Tension in Tibet: Political dialogue only key to lasting solution

By Kavita Krishnan

In the wake of the anniversary of the 1959 Tibet movement (March 10) and ahead of the Beijing Olympics, Tibet has once again emerged as a hot spot of ethnic tension. There are reports of violence against and killing of protesting Tibetan monks by Chinese forces; and also of ethnic targeting of Han Chinese and Hui Muslims by Tibetan protesters. Chinese authorities have straightaway blamed the Dalai Lama for provoking the violent protests. The [Chinese] Army has been deployed after more than a week of escalating tension. While there is little ``independent'' information to judge the actual nature and scale of the turbulence within Tibet and attempts by the Chinese state to suppress it, solidarity protests are being witnessed in many centres across the world and Tibetan refugees based in India are particularly vocal against the recent turn of events in Tibet.

The turmoil in Tibet has been greeted by die-hard anti-China hawks with demands of boycott of the Beijing Olympics. In India, BJP and the likes of George Fernandes have raised an uproar in Parliament with their shrill anti-China hate campaign over Tibet.

The US has always used the Tibet question as part of its overall strategy of containing China and in the present instance too, it is entirely possible that Washington is looking for ways to embarrass China with a disruption of the Beijing Olympics.

The US Speaker Nancy Pelosi, appearing at a public gathering with the Dalai Lama in India, has recently said that people who failed to speak out against China and ``Chinese oppression'' would ``lose all moral authority to speak on human rights''. The storming of the Chinese Embassy in Delhi by Tibetan protesters on the same day as Pelosi's speech was surely no coincidence. For the US, in the month of March that marks five years of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq (years that have seen the public horror and shame of Abu Gharib), to claim ``moral authority'' on human rights is brazenly outrageous. Those who support the occupation of Palestine and continue to occupy Afghanistan and Iraq surely have no right to accuse other regimes of ``oppression'' or ``occupation''! Nationality struggles are faultlines that the US has exploited time and again to further its imperialist interests, Kosovo being a glaring example. Be it Tibet or Kashmir, the US is eager to manipulate the situation in order to strengthen its strategic foothold in Asia.

Also on the anvil is a visit by British premier Gordon Brown to the Dalai Lama in India. It is one thing for Tibetan refugees in India to have the right to protest; but it is highly reprehensible for India to allow its soil to be used to facilitate gross interference and proclamations by the imperialist US and its allies on internal matters of China.

India's response to the Tibet question too is marked by glaring double standards. The right-wing brigade led by the BJP has used the Tibet plank for their virulent anti-communist, anti-China hysteria. But the Indian State's own treatment of nationality struggles in Kashmir and the North East has been marked by arrogant and brutal military suppression. ``Special Powers'' have been conferred on the Armed Forces giving them a licence to freely indulge in summary execution, rape and repression in both these regions. In spite of popular struggles demanding scrapping of the AFSPA, the Indian State continues to justify and impose the AFSPA in the name of anti-insurgency. The BJP has led the jingoistic cries for even harsher and more bloody military suppression of the aspirations of the people of Kashmir and the North East, decrying every demand for autonomy as a threat to *Akhand Bharat* (undivided India). The reports of Tibetan protests outside Tibet, even in Beijing, certainly point to a greater degree of integration of Tibet with China than that of, say, Kashmir with the rest of India: how many times have we seen a Kashmiri Muslim protesting on the streets of Delhi?

The Tibet situation must be viewed in the context of the many shifts and phases in China's Tibet policy and in the Tibetan movement's own priorities between 1959 and 2008. Tibet has been touched by significant economic development and by the late '70s, China had allowed for greater accommodation of Tibetan culture, language and religion. In the wake of the Soviet collapse, however, there was a change of mood. The Dalai Lama, spurning an offer to visit China, elected instead for greater closeness with the US. With descriptions by the US Congress of Tibet as an ``occupied'' territory coinciding with renewed outbursts in Tibet, China once more tightened its grip.

The Tibetan movement, in the course of time, has come to focus mainly on issues of autonomy rather than that of secession. The protesters may raise shouts of ``Free Tibet'', but this slogan does not seem to find wide acceptance in the Tibetan mainstream today. Even the Dalai Lama, the internationally recognised icon of Tibet, has reiterated in the wake of the current turmoil that genuine autonomy is what the Tibetan people want.

In such circumstances China would do well to address the aspirations for autonomy through political dialogue rather than by repression and martial law. The spectacle of protesting Buddhist monks being brutalised by armed forces can hardly evade comparisons with similar scenes in military-ruled Burma and the tragic stigma of Tiananmen.

One hopes that China will take proper lessons from the Soviet experience, where bruised national sentiments played no small part in the great shipwreck. Democratic and peace-loving people of the world are deeply concerned over the situation in Tibet, and expect China to handle the agitations and the ethnic tensions with greater sensitivity and maturity. China's stance on economic questions has been one of pragmatic flexibility: in the case of Hong Kong, China has shown its willingness to experiment with a policy of ``one country, two systems'', where the Central People's Government is responsible for the territory's defence and foreign affairs, while the Government of Hong Kong is responsible for its own legal system, police force, monetary system, customs policy, immigration policy and so on. Can't we, then, expect greater accommodation on China's part of Tibetan aspirations for autonomy?

While resolutely resisting every attempt to fan an anti-communist and anti-China frenzy over Tibet, we do hold that state repression can only be counterproductive, providing grist to the imperialist mill and allowing greater room for US interference in the region. A lasting solution can be reached only through political dialogue in a democratic atmosphere.

[Kavita Krishnan is a member of the central committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (Liberation) and an editor of Liberation, organ of the CPI (ML).]

Comments

UPA must stop mimickin' "But Tibet is an integral part of China"

Post WWII, the capitalist USA always had an imperialist design under the garb of democracy, the People's Republic of China, since the late seventies, diverted from maoist-communist ideals to class specific market driven economy with its own imperialist design, and today both are a capitalist pigsty.
The Tibetan's always had a different ethnic and cultural identity, and had more cross cultural exchanges with India and Mongolia, than with China. It's high time the Tibetans dump Dalai Lama's (himself burdened with Noble peace prize, U.S honorary gold medal from Bush and overtly glamourized by Hollywood celebreties) middle way of securing true autonomy, an impossible proposition,and find an young nationalist leader to fight for their independence. Also, it's high time for the UPA Govt. in India, along with their left allies(Indian Commies), to support their struggle instead of mimicking their often repeated statement, "But Tibet is an integral part of China", which it is not.

Chinese intellectuals call for dialogue in Tibet

SHANGHAI, March 23 — A group of prominent Chinese intellectuals has
circulated a petition urging the government to stop what it has called
a “one-sided” propaganda campaign and initiate direct dialogue with
the Dalai Lama.

The petition, which was signed by more than two dozen writers,
journalists and scholars contains 12 recommendations which, taken
together, represent a sharp break from the Chinese government’s
response to the wave of demonstration that have swept Tibetan areas of
the country in recent days.

They come, moreover, at a time when the government is working hard to
convey a sense of strong international support for putting down what
is being depicted here as a civil disturbance by lawless people being
instigated by the Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who
Beijing denounces as a secessionist, or “splittist.”

In recent days, the state controlled press has also stepped up its
criticisms of the international press for what it says has been biased
and overblown coverage of the Tibetan crisis.

China has barred international journalists from Tibet and expelled
most tourists and other foreigners from the province since the
beginning of the crisis. As trouble has spread to neighboring
provinces where many Tibetans live, the government has blocked access
to these areas, as well.

“In our view the current news blockade cannot gain credit with the
Chinese people or the international community, and is harmful to the
credibility of the Chinese government,” the petitioners wrote, adding,
“only by adopting an open attitude can we turn around the
international community’s distrust of our government.”

Given the government’s stringent censorship of the media, including
the Internet, it is not clear how widely knowledge of the
intellectuals’ letter will spread within China, but many of its points
challenge or dispute the government line head on.

“We support the Dalai Lama’s appeal for peace, and hope that the
ethnic conflict can be dealt with according to the principles of
goodwill, peace, and non-violence,” it reads.

The petition goes on to cite government claims that the unrest was
“organized, premeditated and meticulously orchestrated by the Dalai
clique,” and calls on Beijing to invite theUnited Nations Commission
on Human Rights to carry out an independent investigation of these
charges.

“In order to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future,
the government must abide by the freedom of religious belief and the
freedom of speech explicitly enshrined in the Chinese Constitution,
thereby allowing the Tibetan people fully to express their grievances
and hopes and permitting citizens of all nationalities to freely
criticize and make suggestions regarding the government’s nationality
policies.” (NYT)

Some Tibetan and Chinese Marxists on Tibet

A range of useful viewpoints from Tibetan and Chinese Marxists on the national question in Tibet, from http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?rubrique402

***

“Hawks blocking Dalai Lama’s return”

China memo questions loyalty of Communist Tibetans
BECK Lindsay, Phüntso Wangye
10 octobre 2007

(Reuters) Phuntsog Wangyal, the 84-year-old Tibetan Communist veteran, has written to President Hu Jintao and condemned « hawks » for blocking the Dalai Lama’s return and criticised them as they « make a living, are promoted and become rich by opposing splittism ». Phuntsog Wangyal’s three letters to Hu have never been made public, however, Reuters has obtained copies of the letters.

In his 2006 letter, Phuntso singled out Lt Gen Yin Fatang, party boss of Tibet in the 1980s, for sticking to « wrong » leftist policies. In 2004, he wrote : « If the Dalai Lama and the central government reconcile, these people will be in a state of trepidation, feel nervous and could lose their jobs ». In an indication that China’s policy towards Tibet is to drag its feet until after the Dalai Lama’s death, Phuntsog wrote : « Any notion of delaying the problem until after the 14th Dalai Lama dies a natural death is not only naive, it is also unwise and especially tactically wrong ». Phuntsog warned that the Dalai Lama’s death would radicalise young Tibetan hardliners frustrated with his « Middle Way ».

Invoking Hu’s « harmonious society » slogan, Phuntsog wrote in 2005 that striving for the return of hundreds of thousands of exiled Tibetans would turn « confrontation into harmony ». Phuntsog wrote that « wrong leftist policies continue on ethnic and religious issues especially Tibetan issues » and should cease. « I hope relations between the Dalai Lama and the central government are reconciled », the 2006 letter read.

