Could Tibet have reformed on its own? - SOAS China Institute

//Could Tibet have reformed on its own?

Could Tibet have reformed on its own?

Lhasa, Tibet (2002) – Photo credit: John Gittings ©

By John Gittings | 15 September 2020

On 20 June 1959, two months after the Dalai Lama arrived in India having fled from Lhasa in disguise, he gave a press conference – much to the annoyance of Prime Minister Nehru – in Mussoorie.  Reading a prepared statement, he set out an argument that would become a central part of the case against the Chinese occupation by the Tibetan government in exile and their foreign supporters. This was that, left to itself, Tibet would have reformed and indeed was starting to do so, and further that these reforms were actually blocked by the Chinese.

I wish to emphasise that I and my Government have never been opposed to the reforms which are necessary in the social, economic and political systems prevailing in Tibet…. In fact, during the last nine years several reforms were proposed by me and my government, but every time these measures were strenuously opposed by the Chinese in spite of popular demand for them…

In My Land and My People (1962), the Dalai Lama put the same argument in a more nuanced way. He wrote that as he grew up he “began to see how much was wrong” with the Tibetan system of government and sought to make “some fundamental reforms”.  But, he continued, his efforts clashed with China’s very different approach to reform: once they had occupied Tibet they wanted to do things in their own more radical way which kindled Tibetan resistance. “So we had made a beginning in changing our social system from the medieval to the modern, before our progress was stopped by events which we could not control.”


I have recently revisited an interview I carried out in 1994 with Heinrich Harrer in which he discussed this issue. Harrer was the Austrian mountaineer who with a companion escaped from British internment in India, and spent most of two years in an epic crossing of western Tibet to arrive in Lhasa where he lived till the Chinese invasion. There he became an informal tutor to the young Dalai Lama, and after the flight in 1959, they resumed their friendship till Harrer’s death in 2006.


In his interview with me, Harrer said this on the possibility of reform under the Dalai Lama.

If left to itself, Tibet could have developed. As the Dalai Lama grew older he would have it done anyhow; his servants tried but it was suppressed by the monks who were a reactionary force. When there was a proposal for English in the schools it was the four monks on the Kashag [governing council] who turned it down. Some Tibetans tried for reform but said we can’t change from within, so in a way they welcomed the Chinese occupation.

Harrer’s observation reflects the ambiguity of the prospects for reform. Reactionary opposition from the monks did frustrate attempts that were made, both before and after the Chinese invasion, and this helps explain why some Tibetans thought that China’s assistance was needed, yet the conclusion remains that as the Dalai Lama grew older “he would have done it anyhow”.


In various versions, this has become part of the accepted narrative. Thus in the final sequence of Martin Scorsese’s wonderful feature film Kundun (1997) the Dalai Lama, as he is about to flee to India, is given the observation that “the saddest thing is we were about to change: we were going to do it alone”.


How far does this square with the historical record?   Most accounts of modern Tibetan history, whether coming from official Chinese sources or from Tibet scholars abroad, pay little attention to the attempts at reform in the early 1950s after China had occupied Tibet (see Elliot Sperling, China Perspectives, 2009:3).  However, the two historians – one Tibetan and one American – who have looked at this issue carefully provide a rather different picture. In his The Dragon in the Land of Snows (1999), the leading Tibetan scholar Tsering Shakya records that the Dalai Lama did set up a new office of reform designed to tackle both social and land reform, but that this merely meant “tinkering with the existing system”. Both the religious and the aristocratic establishments were totally dependent on revenue from their land estates, and “even at this late stage the religious institutions were opposed to any reforms that threatened their position in the society”.


The American anthropologist and Tibet scholar Melvyn Goldstein, in his extensive work including the four volume History of Modern Tibet (1989-2019), reaches the same conclusion. From the beginning, “the ultra-nationalistic, hard-line Tibetans created a confrontational and adversarial atmosphere” although Mao Zedong – contrary to what is widely believed – pursued a policy of moderation even to the point of arousing opposition within the CCP. However this moderate policy was not followed in cultural Tibet (the Tibetan areas that were part of several Chinese provinces), sparking rebellion there, and by the mid-1950s the situation began to deteriorate. “Chinese hardliners were pushing to begin ‘socialist transformation’ reforms in Tibet proper, and Tibetan hardliners in league with refugees from the failed uprising in ethnographic [cultural] Tibet were organizing an armed rebellion.” Though Mao made a last attempt to salvage his gradualist policy, the Dalai Lama was unable to quell the unrest within Tibet and this led to the March 1959 uprising and his flight to India (The Snow Lion and the Dragon, 1997).


So it appears that the accepted narrative is incorrect or at least that it needs qualification. (This might be compared with the role of the CIA in Tibet, often overlooked in pro-Tibetan narratives, which needs to be acknowledged although it should not be exaggerated). It still appears that Tibet would have moved, although more hesitantly and with internal opposition, along a path of reform under the 14th Dalai Lama. And it can be reasonably argued that whatever was achieved would have been better for the Tibetan people than the enormous destruction of life and cultural identity inflicted upon them by Chinese rule.


Today the repression of dissent in Tibet proper continues while religious freedom in cultural Tibet is heavily restricted, but this unhappy situation receives much less attention abroad than the plight of Xinjiang. Yet Tibet remains a very troubling issue, and questions about its past remain relevant to its present and its future.

John Gittings is a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.