This is probably a very naive question, but here it goes: Was there an economical or political reason for the invasion of Tibet by China in 1950?

It does not seem to me that Tibet is a particularly wealthy place. Is there some resources there that I did not hear about? Did the Chinese government need to distract its people for some reason? Or is it just that the bigger you are, the better for you and Tibet was simply colonised?

It's true that China has "claimed" Tibet. But why would China claim such a barren land? Does it have some sort of strategic value, and if so, what would it be?

  • 1
    Have you read the Wikipedia page about the issue? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – SJuan76
    Aug 23, 2016 at 17:29
  • 1
    The short answer is that China never recognized Tibet's independence between 1912 and 1951. Aug 23, 2016 at 17:29
  • 1
    Please read the wikipedia page first, then revise the question to focus on the parts that you still don't understand.
    – MCW
    Aug 23, 2016 at 17:45
  • 4
    I read the wikipedia page. It gives a description of what happens, but I could not figure out why. Aug 23, 2016 at 17:53
  • 3
    +1 There are 3 answers already; this question has some merit as is. Specifically, the motives are generally not presented at all. Aug 23, 2016 at 22:18

4 Answers 4


The other two answers speak in terms of Tibet's legal status; and these answers, while correct, don't properly explain why Tibet is important to China. This answer relates entirely to geography. The motives:

Short Answer:

1. Tibet has control of most the water in China; the Huang He and the Chang Jiang originate there.

If you exercise control these two rivers, power can be projected over heavily populated East China.

2. The Himalayas make an excellent frontier.

After a hundred years of misery handed to China by colonial powers, securing the border territories was important. In a few words, Mao didn't want US military bases in Tibet.

Long Answer:

First, from Wikipedia, the basics of Chinese geography. This map shows population density, where dark means more people:

Pop Density from Wikipedia

China has most of its people in the East, while Tibet on the other hand, has very few. It is well known that China today has over a billion people. Back in 1950, China had about 550 million, also mostly in the East. That's a lot of people to feed; and like most parts of the world, China feeds its people through agriculture. Most of the agriculture is in the East, and as I will cover in a moment, the North China Plain relies heavily on irrigation from the Huang He.

The 3 provinces to the West, Tibet, Qinghai, and Xinjian are important to China for several reasons. I would argue that the most important is that they contain the headwaters to the Huang He (Yellow River) and the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River).

Timeline of when these provinces came under dominance by the hungry, populated Eastern parts of China:

  • 1930-1945 Civil war with GMD and Japanese invasion
  • 1945-1949 Civil war with GMD
  • 1949, October 1: People's Republic of China was officially established
  • 1949, December: Chiang Kai-shek moves ROC government to Taiwan
  • 1949 / Early 1950: People's Liberation Army took control of Qinghai
  • 1949 / Early 1950: People's Liberation Army took control of Xinjiang
  • 1949 / 1950: People's Liberation Army took control of Tibet [Note 1]

The point here is that once the PLA and the CCP had just gained control of the populated regions to the east, they took control of the sparsely populated regions to the west, all around 1950.

Another map from wikipedia that I've altered: North China Plain Irrigation and Tibet

See how the rivers come from Tibet?

The North China Plain, the heartland of the ancient Chinese culture, is sorta like a gigantic Kansas. They grow a lot of food there, enough to feed 250 million. However, sometimes the rain doesn't come correctly in the summertime for years. Without irrigation, this means mass starvation, and political instability. And Mao and the CCP wanted to stay in power, so good irrigation in the North China Plain was essential.

As Chang Kai-shek's GMD and their American & British backers were the enemies of Mao and the CCP, British control of China's water and hence irrigation resources would be an absolute disaster. This explains the vital importance of securing Tibet and Qinghai.

For those who doubt the importance of irrigation to the peasants in China, specifically those who marched in the People's Liberation Army, consider how Chang Kai-shek killed 10 million in the North China plain to delay the Japanese military advance by a few months[Note 2]. Many of the fatalities were related to starvation, caused by irregular irrigation.

As the long term survival of the CCP regime was less than certain in 1950, expanding control of water resources was a priority. Mass starvation in the North China Plain had to be avoided.

Counterpoint: What about Tibet's independence? Why does did China need to control Tibet? Couldn't they have just trusted Tibet with their water? Specifically, it wasn't like Tibet in 1950 was capable of damming these rivers and stopping their flow.

