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U.S. Officials Hoped Chinese Liberalization Program for Tibet in Early 1980s Would Bring Significant Improvements

Declassified Embassy Cables Assess Rationales for Beijing's Short-Lived Policy and Reasons for Its Collapse

China's Proposed Inducement – to Elect the Dalai Lama to the Chinese Legislature – "is not to be compared with being a living god in Lhasa," U.S. Embassy Wrote

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 414

Posted - February 28, 2013

Edited by Robert A. Wampler, PhD

For more information contact:
Robert A. Wampler 202/994-7000 or wampler@gwu.edu

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Washington, D.C., February 28, 2013 – U.S. officials had hopes thirty years ago that a political liberalization and economic reform program China had initiated in Tibet could lead to real improvements in that country, according to declassified documents posted today by the National Security Archive.

The documents describe a path diametrically at odds with the one Beijing has pursued in recent years – suppressing violent protests, arresting scores of ethnic Tibetans in the Qinghai province, which borders Tibet, sentencing one to prison for 13 years, and renewing accusations that the Dalai Lama is encouraging anti-Beijing actions (despite the fact that the Tibetan exile government has specifically urged protesters not to engage in them). In part due to this crackdown in China, the protests, including self-immolations, have spread to other countries, with the most recent occurring in Nepal's capital, Katmandu.[1]

As the number of self-immolations since 2009 recently climbed over 100, the documents raise questions about whether Beijing's pursuit of a more flexible policy toward Tibet could have mitigated the downward spiral in that country's wretched political and economic conditions.

U.S. interest in the Tibet protests was underscored in October 2012 when news reports revealed that in late September U.S. Ambassador to Beijing Gary Locke (himself a third-generation Chinese American) had visited the Aba Prefecture in Sichuan Province, the center of the self-immolations, and met with Tibetan monks. That act surely displeased China, which considers Tibet to be a "core interest" and always protests vehemently whenever U.S. officials meet with the Dalai Lama.[2]

The National Security Archive obtained the documents – cables from the U.S. embassies in Beijing and New Delhi – through the Freedom of Information Act. They provide a fascinating window into the short-lived liberalization campaign of 1982-1984, assessing China's motivations for pursuing it, the impact on the people of Tibet, and the parallel efforts to reach a modus vivendi between the Dalai Lama and Beijing that might pave the way for his return to Tibet and China. U.S. officials hoped that major political changes affecting China from the 1970s - such as Nixon's visit to Beijing in 1972 (which also ended U.S. covert aid to Tibetan rebels), Mao Zedong's death in 1976 and the rise of a less ideological leadership under Deng Xiaoping - might provide the basis for such a shift. But events developed in a different direction, largely because of Chinese domestic politics.

Among the points made in these embassy reports are:

  • Assessing the first year of the new liberalization plan, the U.S. embassy summarized the Chinese plan as "Pump in more funds from central government coffers, adopt a series of flexible economic measures which encourage individual initiative, and give Tibetans a larger voice in administering their own affairs as well as a measure of religious freedom." Yet in practice, religious liberalization remained a sensitive and slow process, due to Chinese concerns about unleashing potentially destabilizing forces, based on the public response to the Tibetan fact-finding team in 1979, and the embassy had no doubt Beijing would crack down hard on any large-scale unrest (a prescient observation). (Document 1)
  • Some Tibetans viewed the effort to expand education with suspicion or cynicism, with one claiming the Chinese minorities institutes' main goal was "simply to train Tibetans to be the agents of the Chinese," while the need to learn Chinese and attend Chinese schools to secure any hope of advancement could result in the Tibetan culture being "virtually extinguished" within a decade. (Document 2)
  • Embassy officials and some Tibetans felt the Chinese reforms were motivated both by fears that Russia might exploit Tibetan nationalism, as well as the desire to "erase Tibet as a negative example of what happens to autonomous areas in China," as the Panchen Lama put it, in order to facilitate Beijing's concurrent negotiations with Taiwan. (Documents 1, 3 and 4)
  • In assessing China's offer to allow the Dalai Lama to return to China to live, with occasional visits to Tibet, on the same terms as in 1959 before he was forced to flee the country, the U.S. embassy in Beijing wryly noted that "although the Chinese promise equivalent treatment for the Dalai Lama as pre-1959, being vice-chairman of the NPC Standing Committee in Beijing is not to be compared with being a living god in Lhasa." (Document 11)
  • It was becoming clear by late 1984 that the talks on the Dalai Lama's return were mired in irreconcilable differences, as Tibetans in Dharamsala told the U.S. embassy in New Delhi that the Chinese were "historically obtuse" and were likely waiting for time to take its toll on both the Dalai Lama and Tibetan culture. (Document 12)

