR (or for that matter all the Tibetan autonomous areas in China). There is not the slightest evidence in these indexes and in the profile of anything but steady improvement, over the decades, in the quality of life of Tibetans. This means, among other things, an impressive rise in life expectancy at b irth (from 36 in 1951 to over 65 today), a reduction in the death rate, and strikingly lower infant mortality.

If one million were killed, remarks Jing Wei, a Chinese journalist, then there would be almost no Tibetans left. The truth, however, is just the opposite. (100 Questions About Tibet, Beijing Review Press, Beijing, 1989).

Theme No. 5
The Dalai Lama and 'the independence for Tibet' campaign have repeatedly asserted that religion and freedom of worship, especially in Tibet's monasteries, have been brutally suppressed and that Tibetan traditional culture and spirituality are in danger o f extinction.

In his September 1987 address to members of the U.S. Congress, the Dalai Lama said: Although the Chinese government allows Tibetans to rebuild some Buddhist monasteries and to worship in them, it still forbids serious study and teaching of religion. On ly a small number of people, approved by the Communist Party, are permitted to join monasteries. He added that thousands of our countrymen suffer in prisons and labour camps in Tibet for their religious or political convictions.

A White Paper posted on the Web by 'the government of Tibet in exile' asserts that the Chinese authorities, even now, do not let the functioning units of the monastic universities to continue their traditional religious practices. Admission to monaste ries is controlled, the number of monks limited, and political indoctrination undertaken in the monasteries. The management of monasteries is placed in the hands of a maze of state bureaucracies ...The essence of Buddhism lies in mental and spiritual dev elopment achieved through intensive study with qualified lamas, understanding and practice. But the Chinese authorities discourage this in their campaign to misrepresent Tibetan religion. The White Paper also alleges that contrary to official Chinese assertions, much of Tibet's culture and religion was destroyed between 1955 and 1961 and not during the Cultural Revolution ... By 1976 only eight monasteries and nunneries had escaped Chinese destruction.


Observed Realities
During a visit to Tibet in July 2000, we had the opportunity to visit, or catch a glimpse of, several Buddhist holy places and places of traditional cultural, religious, and historical significance. This included the Trandruk Temple in the vicinity of Ts etang in Shannan Prefecture in central Tibet; the Yumbulagang, reputed to be Tibet's first castle or 'palace', which has statues commemorating celebrated kings and ministers, religious worship, and monks within its precincts; (from a distance) Tibet's fi rst monastery, Samye, founded some 1,200 years ago and associated with the Indian masters Shankarakshita and Padmasambhava; the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, with the priceless ancient statue of Jowo Sakyamuni, that is, the Buddha at the age of 12, the most v enerated religious image in all of Tibet, in the main chapel; the world-famous Potala Palace, listed in December 1994 as a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO and drawing visitors and pilgrims, from near and far, round the year; a wonderful collection of treasures, temporal and religious, housed in one of the developing world's finest historical museums, the new Tibet Autonomous Region Museum, in which China's central government has invested more than 100 million yuan; and some smaller shrines.

Buddhism is a strong, all-pervasive presence in Tibet. Everywhere, you see prayer flags and sutra streamers fluttering; prayer wheels turning; pilgrims queueing up, prostrating, circumambulating, reciting; butter lamps lighted or being polished; thankas, relics, images of the Buddha in various forms, moods, and manifestations as well as other high and lesser figures in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon; monks and nuns of various categories; intensely devout elderly women and men. The number of pilgrims who come to Lhasa every year is close to one million. There is no question of anyone restricting, let alone suppressing, any of this. The Cultural Revolution tried and succeeded only in inflicting a great deal of damage to monasteries, temples, and cultural relics - as it did, among other awful things, all over China. Ironically, the 'independence for Tibet' campaign literature is rather light on damage done during the Cultural Revolution in TAR, because it seeks to establish for its own reasons that the wo rst damage to Tibetan Buddhism was done before and after the decade of 1966-76. This suggests that the worst depredations of the Cultural Revolution were not in Tibet, although it is clear even today that the damage done to monasteries and temples, inclu ding Jokhang, and their treasures was grievous. What is even clearer at the factual level is that a great deal has survived - above all, the Jowo Sakyamuni at Jokhang and the Potala Palace, which is surely one of the world's surviving wonders.

