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With an average elevation higher than the tallest peaks of Colorado, Tibet has been called the "Roof of the World."  Join Active Minds as we explore the history and controversy that surrounds this unique region.  China claims that Tibet has been part of China for centuries, while Tibet maintains that China illegally invaded the independent country in 1949.  We will cover the role of the Dalai Lama, claims of genocide, and the views of the international community as we seek to understand the situation there.

Key Lecture Points

  • Tibet has had an eventful history, during some periods functioning as an independent entity and others ruled by Chinese dynasties.
  • Shortly after seizing control of China, in 1950 Mao Zedong asserted Chinese control of Tibet, occupying the region to China’s west.   China claimed at the time, and continues to claim today that it has ruled over the region since the 13th century with only occasional interruption.  For their part, most Tibetans claim that the current political and economic occupation of their land by the Chinese violates their right to self-determination.  The situation has gained international attention as one of the major examples of the Chinese government’s disregard for human rights.  The Tibetan government in exile estimates that from 1951 to 1979 1.2 million Tibetans (one-sixth of the population) were killed by the Chinese.   China disputes these figures and claims that any loss of life has been due to the rebelliousness of those who oppose China’s rightful presence in the region.
  • The 14th Dalai Lama, born in 1935, is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists.  In 1959, under increasing pressure from China, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet and established a government in exile in Dharamsala, India.  Over the last several decades, he has gained international regard for his moral authority and spiritual leadership.  The aging of the 14th Dalai Lama raises the question of succession.  The Dalai Lama has recently said this spiritual role could end with him.
  • In accordance with his Buddhist faith, the Dalai Lama supports a “Middle Way” for Tibet, meaning peaceful negotiation with the Chinese to achieve Tibetan autonomy, rather than outright independence.  Some Tibetans however, seek total independence and secession from China.
  • The longstanding conflict over Tibet flared up in the days leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.  On March 10, 2008, the 49th anniversary of the 1959 uprising against Chinese rule of Tibet, many Tibetans, including Buddhist monks, took to the streets of the capital, Lhasa.   Protests were also held in the provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, and Gansu, which were part of ancient Tibet.  Chinese authorities responded with force.  Unrest remains in Tibet as evidenced by the self-immolations that started in 2009 and continue despite Chinese efforts to stop these acts of protest by punishing the families of those who chose to self-immolate.
  • Tibet continues to be of geopolitical significance as water becomes an increasingly scarce resource.  The Tibetan Plateau is the source of the 10 major rivers of Asia that provide water to half the population of the world.

Exploration Questions

  • Is Tibet a free nation currently occupied by China or is it legitimately a province of the People’s Republic of China?
  • What role did the adaptation of Buddhism have in Tibet?  If the Tibetan people were not so dedicated to their religion would the situation in Tibet be different?
  • What do you believe will happen when the Dalai Lama abdicates or dies?  Will there be a 15th Dalai Lama and who will appoint him?
  • What is Tibet’s geopolitical significance in today’s international scene?

Reflective Questions

  • Have you ever seen or met a strong religious leader like the Dalai Lama?  What was it like and what did they talk about?
  • Have you ever traveled to or met someone from Tibet or China?  What did you think of the country and what are the most evident cultural differences between them and the United States?

More to Explore

  • The website for the government of Tibet in exile and the Dalai Lama Click here
  • Human Rights Watch on Tibet Click here

Books for Further Reading

  • Lustgarten, Abrahm. China's Great Train: Beijing's Drive West and the Campaign to Remake Tibet. Times Books, 2008. 320 pages. A vivid account of China's unstoppable quest to build a railway into Tibet, and its obsession to transform its land and its people.
    Click here to order
  • Conboy, Kenneth J. & Morrison, James. The CIA's Secret War in Tibet. University Press of Kansas, 2002.  301 pages.  The authors reveal how America's Central Intelligence Agency encouraged Tibet's revolt against China -- and eventually came to control its fledgling resistance movement. They provide the first comprehensive, as well as most compelling account of this little known agency enterprise.
    Click here to order
  • Strober, Deborah Hart, Gerald S. Strober. His Holiness the Dalai Lama: the Oral Biography. Wiley, 2005. 304 pages.  The authors use interviews with 50 individuals close to the Dalai Lama to portray his compelling personality and the effect he has on others.
    Click here to order