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China’s Tibet Problem: The Contentious History
By Robert Wampler, National Securityu Archive, Jun 27, 2019
Jun 28, 2019 - 11:29:58 AM

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Documents show splits within both China and Tibetan exile community, turning point in Carter years

China "mismanaged" Tibet from Dalai Lama's exile in 1959 to U.S. normalization in 1979, bringing "disaster" to most Tibetans

Washington, D.C., June 27, 2019 – Recently declassified U.S. documents posted to mark the 60th anniversary year of the Dalai Lama’s flight out of Tibet depict sharp divisions among Chinese authorities over how to cope with the contested region and conclude that Beijing had “badly mismanaged” its policies and brought “disaster” to the majority of Tibetans.  The documents – a series of State Department cables – cover an important turning point in the global Cold War, 1979-1980.

Today’s posting by the nongovernmental National Security Archive offers an unusual window into a subject -- the nature and impact of Chinese rule over Tibet -- that for decades has been notoriously opaque.  Official statements from Congress and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing during this anniversary year show this to be an ongoing concern 60 years later.

The declassified cables also provide useful insights from a critical time – when the United States was considering normalizing relations with Beijing (and terminating the CIA’s covert aid program to Tibet) and China was on the verge of launching a sweeping reform campaign under Deng Xiaoping.

Among the key points made in these cables:

1) Two decades after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, the U.S. verdict was that “China has badly mismanaged Tibet” - “by all accounts, China’s takeover had been a disaster” for most Tibetans.

2) Beijing’s efforts to pursue negotiations with the Dalai Lama about Tibet and his eventual return were plagued by a lack of coordination between the Party secretariat, the Foreign Ministry and the Party Central Committee’s United Front Work Department office responsible for Tibet.

3) The Dalai Lama’s efforts to engage with Beijing faced its own divisions within the Tibetan exile community, with factions favoring talks with China opposed by other groups who were “virulently anti-PRC” and opposed any discussions with Beijing, and the rise of a generation of Tibetans who never knew life in Tibet.

4) At one point, a Chinese official floated the idea, not followed up on, that Tibet might become a member of the UN, along the lines of Byelorussia, which had been given a UN seat alongside the USSR when the UN was founded. The fact that China’s United Work Front Department would seriously entertain such an idea showed “the lengths to which Beijing may be willing to go to entice the Dalai Lama to return,” and showed the persistence with which China had pursued its “cultivation” of the Tibetan refugees.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the 14th Dalai Lama’s flight out of Lhasa into exile in India. The 23-year-old religious leader's escape in March 1959 opened a new phase in the history of Tibet and of the deepening resistance to Beijing’s rule of what was termed the Tibetan Autonomous Region, or TAR. Tibet’s independence had always been subject to the complex geopolitical rivalries of England, Russia, and China going back to the Great Game of the 19h century and its 20th century manifestations. In a foreshadowing of the 14th Dalai Lama’s journey into India, his predecessor had made a similar flight in 1912 following the formation of the Chinese Republic, only to return soon after, once Chinese troops had left.

In 1913 Tibet reasserted its independence against British and Chinese efforts to secure control. This de facto independence would last until after World War II, when the new Chinese communist government moved to enforce its claim on Tibet and made the 14th Dalai Lama the head of state. In 1951 Beijing forced Tibetan leaders to sign a treaty known as the “Seventeen Point Agreement, which claimed to guarantee Tibet’s autonomy and respect its Buddhist religion, but also established Chinese political and military headquarters in Lhasa, the seat of the Dalai Lama’s religious and political authority. It was the growing resistance to Chinese rule that led to the revolt and his self-imposed exile in 1959.  The Dalai Lama decided to flee not only for his own safety but also because of the growing potential for Tibetan casualties that might result from mounting Tibetan resistance to Chinese control and the outbreak of a rebellion in Lhasa driven by fears that Beijing planned to arrest him. The Dalai Lama established his residence and a government-in-exile in Dharamsala, which became the religious and political center of the Tibetan exile movement..[1]

In the intervening years, two critical and related issues that have persisted are the impact of Chinese rule on Tibet, including charges of human rights violations and suppression of the Tibetan culture and Buddhist religion, and the efforts to establish a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Beijing to address Tibet’s future status as well as the possible return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. The continuing U.S. interest in securing access to Tibet in order to assess conditions there was driven home recently by the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018 (RATA), which President Trump signed in December 2018.[2] The act specifically called for the reappointment of a special coordinator for Tibetan Issues at the State Department and for the U.S. to encourage dialogue between Beijing and the Dalai Lama leading to a negotiated agreement on Tibet. The first State Department report under the terms of the act, released on March 25, 2019, said that “the Chinese government systematically impeded travel to the Tibetan Autonomous Region” for U.S. diplomats and officials, journalists and tourists in 2018, and provided specific examples.[3] On May 7 and 9 of 2019, U.S. senators and congressmen wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sam Brownback, the ambassador at large for international religious freedom, calling on the Trump administration to fully implement the Reciprocal Access Act and to work with the international community to fight Beijing’s interference in Tibetan Buddhism, especially its moves to claim sole authority over determining the next Dalai Lama.[4] Later the same month, the U.S. embassy in Beijing issued a statement following U.S, Ambassador Terry Branstad’s visit to Tibet, reaffirming U.S. support for dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama, freedom of religion for Tibetans, and more open access to Tibet.[5]