It is estimated by Chinese official sources that in old Tibet monks and nuns accounted for 10 per cent of the population. The White Paper, cited above, of the 'government of Tibet in exile' claims that in 1959, there were a total of 6,259 Tibetan Buddhi st monasteries and temples with 592,558 resident monks and nuns. Even allowing for exaggeration, this figure makes no sense unless the context is understood to be the territory of 'Greater Tibet'.



At the Potala Palace complex. Between 1989 and 1994, the government made available 55 million yuan for the repair and renovation of the palace.

There is no need here to enter into any kind of digression on Tibetan Buddhism: its various monasteries, temples and sects, the high Lamas, Living Buddhas and grand incarnations, the senior, middling and lowly monks and nuns, the debates, rituals and bel iefs, and the steady streams of revenue that monasteries and temples are able to collect from all categories of lay people. But the point needs to be made here that although there was a great deal in this system that needed protection, there was consider able scope for reform and enforcement of the rule of law, a modern concept. Buddhism as a religion emphasises kindness and compassion. But the traditional Tibetan Buddhist religious community was far from being a unified or homogeneous community in any s ense. It was organised on rigid hierarchical lines where learning but also other factors, especially politics, played a significant part. Within this monastic and Lamaic system, there were contradictions, schisms, conflicts, tensions, and cruelty. Second ly, there was a strong class system at work in Lamaism, with the majority of monks and nuns being poor, put upon, and poorly educated. At the working level, the system was characterised by huge gaps in wealth, status, and command of commodities and capab ilities. Thirdly, nuns did not enjoy the same status and rights as monks since the doctrine stipulates that the status of nuns is under that of the ordinary monks and the old Tibetan law laid down that women cannot become involved in political affa irs. Fourthly, in pre-Democratic Reform Tibet, the practice of sending children of tender age to monasteries and temples was prevalent.

China's policy towards religion and freedom of religious belief, and Tibetan Buddhism in particular, has undergone significant changes over the decades. Article 7 of the 1951 Agreement of the Central Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measur es for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet stipulated that the religious beliefs, customs and habits of the Tibetan people shall be respected, and lama monasteries shall be protected and specifically that the central authorities will not effect a chan ge in the income of the monasteries. This was basically a policy of non-intervention in the affairs of Tibetan Buddhism, adopted as a special measure to promote reconciliation and unity between Tibetans and other Chinese citizens. But the ball game cha nged following the Armed Uprising of 1959 and the flight of the Dalai Lama.

The Democratic Reform did mean an extensive and deep-going engagement with the structure and affairs of the Lamaic Buddhist system. It brought about significant changes in the living conditions and entitlements of the mass of poor monks and nuns and in t he management of monasteries and temples. The most important and enduring change of all was the institution of the monastery (or nunnery) democratic management committee, elected by all monks (or nuns) in the monastery (or nunnery) on the basis of full c onsultation. This committee, which is responsible for overseeing all the Buddhist activities of the monastery, receives guidance and support from government departments in charge of Buddhist affairs and reports on the implementation of state policies.


After the Cultural Revolution was over, a major corrective task was undertaken - particularly after the strategy of reform and opening up to the outside world was adopted in 1979 by the Communist Party of China. This essentially meant three things.

First, the policy of freedom of religious belief was revived in accordance with the guarantee provided in China's Constitution and laws. Article 36 of the Constitution stipulates: Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious be lief. But no freedom is absolute and in the Chinese case the qualifications and reasonable restrictions are spelt out by the Constitution itself: The state protects normal religious activities ... no one may make use of religion to engage in activiti es that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the State. Further, religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.

