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The Seventeen-Point Agreement

The establishment of the PRC in October 1949 set in motion events that two years later broke the deadlock over the Tibet Question.

In its formative years, the Chinese Communist party had followed the Soviet Union's lead and adopted the policy that ethnic territories in China would be autonomous republics with the right of secession. By the end of World War II, however, this policy shifted to political centralism, and when the new Communist government began, its nationality policy held that Communist China would be an indivisibly multiethnic state with autonomous nationality regions (rather than republics) that had no right to secede. Tibet was considered one such nationality region, and in late 1949 the new Chinese Communist government proclaimed its liberation as one of the main goals for the People's Liberation Army (PLA).[6]

The Tibetan government found itself in a very difficult situation. The string of fortuitous events that had prevented China from actively addressing the Tibet Question after the fall of the Qing dynasty were no longer present, so the modernization faction's fear that Tibet would some day have to defend its independence militarily was about to come to pass. Not surprisingly, Tibet's poorly armed and led military had only an amateurish plan to combat an invasion. Moreover, Tibet was more isolated internationally than at any time since 1913 because Britain no longer had any national interest in maintaining Tibet's "autonomous" status. Once it granted independence to India in 1947, London saw its role as supporting India's foreign policy, which at this time centered on establishing friendly relations with the PRC, not Tibet.

Nevertheless, the Tibetan government did not sit by idly. It responded to the Communists' victory in the Chinese civil war by sending appeals to the United States and Great Britain,


requesting civil and military assistance in the face of what it perceived as the Communist threat to its independence. The letter to Britain said:

The Chinese Communist troops have invaded the Chinese Provinces of Lanchow, Chinghai and Sinkiang; and as these Provinces are situated on the border of Tibet, we have sent an official letter to Mr. Mautsetung, leader of the Chinese Communist Government, asking him to respect the territorial integrity of Tibet.

We enclose herewith the true copy of the letter which our Government has sent to the leader of Chinese Communist Government, thinking that he may duly consider the matter. But in case the Chinese communist leader ignores our letter, and takes an aggressive attitude and sends his troops toward Tibet, then the Government of Tibet will be obligated to defend her own country by all possible means. Therefore the Government of Tibet would earnestly desire to request every possible help from your Government.

We would be most grateful if you would please consider extensive aid in respect of requirements for Civil and military purposes, and kindly let us have a favourable reply at your earliest opportunity.

The Tibetan Foreign Bureau,
Lhasa [4 November 1949][7]

The Americans were sent a similar appeal. Neither Britain nor America, however, had any interest in encouraging the Tibetans. The United States told the British "they were going to send a reply that would discourage Tibetans from expecting any aid."[8] The receipt of these noncommittal replies from the Western democracies, the main enemy of Communism, was extremely disappointing. But with its options limited, the Tibetan government decided to send missions to the United States and Great Britain (as well as China and Nepal) in the hope that face-to-face contact would generate support. On December 22, 1949, the Tibetan foreign bureau sent the following letter to President Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson:


Though Tibet has remained an Independent Country for about thirty years without any trouble, but recently the Chinese Communist leaders have announced over their Radio claiming Tibet as a part of Chinese territory and many other remarks about Tibet which are absolutely baseless and misleading. Besides the Chinese Communists have already occupied the border Provinces of Sinkiang, Sining (the Capital of Chinghai), and also Shikang.[9]

Therefore it is impossible for us to remain indifferent at such a critical time. Hence we are deputing soon Lachag Khenchung Thupten Sanghe and Rimshi Dingja to lead a special Mission to your country for the purpose of obtaining aid from your government.

We would therefore be most grateful to your honour if you would kindly render every possible assistance to our Mission on their arrival in Washington.[10]

The new Communist government protested loudly on learning of this plan, but its concerns were misplaced since the Western democracies were not interested in encouraging Tibetans, in part because they believed that this would make a Chinese invasion of Tibet more likely. They therefore refused to accept the proposed missions. The U.S. government feared that even answering the Tibetans in writing might "be considered by the Tibetans as recognition of their independent status," so the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi was instructed to pass on a verbal reply dissuading the Tibetans from sending the mission.[11] Britain did likewise.

