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Beijing’s 1980’s Tibetan Thaw – Missed Opportunity or Doomed to Fail?

February 28, 2013
"Police Attention: No distributing any unhealthy thoughts or objects." A trilingual (Tibetan – Chinese – English) sign above the entrance to a small cafe in Nyalam, Tibet, 1993."  From wikipedia.

“Police Attention: No distributing any unhealthy thoughts or objects.” A trilingual (Tibetan – Chinese – English) sign above the entrance to a small cafe in Nyalam, Tibet, 1993.” From wikipedia.

Today the National Security Archive is posting a collection of documents that shed new light on what could have been a turning point three decades ago in the tragic history of Sino-Tibetan relations. These years in the early 1980s constitute an interregnum of sorts between the end of covert U.S. aid to Tibetan insurgents following Nixon’s visit to China and the start of the ongoing effort by the Tibetan exile community to garner world support for their cause, prompting Beijing’s brutal crackdowns and denunciations. The current situation finds both sides seemingly entrenched in opposition, as Beijing responds to violent protests and the growing number of Tibetans choosing martyrdom through self-immolation with continued actions to brutally suppress the protests and accusations that the Dalai Lama is encouraging anti-Chinese activity (despite the fact that the Tibetan government in exile has repeatedly urged protesters not to engage in anti-Chinese actions). With Beijing asserting that Tibet is a “core” interest and vehemently denouncing any outside “meddling” in the Tibetan situation, including meetings between the Dalai Lama and world leaders, there seems to be little room for hope for improvement in the situation, much less a lasting political solution to the contending claims of the Tibetan exile community and China that will restore peace and a better life to Tibetans under Chinese rule.

The documents posted today suggest that history might have taken a different path, if the reforms initiated by the Chinese government in the late 1970s and early 1980s had fulfilled their promise. Consisting of reports from the U.S. embassies in China and India, these cables report on the results of new Chinese programs to liberalize their control in Tibet, touching on political, economic and religious activities. This Tibetan thaw, spearheaded by Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang, was initiated against the backdrop of twenty years of Chinese repression that had resulted in the decimation of the Tibetan economy, culture and religion. The new moves were also part of a wider effort to modernize the Chinese economy and place China’s relations with the world on a new footing, building on the normalization of relations with the United States following Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972. The cables include on-the-ground surveys by embassy staff on conditions in Tibet, as well as reports on discussions with representatives of the Dalai Lama who visited Beijing to discuss the Tibetan’s possible return to Tibet and wider questions about his role and Tibet’s place within China.


“Things were better than before.  Controls had relaxed.  More food was available.”

The picture painted by these cables portrays a Tibet in which there were some visible signs of real progress under the new Chinese policies, at least at the beginning, as Beijing increased its financial investment in the region and took steps to give Tibetans a greater say in the administration of their communities. Steps were also taken to loosen the repression of Tibetan religious life, including work on repairing Tibetan monasteries ravished during the 1960s.  It soon became clear that Beijing viewed Tibetan religion, and the continued devotion to the Dalai Lama, as a potential Trojan Horse that threatened to undermine Chinese authority and stability in the region. As Beijing’s financial investment began to result in the influx of ethnic Han Chinese to take advantage of the new economic opportunities, and Tibetan advancement was seen as tied to becoming more Chinese and less Tibetan, the positive gains for Tibetans became less noticeable. By the end of 1984, it was clear that no real autonomy was likely for Tibet, and that the Dalai Lama’s conditions for returning were clearly incompatible with Beijing’s idea of the very limited role he should play in Tibetan affairs.  In hindsight, these fundamental differences likely doomed the high hopes some held for the Tibetan thaw. In recognition of this, the Dalai Lama turned his attention increasingly to the search for political support on the international stage for Tibetan hopes and interests. These differences have clearly served to block any real movement toward a lasting agreement that would be acceptable to both the Tibetan exile community and the leadership in Beijing.

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  1. November 14, 2013 9:31 pm

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