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Backgrounder: The Question of Tibet

Council on Foreign Relations

Author: Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer

April 9, 2008


The recent anti-government clashes in Tibet and other regions in China demonstrate the depth of historical disagreement over the territory. Tensions between China and Tibet have persisted since People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. China says Tibet has been a part of China for many centuries now, a claim refuted by many Tibetans. Chinese authorities use this claim to support their sovereignty over the territory while proponents of the Tibetan independence point to periods in Tibetan history when it enjoyed self-rule. Meanwhile, Chinese government policies in Tibet have fed the conflict. These inlude restrictions on cultural and religious freedoms of Tibetans, attempts to change the demographics of the region through migration of ethnic Chinese, and an unwillingness to open dialogue with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Experts believe the dispute over Tibet will persist as long as China refuses to speak to the Dalai Lama, who has been in exile in neighboring India since 1959. China, however, has sought to bypass the 73-year-old Dalai Lama and concentrated instead on efforts to control the process that will determine his successor.

Unresolved Political Status

The contemporary dispute over Tibet is rooted in religious and political disputes starting in the thirteenth century. China claims that Tibet has been an inalienable part of China since the thirteenth century under the Yuan dynasty. Tibetan nationalists and their supporters counter that the Chinese Empire at that time was either a Mongol (in Chinese, Yuan) empire or a Manchu (Qing) one, which happened to include China too, and that Tibet was a protectorate, wherein Tibetans offered spiritual guidance to emperors in return for political protection.

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Copyright 2008 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on GlobalSecurity.org with specific permission from the cfr.org. Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to cfr.org.

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