Tibetan claims to independence go back to 1913, when Tibetan historians say Lhasa signed a treaty with Mongolia after both regions had declared their independence from China where the Qing Dynasty had collapsed the year before.
But respective Chinese authorities – be it fighting warlords, the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-chek or the Communists under Mao Zedong – never recognized these claims.
After a period of relative quiet, Mao Zedong in 1951 decided to fully incorporate Tibet into the newly created People’s Republic of China.
Initially he allowed the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to stay at the helm.
Independence is not quite possible
But anti-Chinese incidents and protests grew over the years.
In 1959, when the Chinese army had recovered from the Korea war and China as a whole returned to political calm after the Great Leap Forward, Mao used the March 10 demonstrations in Lhasa as an excuse to stage a massive invasion.
Thousands of monasteries were destroyed, tens of thousands died, and Mao allowed the Dalai Lama to flee into exile in India where he remains today, surrounded by a “government in exile” that is based in Dharamsala.
After China’s “Open Door” policy started in 1979, reformist leader Deng Xiaoping continued the hard line against Tibet, although Tibetans, incorporated into China’s population system as one of the “55 minorities” were granted the use of their own language, while monasteries were restored and monks allowed to practice.
Soon afterwards, protests against Beijing started again, culminating in massive protests on March 10, 1989, just month before the June 4 crackdown on Tiananmen Square in the Chinese capital.
Since then, China has kept an increasingly tight control over the “Tibetan Autonomous Region,” while at the same time pushing economic reforms; Beijing created highways that brave 5100 meter high mountain passes from the neighboring Qinghai and Sichuan provinces, and in 2006 inaugurated the Qinghai-Tibet railroad.
Today, tens of thousands of Tibetans live abroad. On March 10 they gathered in many places in the world to commemorate the 1959 uprising and consequent Chinese crackdown.
“I’ve come here to demonstrate against the occupation by China of Tibet,” says Gyaltzen, a Tibetan who lives in exile in a suburb of the French capital, who came to the Esplanade du Trocadéro in Paris to protest.
He was born in 1973, when the Chinese Cultural Revolution was in its most destructive phase. He still remembers some of it. “You were not allowed to practice religion, they were destroying old cultures and traditions, and that kind of thing,” he says.
Yet he doesn’t hate the Chinese. “But the system. The Communist system. It is not the Chinese people, but the government,” he says.
He is pessimistic about Tibet’s’ future. “In today’s world, China is very powerful, economically and militarily. So a lot of countries in Europe are kind of dependent on the economy and the influence of the Chinese government,” he says.
"They don't give us jobs"
Like other Tibetans, he is not convinced by China’s massive investment projects in Tibet, that Beijing claims are meant to “improve the prosperity” of Chinese and Tibetans alike.
“I think the economic changes are only to benefit themselves,” says Rangdol, another Tibetan at the Parisian rally. "They are mining in Tibet, so they are economically prospering, but for us people, they don’t give us jobs.”
Both expressed disappointment with the lack of action by European governments when it comes to the Tibetan demands.
“We are demanding clear autonomy,” he says. “Right now we have this “Tibetan Autonomous Region,” which is not working.”
Quelling all dissent
Most Tibetans have already given up hope that real independence will ever be an option.
“Independence is not quite possible, says His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” according to Rangdol. “He has been requesting real autonomy. In this way China also benefits and we can also benefit."
For now, the Dalai Lama still keeps a sense of unity among the thousands of exiled Tibetans.
But he is 83-years-old and, according to Tibetan tradition, the spirit of the Dalai Lama will reincarnate in a child, somewhere in the Tibetan areas.
Many now fear that Beijing will try and find a child that they think is suitable to become Tibet’s new spiritual leader, and groom him into an obedient puppet, thus quelling all dissent from the top down.