Debate over the Tibet Debate

A debate over China’s historical sovereignty over Tibet traditionally asks the question, “Was Tibet historically part of China?” It’s hard to deny that the answer to that question is in many ways a yes.

Officially, Chinese influence over Tibet started from the 13th century onward. In reality, Tibet was under Chinese sway during the Yuan and Qing Dynasties, but was in essence independent during the Ming Dynasty. The Tibet-China dynamic was not quite that of a multinational state. Tibet was ruled more as a feudal possession rather than a real part of the Chinese empire.

Clearly it seems that a sort of vassal state relationship grew during various parts of history. This is similar to China’s relationship with Vietnam and Korea over various periods of time: China exerted a certain political force over Tibet, but it never really became a core part of the empire and retained a cultural identity distinct from China’s. In fact, shortly after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, all Chinese were expelled from Lhasa by the local Tibetan government. That’s hardly the type of treatment you’d give people you consider as your countrymen.

The point of all this is not so much to stake out a position on either side of the issue but to point out the focus of the debate. The main topic of debate is whether Tibet was historically part of China. For example, a recent article from Xinhua details the restoration of a pavilion that was used to greet envoys from the Chinese imperial court, the existence of which supposedly proves Chinese sovereignty in Tibet. But this focus is wrong.

The question that all intellectually honest people should be asking is does a subservient historical relationship justify modern-day policy. The Yuan and Qing empires that held sway over Tibet, in addition to themselves being non-Chinese, were just that – empires. Just as Britain gave up India, the Dutch gave up Indonesia and France was forced to leave Vietnam, one would think that China would have given up Tibet when world opinion decided that empires are not acceptable political structures. This is doubly so because the Chinese used to be pretty hip to anti-imperialist sentiments.

This author doesn’t support Tibetan independence any more than he supports Cherokee independence. But the focus of the debate is and always has been in the wrong place. If honest individuals want to come to a real conclusion, they must look at the relevant questions and not red herrings thrown to the public.

0 thoughts on “Debate over the Tibet Debate”

  1. Agreed. Whether Tibet was or was not historically a “part of China” is completely irrelevant, and I am equally baffled as to why it comes up so much in discussions of the topic.

    (Also, sorry for knocking your piece out of the top spot so quickly again. It’s not intentional, I didn’t actually see you’d written something till after I’d started writing mine, but it seemed time-sensitive.)

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  2. I agree that it doesn’t really matter — an argument from anti-imperialism works regardless of when the imperialism began. Chinese historiography, of course, has the goal of demonstrating that anti-imperialism is not applicable, but I don’t think that argument really works.

    Also, an analogy between Tibet and the Cherokees falls apart because the Cherokees no longer reside in a region where they predominate, and they haven’t for a long time. There’s no way they could become independent without mass expulsions of another population. On the other hand, Tibetans are still the majority in a huge area of land — they’d be better off, actually, if it was a smaller area, because insubordination in that much landmass is very threatening to Beijing. (Contrary to what might hear from the exile government, Tibetans are in no danger of losing their majority status in most of that land any time soon — at least, they weren’t before the rail line was built. That will probably accelerate the process of making Tibetans a minority in Lhasa and maybe in Shigatse, but I suppose it won’t have an enormous effect on the region’s demographics as a whole).

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