China Invades and Begins Rule of Tibet

The Chinese invasion of Tibet and the subsequent Chinese rule and modernization of the country led to savage repression and widespread environmental destruction.

Summary of Event

In September, 1949, the Chinese Communist Party, Communist Party, Chinese led by its founder Mao Zedong, completed its seizure of power in mainland China. Chinese Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan. In July, 1949, the Chinese Nationalist Mission and its puppet, the Panchen Lama, had been expelled from Tibet as a signal that Tibetans were reasserting the independence of their theocratic country. On October 7, 1950, however, claiming officially that “Tibet is part of China,” Chinese Communist troops invaded Eastern Tibet. [kw]China Invades and Begins Rule of Tibet (Oct. 7, 1950)
[kw]Tibet, China Invades and Begins Rule of (Oct. 7, 1950)
China;invasion of Tibet
Tibet;Chinese invasion of
Anticolonial movements;Tibet
China;invasion of Tibet
Tibet;Chinese invasion of
Anticolonial movements;Tibet
[g]Asia;Oct. 7, 1950: China Invades and Begins Rule of Tibet[03270]
[g]Tibet;Oct. 7, 1950: China Invades and Begins Rule of Tibet[03270]
[g]China;Oct. 7, 1950: China Invades and Begins Rule of Tibet[03270]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 7, 1950: China Invades and Begins Rule of Tibet[03270]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Oct. 7, 1950: China Invades and Begins Rule of Tibet[03270]
[c]Environmental issues;Oct. 7, 1950: China Invades and Begins Rule of Tibet[03270]
[c]Human rights;Oct. 7, 1950: China Invades and Begins Rule of Tibet[03270]
Mao Zedong
Dalai Lama
Panchen Lama
Nehru, Jawaharlal
Ngabo Ngawang Jigme
Dan Guansan

Although China’s People’s Liberation Army People’s Liberation Army, Chinese[Peoples Liberation Army, Chinese] (PLA) easily defeated the small and antiquated Tibetan forces, the Chinese refrained initially from driving the PLA to the Tibetan capital in Lhasa. Instead, their approach toward Tibetans appeared conciliatory. To that end, they respected Tibetan monasteries, seats and symbols of Tibet’s theocratic government. They further agreed that Tibetan religion would be respected and that Tibet’s supreme religious leader, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, then in exile, would be welcome to return to Lhasa. As a goodwill gesture, captured Tibetan soldiers were released.

By May, 1951, the Chinese “liberation” of Tibet appeared to be based upon mutual cooperation and conciliation. This seemed to be confirmed by the signing in Beijing, also in May, of the first Sino-Tibetan treaty in one thousand years. The treaty defined Tibet as part of China, something the Chinese had asserted for centuries, and something Tibetan officials were constrained to acknowledge.

During the next three years, however, the Chinese tightened their control over Tibet. PLA troops appeared in Lhasa, and new military highways were constructed through formidable terrain to afford the PLA reliable linkages to home. At the same time, Sino-Tibetan relations deteriorated. Few Tibetans showed any inclination to embrace communist ideology, despite Chinese attempts to subvert the religious authority represented by Tibet’s thousands of monasteries. Chinese demands for the replacement of certain Tibetan officials likewise met with resistance.

Discontent had become endemic in Tibet by 1954, when the Dalai Lama was invited to Beijing; while there, he discussed the creation of a “Unified Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet.” During his absence (even though food and fuel were scarce in Tibet) Tibetans kept their resistance in check, fearing the Dalai Lama was Mao’s hostage. Upon the Dalai Lama’s return, however, Eastern Tibet erupted Civil wars;Tibet in guerrilla warfare, and Tibetan armed assaults on the Chinese swiftly exploded elsewhere. After a Chinese garrison near Lhasa was annihilated, Chinese reaction turned savage. Lamas and monks were humiliated, beaten, tortured, and slain. Monasteries were shelled. Ordinary people were terrorized, women were raped, and children were forcibly taken from their homes and sent to China for “reeducation.” Sacred Tibetan books, relics, and other religious objects were seized or destroyed, as the Chinese, their patience gone, sought to eradicate what they perceived as a backward people and a theocratic regime mired in medieval practices.