There are various laws pertaining to, or having an impact on, religion and also elaborate regulations on the administration of sites for religious activities as well as provisions on the administration of religious activities of aliens within China. Ther e are also judicial and administrative guarantees of freedom of religious belief, including the laying down of penalties for infringing the freedom of religious belief of citizens. There is also a comprehensive national law on the Protection of Cultural Relics.

In addition to these general constitutional, legal, executive and judicial provisions, there are elaborate laws, regulations, and measures protecting the right to freedom of belief among minority nationalities such as Tibetans. The Law of the People's Re public of China on National Regional Autonomy states: Organs of self-government in ethnic regional autonomy areas protect the right to freedom of religious belief of the citizens of all ethnic groups.

Although religion does not loom as large over society and politics as it does in India or in many Islamic societies, China has a diversity of religions. Going by the number of estimated followers, the country has six main religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Isl am, Catholicism, and Protestantism. In a briefing in Beijing, Yang Tongxiang, Deputy Director of the Religious Affairs Administration of the State Council, provided me the following estimates of the number of believers in China: 100 million Buddhists, 17 million Muslims, eight million Protestants, and four million Catholics. This adds up to a considerable number, but it must be remembered that this is out of a population of more than 1.2 billion. However, in autonomous regions, prefectures and counties - meant specially to protect the identity, culture, interests, and rights, and promote the development, of minority nationalities wherever they live in compact communities - the weight of religion in society appears to be significantly greater than it is in China in general.


China's policy towards religion is expressed in the clearly stated position that religious belief is a citizen's private affair. While guaranteeing freedom of religious belief, China's Constitution, laws, policies, and practice ensure equal protection to the freedom not to believe in religion. Of course, in China, explained Yang Tongxiang, no one is allowed to disrupt social order or disturb the life of society or citizens in the name of religion. Religion is separated from administration, that is , religion is separated from the executive, the legislature, administration, education, and marriage.

A glimpse of the Yarlung Valley in central Tibet.

Monks and nuns were allowed to return to the full range of their normal religious activities. A serious effort was made to redress, if not undo, the wrongs done through the prosecution of unjust, false or mistaken cases. In the decade and a half followin g the end of the Cultural Revolution, the central government appropriated more than 200 million yuan in special funds to implement the religious policy in Tibet and to make amends for the serious damage done by the Cultural Revolution.

Secondly, there was a new conciliatory policy approach to the Dalai Lama and his followers, marked by firmness with respect to principle, but flexibility and open-endedness with respect to timing, modalities, and other details. It is clear that over the long term, that is, for nearly half a century, the Communist Party of China and the Central Government have gone to considerable lengths to accommodate the Dalai Lama - given the sentiments of ordinary Tibetans and the special position he has occupied i n Tibet as a venerated religious figure. This was certainly the case until his flight in 1959. The Chinese government actually waited until December 1964 before formally removing the Dalai Lama from the chairmanship of the Preparatory Committee for the A utonomous Region of Tibet. The Cultural Revolution ruled out, for a full decade, any conciliation along the lines attempted earlier or subsequently. It was in keeping with the times that from around 1979-80, a new approach to prepare the ground for a vol untary return of the former 'God-king', but in a new symbolic role. Clear signals were sent from the top party and government leadership that he was welcome to return with honour as a religious leader - provided he renounced separatism. This was made cl ear in informal talks with the Dalai Lama's emissaries as well as in public statements by China's top political leaders, notably Deng Xiaoping.

An authoritative Chinese publication, 100 Questions About Tibet (Beijing Review Publications, Beijing, 1989), sums up the Central government's policy pursued in the 1980s towards the Dalai Lama in terms of five points: (1) China had entered a new period of political stability and rapid economic development in which all the 56 nationalities of the country could unite and help each other more effectively than ever before. The Dalai Lama and his followers, being intelligent, should credit this but i f they did not, they could watch the situation for a few more years. (2) The Dalai Lama and his envoys should speak frankly and sincerely rather than play hide-and-seek and bargain. The 1959 chapter in Tibet's and China's history could be constructively forgotten. (3) The Central government sincerely invited the Dalai Lama and his followers to come back and settle down. The government hoped he would contribute - as he did in the 1950s - to the maintenance of the country's unification, promoting unity be tween the Han and Tibetan people and among all nationalities, and China's modernisation drive. (4) Upon his return, the Dalai Lama would enjoy the same political treatment and living conditions as he had done before 1959. In this connection, it was indic ated that he would be elected a Vice-Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) and also of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). However, it was unnecessary for him to h old a post in Tibet since younger Tibetans had assumed office and were doing a very good job. (5) Upon determining when to return, the Dalai Lama could issue a suitable press statement, and what to say in the statement was up to him. He needed only to in form the Central government of the date of his arrival so that an appropriate welcome ceremony could be arranged.


