Tibet and China from 1890 to 1912

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The relationship between Tibet and the Manchu (Quing) Dynasty from 1890 to 1912

The last phase in this outline of the history of Sino-Tibetan relations, though the shortest one in terms of chronology, is filled with events, which had a far-reaching importance for the further political development of Tibet. Hardly any other period in the whole of Tibetan history witnessed such swift changes.

While the other outer ramparts of China’s far-flung empire were being battered down one after another in the nineteenth century, the mainland itself being carved up into so-called “spheres of interest”, Tibet together with Outer Mongolia (the present-day Mongolian People’s Republic) were the last of China’s former dependencies to survive in union with the Empire, as they did till the time of the Hsin-hai revolution in 1911.

From the historical point of view, there are many similarities between the position of Tibet and that of Outer Mongolia in the framework of the Chinese Empire. Both countries were attached to China relatively recently (in the Ch’ing period) and both were similarly neglected by the Chinese central government. Nevertheless, it would seem that the Manchus showed more sympathy towards the Mongols than towards the Tibetans, conferring for example more privileges on the Mongol nobility and employing more Mongols in the central administration and in the army (even several Ambans in Lhasa were of the Mongol origin). Mongolia, in general, was nearer to the Manchus, geographically, ethnically, and- culturally, than Tibet which in all these aspects was more remote, not to say alien. If nevertheless the Manchus, and later on the Republicans as well, were ready to wage a tough diplomatic and military struggle for Tibet I a struggle harder and more protracted than that for Mongolia – this was primarily for political and prestige reasons.

For, to lose Tibet which had been finally taken over only after such a long period of manoeuvring, would mean for China not only “to lose face” but, worse-still, to open the back door to the penetration of Tibet and perhaps eventually China by undesirable foreign elements. It would also mean withdrawal from what was strategically one of the most important points on the. whole Asian continent for China.

However, at the same time, the strategic value of Tibet and its traditional influence in other Lamaist countries were similarly realised even in Britain and Russia, two rival powers’both interested in exploiting Tibet. Their diplomatic manoeuvres carried on in and around Tibet at that time complicated even further the whole problem of Sino-Tibetan relations and made its solution even more difficult.

The Anglo-Chinese Calcutta Convention of 1890 started the first round in the notorious diplomatic chess-game over Tibet. One important feature of this convention is the fact that though related exclusively to Tibet, without any direct Chinese interest being involved, it was concluded on the part of the Tibetans not by any Tibetan plenipotentiary, but only by the Representative of the Chinese central government in Lhasa, the Amban Sheng T ’ai (1890-1892). This seems to prove, better than anything else, that China’s sovereignty in Tibet was a commonly recognized and accepted reality, which nobody, not even Great Britain, was prepared to question.

Exactly the same procedure was followed in 1893 when the British and Chinese governments signed at Darjeeling a set of Regulations governing trade, communication, and pasturage. The main points of these Regulations were: an undertaking by China to establish a trade-mart at Gro-mo (better known under its Chinese name Ya-tung) to be opened to all British subjects for purposes of trade (article l); all despatches from the Government of India to the Chinese Imperial Resident in Tibet to be handed over by the Political Officer for Sikkim to the Chinese Frontier Officer (article VII); and the Tibetans grazing their cattle in Sikkim to be subject to British authority (article IX).

However, British attempts at economic and political penetration into Tibet still encountered several difficulties. These were basically of two kinds. First, when the time arrived to carry out the above mentioned treaties, it was found that the Tibetans, under the pretext that these treaties were not signed by them, refused to countenance the delimitation of the Sikkim-Tibet frontier, mutilating and destroying boundary pillars already erected, and paralysing all attempts to develop trade with Ya-tung. All British complaints about Tibetan obstructiveness met with an unfavourable response, letters from the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon (1898-1905), to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Ngag-dbang-blo-bzang-thub-bstan-rgya-mtsho (1876- 1933) , being consistently returned unopened.

