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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

CTA's Response to Chinese Government Allegations: Part Three

June 22, 2008

Tibet's Traditional Society, and Democracy in Exile
Central Tibetan Administration
June 17, 2008

Ever since peaceful protests erupted in Tibet, starting from 10
March, the Chinese government used the full force of its state media
to fling a series of allegations against the "Dalai Clique". These
allegations range from His Holiness the Dalai Lama masterminding the
recent Tibet protest to His Holiness the Dalai Lama making attempts
to restore feudalism in Tibet.

This is the third in a series of response by the Central Tibetan
Administration (CTA) to these accusations.

The Chinese translation of this response will be available at the end
of this month, at
The Tibetan translation is available on the Tibetan edition of this

Tibet's Traditional Society, and Democracy in Exile

The Chinese authorities accuse His Holiness the Dalai Lama of
attempting to restore what they call Tibet's old feudal system. They
say the ultimate goal of the Tibetan struggle is to achieve this.
China's official news agency, Xinhua, on 8 April 2008, quoted the
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Jiang Yu, as saying that "the
Dalai Lama is the chief representative of the serf system which
integrates religion with politics in old Tibet." Jiang Yu said, "Such
a serf system, which harbours no democracy, freedom and human rights
in any form, is the darkest slavery system in human history."

There is nothing further from the truth than this. His Holiness the
Dalai Lama considers himself the free spokesperson for the Tibetan
people. It is for the Tibetan people to decide the nature of
governance of Tibet in the future. When the time arrives when His
Holiness the Dalai Lama and his people in exile can return to Tibet
in circumstances that satisfy the majority will of the Tibetan
people, then the exile administration will be dissolved and the local
government in Tibet will continue to be run by the Tibetans who are
currently working in the Chinese establishment. As for His Holiness
the Dalai Lama when that day arrives he said he would hold no political office.

To characterize Tibet's old society as "feudal" or "serf system" is
not an accurate portrayal of traditional Tibetan society. It is true
that traditional Tibetan society - like most of its Asian
contemporaries, especially China - was backward and badly in need of
reforms. However, it is completely wrong to use the word "feudal"
from the perspective of medieval Europe to describe traditional
Tibetan society. Tibet before the invasion, in fact, was far more
egalitarian than most Asian countries of that time. Hugh Richardson,
who spent a total of nine years in Lhasa as British India's last, and
independent India's first, representative, wrote: "Even communist
writers have had to admit there was no great difference between the
rich and poor in [pre-1949] Tibet." Similarly, the International
Commission of Jurists' Legal Inquiry Committee points out that:
"Chinese allegations that the Tibetans enjoyed no human rights before
the entry of the Chinese were found to be based on distorted and
exaggerated accounts of life in Tibet."

Even the Tibetan Government based in Lhasa was far more
representative than its counterparts elsewhere in Asia. In his
autobiography, My land and My People, His Holiness the Dalai Lama
states, "The National Assembly could be convened in three forms. Its
smallest form, which was almost continuously in session, included the
eight officials of the Yig-tsang and Tse-khang, together with other
high lay officials and representatives of the three great monasteries
near Lhasa - about twenty representatives in all. This nucleus
assembly could convene a larger body of about thirty members to
consider specific problems, and on matters of great importance, such
as the confirmation of the discovery of the new reincarnation of the
Dalai Lama, a full assembly of about 400 members from all the
official and non-official levels were called into session."

In terms of social mobility and wealth distribution, independent
Tibet compared favourably with most Asian countries of the time. The
Tibetan polity before the Chinese occupation was not theocratic as
China wants us to believe. The system of rule was referred to as
choesi-sungdrel, which describes a political system based on the
Buddhist tenets of compassion, moral integrity and equality.
According to this system, the government must be based on high moral
standards and serve the people with love and compassion, just as
parents care for their children. This system of governance is based
on the belief that all sentient beings have the seed of Buddhahood
and should be respected accordingly.

The Dalai Lama, head of both the spiritual and secular
administration, was discovered through a system of reincarnation that
ensured that the rule of Tibet did not become hereditary. Most of the
Dalai Lamas, including the 13th and the present 14th, came from
average, yeoman families in remote regions of Tibet.

Every administrative post below the Dalai Lama was held by an equal
number of monk and lay officials. Although lay officials hereditarily
held posts, those of monks were open to all. A large proportion of
monk officials came from non-privileged backgrounds.

Furthermore, Tibet's monastic system provided unrestrained
opportunities for social mobility. Admission to monastic institutions
in Tibet was open to all Tibetans, and all nationalities, including
Chinese, Mongols people from India from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh.
Large majority of monks - particularly those who rose through its
ranks to the highest positions - came from humble backgrounds, often
from far-flung villages in Kham and Amdo. This is because the
monasteries offered equal opportunities to all to rise to any
monastic post through their own scholarship. A popular Tibetan
aphorism says: "If the mother's son has knowledge, the golden throne
of Gaden [the highest position in the hierarchy of the Gelugpa School
of Tibetan Buddhism] has no ownership."

