My wife and I are planning a trip to China in 2012 (see our travelogue), so we recently started doing some research into exactly where we should go. We particularly wanted to visit Tibet, a so-called "Autonomous Region" that became part of China in 1951 when Chinese troops invaded the country and placed Tibet under military rule. The spurious reason often put forward by the Chinese government for this act of naked aggression is that Tibet was historically ruled by China. That may be, but they conveniently overlook the fact that Tibet was an independent self-governing Kingdom from the 5'th century AD until 1700 (well over a thousand years), and then again from 1912 until the Chinese invasion in 1951. Tibet has thus been independent for far longer than it was ever under Chinese administrative control, so any historical precedent should favour the Tibetans, not the Chinese.
The Tibetans were vastly outnumbered by the Chinese People's Liberation Army and consequently had absolutely no chance of stopping the 1951 invasion. And the rest of the world stood by and watched as China trampled its tiny neighbour into the ground ... Mao Zedong (chairman of the Chinese Communist Party from 1935 until his death in 1976) then attempted to crush all aspects of Tibetan culture via the despicable "Cultural Revolution" of the 1960's and 1970's, destroyed countless Buddhist monasteries, imprisoned or executed anybody who appeared even remotely to be a dissident and forced so many ethnic Chinese people to move to Tibet that today the Tibetans themselves are outnumbered in their own country!
The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, was driven into exile in 1959 and he remains in India to this day, unable to return to Tibet. He is not recognized by the Chinese government, whose influence in this regard even poisons the decision-making ability of other countries who depend on China for trade - in recent years the Dalai Lama has twice applied for a visa to visit South Africa but in both cases his application was denied by the spineless South African government, who did not want to risk alienating China by allowing him to enter (despite massive public outcries).
Tibetan demonstrations back home are ruthlessly suppressed by the Chinese army, who show scant regard for world opinion. And why should they? The rest of the world has shown that it is not prepared to intervene, so the peace-loving Tibetan people can look forward to many more years of foreign domination. Regular self-immolation by Buddhist monks in protest merely seems to cause China to tighten its grip on the country.
One result of all this (which prompted me to write this blog), is that since 2009 no foreign visitor has been allowed to travel independently in Tibet. It is easy enough for a Westerner to get a visa to travel pretty much anywhere in China, but you need an additional special permit to go to Tibet. And then only if you are accompanied by an official guide the entire time or are on an organized tour. Western visitors may not leave their guide or tour and explore on their own - their guide must accompany them at all times. There are apparently checkpoints at the airport, train station, bus station and on all roads leading into or out of Lhasa, and any foreigner found not complying with these Draconian rules will be arrested and (if he's lucky) deported. If he's unlucky, who knows?
So my wife and I regretfully decided that we would not be going to Tibet on this trip. Hopefully we'll be able to visit sometime in the future when the situation eases, but there doesn't seem to be much likelihood of that happening anytime soon.
[Update] I removed this blog entry shortly before my wife and I applied for Chinese visas, and it remained deleted while we travelled through China in June/July 2012 (see our travelogue). However, we are now back in South Africa so I reckon it's safe to publish it again ...