In hindsight, it is likely that this experiment in liberalization and rapprochement between China and Tibet was foredoomed, as some of the cables suggest. Yet at the time, there seemed to be grounds for hope, however slight. Under Deng and his close colleague, Hu Yaobang, China began to tackle major issues including economic modernization, addressing security concerns with Russia and India, moving toward normalizing relations with the U.S., and a new relationship with Taiwan.

These wider concerns provided the context for Beijing's new direction in Tibet. In the 1950s, Deng had for a time advocated a gradualist approach to bringing Tibet into China, and one of his goals now was to put relations between Beijing and Tibet on a new path. To this end he met with Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama's brother, in Beijing in late 1978 and reportedly told him China was open to talks with the Dalai Lama about anything except Tibetan independence, a crucial proviso. These talks led to a fact-finding tour of Tibet in 1979 by representatives of the Dalai Lama's Central Tibetan Administration, based in Dharamsala, India, including another brother of the Dalai Lama, which revealed both the decimation of the Tibetan economy, culture and religion wrought by the past two decades of Chinese repression, as well as the incredibly deep reverence and devotion still held by Tibetans for the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism, exhibited in the exuberant demonstrations that greeted the Tibetan representatives at every stop of their tour. In a rueful, often-quoted observation, a Chinese official who witnessed such a reception in Lhasa concluded that "The efforts of the last 20 years have been wasted in a single day."

Photograph of the Potala, the Dalai Lama’s former residence before fleeing to India in 1959.

Source: photographed by Philipp Roelli (2005); released under the GFDL by creator. Available here.

In 1980, Hu Yaobang, now Party Secretary, made his own personal tour of Tibet and was shocked to discover the dismal conditions prevailing in the region. Hu prepared a report that damned China's own policies, and called for steps to move toward genuine autonomy for Tibet, including having at least two-thirds of the Tibetan government be made up of Tibetan party members, improving living conditions, instituting economic reforms, and providing support for Tibetan religion and culture, including requiring Chinese party members working in the region to learn the Tibetan language.[3]

As the documents below discuss, the new Chinese policies in Tibet and the efforts to engage the Dalai Lama in talks did not produce either a long-lasting improvement in the lives of Tibetans or the Tibetan leader's return from exile. The reforms did bring some advances. Tibetans were allowed to travel more freely between India and Tibet to reestablish family ties with the exile community. Beijing opened its coffers to fund economic development in the region. Respect for Tibetan culture, language and religion were made part of official policy goals, and Beijing took steps to repair monasteries badly damaged during the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s. Still, the region remained extremely backward with widespread illiteracy and virtually no technological progress. As one U.S. embassy cable remarked, "the wheel . . . remains out of vogue" in most of Tibet. (Document 6). In practice, the reforms did little to heal the social, economic and cultural splits within the region, as divisions between the native Tibetans and Han Chinese remained as deep as ever. Moreover, the program to foster economic development resulted in reinforcing Chinese primacy, as Chinese language skills and training remained key to advancement while Han Chinese surged into Tibet to reap the profits of Beijing's financial investment in the region, further diminishing the ability of Tibetans to find employment, especially in the urban areas.

Perhaps most important, decades of Chinese rule did little or nothing to diminish the reverence felt by the Tibetans for their spiritual and, to some, political leader, the exiled Dalai Lama. While it appeared in the early 1980s that the people of Tibet were reconciled to the fact that their political future lay with Beijing, it was also clear that "the last decades have demonstrated that they will not easily give up their traditional way of life, their unique religion, and their reverence for their religious leaders, up to and including the Dalai Lama." (Document 8) If the fear felt in Beijing that the Tibetan leader could become the rallying point for a resurgent Tibetan nationalism was not sufficient to hinder the talks about his possible return, the political steps that the Dalai Lama argued were necessary to protect and preserve Tibetan culture before he would return were anathema to Beijing. (And it is useful to remember that the Dalai Lama had his own followers to worry about, as he had to ward off criticisms that he was too forthcoming in even accepting talks with Beijing and should be pushing for full Tibetan independence.)

