I. The Establishment and Development of Regional Ethnic Autonomy in Tibet
Tibet, situated on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, is one of the border areas where ethnic minorities live in compact communities. In view of the then transport and communications conditions and realities of Tibet and other border areas where ethnic minorities live, Chinese central governments throughout history have adopted administrative methods different from those exercised in the heartland of the country. After Tibet became part of the territory of China in the 13th century, the central governments of the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties and the Republic of China, while assuming the responsibility of approving the local administrative organs, and deciding and directly handling important affairs concerning Tibet, maintained, by and large, the region's original local social setup and ruling body, widely appointed upper-strata ecclesiastic and secular members to manage local affairs, and gave the Tibetan local government and officials extensive decision-making power. This played a historically positive role in safeguarding the unification of the country, but as the feudal autocratic rulers in various periods exercised an ethnic policy marked by ethnic discrimination and oppression, keeping the original social system and maintaining the power of the local ruling class for their administration of Tibet, they did not solve, nor could they possibly solve, the issue of ethnic equality and that of enabling the local people to become masters of their own affairs.
Even in the first half of the 20th century, Tibet remained a society of feudal serfdom under theocracy, one even darker and more backward than medieval Europe. The ecclesiastical and secular serf owners, though accounting for less than five percent of the population of Tibet, controlled the personal freedom of the serfs and slaves who made up more than 95 percent of the population of Tibet, as well as the overwhelming part of the means of production. By resorting to the rigidly stratified"13-Article Code" and"16-Article Code," and extremely savage punishments, including gouging out eyes, cutting off ears, tongues, hands and feet, pulling out tendons, throwing people into rivers or off cliffs, they practiced cruel economic exploitation, political oppression and mental control of the serfs and slaves. The right to subsistence of the broad masses of serfs and slaves was not protected, let alone political rights.
After the Opium War of 1840, China was reduced to a semi-colonial, semi-feudal country. Tibet, like other parts of China, suffered from the aggression of imperialist powers, which grabbed all kinds of special privileges by means of unequal treaties, subjected Tibet to colonial control and exploitation, and, at the same time, groomed separatists among the upper ruling strata of Tibet, in an attempt to sever Tibet from China. Therefore, the removal of the fetters of imperialism and feudal serfdom became a historically paramount task for safeguarding the unification of the country and realizing the development of Tibet.
The founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 ended the dark history of the semi-colonial, semi-feudal China, realized unification of the country, unity of ethnic groups and people's democracy, and brought hope to the Tibetan people that they could control their own destiny in the large family of the motherland. It was expressly stipulated in the Common Program of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which had the status of the provisional Constitution, that "All ethnic groups within the territory of the People's Republic of China are equal, unity and mutual assistance shall be practiced, discrimination against and oppression of ethnic groups, and acts undermining the unity of the ethnic groups shall be prohibited; the people of all ethnic minorities shall have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages, and to preserve or reform their own ways and customs and religious beliefs; and regional ethnic autonomy shall be practiced in areas where ethnic minorities live in compact communities." In the first Constitution of the People's Republic of China, promulgated in 1954, the principles of equality, unity and mutual assistance among all ethnic groups, and the system of regional ethnic autonomy were officially included in the fundamental law of the state. Proceeding from the fundamental interests of the Tibetan people, the Central People's Government has profoundly changed the destiny of Tibet and realized and developed the rights of the Tibetan people as masters of their own affairs through great strategic decisions and measures such as peaceful liberation of Tibet, promotion of democratic reforms, establishment of the autonomous region, carrying out socialist construction, reform and opening-up.
— Peaceful liberation laid the foundation for regional ethnic autonomy in Tibet.On May 23, 1951, the "Agreement of the Central People's Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet" (“17-Article Agreement" for short) was signed, and Tibet was peacefully liberated. The peaceful liberation put an end to imperialist aggression against Tibet, enabled the Tibetan people to shake off political and economic fetters, safeguarded the unification of state sovereignty and territorial integrity, realized equality and unity between the Tibetan ethnic group and all other ethnic groups throughout the country as well as the internal unity of Tibet, and laid the foundation for regional ethnic autonomy in Tibet.
