Nick Kristof really has no business writing about Sino-Tibetan relations. He has limited academic knowledge, effectively zero personal connections to Tibet, and never bothers to disclose that he’s married to a Chinese American woman. But frankly, all of that is miniscule in terms of what Kristof reveals of his personal biases in a post he put up on his NY Times blog yesterday. In writing on the falling apart diplomatic situation between Beijing and the Tibetan Government in Exile following the Dalai Lama’s comments about losing faith in Beijing’s willingness to ever budge off its absolutist position on the occupation of Tibet, Kristof consistently writes from the premise that Tibetans will turn to violence. He paints in broad brushes and does so without a hint of grounding in evidence of how Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet have pursued independence over the last thirty years.
But, frankly, Kristof’s continued efforts to create Conventional Wisdom that says Tibetans will turn to violence if the Dalai Lama dies without returning to Tibet is beside the point next to the goals Kristof believes ought to be met to preclude such violence. Kristof writes:
I and others have outlined the terms — basically, the Dalai Lama accepts Beijing’s political rule over Tibet and thus grants legitimacy, and China does more to protect Tibetan culture, religion and way of life, particularly from immigration. It’s precisely the kind of agreement that Mao reached in 1951 and that Deng Xiaoping/Hu Yaobang were pushing at the beginning of the reform era, and it would leave everybody better off.
If this is Kristof’s idea of resolution, all he’s really asking for is for the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet with vague assurances that Tibetan religion, language, and culture will be protected in ways it is already protected on paper by Chinese law. That is, take the brutal situation in Tibet today, add a splash of Dalai Lama, and Kristof thinks all will be right in the world.
Moreover, look at what Kristof sets out as an ideal: the 17 Point Agreement signed in 1951. What is a defining feature of this agreement? It was signed under duress and lacks no international standing. Here’s some history from a white paper by the Tibetan Government in Exile, which would be the definitive source on what agreements agents of the Tibetan people and government took part in.
In April 1951, the Tibetan Government sent a five-member delegation to Beijing, led by Kalon Ngapo Ngawang Jigme. The Tibetan Government authorised its delegation to put forward the Tibetan stand and listen to the Chinese position. But, contrary to the claim made in the White Paper that the delegation had “full powers,” it was expressly not given the plenipotentiary authority to conclude an agreement. In fact, it was instructed to refer all important matters to the Government.
On 29 April negotiations opened with the presentation of a draft agreement by the leader of the Chinese delegation. The Tibetan delegation rejected the Chinese proposal in toto, after which the Chinese tabled a modified draft that was equally unacceptable to the Tibetan delegation. At this point, the Chinese delegates, Li Weihan and Zhang Jin-wu, made it plain that the terms, as they now stood, were final and amounted to an ultimatum. The Tibetan delegation was addressed in harsh and insulting terms, threatened with physical violence, and members were virtually kept prisoners. No further discussion was permitted, and, contrary to Chinese claims, the Tibetan delegation was prevented from contacting its Government for instructions. It was given the onerous choice of either signing the “Agreement” on its own authority or accepting responsibility for an immediate military advance on Lhasa.
Under immense Chinese pressure the Tibetan delegation signed the “Agreement of the Central People’s Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” on 23 May 1951, without being able to inform the Tibetan Government. The delegation warned the Chinese that they were signing only in their personal capacity and had no authority to bind either the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan Government to the “Agreement”.
None of this posed an obstacle to the Chinese Government to proceed with a signing ceremony and to announce to the world that an “agreement” had been concluded for the “peaceful liberation of Tibet”. Even the seals affixed to the document were forged by the Chinese Government to give it the necessary semblance of authenticity. The seventeen clauses of the “Agreement”, among other things, authorised the entry into Tibet of Chinese forces and empowered the Chinese Government to handle Tibet’s external affairs. On the other hand, it guaranteed that China would not alter the existing political system in Tibet and not interfere with the established status, function, and powers of the Dalai Lama or the Panchen Lama. The Tibetan people were to have regional autonomy, and their religious beliefs and customs were to be respected. Internal reforms in Tibet would be effected after consultation with leading Tibetans and without compulsion.
The full text of what came to be known as the “Seventeen-Point Agreement” was broadcast by Radio Beijing on 27 May 1951. This was the first time the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government heard of the devastating document. The reaction in Dromo (where the Dalai Lama was staying at that time) and Lhasa was one of shock and disbelief.
