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Click here to subscribe to the print edition. [image, unknown] new internationalist 129[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] November 1983[image, unknown] Click here to search the mega index.

Tibet Although it lies within China's boundaries, Tibet had
been virtually independent for much of its history.

Map of Tibet

There are few figures on Tibet. Tibetan and Chinese interpretations of statistics and events vary widely.

Leader: Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme (the Tibetan chairman of the peoples’ government of the Tibet Autonomous Region)

Yin Fatang (the Chinese first secretary of the Tibet region of the Chinese Communist Party committee)

Tenzin Gyatso (the Dalai Lama, living in exile in India)

Economy: nomadic herdsmen and agriculturists. Some industry and mineral deposits of coal, oil, gold and copper.

Monetary unit: yuan

People: 3,870,068 (Beijing Review, China) 6,000,000 (Dalai Lams’s office)

Health: Some hospitals in towns, barefoot doctors are very common though they have very little training and the quality is poor.

Infant mortality ‘quite high’ (Dalai Lama’s office)

Culture: Tibetans are thought to be descended from non-Chinese Chiang nomadic tribes.

Religion: Buddhism

Source: The Tibetans - and two perspectives on Tibetan-Chinese relations. Minority Rights Group Report No. 49.


WALKING along Lhasa’s main street two things catch your notice: One is the immense Potala palace which dominates the view and other is the Tibetan smell, ‘a roasted, smoky smell’ was how one visitor described it. Tibetans may appear grimy because washing is not a major preoccupation, and water is not on tap. Men hitch their jackets on one shoulder like Cossacks, but their feet are bare. The women look you in the eye, touching you to emphasise a point.

Perched up high on a inhospitable plateau in the Himalayas, Tibet maintained a de facto independence from the outside world until 1950. In the north are nomads, tending sheep and the amiable yaks which provide butter, milk, fur and meat. In the central and eastern valley regions Tibetans grow barley (the staple food), tomatoes, radishes and apricots.

Tibetans are thought to be descendants of nomadic non-Chinese tribes of Central Asia; their language and script have Burmese and Indian origins. Their way of life and food is very different from that of the Chinese,

When the Chinese came into Tibet in 1950 they saw themselves as liberating one of China’s remoter regions. The Tibetans viewed them as invaders. Tibet at the time was similar to medieval Europe. It was ruled by the Dalai Lama (believed to be a reincarnation of the Buddha of Mercy) and a hierarchy of monks (lamas) and aristocrats. About 20 per cent of Tibet’s males were monks and most land was owned by monasteries and the aristocracy.

The Chinese found themselves against a strong cultural and religious identity, and change was very slow. Sporadic revolts culminated with a major clash in Lhasa (the capital) in 1959 when the Dalai Lama fled. The Chinese then redistributed the monastic estates, benefiting the poorer peasants. But members of the old order had to undergo Thamzing (reform through struggle) which involved interrogation to obtain denunciations of landlords or officials.

In 1966 the Cultural Revolution brought eager young Red Guards to Tibet who were appalled at the slow rate of social progress. Systematic destruction of Tibet’s rich traditions began. Nearly all the temples (which numbered about 3,000 were reduced to rubble. China’s commune system was not received well, partly because the Tibetans had to grow wheat instead of barley, and partly because production had to feed the large number of Chinese there. Most positions of responsibility were held by the Chinese.

Relations between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government were secretly renewed in 1978 and a delegation visited Tibet the following year. While apparently acknowledging the devastating impact of the Cultural Revolution on the Tibetans and softening their rule, the Chinese still appear intent on trying to Sinocise the Tibetan people. Undoubtedly they have improved the health and welfare of local people. Now, as Tibetans crowd once again into the few remaining temples, where the butter lamps flicker before the shrines, hopefully they will not forget these improvements and slip back into a medieval way of life - and death.

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Better than it was before the Chinese came.
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Tibet was virtually shut off form the outside world until 1950.
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‘Traditional rural society, although polyandry was practised as wall as polygamy.
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[image, unknown] There have been health and social benefits in recent years.
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‘Very, very low’ (Dalai Lama’s office)

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Many Tibetans worked in Chinese labour camps

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‘Between 60 – 70’ (Dalai Lama’s office)

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