The Complexity of the Tibet Issue: An Interview with Boshu Zhang

The various forms of nationalism in multiethnic China are an area of important critical inquiry whose significance reaches beyond its geographical scope. China is comprised of numerous ethnic groups, including the dominant Han Chinese and many other minorities. Presently, ethnic nationalism seems to be on the rise in certain areas of the country, in particular in Xinjiang and Tibet. The escalation of ethnic conflict in these areas is significant for both China observers and scholars on nationalism.  Boshu Zhang (Columbia University) recently published a new book on ethnic politics, The Tibet Issue in China’s Democratic Transition (in Chinese, Suyuan Books, 2014). SEN Journal recently had the opportunity to interview Professor Zhang. We hope the interview is of relevance to those scholars with similar interests and we welcome any feedback or comments.


Interview conducted in Chinese via email on August 2 and October 10, 2014 by Junpeng Li, and translated by Junpeng Li.




Your background is in philosophy. How did you come to write on Tibet?

It’s true that my academic background is not in ethnic studies or nationalism. The direct trigger was the 2008 Tibetan unrest. I was shocked and realized that the issue of nationalism was much more serious than my perception, for the Han people and the Tibetans. I simply had to dig deeper and speak out. The book is an appeal to the Chinese government—it asks the government to change its misled Tibetan policies; it’s also intended to provide relevant information and analysis for the Chinese public. It’s difficult for average citizens to know what is really going on in Tibet, especially in a country like China where  information is tightly controlled.


What do you mean by ‘the Tibet issue as an issue of human rights’?

The Tibet issue has multiple implications. It involves human rights and institutional arrangements, but also has much to do with the different understandings of the history of Han-Tibetan relations. To say that ‘the Tibet issue is first of all an issue of human rights’ is to emphasize that it is a vitally important and urgent issue. Because of the Party-state rule, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is in total control of nearly everything. As a consequence, regional autonomy for ethnic minorities prescribed by the constitution has become a mere scrap of paper, and the political rights, cultural rights, and religious rights have been violated to different degrees. This is surely a serious issue of human rights, and I documented these violations in detail in the book.


Has Tibet been part of China historically?

This question cannot be answered unequivocally. In the seventh century, the Tang (China) and the Tufan (Tibet) were two independent and competing states. In the 700 years since the Yuan Dynasty, Tibet has been part of the Chinese tributary system. The relationship of Tibet with the central administration has been twofold; and in elements of both, there are what the Tibetans call yon-mchod (priest-patron) relationship and feudatory relationship in which Tibet is subject to the rule of Beijing.


The Chinese government insists that Tibet has been under the jurisdiction of the central government of China since the mid-thirteenth century, but some scholars and activists have different views and say that Tibet was an independent political entity in the first half of the twentieth century. What’s your take on this issue?

I think Tibet was in a de facto independent status in the first half of the twentieth century. This de facto independent status was a result of the interplay of a multitude of historical factors. The decadence of the Qing Dynasty and the entrance of the British and Russian forces both intensified the separatist sentiment of the Tibetan elite. The long-lasting chaos and civil wars of Republican China after the Xinhai revolution of 1911, as well as the later invasion of Japan, made it impossible for the Republican government to effectively defend its sovereign rule over Tibet. All these factors resulted in the de facto independence of Tibet.


Many Tibetans are upset with the Communist rule in Tibet and accuse the Chinese Communist Party for many atrocities committed against Tibetans. You argue that it is necessary to distinguish the many and severe mistakes made by the CCP as a transformer of Tibet and the sovereign action by the CCP as an administrator of a nation-state. Could you illustrate a bit more for us?

This is a crucial distinction in my opinion. As the sovereignty of a nation-state, the take-over of Tibet by the CCP in 1950 was a continuation of the sovereignty of the Qing and the Republican governments over Tibet, whereas the ‘democratic reforms’ implemented  by the CCP as a transformer were its specific administrative steps. There is no doubt that these unwise transformative actions led to a series of miserable consequences, but sovereignty and transformation have different logics and therefore should not be conflated. We can and should criticize the human rights record of the CCP, but we should not base our conclusion on that record and say that it was wrong for the People’s Liberation Army to march into Tibet. The army did not invade Tibet. The term ‘invasion’ assumes the sovereignty of the invaded land, but the latter is a highly controversial point with respect to Tibet.


How has ethnic conflict intensified in Tibet in recent years?

It is fundamentally a result of the unwise policies carried out in Tibet by the CCP. In the 1980s, relevant policies were relatively liberal, and religious freedom was partially restored. But since the 1990s, and in particular since the 2000s, the policies have been increasingly tight. Out of the consideration of stability preservation, the central and local governments have increased its suppression and control of religious activities, which has in turn intensified the conflict in Tibet.


What’s the latest situation of self-immolation protests by Tibetans?

By April 2013 when I began writing the book, there had been 117 incidents of self-immolation conducted by Tibetans. By February 2014, the number had increased to 126. The situation is very serious.


How do you foresee the future of ethnic conflict in Tibet? In your view, what needs to happen for a reconciliation of the ethnic conflict in Tibet?’

In my view, the Tibet problem is a dead end if China’s problems of political system and political structure are not solved. This is also what originally motivated me to write The Tibet Issue in China’s Democratic Transition. I hoped to find some realistic ways that can both contribute to China’s democratization process and satisfy the demand of real autonomy of the Tibetans with the premise of national unity. The book also contains some advice and counsel for the power-holders in China.


Tell us a bit more about the response you received for the book – both from the Chinese authorities and from the Tibetan community?

Since the publication of the book in February 2014, there have been quite a few book reviews from both Han and Tibetan people. It doesn’t surprise me that there are different views. In particular, some friends have expressed different opinions regarding the history of Han-Tibetan relations. I welcome the debates and believe that they can help us dig deeper.


Boshu Zhang is an adjunct professor in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. He was born in Beijing and received his PhD in Philosophy from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in 1991.  Subsequently, he held a post at the Institute of Philosophy of the CASS until 2010. While originally a sociobiologist and an expert on Jürgen Habermas, in recent years, Zhang has strived to understand the past turbulent century of China. His current project is a philosophical criticism of twentieth century Chinese authoritarianism. He is widely published in both Chinese and English. His latest publication is The Tibet Issue in China’s Democratic Transition (in Chinese, Suyuan Books, 2014).


The views expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial team of SEN. For more on the topics discussed, please see the following SEN articles, which can be found in the print edition:

Kyong-McClain, J. (2014), Which White Horse Temple? Some Difficulties in Achieving a Singular Nationalist Archaeological Narrative in Republican China. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 14: 473–480.

Yeh, Hsin-Yi. (2014), A Sacred Bastion? A Nation in Itself? An Economic Partner of Rising China? Three Waves of Nation-Building in Taiwan after 1949. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism.14(1): 207–228.

Kang, J. W. (2008), The Dual National Identity of the Korean Minority in China: The Politics of Nation and Race and the Imagination of Ethnicity. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 8: 101–119.

Bentz, A.-S. (2006), Reinterpreting the Past or Asserting the Future? National History and Nations in Peril – The Case of the Tibetan Nation. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 6: 56–70.

About Junpeng Li 11 Articles
Junpeng Li is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Columbia University in NYC, USA. His areas of research are contentious politics and ethnic politics, with a geographical focus on China.

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