In the end, time and circumstance worked to end the foreshortened Tibetan spring. By 1987 Hu Yaobang had fallen out of favor with Deng and lost his post as Party Chairman, and Beijing reverted to more repressive policies in Tibet. The Dalai Lama, rebuffed in his efforts to persuade China to grant Tibet an autonomy that would truly protect Tibetan culture and religion, turned increasingly to the world stage to press his claims, resulting in further entrenchment by the Chinese. With this shift, the Tibetan problem opened a new chapter.[4]



Document 1: Cable, Amembassy Beijing to SecState 7523 (C), no subject (re China's Tibet policies), July 21, 1981

Here, the U.S. embassy provides an assessment of the first year of Beijing's Tibet liberalization policies, based in part on observations made during a recent visit by embassy officers to Tibet. The essential parts of the plan were to "Pump in more funds from central government coffers, adopt a series of flexible economic measures which encourage individual initiative, and give Tibetans a larger voice in administering their own affairs as well as a measure of religious freedom," as Hu Yaobang and his like-minded colleagues gambled that these moves would forge a more durable bond between Tibet and China.

The embassy saw modest improvement in conditions in Tibet as a result, with the most significant gains in rural areas where 95% of Tibetans lived, while the picture was more mixed in urban areas, where change was coming more slowly. Beijing was moving cautiously in implementing religious freedom, probably the most sensitive part of the reform initiatives. Also, despite recent signs that the Dalai Lama had publicly recognized the role played by Hu in the liberalization program, it seemed that Chinese interest in bringing the Dalai Lama back had declined, possibly due to the spontaneous demonstrations in support of the Dalai Lama when his representatives visited Tibet on their fact-finding mission.

The risk was that over time the new policies might engender a "renewed upsurge of Tibetan nationalism." The embassy felt that the Chinese were likely most concerned with the potential for Tibetan nationalism to provide an opening for Soviet meddling in Tibet, and that this fear was a primary motivation behind the reforms in Tibet. Looking ahead, the embassy noted that once the reforms took root, it would not be easy to reverse them, thus placing some constraints on Beijing, but if large-scale unrest should arise again, the Chinese leadership would not hesitate to crack down hard.


Document 2: Cable, Amembassy Beijing to SecState 626 (C), Subject: "More on Conditions in Tibet," January 19, 1982

This cable passes on information obtained from a Tibetan informant living in Lhasa. According to this informant, "thousands" of Tibetan youth, mostly uneducated and anti-Chinese but unarmed, were organized into dissident groups awaiting the Dalai Lama's return. The source, who both attended and taught at Beijing's minorities institutes, felt these institutes were a waste of time, with a curriculum that focused on teaching the Chinese language and Marist theories, not technical skills: "The institutes' purpose was simply to train Tibetans to be the agents of the Chinese," though recent curriculum changes showed greater sensitivity to local customs.

The source admitted that conditions in Tibet overall had improved since Hu Yaobang's visit in 1980, but that there were continuing problems. Many of the Han cadre with managerial and technical expertise had left, resulting in the closing of several factories near Lhasa due to the lack of knowledgeable Tibetans to take over from them. Families were still afraid to send their sons to monasteries out of fear that the current liberal policies might end. Looking ahead, the informant feared that the influence of Chinese domination was so great that within ten years Tibetan culture would be "virtually extinguished," a decline marked by the need to learn Chinese and attend Chinese schools to secure any hope of advancement.


Document 3: Cable, Amembassy Beijing to SecState 6604 (C), Subject: "Sino-Tibetan Negotiations on a Tibet Settlement," May 21, 1982 [redacted]

This cable reports on meetings between a Tibetan delegation representing the Dalai Lama and mid-level Chinese officials to negotiate the conditions under which the Dalai Lama could return to Tibet. While still holding that Tibet had "always been independent of China, politically," the Tibetans acknowledged that the situation was different from what it had been 30 years ago. The Dalai Lama had set down three conditions for his return: 1) that the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) be enlarged to include Tibetan minority groups in Sichuan, Qinghai and Yunnan; 2) that China offer the Tibetans something similar to the 9 Point proposal made to Taiwan[5]; and 3) that while under Chinese "suzerainty" Tibet should be demilitarized and made a "zone of peace."

