Tibetan Sovereignty Has a Long, Disputed History For Tibetans, a fragile independence was lost to China more than five decades ago. Robert Barnett explains why the communist republic has staked what it maintains is a "sacred" claim to the tiny mountain province.
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Tibetan Sovereignty Has a Long, Disputed History

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Tibetan Sovereignty Has a Long, Disputed History

Tibetan Sovereignty Has a Long, Disputed History

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China out of Tibet, China out of Tibet. The familiar chant this week as protests followed the path of the Olympic Torch en route to Beijing, the site of the 2008 Olympic Games. Arriving in Seattle today, the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader. He says he does want more autonomy for his homeland, but he's not seeking full independence.

Chinese officials accuse him of encouraging recent protests in Tibet, the largest and the most sustained in almost two decades. Now for many Tibetans, independence is something they believe China stole from them more than 50 years ago, when the communist country staked what it calls a rightful and sacred claim on the tiny mountain nation. So we see these "Free Tibet" signs everywhere.

Hollywood celebrities have embraced the issue as their own. The Dalai Lama continues to draw mass crowds when he visits the U.S. But what are the roots of this struggle? Here to help answer that question for us, and give a bit of a history lesson is Robert Barnett. He's the director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, and the author of "Lhasa, Streets with Memories." Robert, thanks for joining us.

Dr. ROBERT BARNETT (Director, Modern Tibetan Studies Program, Colombia University; Author, "Lhasa: Street with Memories"): Good morning.

MARTIN: Good morning. So, China and Tibet have their very own different versions of history when it comes to Tibet's sovereignty. How far back does this debate go?

Dr. BARNETT: Well, a few decades ago. The Chinese used to date this back about a 1,000 years, saying that Tibet had become part of China in the 7th Century. But in the last 20 years they're saying it's from the 13th Century, that's when they say Tibet came under Chinese rule. The Tibetans have a different story. They say that there were relations between the two. Quite close relations, but that Tibet never lost its independence.

MARTIN: So clearly someone is remembering wrongly. Someone is wrong in this debate. Let's just get it out in the open. Was Tibet ever a sovereign country? Before 1950? We'll get to what happened in 1950 later, but before 1950. Did it ever have autonomy?

Dr. BARNETT: Well it never got other countries in the world, or other major countries, perhaps apart from Mongolia and Nepal, to call it independent in writing in a kind of modern legal way. It did declare itself to be independent, along with Mongolia actually, in 1913. But at that time China was in civil war, in disarray, and then there were invasions by Japan. So the Chinese say they were just busy, they weren't able to deal with that. And they don't accept it legally.

MARTIN: So the Chinese argument is, we were too occupied to contest it, but we still maintained sovereignty at that point?

Dr. BARNETT: Yes. We were - they say, we were busy at that time. We didn't have the strength to enforce our claim. It doesn't mean the Tibetans were able to become independent. But that's probably one of their strongest claims, is that declaration of independence then.

MARTIN: Now, at the turn of the Century, in the year 1903, the British, as they are known to do, got all involved in this. How did they change the power dynamic?

Dr. BARNETT: Well, yes, it was really a shameful episode because the British really had no reason to invade Tibet. They killed about 4,000 people. But much worse than that, they suddenly made Beijing worried about its back door. Beijing then under the Qing, the Manchu dynasty, began to think that the British could start parceling up areas of Tibet by coming in across the Tibetan plateau.

So they decided that what they had to do, was to invade Tibet themselves and make Tibet a province of China. Now, in the previous Century, Tibet had been something like a protectorate under the Qing. That's to say the Qing had had two imperial commissioners there. Some people say it's a little bit like a governor in a British commonwealth country.

So they had some influence and some special role in, like, the foreign policy for Tibet. So they had a special claim. But they decided this was too vague for the modern world, too ambiguous, and the British would exploit it, so they sent an army, invaded Tibet in 1910 and planned to make it a province.

But they never pulled that off because just a year later the Qing dynasty collapsed and that army was no longer getting any salary, the Tibetans formed their own army, and pushed all Chinese out of Tibet at that time. But China never forgot that. That kind of bloody wound that it received from the British. And that's really the reason that they started to say Tibet is part of China. We own Tibet, it's an integral part of Chinese territory. I don't think they'd really ever said that before.

MARTIN: How much of this is just about political posturing and ego, really? You can't tell me that this isn't mine.

