With the introduction of Indian Buddhism in the seventh century, Tibet grew into an independent theocracy. In the seventeenth century, the Yellow Hat sect gained supremacy and practiced Lamaism, a hierarchical organization of Tibetan Buddhist monks (lamas). Atop the hierarchy was the Dalai Lama, both the spiritual and political head of Tibetans. Just below him was the Panchen Lama.
Isolated Tibet was forced to open itself to the world in 1904 by the British, who sought to secure a trade route to China and erect a buffer against Russian expansion into British India, bordering on the south of Tibet. In 1907 Britain, Russia, and China agreed on Chinese sovereignty over Tibet and pledged noninterference in Tibetan affairs. Tibet declared its independence in late 1911 after the overthrow of China's ruling Qing dynasty. Although the two post-Qing successors, the Nationalist Chinese (1912–1949) and the Chinese communists since 1949, refused to acknowledge Tibetan independence, Tibet's resumption of Lamaism remained undisturbed, strengthening Tibetans' visions of lasting independence.
A year after the PRC's birth in October 1949, Chinese communist leaders sent 80,000 troops into Tibet in October 1950. Unable to defend his people, the fourteenth Dalai Lama unsuccessfully appealed to the United Nations (UN), the United States, Britain, and India for assistance. In May 1951, the Tibetan government reluctantly accepted the PRC's 17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, which instituted a joint Chinese-Tibetan authority. This promised Tibetans apparent autonomy.
To modernize and continue the socialist revolution, during the early 1950s PRC officials implemented a number of measures that brought Tibetan autonomy into question. These modernization efforts included land reform, heavy industrialization, the introduction of secular education, the opening of Tibet through construction of nationwide communication networks, and a purge of anti-PRC officials. Tibetans found these measures antithetical to their traditional practices of feudalism and socioeconomic simplicity and threatening to Tibetan homogeneity. Tibetans, who considered themselves a unique race, responded with a series of anti-Chinese revolts, transforming the Tibet question into an interethnic dispute between Tibetans and the Han Chinese.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) capitalized on Tibetan disaffection to advance American strategic interests. In early 1956, the CIA began to provide military training to Tibetan rebels. In autumn 1957, the CIA launched a covert operation by air-dropping into Tibet U.S.-trained Tibetan rebels along with American-made weapons and radios. This Tibetan-CIA operation led to a full-scale rebellion in Lhasa in March 1959. Chinese leaders deployed 40,000 troops to put down the rebellion, resulting in nearly 8,700 Tibetan deaths and the exile of the Dalai Lama to India. To resolve the Tibet question, the PRC named the tenth Panchen Lama as Tibet's acting head while concurrently preparing Tibet as an autonomous administrative region. In 1965, the PRC replaced Tibet's theocracy with a Chinese communist administration, making it an Autonomous Region.
With CIA assistance, the Dalai Lama and 80,000 followers settled in northern India, where they founded the Government of Tibet in Exile at Dharamsala. The Dalai Lama internationalized the Tibet question by appealing to the UN, successfully securing two Tibet resolutions in 1961 and 1965 denouncing the PRC's violation of human rights in the March 1959 rebellion. Since then, the Dalai Lama has pursued an active posture in international affairs, championing Tibet's independence and self-determination, human rights, and peace and freedom.
After 1959, the Americans reversed their previous indifference to the Tibet question and publicly supported Tibetan independence. The CIA remained active in Tibet, chiefly in intelligence gathering, especially concerning the PRC's nuclear program in the neighboring Xinjiang Province. In Tibet, the anti-Chinese movement continued after the 1959 rebellion, and the PRC has responded with periodic crackdowns. The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) marked the low point of the Tibetan-Chinese relationship, during which religious practices were condemned, monasteries were destroyed, and monks and nuns were persecuted. This triggered a massive exodus of Tibetans to India, Nepal, and Bhutan.
Two breakthroughs regarding the Tibet question were realized in the 1970s. First, to facilitate the Sino-American rapprochement, the CIA diminished its assistance to Tibetan rebels beginning in 1969. This ended altogether in 1974. Shortly before the establishment of formal Sino-American diplomatic relations, in 1978 the U.S. government recognized Tibet as part of China, thus reducing the issue to an internal Chinese affair. Second, PRC leaders moderated their policy toward Tibet after 1976. On the one hand, the government implemented a number of reforms to modernize Tibet, intending to win Tibetans' approval by raising their living standards. To curb Tibetan rebels, the PRC allowed a certain degree of religious freedom while also relocating huge numbers of Han Chinese to Tibet, intending to keep Tibetans under control through assimilation. The Tibetan cause attracted support and publicity from a number of international celebrities, such as the American movie star Richard Gere. In the 1990s, a dramatic dispute over which of two young boys was the rightful candidate to succeed as Panchen Lama, the second most influential Tibetan Buddhist figure, damaged Sino-Tibetan relations.
On the other hand, the PRC signaled its willingness to resolve the Tibet question with the Tibetan government-in-exile. Negotiations between the PRC and the Dalai Lama's exiled government began in 1979 but broke off in 1988 due to irreconcilable differences. In the early twenty-first century, the Tibet question remained unresolved.
Conboy, Kenneth, and James Morrison. The CIA's Secret War in Tibet. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2003.; Dalai Lama. Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.; Grunfeld, A. Tom. The Making of Modern Tibet. Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 1996.