Tibetan tragedy began with 17-Point Agreement

by Cao Changqing

……In fact, the history of the Dalai Lama’s dealings with Beijing is a history of disappointment and disillusionment, which began from the 17-Point Agreement that was signed half a century ago. It was that agreement that formalized Beijing’s sovereignty over Tibet.

The 17-Point Agreement was signed on May 23, 1951, and embodies two major principles: first, China has sovereignty over Tibet and is responsible for Tibet’s national defense and diplomacy; second, Beijing guarantees the Tibetans’ rights to a high degree of autonomy in the ethnic Tibetan region, and Beijing will not interfere with Tibet’s culture, religion or social systems. This agreement looks like the earliest formulation of the "one country, two systems" scheme employed by Beijing today.

How could the Tibetans hand their sovereign rights over to the Chinese? Of the five Tibetan representatives who negotiated with the Chinese government and signed the agreement half a century ago, four have already died. The only survivor, Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, however, has been a high official in the Chinese government for several decades and can only parrot the official Chinese view, just as he did in a rare interview with Asiaweek last October.

In addition to the five Tibetan representatives, the Tibetan translator, P. T. Takla, also witnessed the whole process of the formation of the agreement. Takla also passed away two years ago, but fortunately I had a chance to interview him during a conference in London in 1997 and gained some first-hand knowledge about the negotiations.

Having studied Chinese in Nanjing in the 1930s and been educated at the KMT’s Central Political School, whose chairman was Chang Kai-shek , Takla spoke fluent Chinese and remembered vividly the derivation of the 17-Point Agreement.

"It was a result of force," said Takla. He recalled that, under attack by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) led by Deng Xiaoping , the few thousand-strong, poorly-armed temporary Tibetan force was soon defeated by the end of 1950 and the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, was on the verge of falling into Chinese hands. The Tibetan government had no choice but to send a delegation to negotiate with the Chinese.

Takla recalled that, upon arriving in Beijing, the Tibetan delegation, led by Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, proposed a resolution that contained four major points. First, the Tibetan government would recognize the new government in Beijing. Second, the PLA would return the Tibetan land it had occupied. Third, there should be no more than 100 people dispatched to Tibet from the new Chinese government. Fourth, no PLA army would be stationed in Tibet and the national defense of Tibet should be left for the Tibetan government to handle. In other words, the Tibetan government wished to keep the relationship it had with Chang Kai-shek’s government from 1911 to 1949, under which Tibet belonged to China, but the Tibetans were in fact in charge of all their affairs, both domestic and foreign.

But the Chinese representatives ignored the Tibetan delegation’s proposal. Instead, they brought out an "agreement" they had drafted beforehand and required the Tibetan representatives to sign it. When the Tibetans refused, Li Weihan , the chief Chinese representative, banged the table and threatened them: "Make your own choice, peace or force."

After about a month of on-and-off negotiations, the Tibetan delegation had no choice but to sign the document without asking the permission of the Tibetan government. Ngabo Ngawang Jigme and other Tibetan representatives decided to take the responsibility, for they believed that the Tibetan army could not resist an onslaught by Chinese troops, and the consequences of its attempting to do so would be worse than anything imaginable for the Tibetans. They signed the agreement as a matter of expediency for the sake of Tibet’s safety.

Although clearly aware that the agreement had not been approved by the Tibetan government, the Chinese authorities pretended that they did not know and went ahead to complete the implementation of the 17-Point Agreement. They were anxious to formalize the agreement so that the Chinese army could enter Tibet with legitimacy, and thus avoid the condemnation of international society.

According to Takla, the personal seals of the Tibetan representatives, which were applied to the agreement, were made by the Beijing authorities. Since the Tibetan delegation was obviously unhappy with the pact, both sides further implemented an appendix to the agreement. According to the appendix, "If The Dalai Lama does not consent to the Agreement and escapes to another country, his living expenses should be provided by the Tibetan government in Tibet; and whenever he comes back to Tibet, his position as the political and religious leader of the Tibetan people will not be changed." Despite the request of the Tibetan delegation, however, the Chinese authorities did not release the appendix along with the agreement, because they felt that it would invite ridicule from foreigners about China’s internal affairs. Beijing has not released the appendix to this day.

While legitimizing China’s occupation of Tibet, the agreement also spells out the fact that before the agreement, Tibet did not fully belong to China, otherwise there would be no need for the Chinese authorities to force the Tibetans to sign any agreement. The Chinese army had taken Mongolia, East Turkestan and other provinces without any hesitation or agreement, and it could equally have swiftly taken over Tibet without much difficulty. But they did not do so and instead imposed an agreement. This, at least, means that even the Chinese did not believe that Tibet totally belonged to China and felt uncomfortable claiming sovereignty over Tibet, which is why they needed some sort of document to legitimize their occupation.

Without a doubt, this 17-Point Agreement was imposed by force. The Dalai Lama and his government learned about the content of the agreement only from radio broadcasts. With hindsight, one can easily conclude that with or without the agreement, Tibet’s terrible situation would still be the same. Given the circumstances of half a century ago, however, the Tibetan delegation had at least two excuses for signing. First, facing an army that outnumbered the total population of Tibet, a bloody resistance was simply unthinkable. Second, the Tibetans (just like everybody else) could not foresee how far the communists’ evil would go, and naively believed that the tension at the time was only temporary, that eventually their relationship with China would very well be like the one they had with the KMT government, or with the Qing Dynasty. After all, the Tibetan people had managed their own affairs under such Chinese governments. It was certainly beyond the Tibetan people’s imagination that the Chinese government would not comply with the agreement that they themselves had imposed. Immediately after the Chinese army entered Tibet, the Chinese government broke the agreement -- which clearly stated that the Tibetan people would have the right to exercise autonomy in their region and that the Chinese government would not alter the existing political system in Tibet -- and started full-scale socialization in Tibet. This of course enraged the Tibetan people and led to the 1959 uprising and the escape of the Dalai Lama and his 80,000 followers.

What the Dalai Lama seeks today appears to be not much more than what is already stated in the 17-Point Agreement. Since the Chinese government has never bothered to comply with an already signed agreement, it is no wonder that they will not enter dialogue and negotiation with the Dalai Lama. Obviously, such unscrupulousness can only generate anger and resentment from the international community.

Cao Changqing is a Chinese writer and journalist based in New York.

《Taipei Times》April 25th, 2001


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