It is easy to make this counterpoint if we ignore 300+ years of history in the region. Specifically, the British colonial legacy, and the 'games' the British played with legalism.

The British, of course, from the 1700s through until the at least 1960, sought to dominate and control much of the world. They had a decades long campaign to erode Qing power and gain control of China. By 1913, the British controlled much of Africa, India, Malaysia, Egypt, the Middle East, Australia, many cities in China, Burma, etc.

But what was the legal status of all these places? India, for example, didn't legally become a British colony until 1858. However, the British controlled much of India and its economy since the 1750's. Between 1750 and 1859, the Moguls were legally in charge.

Egypt, as another example, was controlled by the British from 1882 until at least 1952 with the rise of Nasser's popular leadership. However, Egypt until 1914 was a province of the Ottoman empire. There were a variety of legal arrangements after 1914. The point is that the British empire often gained and held colonial power without legal colonial status.

So Tibet declared its independence from China in 1913. What does this mean? A glance at the map above shows that on the other side of the Himalayas lies India. And, of course, in 1913, India was part of the British Empire. Was Tibet just another British colony? Or an actual independent country?

Was Tibet an independent country? Or was it a British colony?

Mark Wallace's answer on this page hints about the answer to this question; the true answer, however, it not relevant to the OP's question. What matters here is how Mao and the CCP viewed Tibetan independence. If Tibet was truly independent of European colonial powers, and had a strong army, then invasion would be risky with little gained security.

However, Tibet had limited armaments in comparison with the PLA, and British influence was almost certain. Since Tibet was legally part of China anyways, how could Mao not have invaded?


Of course, securing control of China and Tibet wasn't enough for Mao and the CCP to feel secure with their power. They had been at war for decades, and still needed to rebuild the Chinese economy and extend its influence to its neighbors. Mao was very concerned about American and British influence in its territories. This nascent CCP regime had many weaknesses in the early 1950s.

The Korean war started in 1950, the same year that the CCP extened it control over Tibet. China would intervene in October 1950 to help North Korea fight Americans & other UN forces. What motivated the soldiers in the Chinese Army? They fought against tremendous odds against a wealthy, technologically superior US military. Nearly half a million Chinese soldier were killed, and another half million were wounded. These soldiers were overwhelmingly opposed to any foreign powers controlling China, and opposed to having US military bases right on their border. This was not just an idea that came from the CCP; it was one that was popular throughout China. Those who went to fight against the US in North Korea felt they were protecting themselves and their loved ones against foreign exploitation.

In the late 50s, the CIA and the US government sponsored armed insurrection in Tibet. This can be viewed as proof that the CCP needed to preclude Tibet from developing into a British puppet state; the US and the CCP were indeed enemies.

Another thought: Why China during the Qing came to control Tibet is another interesting question. The answer is easy: China was plagued for thousands of years with invasions by "Barbarians." Several conquered all of China: the Qin, Tang, Yuan, and Qing dynasties were all 'barbarian' regimes; more than a thousand years. For hundreds of years, the Tibetans were a significant military threat. This is why the Qing maintained strict control over Tibet and Mongolia.

[Note 1] It wasn't as if suddenly there was a military action in Tibet; China had been in the midst of a war for decades, and the PLA was victorious. Taking Tibet and the western regions was a continuation of the long war; the last "easy" part; a mopping up operation

[Note 2] The GMD put this number at 1 million, the CCP at 10 million. I have seen figures saying dislocated farmers and irrigation failures during wartime were responsible for a least 20 million fatalities.

  • At one time Tibet did in fact control most of China. Though this is ridiculous now perhaps in China's historical imagination this does not appear to be so. People becoming very "Han" is also a stated policy goal of the regime. Aug 23, 2016 at 22:46
  • @user14394 When did the current regime state this policy goal? Do you have a source? I think this perhaps you mean Sinicization is an UN-stated goal. Aug 25, 2016 at 5:29
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    Thanks a lot for your answer. Just to make it easier for others to read. I had to look this all up: GMD is the Kuomintang. They are the party that tried to oppose the communist regime. CPC is the Comunist Party of China. They are now in power and have been since 1949. The PLA is the People's Liberation Army. They are the army of the CPC. Please correct me it I'm wrong. Aug 25, 2016 at 9:49
  • That's right - I will add those links in. Good idea. Aug 25, 2016 at 11:06
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    regarding [2], the estimates I found on wikipedia are far lower. Can you cite a source for the 10 million? Or modify the claim in the answer.
    – mart
    Sep 30, 2020 at 8:37


Why invade? Because government, in order to be legitimate (I'm using the term "legitimate" in the same sense as Fukyama - that the citizens perceive the government's actions as appropriate and that the citizens support and endorse the government. The term is different from "strength", but that is a different question), must exercise governmental functions for all citizens. If a government does not exert control over all claimed territory, it implicitly:

  • de-legitimizes the legitimacy of the government. Legitimate governments provide services to all their citizens, not just selected systems.
  • de-legitimizes the claims to control of the territory.
  • effectively invites foreign powers to exercise control or internal regions to rebel.