While the Chinese agreed to discuss the first point, they rejected any comparison between Tibet and Taiwan, and characterized the third demand as "outrageous." The Chinese for their part admitted that errors had been made under the Gang of Four, and indicated that Beijing was keen to settle the Tibetan problem and hoped the Dalai Lama would be able to return "to his people." To these ends, Beijing was gradually giving Tibet more autonomy, was ready to discuss areas in which more autonomy was needed, and claimed that under the new arrangement, i.e. the recent liberalization, China would not interfere at all in religious and social affairs. The Tibetan delegation believed the Chinese were very anxious to settle the Tibetan problem and for the Dalai Lama to return to China, and that despite protestations to the contrary, the Chinese felt that resolving the issue would highlight Beijing's sincerity in dealing with Taiwan.


Document 4: Cable, Amembassy Beijing to SecState 7257 (C), Subject: "Sino-Tibetan Negotiations in Beijing," June 4, 1982 [redacted]

This cable continues reporting on the talks between the Tibetan delegation and Chinese officials about the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet. The Chinese, represented by Vice Minister of the Nationalities Affairs Commission Li Wenrui, and Yang Jingren, director of the Communist Party Central Committee's United Front Work Department (and the highest ranking Muslim in the Chinese leadership), continued to defer requests for talks with top-ranking Chinese leaders, and to press the Tibetans to scale down their demands (see prior cable for details). In a separate meeting, the Panchen Lama told the Tibetan delegation that the Chinese wanted to "erase Tibet as a negative example of what happens to autonomous areas in China" in order to facilitate their negotiations with Taiwan, and to reach an agreement with the Dalai Lama before the Party Congress slated for late 1982. An agreement arguably would help Deng politically by confirming the success of his conciliatory approach to China's minority populations, and strengthen his hand internally and externally in dealing with the Taiwan problem, and in preparation for the Party Congress. The Panchen Lama also said that the Soviet Union was using radio broadcasts in Tibetan to encourage Tibetans to leave China and come to the USSR, where conditions were claimed to be much better for nationalities.


Document 5: Cable, Amembassy Beijing to SecState 15728 (C), Subject: "Chinese Restate Policy Toward Dalai Lama," November 17, 1982

This cable reports on a Beijing Review article that criticized the Dalai Lama's recent meetings with local government officials in France, Italy and the USSR, and restated China's position on the Dalai Lama and Tibet. It also revealed details about the proposals put forth by the Tibetan delegation the previous June and China's reasons for rejecting them (see above cables). The article stressed that the Dalai Lama was not just a religious leader but also a political figure, and criticized foreigners asserting the independence of Tibet as "separatists and others with ulterior motives," who were confusing Tibetan Buddhist religiosity with political motivations. In a separate but likely coordinated move, the Panchen Lama declared in Sichuan that religious believers should "First be citizens of the PRC led by the Communist Party, and next be believers; they must first love the party, love the country, and love socialism and become good citizens and only then are they good religious believers who love religion." In its comments, the U.S. embassy saw in the article a hardening of Beijing's line since the previous summer. It found the Panchen Lama's remarks "excessively servile," and likely damaging to any claims he had to represent Tibetan Buddhists, and that they served to "underline the Chinese authorities' fears of the dangers of religion becoming an anti-national, anti-communist force, and the necessity to keep religion and patriotism together in harness."


Document 6: Cable, Amembassy Beijing 936 to SecState (C), Subject: "Embassy Officers' Visit to Tibet," January 21, 1983

This lengthy cable provides not only a report on conditions in Tibet, but a primer on the historical and cultural background of Sino-Tibetan relations going back to the 19th century, highlighting what embassy officers saw as the key events in this history. The baseline was a country that was extremely backward, with widespread illiteracy, few technological advances ("the wheel – practically unknown in most of Tibet before 1/50 – remains out of vogue"), and 90% of the population living in rural areas, most of these nomadic herders. The overall picture portrayed was of "modest but significant progress" in implementing Beijing's liberalization program in Tibet, with Tibetans saying times were better than before and Chinese controls had relaxed.