The Dalai Lama not only missed a historic opportunity to return to his homeland by embracing a path of reconciliation and moderation, the Buddhist 'middle path' that he has frequently invoked and boasted about. He and his Dharmasala-based 'government in exile' moved headlong in the opposite direction in the late-1980s and 1990s. One has only to read the Dalai Lama's public addresses and proposals, and the hate literature put out by the 'independence for Tibet' campaign, to come to this appraisal. After more than a decade of attempting conciliation with the Dalai Lamae patience of the Chinese government was finally exhausted. The riots that broke out in Lhasa between September 1987 and March 1989, and the Chinese government's finding that the 'Dalai clique' had a hand in planning and inciting them, undoubtedly contributed to this running out of patience. But as late as 1989, following the tenth Panchen Lama's death, the government invited the Dalai Lama to come to Tibet to attend the memorial cerem onies. 'His Holiness', possibly reading such conciliatory gestures as indications of weakness, spurned the invitation. That year, as anti-Chinese political feelings intensified on the world stage, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by a pol itically minded Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee.

The Third National Conference on Work in Tibet, held in Beijing in 1994, publicly signalled the end of patience. But even while coming to a no-nonsense appraisal of the Dalai Lama's agenda and activities, the conference reiterated the CPC Central Committ ee's consistent position that if the Dalai Lama admitted that Tibet was an inseparable part of China, abandoned the project for Tibet's independence, and ceased all separatist activities, he would be welcomed back from exile as soon as possible. It added that he should abandon the issue of independence, semi-independence...and independence in disguise.

The crux of the new official assessment was expressed in the formulation that the thirteenth Dalai Lama was no longer a religious leader who can bring happiness to the masses - as he claimed - but a guilty person of the motherland and the people. He was to be understood primarily as a political separatist, the unreconstructed leader of a separatist political clique that was engaged in divisive activities abroad and destabilising activities within Tibet and was out to 'internationalise' the T ibet issue in league with China's international enemies. The clique was also involved in a lot of counter-revolutionary activities which do not conform to religious law and doctrine at all and was opposing the Communist Party and trying to undermine socialism.

From this followed the decision that there should be no toleration of separatist activities, ideas, and symbols. The Dalai Lama's hold and influence over Tibetan Buddhism was to be combated, there would be stricter supervision of what was going on in mon asteries, and a re-education or patriotic education campaign would be undertaken among monks and nuns. Consequently, there are no portraits of the Dalai Lama on public view in Tibet, a fact that greatly agitates western supporters of the 'independenc e for Tibet' campaign. In contrast, pictures of the tenth Panchen Lama, a beloved figure who took a very different path from the one taken by the fourteenth Dalai Lama, are on display or sale in most parts of Tibet.


In 1992, the Religious Affairs Bureau of the State Council approved without incident the succession of the 17th Karmapa Living Buddha. However, a bitter controversy broke out between the Dalai Lama's establishment and the Chinese government on the issue of the 'reincarnation' of the tenth Panchen Lama. There are established procedures, religious rituals, and historical conventions for the search and identification of the incarnation of a 'Grand Living Buddha'. The final stage of the process is lot-drawi ng from a golden urn, a practice dating back to the eighteenth century and introduced by the Chinese central government as a sign of its sovereignty over Tibet as well as its respect for the distinctive religious rituals, conventions, and procedures of L amaism. Once the 'soul-boy' is confirmed through drawing lots from the golden urn, the decision needs the approval of the central government before the boy can be enthroned. Where the drawing of lots is sought to be dispensed with because the circumstanc es are special and the choice is obvious, that decision needs the central government's approval in advance. But in early 1995, in a clear act of political provocation, the Dalai Lamag in concert with some influential elements in Tibet, announced i n India his recognition of a favoured boy as the Panchen Lama's reincarnation. This was a calculated attempt to divide and confuse Tibetans, and create a new 'human rights' issue that could be exploited internationally by the 'independence for Tibet' cam paign,

