Tibet is most well known for being the home to the vast plateaued landscape and Tibetan Buddhism, bringing us visions of picturesque monasteries and towering snow-capped peaks. However, the question of the political autonomy (ironically, the Communist party classifies it as an autonomous region) of the region has been fraught with historical claims from both sides of the divide and still is debated over today. This division, besides suppressing Tibet’s autonomous setup, has led to claims of serious human rights abuses since its forceful incorporation into the People’s Republic of China(PRC) in 1950. The development has been permeated by reports of cultural and religious oppression, mass incarcerations of the civilian populace and notable protests involving self-immolation. In the past ten years, 156 Tibetans have set themselves on fire as a form of protest towards Chinese occupation and inference. Reports of these abuses have only heightened over recent years, with China increasingly desperate to consolidate their territorial position from foreign inference. 

The current human rights crisis in Tibet has led Freedom House, a prominent US-based NGO to rate Tibet as the second least free region globally in 2020, scoring a 1/100 on their index. This inequity has resulted in the US Government to appoint a senior human rights official to act as a special coordinator for Tibetan issues. The US secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stated that this coordinator will act to “ lead US efforts to promote dialogue between the People’s Republic of China and the Dalai Lama or his representatives; protect the unique religious, cultural, and linguistic identity of Tibetans; and press for their human rights to be respected,”. The appointment of this coordinator is indicative of a broader US policy against Chinese cultural oppression, centred on concern over the continued repression of the Tibetan populace.

In understanding how Tibet reached this point of inequity, it is important to consider the history of Tibet and analyse the rationale of both sides of the divide as it pertains to Tibetan Sovereignty in the 21st century. 


Questions of sovereignty.

The central debate which has driven the division and subsequent subjection of Tibet by the PRC is whether Tibetans have the right to self-determination or as the PRC has continually claimed is an inseparable part of China and has been since ancient times. Both sides have used their perceived history of the region to argue about the core issues within the dispute, with Tibet centering their argument around independence and autonomy and China around suzerainty.


Tibetan claims:

To the proponents of Tibetan independence and autonomy, Tibet was a distinct nation and state-independent between the fall of the Mongol Empire in 1368 and subjugation by the Qing Dynasty in 1720 as well as between the fall of the Qing in 1912 and Incorporation into the PRC in 1951. Tsipön Shakabpa a prominent Tibetan writer has argued that the relationship between Tibet and the Mongol rulers of the Yuan (and also with the Manchu rulers of the Qing) was not one of subordination, but rather a relationship between a “priest” and a “patron”, throwing into doubt arguments of historical ownership of the region by China. Independence advocates have also pointed to the aftermath of the 1903-4 Anglo-Tibet war and Treaty of Lhasa of 1904 which led to the proclamation that “No such Power shall be permitted to intervene in Tibetan affairs”, granting Tibet its autonomous status over foreign inference. 

As a result, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) which represents the Tibetan government in exile sees the current rule of Tibet by the PRC as illegitimate. They argue that the PRC is solely motivated by the natural resources and strategic value of Tibet against regional rivals, which directly violates both Tibet’s historical status as an independent nation and the right of Tibetan people to self-determination. Proponents of Tibetan Independence have therefore stressed that since the invasion of PRC in 1950, there has been slow destruction of Tibetan culture, religion and language. This has been done through strict controls upon all expressions of culture and national identity with pictures of the Dalai Lama banned as well as strict controls placed on all expressions of culture and national identity.


Understanding the Dalai Lama’s position

The claim for a solely independent Tibet has waned in the last few decades, with the Dalai Lama, having gauged the intensity of domestic resistance and realising the practicalities of battling an emerging global hegemon,  altered his ideas on complete independence from China. In 1987, under a “Five-Point” Peace Plan he advocated for a “middle way” where Tibet would act like a republic within the PRC. The plan advocated for:

  1. Transformation of the whole of Tibet into a zone of peace;
  2. Abandonment of China’s population transfer policy which threatens the very existence of the Tibetans as a people;
  3. Respect for the Tibetan people’s fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms;
  4. Restoration and protection of Tibet’s natural environment and the abandonment of China’s use of Tibet for the production of nuclear weapons and dumping of nuclear waste;
  5. Commencement of earnest negotiations on the future status of Tibet and of relations between the Tibetan and Chinese peoples.

