[Photo story] Chinese central government and the Dalai Lama: 1950–1956

From the signing of the 17-point agreement, or in full, the Agreement of the Central People’s Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, to the inaugural meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet held at Lhasa Hall, Tibet’s first auditorium, historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao offers a glimpse of Tibetan history during the early 1950s.
The Dalai Lama (second from right) and Panchen Lama (second from left) with Mao Zedong, accompanied by Premier Zhou Enlai (first from left) and CCP vice chairman Liu Shaoqi during the Chinese New Year period, 23 February 1955.
The Dalai Lama (second from right) and Panchen Lama (second from left) with Mao Zedong, accompanied by Premier Zhou Enlai (first from left) and CCP vice chairman Liu Shaoqi during the Chinese New Year period, 23 February 1955.

(All photographs courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao.)

On 23 May 1951, delegates of the Tibetan Cabinet (Kashag) met with delegates of the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at Qinzheng Hall in Zhongnanhai, signing what is known as the 17-point agreement, or in full, the Agreement of the Central People’s Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet. This agreement settled the question of Tibet’s status amid the complex and changeable global environment following the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, and it took place 18 months after the establishment of the PRC. 

17 point agreement
In May 1951, delegates of the Tibetan Cabinet (Kashag) and the PRC central government signed the 17-point agreement at Qinzheng Hall in Zhongnanhai. 

The boundaries of the world were first established in the 18th century, and shifted through the upheavals of war and the separation and integration of peoples, leading to the formation of modern states. World War I brought more changes while World War II further shaped the current landscape that we see today. In China’s case, the Qing Empire had the greatest impact on its current territorial map. Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet were added to the map of China during the reign of the three early Qing dynasty emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong. During the late Qing dynasty, the Russians invaded from the north and the British Empire attempted to occupy India, and then Tibet, and incited the ethnic minorities within China, leading to unrest.

Living buddha reincarnation system sets hierarchy in Tibet

Tibetan Buddhism is the main religion in Tibet. It includes five schools, the most dominant being the Gelug or Yellow Hat school, who observe a strict form of asceticism and the living buddha reincarnation system. This school is led by the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama, who are considered living buddhas; on their passing, there is a process to select their incarnation from among a group of male children, and for the reincarnated soul boy to be acknowledged by the central government in China. This belief in reincarnated holy beings among humans has led to a hierarchical structure of living buddhas, monks and farmers, in effect, a highly theocratic society.

When the Xinhai Revolution broke out in 1911, several provinces declared their independence from the rule of imperial Qing, with Mongolia and Xinjiang among these provinces. But when the Republic of China (ROC) was established, it immediately professed that Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang were still part of China. Nevertheless, because the ROC government was fighting imperialist aggression, and its military and political factions were in strife, it had too many issues on hand to effectively bring its borders under control. 

The Kashag led by the 13th Dalai Lama was close to the British Empire which had colonised India, while the ninth Panchen Lama — who was persecuted by the Dalai Lama’s clique — was forced to leave Tibet and go into exile in mainland China. In 1931, the Panchen Lama attended the Fourth National Congress of the Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) held in Nanjing, where he upheld the position that Tibet belonged to China, and won strong support from the Nationalist government leaders as a result. In late 1936, the Nationalist government deployed troops to escort the Panchen Lama back to Tibet, but met with resistance.

Chinese central government send troops to assert control

After the Second Sino-Japanese War, came the civil war between the KMT and CCP. On 1 October 1949, the CCP established the PRC, and the 10th Panchen Lama declared his support for the PRC government. However, the Kashag in Lhasa continued to reject it, and talks fell through.

In October 1950, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed about 40,000 troops to attack Tibet from four directions. The 8,000-strong Tibetan army based in Chamdo was led by Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme — known as Ngapo — and lacked arms and training. Given the vast difference in strength on each side, the Tibetan army was routed after three weeks and Ngapo was captured.

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A resident of Lhasa reading a notification about the PLA entering Tibet, 1951.
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PLA troops working with Tibetan farmers on crop harvesting, 1951.
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PLA troops engaging in farm work in Tibet, 1951.
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Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, 1951.
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A procession of monks in front of Potala Palace, followed by PLA troops, 1951.

In February 1951, the then 15-year-old 14th Dalai Lama who was in power sent a five-person delegation to Beijing, with Ngapo leading the negotiations with the central government. On 23 May, both sides signed the 17-point agreement. The preamble states:

“The Tibetan ethnic group is one of the ethnic groups with a long history within the boundaries of China and, like many other ethnic groups, it has performed its glorious duty in the course of the creation and development of our great motherland.”

