During Tibet’s brief period of de facto independence between the First World War and 1950, the Tibetan government controlled territory roughly corresponding to the borders of today’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Like the Balkans, Tibet’s fringes have long been inhabited by a patchwork of different ethnic groups: a Han Chinese village, a Hui Muslim village, a Qiang village and a Tibetan village may sit side by side. In the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan—which border Tibet—there has for many years been a substantial ethnic Tibetan population, living on untamed land that was often under no clear external control. In modern times, Beijing’s response to this diversity has been to carve out nominally autonomous Tibetan counties and prefectures within the four border provinces. More Tibetans now live there than in the Tibet Autonomous Region itself.
According to official Chinese census statistics (which are regarded by demographers as wanting but usable) there are 2.5 million Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region and 2.9 million in Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan. But if you take the province of Qinghai, for instance, which has almost all of its land under “autonomous prefecture” designations, you find there are approximately 838,000 Tibetans and 619,000 Chinese living in Tibetan prefectures, and another 141,000 Tibetans and 799,000 Chinese living in non-Tibetan autonomous areas. In Sichuan, a large province of eighty-five million people, there are 1.2 million Tibetans living in Tibetan prefectures, but the same areas also contain 780,000 non-Tibetans. So although the autonomy of these prefectures and counties is largely fictional and their boundaries are often inept, it is apparent that the different ethnic groups within them could never be easily disentangled.
The exiled Tibetan government in Dharamsala (“by far the most serious” government-in-exile in the world, according to the Economist magazine) has responded to this complex, historic demographic problem in a dramatic way. To keep things simple, it lays claim to all land inhabited by Tibetans, covering a total of 2.5 million square kilometres, more than twice the area of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Astonishingly, this territorial sleight has been swallowed and endorsed by most foreign supporters of the Tibetan cause, despite much of the land, especially in the north and east, never having been administered from Lhasa.
I had tried asking the Dalai Lama’s foreign minister, T. C. Tethong, why the exiled government maintained a claim over territory that it did not control before 1950. Surely this position weakened its chances of ever reaching an accommodation with the Chinese government? His response was loose: they were “still looking into it.” The border was based on “ancient claims,” as well as on oral history and the demands of different Tibetan exile groups. “We made our map so as not to leave out any Tibetans,” he said, “so that they didn’t feel isolated. We are going for the whole of Tibet. But I accept there will have to be give and take. His Holiness the Dalai Lama wants a fair compromise.”
The demand for a greater Tibet is rooted in the politics of displacement. In order to maintain the unity of the emigre community after the Dalai Lama’s flight across the Himalayas in 1959, his exiled administration developed the idea of a giant, theoretical Tibet. In the early 1960s, with the arrival in India, Nepal and Bhutan of large numbers of Tibetan refugees (many of them from the border areas close to China, who had endured the worst of the reforms and suppression), it became necessary to develop a pan-Tibetan identity. Its focus was the idea of “Po Cholkha Sum,” the unity of the three historic regions of ethnic Tibet: Amdo, Kham and U-Tsang. People who had previously identified themselves with a particular region now became consciously Tibetan.
A sense of Tibetan nationhood was created deliberately, in exile. The Lhasa dialect served as the basis of a shared refugee language; a regimental banner devised in the 1920s by a wandering Japanese man (which had been displayed at the Asian Relations Conference in India in 1947), featuring red and blue stripes and a pair of snow lions, became the Tibetan national flag; a song written by the Dalai Lama’s tutor Trijang Rinpoche (himself a reincarnation of the Buddha’s chariot-driver) was adopted as Tibet’s national anthem; the Dalai Lama’s birthday became a day of popular celebration; and an invocation used at the new year festival of Losar, “tashi delek” or “good luck,” was promoted as a versatile greeting, which could be picked up easily by foreign helpers.