This act, charged Yang Tongxiang, was a reflection of the Dalai Lama's ulterior political motives. He was trying to interrupt our incarnation process. He was trying to make trouble not only for the incarnation process but for Tibet. What the Dalai Lama did was utterly illegal. Because on the one hand, it was not in agreement with historical institutions and formalities. Secondly, it was not in accordance with religious rituals. The Dalai Lama is an ordinary human being, not a spirit! He is no position to declare whether this boy is a Living Buddha or not.

The image of Maitreya, the future Buddha, at Jokhang Temple. Buddhism is a strong, all pervasive presence in Tibet.

The Chinese government rejected the Dalai Lama's choice and took action against those who had secretly collaborated with him. In 1995, following the conclusion of the search for and identification of the tenth Panchen Lama's reincarnation in line with th e prescribed religious rituals and historical conventions (culminating in the drawing of lots from the golden urn after the field had narrowed down to three boys), the eleventh Panchen Lama was titled and enthroned in Lhasa with the approval of the State Council.

The eleventh Panchen Lama is ten years old and making very good progress in his studies, said Yang in response to my specific question. The boy announced by the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation is just an ordinary boy. He has returned to his origin al status and is also studying.


What is the current policy of the central government towards the thirteenth Dalai Lama? Our policy, responded Yang, is consistent. It will be very positive if the Dalai Lama shows real sincerity in talking with the central government. But this must be under some pre-conditions. First, he must admit that Tibet is an inalienable part of China. Secondly, he must put an end to his separatist activities. Thirdly, he must admit that the central government of the People's Republic of China is the sole le gal representative of China. In addition, he must admit that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. This is our basic policy towards Dalai. We are resolute that we will not negotiate or talk with him unless he agrees to the above-mentioned conditions.

According to official sources, there are about 1,700 monasteries, temples and other places of religious worship and close to 46,000 resident monks and nuns in the Tibet Autonomous Region. These monks and nuns account for less than two per cent of the Tib etan population of TAR in contrast to ten per cent in old Tibet. The present number of monasteries and temples and resident monks and nuns is considered sufficient to meet the needs of daily religious practice of the masses.

The third area where the post-1979 policy of the central government towards religion is manifested is (what the Chinese term) the 'protection of cultural relics'. In November 1982, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress adopted a strict Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of Cultural Relics. Nine years later, for the first time in Tibetan history, regulations for the management and protection of relics in TAR were adopted by the Standing Committee of the People's Co ngress of the region. In 1993, the TAR government issued the Decision on Further Strengthening the Management of Cultural Relics and subsequently stipulated Methods of Management of the Potala Palace. These laws and regulations, a publication of the information office of China's State Council points out, have brought the work of preserving cultural relics in Tibet within the orbit of legalisation and standardisation. At the same time, a large contingent of cultural relic protection staff has been formed. It is officially estimated that there are now more than 270 archaeologists in Tibet, 95 per cent of them Tibetans.

In addition to stricter laws and regulations for the protection of cultural relics, the central government has invested more than 300 million yuan to repair and open monasteries and temples. Between 1989 and 1994, the government made available about 55 million yuan and a considerable quantity of gold, silver and other precious metals for the repair and renovation of the Potala Palace. This was considered the single largest outlay on historical relic preservation in China's history. In December 1994, th e Potala was listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site. A number of cultural and historical treasures, including more than a dozen monasteries, have been identified in Tibet as key units to be protected. Post-Cultural Revolution China has three clearly demarcated levels or jurisdictions to manage and protect its cultural treasures: the state-level, that is the central government-level; the province-level, that is, within the jurisdiction of the province or the county; and the county- or city-le vel. Currently, 18 highly important cultural relic sites and three historical and cultural cities are under state-level protection, 64 cultural relic sites under autonomous region-level protection, and some 20 cultural relic sites under county- or city- level protection in Tibet.


