Tibet, China, and the Struggle for Environmental Sovereignty

Tibet, China, and the Struggle for Sovereignty and Environment


E. Baudler


Self-immolation memorial outside of the 14th Dalai Lama’s temple in Dharamshala, India (John Oliver/Last Week Tonight with John Oliver)

“Every aspect of Tibetan life is under siege.” —Free Tibet


“Since its peaceful liberation in 1951, Tibet has undergone profound social changes, including democratic reform, reform and opening up, and has achieved remarkable social and economic progress.” —China’s Foreign Ministry handbook, July 2007


“Old people, we see the mines and we cry. What are the future generations going to do? How are they going to survive?” anonymous 67-year-old yak herder


“Tibet is sparsely populated. The two million Tibetans are not enough to handle the task of developing such a huge region. There is no harm in sending Han into Tibet to help…. The key issues are what is best for Tibetans and how can Tibet develop at a fast pace, and move ahead in the four modernizations in China.” —Deng Xiaoping, 1987


It goes without saying that humans are not mutually exclusive from nature. Whether it be survival or the formation of culture, individuals are shaped by the land and vice-versa. The struggle of the Tibetan people to protect their sovereignty and environment against the People’s Republic of China (PRC) reflects this relationship. Over time, Tibet earned itself global interest for its location and national resources, which did not escape the notice of the British Empire and Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In an attempt to build a “new China” in the mid-twentieth century, Chairman Mao Zedong succeeded in “liberating” Tibet and integrating it into the greater Chinese region. Such efforts suggest a longer tradition of imperialism that continues to affect Tibetan human and environmental rights in modern day. 


  • Tibetan-Qing Relations
  • Global and Imperialist Interest in Tibet
  • The Fall of the Qing Dynasty
  • “A New China”
  • “Liberation”
  • Environmental Degradation: Land
  • Environmental Degradation: Water
  • Environmental Degradation: Mining
Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet (UNESCO World Heritage Centre)

Tibetan-Qing Relations

In order to understand the exploitation of Tibet, one must consider the influences that took root from as early as the 18th century. Prior to 1720, Tibet had been rather isolationist and was named “the roof of the world” for its geography and mysticism. After successful Chinese expeditions, the region did not physically become a part of the empire but rather entertained protectorate governmental connections with the Qing. This dependent relationship appeared as one between an empire and a semi-autonomous state rather than full sovereignty. However, that status would change after time, as Tibet was situated in a land-grabbing game among the British, Manchu, and Russian empires.

Global and Imperialist Interest in Tibet

Tibet garnered unwanted attention from global powers and was characterized as a place both in need of saving and harboring vast potential. Though the faith of Buddhism became an increasingly admired subject, the actual people practicing it were still viewed as those in need of saving. Tibet was no longer a home of spiritual purity, but also a barren land that must be enlightened through occupation specifically (14). By extension of conquering land, other kingdoms could redeem the people present. 

Sir Francis Younghusband (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

In response to a growing fear that Russia was expanding further, the British launched a military expedition in 1903-1904 led by Francis Younghusband to secure Tibet. In a series of pacts such as the Treaty of Lhasa and the 1906 Convention between Great Britain and China, Tibet became an imperial project. The region would go onto serve as the “backdoor to China,” which would widen Britain’s sphere of influence and India trade (14). Rather than being viewed as an independent state, Tibet was used as a pathway to the greater Chinese nation that aided colonial interests.

Portrait of the 13th Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso in Lhasa, Tibet (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Furthermore, Tibet was further undermined by the British and Qing military campaigns that forcefully removed the 13th Dalai Lama from leadership. Though the British knew that Tibetans had their own government structure and that China was not sovereign, the diplomatic validation that followed British involvement supported Tibet’s subordination to Beijing (3). British participation and acknowledgment of China’s suzerainty revealed a continued undermining of Tibetan self-determination.