A message was immediately sent to the delegation in Beijing, reprimanding them for signing the “Agreement” without consulting the Government for instructions. The delegation was asked to send the text of the document they had signed, and wait in Beijing for further instructions. In the meantime, a telegraphic message was received from the delegation to say that the Chinese Government representative, General Zhang Jin-wu, was already on his way to Dromo, via India. It added that some of the delegation members were returning, via India, and the leader of the delegation was returning directly to Lhasa.
The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government withheld the public repudiation of the “Agreement”. The Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa on 17 August 1951 in the hope of re-negotiating a more favourable treaty with the Chinese.
On 9 September 1951, around 3,000 Chinese troops marched into Lhasa, soon followed by some 20,000 more, from eastern Tibet and from Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang) in the north. The PLA occupied the principal cities of Ruthok and Gartok, and then Gyangtse and Shigatse. With the occupation of all the major cities of Tibet, including Lhasa, and large concentration of troops throughout eastern and western Tibet, the military control of Tibet was virtually complete. From this position, China refused to re-open negotiations and the Dalai Lama had effectively lost the ability to either accept or reject any Tibet-China agreement. However, on the first occasion he had of expressing himself freely again, which came only on 20 June 1959, after his flight to India, the Dalai Lama formally repudiated the “Seventeen-Point Agreement”, as having been “thrust upon Tibetan Government and people by the threat of arms”.
In assessing the “17-Point Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” and the occupation of Tibet two factors are crucial. First, the extent to which China was violating international law when the PLA marched into Tibet, and second, the effect of the signing of the “Agreement”.
The law governing treaties is based on the universally recognised principle that the foundation of conventional obligations is the free and mutual consent of contracting parties and, conversely, that freedom of consent is essential to the validity of an agreement. Treaties brought about by the threat or the use of force lack legal validity, particularly if the coercion is applied to the country and government in question rather than only on the negotiators themselves. With China occupying large portions of Tibet and openly threatening a full military advance to Lhasa unless the treaty was signed, the “agreement” was invalid ab initio, meaning that it could not even be validated by a later act of acquiescence by the Tibetan Government.
Contrary to China’s claim in its White Paper, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government did not act voluntarily in signing the “Agreement”. In fact, Mao Zedong himself, in the Directive of Central Committee of CPC on the Policies for our Work in Tibet, issued on 6 April 1952, admitted:
(N)ot only the two Silons (i.e., prime ministers) but also the Dalai and most of his clique were reluctant to accept the Agreement and are unwilling to carry it out. … As yet we do not have a material base for fully implementing the agreement, nor do we have a base for this purpose in terms of support among the masses or in the upper stratum. [Selected Works of Mao Tsetung, Vol. 5, Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1977, p.75] [Emphasis added]
So, to back up, Kristof is putting forth an agreement signed under duress by a delegation that was not empowered to act on behalf of the Tibetan government. Discussion of the agreement was ceased following the Tibetan delegation’s objections to its content and the Chinese government, with troops poised at the border, threatened to invade Tibet and topple the Tibetan government if the delegation did not sign the agreement. The agreement itself, when signed under duress by people with no authority to approve the contents of the agreement, included provisions that allowed for the invasion of Tibet. Which is what Mao and the PLA did — invaded Tibet, conquering cities, defeating strong armed resistance across eastern Tibet in Kham and Amdo.
While the 17 Point Agreement did include some cursory protections for Tibetan religion and culture, they were never met. The only thing that came true out of the agreement made by Mao in 1951 that Kristof approvingly cites is that the PLA invaded Tibet. By citing the 1951 “agreement” Kristof reveals his lack of competence to write about Tibet. There are many histories which corroborate the narrative of diplomatic efforts laid out above. Kristof is fetishizing an illegal document that lead to a military invasion because it included the patina of language protecting religion and culture. Which, if Kristof were at least passingly familiar with the Cultural Revolution’s manifestations in Tibet, he would know never did one damned thing for protecting Tibetans under Chinese military occupation.
Nick Kristof is a joke. He has no business writing about Tibet and China. Every time he does, he reveals himself to be ignorant of modern Tibetan history, contemporary Sino-Tibetan relations, and the current desires of Tibetans inside Tibet and in exile. This is beyond embarrassing. This is the sort of punditry that leads to good people saying nothing while genocide, crime, and cultural destruction are committed. It’s time for Kristof’s editors at the New York Times get him to stop writing about Tibet.