Tibet, the remote and mainly-Buddhist territory known as the “roof of the world”, is governed as an autonomous region of China.
Beijing claims a centuries-old sovereignty over the Himalayan region. But the allegiances of many Tibetans lie with the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, seen by his followers as a living god, but by China as a separatist threat.
International attention was focused on the territory in 2008 during the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. Fatal clashes between anti-Chinese protesters and the authorities in Tibet were given wide publicity and the torch relay in London, Paris and San Francisco was dogged by pro-Tibet protests and stunts.
Tibet has had a tumultuous history, during which it has spent some periods functioning as an independent entity and others ruled by powerful Chinese and Mongolian dynasties. China sent in thousands of troops to enforce its claim on the region in 1950. Some areas became the Tibetan Autonomous Region and others were incorporated into neighbouring Chinese provinces. In 1959, after a failed anti-Chinese uprising, the 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet and set up a government in exile in India. Most of Tibet’s monasteries were destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s during China’s Cultural Revolution. Thousands of Tibetans are believed to have been killed during periods of repression and martial law.
China accused of repression
Under international pressure, China eased its grip on Tibet in the 1980s, introducing “Open Door” reforms and boosting investment. Beijing says Tibet has developed considerably under its rule. But rights groups say China continues to violate human rights, accusing Beijing of political and religious repression. Beijing denies any abuses.
Tourism and the ongoing modernisation drive stand in contrast to Tibet’s former isolation. But Beijing’s critics say Tibetans have little say in building their future.
China says a new railway link between Lhasa and the western Chinese province of Qinghai will boost economic expansion. The link is likely to increase the influx of Chinese migrants.
Buddhism reached Tibet in the seventh century. The Dalai Lama, or Ocean of Wisdom, is the leading spiritual figure; the Panchen Lama is the second most important figure. Both are seen as the reincarnations of their predecessors.
The selection of a Dalai Lama and a Panchen Lama has traditionally followed a strict process. But the Dalai Lama and Beijing are at odds over the 11th incarnation of the Panchen Lama, having identified different youngsters for the role. The Dalai Lama’s choice, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, has not been seen since his detention by the Chinese authorities in 1995.
There have been intermittent and indirect contacts between China and the Dalai Lama. The exiled spiritual leader advocates a non-violent, negotiated solution to the Tibet problem and accepts the notion of real autonomy for Tibet under Chinese sovereignty. China has questioned his claims that he does not seek independence.
China has also accused the Dalai Lama of inciting the dozens of self-immolations that since 2009 have taken place among Tibetans opposed to Chinese rule. He rejects this and has questioned the effectiveness of such protests.
Tibet’s economy depends largely on agriculture. Forests and grasslands occupy large parts of the country. The territory is rich in minerals, but poor transport links have limited their exploitation. Tourism is an important revenue earner.
Tibet at a glance:
Sovereignty: The Dalai Lama says Tibet was independent and has been colonised. China says its sovereignty over Tibet goes back centuries.
What is Tibet? China considers this to be the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Dalai Lama says it should include neighbouring provinces with Tibetan populations.
Repression: Dalai Lama says 1.2 million people were killed under Chinese rule. China disputes this.
Culture: Dalai Lama says China actively suppressed Tibetan identity. China acknowledges some abuses but says it is helping the revival of Tibetan culture.
Development: China says it has brought improvements in health and the economy. Dalai Lama says development has favoured Han Chinese immigrants.
International response: No country openly disputes China’s claim to sovereignty, and China has blocked all UN Security Council resolutions on Tibet since the People’s Republic took over the China seat in the UN in 1971.
The free-Tibet movement: The Tibetan cause has won the sympathy of individuals and groups, many of whom campaign for an independent Tibet to take shape.