In January, 1959, when the Dalai Lama was summoned again to Beijing, he demurred on grounds that he was undergoing lengthy and strenuous religious examinations—a response infuriating to antireligious communists. Shortly thereafter, in March, when the Dalai Lama accepted an invitation to attend festivities at a Chinese military post in Lhasa, a Chinese official was killed by Tibetans who were fearful that the Dalai Lama had entered a Chinese trap. The Chinese Military Area Command under General Dan Guansan thereupon sought to crush rebellion with maximum force. The Dalai Lama and thousands of refugees escaped to India, where Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave them sanctuary, while the Tibetan cabinet denounced the treaty with China and reclaimed Tibetan independence. Other cabinet officers, such as Ngabo Ngawang Jigme and enemies of the Dalai Lama, collaborated with the Chinese.

China’s subsequent efforts to eradicate all opposition in Tibet set the stage for disaster in both the human environment and in the ecology of the region. The human environment was savaged in the name of modernization. International monitors estimated that, over the course of the next decade, about 1.2 million Tibetans were killed or were forcibly resettled in China. Hundreds of thousands were pressed into forced labor, while more than 100,000 Tibetans fled into exile. Nearly all of Tibet’s four thousand lamaseries and monasteries were looted or destroyed. Millions of Han Chinese were brought in to colonize Tibet, and by 1980 Han Chinese outnumbered native Tibetans.

Traditional Tibetan agriculture and other industries previously serving the Dalai Lama and a regime of monks were wiped out. Tibet’s economic resources were exploited for the benefit of Chinese settlers and the Chinese army; Tibetans received only the surpluses. Chinese-style communes appeared everywhere, and massive attempts to reeducate the remaining Tibetans were initiated. Nearly complete destruction of any remaining Tibetan culture occurred between 1966 and 1968 during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.


The Chinese Communists modernized Tibet Tibet;modernization
Modernization . They transformed its agriculture; established a modern transport and communication network; opened a number of coal, graphite, and boron mines; founded many light industries; doubled the number of hydroelectric plants by 1970; electrified the country; drastically improved sanitation facilities and urban infrastructures; and altered traditional Tibetan trade routes. For exiled Tibetans and the Dalai Lama’s close followers, however, the price for such modernization was excessive.

Living standards for native Tibetans—in contrast to Chinese settlers—remained low. Worse, according to evidence weighed by the International Commission of Jurists, an independent legal association, the Chinese in Tibet were guilty of “the gravest crime of which any . . . nation can be accused . . . the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such.” A conference of Buddhists in Indonesia castigated the Chinese for their assaults on the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhists, while in September, 1973, the Soviet Union charged the Chinese with genocide in Tibet. The U.S. State Department consistently decried Chinese repressions and violations of human rights in Tibet from the 1950’s into the 1990’s. After Mao’s death in 1976, many Chinese unofficially acknowledged such depredations but attributed them to the infamous and by-then discredited Gang of Four, a group that dominated the Cultural Revolution in China during the mid-1960’s. Officially, the Chinese government continued to emphasize the undeniable progress of modernization in Tibet.

The impetus for China’s seizure and forced modernization of Tibet sprang from Tibet’s strategic geographical position. Tibet flanked China’s Sinkiang Province, which the Chinese believed was vulnerable to Soviet ambitions. Such concerns were exacerbated after the rift in Sino-Soviet cooperation in 1960. Furthermore, the Chinese had long-standing disputes along their borders with India. They believed that this geopolitical situation placed them in a vise between Soviet and Indian territorial interests. Not least, after the Korean War, in which the Chinese intervened against the United States and its United Nations allies from 1950 to 1953, the Chinese worked swiftly to develop an arsenal of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

Of these strategic considerations, none was more important to the Chinese than the military integrity of Sinkiang Province. Sites in sparsely populated and inhospitable Sinkiang were the centers of China’s first atomic Nuclear weapons;China installations. The province was a major source of uranium ores; with Soviet assistance, the Chinese produced weapons-grade uranium there. Rising Sino-Soviet tensions along Sinkiang’s border with Soviet Kazakhstan during the next few years prompted the Chinese to seek a safer haven in Tibet for some Lop Nor atomic facilities.

Although the precise location of the Tibetan nuclear sites was not disclosed, The New York Times reported in 1969 that the sites were located in high valleys among the mountains north of the Himalayas, where they were unlikely to be struck by Soviet bombs or missiles. In Western Tibet, too, by 1974, the Chinese had deployed between fifty and one hundred ballistic missiles with 1,500-mile ranges, all with nuclear warheads. In addition, the Chinese constructed at least twenty-five new airbases across southern Tibet north of the Himalayas, principally on the Chang Thang plateau.