The Fall of the Qing Dynasty

When the Qing dynasty collapsed in 1911, Tibet became independent once more. However, following the Han Chinese expulsion from Tibet and the reinstatement of the 13th Dalai Lama, the Simla Convention of 1914 would attempt to distinguish an Outer and Inner Tibet. These boundaries may have been outside the scope of Chinese influence, but would still serve to benefit Britain and India rather than Tibet itself (13). This situation would not sit well with the Chinese, whose civil war between the CCP and Nationalist Kuomintang (KPT) became decisive in determining Tibet’s future. 

“A New China”

October 1, 1949: Mao proclaiming “The Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China is established!” at the founding ceremony in Tiananmen Square (Foreign Languages Press/China.org.cn)

When the CCP came out victorious and rose to single-party power in 1949, China would more aggressively assert control over Tibet. At first, CCP sentiments towards Tibet initially remained under a “China federation” program, which granted frontier regions full autonomy and would allow them to decide whether or not they would form an alliance with the nation considered “China proper” (6). However, these terms soon left political discourse as Mao and his comrades pursued their vision for a “new China,” one through which the new Communist government could rebuild China’s war-torn economy and decide Tibet’s fate. 

In order for his new China to be realized, Mao had to consider the role of frontier regions such as Tibet and their relations to his nation. As such, Chen Jian, Professor of History emeritus at Cornell University, argues that the first step to incorporating Tibet was by defining “China” as:

“a ‘multinational country’ and ‘Chinese’ as including ‘all of those who live in the territory of China.’ [Mao] also emphasized that it was the party’s political and social revolutions aimed at eliminating all oppressions—including racial oppression—that made its nation-building plans justified. Indeed, it was the adjective ’new’ that provided the ‘new China’ with basic legitimacy while, at the same time, offering the ‘Chinese nation’ the right to claim itself a nation of multinationalities.” (6) 

Though different areas had varying cultures and practices, Mao promoted this idea that all peoples within the Chinese territory constituted the “new China.” Under this broader theme, the conception of national identity would be oversimplified and undermine the distinct cultures of frontier groups such as the Tibetans.

Furthermore, there was a circulating historical claim over Tibet as part of the Manchu Empire. However, for many centuries, Tibet had its own ruling elite and indigenous Buddhist form of religion, and the leadership allowed for a “residential commissioner”, or Amban, from China to reside in the capital of Lhasa and aid with Sino relations (1). Yet, this understanding of Tibetan independence became distorted and manipulated. Coupled with this perceived notion that Tibet had long been a part of China, Mao and his comrades recognized foreign influences like Britain as subverting their control over what “rightfully” belonged to them. This presented an irony, for just as the British had exerted their imperial might upon Tibet, the CCP was intending to do similar damage. It was with this kind of rationale that Mao would launch his “liberation” campaign and annex Tibet.

T’ang Ta-Jên, military Amban of Khotan, with his children and attendants (from Ruins of Desert Cathay by Aurel Stein, 1912)


As previously mentioned, before and into the twentieth century, Tibet was identified as a place in need of redemption. There was a historical disregard of Tibet’s self-sufficiency from imperial powers, and because of its smaller, scattered population and poor defenses, it was susceptible to foreign force and made to follow the whims of other countries. This treatment continued with Mao, who wanted to settle Tibet in a short amount of time. Within two years, between 1949 and 1951, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) turned its attention to invading and “liberating” Tibet.

The 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso (left) with his former partner the 10th Panchen Lama Chökyi Gyaltsen (right) (International Campaign for Tibet)

Prior to military initiatives, the CCP found cooperation through the 10th Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism and leadership, which enhanced the legitimacy of the party’s policy toward Tibet (6). His support undermined the only fifteen year-old Dalai Lama, who had not yet ascended to the throne. Furthermore, Tibetan officials from the capital of Lhasa were unable to gain foreign aid, not even from Britain, which had once been so invested in the region. Thus, it could not wage effective military resistance during the decisive Battle of Chamdo in October 1950.