Work was proceeding on repairing monasteries damaged during the Cultural Revolution, but China was moving more slowly in allowing lamas to inhabit them, and there were reported obstacles to recruiting new lamas. While thirty years of Chinese Han rule had essentially wiped out the Buddhist Tibetan theocracy, traces of the feudal nature of this society remained, religious fervor among Tibetans remained strong and was seen everywhere, and the deep divide between Tibetans and Chinese seemed as formidable as ever, with neither side seeming to want to narrow it. Security remained a priority concern for Beijing, as they continued to confront a situation in which the Dalai Lama was still the most important political figure in Tibet. The Dalai Lama's strong conditions for his return to Tibet, as well as his highly publicized travels and meetings in Europe and Russia, clearly angered the Chinese, but the embassy felt that Beijing's goals of peaceful reunification with Taiwan and normalization of relations with India gave the Dalai Lama leverage in negotiations, and his return could lend support to the liberalization process in Tibet. The Dalai Lama also had risks to weigh: returning would put his fate in China's hands, but remaining in exile could diminish his influence over time.


Document 7: Cable, Amembassy Beijing to SecState 7848 (C), Subject: "Reforms in Tibet," May 10, 1984

This cable reports on a recent flurry of Chinese media attention focused on economic, cultural, and political reform in Tibet. The news included an extension of tax exemptions for Tibetans until 1990, and the newly adopted goal of doubling the real income of Tibetan-nationality farmers and herdsmen over the next 3 to 5 years. The emphasis in all of the announced reforms and goals was on improving the economic well being and living standards of the Tibetan and other minorities in the region. At the center of these moves was Hu Yaobang, continuing his special interest in Tibet dating to his visit in 1980. "In effect, Tibet's economic development is being financed by the National Government and has been since Hu's visit in 1980." These moves were also driven by Beijing's concern over foreign criticism of the Han domination in Tibet and the continued Tibetan reverence for the Dalai Lama.


Document 8: Cable, Amembassy Beijing to SecState 17388 (C), Subject: "Tibet: Relaxation and Liberalization," September 18, 1984 [NOTE: the first sections of the cable are repeated in this copy]

This cable reports on a visit by embassy officials to Tibet in September 1984. One main thrust of the report is the continued deep division between a "modernizing Han Chinese elite" and native Tibetan society, who strike an "uneasy balance wherever the coexist'" even after the abandonment of efforts to Sinicize Tibet and the start of reforms in 1980. This was seen clearly in Lhasa, where, while Chinese control seemed accepted as a fact of life, the two communities were in effect two different towns. The cable provides the background to these reform policies, initiated in 1980, which had been codified in Central Committee document no. 6, which emerged from the Communist Party Secretariat's "Forum on Work in Tibet," held in February 1984. Though unpublished, the essential points were known: respect for and development of Tibetan culture, protection of freedom of religion, and assistance to the Tibetan people to "get rich."

Often the results were more akin to window dressing, as the "patriotic personages," i.e., reconciled and rehabilitated members of the old theocracy, received seemingly prestigious positions, but with no real influence. Some Tibetans, raised and educated in neighboring provinces such as Sichuan and Yunnan, had taken positions of power, and the Chinese government was training young Tibetans, called "nationality intellectuals," in China for eventual technical and leadership roles in Tibet. Outside this growing China-trained elite, however, the vast majority of Tibetans held on to their traditional culture, traditional occupations, practiced Tibetan Buddhism and revered the former theocratic leaders, the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. Important to completing and legitimizing its takeover of Tibet, Beijing very much wanted the Dalai Lama to return in a non-political role, likely along the lines of that played by the pliant Panchen Lama. This was one goal of the recent policy liberalization, though officials were also quick to note that he was not essential to the success of these policies.


Document 9: Cable, Amembassy Beijing to SecState 17486 (C), Subject: "Tibet: A Modest Religious Revival," September 18, 1984

This cable continues the report begun in the document above, and focuses on religious conditions in Tibet as seen during a recent visit to the region by embassy officers. The diplomats found that, after years of official oppression, the liberalization reforms that had begun following Hu Yaobang's visit in 1980 had resulted in widespread religious activity in Tibet once more. Based on Chinese information, around 75 Tibetan monasteries had been restored and reopened, with another 125 under repair (out of an original 2,700). The return of lamas to monastic life continued to move slowly, though more were being trained at a government-funded Buddhist institute near Lhasa (reflecting Beijing's determination to strengthen Party leadership over religious work), and among the people traditional religious faith seems to remain very strong. These changes were the result of the Chinese government's realization that traditional culture and religion in Tibet had proven resistant to Han Chinese efforts to suppress them, and that religious toleration might ease Tibetan resentment of Chinese rule, though China was clearly bent on ensuring the lamas did not also recover their theocratic authority in the secular arena.