The documents posted on the National Security Archive’s web site today date from another significant turning point four decades ago in the history of the Tibet issue. The two decades following 1959 were marked by the U.S. CIA-directed Tibetan guerilla campaign against China, and the devastating economic and religious impact on Tibetans of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. By 1979, important changes were in train, as the U.S. moved to normalize relations with China (which included ending the covert Tibetan programs) and as Beijing, taking stock of its failed policies in Tibet, initiated in 1980 an extensive set of reforms in its Tibet policies. These policies were part of a wider reform effort launched under the leadership of Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who worked closely with Hu Yaobang, who became general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Secretariat in February 1980, and would later hold the positions of chairman and general secretary of the CPC.[6]

In 1979-1980, the U.S. had three windows into Chinese policies in Tibet and the efforts to promote a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Beijing: the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, where the Indian government kept a close eye on Sino-Tibetan issues; the U.S. consulate general in Hong Kong, which had contacts with Chinese officials and news media, as well as opportunities to meet with representatives of the Tibetan exile community; and the U.S. embassy in Beijing once normalization of relations was completed in 1979. The cables posted here demonstrate the challenges involved in Beijing’s efforts to work with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile community, and China’s attempts to address the critical problems arising from the previous two decades of Chinese rule in Tibet.  The cables include the following highlights:

1) U.S. Consul General Thomas P. Shoesmith reported in October 1980 that two decades after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, “China has badly mismanaged Tibet.” Based on first-hand observations by a consulate general official, “Poverty and ardent Buddhism” were the realities there, and “by all accounts, China’s takeover had been a disaster” for most Tibetans. (Document 17)

2) In 1980, Beijing embarked on a major effort to reform the policies governing Tibet, in the hopes of repairing deep damage to Tibet’s economy, religion and culture, and the resulting enmity from the Tibetan populace.  These reforms emerged from Party secretariat meetings in April and were announced by Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang during a high-level Chinese government and Party delegation visit to Tibet in May 1990. These reforms aimed at returning more autonomy and control to local economic activities, especially agriculture, greater respect for Tibetan culture and religions, including a requirement that Han cadres take Tibetan language lessons, and a general move to replace extensive numbers of Han cadres with Tibetan cadres. One over-arching goal was stated by Xue Jianhua, a member of Beijing’s National Commission of Nationalities, who told a U.S. embassy officer that the policy is “to win over the Dalai Lama, and this policy will not change.” [Documents 11, 12, 13, 14, and 16] This latter goal was explicitly denied, however, by the deputy director of the United Front Work Department – described by one informant as “one of the meanest, toughest Chinese he has ever met” – who said the reforms were for Tibetans and had nothing to do with the Dalai Lama, and who complained that the groups of visiting Tibetan exile representatives only “came and complained” without making any concrete proposals.[Document 15]

3) Beijing’s efforts to engage with the Dalai Lama were hampered by other signs of an apparent lack of coordination on Tibet policies. This was seen in such bureaucratic but symbolic issues as Beijing having to overrule its embassy in India on the matter of forcing a delegation of Tibetan exiles to declare their status as “overseas Chinese” before they could be given visas for their trip to China and Tibet. [Documents 4 and 5] Another case of mixed signals came when Beijing protested to the State Department the Dalai Lama’s planned trip to the U.S to attend a religious conference, while the Chinese United Front Work Department office responsible for Tibetan religious issues had indicated through contacts in Hong Kong that China was interested in encouraging a meeting between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese delegation to the conference. [Documents 8 and 9]

4) Similar divisions marked the Tibetan exile community, as efforts to forge a modus vivendi between Beijing and the Dalai Lama were complicated by divisions among exiles regarding whether and how to proceed. The Dalai Lama had to deal with the “byzantine factionalism” within the exile community, which included some who were “virulently anti-PRC” and opposed any discussions with Beijing, and the rise of a generation of Tibetans who never knew life in Tibet. [Documents 6, 7, 15]

5) While trying to establish an acceptable dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Beijing was extremely sensitive to the religious leader traveling and holding meetings in other countries, as seen in the reaction to the Dalai Lama’s visits to Moscow and the United States to attend religious conferences. [Documents 4, 5 and 8]