Phuntsog Wangyal was one of the early Tibetan Communists and played a prominent role during the first years of Chinese rule in Tibet before he was disgraced. He spent many years in prison and lived a largely retired life after his liberation in the 1980s.

07 March 2007

* From http://www.tibetinfonet.net/content/news/10392


China memo questions loyalty of Communist Tibetans

Wed Oct 10, 2007 8:44pm IST

By Lindsay Beck

BEIJING (Reuters) - China is questioning the loyalty of ethnic Tibetan members of the ruling Communist Party, accusing many of swearing their true allegiance to the Dalai Lama, according to an internal memo.

The Sept. 4 memo, issued by the Party’s Discipline and Inspection Commission, highlights ongoing concerns about stability in Tibet, the largely Buddhist western region into which Chinese troops marched in 1950.

« It calls on the Party in Tibet to carry out a kind of campaign — I suppose a kind of rectification campaign — to reassess the loyalty of the members, » said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University who had parts of the memo read to him.

« The content seems to be this question of whether the Party members in Tibet are reliable or are supporting the Dalai Lama. »

Radio Free Asia (RFA) quoted the memo directly, saying it accused internal dissidents of « suckling at the breast of the Chinese Communist Party, while calling the Dalai Lama mother ».

« There still exists a small number of dissident elements within our Party whose commitment to its ideals, beliefs, and political standpoint is a wavering one, » Washington-based RFA quoted the memo as saying.

The Dalai Lama fled into exile in 1959 following a failed uprising against Chinese rule. Authorities have since all but erased his presence from the region’s Buddhist monasteries but many in Tibet still consider him their spiritual leader.

The document raises at least two specific cases of disloyalty on the part of Tibetans : a Party member who was expelled for shouting « reactionary slogans », and a schoolteacher who told his pupils that the Panchen Lama recognised by China was a fake.

The Panchen Lama is Tibet’s second-highest spiritual leader.

DALAI LAMA DENOUNCED

China’s state media has in the last week issued several reports denouncing the Dalai Lama, possibly in reaction to the announcement that U.S. President George W. Bush is to present him with the Congressional Gold Medal on Oct. 17.

In its latest invective against him, China’s official Xinhua news agency on Tuesday accused the Dalai Lama of supporting « evil cults », namely Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo, which carried out a sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 12.

The Dalai Lama says he wants greater autonomy for his homeland, not independence, but China has continued to consider him a separatist.

Rights groups say political repression in Tibet and in parts of western China dominated by ethnic Tibetans is worsening as the Party seeks to stifle dissent and ensure a stable environment for its five-yearly Congress, which opens next week.

The International Campaign for Tibet said the military presence in ethnic Tibetan counties of Sichuan province has increased since villager Runggye Adak addressed a crowd of people on the need for greater religious freedom and for the Dalai Lama to be allowed to return to China from exile in India.

Local people, including schoolchildren, have been asked to denounce the Dalai Lama, the Washington-based group said.

The Party secretary of Tibet, Zhang Qingli, has also pledged to maintain stability in the remote, mountainous region to ensure the success of the Party Congress and the 2008 Olympic Games, which open in Beijing next August.

Zhang is seen as a hardliner, whose term in Tibet has been shaped by a rare demonstration at a Lhasa monastery last year that coincided with the beginning of his post.

« His reaction has been very strong, » said Barnett.

BECK Lindsay, Phüntso Wangye
***
Reply to Wang Lixiong

Tibet and China: Blood in the Snows

TSERING Shakya
May 2002
In a landmark exchange, Tibet’s outstanding national historian replies to China’s dissenting writer Wang Lixiong (NLR 14), setting out his own view of Tibetan society and religion, and the PRC’s record in his country.

The starting point of Wang Lixiong’s ‘Reflections on Tibet’ is the proposition that the Tibetan people have been active participants in the destruction of their own culture. [1] The logic of the argument is one often employed by those responsible for injustice—that is, to heap the blame on the victim. It is reminiscent of the view once advanced by apologists for the apartheid regime in South Africa: since blacks made up the majority of the police force, and since hundreds of thousands of black people flocked from neighbouring countries to work in South Africa’s dust-choked mines, the system could not be as bad as its critics supposed. But colonialism and injustice are never consensual: they are always achieved through the use of force, and perpetuated through the brutalization and degradation of the native people. It was, after all, Mao who announced that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.

It is true that Tibetans played an active part in the Cultural Revolution, and this fact cannot be wiped out of history. It should, however, be put into proper perspective, and the actual nature of their participation subjected to examination. The Cultural Revolution is a difficult topic not only for Tibetans but also for the Chinese. The strategy of China’s leaders has been to blame it all on the Gang of Four, with nothing more being said about the others who plundered or killed. The question, ‘What did you do during the Cultural Revolution?’ is not an easy one to put to Chinese of a certain age; it tends to bring any conversation to a halt, with much being left unspoken or passed over in discomfort. Tibet was swept up in the fervour of the times, just like the rest of China; many did go on to destroy religious buildings, to denounce friends and neighbours as reactionaries, or to revolt against their teachers. It was a mass movement from which no individual was exempt. Nor was there any question of watching passively from the sidelines: it was either denounce or be denounced—the Party allowed no other option. The brave few who refused to participate in the madness paid the price of being branded as enemies of the people and subjected to mass-struggle sessions. Only the crudest notion of freedom could suggest that such participation was a ‘choice’ for the ordinary men and women of the time.

Sommaire Millenarian insurgency

Nevertheless, as Wang should know, there were Tibetans who resisted, and faced the full wrath of the Party. In 1969 there was widespread rebellion throughout Tibet, eventually crushed by the PLA. The best-documented episode is the revolt led by Thrinley Chodron, a young nun from the xian (county) of Nyemo, who marched her followers—armed with swords and spears—to the local Party headquarters, and slaughtered both the Chinese officials and the Tibetan cadres working for them. At first the Party ignored the massacre, thinking it was a manifestation of the Cultural Revolution—as we know, murders could be exonerated if they fell under the rubric of class struggle. But the authorities soon realized that these Tibetan peasants were rebelling not in the name of the ‘newly liberated serfs’ but in defence of their faith. What was more, they targeted only Chinese Party officials and those Tibetans seen as colluding with the colonizing power. The revolt spread from Nyemo through eighteen xians of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), and the Party was forced to send in the PLA to suppress it. Thrinley and fifteen of her followers were eventually captured and brought to Lhasa for public execution. Even today, the Party has expurgated this episode from the historical record as it fails to conform to their image of liberated peasants—or, indeed, to Wang’s portrayal of Tibetans joyfully ‘casting off the spectre of the afterlife that had hung over them for so long’.

Wang concedes that there was widespread revolt in 1969—although this contradicts his perception of a docile and submissive Tibetan peasantry—but attempts to portray it in a very different light. His account secularizes the rebellion, explaining it in utilitarian terms—the peasants wanted to protect the gains of the initial land reforms from the extension of People’s Communes—while stripping it of the cultural and religious elements that reveal its nationalist content. In doing so, he grossly distorts the historical record. For example: Thrinley Chodron told the PLA after her capture that she had been visited by a bird who had come as a messenger from the Dalai Lama, and who had told her to drive out the Chinese. Other rebels claimed to be reincarnations of Ling Gesar, the mythical hero-king of Tibetan epic who fought for the Buddhist religion. There can be no mistaking the symbolism here. Indeed, we can describe the revolt of 1969 as a millenarian uprising, an insurgency characterized by a passionate desire to be rid of the oppressor.

Before Wang claims this as fresh evidence of the retarded mind of the native, he might wish to consider the broader historical record of peasant and national revolts that have begun with visions and voices. If the Maid of Orléans is the best-known European instance, similar cases are to be found even in Chinese history. The leader of the Taiping Rebellion Hong Xiuquan, from rural Guangxi, was said to be the Son of God and the younger brother of Jesus Christ. His illiterate disciple, Yang Xiuqing, claimed to have spoken with the Holy Ghost while in a trance. Foreign gods thus inspired the Chinese uprising against what they saw as alien and despotic Manchu rule; the Tibetans can at least claim to have heard native voices. Wang is surely familiar with the heroic status attributed to such psychotic figures as Hong Xiuquan and Yang Xiuqing within Chinese national narratives—their promotion to the pantheon of modern revolutionary heroes. Yet he balks at Tibetans hailing the revolt of 1969 as a national movement against a colonial oppressor. Wang tries to suggest that the Cultural Revolution was a ‘liberating’ experience for the Tibetans, who could now cast off their gods and spirits. But the millenarian nature of the revolt suggests something else: that it was induced, rather, by the deep fracturing of the self caused by the Cultural Revolution, which attempted to erase every trace of Tibetan identity.

Wang’s argument that the Red Guards could not have reached remote areas of Tibet because of the lack of transportation and manpower also needs qualification. The Red Guards were charged with such revolutionary fervour that they would have walked barefoot through the mountains to get to Tibet, so desperate were they to bring revolution to its snowy peaks; but there was strong pressure from Beijing not to let them go. Far from being a period of mindless chaos, the Cultural Revolution was a carefully orchestrated affair in Tibet, and the Party was always in control. There were sound strategic reasons for keeping the Red Guards away from the border areas. This was the height of the Cold War in the Himalayas, India and China were on a war footing after the Sino-Soviet rift, the Russians had moved closer to the Indians and the CIA was still aiding several thousand Tibetan guerrillas based in Nepal. Tibet was a flashpoint and the Party did not want any disturbances in such a militarily sensitive region. Order reigned in the midst of disorder. Another aspect that Wang ignores was the overall division of the Cultural Revolution into two main factions. In Tibet, these consisted of the Rebel Group—supported by Red Guards from China, and seeking the overthrow of the ‘power holders’—and the Alliance group, made up mainly of the Party leadership and cadres in Tibet. The Rebels were strong in urban areas, with Lhasa, the capital, more or less under their control, while the Alliance dominated the countryside, forcibly preventing Chinese Red Guards from venturing into its zones. Members of the Alliance faction actually blocked the road leading from Chamdo to Lhasa, and Red Guards trying to enter the region from China were held and beaten up by organized Party mobs. These were the practical political realities of Tibet at the time.