The peasants, whom Chinese propaganda insists on calling "serfs", had
a legal identity, often with documents stating their rights, and also
had access to courts of law. Peasants had the right to sue their
masters and carry their case in appeal to higher authorities.

Ms. Dhondub Choedon comes from a family that was among the poorest in
the social strata of independent Tibet. Reminiscing on her life
before the Chinese occupation, she writes: "I belong to what the
Chinese now term as serfs of Tibet... There were six of us in the
family... My home was a double-storied building with a walled
compound. On the ground floor we used to keep our animals. We had
four yaks, 27 sheep and goats, two donkeys and a land-holding of four
and a half khel (0.37 hectares) ... We never had any difficulty
earning our livelihood. There was not a single beggar in our area."

Throughout Tibetan history, the maltreatment and suppression of
peasants by estate-holders was forbidden by law as well as by social
convention. Starting from the reign of Emperor Songtsen Gampo in the
seventh century, many Tibetan rulers issued codes based on the
Buddhist principle of "Ten Virtues of the Dharma". The essence of
this was that the rulers should act as parents to their subjects.
This was reflected in Songtsen Gampo's code of 16 general moral
principles, and the code of 13 rules of procedure and punishment
issued by Phagmodrupa in the 14th century, and revised by the Fifth
Dalai Lama in the 17th century.

There were some punishments, sanctioned by law, in the past which
included mutilation such as the cutting off of a hand or foot and
putting out an eye. Such punishments were never lightly used but were
decreed only in cases of repeated crime. Flogging was the principal
punishment. Even in the 19th century although the power to inflict
mutilation existed in theory it was only rarely put into practice.
Capital punishment was banned in Tibet, and physical mutilation was a
punishment that could be inflicted by the Central Government of Lhasa
alone. In 1898, Tibet enacted a law abolishing such forms of
punishment, except in the cases of high treason or conspiracy against
the state. The 13th Dalai Lama issued a regulation conferring on all
peasants the right to appeal directly to him in case of mistreatment
by estate holders.

All land belonged to the state which granted estates to monasteries
and to individuals who had rendered meritorious service to the state.
The state, in turn, received revenues and service from estate
holders. Lay estate holders either paid land revenues or provided one
male member in each generation to work as a government official.
Monasteries performed religious functions for the state and, most
vitally, served as schools, universities and centres for Tibetan art,
craft, medicine and culture. The role of monasteries as highly
disciplined centres of Tibetan education was the key to the
traditional Tibetan way of life. Monasteries bore all expenses for
their students and provided them with free board and lodging. Some
monasteries had large estates; some had endowments which they
invested. But other monasteries had neither of these. They received
personal gifts and donations from devotees and patrons. The revenue
from these sources was often insufficient to provide the basic needs
of large monk populations. To supplement their income, some
monasteries engaged in trade and acted as moneylenders.

The largest proportion of land in old Tibet was held by peasants who
paid their revenue directly to the state, and this became the main
source of the government food stocks which were distributed to
monasteries, the army, and officials without estates. Some paid in
labour, and some were required to provide transport services to
government officials, and in some cases to monasteries. Land held by
the peasant was hereditary. The peasant could lease it to others or
mortgage it. A peasant could be dispossessed of his land only if he
failed to pay the dues either in kind or labour, which was not
excessive. In practice, he had the rights of a free-holder, and dues
to the state were in the form of land tax paid in kind rather than cash.

Small sections of the Tibetan population, mostly U-tsang (Central
Tibet) were tenants. They held their lands on the estates of
aristocrats and monasteries, and paid rent to the estate-holders
either in kind or by sending one member of the family to work as a
domestic servant or agricultural labourer. Some of these tenant
farmers rose to the powerful position of estate secretary. (For this,
they were labelled by the communist Chinese "agents of feudal
lords"). Other members of these families had complete freedom. They
were entitled to engage in any business, follow any profession, and
join any monastery or work on their own lands. Although they were
known as tenants, they could not be evicted from their lands at the
whim of estate holders. Some tenant farmers were quite wealthy.

Kham and Amdo regions had, since early times, remained in numerous
and contiguous compact societies, or social groups. Similar to
Central Tibet, the economic mainstay of the people living in these
areas were farming and pastoral nomadism. These areas were
administered either by a chief lama or by a chieftain, or by both.
They held their posts hereditarily. Many of them, however, enjoyed
recognition from the Central Government of Tibet based in Lhasa. As
regards the high lamas of the monastic institutions, the process of
identifying their reincarnations was mostly undertaken by the Lhasa
Government. The final degree for the religious education of all
senior lamas, in particular, must be obtained from the three Great
Monastic Seats in Lhasa, and this recognition from the central
monasteries is considered the highest in the academic lives of lamas
and tulkus. The other important posts of the respective monasteries
were also appointed on the same basis. There were nearly 4,000
monasteries in Kham and Amdo regions, and each of these monasteries
had its own, permanent estate. If we draw a map of these estates over
which the monasteries exercised authority, we can say with absolute
certainty that there was not a single area in Kham and Amdo that did
not fall under the administrative jurisdiction of the monastic estates.