This Tibetan Spring of sorts would be short-lived. As discussed in an earlier document posting (see the information in endnote 6), the new Chinese policies in Tibet and the efforts to engage the Dalai Lama in talks did not produce either a long-lasting improvement in the lives of Tibetans or the Tibetan leader's return from exile. By 1987, Hu Yaobang had fallen out of favor with Deng and lost his post as party chairman, and Beijing had reverted to more repressive policies in Tibet. The Dalai Lama, rebuffed in his efforts to persuade China to grant Tibet a degree of autonomy that would truly protect Tibetan culture and religion, turned increasingly to the world stage to press his claims, resulting in further entrenchment by the Chinese.

A series of future document National Security Archive web postings, covering the Reagan, Bush I and Clinton years, will provide new windows into this subsequent phase of Sino-Tibetan history, Washington’s efforts to pierce Chinese barriers to information about Tibet, and its support for dialogue between Beijing and the Dalai Lama.


The Documents

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Document 01
Amconsul Hong Kong to SecState 538, Subject: Chinese Policy Toward Tibet, January 10, 1979 (C)
Source: FOIA
The U.S. consul in Hong Kong reported in this cable that the New China News Agency and Bank of China officials were showing interest in contacting Gyalo Thundup[7], the Dalai Lama's brother, and were working through the good offices of Prince Peter of Denmark, a Tibetan scholar who had long been in contact with the Dalai Lama. While no meeting had been set up, the U.S. consulate speculated that given Beijing's recent gestures towards Tibetan exiles and its line on Taiwan's post-unification status, the Chinese might be willing to offer the Dalai Lama liberal terms for returning to Tibet. An unnamed source also suggested that the Chinese might realize their past policy towards Tibet was a mistake, which could also lie behind these recent overtures.

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Document 02
Hong Kong 2267 to SecState, February 14, 1979, Subject: Tibetan Affairs (C)
Source: FOIA
Another cable from the U.S. consul in Hong Kong reports on plans for a delegation of Tibetans from the exile community in India to visit Tibet to observe conditions under Chinese rule. A significant point regarding this plan was the evidence of divisions in the exile community over the trip. The Indian government felt that China had been "surprisingly forthcoming" in promising to allow the visiting Tibetans to visit a range of places and institutions. From the Tibetan exile viewpoint, the Dalai Lama's representatives were reportedly impressed by the Chinese acknowledgement that mistakes had been made in Tibet, though these were attributed to Lin Biao and the Gang of Four. In an apparent test of Beijing's openness to engaging with the Tibetans, the Dalai Lama had suggested that China allow the Panchen Lama to visit Tibetan exiles in India as sign of the freedom Beijing claimed was now enjoyed by Tibetans.

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Document 03
New Delhi 8034 to SecState, May 9, 1979, Subject: Tibetan Refugees to Visit PRC This Summer (C)
Source: FOIA
This cable provides more background on the preparations for a group of 15 Tibetans to visit China, based on discussions with the Chinese second secretary at Chinese embassy in New Delhi. This talk revealed some optimism on China's part and referred to recent discussions between the Dalai Lama's brother and Chinese officials in Beijing, which the Chinese officials felt resulted in a positive report back to the Dalai Lama about conditions in Tibet. The Chinese embassy official also claimed China would welcome the return of the Tibetan exiles, especially those with skills learned abroad that could be used in the development of Tibet. This official also attributed improving relations between China and the Tibetan exile community to changes in Tibetan policy begun by Deng Xiaoping, and felt the Dalai Lama wanted to return, but need to be reassured about the situation in Tibet first.

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Document 04
New Delhi 8946 to SecState, May 22, 1979, Subject: Tibetan Travels (C)
Source: FOIA
The U.S. embassy in New Delhi reports in this cable on issues raised by travel plans by the Dalai Lama and the proposed visit of a Tibetan exile community delegation to Tibet. Regarding the Dalai Lama's plans to travel to Moscow to take part in an Asian Buddhist convention, some Indian commentators saw this as an attempt by Moscow to block Chinese efforts to secure the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet. The planned visit by Tibetan exile representatives to Tibet had encountered a bureaucratic obstacle, as China was requiring them to state their nationality as Tibetan and would not accept their Indian identity papers as Tibetan refugees. The Tibetan group would not accept this, so the matter was pending.

