Why Does China Care About Tibet?

Plus, when are monks allowed to get violent?

Tibet is a buffer between China and India, Nepal, and Bangladesh

Buddhist monks and other Tibetans began protesting in and around Lhasa on March 10, the anniversary of a major uprising against Chinese rule. Tensions have been flaring in the region ever since, with some protests turning violent. Tibet is a remote, impoverished mountain region with little arable land. Why does China care so much about keeping it?

Nationalism. China invaded Tibet in 1950, but Beijing asserts that its close relationship with the region stretches back to the 13th century, when first Tibet and then China were absorbed into the rapidly expanding Mongol empire. The Great Khanate, or the portion of the empire that contained China, Tibet, and most of East Asia, eventually became known as China’s Yuan Dynasty. Throughout the Yuan and the subsequent Ming and Qing dynasties, Tibet remained a subordinate principality of China, though its degree of independence varied over the centuries. When British forces began making inroads into Tibet from India in the early 1900s, the Qing emperors forcefully reasserted their suzerainty over the region.

Soon after, revolutionaries overthrew the Qing emperor—who, being Manchu, was cast as a foreign presence in Han-majority China—and formed a republic. Tibet took the opportunity to assert its independence and, from 1912 to 1950, ruled itself autonomously. However, Tibetan sovereignty was never recognized by China, the United Nations, or any major Western power. Both Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalists and their rivals, Mao Zedong’s Communists, believed that Tibet remained fundamentally a part of China and felt a strong nationalistic drive to return the country to its Qing-era borders. The 1950 takeover of Tibet by Mao’s army was billed as the liberation of the region from the old, semi-feudal system, as well as from imperialist (i.e., British and American) influences. Resentment of the Chinese grew among Tibetans over the following decade, and armed conflicts broke out in various parts of the region. In March 1959, the capital of Lhasa erupted in a full-blown but short-lived revolt, during which the current Dalai Lama fled to India. He has lived there in exile ever since.

There are also strategic and economic motives for China’s attachment to Tibet. The region serves as a buffer zone between China on one side and India, Nepal, and Bangladesh on the other. The Himalayan mountain range provides an added level of security as well as a military advantage. Tibet also serves as a crucial water source for China and possesses a significant mining industry. And Beijing has invested billions in Tibet over the past 10 years as part of its wide-ranging economic development plan for Western China.

Bonus Explainer: When are Buddhist monks allowed to get violent?When it’s for a compassionate cause. Monks and nuns in Tibet take at least two, and sometimes three, sets of vows that constrain their behavior. For most violations, the penalty is usually a confession that the act was committed. But if a monk were to kill another human being—one of the most serious violations of the Pratimoksha vows—he would be liable to expulsion from the monastery. That being said, there is a tradition in Tibetan mythology that could be used to justify taking violent action against an oppressor. The ninth-century king Langdarma, a follower of the Bön tradition, is popularly believed to have persecuted Buddhists during his reign. A monk assassinated him on the grounds that, by killing Langdarma, the monk was acting compassionately toward the tyrant—taking bad karma upon himself in order to spare the king from accumulating the same through his despotic actions.

It’s important to note, however, that the actual extent to which monks were responsible for the violence in Tibet remains unclear. Monks instigated the initial demonstrations, but lay Tibetans may have ratcheted up those protests to riot status.

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Explainer thanks Robert Barnett of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University, Andrew Fischer of the London School of Economics, Melvyn Goldstein of the Center for Research on Tibet at Case Western Reserve University, and Jonathan Silk of Leiden University.