The results, as observed by the embassy officers, were a "limited religious renaissance and a slow recovery from the days, both before and during the Cultural Revolution, when monasteries were destroyed and monks sent to labor camps." Beijing also appeared to hope that the reforms would persuade the Dalai Lama to return, though the conditions both sides had placed on a visit made this an unlikely near-term possibility. In its comment on this report, the embassy noted that while many who suffered through the years since 1959 continued to harbor doubts about the Chinese reforms, they were still helping to carry them out due to their desire to revive traditional Tibetan cultural and religious practices. "Religion . . . is so inextricably bound up with Tibetan life that the great majority of Tibetans appear to remain committed to their faith, a fact the Chinese have recognized and – for the time being at least – accepted as inevitable."


Document 10: Cable, Amembassy Beijing to SecState 22077 (C), Subject: "Dalai Lama's Representatives Continue Their Talks in China," November 26, 1984 [redacted]

This cable reports on meetings between three of the Dalai Lama's representatives and the Chinese minister in charge of the state nationalities commission and an unnamed "state leader" since October 21. Based on the talks so far, the embassy had concluded that Beijing was in no hurry for the Dalai Lama to return, unless it was on China's strict terms. In addition to the proposals the Tibetans had put forward in 1982, which were strongly rejected by Beijing (see Documents 3-5 above), the Dalai Lama's representatives raised new issues, including 1) the increased personal attacks on the Dalai Lama as a traitor by Tibet Communist Party officials and assertions that the Dalai Lama no longer had a role to play in Tibet; 2) alleged Chinese atrocities in the past year, including the alleged arrest of 1,000 Tibetan religious figures and so-called "nationalists" during the anti-crime campaign in Fall 1983; 3) the introduction of large numbers of Han Chinese into Tibet in1984; and 4) the increase in the number of PLA troops in Tibet.

Rebuffing these criticisms as incorrect or misinformed, the Chinese had reportedly told the Tibetans bluntly to give up their calls for a separate Tibetan state or there would be no grounds for future discussions. The Tibetan delegation concluded that the Chinese attitude had clearly hardened since the last talks in 1982. This negative attitude was also reflected in the advice the Panchen Lama gave the visiting Tibetans when he said that it was not a good idea for the Dalai Lama to visit in 1985, and in the sense that the authorities in Lhasa, whom the Tibetan delegation believed were determined to make the Dalai Lama essentially irrelevant over the long run, were even less enthusiastic about a visit than officials in Beijing. The embassy's conclusion: "Given the uncompromising Chinese attitude reflected during this visit, if the Dalai Lama does return in the near future, it will have to be on Beijing's terms. For that reason, we believe the Dalai Lama will not be returning from exile in the near future."


Document 11: Cable, Amembassy Beijing to SecState 22386 (C). Subject: "China Outlines Policy to Dalai Lama's Representatives," November 29, 1984

This cable follows up the previous one in reporting on the talks between the Dalai Lama's representatives and Chinese officials about the Tibetan leader's possible return to China and Tibet. After five weeks of private meetings, the visiting Tibetans met with the head of the CCP Central Committee's United Front World Department, Jang Jingren, a meeting that received ample media coverage in China. Based on these reports, Jang outlined for the Tibetans the 5-point policy (quoted in the cable) that was first proposed to the Dalai Lama's brother, Gyalo Thondup, in 1981 by CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang, but remained unpublicized until now. Among the five points were: the Dalai Lama and his followers should recognize and have confidence in China's long-term political stability, economic growth and good relations among all nationalities; the Dalai Lama's representatives should not "beat around the bush or look for a bargain. There should be no more arguing over the events in 1959. It's better to forget it;" Beijing would sincerely welcome the Dalai Lama and his followers back to China to live, assuming he would support China's unification and modernization, and help to promote unity between the Han and Tibetans in the TAR; if the Dalai Lama did return to live, it would be on the same terms as in 1959, and the CCP Central Committee would recommend that he be elected vice-chairman of the National People's Congress Standing Committee and other posts. Beijing pointedly advised that he not return to live in Tibet, though he could visit occasionally.