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Document 05
Hong Kong 10581 to SecState. June 26, 1979, Subject: Contact between Tibetan Refugees and PRC (Secret)
Source: FOIA
More evidence of the cross currents affecting negotiations between Beijing and the Dalai Lama is provided in this cable, again from the U.S. consul in Hong Kong. As noted in the previous cable, Beijing's efforts to engage with the Dalai Lama and allow another visit by Tibetan exiles to China was tangled up with China's anger at the Dalai Lama's planned trip to Moscow. One key interlocutor for the Dalai Lama in these negotiations was his brother, Galo Thundop, who had maintained contact with Chinese officials in Beijing and Hong Kong, including a secret trip to Beijing the previous March. Based on information from a confidential source, the U.S. consulate general reported that Thundop had travelled to Hong Kong in May and June to persuade the Chinese not to overreact to the Dalai Lama's planned trip to Moscow and Mongolia, the land of China's "archrivals." The Chinese argued that any dealing by the Dalai Lama with the Soviets could destroy all progress made in improving relations between Beijing and the Tibetan exile community. The Dalai Lama's brother had responded that a "violent" Chinese reaction was exactly what Moscow and factions within the Tibetan exile community opposed to talks with Beijing desired. One sign of progress came with Beijing overruling its embassy in New Delhi on the matter of the visas discussed in Document 4 above, saying the exiled Tibetan delegation could now apply without having to declare their status as "overseas Chinese." The Tibetans were reportedly so angered by the previous action that they would likely delay for some time before applying once more for visas.

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Document 06
Hong Kong 10583 to SecState, June 26, 1979, Subject: Visit TT (sic) the U.S. by the Dalai Lama (S)
Source: FOIA
While the U.S. would consistently maintain to Beijing that it viewed the Dalai Lama as a religious leader, this cable shows that he was willing to take the opportunity provided by his visit to the U.S to pursue political goals. Based on talks between U.S. consular officers and the Dalai Lama's brother, the Dalai Lama hoped to meet with Americans during his trip who could act as intermediaries with Beijing to get more favorable terms for his and the Tibetan exiles' return to Tibet, and mentioned Senators Ted Kennedy and Henry Jackson as possibilities. Given the "byzantine factionalism" of the Tibetan exile community, the consulate found it hard to say if the Dalai Lama's brother's views reflected those of the religious leader and/or those who would accompany the Dalai Lama to the U.S. or just the brother's personal hopes for the visit. One possibility was that the brother fell into the camp pushing for improved relations between the exile community and China

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Document 07
Hong Kong 12802 to SecState, August 1, 1979, Subject: Dalai Lama's Top Advisors to Make Two-Month China Visit (S)
Source: FOIA
This cable provides background on a planned unpublicized visit to China by five Tibetans currently living in India, where they would meet with premier Hua, vice premier Deng and several other Chinese officials. The itinerary for the visit was extensive, including Tibet and other ethnic Tibetan areas of China (Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan). Arrangements for the visit were negotiated with Chinese officials in Hong Kong by the Dalai Lama's brother, Galo Thundop, and the group was to be led by Lobsang Samten, another brother of the Dalai Lama. Included in the group would be two "militant" Tibetan nationalists, whose reports on the situation in Tibet would carry more weight with the "virulently anti-PRC" factions in the Tibetan exile community. Each side harbored hopes for better communication to emerge from the visit, which also carried risks for China and the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama, who sought a better idea of how the Chinese leadership viewed him and the Tibetan exiles, risked a strong backlash from those among the Tibetan exiles opposed to talking to China. For its part, Beijing reportedly was looking beyond its anger at the Dalai Lama's visit to Russia and hoping to use the visit as a step towards "wooing" the Tibetan exiles to return home. Given the negative reports made by earlier Tibetan exile visits to Tibet, China's decision to allow the upcoming Tibetan delegation to visit more remote Tibetan areas might "represent over-confidence that the visitors will be favorably impressed by what they see."

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Document 08
State 208257 to Amembassy Beijing, August 10, 1979, Subject: Chinese Embassy Comments on Dalai Lama's U.S. Visit (C)
Source: FOIA
This cable reports on the exchange of two "non-papers" between China and the U.S. regarding the Dalai Lama's planned visit to the U.S. and the activities of the Tibet Office in New York. Taking up what would be a perennial complaint for Beijing, the Chinese non-paper underscores the suspicions and dissatisfaction Beijing held for U.S. assertions that Washington did not and would not recognize the Dalai Lama in any political capacity, only as a religious leader. The U.S. non-paper noted that the U.S. was ready to issue the Dalai Lama a visa to allow him to visit in a private capacity, and that to do otherwise would be contrary to U.S. principles on freedom of travel. The U.S. paper went on to note that the Dalai Lama had visited several other countries without any adverse effect on their friendly relations with China. Such a visit should not harm Sino-U.S. relations, the paper argued, especially as Washington has made its policy on Tibet clear, and was willing to state publicly that Tibet was part of China. Regarding the Tibet Office in New York, Washington considered it a purely private organization with no official status or character, and unless it violated U.S. or New York state law, there was no basis for banning it. The Chinese embassy chargé who delivered Beijing's non-paper gave his personal view that allowing the Dalai Lama to visit would be an "unfriendly gesture" towards the Chinese people and pressed the U.S. for guarantees that the Dalai Lama would not engage in any political activities while in the U.S. The chargé and the Chinese paper also stated China's dissatisfaction with the U.S. position on the Tibet New York office, characterizing it as a prevarication.

