17-point Agreement between Tibet and China

23 May 2019 marks the 68th anniversary of the controversial 17-point agreement between Tibet and China. It is expected that China will once again come out with a gaudy statement to brag the unification of Tibet with the motherland. Let us review some facts about the agreement and urge China to look at the agreement more to resolve the Tibet issue rather than celebrate it as a victory.

The 17-point Agreement is a very important valid historical document which reveals the real nature of Sino-Tibetan relations at that crucial turning point of the Tibetan history of independence. Although forced upon the Tibetan government by communist China, it remains as an important testimony to the fact that Tibet was never a part of China before the agreement.

From the historical perspective, it is very important to assert here that Tibet has never been a part of China anywhere in its pre-1949 history1. Yes, the Mongolian, Nepalese, Chinese and British army did enter Tibet and exercised suzerainty over Tibet at a certain period of Tibetan history. But they came as foreign entities, as invaders or at the request of the Tibetan government, and they left when their missions were accomplished. China cannot claim Tibet because of these historical skirmish incidents. If they did, others can also do the same, for that matter, even Tibet can claim China as a part of Tibet2. These skirmish incidents are natural and in conformity with the political history of almost all the nations around the world.

Communist China has tried to claim Tibet as a part of China under various insubstantial grounds. But like most of its concocted propaganda, the nature of the claims kept changing. First, they claimed Tibet as a part of China since the 7th century Tibetan emperor SrongtsanGampo [Tib: Srongbtsansgampo], when the Tang Princess Wencheng Kungchu became one of the queens of Tibet. Later, the Chinese White Paper3 claimed that they inherited Tibet from the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty in the 14th century, and later from Ming and Qing Dynasties. But these fictitious and deceptive claims intended to distort history were refuted strongly even by the Chinese scholars4.

The fact is that even after the sixty-years of occupation of Tibet, China has not been able to fully win or defeat the Tibetans. When all the historical claims and propaganda failed to justify their occupation of Tibet, China, now has started to harp on “Liberation of Tibet from feudal serfdom” and bringing development in the region.

Many believe that the 17-point agreement with China was the end of Tibetan independence. No, in fact, the 17-point agreement is an important document to prove that Tibet has been an independent nation. The agreement is also a testimony to the fact that China agreed for “one country, two system” formula for Tibet. The nature and the outcome of the agreement also reveal the real imperialistic colour of Chinese communism. Although the agreement was signed under duress, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government tried their best to accommodate the Chinese demand. When China got confident that the land was fully under the control of its People Liberation Army (PLA), they began to violate the agreement. This is how China under the communist regime works. Hong Kong and Taiwan should learn from this Tibetan experience and be wary of Chinese overtures5.

China first proposed and later imposed the contents of the 17-point agreement on the Tibetans. Tibetans refuted the agreement at first and later tried to accommodate it, but when China violated the agreement which they themselves imposed, Tibetans revolted and refuted it again. But China is celebrating it, herein lies the irony of the agreement!

Now, in order to resolve the Sino-Tibetan issue, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Administration in exile have proposed solutions in the form of Five point peace plan in 1987, Strasbourg proposal in 1988, and the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy in 2008. These three proposals can be seen as the three-core Tibetan approach to resolve the Tibet issue. It shares many common elements with the 17-point agreement6, Premier Deng Xiaoping’s statement7 and the Chinese constitution8, the three-core Chinese approach.

The 17-point agreement although signed under duress, it gave China the much-needed excuse to get into Tibet. When His Holiness the Dalai Lama refuted it on April 1959 at Tezpur in India9, the International community came to know the truth about the agreement and China lost the legitimacy to occupy Tibet. So, from the point of International law, China’s occupation of Tibet is illegal10. As a rising super-power and as an important member of the United Nations, China needs to redress this historical faux pas to gain moral and international legitimacy to its claim on Tibet. Through intimidation and brutal occupation, China has achieved all the points mentioned in the 17-points agreement. If China is serious of resolving the Tibet issue, it sincerely needs to brood over those points which it agreed to give to Tibet but never did, they are:

The 3rd point of the agreement: “The Tibetan people have the rights to exercise national regional autonomy under the unified leadership of the Central People’s Government.”

The 4th point: “The central authorities will not alter the existing political system in Tibet. The central authorities also will not alter the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama. Officials of various ranks shall hold office as usual.”

The 7th point: “The religious beliefs, customs and habits of the Tibetan people shall be respected, and lama monasteries shall be protected..”


The 11th point: “The local government of Tibet should carry out reforms of its own accord, and demands for reforms raised by the people shall be settled by means of consultation with the leading personnel of Tibet.”

How harsh the other 13 points may be, China forcefully implemented it. But these 4 points which China has promised Tibet are still not fulfilled, rather China has violated it.

The Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan people submitted to the Chinese leadership in 2008 should be studied in this context. To what extent the Memorandum has deviated from the three-core Chinese approach. More importantly, it should be studied whether the Memorandum is within the purview of the Chinese constitution or not, if not to what extent it has digressed. These are the common grounds on which Tibet and China need to discuss and negotiate to arrive at a mutually acceptable agreement.

Much to the chagrin of the communist China, the 17-point agreement of 1951 still remains an important document to prove that Tibet was an independent nation before the Chinese invasion. However, as the Tibetans are not seeking separation from China now, the document can play a crucial role in finding a common ground based on the Middle Way Approach of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Administration in exile. The three-core approaches of Tibet and China could be the Zone of Possible Agreement (ZOPA), where solution to the Tibet issue could be found. A strong will and sincere effort from the Chinese leadership to brood over the ZOPA sphere would be more mutually beneficial rather than harping on the immoral victory it contrived through the 17-point agreement.

23rd May should be a day for the Chinese leadership to look back and see what it promised to the Tibetans and what it really delivered, and how it still could help find a common ground to resolve the Tibet issue.

By Mr. Tsewang Gyalpo Arya

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