Meanwhile, in China, the government's announcement that a major goal for 1950 was the liberation of Tibet, was not empty talk—Mao Zedong had actually begun planning the strategy for "liberating" Tibet. Mao had an excellent sense of history and understood clearly that Tibet had an international status that set it apart from every other nationality group in China. On one occasion Mao told his generals they had to be patient and go slow in Tibet: "Tibet and Xinjiang are different," he said. "In Xinjiang in the old society there were 200,000–300,000 Chinese but in Tibet there was not even a single Chinese. So


our troops are in a place where there were no Chinese in the past."[12] But not only were no Chinese living there, Tibet, as we have seen, dealt with foreign nations directly, signing international agreements of sorts and regulating entry to its territory. And even though Mao had millions of troops under arms, it was not impossible that a determined, well-equipped guerrilla army in the high, frigid mountains of Tibet could create military problems for the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Liberating Tibet militarily could therefore have serious international ramifications and could even draw in the enemies of Communist China such as the United States. Consequently, Mao Zedong believed that China's best strategy was to "liberate" Tibet peacefully; that is, with the agreement of the government of Tibet. This outcome would eliminate the possibility of a lengthy guerrilla war in the mountains of Tibet and reduce the potential for international intervention.

The problem with this strategy was that the Tibetan government was unlikely to renounce its de facto independence voluntarily to become part of Mao's Communist state. Mao therefore believed that military action would likely be needed to force Tibet to the negotiating table (as the British had done in 1903–1904), but he was clear that the goal should be to secure peaceful liberation by agreement. Consequently, in December 1949 Mao ordered preparations for an invasion of political Tibet's eastern province (centered at Chamdo), and by early 1950, the Southwest Military and Civil Bureau[13] in Chongqing was designated to lead the attack. If the Tibetan government did not quickly agree to peaceful liberation, Mao wanted the attack to start as early as the summer of 1950 because he feared that a postponement would give the Tibetans more time to muster international support.

The Chinese Communists tried to persuade the Tibetan government to begin negotiations for "peaceful liberation" by having well-known religious leaders from ethnographic Tibet (Chinese-controlled Qinghai and Sichuan/Xikang provinces)


give assurances about religious freedom and so forth. When the Tibetan government vacillated and missed a Chinese-issued deadline for sending a negotiating delegation to Beijing, Mao ordered the PLA's eighteenth army to attack Chamdo. On October 7, 1950, the PLA troops crossed the Yangtse River frontier and attacked the Tibetan troops defending the border. The military goal was not to push through to Lhasa, but rather to cut off and disable the entire ten-thousand-person Tibetan Chamdo army so that it did not retreat further west and set up a new defensive line.

The Tibetan forces were ineptly led and organized. Appointment as a general in the Tibetan army was simply another work rotation for government officials that required no special training, and the soldiers, many of whom were serving as a corvee tax, regularly brought their families with them to the front. Tibet was also employing a flawed defense strategy that the British had told them was hopeless thirteen years earlier. Consequently, when the PLA attacked, it confronted Tibetan troops strung out in small units all along the Yangtse river. Some PLA units quickly broke though the set defense line, encircling and outflanking the Tibetans, and within two weeks the PLA had captured the Tibetan army, including the governor general. The road to the capital was now open as there were virtually no reserve troops between Chamdo and Lhasa. However, in accordance with Mao's Tibet strategy, the PLA stopped its advance and again called for Lhasa to commence negotiations. Mao did not want simply to conquer Tibet, even though it would have been easy to do so. He wanted a political settlement approved by Tibet's leader, the Dalai Lama. He wanted China's claim to Tibet legitimized by having the Dalai Lama accept Chinese sovereignty and work with the PRC gradually to reform Tibet's feudal economy.

The Tibetan government's worst fear was now realized—it was under a military attack that it had no obvious means to counter. Its army did not even have a plan to shift to a guerrilla


mode to harass the PLA. Consequently, Tibet again turned for help to the world community, sending appeals to the UN, the United States, India, and Britain. The Tibetan appeal to the UN led to new examinations of the Tibet Question, in particular, whether Tibet was qualified to bring an issue before the UN since it was not a member. Article 35 (section 2) of the UN Charter said that "a state which is not a member may bring to the attention of the Security Council or the General Assembly any dispute to which it is a party if it accepts in advance, for the purposes of the dispute, the obligations of pacific settlement provided in the present Charter."[14] But was Tibet a "state"? The British foreign office examined the issue and concluded that it could qualify as a state,[15] and so could bring an issue before the UN, but as indicated above, the British foreign office also felt that India had the primary responsibility for issues dealing with Tibet, and that Britain should follow the lead of the government of India. London also believed that the UN could not enforce a demand that China withdraw its forces from Tibet and that such a failure would weaken the UN's stature. India, therefore, had a critical role, and unfortunately for Tibet, it was determined not to let Tibet hamper its development of close and friendly relations with China, so was opposed to a UN discussion.[16] Consequently, when the question was raised in the UN by El Salvador, the British and Indian representatives were the first speakers and both recommended that the Tibet issue should not be considered. Thus the proposal was adjourned.