But this is the relatively rarefied level of cultural relic protection. In Tibet, many items that need protection, including ancient architecture, sites of 'ruins', tombs and stone carvings, are located in the vast, expansive open. Cultural relic protect ion, therefore, has also needed to be addressed as a mass undertaking. Several publicity and educational campaigns have been conducted by the Tibet Bureau of Cultural Relics to raise consciousness at the popular level of the importance of cultural relic protection. Extensive surveys have been undertaken in all parts of Tibet, leading to the discovery of thousands of local cultural sites and objects that are in need of protection.

At another level, the work of printing the Lhasa edition of the celebrated Dangyur of Tripitaka in Tibetan has been taken up on a big scale for use in monasteries in TAR as well as in other Tibetan areas. In 1990, the central government allocated half a million yuan for the arduous work of engraving the Lhasa-edition printing block for the Dangyur in the Tibetan language in the Moru Monastery in Lhasa, a project the thirteenth Dalai Lama planned but failed to complete. The TAR government h as financed the setting up of the Lhasa Sutra Printing House of the Tibetan branch of the Buddhist Association of China (BAC). The establishment of the Tibet College for Buddhism (in 1983), the opening of sutra classes in monasteries and temples belongi ng to various sects, and the practice of sending Living Buddhas and lamas for advanced studies to the China Tibetan Language High Institute of Buddhism in Beijing have been other initiatives. At another level, there are few parallels anywhere to the ong oing massive project of collecting, researching, editing, and publishing the Life of King Gesar - created by the Tibetan people over centuries in the oral tradition and reputed to be the world's longest heroic epic. Twenty years of meticulous lab our have produced excellent results: some 300 handwritten or block-printed Tibetan volumes have been collected and about 70 volumes have already been published, with a total print run exceeding three million copies.

All this does not suggest a situation where religious freedom has been suppressed, unless the Dalai Lama's self-inflicted loss of the traditional, but contested right to reign as the Tibetan Buddhist supremo is equated with the freedom of religion in Tib et.


Theme No. 6
One other significant theme of the 'independence for Tibet' campaign needs to be addressed. It is the contention that there is no political freedom in Tibet and that human rights have been systematically trampled on, Cultural Revolution or no Cultural Re volution. This allegation surfaces frequently in the campaign's literature and in various international discussions on Tibet. In his recent interview to Time magazine (issue of July 17, 2000), the Dalai Lama was asked whether China had any policy on Tibet and his answer was: No, I don't think so. Just crush. Any resistance, just crush. Suppress. In direct contraposition, 'His Holiness' has put forward the demand for constituting 'Greater Tibet' as a self-governing democratic political entit y founded on law by agreement of the people for the common good and the protection of themselves and their environment, in association with the People's Republic of China.

In central Lhasa. Regional autonomy for minority nationalities or ethnic minorities is "a basic policy adopted by the Chinese government".

This is not the occasion to enter into a detailed discussion of China's political system. Its basic characteristics and features are well known as is the nature of change that has taken place over the past two decades under the impress of rapid economic development and opening up to the world. But this is not a free-wheeling, multi-party system; it is a socialist political system dominated and led by the Communist Party of China, but increasingly, from 1979, governed by law. Nor does the multi-ethnic a nd multi-national People's Republic of China grant the right of self-determination, that is, the right to secede, to any province, region, municipality, locality, or section of the population. The People's Republic of China holds that the three principle s binding its different nationalities or ethnic groups together are equality, unity, and mutual assistance.