On November 17 that same year, the Dalai Lama came into power prematurely in the incorporation of Tibet into Mao’s nation (6). The next May, the “Seventeen-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” would be created, representing a major victory for Beijing. The document protected religious beliefs, kept Chinese officials from altering the already existing political system in Tibet, and allowed for some degree of autonomy within the fold of the Central People’s Government of the PRC. However, the agreement also presented a “permanent” and “irreversible” status, and that in showcasing themselves as the “liberators of Tibet”, Mao and his comrades had already placed themselves in a politically and culturally superior position vis-à-vis the Tibetans (6). The move to incorporate Tibet and modernize it only reinforced subordination and a long tradition of imperial influence upon Tibet.

Environmental Degradation: Land

Within the folds of the PRC, Tibet would begin to experience several layers of environmental and human rights reform and exploitation, starting with agricultural and grassland shifts. To preface, Mao was intent on modernizing the new China and catching up with the rest of the world technologically and economically. As such, scholars such as Judith Shapiro assert that he would spend the rest of his career waging war on nature with the ideology “Man Must Conquer Nature”, a sentiment that continues to shape modern day China and its environmental struggles (11). 

With the installation of the Construction Army Corps, whose armies were divided to “open the wasteland,” Tibet would experience land reforms that broke up pastoral nomadic activity and turned over past agricultural practices. For instance, in the Qinghai province, which feeds across the high-altitude plateau and is home to several Tibetans, 670,000 hectares of grassland were converted to cropland. This forced many nomadic herders into an agricultural lifestyle of cultivating barley, which was unsuited for local conditions (11). The practice only ended between 1978 and 1978, but the results were less than satisfactory for both people and land. The loess soil in locations such as Shaanxi were easy to work with, but because of the hard, rocky slopes of their mountains, Tibetan workers had to work approximately 12 hours a day to both create terraces and carry water up to irrigate the fields (11). This process proved laborious and demeaning for the people, who were unable to meet quotas.

Muli opencast coal mine expansion into the Tibetan plateau in Qinghai, with resulting reduction of grasslands in the background belonging to the Qinghai Kingho Coal Group (Wu Haitao/Greenpeace)

Furthermore, though the 1985 Grassland Law attempts to improve the condition of nature, it lacks reference to ecosystem health and actually compromises the biodiversity of the plateau time and time again. Rebecca Nelson from the University of Melbourne states that:

“the focus is on productivity. This productivity focus encourages biodiversity destruction through “insect and rodent control” programs designed to increase forage. Further, programs encouraging pastoralists to “improve” pastures by replacing native grasses with perennial pasture, without any constraints or guidelines, also reduce biodiversity. The legislation does not recognize that high biodiversity is related to high ecosystem stability (for example ability to cope with fire or drought), a long-term productivity benefit for pastoralism.” (9)

A pika in the wild; environmental campaigners suggest that their decrease in population is the result, not the cause, of grassland degradation, and that further targeting will further damage the fragile grasslands(China Dialogue/ventdroit)

Within Mao’s ideology, the Grassland Law aims to maximize its coverage, even at the cost of species that keep the ecosystems healthy. Additionally, like with the forced terrace practice, Tibetans who have long lived and breathed the traditions of pastoralism have to give up their identity in exchange for modern Chinese techniques that prioritize human gain over land preservation. 

Environmental Degradation: Water

The PRC has also capitalized on the water of Tibet. The region is commonly referred to as China’s sole “water tower”, which can be understood in greater detail in Gabriel Lafitte’s book Spoiling Tibet:

“the Plateau is readily dissected, categorized into useful and useless, farmland and waste land, alpine meadow and alpine desert… [glaciers] melting slowly to provide all of Asia’s lowlands with a steady source of water.” (8) 

The richness of Tibetan natural resources is capitalized upon and categorized as such by the PRC, which assigns particularly great value to Tibetan water due to China’s growing lack of reserves. China has been consistently water-insecure, and recent statistics reveal that about 70 per cent of its rivers are badly polluted and silted, with an estimated 300 million people in China having limited supplies of freshwater (12). In comparison, Tibet is the source of three major rivers—the Yellow, Yangtze, and Mekong—and its mountains are home to ten major watersheds already being used to create massive hydro-electric projects (5).