The environmental impacts of these nuclear installations, test sites, missile ranges, and airbases were reported by international observers to have been severe. Nomadic herdsmen, for example, who traditionally had tended their flocks in Western Tibet near Rudok, were forced from their ranges by Chinese officials. The building of steel mills, roads, mines, and military installations destroyed the alpine grasses upon which Tibetan yak herds depended. The herdsmen themselves were obliged to enter agricultural communes and adapt to sedentary ways, or they were assigned to forced labor. In many subtle ways the region’s ecology was altered. Although Chinese settlers introduced modern agricultural machinery and new crops and soon claimed significant increments to the crops’ yields, food supplies for native Tibetans remained scarce into the 1980’s.

Environmental changes that accompanied the development of Chinese atomic weaponry in Tibet and adjacent Sinkiang were more dramatic. On October 1, 1964, the Chinese detonated their first atomic bomb at Lop Nor, and additional bombs were tested, several in atmospheric bursts, during the next two decades.

Meanwhile, Tibetan resistance to Chinese authority continued. Khamba tribesmen in Eastern Tibet persisted in using guerrilla warfare that they had begun in the early 1950’s against the Chinese. Likewise, the revolt that erupted in Lhasa in 1959 spread throughout the country, and resistance never entirely disappeared. In 1989, the still-exiled Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his pacific resistance to Chinese violations of human rights in Tibet and for the international attention that he had drawn to the environmental damage that accompanied Chinese development in Tibet. China;invasion of Tibet
Tibet;Chinese invasion of
Anticolonial movements;Tibet

Further Reading

  • Barber, Noel. From the Land of Lost Content: The Dalai Lama’s Fight for Tibet. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970. Barber, an experienced international observer, recounts the Dalai Lama’s early struggles against the Chinese in Tibet. Chapters represent a month-by-month account of the 1959 revolt. Map of Lhasan plain and a historical appendix.
  • Gilbert, Rodney Yonkers. Genocide in Tibet: A Study in Communist Aggression. New York: American-Asian Educational Exchange, 1959. Presents evidence that the Chinese sought to eliminate the native Tibetan population through a combination of killings, wholesale removal of Tibetans to China, forced labor, Chinese colonization of Tibet, and the eradication of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan language. Maps, bibliography.
  • Karan, Pradyumna P. The Changing Face of Tibet. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1976. An excellent survey of the impact of Chinese ideology upon the physical, economic, political, and cultural landscapes of Tibet. Gives a balanced account of the Chinese invasion and the beginnings of Chinese modernization in Tibet. Maps, photographs, extensive bibliography, index.
  • Kol �s, �shild, and Monika P. Thowsen. On the Margins of Tibet: Cultural Survival on the Sino-Tibetan Frontier. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005. A study of the state, preservation, and survival of Tibetan culture—including language, literature, visual arts, museums, performing arts, festivals, and religion—in the context of Chinese influence in the region.
  • Lamb, Alastair. Asian Frontiers: Studies in a Continuing Problem. New York: Praeger, 1964. A scholarly analysis of the problems presented to China (and other Asian powers) by vulnerable and contested frontiers. Provides insights into Chinese and Soviet concerns over Sinkiang and Tibet, as well as China’s and India’s quarrels over the China-India, Nepalese, Bhutan, and Tibetan borders. Notes, bibliography, index.
  • Normanton, Simon. Tibet: The Lost Civilization. New York: Viking Press, 1988. A lavishly illustrated survey of Tibet and of the colonial rivalries that exposed its people to Western powers during the first half of the twentieth century. Chapters dealing with the last days of old Tibet and events behind the so-called Bamboo Curtain are especially relevant. Many splendid photographs.
  • Sperling, Elliot. The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics. Policy Studies 7. Washington, D.C.: East-West Center Washington, 2004. A recommended resource that examines the ongoing history of conflict between Tibet and China. Available at http://www.east .htm./
  • Suyin, Han. Lhasa: The Open City. New York: Putnam, 1977. Permitted to visit Tibet in 1975, Suyin recounts her firsthand observations of Tibet fifteen years after the Chinese invasion. Emphasis is upon China’s modernization of once-feudal Tibet. Despite a distinctive pro-Chinese bias, there is much useful information in this well-written work. Map, illustrations, notes, bibliography, valuable index.

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