With the controversy surrounding the Dalai Lama visit to Botswana gaining momentum, I took time to go through some historical archives and talk with some history scholars on whether Tibet has been an integral part of China or not.
By Solly Rakgomo, Mmegi Online – 10 August 2017
I also took time to interview one thoroughbred scholar of History by the name Dr Boga Thura Manatsha. Having studied for his PHD in Japan and being a specialist in the politics of the Near East, I found Dr Manatsha’s historical account of Tibet- China relationship corroborating with my other historical sources on the issue of Tibet and China.
Historically, as Dr Manatsha asserts, Tibet was not integral part of China as claimed by China. According to him, between seventh and eighth centuries, Tibet was an independent strong state, which conducted military expeditions into China, Nepal, India and Mongolia. Around the 13th century, the Mongol invaded China and established their rule (The Mongol Rule, or in Chinese, the Yuan Dynasty). Even though the Yuan were very strong, Manatsha states that the relations with the Tibetans were that of vassalage or dependency, not total control (or Tibet being integrated into China). Chinese Historian, Xing Lao and Manatsha agrees that when the Mongol fell, the Ming Dynasty took over and maintained the same relations with Tibet (sometimes even taking the Priest-Patron relationship). The Ming fell too, and the Manchus (who were foreigners) took over China in 1644. They ruled until 1911. The Manchus were known in China as the Qing Dynasty. It must be noted that the Qing Dynasty which was the last, to rule China maintained the same vassalage or dependency relationship with Tibet. For example one historical account shows that around 1788-1793, there was the Nepalese Gorka invasion of Tibet after a conflict over the quality of coins manufactured by Nepal to Tibet spiraled out of control. The Tibetans as usual were assisted by the Qing Dynasty to repel the Nepalese Gorka aggression. Even though all these dynasties have offered some much-needed protection to the Tibetans, they have never integrated Tibet to become part of China. In Manatsha’s historical account, the Qing ruled, somehow, with ineffectiveness, especially during the last part of the 19th century. It was also during this period (1840s) that Western powers invaded China.
In 1842, Dr Manatsha reasons, the British forced China to sign the Treaty of Nanking (after the opium wars) where the British, due to lack of understanding and or deliberately, thought of Tibet-China relations has that of ‘suzerainty’ (a sovereign or a state exercising political control over a dependent state).
This term would later confuse the whole thing. Another historian Tzian Xe shares Manatsha’s sentiments that as the British also feared the Russians, and thought that by recognising Tibet as being under China, this would lessen the chances of Russia interfering into Tibetan affairs. The scholars reasons that the truth is that Tibet recognised China as a neighbour, and went on to deal with foreign countries, including the Russians and that it had never occurred in the Tibetans’ minds that they were ‘integral’ to their neighbour, China, until they were told so after the fall of the Qing in 1911, and forcefully by the Communists in 1949.
When the Qing Dynasty fell in 1911, the Nationalists, who wanted to establish a strong republican state of China took over. Tzian Xe and Manatsha posit that was the time when the issue of Tibet being integral part of China started to gain some entry into the ‘new official history’. This means that all along, the writings on China-Tibet relations did not show any ‘integral’, but continued to show ‘vassalage’ status. When the Nationalists were defeated by the Communists in 1949, Dr Manatsha states that the Communists started the political project of reunification of China, and, thus, considered Tibet integral part of China. They ‘misrepresented’ history to suit their grandiose agenda of Great China. The Tibetans refused. In 1950, the Communists invaded Tibet, forcing the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama to accept to be integral part of China, for the first time in history.
With no choice, the Dalai Lama signed the 17-Point Agreement, but refused to accept that Tibet has been integral part of China since the 13th century. The Chinese wanted to hear that, and used ‘officialised’ history to justify it.
In fact, he says both the Tibetans and the Chinese misrepresented history to suit their political project. The Tibetans, on their part, later claimed that they wanted Greater Tibet, an area which included the areas not historically under the direct jurisdiction of the Dalai Lama. China does not accept this, and will never. The Chinese, by design, completely insisted that Tibet has always been under them. It is interesting as Manatsha has noted, that when the 17-Point Agreement was signed in 1951, the translators struggled because in the Tibetan language, there was no word for China. This I fully agree with him that it is interesting because it imply that the Tibetans did not know the name of their country, China, which they had lived in since the 13th century? This truly shows that Tibet for many centuries has existed as independent state not as part of China.