Chart showing the immense difference in fresh water availability between Tibet and all other Chinese regions (Knoema/Columbia Blogs)

The Tibetan Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range, are often referred to as the “third pole” because of their large concentration of ice and glaciers. The water supplied from the melting glaciers and mountain springs provide for billions of people, as it feeds rivers flowing across China.

September 2014: river poisoned by Gyama Mine, the area of which has also experienced a massive landslide in 2013 (Central Tibetan Administration)

Given this data, Tibet’s geography, and the state of China’s supplies, the PRC’s interest in Tibet and what it can provide is not unfounded. However, though the Chinese rely upon Tibetan water, there has been a gross negligence of the Tibetan people themselves. In 2006, the construction of the Ganhetan Industrial Park polluted water sources near the Kumbum Monastery, which caused over a hundred local children to fall ill from lead poisoning and a serious contamination in the water pipes of eight villages (8). There have been no moves from Chinese officials to address this issue, but the exploitation of Tibet’s water sources still continues.

Environmental Degradation: Mining

May 2016: Dead fish are seen in river near Jiajika lithium mine in Dartsedo County (Free Tibet)

Tibet has long been eyed for its mineral banks, the most capitalized upon being lithium, molybdenum, and particularly gold. Over the years, mining conflicts have occurred because of pollution, death of livestock, and broken promises for both Tibetan compensation and restoration (10). For instance, gold mining has primarily been performed by Han Chinese and Hui migrants and small companies with cyanide or mercury, which has not only unleashed toxic waste but also affected people’s resources and livelihoods.

A specific case of these conditions is the iconic Dachang gold mine. This 2000s Inter-Citic company initiative may require a gas pipeline that will produce conditions such as high temperature and extreme acidity to work in the naturally arid environment and thus make for massive waste dumps (8). Given that this new gold mine is being allowed, despite its critical location on the Yellow River, it seems to be only a matter of time before further pollution of water and land occurs.

Map showing the abundance of mineral resources across the region (Tibetan Plateau Blog)

Traditional Tibetan beliefs about the earth can also be attributed to the mineral extraction conflict. For instance, the removal of substances that constitute as “bcud”, or the land’s essence, is believed to generate a loss of grassland productivity, generalized environmental degradation, and natural disasters such as earthquakes (8). Lodroe Phuntsok, a prominent Tibetan medical doctor, claims that:

“the outer and the inner worlds are the same. The brain, the heart, the lungs, the organs: if these are injured, you will die immediately. Sacred mountains are like that for the earth. If your limbs are injured, you won’t die right away, but if you hurt your heart or your brain, it’s over. That’s why sacred mountains are important.” (8) 

Sacred mountains and similar mineral deposits are closely associated with both the Buddhist faith and local deity worship, which accounts for the local resistance. People and land are inseparable, and the language used here specifically understands the latter as a living entity that must be taken care of and granted dignity. On many levels, mining has not only affected aspects of the environment, but the Tibetans living in those designated areas. For further readings on Buddhist and spiritual Tibetan beliefs and their relationship to the environment, Christopher Queen’s PBS piece provides an excellent overview. The National Center for Biotechnology Information and the Imperial College London also provide strong information on the connections. 

Camp at a lead and zinc mine in the high-altitude village of Xingniangda in the southern part of Qinghai province (Giulia Marchi/The Washington Post)


From serving as a buffer state during the Qing Dynasty to a new nationalist gain and resource bank in the 20th and 21st centuries, Tibet has undergone several different states of existence. At the core, the legacy of imperialism remains one of the forces that has undermined not only Tibetan independence, but also their homeland itself.

Since the incorporation of Tibet into the PRC, there have been consistent efforts to resist following the failed Tibetan uprising in 1959, which resulted in the self-exile of the 14th Dalai Lama to India and the abandonment of the Seventeen-Point Agreement. However, many of these attempts have been met with violence, and in more recent times, Tibetans have resorted to self-immolation during riots to demonstrate their treatment at the CCP’s hands. 

