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Ongoing Conflict Between China and Tibet: Which Side Is Just ?

Diamond Yao By Diamond Yao Published on June 15, 2016

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 In 1950, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army of 40 000 people crossed into Tibetan territory and quickly routed the Tibetan army. China claims that they invaded Tibet because they were liberating it from a brutal social system of oppression. So on October 7, 1950, Chinese troops crossed the Drichu River and caught the Tibetans by surprise. Their tactics depended on swift encirclement of the enemy, knowing that it had home soil advantage, and of overwhelming it with large numbers and speed. While the small Tibetan army was initially able to repel the Chinese attack, on October 10 it received reports that the Chinese were rapidly advancing towards Kungo Dzong, an important civil and military centre in Markham. Utterly bewildered and seeing no other alternative, the Tibetan army surrendered in order to avoid further useless bloodshed. Chamdo was evacuated and, inside the Drukha Monastery, the Chinese filmed Ngawang Jigme Ngabo, a Tibetan government representative, signing the surrender document. From then on, Tibet would officially be a part of China. By launching this disproportionate large-scale invasion, the PLA attacked without warning while there were peaceful negotiations in progress between Tibet and China to resolve already serious tensions between both parties. In fact, before the invasion, the Chinese government declared Tibet to be a part of China, which pressured the Tibetan government to scramble for help. Shakapba, the Tibetan finance minister and a negotiator with China, had to appeal to India and to the United Nations while many less-than-ideal hasty compromises had to be reached in a very short amount of time. This paper will argue that the Chinese invasion of Tibet was unjust according to just war theory. Applying just war theory to the situation of China and Tibet is an important step into resolving the many still unresolved issues that both sides have been experiencing for decades.

According to just war theory, the supreme crime of aggression is the crime against sovereignty in jus ad bellum. Therefore, to determine the justness of the Chinese invasion, it is of utmost importance to clarify the statehood status of Tibet at that time. At first glance, Tibet was not technically a state, which was defined as a political entity which possesses its own government and its own seat in the UN (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Tibet had its own government, the Kashag (Schrei no pages) but no seat in the UN (Goldstein 70). Most scholars, such as Barry Sautman, June Teufel Dreyer, Gregory Clarke and A. Tom Grunfeld, share the view that Tibet was not a state at the time of the invasion. Furthermore, neither the UN (Goldstein 70) nor the Chinese government (Tibet — Its Ownership And Human Rights Situation) recognized Tibet as a state.

However, in this case, this literal application of the definition of statehood was not very helpful because it was a Western concept that Tibet, an Eastern society, did not possess. Instead, it was first governed by what was called Oriental diplomacy (Wang 83) from 1727 to 1911, a political structure where the Chinese would rule in name only with the disdain of the Tibetans, an arrangement that was nevertheless tolerated by both parties as long as one didn’t cause the other trouble (Wang 83). In 1727, the Chinese Qing dynasty established a government there, the office of the Residential Commissioner, also known as the amban, during a time of great instability in Tibet (they were being invaded by the Gurkhas and sought support from the Qing to repel the intruders) (Shakya paper 50). This staff, which spoke no Tibetan and had to rely on interpreters, carried out all administrative tasks and governed all of Tibet by name only (Wang 80). In fact, they mainly served a connective purpose between the Qing authorities and the local rulers, and weren’t recognized by the Tibetan peasants, who would only submit for Tibetan masters (Wang 80). Despite the issuing of an imperial decree in 1793 to rectify that situation, the Twenty-Nine Articles on the Reconstruction of Tibetan Domestic Affairs which consolidated the Commissioner’s authority over administrative, military, and religious appointments, foreign affairs, finance, taxation and the criminal justice system (powers that exceeded that which governors in other Chinese provinces possessed), they were never taken seriously by Tibetan officials (Wang 80). Oriental diplomacy ended with the expulsion of the Residential Commissioner and his entourage in 1912 (Wang 81). From then on, Tibet would enjoy complete de facto independence in its external and internal affairs for the first time in centuries and modernize greatly (Wang 81-82). Tibet was a de facto independent state until the eve of the Chinese Communist invasion in October 1950 (Shakya book 52). All of those circumstances therefore make the application of the Western concept of state difficult on Tibet.

