Propaganda and Tibet

The idea for this article was born in a bar in the city of Xi’an, far away from the stuffy Beijing auditorium where I spent the month of May attending lectures on Chinese law.


A couple of friends and I were having a pint at the bar of our hostel – which just happened to be a favorite of both locals and expats- when a young-enough looking man, a man we’ll call Sebastian, walked to us and introduced himself. Sebastian was from the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu and had lived in England and the United States. He was in Xi’an to study medicine and was married to an English-teacher. Most of all, Sebastian was extremely friendly, and we were only too eager to meet people in our foray into central China.

Somewhere in between a game of dice or pool (or was it foosball?), the topic of conversation veered political. Somewhat to my surprise, Sebastian began talking about the pro-Tibet propaganda of the Western media. Tibet, he said, had always been part of China. It stood to reason that the Chinese would be upset with Tibetan calls for independence and the West’s support for Tibetan sovereignty

While I knew little about the specifics of the Tibetan issue, his comments did strike me for their dissonance with the typical pro-Tibet media portrayal in the West. His account made me question the little I knew, and drove me to want to find out more. I was, of course, deeply sceptical of his account of the situation.  I’d seen firsthand in Beijing how tight-lipped professors were concerning the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989 and the country’s human rights situation more generally. In short, I had a feeling our new friend had been served a healthy plate of propaganda himself, Chinese-style. In the lines that follow, I unpack his comments by contrasting the official Chinese narrative of the Tibetan issue with western- but most importantly, independent – accounts of the situation.

Tibet’s status in China- An overview

The argument that Tibet has always been part of China is at the center of the Chinese government’s official narrative on the Tibetan issue. The People’s Daily, an official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, outlined China’s views on the issue in April 2008 : “for more than 700 years, the central government of China has continuously exercised sovereignty over Tibet, and Tibet has never been an independent state. No government of any country in the world has ever recognised Tibet as an independent state” . Such an unambiguous claim is inaccurate. It is true that no government has ever recognized Tibet as an independent state . Yet prior to 1951, the territory’s status as an integral part of China was, at the very least, questionable. This could just be Chinese propaganda and Tibet being the focus of such strong claims sets the stage very differently inside China.

For instance, whereas imperial administrators of the Qing dynasty  were stationed in Tibet from  1728 to 1912, governing the territory as a sort of protectorate,  authority over  Tibet’s internal affairs remained in the hands of the Dalai Lama and the monasteries . And when, in 1913, China sunk into civil war, Tibet declared itself independent and retained its de facto independence until 1951.

Kurt Groetsch/Flickr

Kurt Groetsch/Flickr

Most interesting is to see how China’s rationale for wanting Tibet went from being strategically informed  to nationalistic in nature. Propaganda and Tibet have almost always walked hand in hand. During the Qing dynasty, Tibet was basically viewed as a buffer-zone important for regional stability.  The paradigm shift occurred as nationalism and anti-imperialism became central narratives of the modern Chinese State. The Nationalists, and later the Communists who defeated them in a civil war,  both made it their leitmotif to end the string of humiliations the country had suffered at the hands of foreign powers.  It is in this context that Tibet, once valued essentially as a buffer-state, acquired a particular, nationalistic importance.

The region had been source of setbacks and humiliations for 20th century China.  The British had invaded it in 1903 in an effort to settle a border dispute and establish diplomatic relations with the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. Besides resulting in the death of over 4,000 people, the intervention had made China deeply worried about its western frontier. The Manchu dynasty would seek to allay these worries seven years later by forcefully turning the protectorate into a province. But Tibetans  took advantage of the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1913 to drive out their Chinese overlords.

In 1950, fresh off the Communist’s Party’s victory over the Nationalists and the establishment the People’s Republic of China, the People’s Liberation Army was sent to Tibet with the aim of “liberating” the territory from imperialist influences.  What followed was an agreement between the Chinese state and Tibet whereby the latter relinquished control of its external affairs to Bejing while nominally retaining control over cultural and religious matters. Tibetans claim their government was forced to sign the 1951 agreement from which it withdrew a few days later. This withdrawal was of course never recognized by Beijing, which has exercised control over the territory ever since. . Because Tibetans constitute an ethnic minority within the country, Tibet was given the title of national autonomous region of China in 1965, a status also given to the regions of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Guangxi and Ningxia.

This cursory look at modern China-Tibet relations should be enough to seriously question if not completely dispel the Chinese government’s claim that Tibet has “always” been part of China.  In any case, the very fact that this claim is used as an argument by the Chinese should be critically examined independently of if its merits. That it to say, even if one accepts that Tibet has always been part of China, one need not accept the conclusion that it must as a result passively accept its situation and abandon any hope of becoming an independent state. To do so is to deny any importance to the principle of self-determination. As a resident of Quebec, a Canadian province that has unambiguously been part of Canada since its very inception and which has twice held referenda on its future within the country, such an argument holds very little weight indeed.

Self-determination : What for ?

For China’s Han ethnic majority, however, the idea that Tibet would even want to separate is simply baffling. They will point to the desolate living conditions seen in Tibet pre-1951, when life expectancy was thirty-six years,  illiteracy reached 95%, and  a similar percentage of the population was mired in hereditary serfdom.  Regarding pre 1951 Tibet, the Chinese felt, and still do, the equivalent of the white man’s burden, a moral obligation to “liberate” Tibetans from their backwardness.