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Document 09
Hong Kong 15662 to SecState, September 7, 1979, Subject: Dalai Lama's Visit to the U.S. (C)
Source: FOIA
This cable provides further evidence that Beijing was not speaking with one voice regarding the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile community, which was suffering its own divisions, as noted above. The American consul in Hong Kong reported information received from an unidentified Indian official in Hong Kong that a Chinese official there with "religious connections" had said that China was interested in encouraging a meeting between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese delegation to the World Conference on Religion and Peace in Princeton, New Jersey. This approach directly contradicted earlier PRC protests against the Dalai Lama and the Chinese delegation being in the U.S. at the same time. When informed of this request, the Dalai Lama's brother, Galo Thundop, contacted the New York Tibet Office, which informed him they had already declined three requests from the Chinese delegation to the Princeton conference - refusals Thundop called "foolish" - for a meeting with the Dalai Lama. Thundop informed Beijing through his contacts in Hong Kong that the Tibet Office would reply positively to another request, but as of the date of the cable no such request had been forthcoming. The cable reports this is the third case of inconsistency about Tibet between the Foreign Ministry and the Tibet office of the Chinese United Front Work Department, which handled religious issues with Tibet, reflecting what the cable characterized as "poor coordination" within the Chinese government on Tibet.

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Document 10
Hong Kong 18993 to SecState, October 24, 1979, Subject: PRC Contacts with Tibetan Refugees (S)
Source: FOIA
This cable reports on a proposal floated by United Work Front Department Deputy
Director Xiong Xianghui that Beijing would accept the idea of offering Tibet a U.N. seat on the lines of Byelorussia, which had been given a seat alongside the USSR when the U.N. was founded. This message, relayed through an official at the Hong Kong branch of the China Bank and passed on to the Dalai Lama's brother, also hinted at possible, unspecified concessions. However, after returning to Tibet the Dalai Lama would have to agree to seek no further concessions. The comments from the U.S. consul in Hong Kong speculated on Beijing's motivations for floating this idea. The idea was rooted in the concern on the part of Tibetan refugees that if the Dalai Lama did return to Tibet he would lose his ability to speak to the world in the event of future Chinese persecution of Tibetans. A U.N. seat for Tibet was probably only acceptable to Beijing as long as the Dalai Lama did not use it as a platform to press for Tibetan independence. Beijing might be open to accepting Tibet as an "autonomous" region or state, so long as China's sovereignty was indisputable. While the indirect way in which the idea was broached suggested China wanted an easy way to disavow it, the fact that China's United Work Front Department would seriously entertain such an idea showed "the lengths to which Beijing may be willing to go to entice the Dalai Lama to return," and showed the persistence with which China had pursued its "cultivation" of the Tibetan refugees. The Dalai Lama's recent trip to Russia had apparently only intensified this interest. Other possible motivations included using an amicable settlement of the Tibet problem as a propaganda weapon against Taiwan, with a Tibetan U.N. seat as a possible model for Taiwan, and China's interest in normalizing Sino-Indian relations, which had taken on higher salience in light of heightened tensions between India and Vietnam.

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Document 11
Beijing 3291 to SecState, April 11, 1980, Subject: Talks Between Tibetan Exiles and Chinese Government (C)
Source: FOIA
This cable provides some insight into how Beijing perceived the roles played by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile community in efforts to develop a productive dialog. The observations came while Xue Jianhua, a member of the Chinese National Commission of Nationalities, was discussing with a U.S. embassy official in Beijing a planned trip by Tibetan exiles to Tibet in May. Xue insisted there was no change in the official Chinese attitude toward the Dalai Lama, who would be welcomed and free to leave at any time, should he visit, though it was too soon to discuss a permanent return by the Tibetan leader. Xue felt there had been a favorable change in the Dalai Lama's attitude, with some remarks suggesting he no longer would insist on Tibetan independence as the condition for his return. Xue suggested that the perceived shifts in the Dalai Lama's views on this issue may be rooted in differences in view among the Tibetan exiles. The younger Tibetans preferred independence while the older ones wanted to return above all else, and the Dalai Lama wavered between the two viewpoints. For China, Xue declared, the policy was "to win over the Dalai Lama and this policy will not change."