Dr. BARNETT: Well, unfortunately, that is a huge part of it. I mean, we could give it slightly more dignified words. We could say, you know, the Chinese say this is sacred territory, and so on. But really we're looking at very, very deep rooted nationalism. And it's quite strange because this nationalism is probably only a 100 years old.

You know before that China was an empire. Empires don't worry very much about what they own as long as they don't have an uprising. But nation states, the modern idea of what a country's meant to be like, they're obsessive about borders and what's inside my border and outside my border. And this obsession, in all nation states, not just China, takes this very, very strong emotional form.

And that's really what's driving this. The Communist party came to power in China by saying we have been humiliated for 150 years by the Western powers in China, and we're never going to let that happen again. So this pride is what holds China together, and the Tibet issue directly challenges that kind of basic notion of what it is to be Chinese.

MARTIN: Now Professor Barnett, in 1950 the Dalai Lama's representatives actually signed an agreement with Beijing that granted sovereignty over Tibet. Is this what China points to as their strongest point of evidence that they have control and autonomy over that region?

Dr. BARNETT: Well, no, they're a bit nervous to point to that too much, because they want to say this claim has been there for hundreds of years, which is quite a stretched claim. They certainly had a special role there, through their commissioners and so on. But the Tibetans say that role was - would belong to each dynasty.

It was a relationship between the Dalai Lama as a religious teacher and whoever the emperor was at the time wasn't really related to China in the modern sense, but the Chinese wanted to establish that their role is historic. They're really very keen to do that, and that's why you see all these things on the web. For example, this web - YouTube video called "Tibet Was, Is, and Always Will Be Part of China." That gives you the flavor of it.

But they did, as you say, sign an agreement with the Dalai Lama, which we would've called a "surrender agreement." It's really like a treaty in which the Tibetans, for the first time in history, said - and they really had no choice, because of the army that was then in their country from China, they said that they recognized that Tibet was part of China. That's the only time that's ever been done. But interestingly enough, it does look a bit like a treaty between two countries, where one accepts to be lesser than the other.

MARTIN: Professor Barnett, I want to ask a favor, if you don't mind. We have to take a break. Would you mind staying on the line? I just have two more questions I'd like to ask you.

Dr. BARNETT: That's my pleasure.

MARTIN: Stay with us. We're speaking with Robert Barnett. He's the director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University and author of the book "Lhasa: Street with Memories." We'll finish our conversation with him after the break. You're listening to the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Welcome back to the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. We're finishing our conversation with Robert Barnett. He's the director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University and author of "Lhasa: Street with Memories." We're talking with him about the situation between China and Tibet. There's been a lot of protest surrounding the Olympic torch tour ahead of the Beijing Games.

We're getting to the history of the conflict between China and Tibet. And professor, I wanted to ask you, getting up to modern-day times, we see "Free Tibet" signs everywhere here in the U.S., but the Dalai Lama says he's not seeking full sovereignty for Tibet. If he's not seeking sovereignty, what does he want? And what are the protests about then?

Dr. BARNETT: Well, it's very interesting because what he's saying is something not totally dissimilar to what we see in history, which is a kind of relationship in which Tibet is - is agreeing to give China some local powers, particularly the power over defense and foreign affairs. That's what the Tibetans were promised in the 1951 surrender, when the Chinese army forced them to sign that document, and it's not totally unlike what they had in the 19th century.

So he's saying he would go back to that, but of course, China, now, won't allow any vagueness. That's really what's happened. What we're looking at is a dispute about a 19th century, 18th century system of relations between two independent countries where one is allowed to have some control but not too much, but that's shifting to a modern system of government where we don't have that sort of relationship, where everybody wants - say you either in my country or out of it.

So the Dalai Lama is trying to broker a deal with the Chinese, which you - which should be good for both sides, where he says if the Chinese give us meaningful autonomy, and we are able to run culture, economy, religion and social issues, then China can run foreign affairs and defense.

The Chinese don't like this at all, because it reminds them of the fact that Tibet, when it had that sort of arrangement in the 19th century, still legally was independent. It didn't become part of China. It was just under China. So the Dalai Lama is making big concessions from the point of view of his followers, who are not too happy about this in some cases...

MARTIN: But it's not going to be enough, probably, for China, who says "all or nothing."

Dr. BARNETT: That's right.

MARTIN: Robert Barnett, the director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University. Professor, thanks so much for helping us walk through some of the details of this issue and the history about it.

Dr. BARNETT: Thank you.

MARTIN: We appreciate it.

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