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In the Chinese Constitution as well as in practice, the supremacy of the central government and the National People's Congress, the legislative arm of the state, is not left in any doubt. The leadership and dominance of the Communist Party are exercised through the principle known as 'democratic centralism'. Within this system, the political answer found to the question of what space, identity, rights, opportunities and future the minority nationalities should have is regional autonomy. While qui te different from the arrangements made in a confederation or a full-fledged federation, which are characterised by a partition of legislative, executive and judicial powers and even of sovereignty, regional autonomy is China's creative answer to how eth nic minorities can be enabled to live and work freely, preserve their language, identity, culture, customs and religion, and prosper.

China, according to an official count, has 56 nationalities or ethnic groups. The Han nationality constitutes about 92 per cent of the 1.2 billion population of the People's Republic, and the 55 other minority nationalities together make up just over 8 p er cent. But the minority nationalities inhabit the lion's share of the territory of China, something between 50 and 60 per cent The regions in which they live are, in general, vast and sparsely populated; often mountainous, pastoral, forested, and locat ed on high plateaus; well-endowed with mineral resources and a range of valuable products; strategically important as border regions; and, in a modern sense, less developed than the rest of China.

Regional autonomy for minority nationalities or ethnic minorities is, in the words of an official publication, a basic policy adopted by the Chinese government in line with the actual conditions of China, and also an important part of the political sy stem of China. This means that under the unified leadership of the state, regional autonomy is practised in areas where people of ethnic minorities live in concentrated communities. In these areas, organs of self-government are established for the exercise of autonomy and to enable ethnic minorities to become masters of their own areas and manage the internal affairs of their own regions. Regional autonomy in China encompasses autonomous regions, autonomous prefectures, and autonomous counties. Such autonomy for minority nationalities is provided for and guaranteed by the Constitution itself and elaborated on in The Law of the People's Republic of China on Ethnic Regional Autonomy, promulgated in 1984. It is estimated that 70 per cent of the more than 100 million people belonging to ethnic nationalities in China are under the regional autonomy system.

It is no secret that the Communist Party of China as well as the Chinese state are intolerant of any separatist agenda, activity and politics, but so are the dominant political parties and governments of other countries, including the neighbouring Indian Union and the far-away United States of America. If the Dalai Lama were not an extremist, not a separatist, and not a revanchist in his political agenda, but a genuine upholder of the 'middle path', he would have no problem working within Tibet's region al autonomy framework and space. But time does not appear to be on the side of Tibet's former 'god-king'.

The implications of the findings of this reality check for India's policy on Tibet and for the future of Sino-Indian relations are clear. India must resolve in its own mind and policy the costly ambivalence of accepting Tibet as a part of China, acceptin g the Chinese state's sovereignty over Tibet, but behaving as though Tibet were some kind of buffer region, if not country, and laying equal emphasis on autonomy and sovereignty in all official pronouncements, as though this somehow qualifies the recogni tion of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. With respect to the Dalai Lama and the political community among the more than 120,000 Tibetan refugees in India also, the policy of successive Indian governments, including the present BJP-led government, has been seriously flawed. The Dalai Lama and his followers run a 'Tibetan government in exile' in Dharmasala, put out a considerable amount of propaganda material, and maintain links with some Indian political parties and leaders such as George Fernandes, the p resent Defence Minister of India. This militates against the formal official stance that while India has given asylum to 'His Holiness' as a religious leader, it will not allow him and his followers to engage in 'political activities' of any kind from In dian soil. Under the circumstances, the Chinese government has reacted with notable, perhaps studied, moderation to the Indian government's inability or unwillingness to put an end to the Dalai Lama's virulently anti-Chinese, separatist, and revanchist p olitical activities in India. The larger political implications for India of countenancing separatist activities directed against the sovereignty and unity of a neighbouring country, in this case a big neighbour, are quite disturbing. The wise future cou rse for India's policy on China's Tibet will be to rein in the Dalai Lamal the Dharmasala-based 'government of Tibet in exile' from Indian soil, and do its best to promote the return of the Dalai Lamay of his followers, and thousands of Tibeta n refugees to their homeland on a voluntary, but principled basis - by abandoning the pipedream of separating Tibet from China.