In other remarks, Yang praised the Dalai Lama's recent characterization of Chinese leaders as "trustworthy," but also criticized calls by other Tibetan exiles for Tibetan independence, asserting that this effort to "restore feudal serfdom" would never succeed. In its comments, the U.S. embassy found the Chinese positions perhaps slightly more generous than in the past, but noted that the 5-point policy did not yield ground on any of the Dalai Lama's criteria for returning. Overall, the embassy believed that Beijing was unwilling to reach a modus vivendi with the Tibetan leader on anything but its own terms. And as a final somewhat arch comment put it, "although the Chinese promise equivalent treatment for the Dalai Lama as pre-1959, being vice-chairman of the NPC Standing Committee in Beijing is not to be compared with being a living god in Lhasa."


Document 12: Cable, Amembassy New Delhi to SecState 27637 (C), Subject: "Tibet and China: Dalai Lama's Secretariat Disputes Chinese Press Reports," December 12, 1984

This cable reports on talks between an officer from the U.S. embassy in New Delhi and Tashi Wangi, an official with the Dalai Lama's official secretariat, about a press release issued by the Dalai Lama that disputed Chinese accounts of the recent meetings between his representatives and Chinese officials. (see Documents 10 and 11) According to the Tibetans, the purpose of the meetings was to discuss not the Dalai Lama's return, but the cultural aspirations of Tibetans. Pending reports from the returning Tibetan representatives, who had been held incommunicado during their time in Beijing, the Tibetans in Dharamsala believed that the Chinese were trying to direct focus away from the real problem of Tibet's status. Still, while the Chinese had not been responsive to the Tibetans' concerns, the Dalai Lama's secretariat found "the fact that the Chinese have met with the Dalai Lama's representatives at all a positive sign after twenty-five years of exile."

Wangdi also discussed current conditions in Tibet, which presented a mixed picture of positive steps (freer travel between Tibet and India, allowing the use of the Tibetan language and preserving Tibetan cultural monuments), as well as negative. Living conditions in Tibet were bad, and Wangdi said even the Chinese admitted this, as the vaunted economic reforms had wrecked havoc, with Han Chinese flooding into the region to take advantage of the increased investment, resulting in an increase in inflation and unemployment for Tibetans living in the cities, who could not move to the country to seek work without losing their ration privileges. Overall, Wangdi felt the Chinese attitude was "historically obtuse," demanding great patience from the Tibetans. He also believed the Chinese thought time was on their side and that they could afford to wait for the Tibetan issue to die away. Given this reality, the Dalai Lama's greatest fear was the total eradication of Tibetan culture. These concerns, not the Dalai Lama's return, were the primary reason for the recent talks in the Tibetans' view.



[1] On the most recent protests and the Chinese government's efforts to crack down on them, see "China jails 1, detains 70 in crackdown on self-immolations in ethnic Tibetan areas," AP, Washington Post, February 8, 2013; "Tibetan anti-China protester who set himself on fire in Nepal's capital dies in hospital,
AP, Washington Post, February 14, 2013.

[2] On Ambassador Locke's visits to the Tibetan monasteries, see "U.S. Ambassador Confirms Meeting With Tibetans in Western China" by Edward Wong, The New York Times, October 17, 2012.

[3] Good discussions of the background to the new Chinese Tibet policy, as well as of the ensuing reforms and efforts to engage in talks leading to the Dalai Lama's return, can be found in Thomas Laird, The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama (Grove Press, NY, 2006), especially pp. 339-354 for the impact of the Cultural Revolution and Gang of Four, the origins of the new Tibet policies under Deng and Hu, and the talks discussed in these cables. Also useful is Sam Van Schaik, Tibet: A History (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2011), which discusses the impact of the Cultural Revolution and the repressive policies in Tibet (pp. 241-249), as well as the short period of liberalization and the abortive talks (pp. 256-259). Both books contain the remark by the Chinese official who witnessed the celebratory reception for the Tibetan fact-finding tour in Lhasa in 1979.

[4] On the end of the abortive 1980s talks , the shifts in Beijing's Tibet policy and the Dalai Lama's new strategy, see van Schaik, Tibet, pp. 259-260.

[5] In September 1981, Beijing presented Taiwan with a nine-point unification proposal under a "one country-two systems" formula. The proposed agreement would allow Taiwan to "maintain a high degree of autonomy as a special administrative region" and to maintain its economic system, armed forces and private property rights. See Dennis van Vranken Hickey, United States-Taiwan Security Ties: From Cold War to Containment (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1994), p. 96 (quotation in the original).


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