Still, even if it was not technically a state, Tibet is inarguably a separate nation from China, which automatically grants it the right for self-determination. A nation, according to Brian Orend, is “a group which thinks of itself as “a people,” usually because they share many things in common, such as ethnicity language, culture historical experience, a set of ideals and values, habitat, cuisine, fashion and so on.” (Orend no page). The fact that the distinct Tibetan nation did not possess a state hindered the ability of its nation to flourish. Divided into three regions - Amdo, Kham and Ü-Tsang - Tibet is populated with nomads organized in tribes, farmers organized in a chiefly structure and people who belonged to the clergy - social realities that were very different from the Chinese (Wang 86). Moreover, Tibet was overwhelmingly Buddhist, and this religion dominated every aspect of life in Tibet; even important political matters were decided by religious state oracles, which made it culturally separate from China (Goldstein 65). Furthermore, Tibet had its own separate language with an alphabet and a vocabulary that was distinct from Chinese (Schrei no pages). Tsering Shakya, a Tibetan scholar, even goes as far as saying that the notion of Tibet as an integral part of China was a recent invention by the Communist Party (Shakya paper 60). So, even if Tibet was not technically a state in its own right, because of its important cultural differences with China, it could be unequivocally considered a nation with a right for self-determination.

This right made the Chinese invasion a double-edged matter. On the one hand, the Chinese position that claimed that it had liberated Tibet would appear to have helped the Tibetans in their quest for self-determination. According to just war theory, this would have been a perfectly just cause; Brian Orend includes “the protection of innocents from brutal, aggressive regimes” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). In fact, before the invasion, the Tibetans had been living under a corrupt and brutal feudal regime (Parenti 1). Religious conflict was extremely common (Parenti 2). Young boys were taken away from their peasant families and brought into monasteries to serve the rest of their lives as submissive monks, domestics, dance performers or soldiers and were often sexually mistreated (Parenti 4). An intricate feudal system ensured that a part of the population, serfs, was bound for a lifetime of work under a lord or a lama in conditions that were reminiscent of slavery (Parenti 5). However, unlike actual slavery, the serfs were not considered a piece of property that had to be cared for by their overlords and had to support themselves (Parenti 5). They had to have the consent of their masters and pay a tax to marry and could be separated from their families at a moment’s notice if they were needed at a distant location (Parenti 5). Serfs were taxed for everything - birth of each child, death of each family member, planting trees, keeping animals, participating in religious festivals, being sent or released from prison, traveling to another village, being unemployed (Parenti 6). Their oppression was further exacerbated by the fact that, when they could not pay all of their taxes, they had to turn to monasteries who lent them money at an usurious 20 to 50 percent interest rate (Parenti 6). Some debts were passed down several generations and those who could not pay them back risked being cast into slavery (Parenti 6). Many serfs resisted this inhumane treatment and were punished by torture and mutilation, which included eye gouging, tongue pulling, hamstringing and amputation (Parenti 6). In fact, after the Chinese invasion, many Tibetans celebrated their newly found freedom (Parenti 15). This evidence seems to effectively point out that the Chinese invasion gave the Tibetan people the self-determination that their own brutal feudal regime deprived them of. In fact, China even promised after the invasion that Tibet would be granted regional autonomy and, as mentioned earlier, drafted a seventeen-point agreement agreed upon by both parties that stated clearly that all matters of reform would be settled completely in accordance with the wishes of Tibetan people, through consultation with them and consultation with Tibet leadership (Shakya book 46). 
 However, there is overwhelming evidence that the implementation of numerous reforms that were intended to improve the quality of life of Tibetans were enforced against the will of the Tibetan people and with disregard to the seventeen-point agreement. As mentioned earlier, while many formerly oppressed peasants welcomed the abolition of the brutal feudal labour service, they were adamantly against the Chinese Communist Party’s anti-religious policies (Shakya paper 56). Other reforms aroused open rebellions among the Tibetan population. For instance, a nationwide collectivization was launched by the Chinese in the regions of Kham and Chamdo approximately a few years after the invasion (Wang 86). This campaign involved land redistribution, the creation of local CCP units, class-struggle organization, the battle against elites, the creation of peasant unions (Wang 87) and tentative measures to settle the nomads (Shakya book 139). Tsering Shakya’s book The Dragon in the Land of the Snows, highly praised by both the Tibetan and the Chinese sides for its unbiased portrayal of the situation, details how those reforms were immediately met with uprisings and attacks on PLA cadres, with people in surrounding villages refusing to cooperate and insisting that land reform was necessary (Shakya book 139). By late 1955, serious fighting had erupted between Chinese and Tibetan factions (Shakya book 139). Eventually, it progressed to a nationwide Tibetan revolt against the Chinese that became known as the Kanding Rebellion (Shakya book 139). Chinese cadres were killed by villagers when they came to enforce collectivization (Shakya book 139), the violence prompting many thousands of civilian villagers to seek refuge in the Changtreng Sampling (Shakya book 140). The Chinese responded to the rebellion with a completely disproportionate show of force (Shakya book 140). First, they laid siege to the monastery and dropped leaflets from planes that urged the monks and the people to surrender, but seeing that such measures did not yield results, called in a single plane that launched mortar attacks on the monastery full of defenceless refugees and monks (Shakya book 141). Many innocent civilians died while survivors were forced to surrender and flee westward (Shakya book 141). Obviously, such behaviour from the Chinese side flagrantly flouted the terms outlined in the seventeen-point agreement and cannot be considered in the best interest of Tibetan self-determination. In fact, the supposedly freeing reforms were perceived by the Tibetan people as a direct attack on their value system and Buddhist-based world view (Shakya book 143), who had made multiple unsuccessful appeals to the Communists to stop the reforms (Shakya book 144). This sort of behaviour is therefore clearly not indicative of a liberation, as the Chinese have claimed, but rather a violation of the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination. 
 This conclusion begs the question: if China’s intention in invading Tibet was not to liberate it from a brutal feudal regime, what was it ? The answer to that question was far less humanitarian than what the Chinese claim. China’s interest in the region was mainly strategic, since the high Himalaya mountains serve as a buffer to India, Nepal and Bangladesh and provide it with a military advantage over those countries (Shakya paper 60). Furthermore, the Tibetan plateau is the source of the fresh water rivers Yellow and Yangtze that roughly 520 millions of Chinese depended on (Circle of Blue). Those reasons cannot in any way qualify as a just cause for an invasion and therefore made the Chinese side unequivocally unjust (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