(Robert Barnett/Columbia University)

For Han Chinese, Tibet has always been a part of China and is considered a “liberated” region in need of help (4). In contrast, through Western eyes and the perspective of many Tibetans, the state is under siege and must be freed from the grasp of the PRC (4). To this day, the question of Tibet remains politically unanswered and of global interest. Though a great deal of the region’s modernization can be attributed to China, there is no doubt that it has come at a great cost. Though there is no guarantee of Tibet’s fate, the people continue to campaign for their sovereignty and environment.

14th Dalai Lama takes part in prayers by the Bodhi Tree in Gaya, India (Tibetan Journal)

Works Cited and Further Readings

  1. Davidson, Lawrence. “THE CHINESE ASSIMILATION OF TIBET.” In Cultural Genocide, 89-111, New Brunswick; New Jersey; London: Rutgers University Press, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hj5jx.7.
  2. Fontana, Mary Anne. “Strategic Construction: An Analysis of China’s Policy Towards Four Frontier Regions.” Order No. 9829900, University of Pennsylvania, 1998. http://electra.lmu.edu:2048/login?url=https://electra.lmu.edu:2102/docview/304453133?accountid=7418.
  3. Goldstein, Melvyn C. “Tibet and China in the Twentieth Century.” In Governing China’s Multiethnic Frontiers, edited by ROSSABI MORRIS, 186-229. Seattle; London: University of Washington Press, 2004. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvbtzm7t.10.
  4. Hessler, Peter. 2015. “Tibet Through Chinese Eyes.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company. September 17, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1999/02/tibet-through-chinese-eyes/306395/.
  5. Howard, Roger. “TIBET’S NATURAL RESOURCES: Tension Over Treasure.” The World Today, 66, no. 10 (2010): 12-14. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41962445.
  6. Jian, Chen. “The Chinese Communist ‘Liberation’ of Tibet, 1949–51.” In Dilemmas of Victory, edited by Brown Jeremy and Pickowicz Paul G., 130-59. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press, 2007. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x0f5f.9.
  7. Kaushik, Anupma. “TIBET: ELUSIVE PEACE.” The Indian Journal of Political Science 72, no. 2 (2011): 539-46. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42761439.
  8. Lafitte, Gabriel. Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World. London: Zed Books, 2013. Accessed March 20, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central.
  9. Nelson, Rebecca. “Regulating Grassland Degradation in China: Shallow-Rooted Laws?” Asian-Pacific Law & Policy Journal, no. 2 (2006): 396. http://blog.hawaii.edu/aplpj/files/2011/11/APLPJ_07.2_nelson.pdf
  10. Nyima, Yonten, and Emily T. Yeh. “Environmental Issues and Conflict in Tibet.” In Ethnic Conflict and Protest in Tibet and Xinjiang: Unrest in China’s West, edited by HILLMAN BEN and TUTTLE GRAY, 151-78. Columbia University Press, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/hill16998.10.
  11. Shapiro, Judith. “Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China.” Order No. 9937486, American University, 1999. http://electra.lmu.edu:2048/login?url=https://electra.lmu.edu:2102/docview/304494278?accountid=7418.
  12. Sinha, Uttam Kumar. 2011. “China: Geopolitics of a Thirsty Nation.” Indian Foreign Affairs Journal 6 (4) (Oct): 422-436. http://electra.lmu.edu:2048/login?url=https://electra.lmu.edu:2102/docview/1010355559?accountid=7418.
  13. “Tibet Justice Center – Legal Materials on Tibet – Treaties and Conventions Relating to Tibet – Convention Between Great Britain, China, and Tibet, Simla (1914) [400].” Accessed March 21, 2019. http://www.tibetjustice.org/materials/treaties/treaties16.html.
  14. Tong, Q. S. 2016. “‘Lost Horizon’:: Orientalism and the Question of Tibet.” In Writing China, edited by Peter J. Kitson and Robert Markley, NED-New edition, 167–87. Essays on the Amherst Embassy (1816) and Sino-British Cultural Relations. Boydell and Brewer. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt1c3gx5k.13.