The Cultural Survival Tibet Project


It has been 35 years since the Chinese invasion of Tibet (1950) and 30 years since the flight of the Dalai Lama and 100,000 refugees to Dharamsala. India (1959). During that time the Tibetan culture has been subjected to every technique of transformation known to the socialist ideology and virtually every technique for eradicating a distinct cultural identity known to Chinese assimilationist imperialism. The Tibetan community in India suffers from the twin traumas of loss of homeland and stateless refugee existence. Tibetans have also had to face the typical problems of those in many traditional societies who are abruptly thrust into the modern world.

Tibetan Nationalism Strengthens

Hugely affected by the loss of their independence, Tibetans have, nevertheless, neither been subsumed within the Chinese masses, nor, in their diaspora, assumed the usual helplessness of the refugee. Instead of accepting cultural destruction or assimilation, they have impressed the world with the energy and conviction of their philosophical beliefs and the strength of their political cause. Considering their previous isolation, they have entered the modern world with an impressive cosmopolitan sophistication.

Recent events in Tibet have strengthened the cause of Tibetan nationalism, giving it new, more sophisticated forms. At the same time, ethnic and national causes have become increasingly more visible worldwide. Although this phenomenon is not unique to any particular political system, it is perhaps most conspicuous in socialist countries because the socialist ideology had claimed to have solved the "nationalities question." Far from answering that question, however, some socialist countries - notably, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China - have used internationalist ideology to justify and perpetuate the conquests of former imperial regimes.

Nationalist unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang, and in the Soviet Union republics of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, demonstrate that the nationalities question is far from being solved in the socialist countries. These nationalities are currently demanding, if not independence, then at least the autonomy guaranteed them under the Soviet and Chinese constitutions. The Soviet nationalities have recently emphasized the latent rights of self-determination guaranteed to them by the Soviet constitution, including the right of secession. Though the Chinese constitution has no such guarantees, and China lags behind the Soviet Union in political reform, the current impetus for democratic reform will inevitably produce the same demands by the Chinese nationalities. The only question is whether self-determination will take the form of secession, more meaningful autonomy or new forms of political relationships between nationalities.

These demands for autonomy inevitably conflict with the political interests of large, multinational states. States cannot be expected to willingly surrender centralized political power or territory. In the case of Tibet, which has a strong tradition of cultural distinctness and political independence, and China, which combines a traditional assimilationist policy with socialist internationalist ideology, the conflict is extreme. This conflict is certain to increase in the coming years, even under a Chinese policy of further liberalization. The legacy of past Chinese repression in Tibet, the continuing lack of genuine self-determination and the growth of Tibetan nationalist sentiments have made continuing conflict inevitable.

Tibetan Culture/Chinese Culture

The level of communication and understanding between Chinese and Tibetans and between China and the outside world on this issue is very low. The Tibetan and Chinese cultures, traditional political ideologies and physical ecologies are vastly different. Attitudes toward religion, in particular, could not be more disparate. The Tibetan cultural and political system is dominated by Buddhism. The Chinese, on the other hand, have traditionally cared little for religion and currently profess a radically antireligious political philosophy. The two cultures, though immediate neighbors, are separated by a physical boundary of altitude and have historically had little direct cultural or political contact.

China's concept of itself as the "Middle Kingdom," or center of all human culture, has led to its minimal respect for all foreign cultures. Ethnic groups living on China's immediate borders were usually not regarded as having any culture at all. Bestowing Chinese culture on them was considered a gift of all the benefits of civilization, rejection of which was incomprehensible.

The Chinese have bad little knowledge of or respect for the actual character of Tibetan society and culture outside of the parameters of their own chauvinist ideology and, later, socialist theology. Most Chinese are still unaware of Tibet's desire for greater independence from China, since the expression of such sentiments is prohibited by law. They believe that most Tibetans are grateful for China's "assistance" and would voluntarily opt for a continued association (though few would give them the opportunity to express their choice). Demands for Tibetan independence from China are credited to the "Dalai clique." Chinese officials patronizingly discredit Tibetans' ability to crease a modern independent political system of their own; they assume that the Tibetans must either become Chinese or fall again under the dominance of feudalism and its imperialist supporters.