The 13th Dalai Lama had abolished the system of demanding free
transport from the local land-holding peasants by officials
travelling on duty and had fixed charges for the use of horses, mules
and yaks. The 14th Dalai Lama went one step further and ordered that
in future no transport service should be demanded without the special
sanction of the government. He also increased the rates to be paid
for transport services.

Foreigners like Charles Bell, Hugh Richardson, and Heinrich Harrier,
who lived and worked in independent Tibet, were impressed by the
average standard of living of ordinary Tibetans, which they said was
higher than in many Asian countries. Famine and starvation were
unheard of in Tibet until after the Chinese invasion. There were, of
course, years of poor harvests and crop failures. But people could
easily borrow from the buffer stock held by the district
administrations, monasteries, aristocrats and rich farmers.

When the 14th Dalai Lama assumed the throne, he constituted a reform
committee to introduce fundamental land reforms, but the Chinese
communists, fearing that these would take the wind out of their
sails, prevented His Holiness the Dalai Lama from carrying out his
proposed reforms. In his autobiography, My Land and My People, His
Holiness the Dalai Lama writes, "I managed to make some fundamental
reforms. I appointed a Reforms Committee of fifty members, lay and
monk officials and representatives of the monasteries, and a smaller
standing committee to examine all the reforms that were needed and
report to the larger body, and thence to me."

In 1959, after his flight to freedom, His Holiness the Dalai Lama
re-established his government in India and initiated a series of
democratic reforms. A popularly-elected body of people's
representatives, the parliament-in-exile, was constituted. In 1963 a
detailed draft constitution for future Tibet was promulgated. Despite
strong opposition, the Dalai Lama insisted on the inclusion of a
clause empowering the Tibetan parliament to revoke his executive
powers by a majority of two-thirds of its total members in
consultation with the Supreme Court, if this was seen to be in the
highest interests of the nation.

In 1990 further democratic changes were introduced by increasing the
strength of the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies (ATPD) - the
defacto parliament - from 12 to 46. It was given more constitutional
powers such as the election of Kalons (ministers), who were
previously appointed directly by the Dalai Lama. The Supreme Justice
Commission was set up to look into people's grievances against the

In 2001 the Tibetan parliament, on the advice of His Holiness the
Dalai Lama, amended the exile Tibetan constitution to provide for the
direct election of the Kalon Tripa (the chairman of the Cabinet or
Kashag) by the exile population. Since the establishment of the new
system the Tibetan exiles have elected the Kalon Tripa two times.

Years in exile have also seen the growth of a strong and vibrant
Tibetan civil society with its own distinct voice and vision. The
emergence of NGOs like the Tibetan Youth Congress, the Tibetan
Women's Association, the Tibetan National Democratic Party,
Gu-Chu-Sum, the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy and
many others in the fields of education, health, culture and
environment, which have strengthened the roots of democracy in exile
and have also served as a forum for the training of future leaders.
The degree of the openness of the exile Tibetan community is
reflected by the fact that in the late 1970's a Tibetan Communist
Party appeared on the exile Tibetan scene.

Looking to future Tibet, in February 1992 the Dalai Lama announced
the Guidelines for Future Tibet's Polity and the Basic Features of
its Constitution, wherein he stated that he would not "play any role
in the future government of Tibet, let alone seek the Dalai Lama?s
traditional political position". The future government of Tibet, the
Dalai Lama said, would be elected by the people on the basis of adult

In the 10 March 2003 statement, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, "It
is necessary to recognise that the Tibetan freedom struggle is not
about my personal position or well-being. As early as in 1969 I made
it clear that it is up to the Tibetan people to decide whether the
centuries-old institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not.
In 1992 in a formal announcement I stated clearly that when we return
to Tibet with a certain degree of freedom I would not hold any office
in the Tibetan government nor any other political position. However,
as I often state, till my last day I will remain committed to the
promotion of human values and religious harmony. I also announced
then that the Tibetan Administration-in-Exile should be dissolved and
that the Tibetans in Tibet must shoulder the main responsibility of
running the Tibetan government. I have always believed that in the
future Tibet should follow a secular and democratic system of
governance. It is, therefore, baseless to allege that our efforts are
aimed at the restoration of Tibet's old social system. No Tibetan,
whether in exile or in Tibet, has any desire to restore old Tibet?s
outdated social order. On the contrary, the democratisation of the
Tibetan community started soon upon our arrival in exile. This
culminated in the direct election of our political leadership in
2001. We are committed to continue to take vigorous actions to
further promote democratic values among the ordinary Tibetans."
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
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