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Special> China's Tibet: Facts & Figures> Beijing Review Archives
UPDATED: May 7, 2008 NO. 43, 1987
History Says Tibet Is Part of China
By Israel Epstein

The author is editor-in-chief of China Reconstructs, a comprehensive monthly magazine published in Beijing, China. The article is, in the main, excerpted from his book. Tibet Transformed (Chapter 1: "Reincarnation"), published by New World Press

Some people still raise the question, "Is Tibet, after all, a part of China?" History says it is. Tibetan separatists in self-exile, and their foreign backers, deny it.

What does history have to say?

Documented facts show that the process of Han-Tibetan interlocking and finally unification in one sovereign state began very long ago, and administrative union dates from long before Scotland came into the British state, and centuries before the United States,or modern Italy or Germany appeared on the world scene. Was this "annexation by the Chinese Communists" as some fantastic charges made abroad have it? Hardly.

In the year 641 A.D., at the dawn of Tibet's reliably recorded history, King Songtsan Gambo, who first welded its disparate tribes into a monarchy based on the slave system, wedded the Tang Dynasty Princess Wencheng and accepted titles from the Tang emperor of China. In 710, one of his successors, King Tride Tsugten, married another Tang princess, Jincheng.

In 823 a famous pact was concluded proclaiming "Unity between Uncle and Nephew," its terms for the reigning Tang Dynasty Emperor Mu Zong and the Tibetan King Ralpachen. The stone monument then erected, carved with the text, still stands before the Jokhang temple in Lhasa. In intervening centuries, even at times of strain between the nationalities, it has not been thrown down or defaced but has been treated with affection and respect by the Tibetans. The memory of the two princesses, Wencheng in particular, has all along been cherished in their folk tradition. This cannot just be a matter of the personal merits of those feudal ladies. It is explicable only by the circumstance that these royal marriages, which did not occur in a vacuum, added a desired political link to the already popular contact, economic and cultural, between the Tibetan people and China's majority, the Hans. Warmly remembered too are the accompanying transfers of knowledge and techniques in agriculture, handicrafts, building, medicine and other fields which benefited the Tibetan nationality.

From the 9th century on, during Tibet's long and complex transition from the slave to the feudal system, the extensive local kingdom of the Songtsan Gambo ruling house broke up into kaleidoscopic fragments. Almost concurrently, China as a whole fell into disunity following the collapse of the Tang empire. The next dynasty, the Song (860-1279),conferred posts and titles on various feudal lords and clerics in Tibet even though there was no longer an overall centre of authority there,

In the 13th century, under the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty, the then already multinational realm of China was re-unified, with Tibet organically included. Kublai Khan, the noted Yuan emperor, appointed Phagspa, a leading Tibetan lama of the Sakya Sect, as regional ruler under the court of Beijing. A single system of administrative divisions, military garrisons and currency (including paper money) prevailed throughout China, including Tibet, where Yuan banknotes are still being found.

The following Ming Dynasty, which ruled China from 1368 to 1644, favoured the Kargyu (White) Lamaist Sect, to whose high clerics it gave political appointments. It is untrue that ties with the rest of China were severed under the Ming. The historically false argument was that Tibet was linked only with the minority nationality dynasties that ruled all China (the Mongol and Manchu)but not with China's majority nationality. This became fashionable at particular times and places in the United States and elsewhere--when the disintegration of multinational China was pursued by the foreign power concerned in its own interest. This allegation does not conform with the facts. In the Ming period the appointments of Tibetan officials from China's capital continued. Tribute missions (particularly from the lamaseries) multiplied. Economic exchanges grew. Of all this one sees many proofs in museums and archives in Beijing and Lhasa. In Tibet the Kargyu local rulers, who rose with the Ming, also fell with the Ming. But the links did not break.

The Qing or Manchu Dynasty (1644-1911) upheld another lamaist group, the Gelugpa, or Yellow Sect. It was then that the system of local rule by this sect's pontiff, the Dalai Lama, and later of his lay-clerical administration, the kasbag, was affirmed and elaborated by instructions from Beijing--along lines it retained right up to 1959. From the 18th century, in particular, the identity and functions of both the Dalai Lama and kasbag members were subject to detailed regulation by China's central government, largely through the control by its high commissioners (ambans)resident in Lhasa.