That sense of obligation can be appreciated by the massive amount of money Beijing has invested in the region over the past sixty-plus years. Certainly, one thing China cannot be accused of in its approach towards Tibet is negligence. Since 1952, the central government has invested more than 500 billion Yuan (roughly 80 billion dollars) to the region, a figure that accounts for 95% of Tibet’s total public expenditure during that time . Between 1997 and 2007, Tibet’s GDP increased fourfold, almost entirely as a result of central government investments in infrastructure and construction that made Tibet’s economic growth rate surpass the national average. Most importantly, this macroeconomic success was accompanied by double-digit growth in rural and urban household incomes .

Such figures make it easy for the government and state-controlled media to paint a pretty picture of the situation in Tibet, while dismissing Tibetan calls for independence as ingratitude. The reality is of course far more complicated. To be sure, China can be credited for providing the region with much of its basic infrastructure, from roads to hospitals to public schools. More recent  investments feature ambitious railways projects, such as a line connecting the Tibetan capital of Lhasa with the northern city of Goldmud in Qinghai province. Completed in 2006 (and extended two years later to Tibet’s second city, Shigatse), the railway has been a boon to regional tourism. The problem is that Tibetan themselves have benefited little from these and other massive investments from Beijing.

For one, in addition to construction, state money has largely flowed towards the tertiary sector, notably tourism and administration. Coupled with looser domestic immigration laws, such investments have attracted a great number of economic migrants, mostly Han Chinese. Tibetans, however,  traditionally subsist on herding and agriculture. Their skillset and more limited knowledge of Mandarin means they often get out-competed by migrants in the booming urban economy. That the population of Lhasa today counts more non-Tibetans than Tibetans testifies to this phenomenon.  And why this matters is because of the significant economic disparity between urban and rural areas in Tibet. According to official Chinese statistics, urban households incomes within the Tibetan autonomous region (TAR) are about five times as high as their rural equivalents. Such inequality helped fuel the 2008 Tibetan riots which brought renewed international attention to China’s handling of Tibet, just as the former got set to host the Olympics Games.

Doubling Down

 Yet the protests that began in 2008 were not primarily about economic disaffection. That factor did drive mainly unemployed rural Tibetans to join the protests and use violence against economic migrants and their property – something the state-media was all too happy to focus on. However, the unrest of March 2008 all began when Tibetan Monks took to the streets to commemorate the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule and the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile across the Indian border  The State’s response to the protests was brutal : security forces employed tear gas and live ammunition against protesters, killing some in the process ; others were detained without due process and, in some cases, even tortured. The initially peaceful protests quickly escalated into riots.

In the decade since the events of 2008, the Chinese government has adopted a heavy-handed approach towards Tibet. In addition to establishing checkpoints and increasing security personnel in the autonomous region, the state has implemented a surveillance system officially known as the “grid system of social management”. This system enables real-time monitoring of urban areas divided into grids based on intelligence gathered by “community workers.” Effectively, these workers roam the streets of their assigned grid and upload camera footage of any suspicious activity via their smartphones to  office screens tightly monitored by government officials.  The effect of such surveillance is to make the eruption of any kind of organised protest virtually impossible.

 If the right to free assembly is so constrained, the same obviously goes for the right to free speech and expression.  In 2016, Tibetan writers Shokjang and Lomik were put to jail for “engaging in separatist activities”, while the  journalists Lu Konchok Gyatso and Tashi Wangchu remained in custody for speaking out about the loss of Tibetan language teaching .To clamp down on religious expression, the government has also implemented a program of evictions and demolitions targeting the Larung Gar monastic complex, site of the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist community. The community will see its population of 10,000 be cut by half by the end of 2017 (Ibid).

Amid such restrictive conditions, approximately 150 Tibetans have lit themselves on fire to protest against China’s Tibet policy since 2009. The fact that so many have resorted to such extremity is a perverse consequence of Beijing’s focus on stability at any cost.  Since it can be done in an instant and is basically impossible to stop, self-immolation circumvents the obstacles to collective action all the while representing the ultimate symbol of resistance

And yet its effect as such is weak at best, at least in China. Among the Chinese, there is simply little patience for such desperate acts of protest.  The common perception of the Tibetan is that of the simple and vulnerable native,  who in in blind faith towards the divisive and manipulative Dalai Lama, fails to appreciate all the benefits that accrue from being part of China. This perception is fed by state propaganda accusing the “dalai clique” of orchestrating these incidents by manipulating mentally unstable individuals from across the Indian border.

Of course, keeping a people’s spiritual leader in exile and referring to the said leader as manipulative, criminal and separatist is unlikely to elicit much in the way of a sense of belonging from that people (never mind the inaccuracy of calling the Dalai Lama a separatist, since his official position is not in favor of independence but rather of greater autonomy for Tibet within China). Still, Beijing persists in its belief that the right approach concerning Tibet consists of a mixture of economic modernization and political and cultural repression. By failing to recognize the unequal gains of economic development and by doubling down on repression, the government is obstinately refusing to appreciate the roots of Tibetans’ hostility towards it, and making it worse. Official propaganda may convince many of the State’s non-Tibetan subjects to the contrary, but it won’t make the problem go away.

James-Patrick Cannon

James-Patrick Cannon

Junior Editor at InPRA
James-Patrick Cannon is a Bachelor of Laws studentat the Université de Montréal.
Hecompleted a Bachelor in Political Science and International Development at McGill University in 2014, and subsequently interned in the fields of education and human rights.

These internships contributed to his growing interest in South American politics. More broadly, his areas of interests includethe rule of law, democratization, and foreign affairs.

He is excited to join InPRA and gain a first experience in research and writing for a publication.
James-Patrick Cannon

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