The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics - a Critical Review

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For the past five decades the plight of the Tibetan people under Chinese occupation has been steadily garnering more and more media attention. To capitalize on this attention both the Tibetan Government in Exile and the People's Republic of China (PRC) have honed the arguments supporting their respective positions. However these arguments, while based on historical facts, are modern day constructs with each party putting forth their own interpretations of the past. To reconcile the modern day realities of the Sino-Tibetan conflict, Elliot Sperling a researcher at the Washington based think-tank East-West Center, set out to provide the reader a detailed examination of the major assertions by each party and the primary sources of historical information most often cited. In his book The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics, Sperling elucidates new details and insights regarding the Sino-Tibetan conflict by systematically examining original language documents dating back to the earliest days of the Chinese dynastic systems.

Sperling starts the discussion by first looking at the modern day arguments presented by both parties. At the heart of the prevailing Chinese position is the contention that Tibet has been an integral and inseparatable part of China since the early 13th Century Yuan dynasty. Modern day Chinese writers often present the issue as a patently obvious fact based on the historical record, however Sperling points out that this oversimplification of the issue lacks roots going back to the historical record and additionally ignores certain inalienable facts such as complete differences between the two languages, culture and religion.

The modern-day Tibetan position while based on historical fact is much more ambiguous. Tibetans claim that their country's relationship to the Yuan, Ming and continuing with the Qing dynasty was one of a "priest-patron" association. This type of reciprocal affiliation is quite unique and extremely specific to the Tibetan Buddhist world, so it is difficult for many westerns to understand how it relates to notions of sovereignty. Tibetans claim that starting with the Yuan Emperors, subsequent dynastic leaders helped and honored the Dalai Lama with the sole aim of earning merits in hopes of escaping he karmic cycle of Samsara. According to the Tibetans this friendship united the two countries like members of the same family, and as such the Tibetans took no notice of their national sovereignty since they thought all the actions of China were meant for the good of Tibet.

Having established the modern day arguments used by both parties, Sperling seeks to shed added light on the conflict by further dissecting the evolution of Chinese and Tibetan positions through the years. As previously stated the positions of both parties are relatively recent constructs. Sperling points out that China's assertion that Tibet has been an "integral part" since its incorporation by the Mongol Empire in 1206 was cast in its present form only after the formation of the People's Republic of China in the mid-19th Century. Prior to this time the issue of Tibet was given varying degrees of consideration by the ruling class of China.

Prior to the formation of the PRC the predominant Chinese view was that Tibet's relations with early to late imperial China were best described as vassal and overlord, an association not normally equated with a piece of territory considered an "integral part" of the nation. Additionally Sperling provides references to early Republic writers who frame Tibet's relationship with the Qing as that of a tributary or dependent state. So we see that during the Qing Empire the terms that are used to describe the Tibetan realm are ones that speak of a part of an empire, not an "integral part".

The evolution of the Tibetan argument has been far more nuanced that the black and white picture presented by China. More concerned with the intricacies of...
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