Legitimate government is very important to the Chinese - they have had continuous legitimate government for longer than anyone else. I'd hazard that they've had legitimate government for longer than all of Europe combined.

The next level of hairy details

Note: I'm not taking a position - I'm trying to explain the article text. Obviously there are many sides with different viewpoints.

In 1853, the British Empire conquered Sikkim, in 1865 invaded Bhutan, and in 1885 colonized Burma (Konbaung Dynasty), occupying by force the whole southern flank of Tibet. The Tibetan Ganden Phodrang regime, which was then under administrative rule of the Qing dynasty, remained the only Himalayan regime free of British influence. During most of the nineteenth century, the British government dealt with Tibet through the Chinese government which maintained a protectorate over Tibet through Qing representatives or Ambans. The British invasion of Tibet in 1903 caused the flight of the Dalai Lama to Mongolia and then to China. After the invasion the Treaty of Lhasa was signed in 1904 between the remaining authorities in Tibet and Colonel Younghusband, essentially converting Tibet into a British protectorate[2][3] with some degree of independence. London, however, was aghast at the initiative undertaken by Younghusband and his sponsor, Lord Curzon, and sought to placate the Manchu Qing government by disavowing much of the settlement, resulting in the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1906. After the fall of the Qing dynasty and the Xinhai Lhasa turmoil in 1912, the regions of Ü-Tsang and western Kham, comprising the present-day TAR were then under the control of the Government of Tibet, supervised by the British. Wikipedia

The parts you need to understand; in 1853

  • Britain occupied some of Tibet
  • the part not occupied by Britain was under the administration of China.

During the 19th century, Britain dealt with Tibet through the Chinese government.

After 1912, China failed to exercise effective control over the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but still claimed the territory. China never recognized a Tibetan government.

The Convention Between Great Britain and China Respecting Tibet was a treaty signed between the Qing dynasty and the British Empire in 1906, which reaffirmed the Chinese possession of Tibet after the British expedition to Tibet in 1903-1904. The British, for a fee from the Qing court, also agreed "not to annex Tibetan territory or to interfere in the administration of Tibet", while China engaged "not to permit any other foreign state to interfere with the territory or internal administration of Tibet". Convention between Great Britain and China respecting Tibet

Implicitly Britain acknowledges Chinese rule over Tibet. That means that both of the countries involved agreed that Tibet was part of China.

So why did China "invade" Tibet? Because Tibet was under Qing overlordship since 1720, and PRC saw itself as a natural successor to Qing Empire. China merely moved to re-assert control and prevent chaos or foreign incursion into Chinese territory.

In Milwaukee Wisconsin there is a militia that rejects the authority of the United States. If the Milwaukee police were to show up one day and arrest all the members of the Milwaukee militia and demand that Milwaukee residents receive civic services from the city of Milwaukee and the State of Wisconsin and the United States government, that wouldn't constitute an invasion. It would just be a re-assertion of normal authority. According to the Chinese, this is what is happening in Tibet.

Does that help?

I need to finish with the same disclaimer - I'm not taking a position on international relations; I'm not qualified. I'm trying to boil down the Wikipedia page into something a bit more understandable.