The Tibetan government, disheartened and isolated, concluded that it had no choice but to send a negotiating delegation to Beijing, and did so in the spring of 1951. Much as they had been forced to do in 1904 after the British invasion of Lhasa, these delegates reluctantly signed an agreement on May 23, 1951. It was called the "Seventeen-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet."[17]


The Seventeen-Point Agreement ushered in a new chapter in Sino-Tibetan relations since it officially ended the conflict over the Tibet Question. Point 1 sets this out clearly: "The Tibetan people shall unite and drive out imperialist forces from Tibet: the Tibet people shall return to the big family of the Motherland—the People's Republic of China."[18] Tibet, for the first time in its 1,300 years of recorded history, had now in a formal written agreement acknowledged Chinese sovereignty. In exchange for this concession, China, in points 3, 4, 7, and 11, agreed to maintain the Dalai Lama and the traditional political-economic system intact until such time as the Tibetans wanted reforms.


Point 3.

In accordance with the policy towards nationalities laid down in the Common Programme of the Chinese People's Consultative Conference, the Tibetan people have the right of exercising national regional autonomy under the leadership of the Central People's Government.

Point 4.

The central authorities will not alter the existing political system in Tibet. The central authorities also will not alter the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama. Officials of various ranks shall hold office as usual.

Point 7.

. . . The religious beliefs, customs, and habits of the Tibetan People shall be respected, and lama monasteries shall be protected. The Central Authorities will not effect a change in the income of the monasteries.

Point 11.

In matters related to various reforms in Tibet, there will be no compulsion on the part of the central authorities. The local government of Tibet should carry out reforms of its own accord, and when the people raise demands for reform, they shall be settled by means of consultation with the leading personnel of Tibet.[19]


The Seventeen-Point Agreement gave Mao the political settlement he felt was critical to legitimize unambiguously Tibet's status as a part of China. However, this legitimization was achieved by allowing Tibet to retain its feudal-theocratic government and economy, at least for the foreseeable future. Such a concession clearly set Tibet apart from other nationality areas since it was only with Tibet that Beijing entered into a written agreement with the traditional government allowing it to continue to rule.

The Dalai Lama first heard of the signing while he was living at Yadong, the small Tibetan town near the Indian/Sikkim border where he and his top officials had moved in late 1950 preparatory to making a quick escape to India should the Chinese invade Lhasa. The announcement of the signing shocked them since the terms had not been cleared before signing. The Tibetan negotiating team had decided that referring each item to Yadong for discussion would produce endless debate and no agreement would be possible. This would result, they felt, in an all-out Chinese invasion of Tibet that would inevitably end in Tibet's defeat with much loss of life and property and the end of Tibet's Buddhist institutions. Consequently, they agreed to take responsibility for making the best deal they could, knowing that the Dalai Lama could always refuse to accept it.[20]

A heated debate ensued in Yadong regarding how to respond to the agreement. One faction advocated denouncing the agreement and fleeing into exile, while another argued that the Dalai Lama should return to Lhasa and abide by the terms of the accord. The proreturn faction looked to parts of the agreement such as point 4, previously mentioned. The rejection faction, led by lay officials such as Council Minister Surkhang, believed the Chinese could not be trusted to abide by these terms once they controlled the country. They viewed with apprehension the vagueness of point 11, which stated reforms could be made if the Tibetan people wanted them, and


point 15, which said that the central government would set up military headquarters and a military and administrative committee in Tibet to ensure the implementation of this agreement. They also disliked the fact that the agreement gave China the right to station troops in Tibet and handle Tibet's defense and foreign affairs. Ultimately they feared that admitting Chinese sovereignty would preclude future claims to independence should the situation change.

The U.S. government and CIA had played a relatively minor role in the Sino-Tibetan conflict up to then, but this was the heyday of the Cold War and the U.S. government's China policy was to harass and obstruct the new Communist state whenever possible. Chinese aggression in Tibet provided a new opportunity to do this, and Washington jumped at the opportunity. However, from the U.S. perspective, charges of Chinese Communist aggression would have little resonance if the Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa and ratified the agreement, so a major effort was made to persuade him to denounce the Seventeen-Point Agreement and flee into exile.