When the first Chinese Republic was founded in 1911, its multinational character was stressed in the new flag of five stripes, one standing for the Tibetan nationality. In the subsequent years, China became unprecedentedly weak, disunited and penetrated by various imperialisms. Internally, throughout her territory, imperialist-backed warlords, of whom Chiang Kai-shek was historically the last, ran riot. And it was then that the British imperialist rulers in India, seizing their advantage, became most vigorous in their promotion of separatism in Tibet. In fact Britain, in 1912, officially threatened to refuse to recognize the new Chinese Republic at all unless Tibet was excluded from its administration, military system and parliament. Two years later, at the time of the Simla "agreement" of 1914, which China neither signed nor ratified, a British-manipulated Tibetan "representative" put his name to the "McMahon Line", which placed some 90,000 square kilometres of southeastern Tibet within Britian's empire in India.

The Simla affair was disavowed by the local authorities in Lhasa as well as denounced by the central government in Beijing. It is therefore farcical to invoke it as a precedent for Tibetan "independence."

It should be noted also that Simla and the McMahon Line, those heirlooms of colonial domination over India, much later became the cause of border conflicts between India and New China, quite unwarranted by the interests of either the Indian or the Chinese people and therefore certain to be temporary.

In external affairs, however, even the foreign powers most active at various times in egging on secessionism in Tibet never went so far as to "recognize" it diplomatically. On the contrary, they felt compelled to reaffirm, sometimes straightforwardly and sometimes with verbal curlicues, that Tibet was part of Chinese territory, for to do otherwise would be too flagrant a flouting of accepted international norms based on centuries of historical fact.

Here are examples of such affirmations from three governments in three different periods:

In 1903, the British Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, who was then preparing the invasion of Tibet known as the Young husband Expedition, tried to justify it by calling Tibet's link with China a "constitutional fiction." Curzon was rebuked for this by his superiors in London who declared that Tibet must be regarded "as a province of China."

In the following year, the US State Department instructed its ambassador in London, Joseph Choate, to remind the British government there that the latter itself "had three times (in 1879,1886, and 1890) recognized Chinese sovereignty by negotiating with the Chinese government on questions regarding Tibet" and to stress that Washington regarded China as sovereign in the region.

Four decades later, in 1943,British diplomacy again tried to dilute the status of Tibet as part of China, by terming the link merely one of "formal suzerainty." The US State Department promptly told the British ambassador in Washington:

"For its part, the Government of the United States has borne in mind that the Chinese government has long claimed suzerainty over Tibet and that the Chinese constitution lists Tibet among areas constituting the territory of China. This government has at no time raised a question regarding either of these claims."

Finally, to go forward into the post-World War II period, Prime Minister Nehru of India declared in the Lower House of the Parliament on May 15, 1954:

"I am not aware that at any time during the last few hundred years, Chinese sovereignty, or if you like suzerainty, was challenged by any outside country."

To repeat, all these quotations (in which I have italicized key words and phrases) are from governments which have themselves dabbled in detaching Tibet from China as shown by British penetration in the 19th and 20th centuries, American CIA doings after World War II, and the support of some Indian quarters, at various times, for Tibetan secessionists.

To affirm the historic unity of multinational China, of course, is not to deny that history has witnessed clashes between her nationalities, acts of national oppression and discrimination, and periods of disruption. All existed in the past.

In early times, they were the results of the feudal system with its divisive urges. A new cause was added in the last century by the drives of foreign powers for the partition of China, with emphasis on her minority-inhabited borderlands specially marked for acquisition.

However, over the long stretch, every period of disunity has turned out to be temporary. Many centuries have proved unity to be the main trend. How to explain the persistent cohesiveness of China's nationalities over the ages if not by the fact that their basic interests have drawn them together and their history has been made in common? Is there a better explanation? By contrast, where today are the realms of ancient Rome, or Charlemagne, or the Ottomans and Hapsburgs, or of Napoleon? For the solidarity of China's constituent peoples today, there is a valid base forged not by pretensions but by life.

The revolution in China, including Tibet, has swept away the material and social base of the old estrangements and injustices. Her new social and political system accords with and promotes the common striving of the people of all her nationalities for unity and progress. Discrimination is prohibited by law. True, it cannot yet be said that remnants of old mutual prejudice whether of the majority against the minorities or vice versa have been swept from every mind. But such remnants are recessive, diminishing and contrary to general feeling.

(This article appears on page 19, No. 43, 1987)

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