Wang’s assertion that most of the destruction in Tibet took place during the Cultural Revolution also fails to tally with the historical record. As he himself admits, the monasteries and temples had been emptied long before, and ‘the PLA had bombed them as it re-established control’ after the 1959 Rebellion. In fact, the destruction of religious sites in Eastern Tibet—outside the TAR—had begun in 1956, under the guise of suppressing local uprisings in Gansu, Qinghai, Yunnan and Sichuan. In May 1962, the Panchen Rinpoche submitted a long memorandum to the Party Central Committee, detailing the terrible failures of Chinese government policies throughout the entire Tibetan region. Two passages prove categorically that much of Tibet’s cultural heritage had already been destroyed. The Panchen Rinpoche writes:

Our Han cadres produced a plan, our Tibetan cadres mobilized, and some people among the activists who did not understand reason played the part of executors of the plan. They usurped the name of the masses, they put on the mask [mianju] of the masses, and stirred up a great flood of waves to eliminate statues of the Buddha, scriptures and stupas [reliquaries]. They burned countless statues of the Buddha, scriptures and stupas, threw them into the water, threw them onto the ground, broke them and melted them. Recklessly, they carried out a wild and hasty [fengxiang chuangru] destruction of monasteries, halls, ‘mani’ walls and stupas, and stole many ornaments from the statues and precious things from the stupas.

Referring only to the area within the boundaries of the TAR when he speaks of ‘Tibet’—the situation was probably worse in other Tibetan districts—the Panchen Rinpoche goes on:

Before democratic reform, there were more than 2,500 large, medium and small monasteries in Tibet. After democratic reform, only 70 or so monasteries were kept in existence by the government. This was a reduction of more than 97 per cent. Because there were no people living in most of the monasteries, there was no-one to look after their Great Prayer Halls [da jing tang] and other divine halls, or the lodgings of the monks. There was great damage and destruction, both by man and otherwise, and they were reduced to the point of collapse, or beyond. [2]

This memorandum to the Central Committee was written four years before the Cultural Revolution.

There is no need to resort to the kind of cheap psychological analysis Wang adduces to explain why Tibetans turned against the sacred symbols of their religion during the Cultural Revolution. The real reasons are far more straightforward. One of these lay in the Party’s need to restrict the inter-factional struggle in an area which, as we have seen, was highly sensitive militarily. As soon as things looked like getting out of hand the Central Committee issued an order that, in these zones, the struggle should not be formulated as a fight between the ‘two lines’. Such conflict was thus essentially confined to the towns, especially Lhasa. The result was that, in most rural areas of Tibet, the ferocity of the Cultural Revolution was shifted away from the battle between the two factions and directed instead towards an attack on tradition, under the call to smash ‘The Four Olds’. In this effort, no stone was left unturned. The Red Guards may not have entered far into the countryside but CCP rule penetrated every crevice of the vast Himalayan landscape. The Party’s hegemony was so deeply entrenched at this time that even the way a peasant slept was said to indicate ideological orientation—someone who lay with their head towards the west was accused of turning away from Chairman Mao, since he was ‘the Sun that rises in the East’. One of the crimes of which the Panchen Rinpoche was accused during his trial by Red Guards in Beijing was of having anti-Party and reactionary dreams. (The Red Guards here, it should be noted, were not Tibetans but Chinese students.)

The Cultural Revolution was exported from China to the High Plateau by the Communist Party, much as opium was forced upon China by British gunboats—and eagerly consumed by the Chinese. Do we condemn the starving coolie for resorting to narcotics to escape the pains of his empty stomach, or do we censure the drug-pushing masters of a foreign empire who, despite endless pleas and petitions, directed the expeditions? There is no doubt that individual Tibetans committed despicable acts in the course of the Cultural Revolution; and many of them today hold senior posts in the regional Communist Party. In fact, such deeds are now viewed as a badge of party loyalty. Wang fails to mention the fact that in China, in the 1980s, the CCP purged ‘three categories of people’ who had committed crimes during the Cultural Revolution, but that in Tibet, despite repeated appeals by leaders such as the Panchen Rinpoche, no such purge took place. Hu Yaobang noted in his speech at the Tibet Work Forum in 1984 that he had received written submissions from both traditional leaders and CCP members, urging the Party to expel such people; instead he promoted them, saying they could be reformed. The real reason was that the Communist Party could not find anyone else they could trust to run Tibet so dutifully. The stark contrast between the policy implemented in the TAR and that applied to the rest of China highlights the classic colonial tactic, often observed in Western imperial practice, whereby the hegemonic power seeks to cultivate loyal and servile natives to guard its interests. China rules Tibet differently from China, because there it faces the problems of being a colonial power.

Sommaire Colonial attitudes of the Chinese intelligentsia

How, Wang asks, was it possible for supposedly devout Tibetan Buddhists to destroy their temples and smash their holy statues? The answer he urges upon us is that the Cultural Revolution was a liberating experience for the Tibetan peasantry, who now ‘forcefully asserted that they would rather be men in this life than souls in the next’—a fine phrase but utterly meaningless, since it ignores the fact that such choices were made by people with bayonets at their back. Wang is, indeed, quite unable to explain the actions of these newly liberated men once the bayonet was removed and—as Wang himself attests—the peasants rushed to rebuild the temples and monasteries and reinstate the Buddha’s statue among the ruins. Complaining that ‘the Tibetans’ reaction to the liberalization of the eighties is hard to understand’, he offers some convoluted remarks about how the native now needed to atone for his sins.

Given Wang’s current stature among the Chinese intelligentsia, such propositions raise a much more serious and pervasive issue. It seems that asking some Chinese intellectuals—be they Communist Party officials, liberal democrats or dissident writers—to think about Tibet in an objective and reasonable manner is like asking an ant to lift an elephant; it is beyond their capabilities and vision. Their perception is impaired by racial prejudice and their imagination clouded by the convictions and certainties of all colonial masters. Wang’s essay exhibits the same arrogance of reasoning and contempt for the native mind—into which he purports to have delved deep, and to have felt the heartbeat of a simpleton. His Tibetans are governed by demonic gods and live in a permanent state of fear, in awe of terrifying spirits—a state Wang ascribes to the Himalayan ecology:

Encountering, alone, this savage expanse of earth and sky inevitably produced a feeling of being overwhelmed by such preponderance, a terrifying sense of isolation and helplessness, repeated down the generations. Fear provoked awe, and awe gave rise to the totem of deities and monsters . . . Fear formed the core of the Tibetans’ spiritual world. [3]

This approach will be familiar to anyone who has studied the implantation of Western colonialism in Asia and Africa, or read the works of early Christian missionaries on the religions and cultures of the peoples they subjugated. The strategic positioning of the natives as living in ‘fear’ and ‘awe’ of the gods drains the people of agency. It is a device used by colonizers to strip their subjects of their humanity and of the ability to reason. Wang’s text accordingly reveals next to nothing of the native worldview but divulges a great deal about the mindset of the colonizer. This seeks to reduce the native’s status to that of an infant—allowing the colonial master, by contrast, to assume the position of a wise adult, and thus justify his rule. The crude environmental determinism of Wang’s imagined Tibetan Weltanschauung is, in fact, a redaction of the works of such early Western colonial cadres as Austin Waddell, whose book on ‘Lamaism’, as he disparagingly called it, was published in 1904—the year of the British invasion of Tibet, in which Waddell played a leading role. It is still used as an authoritative source in China. Wang’s use of language and tone are strikingly similar to Waddell’s. Yet the concept of an awe-inspiring and terrifying physical geography begs an obvious question: is it really the native who is intimidated by the surroundings in which he and his ancestors have lived for thousands of years, or is it rather the foreign visitor to the Tibetan plateau who is struck by the unaccustomed expanses of the grasslands or the scale of the mountains? If anything, history suggests that human beings, far from being intimidated by their environments, have always sought to control their different natural surroundings in order to carve out a living. Wang’s theory of Tibet is a romanticized description of his own urban ennui—little more than pop psychology, presented as serious thought.

Sommaire Mao worship

What is more worrying is Wang’s failure to reflect upon his own culture and society. His description of the Mao cult is typical of this. Mao, he argues, ‘replaced the Dalai Lama as the god in [the Tibetans’] mind’ in a process of religious substitutionism—the natives were in awe of the new foreign god, and saw him as more powerful than the local deity. Such simplistic reasoning is, again, reminiscent of Western colonial and evangelizing views—Wang’s version of Friday, worshipping the footsteps of his white master: the native is struck dumb with wonderment at what befalls him. As evidence, Wang cites the ludicrous examples of Tibetan peasants marching behind portraits of Mao at harvest-time, and of Mao’s picture adorning every household wall—as if this was unique to the Tibetan peasantry. Was it they alone who elevated Mao to the level of a god? Wang—who, as a citizen of China, has had to live in the midst of totalitarianism for much of his life—is peering so deep into the native soul here that he loses sight of where he’s standing. In a delirious moment, he is akin to the man so entranced by the buttercup in front of him that he has no perception of the forest he is in.

In fact, there was nothing peculiarly Tibetan about the ritualistic treatment of Mao. Every schoolchild in China sang:

The sun rises in the East,
No, it is not the sun,
But the brilliant rays of the Chairman.

Didn’t everyone in China sport a badge of Mao? Didn’t the Chinese peasant labour in the paddy field with a banner of Mao fluttering in the wind, and didn’t the Chinese, too, recite quotations from Mao when they jumped out of bed every morning? Such behaviour was to be found throughout the People’s Republic, carefully choreographed by the CCP. Wang can hardly be unaware that Mao worship was not simply a Tibetan experience. Indeed, the fanatical devotion extended towards the Great Helmsman and the Party by elements of the Chinese population—where we find instances in which the corpses of ‘class enemies’ were cannibalized, as proof of dedication to Mao—exceeded anything in Tibet. If we applied Wang’s own logic, not to the colonized natives but to these members of his own society, we would apparently have to conclude that their preference for eating each other, rather than living in filial obedience to their ancestors, was a sign that they were liberated men.