Not only are present Tibetan aspirations a matter of dispute, but the entire historical record, both pre-and post-1950, is a matter of great controversy. For China, the Tibet issue is one of great controversy. For China, the Tibet issue is one of great sensitivity: it challenges all of China's most fundamental legitimating ideologies, both the traditional universalist "Mandate of Heaven" and the modern anti-imperialist "Liberation" ideology of socialism. Chinese intransigence on the Tibet question is seemingly equaled only be Tibetans' determination to achieve their independence.


Although the Tibet issue is one between China and Tibet (or, as the Chinese insist, "an internal affair of the People's Republic of China"), foreigners can and have had an impact on the situation. Tibetans are well aware that protest against Chinese rule is futile without an international audience. Although China proclaims indifference to foreign sympathy for Tibetans or to "bourgeois" human rights standards, in fact it is extremely sensitive and responsive. International concern for the rights of Tibetans can play a large role in any eventual solution to the Tibet issue.

Outline of the Project

Although Tibetan Buddhist studies have recently flourished, relatively little academic research has been devoted to Tibetan politics, modern Tibetan nationalism or the evolving political relationship between China and Tibet. Sino-Tibetan relations are often regarded as a question of the past, a history that was terminated when China annexed Tibet in 1950-1959, Research on the continuing evolution of Sino-Tibetan political and cultural relations and the rights of self-determination for Tibet - and for all nationalities within multinational states - is imperative.

The purpose of the Cultural Survival Tibet Project will be to support scholarship on questions of modern Tibetan politics, to attempt to create greater understanding between Chinese and Tibetans and to introduce the Tibet question at as many academic and governmental forums as possible. The project will focus on research, translations and publications, and communication and dialogue as means to achieve these ends.

Research Priorities

The project will focus on the history and evolution of Sino-Tibetan cultural and political relations and on the development of modern Tibetan nationalism. The fundamental questions of the ethnic and cultural origins of both the Chinese and the Tibetans and their corresponding cultural and political ideologies are essential to an understanding of both the historical and contemporary political questions. Tibetan claims to independent nationhood rest upon their ethnic and cultural distinctiveness, issues challenged by Chinese claims that Tibetans originate from Chinese tribes.

Although Tibet is apparently one of the most culturally cohesive societies of Asia, united by the comprehensive ideology of Tibetan Buddhism, Tibet in fact contains its own ethnic minorities. The ethnic and cultural origins and aspirations of these peoples and of the Tibetans themselves are important questions in regard to future political relationships.

The history of Chinese frontier relations, and relations between Hans, Tibetans, Mongols and Manchu, are essential to an understanding of the current situation. Imperial China had a highly idealized policy of foreign relations. It maintained the fiction that the Inner Asian nomad empires were tributary to China, when in fact China only bought the good behavior of the tribesmen with lavish bribes of Chinese products. China saw itself as the center of all world civilization; foreign nations had to legitimate this ideology. China regarded even highly sophisticated frontier nationalities as barbaric. These attitudes continues to determine China's relations with its minority nationalities.

China's traditional assimilationist policy toward-its border nationalities has been exacerbated by the addition of the equally assimilationist ideology of Marxist-Leninist "proletarian internationalism." Both the Mandate of Heaven and the Marxist "Mandate of History" are universalist ideologies that deny the validity of alternative cultural or political systems. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also adopted the Leninist doctrine of national self-determination. It deviates from the Leninist model in some significant aspects, however. In particular, it denies China's minorities the status of "nation", and therefore does not guarantee their cultural preservation. A main focus of the Tibet Project will be to research China's traditional cultural ideology and policy on foreign relations, the socialist doctrines on self-determination for nationalities and the CCP nationalities doctrine and its implementation is Tibet.

The project will also emphasize academic study of the phenomenon of nationalism in the modern world in general, and in Inner Asia and Tibet in particular. The nationalities of Inner Asia - Turks, Mongols and Tibetans - have had a long history of independent cultural and political existence up until the industrial age. The modern political states of this region, especially the Soviet Union and China, are not nation-states but instead are multinational remnants of the previous empires. Minority nationalities are developing their own national consciousness and need a national state format in which to express it.