Secondly, it would seem that even the British government itself, during these years, was opposed to too hasty an advance into Tibet, and some of Curzon’s proposals to open direct negotiations with the Dalai Lama and to establish a permanent British Representative at Lhasa seemed to the home government rather rash, at least for the moment. Undoubtedly, this cautious attitude was dictated to some extent by the then still prevailing view that it was only possible to deal with Lhasa through Peking.

However, the whole situation changed when the British government began to see a threat in Russian policy towards Tibet, which in these years entered a new and more active phase. For years, Tsarist Russia had been regarded by the British as the main threat to their interests on the Asian continent, particularly to the safety of the borders of India. It was with this in mind that their constant policy towards Russia in Asia was to prevent any direct contacts between the territories subject to the British rule and those subject to the Russian domination. One of the most effective means to achieve this goal was the creation of buffer states within which all unwanted foreign influence could be checked or neutralized before reaching British territory itself. Britain had such plans, for example, with Afghanistan, and similarly with Tibet.

Russia was indeed far away from Tibet, but its prestige stood very high in that country. A Russian subject, a Buryat lama Agvan Dorjiev, who had come to Lhasa about 1880, had managed to establish himself as the unofficial representative of the Russian government. He was several times entrusted with secret missions’ from the Dalai-Lama to the Tsar Nicholas (in 1898, 1900, and 1901), and rumours were also spread that Russia was considering establishing a consulate in the East-Tibetan town of Ta-chien-lu (in 1901).

Another cause of apprehension on the part of British government developed in connection with the secret agreement alleged to exist between Russia and China (made in 1902?) by which the former would guarantee the integrity of China, while the latter in turn would transfer to Russia all her interests in Tibet. Though both Russia and China officially denied such rumours, the British fear of the establishment of Russian influence in Tibet was not wholly removed. Well-founded or not, these developments or fears led the British government to reconsider its policy toward Tibet and take more active measures.

A signal for a change in policy was given by Lord Curzon’s long despatch to the Secretary of State for India dated 8th January 1903, in which, amongst other things, he proposed direct talks in Lhasa to discuss “the entire question of our future relations commercial and otherwise, with Tibet” aimed at establishing a permanent consular or diplomatic representative, in Lhasa. It was said that the British mission to Lhasa should be provided with an escort to defend it in case of attack by the Tibetans (see e.g. A. Lamb, BRITAIN AND CHINESE CENTRAL ASIA, p. 280 et seq.).

Subsequently events developed with a speed which might perhaps have boon anticipated. In the circumstances, when the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war (1903-1905) was imminent, and when China was still recovering from the Boxer rebellion and the intervention of the eight foreign powers (in 1900), the British government agreed to Lord Curzon’s suggestions, and the latter ordered an armed force under Colonel Younghusband to march into Tibet (1903-1904).

The Tibetans were able to offer no effective opposition to the British expedition, and the British troops entered Lhasa triumphantly on 3rd August 1904. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama and his entourage fled to Urga (Ulaanbaatar), the chief town in Mongolia, and the victorious British dictated terms. A treaty, known as Convention between Great Britain and Tibet, was signed at Lhasa on 7th September 1904 and constituted the first and virtually the only international treaty instrument directly negotiated and concluded with Tibet without China as an intermediary (and in fact directed against China’s interests in Tibet).

By the treaty provisions the Tibetan government undertook to open fresh trade marts at Rgyal-rtse (Gyantse) and Sgar-’brog (Gartok), as well as at Ya-tung (article II); to levy no dues of any kind on trade to and from India (article IV); to pay as an indemnity to the British government for expenses incurred in the dispatch of armed troops to Lhasa a sum of £500,000 in seventy-five annual instalments beginning from the 1st January 1906 (article VI). The agreement also provided that “the British Government shall continue to occupy the Chumbi (Chu-’bi) Valley until the indemnity has been paid and until the trade marts have been effectively opened for three years, whichever date may be the later” (article VII).