Wang’s argument that the Tibetans were attracted to Mao’s totalitarianism because they were, by nature, submissive is identical to that used by Western Sinologists when they explain Mao’s sway by essentializing the Chinese peasantry as, again, naturally obedient and submissive to authority. In fact, it was a young Tibetan, the Panchen Rinpoche, who put forward by far the most extensive criticism of Mao’s policies of communization and the Great Leap Forward—when millions of Chinese apparently accepted that melting down their household utensils would enable them to overtake Britain in steel production. Similarly, it was the people of Eastern Tibet who staged the most extensive revolt in China against the imposition of People’s Communes. This hardly suggests a subservient people, taking Mao into their hearts.

Far from seeing Mao as a god, in some rural areas of Tibet the people did not even know who he was. Their first encounter with the colonizer was usually through the local PLA and Party cadres. There is a scene—fictional, but revealing—in a Tibetan novel, Joys and Sorrows of an Ordinary Family, by Tashi Palden,which describes a meeting convened by the Party to initiate the Cultural Revolution. The stage is decorated with portraits of Mao and, as the crowd gathers, the heroine asks the person sitting next to her who he is. A local Party activist has to inform her that he is Mao Zedong. Later in the narrative, when Mao dies, the local Party issues a decree setting out the exact form of behaviour and mode of dress required. In the evening, Party activists secretly spy on every house to make sure the correct rituals are being observed.

Such uniformity of behaviour, dress and outward expression of loyalty is clearly indicative not so much of a peculiar Tibetan mindset as of life under a totalitarian regime. When the Tibetan peasants carried pictures of Mao and red flags to their barley fields, they were merely going through the motions required of them. If they really found this behaviour as emotionally gratifying as Wang suggests, we would have to ask why they discarded it as soon as they had the opportunity to do so. The fact that, the instant it was permitted, Tibetans not only shook off the uniforms of the Cultural Revolution but pulled down the red banners and hoisted prayer flags in the valleys, discarded the Chairman’s ‘Thoughts’ and brought out long-hidden prayer-books, restored their native gods to their altars and sent thousands of young people to join the monasteries, hardly supports the notion that Maoist rituals were psychologically irresistible to them. It rather suggests that, given the choice, Tibetans will prefer their own religion.

Sommaire Manichean iconographies

Frantz Fanon has famously described the colonial mentality as dominated by a Manichean set of oppositions—white and black, good and evil, salvation and damnation, civilization and savagery, superiority and inferiority, intelligence and emotion, self and others, subject and object. Wang offers a rather neat illustration of this type of perception in a footnote in which he contrasts the Chinese representation of the Buddha of Compassion as ‘a beautiful woman’ to Tibetan pictures of her as ‘a dark giant wearing a necklace of skulls’—the classic colonialists’ view of their own deity as benign, while their subjects’ god is dark and wrathful. As well as a total ignorance of Tibetan Buddhist iconography, the comparison reveals a sad lack of knowledge of Chinese cultural history and tradition. The religion prevailing in Tibet was also the court religion of Chinese emperors for several dynasties, and many in China shared the same faith and pantheon. In fact, hundreds of Chinese came to study in Tibetan monasteries throughout the centuries; some still do.

The religious icons Wang finds so alien were therefore the same as those propitiated by many Chinese followers of Buddhism. The worship of Mahakala, a wrathful form of the Buddha, was introduced to China during the Tang Dynasty, and Chinese monks at the time recorded its widespread popularity. For centuries there existed a Mahakala temple in Beijing, decorated with murals and statues of the same fierce deities that Wang finds so abhorrent. It was destroyed by the Communists in 1970; the Capital Stadium stands on the site today. Such religious imagery is therefore not as alien to the Chinese mind as Wang supposes, and his portrayal of these practices as peculiarly Tibetan only reveals how successful the Communists have been in erasing China’s memory, so that the younger generation now suffer from a sort of amnesia in respect to their own traditions.

The great Urdu–Hindi writer Premchand wrote in his novel Godan (‘Gift of a Cow’) that when one is being trampled by a giant tyrant, there is not much one can do except tickle his foot. The mass adoration for Mao in both China and Tibet was the product of a frenzied fervour, generated by the Party and ritually reinforced by its propaganda machine. Besides the coercion from above, there was overwhelming group and social pressure to conform, coupled with a dismissal of any individual sentiments. A similar, uniform outward loyalty can be found among all those who endure life under a totalitarian regime—it is a form of foot-tickling. The speedy rejection of the Mao cult is the clearest indication that the Tibetan peasants were feigning compliance. I agree that there may have been moments of fervour or frenzied emotion and that, under such circumstances, deep and long-buried resentments can resurface. Indeed, the Party clearly sought to provoke such feelings, and it could be argued that its entire mobilization strategy thoughout both China and Tibet was in large part based on them. But as we know, such behaviour is often temporary and does not necessarily indicate a deep shift in people’s sentiments or in what they hold sacred. In his discussion of Malay peasants in Weapons of the Weak, James Scott makes a more perceptive point about the behaviour of those who face overwhelming odds: they resort to ‘everyday forms of resistance’, which typically involve a fake compliance and dissimulation. The Tibetan peasants went along with the demands of the Party largely because they knew very well that to do otherwise would meet with cruel punishment. It was not that they felt ‘liberated’ from their religious bondage, but rather that their fear of the wrath and retribution of the Party was greater than their fear of the afterlife. Visiting temples and monasteries in Tibet today, one often finds old statues and paintings reinstalled on their altars with notes that indicate which ones survived the Gang of Four’s destruction because the local people had hidden them away. In other words, the outward display of compliance concealed strongly held values and strategic decisions.

Sommaire Shadow suzerainty of the Qing

The present Chinese government’s claim of sovereignty over Tibet has been acquired by military conquest; its rule rests on might—brute facts, which Wang’s highly selective account of the historical relations between China and Tibet effectively blurs. Wang chooses to begin his discussion of Sino-Tibetan relations with the Qing dynasty—which was, indeed, the period when contact between the two was at its most developed, and imperial engagement in Tibetan domestic affairs most marked, although Chinese imperial involvement with Tibet can be traced back to the Mongol era. In practice, however, there was no direct imperial administration, and when the Emperors did intervene it was at times of great internal turmoil there. The establishment of the office of the Amban, or Imperial Commissioner, occurred at a time when Tibet was suffering invasion by the Gurkhas, in 1788 and 1792. For the Tibetans this was a costly war, and they sought the support of the Qing to repel the intruders. The Qing, fearing foreign incursion in such vulnerable frontier regions, naturally sided with the Tibetans, and the Manchu general Fu Kang’an recommended the establishment of a permanent imperial resident in Lhasa. This marked the beginning of the first attempt at direct rule of Tibet, with the Amban being given equal status to the Dalai Lama and the power to supervise the appointment of Tibetan government officials and high-ranking lamas.

The relationship between the Qing Court and Tibet did not, however, amount to the establishment of sovereignty by one country over another. Luciano Petech’s detailed study China and Tibet in the Early Eighteenth Century (1950), drawing upon both Tibetan and Chinese sources, argues that the Qing position in Tibet can, at best, be described as a protectorate—the Chinese authority of the time a ‘shadowy form of suzerainty’. Similarly, Willliam Rockhill, a scholar and American diplomat at the turn of the last century, writes in his study of the relationship between the Dalai Lamas and the Manchus that ‘he [the Dalai Lama] had been treated with all the ceremony which could have been accorded to any independent sovereign, and nothing can be found in Chinese works to indicate that he was looked upon in any other light’. [4] Imperial influence in Tibet depended on domestic conditions and external threats: the Tibetans were quite happy to seek the Emperor’s support when faced with intrusions from the south, but Qing authority was quickly discarded once the borders had been secured.

At the time of the Gurkha Wars the Tibetans were in no position to reject the imposition of Manchu rule by the army they had invited to assist them. But it is clear that the establishment of the Amban’s office was never seen by the Tibetans as signalling their acquiescence to rule from Beijing. As Wang’s own account shows, the Amban’s role had little effect either on Tibet’s domestic or its external relations, and his presence in Lhasa was largely disregarded by the Tibetans as long as their own borders were not menaced. Indeed, three Ambans were assassinated by Tibetans, in 1750 and 1905—contradicting Wang’s portrayal of an amicable if ineffectual co-existence. The Qing clearly recognized the impotence of their position, and more than twenty of the hundred or so Ambans appointed by the Emperor never even took up their posts—some failing even to begin the perilous journey and others dying on the way.

The lack of Qing authority in Tibet was most glaringly demonstrated in its dealings with British India. By the late nineteenth century, the British were pushing for trade routes into Tibet, and land routes from India to China. At the Chefoo Convention of 1876 the Chinese granted British access to Tibet, leading to the signing of the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890 between the Amban and Lord Lansdowne. This gave the British the right to trade and to send missions to Lhasa, as well as fixing the boundary between Tibet and Sikkim. The Tibetans, far from acquiescing in the agreement, proceeded to fortify the border, advanced troops up to the frontier and refused to allow the British to implement the rights conceded by the Chinese. The British soon found that the Chinese were in no position to enforce terms on the Tibetans, who simply would not accept Beijing’s right to sign any agreement regarding their territory. It was incidents such as these that led to Lord Curzon’s exasperated remark that Chinese suzerainty over Tibet was a ‘constitutional fiction’. British frustrations eventually led to the full-scale military invasion of Tibet under Younghusband in 1904. This broke the Tibetans’ power to resist the Chinese and, once again, forced them to seek the aid of the Qing court, leading to a disastrous but short-lived retaliatory invasion by the Chinese in 1909. When the Qing regime collapsed in 1911 the Tibetans severed all ties with China, expelled the Amban and his military escort and declared independence, thus ending nearly two centuries of Qing authority in the region. Between 1911 and 1950 Tibet enjoyed total control over its external and internal affairs.