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Document 12
Hong Kong 8061 to SecState, May 27, 1980, Subject: Tibet Party Chief Replaced (LOU)
Source: FOIA
Another cable from the U.S. consular office in Hong Kong reports on changes in China's Tibetan policy leadership that strongly suggest Beijing recognized it was facing serious problems in Tibet as the result of its failed economic and minorities policies. These changes were marked by the replacement of Tibet's party chief, Ren Rong, and the arrival in Tibet of a high-powered delegation from Beijing that included Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang and the new acting first secretary and political commissar for Tibet, Yin Fantang, a veteran Peoples Liberation Army officer with pre-Cultural Revolution experience in Tibet. This major step was preceded by a directive from the Chinese party secretariat to improve living conditions in Lhasa. More significantly, the Chinese News Agency reported on May 26 that the CCP had issued an eight-point policy directive for Tibet. The most important points were 1) all decisions and steps taken in Tibet must be supported by Tibetan cadres and people, or must be postponed or revised; 2) the party cadres in Tibet must not "blindly and rigidly apply the Han experience to Tibet; and 3) the Tibet party committee must reexamine economic planning for the entire region, with the specific mention of agriculture, animal husbandry, private property, and family sideline jobs. The new directives suggested that Han chauvinism had been a serious problem in Tibet, with the Han cadres insensitive to Tibetan cultural differences and a degree of bureaucratic inflexibility and dogmatism that was excessive even for China. There were limits to how far Beijing was willing to go in terms of reforming its control in Tibet, as a native Tibetan cadre was passed over for the new party secretary, indicating China intended to keep real power in Han hands.

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Document 13
Hong Kong 8462 to SecState, June 3, 1980, Subject: Party Center Lavishes Attention on Tibet (C)
Source: FOIA
This cable provides further details on the high-level Chinese government and party delegation's visit in May to Tibet (also referred to as Xizang in the cable) and the steps Beijing was taking to reform its Tibet policies with the avowed goal of correcting its earlier mistakes and improving the lives of Tibetans. As the cable summarized, these moves, which emerged from a series of party secretariat meetings on Tibet in April, marked a level of attention to the political and economic situation in Tibet that had not been seen for two decades. These steps were revealed in a major policy address to nearly 4,500 Chinese officials in Tibet by party General Secretary Hu Yaobang and taken with the high level of concern shown over the past year for winning back the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile community. They demonstrated that the CCP was willing to devote an "extraordinary" amount of attention to Tibet's problems. Criticizing the prior Chinese leadership in Tibet for failing to understand CCP instructions and decisions, and for delays in making changes, Hu stressed Tibet's extreme poverty and promised the CCP would work towards surpassing within 5-6 years the higher living standard formerly enjoyed in Tibet. To this end, Hu outlined a series of steps to lighten the economic burden on Tibetans, including exemptions from taxes, more private plots and livestock herds, and autonomy for peasants to decide which crops to grow. On cultural affairs, Hu said that, assuming the "socialist orientation is upheld," that "world renowned ancient Tibetan culture including fine Buddhism, graceful music and dance as well as medicine and opera" should be studied and developed. Hu ordered all Han Chinese cadres to study the Tibetan language, and set the goal of significantly increasing the number of full-time cadres of Tibetan nationality.

The Hong Kong branch of the Chinese government-owned newspaper Dagongbao, in commenting on these developments, linked the new policies with Beijing's goal of winning over the Dalai Lama. The U.S. consul in Hong Kong cautioned that it remained to be seen if these recent steps would produce noticeable results in the near term, given Tibet's backward economic conditions, the poor relations between Chinese Han officials and the Tibetan populace, and the demoralized state of both the Tibetans and the Han Chinese. Still, it was clear that Hu had chosen to focus on Tibet as one of his first major acts as party general secretary

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Document 14
Hong Kong 8782 to SecState, June 10, 1980, Subject: China's Tibetan Policy (C)
Source: FOIA
Additional reporting is found in this cable from the U.S. consul in Hong Kong on China's new Tibet policies and comments on the possible response by the Tibetans both in Tibet and the exile community to these steps (discussed in document 13). The People's Daily reported that on a stopover in Qinghai Province while en route from Tibet to Beijing, Hu Yaobang had announced that China's new policies for Tibet should also be adopted in Qinghai's autonomous regions. This was noteworthy, as historically a large part of Qinghai was made up the Amdo province of Tibet, which was where the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama were born. Also, further clarification regarding the new Chinese policies had appeared in Hong Kong news outlets active in United Front work. According to these reports, party leaders in Tibet would be able to set aside without reference to the CCP all but the most fundamental central party directives if they were seen as inappropriate to local conditions. If fundamental directives were at issue, Tibetan authorities could appeal to Beijing for delay or a halt to implementation of policy directives. On a related note, a delegation of Tibetan exiles led by the Dalai Lama's sister would soon travel through Qinghai, and it was likely that Hu's announcement was designed in part to impress the exiles. The U.S. consul felt, however, that Tibetans either in country or in exile would likely view this announcement with skepticism on the basis of past experience. Almost identical policy guidelines were issued in 1957 to persuade the Dalai Lama to return from a trip to India, but were forgotten during the Great Leap Forward. Similar guidelines were issued in 1961 to calm discontent with China's land reform policies, but were soon ignored as Beijing launched the political campaign leading to the Cultural Revolution.