The "17-Article Agreement" provides that" According to the ethnic policy in the Common Program of the CPPCC, under the unified leadership of the Central People's Government, the Tibetan people shall have the right to exercise regional ethnic autonomy." According to the provisions of the"17-Article Agreement," the Preparatory Group of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region was established in November 1954, and began preparations for the establishment of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region. In March 1955, the State Council held a special meeting to deliberate and adopt the "Decision of the State Council on Establishment of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region," which expressly stipulates that "The Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region shall be responsible for preparatory work for the establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region, and an organ with the nature of a political power and accountable to the State Council, its principal task being to prepare for the exercise of regional ethnic autonomy in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, the '17-Article Agreement' and the actual situation of Tibet." In April 1956, the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region was established in Lhasa, with the 14th Dalai Lama as the chairman, the 10th Panchen Lama the first vice-chairman and Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme the secretary-general. The establishment of the Preparatory Committee enabled Tibet to have a consultative work organ with the nature of a political power, and vigorously promoted the realization of regional ethnic autonomy in Tibet.
— The Democratic Reform cleared the way for regional ethnic autonomy in Tibet.When Tibet was peacefully liberated, in consideration of the reality of Tibet, the"17-Article Agreement," while confirming the necessity for reform of the Tibetan social system, provided that "The Central Government will not use coercion to implement such a reform, and it is to be carried out by the Tibetan local government on its own; when the people demand reform, the matter should be settled by way of consultation with the leading personnel of Tibet." But in face of the ever-growing demand of the people for democratic reform, some people in the upper ruling strata of Tibet, in order to preserve feudal serfdom, and supported by imperialist forces, staged an armed rebellion all along the line on March 10, 1959, in an attempt to separate Tibet from China. On March 28 of the same year, the State Council announced the dismissal of the original local government of Tibet, and empowered the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region to exercise the functions and powers of the local government of Tibet, with the 10th Panchen Lama as its acting chairman. The Central People's Government and the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region led the Tibetan people in quickly quelling the rebellion, implemented the Democratic Reform, overthrew the feudal serfdom under theocracy, and abolished the feudal hierarchic system, the relations of personal dependence, and all savage punishments. As a result, a million serfs and slaves were emancipated, and became masters of the country as well as of the region of Tibet, acquired the citizens' rights and freedom specified in the Constitution and law, and swept away the obstacles, in respect of social system, to the exercise of regional ethnic autonomy.
— The establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region marked the full implementation of the regional ethnic autonomy in Tibet.After the Democratic Reform, the Tibetan people enjoyed all the political rights enjoyed by people of all other ethnic groups throughout China. In 1961, a general election, the first of its kind in Tibetan history, was held all over Tibet. For the first time, the former serfs and slaves were able to enjoy democratic rights as their own masters, and participated in the election of organs of state power at all levels in the region. In September 1965, the First Session of the First People's Congress of the Tibet Autonomous Region was convened, at which the organ of self-government of the Tibet Autonomous Region and its leaders were elected, and the founding of the Tibet Autonomous Region was officially proclaimed. Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme was elected chairman of the People's Council of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Many emancipated serfs took up leading posts in state organs at various levels in the region. The establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region marked the establishment of the people's democratic power in Tibet and the commencement of exercise of regional ethnic autonomy in an all-round way. From then on, the Tibetan people were entitled to enjoy the right to administer their own affairs in the region and, together with the people throughout the country, embarked on a road of socialist development.
— The reform and opening-up has opened a vast horizon for the Tibetan people to fully exercise the right of regional ethnic autonomy.After China adopted the policy of reform and opening to the outside world, Deng Xiaoping said expressly that the key to the exercise of regional ethnic autonomy lay with development of the ethnic-minority areas. In Tibet, he pointed out, "The important things to consider are how the Tibetan people will benefit from their presence and what is will take to stimulate rapid development in the region and bring it into the forefront of the drive for modernization." (Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, English Edition, Vol. III, pp. 242-243, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing) This affirmed the guiding principle for an all-round exercise of regional ethnic autonomy in Tibet in the new era.
In 1984, the state promulgated and implemented the "Law of the People's Republic of China on Regional Ethnic Autonomy," making regional ethnic autonomy a basic political system of the state, setting out comprehensive provisions regarding the rights of self-government of the ethnic autonomous areas in political, economic, cultural and other spheres, and their relations with the Central Government. It has thus provided a powerful legal safeguard for the full exercise by the Tibetan people of the right of self-government. From 1984 to 2001, in light of the reality of the Tibet Autonomous Region, the Central Government convened four Forums on Work in Tibet; set the guiding principles, major tasks and development plans for work in Tibet timely in the new era; made the important decision to devote special attention to Tibet and get all the other parts of China to aid Tibet; formulated a number of special favorable policies and measures for speeding up the development of Tibet; formed a mechanism for all-round aid for the modernization of Tibet, by which the state would directly invest in construction projects in the region, the Central Government would provide financial subsidies, and the other parts of the country would provide counterpart aid. All this powerfully propelled economic development and social progress in Tibet, greatly enhanced the living standards of the Tibetan people, and guaranteed the realization of equality and the right of self-government of the Tibetan people.