The political parts of the agreement were:

  1. no portion of Tibetan territory shall be ceded, sold, leased, mortgaged or otherwise given for occupation, to any Foreign Power;
  2. no such Power shall be permitted to intervene in Tibetan affairs;
  3. no Representatives or Agents of any Foreign Power shall be admitted to Tibet;
  4. no concessions for railways, roads, telegraphs, mining or other rights, shall be granted to any Foreign Power, or to the subject of any Foreign Power. In the event of consent to such concessions being granted, similar or equivalent concessions shall be granted to the British Government;
  5. no Tibetan revenues, whether in kind or in cash, shall be pledged or assigned to any Foreign Power, or to the subject of any Foreign Power (article IX; see e.g. C.A. Bell, TIBET PAST AND PRESENT, p. 286).

China, busy with foreign threats and domestic difficulties, was not in a position to halt the British, consequently also the Lhasa Convention made no pretence of respecting her sovereign rights in Tibet, and China in her relation with Tibet was regarded (for the first time) as a “Foreign Power” to whom Article IX of the Convention would be applicable.

As with the Dsungar occupation of Tibet in 1717-1720 and the Gurkha invasion in 1788-1792, the foreign threat presented by the British intervention alarmed China, and the Manchu government began to pay more attention to developments in Tibet, where its power had already declined considerably. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, who in 1904 fled to Mongolia on the approach of the British, and since 1906 resided in Sku-’bum (T’a-er-szu) monastery near Ch’ing-hai Lake, was summoned to Peking (in autumn 1908) where he was received with great splendour.

The Empress Dowager determined to confer on him a title of “The Sincerely Obedient, Reincarnation, Most Excellent, Self-Existent Buddha of the Western Heaven” and also an annual stipend was accorded him (see W.W. Rockhill, op. cit. pp. 84-85). At the same time also the former Amban Yu T’ai (1903-1906), a man much disliked by the Tibetans, was removed from office and replaced by an able administrator, Amban Lien Yü (1906-1912), with Wen Tsung-yao as Vice-Amban (1908-1910; Wen Tsung-yao was the first Han-Chinese to hold this position). The whole range of the various hasty but comparatively minor improvements of Chinese administration in Tibet which followed were primarily designed to revive the decaying prestige of the Manchu court amongst the Tibetan population.

To the same goal was directed also the intense diplomatic activity of T’ang Shao-i and Chang Yin-t’ang who, first in Calcutta and then in Peking, tried to revise the Lhasa Convention, so that all its provisions detrimental to China’s sovereign rights in Tibet could be finally annulled. The new treaty, a Convention between Great Britain and China, signed at Peking on 27th April 1906 and ratified at London in the same year, though confirming the Anglo-Tibetan treaty of 1904 EN BLOC (article I), nevertheless secured to the Chinese a provision that the preservation of Tibet’s integrity and internal administration should rest with China (article II) and that China, but no other Power, should have the rights to the concessions in Tibet which were mentioned in Article IX(d) of the Lhasa Convention (article III).

To China this in fact meant Britain’s admission of her sovereign rights in Tibet, and consequently China was also willing to undertake the payment of the entire war indemnity for Tibet as provided for in the Convention of 1904 (the last instalment was paid in January 1908).

The conclusion of the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1906 in this form was largely a result of the need felt in Foreign Office circles in London to take into account the attitude of the Russian government towards the 1904 Anglo-Tibetan agreement. In fact, the need for a rapprochement between Russia and Great Britain, in view of the growing military might of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany, tended to cancel out the earlier rivalry of these two powers, not only in Tibet, but also in other areas where their interests clashed – such as Persia and Afghanistan.

With regard to Tibet, the Russiian objection – even after the 1906 treaty between Britain and China – consisted in the fact that Great Britain had still preserved her favourable economic position in Tibet (chiefly as a result of her previous agreements of 1893 and 1904), whereas Russian influence in Tibet had been almost eliminated from the time of Younghusband’s armed mission.