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Document 15
Hong Kong 11219 to SecState, July 24, 1980, Subject: United Front Work Department Official Comments on Tibetan Affairs (S)
Source: FOIA
Based on information passed on from a confidential source with extensive experience in Tibet and China, the emphasis on pushing reform in Tibet as a way to engage with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile community, as noted in earlier cables, was not a consensus view among Chinese officials. A more negative view was expressed to the confidential source during a discussion he had on Tibetan issues with Xiong Xianghui, the deputy director of the United Front Work department. The discussion took place during the source's trip to China in late June/early July as a guest of the Chinese government. The source carried a message to Xiong from Gyalo Thundop, the Dalai Lama's brother. This message was that the recent reforms in Tibet were welcome, but did not go far enough. Furthermore, it was very hard for the Dalai Lama to negotiate with Beijing now. The reason given was that, in contrast to earlier secret talks, matters were now public and the exile community was putting pressure on the Dalai Lama to move "slowly and cautiously." Evidence of this pressure included opposition from the more militant members of the Tibetan Youth Congress, questions raised by a group of Tibetans that visited Tibet in 1979 and returned with 60,000 letters, most of which urged the Dalai Lama to stay abroad, and unspecified overtures from Russia.

The source said that Xiong - whom he described as "one of the meanest, toughest Chinese he has ever met" - was annoyed at this message, and gave a pointed rebuttal. He said the reforms in Tibet were for Tibetans and had nothing to do with the Dalai Lama, denied China was putting any pressure on the religious leader, and said there were no negotiations going on. So far as the visits by the Tibetan exile groups, Xiong said they had not made any concrete proposals but have only "come and complained." The Chinese official also rejected the idea - apparently also originating with Thundop - that Tibet might join China in a federal union, an idea the source felt could provide Tibet with greater provincial autonomy, or any linkage between the issues of Taiwan and Tibet. The roots of Xiong's rejection can be seen in his reply when the source suggested giving Tibetan minority areas in other parts of China the option to decide if they wanted to be politically united with Tibet. To this idea, he said that "if all autonomous Zhou and Xian had a choice, they would opt out of China." On the basis of this talk, the source was convinced there were no ongoing serious negotiations between Beijing and the Dalai Lama about the latter's return to China.

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Document 16
State 283431 to Amembassy Beijing, October 24, 1980, Subject: EA/C Weekly Status Report (C) Relevant section on pp 6-7
Source: FOIA
Included in this weekly report on events and issues in East Asia prepared by Charles W. Freeman, Jr. is a report on Freeman's dinner with Thubten Jigme Norbu, another older brother of the Dalai Lama. Norbu had recently returned from six weeks traveling in China, mostly in Tibet and Tibetan-occupied territories. Norbu spoke "movingly of the appaling [sic] conditions" he witnessed and the memories Tibetans had of even worse conditions in the past. But Norbu also heard very positive attitudes expressed about Hu Yaobang's visit in May, the changes initiated in Beijing's Tibet policies and the cautious optimism about the future if these policies were sustained. Most importantly, Norbu, on the basis of discussions with the Dalai Lama in Canada, seemed to treat the Tibetan leader's return to Tibet as "virtually a foregone conclusion,' declaring that "of course" his brother would return to Tibet sooner or later, for a temporary visit or permanently, depending on "how things work out."

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Document 17
State 286244 to select embassies, October 26, 1980, Subject: Tibet: Trouble in a Vassal State (C)
Source: FOIA
This cable repeats to U.S. embassies a report by the U.S. consul general, Thomas P. Shoesmith, on a trip by Hong Kong journalists to Tibet on September 19-24, in which a consulate general officer took part. As the first sentence in the summary succinctly noted, "China has badly mismanaged Tibet." The cable provides ample detail to back up this judgment, and only the key points can be noted here. "Poverty and ardent Buddhism are the realities of Tibet," and two decades after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, "by all accounts, China's takeover has been a disaster" for most Tibetans. The majority remained nomads, semi-nomads or farmers, practicing basic subsistence agriculture with no real industry. Still, they remained undaunted and undeterred by their Han "overlords," and the reforms of the past year had brought signs of new economic and religious activity to the main street of Lhasa. China's failure was rooted in economic mismanagement and the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Popular discontent had a basis in the decimation of Tibetan Buddhist temples and priesthood, but China's ill-conceived economic policies took the greatest toll, as was borne out by figures on economic production provided in the cable, especially with respect to agriculture. Ill-conceived efforts in other sectors produced similar results. One example was how ideologically-motivated crackdowns on the private sector had put Moslem butchers out of business. As Buddhist religious tenets prohibited butchering, meat supplies dropped.