Sommaire ‘Under compulsion of circumstances’

On the eve of the Chinese Communist invasion in October 1950, Tibet was to all intents and purposes an independent state. Chinese Nationalist attempts to regain power over the territory had been unsuccessful, partly because of internal problems in China but mainly because the Tibetans were determined to oppose any Chinese presence. After 1904, the British were also prepared to counter any extension of Chinese power in the region, and every mission that the Nationalist government sent to Lhasa was balanced by a similar British delegation. Whatever the nature of the polity that prevailed in Tibet during this period, its authorities were determined to preserve their independence from China and initially did everything they could to secure international support. But by 1950 the situation in the world—and in Asia—had dramatically altered. With Indian independence the British renounced any imperial interest in Tibet, while the new administration in India lacked the military capability of its former colonial master when it came to countering the CPP government in Beijing. The other relevant power was, of course, the United States; but because of Tibet’s geographical situation as an isolated, landlocked country, the Americans offered only limited, clandestine support.

The tiny, ill-equipped Tibetan Army was no match for the 40,000 battle-hardened PLA soldiers that invaded in October 1950. After its capitulation the Army’s commander, Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, was appointed by the Lhasa government to negotiate with the Chinese. On 23 May 1951 the Chinese authorities and the Tibetan delegation signed the Seventeen-Point Agreement—more formally known as the ‘Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet’—which formed the basis for the incorporation of Tibet into the People’s Republic of China. As Nehru remarked, it was signed ‘without joy and under compulsion of circumstances’. The Agreement virtually guaranteed a special status for Tibet within the PRC, since no other province, nationality or region reached such a formal accord with Mao’s newly established government. It placed Tibet in a unique position, theoretically entitling it to enjoy the same status as Hong Kong and Macau today. It pledged that Tibet’s traditional polity would be protected and that, above all, the institution of the Dalai Lama and his administration would continue to be the functional government. The only two conditions of real importance to Beijing were that China would conduct Tibet’s foreign relations and station PLA troops in the region; these were designed to erase Tibet’s international personality and to consolidate China’s geo-political advantage.

Wang is right to argue that, in the early period, the CCP’s primary objective was to establish the strategic and legal integration of Tibet within the new China, and that Beijing was willing to make concessions to this end. Nine years later, however, the whole of the Tibetan region erupted in revolt. The causes of this uprising were manifold, but its primary source was Beijing’s failure to appreciate the ethnic dimension of the Tibetan issue. The Seventeen-Point Agreement and the promise not to impose reforms applied only to the Tibetan Autonomous Region, the area under the immediate control of the Dalai Lama and his government in Lhasa. The Tibetan population in Eastern Tibet, situated in the present-day provinces of Gansu, Yunnan, Sichuan and Qinghai, were subjected to the same reforms and political campaigns as the rest of China. The Tibetans in these areas—Amdo and Kham—rebelled in 1956, and it was not until 1960 that the Communists were able to subdue the revolt. As a consequence, hundreds of refugees from the eastern areas poured into Central Tibet, turning it into a theatre of anti-Chinese resistance. The fact that the CCP had retained the previously existing social and political system in Central Tibet, under the control of the Dalai Lama, did not allay apprehensions about China’s ultimate goals. Despite the Party’s characterization of the revolt—as upper-class resistance to social reform—the Tibetan Rebellion was a national one, supported by all classes. In fact, the bulk of the protests came from ordinary people and the poor, resentful not only of the Chinese but also of what they saw as the Tibetan ruling class’s surrender of the interests of the nation. The Communists, after all, had done everything they could to appease the Tibetan elite and absorb them into their infrastructure by promising them a role in the new regime.

Despite the inequalities of the traditional Tibetan social system, there had been few popular peasant uprisings in the country’s history. Struggling to come to terms with this, Wang falls back as usual on his conception of the awe-struck native mind:

What explains such an unusual degree of deference and obedience? The answer surely lies in the deeply rooted religious traditions of Tibet . . . if they [the peasantry] committed the crime of ‘defying their superiors’ or ‘enriching themselves with dubious wealth’, the dreadful punishment that awaited them would far outweigh any earthly gains. [5]

Wang’s colonial assumptions forestall any serious empirical investigation of Tibetan social reality. The peasantry were certainly badly treated and the system of land distribution unjust; yet because of Tibet’s vast size and scant population, there were not thousands of peasants without land or a right to livelihood, nor were they plagued by economic uncertainties about their future. In this sense, they were better off than vast layers of the urban and rural poor in pre-revolutionary China, who proved more open to the CCP’s promises of reform. The Tibetan peasantry lived in isolated, sparsely populated areas; traditional society consisted of village and nomadic communities, with few political tensions between the various groups. Down to the middle of the twentieth century Tibet had an essentially pre-modern economy, based on agricultural self-sufficiency. The vast majority of peasant families produced their own food and clothing, and there was little trade or market development. Before the 1950s, it was almost unheard of for tsampa—barley flour, the staple diet—to be bought and sold in the market. Even in a city like Lhasa, families relied on relatives from the countryside to supply their basic needs.

This is not to paint a picture of happy smiling peasants—their life was full of hardship. In addition to economic inequalities, the social system was sharply delineated between commoners and aristocracy, with the former totally excluded from state affairs and burdened with heavy taxation by aristocratic and monastic landlords. There was much resentment, resulting in petitions to the Lhasa government from individual families. The reasons why this never led to open socio-economic rebellion are complex—as are the causes of the failure of working-class revolt in the industrialized West. But economic grievances alone are rarely sufficient to spark an uprising; a sense of injustice can be perceived on different levels, and the development of class consciousness is many-sided, involving cultural, social and economic factors.

Sommaire Politics of reincarnation

The question of how the Tibetans’ belief system has impinged upon their social and political attitudes is, indeed, a vital one, but demands far subtler treatment than Wang is able to provide. Certainly, a belief in karma and reincarnation would have a discernible influence both on people’s everyday behaviour and in their response to larger issues. Reincarnation is based on the idea that the beneficial effects of working hard and doing good deeds in this life will accumulate in the next one. This does not have to imply passivity—on the contrary, it can inspire one to play an active role in order to alter one’s position. The implication of Wang’s argument is that the Tibetans’ beliefs paralysed any capacity for social change; this is far from true. While not experiencing upheavals on the scale witnessed in some parts of the world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Tibetan society has undergone a continuous process of change and redefinition, clearly visible in the religious reformation that took place. There were also many political conflicts, involving mass mobilizations—often very violent—on the basis of regional or sectarian interests. Assassinations of Dalai Lamas were common—only three lived to maturity; others died in mysterious circumstances, sometimes on the verge of assuming political power. Far from being a paralysing factor, the belief of retribution in their future lives did not even stay the Tibetans’ hands in murdering their highest religious authorities. The Rebellion of 1959 is further proof, should it be needed, that the Tibetans have no natural aversion to violence, or resistance. But the uprising was carried out in the name of nationalism and in defence of cultural autonomy, rather than as defiance of economic conditions.

In fact, the rhetoric of modernity had most appeal for the young aristocrats and sons of wealthy merchants who had travelled outside the country and had the opportunity to witness changes abroad. As in most parts of the non-Western world, the call for reform was primarily generated by external influences and supported by the new urban intelligentsia. In 1943, when a group of radical Tibetans met in Lhasa to found the first Tibetan Communist Party, they were all children of wealthy merchant or aristocratic families. The bulwark of a reactionary religious community with mass peasant support meant there was very little chance of internal reform. Earlier attempts—such as the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s invitation to English educationalists to run newly established schools, in the 1930s—had been similarly thwarted. The students were all children of Tibetan aristocrats, but the institutions were eventually closed down as a result of opposition from the monasteries, who mobilized the masses through such slogans as: ‘In the Holy City of Lhasa, there is an unholy school’. The religious community—the Gelugpa Monastery in particular—viewed any reform as a threat to its hegemony.

Once the Communists took over, there was even less chance of reforms succeeding without coercion. However liberal the early measures of the CCP may have been, they were seen by the vast majority of Tibetan people as colonial impositions. While in some respects the peasantry might have welcomed land reform or the abolition of feudal labour service, the Party’s anti-religious policies antagonized them. The positive effects of the early reforms were also undermined by the indiscriminate assault of the Anti-Rebellion Campaign, in which thousands of ordinary people accused of involvement in the 1959 Rebellion were sent to labour camps. The question of reform in such a traditional society is a complex one; but it is impossible to abstract it from the national element in the relationship between China and Tibet. As long as criticisms of ‘backward’ Tibetan practices were seen as coming from an alien source, the response would naturally be a defensive one. As Lu Xun said, ‘If a man slaps his own face he will not feel insulted, whereas if someone else slaps him, he will be angry’.

Wang depicts the traditional society of Tibet as dark and corrupt, with the common people living on the brink of a precipice. This was also the perception of the CCP. Yet their response to the situation when, in 1959, they seized the reins for themselves, was to plunge Tibet into depths of misery it had never known before. The economic and living conditions of the people plummeted sharply between 1960 and 1979; in many areas people were forced to live on a single meal a day. It was not until the 1980s that living conditions began to improve, under the new leadership of Hu Yaobang. But although Hu’s reforms were welcomed, for many Tibetans they did not go far enough—as was evident in the widespread unrest of the late 1980s. As Wang rightly suggests, the new reforms were seen as merely redressing the wrongs done in the previous decades. Even liberal leaders like Hu were not prepared to address the fundamental questions of Tibetans’ rights. In retrospect, the reforms of the 1980s could be seen as placating Tibetan resentments at a time when the new leadership in Beijing was seeking legitimacy, and the position of the Party in Tibet was growing more precarious.

The limitations of Party hegemony were demonstrated by the popular welcome afforded to the delegation sent by the Dalai Lama in 1979, which was mobbed by hundreds of people in the areas it visited. Their reaction shocked the Chinese leadership; it gave a clear sign that, in the hearts and minds of the people, the Dalai Lama still ruled Tibet. It was while the delegation was in Eastern Tibet, on its way to Lhasa, that Chinese officials finally realized there might be an uncontrollable show of loyalty to the Dalai Lama and suggested to Ren Rong, the Party Secretary in Lhasa, that the visit to the TAR should be cancelled. Ren confidently replied that the people of the Region had a heightened sense of class consciousness. Like Wang, he had badly misjudged the situation. The Cultural Revolution, far from liberating the peasantry, had fuelled deep resentment towards Beijing’s authority.