The agreement also states that “the Tibetan people have the right of exercising national regional autonomy under the unified leadership of the Central People’s Government”, that the “religious beliefs, customs and habits of the Tibetan people shall be respected”, and that the “established status, functions and powers of the Panchen Erdeni shall be maintained”.

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A banquet hosted by Mao Zedong for the Tibetan delegates, May 1951. On the right is the tenth Panchen Lama, with Kashag representative Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme on the left.
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Tibet-based General Zhang Jingwu of the Chinese central government disseminating the central government’s policies to Tibetans in Lhasa, 1951.
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A PLA committee in Tibet holding a rally in Lhasa, 1951.
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The People’s Government of the Xikang Province Tibetan Autonomous Area was established, 1951.

At this point, the 13-year-old tenth Panchen Lama was invited to Beijing to meet Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and other CCP leaders. In 1952, escorted by the PRC central government, the Panchen Lama finally returned to Tibet after an absence of 27 years.

Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama and the central government

Over the following three years, there was relative peace between the PRC central government and the Tibetan local government. The Tibetan regional troops were absorbed into the PLA, while Tibet’s economy slowly recovered with the assistance of the central government.

In September 1954, the Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso and the Panchen Lama Choekyi Gyaltsen went to Beijing together to attend the first session of the first National People’s Congress. It was the first time the 20-year-old Dalai Lama had been out of Tibet, and his first time in Beijing, where he saw the sights and attended political meetings. While both men were in Beijing, Mao got them to join the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet (PCART), which the Dalai Lama later chaired.

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A warm welcome by the central government for the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama as they arrive at the Beijing train station, September 1954.
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The Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama with Mao Zedong at Qinzheng Hall in Zhongnanhai, September 1954.
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The Dalai Lama presenting Mao with a khata — traditional ceremonial scarf — as a token of regard, September 1954.
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The Panchen Lama presenting Mao with a khata as a token, September 1954.
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The Dalai Lama speaking at the first National People’s Congress, September 1954.
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The Panchen Lama speaking at the first National People’s Congress, September 1954.
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The Panchen Lama and Dalai Lama raising their hands in approval at a meeting of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, December 1954.
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The Panchen Lama and Dalai Lama voting at a meeting of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), December 1954. The Dalai Lama was made Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet (PCART) chairman and the Panchen Lama deputy chairman, with Ngapo as secretary-general.
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The Dalai Lama being greeted by Tibetans in Beijing, 1954.
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The Dalai Lama signing a document at a Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) meeting opposing nuclear weapons, December 1954.
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The Panchen Lama signing a document at a Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) meeting opposing nuclear weapons, December 1954.

In the spring of 1955, the Seventh Plenary Meeting of China’s State Council passed a decision on the establishment of the PCART. During this time, the Dalai Lama met with the first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru in Beijing; he and the Panchen Lama also signed a statement following the first session of the First National People’s Congress objecting to the imperialist use of the atomic bomb. The two visited major cities in China, travelling back to Tibet separately in May 1955 via the new Xikang-Tibet Highway (now called the Sichuan-Tibet Highway) and Qinghai-Tibet Highway. They arrived in Lhasa and Xigaze the following month, ending their nine-month journey.

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The Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama with visiting Indian Prime Minister Nehru in Beijing, 1955. All signed a statement following the first session of the first National People’s Congress objecting to the imperialist use of the atomic bomb.
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The Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama with General Zhang Jingwu of the Chinese central government, 1955.
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The Panchen Lama and Dalai Lama in Beijing, 1955.
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The Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama at a traditional Tibetan cultural performance in Beijing, 1955.
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The Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama at Beihai Park in Beijing, 1955.
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The Panchen Lama Dalai Lama receiving a warm welcome in northeast China, 1955.
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Fireworks over the Forbidden City in Beijing on the fifth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, 1954.

After the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama returned to Tibet, the work of the PCART began, with the ultimate goal of replacing the Kashag. On 22 April 1956, the PCART’s inaugural meeting was held at the Lhasa Hall — Tibet’s first auditorium — with Vice Premier Chen Yi leading the central government delegation. An enormous portrait of Mao Zedong was flanked by smaller portraits of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama, along with a slogan advocating unity among China’s ethnic groups. The Dalai Lama was made PCART chairman and the Panchen Lama deputy chairman, with Ngapo as secretary-general. The inauguration ended on 1 May, and the traditional song and dance celebrations in Lhasa on the establishment of the PCART went on for days.

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The Dalai Lama welcoming central government officials arriving in Lhasa for the inauguration of the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet (PCART), April 1956.
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The Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama receiving Vice Premier and central government delegation head Chen Yi in Lhasa, April 1956.
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A large portrait of Mao Zedong at the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet (PCART) inauguration, April 1956.
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The Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama showing central government delegation head Chen Yi into the venue for the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet (PCART) inauguration, April 1956.

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