Preferred Citation: Goldstein, Melvyn C. The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.

Interlude: De Facto Independence

Tibetan Attempts to Modernize

The failure of Simla meant that Tibet had to face the possibility of future hostilities with China. This threat prompted a clique of young Tibetan aristocratic officials led by Tsarong, a favorite of the Dalai Lama, to urge modernization in Tibet, especially


the creation of a strong military able to defend Tibet's interests. The thirteenth Dalai Lama agreed, and in rapid succession new troops were levied and officers and NCOs were sent for training to India and the British trade agency in the southern Tibetan town of Gyantse. At the same time, Tibet considered joining the International Postal Union, and a British schoolmaster was hired to open an English language school in Gyantse. Tibet was taking its first steps to join the modern world.

All this, however, sent shock waves through the monastic and aristocratic elites who held most of the land in Tibet in the form of feudal estates with hereditarily bound serflike peasants. Modernization was expensive, and they found themselves facing new tax levies to support the military buildup. Modernization, moreover, was also perceived by the religious leadership as an ideological threat to the dominance of Buddhism in Tibet, and thus to what they felt was the unique character of the Tibetan theocratic state. Equating modernization with Western atheism and secularism, the conservatives believed that it would diminish the power and importance of Buddhism. In their view, Tibet had coexisted with China for centuries with no adverse consequences for the domination of Buddhism (and the Geluk sect) in Tibet, so why, they questioned, was it now necessary to transform Tibet in these radical ways? Key conservative officials therefore campaigned to convince the Dalai Lama that the military officers were a threat to Buddhism and to his own power and authority. By the mid-1920s, their efforts had succeeded, and in one of the pivotal policy decisions of modern Tibetan history, the thirteenth Dalai Lama gutted the heart of the reform program by demoting the entire group of promodernization officers and closing the English school. Overnight, Tibet lost its best chance to create a modern polity capable of coordinating international support for its independent status and defending its territory.[8]

Tibet did not, however, pay an immediate price for this retreat into the past because China was deeply absorbed in


internal issues and conflicts and too weak to challenge the Dalai Lama. Thus, from 1913 when the last Qing officials and troops left Tibet to the death of the thirteenth Dalai Lama in 1933, no Chinese officials or troops were permitted to reside in Tibet, and the Tibetan government accepted no interference from Beijing. Chinese fortunes in Tibet improved slightly after the death of the thirteenth Dalai Lama when Tibet allowed a "condolence mission" sent by the Guomindang government of Chiang Kaishek to visit Lhasa, and then permitted it to open an office to facilitate negotiations aimed at resolving the Tibet Question. These talks proved futile, but Tibet allowed the office to remain.

The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 saved Tibet from having to defend its de facto independence from China, and Tibet continued to operate without interference from Chiang Kaishek. China did not, however, abandon its claims over Tibet. To the contrary, it effectively reinforced its position throughout the world (and in China itself) with a propaganda campaign that actively sought to create the impression that Tibet was in fact a part of China. Tibet, with virtually no officials who understood the West or spoke English, blithely ignored this ominous development, much as it had earlier closed its eyes to reality and returned British governmental correspondence unopened.


Interlude: De Facto Independence

Preferred Citation: Goldstein, Melvyn C. The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.