Naturally, any concessions that Persia was ready to make to Britain in the questions of Persia and Afghanistan, necessitated that Britain in her turn should also make concessions in Tibet to compensate her ally. The complicated Anglo-Russian negotiations – which resulted in the so-called Anglo-Russian entente of 1907, in fact an agreement on the questions of Persia, Afghanistan and Tibet – were intended (as far as Tibet was concerned) to reach a certain balance between the respective rights and obligations of the two powers.

The two contracting parties engaged: to respect the territorial integrity of Tibet and to abstain from all interference in its internal administration (article I); “In conformity with the admitted principle of the suzerainty (sic) of China over Tibet…” not to enter into negotiations with the latter except through the intermediary of the Chinese government (article II ); not to send representatives to Lhasa (article III); not to seek or obtain concessions for roads, mines, etc. in Tibet (article IV); and not to appropriate any part of the revenues of Tibet (article V).

The salient features of this agreement is that Chinese sovereignty in Tibet – fully respected by the British in 1890 and 1893, but defied by them in 1904 and again rehabilitated D FACTO by the 1906 Anglo-Chinese Convention – was for the first time in an official international document replaced by the rather vague word “suzerainty”, so that for the absolute subordination of Tibet to China, as understood by “sovereignty”, was substituted the partial subjection of a vassal state towards its overlord, as understood by the term “suzereignty”. However, this new designation of China’s relationship to Tibet could not PER SE alter or modify the actual contents and character of Sino-Tibetan relations as understood by the Chinese and Tibetans themselves, for neither China nor Tibet was participating in Anglo-Russian negotiations, the results of which were therefore irrelevant to them, and which could certainly not be considered as binding upon them.

The last international agreement on Tibet which the Imperial China concluded with a Foreign Power was the so-called Tibet Trade Regulations of 1908 renewable every ten years. This was also the first instrument which had been negotiated on a tripartite basis – between China, Great Britain, and Tibet (thus setting a precedent which was followed by the Simla Conference of 1913-1914). However, in 1908 the Tibetan “fully authorized Representative” (not Plenipotentiary) was allowed only “to act under the directions of Chang Tachen (i.e. Chang Yin-t’ang) and take part in the negotiations” (Preamble). The general result of these Regulations was a full restoration of China’s effective role in Tibetan affairs.

Again, as in the case of the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1906, the British government showed that with regard to Tibet they were prepared to adhere to earlier practice according to which any negotiation with Tibet could be carried on only through China. Thus China’s position as sovereign power in Tibet, considerably damaged by the Lhasa Convention of 1904 (and in consequence of this perhaps designated as “suzerain” in the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907), was on the eve of the fall of the Ch’ing dynasty once again fully restored and recognized.

The increasing interest of the Chinese government in Tibet proper, an understandable reaction to the attempts at foreign intervention in that area, was also accompanied by renewed Chinese activity in Eastern Tibet, an unstable zone bordering on China’s three inland provinces, Ch’ing-hai, Szu-ch’uan and Yün-nan.

As soon as British troops had left Central Tibet, the Chinese, determined to lose no time, proceeded to consolidate their positions in the Sino-Tibetan marches – a difficult operation in view of the disordered and delicate political situation in the area. This exacting task was entrusted to a capable administrator and soldier, the Manchu General Chao Er-feng, who began, in 1905-1906, by introducing reforms which reinforced the Chinese position in that part of Eastern Tibet which had been under nominal Chinese control for two centuries as far as the Ning-ching-shan range, established as the boundary of Szu-ch’uan province in 1727. In this newly pacified territory he was appointed, in 1906, “High Commissioner for Frontier Affairs” (PIEN-WU TA-C H’EN) with his headquarters in ’Ba’-thang.

