History of Tibet (1950–present) - 1976–1987: Rapprochement and Internationalization

1976–1987: Rapprochement and Internationalization

Following Mao's death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping launched initiatives of rapprochement with the exiled Tibetan leaders, hoping to persuade them to come to live in China. Ren Rong, who was Communist Party Secretary in Tibet, thought that Tibetans in Tibet were happy under Chinese Communist rule and that they shared the Chinese Communist views of the pre-Communist Tibetan rulers as oppressive despots. So, when delegations from the Tibetan government in exile visited Tibet in 1979-80, Chinese officials expected to impress the Tibetan exiles with the progress that had occurred since 1950 and with the contentment of the Tibetan populace. Ren even organized meetings in Lhasa to urge Tibetans to restrain their animosity towards the coming representatives of an old, oppressive regime. The Chinese, then, were astonished and embarrassed at the massive, tearful expressions of devotion which Tibetans made to the visiting Tibetan exiles. Thousands of Tibetans cried, prostrated, offered scarves to the visitors, and strove for a chance to touch the Dalai Lama's brother.

These events also prompted Party Secretary Hu Yaobang and Vice Premier Wan Li to visit Tibet, where they were dismayed by the conditions they found. Hu announced a reform program intended to improve economic standards for Tibetans and to foster some freedom for Tibetans to practice ethnic and cultural traditions. In some ways, this was a return from the hard line authoritarianism and assimilation policies of the 1960s to Mao's more ethnically accommodating policies of the 1950s, with the major difference that there would be no separate Tibetan government as there had been in the 1950s. Hu ordered a change in policy, calling for the revitalization of Tibetan culture, religion, and language, the building of more universities and colleges in Tibet, and an increase in the number of ethnic Tibetans in the local government. Concurrent liberalizations in economics and internal migration have also resulted in Tibet seeing more Han Chinese migrant workers, though the actual number of this floating population remains disputed.

New meetings between Chinese officials and exiled leaders took place in 1981-4, but no agreements could be reached.

In 1986-1987, the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamshala launched a new drive to win international support for their cause as a human rights issue. In response, the United States House of Representatives in June 1987 passed a resolution in support of Tibetan human rights. Between September 1987 and March 1989, four major demonstrations occurred in in Lhasa against Chinese rule. American Tibetologist Melvyn Goldstein considered the riots to be spontaneous mass expressions of Tibetan resentment, sparked in part by hope that the United States would soon provide support or pressure enabling Tibet to become independent. In 1987, the Panchen Lama delivered a speech estimating the number of prison deaths in Qinghai at approximately 5 percent of the total population in the area. The United States passed a 1988-89 Foreign Relations Act which expressed support for Tibetan human rights. The riots ironically discredited Hu's more liberal Tibetan policies and brought about a return to hard-line policies; Beijing even imposed martial law in Tibet in 1989. Emphasis on economic development brought increasing numbers of non-Tibetans to Lhasa, and the economy in Tibet became increasingly dominated by Han. Lhasa became a city where non-Tibetans equalled or outnumbered Tibetans.

When the 10th Panchen Lama addressed the Tibet Autonomous Region Standing Committee Meeting of the National People’s Congress in 1987, he detailed mass imprisonment and killings of Tibetans in Amdo (Qinghai): "there were between three to four thousand villages and towns, each having between three to four thousand families with four to five thousand people. From each town and village, about 800 to 1,000 people were imprisoned. Out of this, at least 300 to 400 people of them died in prison...In Golok area, many people were killed and their dead bodies were rolled down the hill into a big ditch. The soldiers told the family members and relatives of the dead people that they should all celebrate since the rebels had been wiped out. They were even forced to dance on the dead bodies. Soon after, they were also massacred with machine guns. They were all buried there"

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