A rash of covert contacts occurred between Tibetan and American officials in India, as well as with the Dalai Lama in Yadong. The United States offered, among other things, to permit the Dalai Lama and a few hundred of his leading officials to move to the United States if he denounced the agreement and left Tibet,[21] but the U.S. declarations of support rang hollow, even to Tibetans inexperienced in modern diplomacy. Despite rhetoric that sang the praises of freedom and self-determination, Washington was not only unwilling to support Tibet as a nation independent of China, but was also unwilling to provide substantial military aid so that Tibetans could effectively launch a guerrilla war against the Chinese in Tibet. The United States would commit only to supporting autonomy for Tibet and to providing "light arms through India."[22] Consequently, the Dalai Lama did not denounce the agreement and flee to India.


It was difficult for Westerners to comprehend how the Dalai Lama could choose to return to a Tibet ruled by Mao, so when some Western "experts" in India suggested that the Dalai Lama was being prevented from fleeing by his own officials in Yadong, the United States concocted a bizarre plan to "free" him, sending the Dalai Lama (on July 17, 1951) a note listing three options for escape:

a. Choose small group of faithful followers and leave [Yadong] quietly with them. This wld presumably involve leaving at night in effort to avoid deputations which have come to Yatung from principal monasteries and from govt at Lhasa to persuade Dalai Lama to return to Lhasa.

b. Order [name excised from file] bring him surreptitiously to India.
[section of memo excised from file]

c. If neither (a) nor (b) feasible, Dalai Lama to send msg to [name excised from file] requesting [name excised from file] send [Heinrich] Harrer [an Austrian mountaineer who had lived in Lhasa for the past seven years] and [George] Patterson [a British missionary who had lived in eastern Tibet prior to the Communist takeover] secretly and in disguise to meet Dalai Lama near Yatung in accordance with prearranged plan and bring Dalai lama back. Detailed plan for this operation also being conveyed by [name excised from file] but he is to make it clear to Dalai Lama it is to be adopted only as a last resort.[23]

But the whole premise of this operation was absurd. The Dalai Lama was in Yadong not as a "captive" but because he and the majority of his officials found the U.S. offer lacking. From their point of view, the United States was unwilling to commit to what they sought—active and energetic U.S. diplomatic and military assistance to establish Tibet as an independent country recognized by the United Nations. The United States was willing to send its troops to Korea, but not even to recognize Tibet was an independent country, let alone arm and train Tibetans to launch a guerrilla war in Tibet. By contrast, if


the Dalai Lama accepted the agreement and returned to Lhasa, the old political system would remain intact with himself at its head. And there was hope that he could gradually persuade the Chinese to allow the core of Tibetan culture and religion to continue.

Ironically, the young Dalai Lama was not at all opposed to the idea of social reforms, nor was he wedded to the need to maintain the exploitive traditional feudal system in Tibet. In an interview in 1994 he recalled:

I myself from small liked the idea of mechanical schools. I thought we should have schools, and machines from when I was small.

The road from Phari to Lhasa was there from the British period, but even though it wasn't a car road I thought at the time it would be easy to make it into one . . . and I strongly felt that it would be good to have a vehicle road.

When we arrived in Gyantse [town] I had heard that the Phala family had a small school there, and I had strong feelings about improving schools in the rural areas, and we talked about that. I also thought that taxes like the corvee labor taxes, were extremely bad, and I also did not like the difficult custom [of people being saddled with] old debts [passed down from generation to generation]. When I was small the sweepers [in the palace] told me about these things.[24]

Consequently, the possibility that the Dalai Lama and China could reach an accommodation on change and modernization was plausible, and the Dalai Lama accepted the opinion of the majority of lay and monastic leaders, returning to Lhasa in August 1951. Chinese troops moved peacefully into Lhasa in the fall of 1951.

The Seventeen-Point Agreement established a written set of mutually agreed-upon ground rules for Tibetan-Chinese interaction and held out the promise that Tibet could function as part of the People's Republic of China without losing its distinctive way of life. This was far less than the autonomy discussed at Simla, but it was a formula China officially accepted. The Dalai


Lama indicated his formal acceptance of it through a telegram sent to Mao Zedong in late October 1951. Both sides, however, soon found that operationalizing the terms of the Seventeen-Point Agreement was neither straightforward nor easy.

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