One key component of the Chinese reforms was Tibetanization, under which 85% of the Han cadres in Tibet would be returned to China over a period of three years, to be replaced by Tibetan cadres. The goal was to create an "independent" administration in which leadership positions at all levels was held by Tibetans. While Beijing would surely hold on to the reins of power, this policy marked a major departure from the earlier effort to settle Han Chinese in Tibet.

Beijing's new focus on Tibet became clear after the fifth plenum of the CCP Central Committee in February 1980, and the increased attention given by the new party secretariat to rising tensions in minority areas. Central Document No. 31, issued in April, initiated a set of reforms and told the local government to adopt any economic steps that worked. The reforms, with the goal of turning the economic situation around in six years, included closing inefficient factories, increased investment in Tibetan handicrafts and production, a return to traditional agricultural practices, and exemption from taxes. Beijing backed these steps up with increased financial investment in Tibet.

Cultural differences had been a significant hurdle to the Chinese management of Tibet. The materialistic, Marxist Chinese seemed "genuinely perplexed" by the spirituality of a people who considered death and reincarnation life's most important event. Most Chinese did not like living in Tibet, and had to be rewarded with "hardship" pay, extended vacations, and imported food to work in Tibet. There were divisions among the Chinese on how to deal with Tibet. The more experienced cadres, who arrived in the 1950s, had pushed for a slow approach to reforming Tibet's "medieval" society, while the majority had taken a stronger line, calling for acceleration in the pace of change. In addition, the cadres saw the new reforms as an implicit criticism of their work and despite their dislike for living in Tibet were reportedly demanding guarantees of equal pay and job status before agreeing to return to China. Over both of these, though, was the Chinese military, whose priority was stability and whose activities were the most dynamic factor in the economy.

Overarching all these efforts and issues was the question of whether the Dalai Lama would return to Tibet, something Beijing was keen to secure to help pacify the situation. Recent statements on both sides gave reason for optimism and, encouraged by the progress in secret talks, China had already invited the Dalai Lama to send fact-finding delegations to Tibet in 1980, but clearly had miscalculated the impact. Apparently the "victims of their own propaganda," the Chinese had warned the Tibetans not to insult the Dalai Lama to the visitors. Clearly this warning was unneeded, given the tumultuous welcome given to the visiting Tibetan exiles on July 25 in Lhasa. The outpouring of emotion tempered Beijing's enthusiasm for these visits; it postponed the fourth visit until the spring of 1981 and put yearly limits on future visitors.

As noted in earlier cables, the Dalai Lama faced divisions among Tibetans regarding his efforts to reach an accommodation with China. Many of the older exiles had called for an end to the fact-finding visits. A further complication was added by the viewpoints of younger Tibetans, raised and trained in India and the West, who would be part of the exiles' return to Tibet. Looking to the future, Beijing's commitment to reform in Tibet would likely be bolstered as supporting parallel efforts to improve Sino-Indian relations. In any event, Tibet would remain a "headache" for China, and success in its Tibet reforms would be a necessary predicate to success in talks with the Dalai Lama.


[1] Two books by John Kenneth Knaus, a former CIA case officer who was closely involved with U.S. covert support of the Tibetan guerilla campaign against the Chinese in the late 1950s and 1960s, provide essential histories of Tibet: Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival (Public Affairs, 1999), and Beyond Shangri-La: America and Tibet’s Move into the Twenty-First Century (Duke University Press, 2012. They cover the early 20th century diplomatic chess game and events during and after the Cold War, as well as U.S. policies regarding Tibet.  A useful timeline of key events can be found here.

[2] Edward Wong, “U.S. Law Will Punish Chinese Officials Who Restrict Access to Tibet,” The New York Times, December 22, 2018.

[3] Report to Congress on Section 4 of the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018 of P.L. 115-330.

[4] Letter, Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, U.S. House of Representatives (Co-Chairs James P. McGovern, Massachusets and Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey) to Mike Pompeo, May 7, 2019 and Letter, U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to Sam Brownback, May 9, 2019.

[5]ICT statement: US ambassador’s statements on Tibet must be followed by concrete action,”  May 28, 2019.

[6] For related documents on China’s Tibet reform effort, see U.S. Officials Hoped Chinese Liberalization Program for Tibet in Early 1980s Would Bring Significant Improvements, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 414, February 28, 2013.

[7] The Dalai Lama’s brother’s name is spelled Thondup; the version found in these documents is used here.

Source:Ocnus.net 2019

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