The second phase of Chao E r-feng’s operations in Eastern Tibet commenced in 1908 and lasted till the first half of 1911 (between 1907-1908, during the absence of the Governor- General of Szu-ch’uan, his Liang, he was appointed. Acting Governor-General in Ch’eng-tu). During the years 1908-1911 Chao’ Er-feng extended his activities beyond the Ning-ching-shan range into the area formerly controlled by the Lhasa government. All this vast country over which the collapsing government in Lhasa obviously had no control – the Dalai Lama having left Tibet in 1904 – was now occupied by Chinese troops. The authority of the local chieftains (T’U-SZU) was taken away and handed over to regular Chinese officials (this kind of administrative reform is generally described by the phrase KAI-T’U KUEI-LIU).

Many of the East-Tibetan towns received with their new magistrates also new, Chinese, names.

In 1910, Chao Er-feng’s troops crossed the territory west of the Tan-ta mountains and penetrated as far as Rgya-mda’ (Chiang-ta in Chinese, the present-day T’ai-chao; about one hundred miles east of Lhasa). In his subsequent memorial to the Throne, Chao Er-feng requested that the demarcation line marking the Sino-Tibetan frontier should be advanced to Rgya-mda’.

In the spring of the following year (1911), when the pacification of all Eastern Tibet had been effected, Chao Er-feng was appointed Governor-General of Szu-ch’uan and his former assistant, General Fu Sung-mu, replaced him as PIEN-WU TA-CH’EN. In his new capacity, Fu Sung-mu made a proposal to create out of the territory which extends from Ta-chien-lu (K’ang-ting) in the east to Rgya-mda’ in the west, and from Wei-hsi and Chung-tien in the south to Hsi-ning in the north, a new province called Hsi-k’ang or “Khams on the West”.

However, soon after this proposal was presented to the Emperor, the Chinese revolution broke out, which overthrew the Manchu dynasty, and Fu Sung-mu’s proposal sank into oblivion and was not carried out (the later Hsi-k’ang province was officially proclaimed in 1939 and again abolished in 1955).

Let us review the political and administrative situation in Tibet on the eve of the Chinese revolution. – The Thirteenth Dalai Lama returned from a long exile in Mongolia and Peking in December 1909, only to see a Chinese army two thousand strong enter Lhasa on February 12th 1910. Finding his position untenable, the Dalai Lama together with several other leading officials decided to escape to India, where he passed a second period of exile (February 1910 – January 1913). Having previously sought refuge with the Chinese from British intervention, he now sought refuge in the territory of his former enemies to avoid the Chinese army. When the Court in Peking received Amban Lien Yü’s report on the Dalai Lama’s flight to India, it issued orders cancelling his title and deposing him. The Lhasa government being thus deprived of their anti-Chinese elements (the Dalai Lama and his party), became virtually an obedient tool in the hands of the Amban and General Chung Yin, the commander of the new expeditionary force.

However, the situation in Tibet further deteriorated when the first news of the anti-Manchu revolution in China began to reach Lhasa. The Chinese garrison started to mutiny, Amban Lien Yu, who was a Manchu, was deposed and arrested by the soldiers, who chose their commander Chung Ying, a Chinese, to replace him as Amban. However, the long unpaid and demoralized troops soon subjected Lhasa to a reign of terror and this situation lasted almost a year, until the Tibetans managed to expel Chung Ying and his troops. The Dalai Lama seized the opportunity to return to Lhasa and issue a “declaration of independence”. All Chinese troops and their officers were disarmed and packed off home via India. On the 6th January 1913, Chung Ying, the last Amban, and the remnant of his troops, marched out of Lhasa.

The Hsin-hai revolution, which ended the long history of Imperial China, brought, also a sudden rupture in Sino-Tibetan relations which had slowly begun to stabilize from 1906. In the subsequent decades, the period of the First Republic of China (1912-1949), China lost in Tibet the greater part of what she had built there in the course of many previous centuries. However, she recovered all she had lost and in addition considerably enlarged her position in Tibet forty years later, in 1951, under the present regime of the People’s Republic of China.

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