Sommaire Party marionettes

Many of the reforms initiated by Hu have now been discarded and a new process of colonial rule enacted in their place. The ‘autonomy’ of regional bodies such as the National People’s Congress and the Political Consultative Conference is utterly spurious, existing only on paper. It is true that the 1980s saw a steady rise in the number of Tibetan cadres and senior Party officials, and that Tibetan was made the official language of the region. But it was comrades such as Raidi and Pasang—who had held senior posts in the regional Party since 1967 and who were both widely known to be illiterate in Tibetan—that the CPP appointed to leadership positions. The overriding objective of ‘Tibetanization’ was to place faithful apparatchiks in positions of power. In fact, many of the senior Tibetan Communists cultivated by the Party since the 1950s—or, in the case of Tian Bao, since the Long March—were incapable of reading their own language. Tibetan leaders both inside and outside the Party complained bitterly about these appointments, but even Hu Yaobang could not dismiss them. As he told the Tibet Work Forum in 1984, they were the ones considered most loyal to the Party and Fatherland. Hu’s attempts at reform were further confounded by resistance from the Chinese cadres who refused to surrender their power in the region, or to accept that the last thirty years of their work in Tibet had been, as Hu termed it, ‘a mistake’. When Hu and Wu Jinghua later fell from power, these officials celebrated openly and seized the chance to undo all the liberal policies they had established.

Tibetans are indeed well represented on bodies like the National People’s Congress and the People’s Consultative Conference. In fact I would go further and say that they are over-represented, given the size of the Tibetan population. But their presence in such august institutions does not mean that they have either the power or the voice to articulate the actual views of the people. It is a symbolic gesture, designed to show the inclusiveness of the Fatherland. Tibetan members of these bodies are selected and approved as model citizens by the CCP, and very often their positions are given as a reward for loyalty to the Party. Among most ordinary Tibetans, they enjoy neither respect nor trust. There is a joke about these people, which goes something like this. What are the responsibilities of the People’s Congress representatives and the People’s Consultative Conference members? They are three: one, to shake hands when they enter the meeting hall; two, to clap hands after the speech; and three, to raise hands when the vote is counted. It would be utterly naive to suppose that the Tibetan presence on these bodies demonstrates a genuine inclusiveness. Whether at regional or national level, these Tibetans carry out only what I would call a ‘messenger’ role: they serve as a caste whose duty is to provide a symbolic presence, and to act as mouthpieces for the CCP. Their role is not to voice the will of the Tibetan people, but to disseminate the Party’s will to them.

Today, the Party has managed to subdue the Tibetans’ anger not through gaining their consent but by instituting a greater degree of integration within the PRC. The policies of the last few years show that the Chinese government has adopted the classic colonial strategy of containment and absorption. The most vocal opponents of Chinese rule over the last decade have come from the religious community. Monks and nuns have been virtually confined to the monasteries while the Party has carried out purges of religious influence in public life. However, this has not been an easy matter, with thousands of followers in religious groups presenting a formidable challenge to the CCP. The Chinese authorities know that religion represents a powerful nationalist ideology in Tibet, with the ability to mobilize the public and to contest the authority of the Party. This was starkly highlighted during the selection of the new Panchen Lama in 1995. While Beijing was able to impose its own candidates, Tibetans refused to acknowledge the Party appointee. The incident may have caused the final loss of CCP authority over the religious groups, united in their opposition on this matter. Even Tashilhunpo Monastery, the traditional seat of the Panchen Lamas and always seen as loyal to the Party in the past, refused to co-operate or provide an abode for the official candidate. All senior Tibetan lamas have spurned the Party’s decision and have refused to endorse the appointment, except when made to do so by force. This showed the ability of cultural groups to organize and mobilize their members for a common purpose. Religious followers have remained loyal to their faith.

The problem is heightened by the fact that, although almost all Tibetan religious leaders are in exile, the Party knows that they occupy the people’s hearts and minds. Furthermore, religious faith is closely associated with ethnic identity and nationalism. Monks and nuns have been at the forefront of anti-Chinese demonstrations and are viewed as defenders of Tibetan culture and traditions. They command the loyalty and respect of the local population, while the local CCP leaders are seen as alien and corrupt. Beijing is engaged in a contest with the public, with the issues of leadership and legitimacy at stake. It fears above all the loss of control in terms of social, moral and political authority. But it knows that the people have lost any faith in Communism or in the Party, which can no longer generate support by appealing to its past revolutionary achievements or to the evils of its predecessors.

Sommaire Dissolving the spell

The combination of religious faith, ethnic identity and social and economic disadvantage, real or perceived, provide fertile soil for Tibetan nationalism. Despite economic improvements over the last decade, the majority of Tibetans view their position as marginalized and disadvantaged in today’s China. In this sense, Wang is right. While on the surface the Party has managed to contain the latent nationalistic aspirations of the Tibetan people, these factors, together with the presence of a powerful leadership in exile, do indeed provide a major threat to the CCP. The solution to the Tibetan problem, however, is neither complex nor difficult; nor does it require any major concession by the Chinese government. The notion of Tibet as an integral part of China is a recent invention by the Communist Party in its process of nation building. Tibet has never been central to the Chinese imagination. There was never any Chinese Woody Guthrie to warble, ‘This land is our land, from the crest of the Himalayas to the shores of the South China Sea’: the Party conjured up this sentiment after 1950. The spell can vanish as quickly as it was made to appear. Tibet is not Palestine or Kashmir, with extreme passions on both sides backed by centuries of religious bigotry.

In fact, China’s main interest in Tibet is strategic. But since the Dalai Lama has declared that he does not want independence for Tibet and is willing to meet China’s concerns by agreeing to relinquish control of foreign affairs and defence to Beijing, China should recognise that giving Tibet genuine autonomy would not endanger either the PRC’s security or its position in the world. If Tibet were to be granted this autonomy tomorrow, or even independence, China would not collapse. The Chinese leadership should be wise enough to accept that the Dalai Lama’s offer would meet their own concerns and at the same time allow Tibetans the genuine freedom to practise their culture and tradition.

TSERING Shakya
* Published under the tittle “Blood in the Snows” by the New Left Review 15, May-June 2002.
Notes

[1] See Wang Lixiong, ‘Reflections on Tibet’, NLR 14, March–April 2002, translated by Liu Xiaohong and A. Tom Grunfeld.

[2] ‘Seventy-Thousand Character Petition’, in A Poisoned Arrow: The Secret Report of the Tenth Panchen Lama, London 1997, pp. 51–2 (translation modified).

[3] ‘Reflections on Tibet’, p. 92.

[4] W. W. Rockhill, The Dalai Lamas of Lhasa and their Relations with the Manchu Emperors of China, 1644–1908, Leyden 1910, p. 18. Rockhill’s work draws only on Chinese sources.

[5] ‘Reflections on Tibet’, p. 91.

 

***

The Prisoner — memoir of a Tibetan Revolutionary

TSERING Shakya
July 2005
Tsering Shakya on Melvyn Goldstein et al, A Tibetan Revolutionary. Memoirs of an indigenous Lenin from the Land of Snows, and his long imprisonment by the Mao government.

In 1979 an article entitled ‘The Twentieth-Century Bastille’ appeared in a Chinese dissident magazine. It described the fate of two Tibetan prisoners languishing in Beijing’s Qingchen Number One Prison, where high-ranking Communists had been incarcerated during the Cultural Revolution. The two were Phüntso Wangye, the founder of the Tibetan Communist Party in the 1940s, and his close comrade Ngawang Kesang. The article was the first sign we had that they were still alive. Phünwang, as he is most commonly known, had disappeared from the public scene in 1958 after playing a leading role in Tibetan affairs, and had spent 18 years in the notorious prison, most of the time in solitary confinement.

Phünwang—the title of the book under review uses an affectionate and familiar version of his name—is a prominent figure in the Tibetan community, yet relatively little is known about his life and political work. A brief biography in Tibetan by Dawei Sherap, one of the co-authors of the present book, was published privately and with a limited distribution. A Tibetan Revolutionary provides a much fuller account, and one that will be required reading for anyone interested in the history of modern Tibet. There is a sizable bibliography of Tibetan lives in English, but most follow the familiar narrative of happy natives living in an idealized community before the annexation by China. Phünwang’s memoir—the book is the product of many long interviews conducted by Melvyn Goldstein, and is told in the first person—provides a far more complex account. It reveals the thinking and inspirations of a small group of Tibetans who wanted to bring reform and revolution to the Land of Snows and offers a wealth of information that will come as a revelation to readers.

Popular views of Phünwang fall into two camps: for traditionalists he is a collaborator and the man responsible for bringing the People’s Liberation Army to Tibet; for the liberal section of the Tibetan community he is the leader we never had, and his personal loss was a loss to the nation. Goldstein has done more than any other scholar to bring the complexity of modern Tibetan history, warts and all, to the public arena. This new biography is being eagerly read and internet postings already show that Phünwang has found followers among a younger generation of Tibetans, who will no doubt look to him for inspiration and mourn the wasted years.

Phünwang was born in 1922 in Batang, a small town—‘remote and beautiful’—in the Kham province of Eastern Tibet, some 500 miles east of Lhasa in what is now eastern Sichuan, then under the control of the Chinese warlord Liu Wenhui. A garrison town under the late Manchu dynasty, Batang had a modern government school that sent a stream of students, Phünwang’s uncle among them, to train as Chinese administrators in Nanjing. The boy’s baptism of fire in the turbulent politics of the region is vividly described. In 1932 Kesang Tsering, a local Nanjing-educated commander supposedly acting for the Guomindang, led an uprising in Batang against Liu Wenhui and proclaimed Tibetan rule. ‘Tall and strong, with a dark moustache, Kesang was a heroic figure to me and other youths’. Phünwang recalls him summoning the schoolboys to sing the ‘Song of the New Kham’ on the lines of Sun Yatsen’s slogan ‘nationalism, democracy, livelihood’. The victory was short-lived. Liu’s returning army exacted retribution, executing local leaders. The ten-year-old and his friends were knocking walnuts down from a tree when they heard the gunshots: Phünwang’s playmate’s father had been killed. Further revolts followed in 1935, with Phünwang’s uncle, Lobsang Thundrup, besieging the Chinese garrison at Batang, again in the name of the GMD, while Red Army units traversed the mountain ridge above the town on the Long March to the north-west. By the age of fourteen, Phünwang was determined to follow in the footsteps of Kesang and Lobsang, to study in Nanjing

so that I too could become a leader in the fight for freedom for our Tibetan people . . . I didn’t admire Kesang Tsering and my uncle simply because they had defied the Chinese [but] because they were educated, sophisticated and modern, as well as committed to the belief that Khampas had to rule Kham.