This shift sought coexistence based on equality and mutual cooperation rather than confrontation, providing a moderate position where Tibetans would be provided with protection and preservation of their culture, religion and national identity; and for the Chinese: the security and territorial integrity of the motherland; and for neighbours and other third parties: peaceful borders and international relations. However, despite this more moderate approach, these overtures have been continually rejected by China who asserts that Tibet is an inseparable part of the nation and has flourished under its stewardship. The CCP has instead attempted to take a stranglehold over not only the political but also the religious authority of Tibet in order to strengthen their legitimacy over the region. This is most notable in the controversy surrounding the succession of the 11th Pachen Lama(a position only second to the Dalia in importance to the Tibetan Buddist sect) Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. Following the mysterious death of his predecessor, the Dalia Lama recognised a six-year-old Gedhun in 1995, who three days later was abducted by CCP officials and has not been seen since. Tibetan monks were subsequently instructed to accept the legitimacy of Gyaincain Norbu, the government choice for 11th Panchen Lama which provided the Chinese administration control over one of the pillars of the Tibetan Buddhist system. This ultimately has curtailed any prospect of a “middle way” and resulted in the PRC to accelerate their subjection of the region ensuring that any chance of an earnest relationship between the Tibetan Government in exile and the PRC to be unlikely in the near future.


Chinese claims:

Chinese claims over the status of Tibet have evolved over the years. It is claimed that Tibet first became a part of China under the Yuan Dynasty in the thirteenth century. This argument has shifted over recent years to the more blanket statement made in 2009 in a white paper ( titled “Fifty Years of Democratic Reform in Tibet”) published by the Information Office of the State Council, that historically Tibet has been an inseparable part of China. This hardened position over Tibet’s status rejected any place to independent Mongol history in the region which Tibetan independence proponents point to as proof of their autonomy. The Tibeto-Mongol Treaty concluded in 1913, where Tibet and Mongolia declared formal independence from Qing China, has been dismissed within China, with publications casting the treaty as a rumour and or a tool for Russian penetration. This argument is supported by claims that Tibet in fact holds autonomy in the form of the Tibet Autonomous Region and is in fact not controlled by the Chinese government rather functions beside it.

This assertion is coupled with the view that thanks to the care of the Central People’s Government and aid from the whole nation, the liberated people of all ethnic groups in Tibet have, in the capacity of masters of the nation, enthusiastically participated in the grand course of constructing a new society and creating a new lifestyle, and worked unprecedented miracles in Tibetan history. Sun Weidong, the serving Chinese ambassador to India, wrote in 2019 that those who claim “the Chinese government violates the religious freedom of the Tibetan people” either have never been to Tibet or harbour ulterior motives. Stressing the economic, social and religious progress of the region. He subsequently added that no country has ever recognised “Tibetan independence”. And there is no such thing as the so-called “political status” of Tibet. China has therefore maintained a position of suzerainty whereby Tibet as the tributary of China holds internal autonomy but does not hold any control over foreign policy relations. By doing this China excludes any inference from the Tibetan Government in Exile while maintaining control over internal policy, as argued by many commenters who point out that no native Tibetan has held the highest office of Communist Party Secretary within the region.



In creating this veneer that Tibet not only has autonomy under the Tibet Autonomous Region but has flourished under the stewardship of China (courtesy the rampant infrastructural expansion), the PRC has managed to silence many dissenters where resistance to China’s rule is often met with repression and brutality. Within the bounds of this argument,  an independent Tibetan history does not exist and it is merely an extension of China’s broader history. This has permitted the Chinese government to effectively subvert Tibetan cultural practices and history. This was especially prevalent during the Cultural revolution where it is supposed that over 6,000 historical monasteries were destroyed, effectively erasing most of the precious and historic Tibetan architecture. Rather than experiencing an easing of sanctions and controls following China’s re-emergence on the world stage, there has been an increased effort to exert further controls on the region, with current Premier Xi stating that China must build an “impregnable fortress” to maintain stability in Tibet, protect national unity and educate the masses in the struggle against “splittism”. This has led the advocacy group International Campaign for Tibet to argue that these remarks showed Chinese rule still needed to be imposed with an “Iron Fist”, demonstrating that the PRC still remains steadfast in their argument that Tibet remains an integral part of the Chinese state and has been since “ancient times”. 

By Zachary Skidmore

Zachary Skidmore is London based researcher who serves as a research assistant for Peace for Asia. A recent Masters graduate in International Studies and Diplomacy from SOAS, University of London, his main areas of interest lie in human rights abuses in Asia and the impact of the growth of regional super powers on marginalized communities throughout the continent.

2 thoughts on “Sovereignty on the Roof of the World”
  1. Great and important read, I was not aware of the extent of this and it’s important to spread the knowledge as you are. Nice work and keep going 👍🏾

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