Tibet epitomizes this phenomenon. If has an ancient, unique, rich cultural heritage, but only recent stirrings of modern national consciousness. Tibet had maintained its independence through vaguely defined arrangements of political and religious patronage with Mongols, Manchu and Chinese until the beginning of this century. This system collapsed before Tibet could become an independent state within the modern state system.

Tibet is one of the best examples in the world of the legitimate but denied right of a well-defined nation for national self-determination. Tibet will probably remain in conflict with China until self-determination, whether in the form of independence, autonomy or some sort of consociational arrangement, is achieved. This political compromise can provide an example for other nations that are struggling for cultural survival and political coexistence with larger states.

The nature of any future Tibetan policy also involves many questions surrounding the detention of national, cultural and political boundaries. Tibet's ecological boundaries are well defined by attitude, but the peoples living within these boundaries are diverse. Tibet was also traditionally fragmented by regional and sectarian divisions; the evolution of a unified Tibetan state capable of overcoming these divisions will pose difficult, but interesting, problems.

Tibet is beset with the problems created by China's occupation and its attempted transformation of Tibetan society. Political allegiance is still generally accorded to the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile in India, but the most recent experiences of the exile community have been considerably different from those of Tibetans who remained in Tibet under Chinese rule. Eventual reconciliation of these two groups of Tibetans poses difficult problems.

Tibet as an independent or autonomous polity must formulate a policy for dealing with ecology, development, and the impact of technology, industry and - especially important for Tibet - tourism. Tourism as administered by the Chinese has had important political and economic motives and consequences. The Tibetans themselves must determine their policy on tourism, given its significant cultural impact. Tibet's policy on economic development, especially forest resources and hydroelectricity, and communication and cultural links are very important but little-studied subjects.

Translations and Publications

A major goal of the Cultural Survival Tibet Project is to publish articles and studies on modern Tibetan politics. Support will come either from Cultural Survival or other publishers, or through research expenses for academic work intended for publication. The project will also finance translations from Tibetan of materials relevant to the subject.

Political and historical writings both from Tibet and from the Tibetan government-in-exile will be translated and published as resources permit. Recent liberalization in China has uncovered a fount of long-suppressed Tibetan scholarship. The Minorities' presses in Lhasa, Singing, Chengdu and Beijing have published studies on many previously forbidden topics. Important studies of the history of Chinese policies in Tibet since 1950 have been published by the Tibet Autonomous Region Academy of Sciences. By maintaining contacts both with the Library of Tibetan scholars in China, the project will attempt to acquire and publish important and relevant materials on all aspects of Tibetan history, culture and politics.

In particular, the project will attempt to finance the translation of refugee accounts gathered by the Tibetan Resistance in 1959-1960. These accounts were gathered from political and cultural leaders, many from the areas of Kham and Amdo where the revolt against the Chinese began; each local leader described events in his area during 1950-1959, the period when China gained control and initiated its "democratic reforms." These accounts, which have never been translated, are important documents for the historical records of all Tibet, but especially for the most isolated areas of eastern Tibet, where Chinese policies first precipitated open revolt.

Communications and Dialogue

The project will attempt to increase understanding about the Tibet question through interviews with Chinese students and officials and through contacts and dialogue between Chinese and Tibetans and between Chinese and concerned foreigners. These contacts, necessarily informal at first, can eventually lead to more organized meetings or conferences. The Tibet Project will introduce the question of Tibet at as many forums, both academic and governmental, as possible. The project will organize or affiliate with as many functions relating to Tibet or to human rights in Asia as resources permit. The project will attempt to participate in political action on Tibet with the US Congress and government agencies, and with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

At present some 26,000 Chinese students are studying at American universities - students who can play important roles in China's future. The project will contact Chinese students and officials both as a way to research Chinese attitudes on Tibet and to create awareness among Chinese students about the aspirations of Tibetans. The initiation of a Chinese-Tibetan dialogue could be extremely important for the future of the Tibetan - and Chinese - nation.

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