Q&A: China and the Tibetans

Tibetan monk walks past pilgrims at the Labrang monastery in Xiahe, Gansu province, file image
Image caption Many parts of China have significant Tibetan communities

Since the Chinese army marched into majority Tibetan territory in 1950, relations between the communist authorities and Tibetans have been strained. This year, two monks have set themselves alight in apparent protests against Beijing.

Have there been any large-scale protests recently?

The last widespread popular demonstration came in 2008, when Buddhist monks marched from monasteries in and around Lhasa on 10 March to mark the 49th anniversary of a Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule.

According to reports, security forces arrested some of the marchers, and the following day more monks marched through the streets to appeal for their colleagues to be freed.

As the protests escalated, economic and social grievances came to the fore and more members of the general Tibetan population became involved in the monks' protests.

There was mass rioting on the streets of Lhasa. Protests and violence were later reported in areas of Gansu, Sichuan and Qinghai provinces, which are home to sizeable Tibetan communities.

The protests were fuelled by day-to-day grievances, as well as a desire for Tibetan independence.

Since then, there has been sporadic outbreaks of unrest in majority Tibetan areas. In March this year, a monk set himself alight in Aba, in Sichuan province, sparking weeks of confrontation with the authorities.

Rights groups and witnesses said the authorities forced monks away from the monastery to re-education facilities. The UN accused Beijing of illegally detaining up to 300 monks.

In August, another monk burned himself to death in the Sichuan town of Dawu, in an apparent anti-Beijing protest.

What causes the dispute?

Image caption The Dalai Lama: A spiritual leader and an international celebrity

Many Tibetans accuse the Chinese of suppressing Tibetan culture, freedom of expression and worship. They are particularly resentful of efforts to supplant their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama with a communist-approved alternative.

Another bone of contention is the increasing numbers of Han Chinese migrants arriving in the region, which causes resentment among the local population.

The communist authorities disagree. They point to major infrastructure projects such as the railway linking Lhasa to Qinghai province, and the growth of industry in the region.

China's leaders point out that Tibetan areas are much more wealthy under Beijing's rule than they would otherwise have been.

Beijing also says Tibetan communities enjoy a great deal of autonomy under a system of devolved government.

How long has it been going on?

China says Tibet has officially been part of the Chinese nation since the mid-13th Century, so should continue to be ruled by Beijing.

Many Tibetans disagree, pointing out that the Himalayan region was an independent kingdom for many centuries, and that Chinese rule over Tibet has not been constant.

For example, after a brief military conflict between China and Tibet in the early part of the 20th Century, Tibet declared itself an independent republic in 1912.

Although its status did not receive widespread recognition, Tibet functioned as an independent government until China sent troops to Tibet in 1950, and summoned a Tibetan delegation the following year to sign a treaty ceding sovereignty to China.

Since then there have been periods of unrest and sporadic uprisings as resentment to Beijing's rule has persisted.

Will the two sides be able to resolve their differences?

Image caption Tibetans still revere the Dalai Lama, despite Chinese officials' disdain for him

Although rarely acknowledged officially, the Chinese government does occasionally take part in talks with Tibet's government-in-exile, based in India.

But the talks have not got very far and do not show much hope for the future either.

China accuse the Tibetans in exile and the Dalai Lama of plotting to separate Tibet from the motherland.

The Dalai Lama - Tibet's spiritual leader - says he wants nothing more than genuine autonomy for the region.

He has now given up his political role, handing it on to US-educated legal scholar Lobsang Sangay. Officials were quoted in Chinese state media as saying there was no way they would talk to the new man.

Why is the Tibet issue so well-known?

Perhaps one of the reasons Westerners know so much about Tibet is because of the Dalai Lama.

Since fleeing Tibet following a failed uprising in 1959, he has travelled the world advocating more autonomy for his homeland, yet stressing non-violence.

He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in 1989.

But Beijing faces disputes from other quarters, as well as Tibet.

The island of Taiwan has been self-governing for half a century, but China regards it as part of its territory - and has said it is willing to use force if necessary to make sure this remains the case.

And Beijing struggles to deal with unrest among Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province.