According to just war theory, the Chinese invasion of Tibet was unjust. Although it may appear at first glance that the Chinese may have had a just cause to go to war by liberating the Tibetan people from their brutal overlords and giving them the right for self-determination, it is revealed upon closer examination that those Chinese reforms were met with strong resistance and were enforced in a disproportionately unjust way. In fact, the Chinese intention for invading Tibet was actually depressingly strategic and not just. If reconciliation is ever to be achieved between the two parties in this still ongoing conflict, the Chinese ought to listen and act accordingly to the plight for self-determination of the Tibetan people.

Works Cited

China. Information Office of the State Council of The People's Republic of China. Origins of So- Called 'Tibetan Independence’. Beijing: GPO, 1992. Web.

Clark, Gregory. In fear of China. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1969. Print.

Dreyer, June Teufel and Barry Sautman. Contemporary Tibet: Politics, Development, and Society in a Disputed Region. New York: M.E.Sharpe, 2006. Print.

Goldstein, Melvyn. “After the Fall of Chamdo” The Tibet Journal 16.1 (1991): 58-95. JSTOR. Web. 3 April 2016

Grunfeld, A. Tom. The Making of Modern Tibet. Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Orend, Brian. “War” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. n.p., 2008. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.

Parenti, Michael. “The Tibet Myth” Information Clearing House. n.p., 2007. Web. 23 Feb. 2016.

Pope, C.T. and Keith Schneider. “China, Tibet and the Strategic Power of Water” Circle of Blue. n. p., 2008. Web. 21 April 2016.

Shakya, Tsering. “Blood in the Snows” New Left Review 15 (2002): n. pag. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

Shakya, Tsering. The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947. London: Penguin Books, 2000. Print.


Wang, Lixiong. “Reflections on Tibet” New Left Review 14 (2002): n. page. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

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