It was a teacher, Mr Wang, at the special academy run by Chiang Kaishek’s Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission, who first introduced the sixteen-year-old Phünwang to Lenin’s Nationality and the Right to Self-Determination. With the Japanese invasion the academy was evacuated west to the temporary capital of Chongqing in Sichuan. Discipline loosened and political debate increased. For Phünwang and his fellow Tibetan students, Lenin’s formulations on national self-determination came as a revelation:

I understood what Lenin meant when he talked about the inevitable tension between the nationality that has power and the ones that do not . . . that the strong nationality would often use its power to oppress the smaller, weaker one, and that the smaller ones would fight bitterly against this. I felt sometimes as if Lenin knew exactly what I was thinking, what I cared about most.

Phünwang’s first attempts to organize his schoolfriends into a clandestine Tibetan Communist Revolutionary Group, and to petition around student issues, saw him expelled from the academy. Though shaken, he marched out of the school grounds singing at the top of his voice, vowing that he would not ‘slink away’.

Now nineteen, Phünwang returned to Kham, initially working as a Chinese language and music teacher while vigorously pursuing his political goals. The strategy of the tiny Tibetan Communist Party under his leadership during the 1940s was twofold: to win over progressive elements among the students and aristocracy in ‘political Tibet’—the kingdom of the Dalai Lama—to a programme of modernization and democratic reform, while building support for a guerrilla struggle to overthrow Liu Wenhui’s rule in Kham. The ultimate goal was a united independent Tibet, its feudal social structure fundamentally transformed. Phünwang gives a lively critical account of the arrogance of certain members of the traditional elite, the cruelty of some of the monks he encountered during his travels and the poverty of the peasants—worse than in China itself—under the heavy taxes and corvée labour system.

His story makes a riveting read. In Lhasa, Phünwang tried to persuade the youngest member of the Kashag, Tibet’s Council of Ministers, to provide rifles for the armed struggle in Kham. But the Kashag was pinning its hopes on an Axis victory: ‘When Japan conquers China, they will leave Tibet alone. They are a Buddhist country, and we are far away’, Phünwang was told. His next move was to try to contact the Indian Communist Party, with a view to reaching the Soviet Union. Travelling to Kalimpong with a trading caravan organized by his comrade Ngawang Kesang, and then by train to Calcutta, Phünwang was given a friendly welcome by the CPI but discouraged from making the trip across the North West Frontier into Soviet Central Asia: there were too many British troops in the area. Back in Lhasa, the Kashag was still unwilling to help, although Allied victory was now in sight. Phünwang and his comrades instead set out for Deqen, a Khampa area in Yunnan province, where a local militia leader, Gombo Tsering, was willing to join them in an uprising against Liu Wenhui. Betrayed and attacked by Gombo Tsering’s enemies, they were forced to flee back across the Drichu River into Tibet, hiding in the mountains and living on snow until Phünwang could finally make his way to the relative safety of his uncle’s house in Lhasa, at the end of 1947.

The political situation was in flux. In the spring of 1949 the Tibetan Communists heard that the Chinese CP had established guerrilla bases in Khampa areas of Yunnan, and that the Burmese CP also had a strong force in the area. While making plans to join them, Phünwang and his comrades were expelled from Lhasa by the Tibetan government, now jumpy at the prospect of imminent Communist victory in China. Travelling via India, the Tibetan Communists reached the field headquarters of the Western Yunnan forces in August 1949. Here, however, the Red Army commander, a Bai named Ou Gen, demanded that the Tibetans dissolve their party into the CCP as a condition of joint guerrilla activity. After much argument, Phünwang agreed. Forced to abandon his goal of ‘self-rule as an independent communist Tibet’, he explains here that he still hoped that working through the Chinese Communist Party would lead to ‘the restructuring of Kham, and possibly the whole Tibetan area on both sides of the Drichu River, as an autonomous republic that would function in a similar way to the autonomous socialist republics in the Soviet Union . . . it would be under Chinese sovereignty, but it would be controlled by Tibetans.’

Thus it was that, early in 1950, Phünwang—now a Party leader in liberated Batang—was summoned to a meeting in Chongqing with Deng Xiaoping, He Long and other commanders of the Southwest Bureau’s 18th Army, and appointed a leading advisor for the PLA entry into Tibet. (Symbolically perhaps, the plane to Chongqing encountered such turbulence that Phünwang became airsick, and could find no other receptacle in which to throw up than his brand-new PLA cap.) He played a key diplomatic role in negotiations over the Seventeen-Point Agreement between Beijing and Lhasa, and in winning acceptance for it from members of the Tibetan aristocracy. Almost from the start, he was critical of the chauvinism and ‘top-down’ attitude of many of the CCP cadres. Yet he was proud to have opened a secular school in Lhasa—earlier attempts to do so had been shut down by the monasteries—and established a newspaper, drawing in leading Tibetan intellectuals to write for it. Crucially, Phünwang sided with Deng’s Southwest Bureau in backing a cautious approach to social reform and winning the support of the Dalai Lama and monastic elite, against the leftism of the Northwest Bureau under Fan Ming, which favoured the Panchen Lama. Phünwang’s secondment to an official posting in Beijing from 1953 was the result, he argues here, of Fan Ming’s manoeuvring to get him out of Lhasa.

Phünwang was the trusted translator for talks between Mao and the 19-year-old Dalai Lama in Beijing in 1956 (taking it as his duty to make sure the boy did not get up to dance the foxtrot with the ladies of the State Dance troupe, as the CCP cadres liked to do). He recounts an unannounced visit by Mao to the Dalai Lama’s residence one evening, during which the former raised the matter of the Snow Lion flag still carried by the Tibetan Army, and which Fan Ming wished to ban. ‘There is no problem. You may keep your national flag’, Mao told him, according to Phünwang. ‘In the future, we can also let Xinjiang have their own flag, and Inner Mongolia too. Would it be OK to carry the national flag of the People’s Republic of China in addition to that flag?’ The Dalai Lama apparently nodded his head. For Phünwang, this was evidence that the CCP leadership was contemplating adopting the Soviet model of autonomous republics, at least for these three nationalities.

Yet the political climate was already shifting. Phünwang deplored the reforms imposed by fiat in Kham that would lead to the 1958–59 uprising, brutally crushed by the PLA, and lamented the fact that the central government did not understand the relationship between Kham and Tibet. As a delegate to the 1957 National People’s Congress he was openly critical of Fan Ming’s policies. The following year he was summoned before a disciplinary committee and ordered to ‘cleanse his thinking’. The anti-rightist campaign was getting under way, and Phünwang became a non-person at the Nationalities Institute. In August 1960 he was arrested, accused of ‘counter-revolutionary acts’. He was thirty-eight. When he was finally released from the ‘Beijing Bastille’, after several periods of insanity, he was fifty-seven. The worst of many tortures he recalled was being bombarded by ‘electronic waves’ in his cell, which produced excruciating headaches. For months after his release he could not stop himself drooling. Impressively, after a year’s recovery, he returned to the fray, drafting proposals for an ‘autonomous republic’ model for the 1980 debate on the PRC Constitution, and arguing powerfully that the PLA should not be used for police work in the minority nationality regions, where its role was all too comparable to that of an army of occupation. When his suggestions drew down a damning 10-thousand-character attack from Party officials, Phünwang responded with a 25-thousand-character rebuttal. Now in his eighties and officially rehabilitated, he remains a critical voice, still attentively following developments in the Land of Snows.

Phünwang’s nationalist identity and assertion of the rights of the Tibetans presented a problem for the CCP. The Communist revolution in China was also, in its own way, an assertion of nationalism, and a desire to restore China’s greatness. In the pursuit of this, the aspirations of other groups were mere obstacles. Phünwang and other young radical Tibetans allied themselves with the CCP as a means of bringing reform and social change to Tibet; yet once China had established firm control over the region, the Tibetan Communists were deposed and replaced with Han officials. A leading political figure in the 1950s, Phünwang was the only Tibetan to possess any degree of authority during the first decade of Chinese rule. His knowledge of the language and his position as a socially aware figure made him into a vital cultural and political mediator, a role that gave him access to the highest levels of the CCP as well as to the Dalai Lama (who wrote of him affectionately in his autobiography). Yet Phünwang’s active political life was over by 1958. His fate and those of his comrades reveal the continuing problems of Beijing’s rule: after fifty years, the Party has not managed to promote a Tibetan to the top leadership in Lhasa. The dangerous accusation of ‘local nationalism’ pinned on Phünwang is still applied to any Tibetan who opposes the CCP’s policy. Such threats continue to silence indigenous leaders.

The use of the first-person narrative makes A Tibetan Revolutionary more of an autobiography than a biography, in the strict sense of the term. Phünwang’s voice carries the narrative forward and there is no attempt at critical or analytical judgement of his account. It is clear to readers that this is Phünwang’s view of events, and this is one of the book’s strengths. As such, however, it remains subject to debate and scrutiny. The PRC is changing; the publication of this book is one indication of that, and of the increasing access now gained by scholars to materials in China and Tibet. Much of the information presented here has yet to be tested against historical and archival sources, and there may be differing versions still to appear. This in no way diminishes the importance of the book. It is quite likely that even after examining other sources, we will find Phünwang’s voice carries a greater degree of truth and accuracy than any other testimony published so far. There is a sense of authenticity in the narrative, established by a tone that does not dwell on recrimination over the lost years. Despite his personal suffering, Phünwang maintains a balanced outlook and never descends to self-pity. To some, his lack of anger will appear naïve, but careful reading reveals the strength of his character. Phünwang remains hopeful that China and Tibet may find a way to coexist. In talks with a delegation sent by the Dalai Lama in 1979, published here as an appendix, Phünwang discussed the Tibetan exiles’ characterization of him as ‘the red Tibetan who led the red Han into Tibet’ and defended his goals. The Communists—‘in the words of Chairman Mao’—were there

to help the Tibetans to stand up, to be the masters in their own home, reform themselves, engage in construction to improve the living standard of the people and build a happy new society. But I never meant to lead the Han people into Tibet to establish rule over the Tibetans by the Han people. If so, the ‘red Han’, the Liberation Army, and the ‘red Tibetans’ who were their guides are all phony communists.