  • 1
    Nice mention about government legitimacy. I've studied and lived in counter-insurgency and the concept of legitimacy and what happens when that doesn't occur are well described in those materials.
    – Smith
    Aug 23, 2016 at 19:28
  • I would have used the word strength instead of legitimacy, when china was weak it lost some control of the region, now that it is strong it is claiming everything that it can. The Milwaukee comparison is good but the US never lost control of Milwaukee to the British or anyone else, It is a bit closer to the US reasserting control of (invading) the Philippines (if we hadn't recognized the new government of the Philippines) Aug 23, 2016 at 23:22
  • I did not realise that China felt that way about Tibet, thanks. I'm not sure this fully answers my question though. China used a lot of resources to re-assert its control over Tibet. It would not do it just because it's 'right'. What did it gain from this 'invasion'? The answer of axsvl77 is closer to what I'm asking. Aug 24, 2016 at 9:41
  • Tibet was not 'always' a part of China
    – Rohit
    Sep 29, 2020 at 6:29
  • "they have had continuous legitimate government for longer than anyone else." Huh? They have never had legitimate government in the sense of liberal democracy, and the current regime is less than a century old. And I don't know what Europe "combined" means. Does that mean how long there has been at least one European country with legitimate government? The sum of the lengths of all the legitimate governments? Sep 30, 2020 at 0:02

The short version is that to the minds of a lot of Chinese, that was historically Chinese territory. They were just reclaiming what was theirs.

A lot of modern Chinese territorial claims go back to the Manchurian "Qing" dynasty, which ran China from 1644 to 1912. At its greatest extent, the Qing ruled a very expansive territory that included Manchuria, Taiwan, Mongolia, and Tibet.

The Manchurians were particularly keen on controlling Tibet as they, like many Altaic peoples, (eg: Mongolians, eastern Turks) were largely Buddhist, and viewed Tibet in much the same way a westerner in the Middle Ages viewed Rome. What cemented you in the Altaic mind as an Emperor was that you were the protector of Buddhist Tibet.

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After 1912 there was a revolt against the Manchurians in China. This was won by the Chinese (non-Manchurian) side. Both Tibet and Mongolia seceded immediately from the new political unit. This short-lived Republic was fighting a Civil War with the Communists and the Japanese nearly its entire 30-year history. Eventually the Communists won the multi-sided war and became the current Government.

So from the Chinese point of view, the Qing dynasty established Chinese rule over that territory, and its period of self-rule after that was illegal. They (the Chinese) sadly were just unable to enforce their rights on the locals in the intervening 40 years.

From the Tibetan Nationalist point of view, they were an independent country, that occasionally throughout history had foreign Buddhist Emperors acting as "protectors", the last of which happened to also be ruling China at the time. But that doesn't make them Chinese, and what happened in the 1950's was nothing short of an invasion.

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    I'm not disagreeing with you, but it is worth pointing out that from this perspective it could also be said that Texas is an independent country that occasionally throughout history has had foreign Christian leaders acting as "protectors", the last of which happened to also be ruling the USA at the time. Texas was recently independent during the Civil War, but the USA did not recognize Texan independence despite the fact that they could not enforce the claim (no civil war battles in Texas were won) until after the Civil War. Aug 23, 2016 at 20:42
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    @called2voyage - Interesting comment, but I don't really see your point. Militarily, its not a bad comparison at all (aside from the final period of independence being only a few years, rather than a couple of generations). Religiously and culturally, it makes no sense whatsoever.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 23, 2016 at 21:21
  • My point is that people don't usually say that Texans aren't Americans or that Texas was invaded by the US, regardless of whether or not that is right. Care to elaborate on how it makes no sense religiously or culturally? Aug 23, 2016 at 21:23
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    Texans before and after the Civil War were by and large Christian (and I believe mostly Protestant at that), as was the USA. They were by-and-large from the same European stock as most of the people in the rest of the USA as well. They mostly both spoke English. Tibetians have a completely different language, religion, and ethnicity than Han Chinese, and had never in history been ruled by people of that ethnicity. It would be more like the various Indian tribes fighting off the USA in the mid 1800's, and then the Sioux declaring that Comanche-ruled Texas was "historic Sioux territory".
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 23, 2016 at 21:29
  • Buddhism has historically been a major religion in China, and Texas has a higher concentration of evangelical Protestants than most of the US. "European" is not an ethnicity and neither is "Chinese". You mention the Han, but they are not the only ethnic group in China. Texas has a higher concentration of Spanish speakers than most of the US. Of course, the situations are different, and the time span is much shorter for Texas than Tibet--which does have an impact, but it is still an interesting comparison. Aug 23, 2016 at 21:37

An incidental cause would of course be the presence of an independent Tibetan communist party. The extensive solitary suffered by Wangye is indicative of the vehemence with which the CCP opposed an independently communist Tibet.

Goldstein, Melvyn C. Goldstein/Sherap, Dawei Sherap/Siebenschuh, William R.. A Tibetan Revolutionary: The Political Life and Times of Bapa Phüntso Wangye. University of California Press, 2004

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