The strategy, he insisted, must be judged on its upshot—how much further Tibetans have moved towards an improved living standard and being ‘masters of their home’ under the PRC. It is such achievements as these that would make him, in his own words, one of the ‘good guys’. Indeed, one of the questions that this book poses is whether reforms would have occurred in Tibet if China had not intervened in 1950. Phünwang’s account allows us to trace the efforts of the small group of radicals who were working towards the creation of an indigenous social movement. Like his boyhood hero, Phünwang composed songs as much to educate his people as to inspire them. One stirring anthem from the 1940s begins:

Rise up, rise up, rise up,
Tibetan brothers.
The time for fighting has come but
Still haven’t you awoken from sleep?
We can no longer bear to live
Under the oppression of powerful officials.
Tsampa eaters, rise up,
Seize control of your own land.
Seize political power.

What is clear is that Phünwang was the victim of a revolution betrayed. This excellent, detailed account of his life will help future generations to decide for themselves whether he was indeed a good guy or not.

TSERING Shakya
* Review article published under the tittle “The Prisoner” by New Left Review 34, July-August 2005.
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The new reasoning of Gendun Chopel

HOLMGREN Felix
October 2006
Review of: Angry Monk, Directed by Luc Schaedler, Switzerland 2005, 97 minutes.

The first few shots of the documentary film Angry Monk effectively shatter the common images of Tibet as either an otherworldly spiritual haven or a communist wasteland inhabited by a broken people. In their place, the juxtapositions of the film’s opening sequence suggest a universe similar to those familiar from a certain class of representation of post-Independence India: a world of endlessly mutating forms; of ironic overlap of hi-tech and superstition; an amalgam of the medieval, the bombastically modern and the timeless.

The Swiss director Luc Schaedler attempts to survey 100 years of Tibetan experience, in all its trauma and contradictions. The film is scrupulously free of nostalgia and awestruck overtones, and is unsentimental whether discussing the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, the narrow-mindedness of pre-communist feudal Tibet, or the plight of the modern Tibetan diaspora. Angry Monk presupposes that its audience has already heard all about the ancient, exalted and unique culture of Tibet, and the film positions itself as a corrective to the admiring sigh that threatens to keep Tibet forever in a one-dimensional realm, sidelined from the changing map of history and geopolitics.

Schaedler portrays this ‘other Tibet’ by retracing the steps of Gendun Chopel, a man who died more than a half-century ago, having exerted little influence during his lifetime either in or out of Tibet. He was a brilliant and original scholar, but would have been remembered by few had it not been for his extensive travels in Southasia, and his numerous written accounts of his many years on the road.

By roughly sketching Chopel’s life story, Angry Monk traverses considerable geographic and intellectual territory, from the remotest reaches of the Tibetan plateau all the way to Sri Lanka; from the provincial monastery where Chopel baffled his fellow monks with his unconventional views, to the turmoil of India’s Independence struggle and the formation of the 1940s Chinese-friendly Tibetan Progressive Party. While following this route in the linear manner of a road movie, the film nevertheless weaves an intricate pattern where past and present, personal and public, regional and global reflect each other. As Chopel’s dissent from Tibet’s political and religious establishment grows, culminating in his imprisonment by the Lhasa government, the film delivers its critique of Tibetan society in the form of an insider’s view – an evaluation that otherwise, given Tibet’s tribulations and the director’s inescapable identity as coloniser, could have come across as rather odious.

Indeed, some have seen Angry Monk as an act of violence against an already downtrodden people. The film in no way paints a full picture of Tibet’s modern history or Gendun Chopel’s life and oeuvre, but it does grant the Tibetans the dignity of being treated as inhabitants of the same planet as the rest of us – a nation among nations, for better and worse.

The main complaint – albeit an unfair one – that can be levelled against Angry Monk is this: had it been made by a Tibetan, it would have represented a milestone in Tibet’s struggle for a renewed identity.

Sommaire Hero of our age

Although the figure of Gendun Chopel is somewhat secondary to Angry Monk’s agenda, the choice of protagonist is almost self-evident. Chopel’s reputation has been growing steadily for several decades; he is now not only widely regarded as one of the most important Tibetan intellectuals of the last century, but has also become a cultural hero for a generation of Tibetans. The Dalai Lama is only one among many admirers who name Gendun Chopel as their intellectual predecessor.

Wherein lay his greatness? One of Schaedler’s interviewees expresses it succinctly: “He introduced a new kind of knowledge to Tibet.” (Schaedler himself excessively dubs Chopel “the initiator of critical and intellectual thought within Tibetan society.”) Present from an early age, Chopel’s faculty for empirical and objective reasoning seems to have matured under the influence of Rahul Sankrityayan, a multilingual traveler, scholar, writer, Marxist and Independence fighter whom Chopel met in Lhasa in 1934, and with whom he subsequently traveled in Tibet, Nepal and India.

Sankrityayan, who had become a Buddhist monk in 1923, introduced Chopel to the circle of the Maha Bodhi Society, the single most important organisation in the early history of the Buddhist modernist movement. The Society worked energetically to revive pilgrimage to recently discovered ancient sites of Buddhist worship in India (such as Bodhgaya), and its ideology emphasised Buddhism’s compatibility with modern science and ideals of social equity. Chopel was greatly impressed by the writings and deeds of the Society’s then recently deceased founder, the Sri Lankan Anagarika Dharmapala, and adopted the rationalist and ecumenical programme of Dharmapala and his followers.

During his time in India, Chopel started writing articles and letters trying to offer other Tibetans a glimpse of the marvellous things he had seen and learned, and to urge them to study and accept the advantages of “the new reasoning”, as he called science. He chided them for refusing to recognise that the world is round, and for failing to use rigorous logical reasoning to establish the location of ancient holy sites. (His own guidebook to Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Southasia included a chapter with information on relevant railroad routes and fares.) But his tone was often glum, and in a late poem he summed up his misgivings about the Tibetans’ ability to accept change: “In Tibet, everything that is old / Is a work of Buddha / And everything that is new / Is a work of the devil / This is the sad tradition of our country.”

Chopel, then, was Tibet’s first apostle of scientific rationalism – not an achievement that necessarily stirs up more enthusiasm than can be contained in a footnote in a history book. Rather, it is Chopel’s romantic sense of loneliness, his taste for iconoclasm and his victimisation by the Tibetan authorities, in conjunction with his novel ways of thinking, that make him an important point of reference so long after his death. For Tibetans dealing with the realities of occupation and exile, and for Tibet aficionados who find few figures in Tibet’s cultural pantheon with whom they can identify, Chopel seems to have left a secret trail across the Himalaya. He is a hero not of his own age, but of ours, the age of partial and painful globalisation: an “outsider who was always open to new things, he eventually became a stranger in his homeland and homeless in foreign lands – a wanderer between worlds,” in the words of Angry Monk’s press kit.

One episode, recounted in many versions, relates how Chopel was once approached by a group of Tibetan scholars who wanted to debate points of philosophy with him. When they arrived at the appointed location, they found Chopel smoking a cigarette, and dropping the ashes on the head of a Buddha statue. Chopel, who all his life had been known to be impossible to defeat in debate, proceeded to argue with the group of learned men about whether or not such behaviour was proper. With reportedly impeccable logic, he proved that indeed it was, and his opponents left bewildered and disgusted.

Such stories not only reinforce Chopel’s oddball image. They also suggest a much-cherished Tibetan cultural type inherited from Southasian Tantrism: the ‘crazy yogi’, who transforms his consciousness through spontaneous behaviour and the deliberate breaking of taboos. While some conclude that Chopel was most likely such a highly advanced yogi, others ascribe to him almost superhuman abilities, or consider him a demon in disguise.

Sommaire No eternal truths

Beyond cosmopolitan or spiritual projections, Chopel was nothing if not a stubborn seeker of truth, a ‘wanderer between worlds’ of knowledge. With the publication of The Madman’s Middle Way [1], US Buddhist scholar Donald Lopez, Jr’s long-awaited translation of The Adornment for Nagarjuna’s Thought, Chopel’s treatise on the nature of knowledge, English-language readers will be able to deepen their appreciation of Chopel’s synthesising genius. Devoid of the formulaic cool characteristic of virtually all Tibetan philosophic writing, The Adornment’s 250 short paragraphs – many quirky and witty – proclaim epistemological and metaphysical insights accumulated during 20 years of monastic studies and more than a decade of travel and research.

The power of Chopel’s vision was not to be found merely in exhortations to Tibetans to abolish their old ways and emulate the West; he was, after all, as critical of European colonialism as he was of Tibet’s feudalism. It also lay in the complete openness that allowed him to penetrate to the core of the canons of foreign thought he encountered during the course of his travels, and to that of his own intellectual heritage, while stripping away all that was inessential or antiquated. When using logical analysis, Chopel said, one should be like a goldsmith who throws everything – ore, sand and whatever else – into the furnace, confident that in the end only gold will remain.

“The intelligent person should accept, from any source, whatever he sees as well explained, regarding it as if it were his own. Such truths do not belong exclusively to anyone, since they are equally objective for all … as sunlight, for instance, works impersonally for everyone with sight.” These words were not written by Gendun Chopel, but by the 7th century philosopher Chandrakirti. They reflect a half-millennium of inter-sectarian debate between Vedist, Jain and Buddhist thinkers, in the course of which the necessity of accepting the ultimate authority of logical reasoning became obvious.

Curiously, however, Chandrakirti is remembered and studied (in particular in Tibet, where his influence is of monumental importance) not for his objectivist pronouncements, but for his resolute and elegantly argued refusal to accept the existence of any objective basis for human beliefs and practices. This might seem inconsistent with the quote above, but for Chandrakirti and other Mahayana Buddhist philosophers, uncertainty is the necessary complement to rationality. For them, there is regularity and causality in the world only inasmuch as the things we experience are interrelated. And where everything is interrelated, there is only flux, with no room for eternal truths and foundations. Therefore, Chandrakirti says, let us use reasoning, and realise that all is fleeting, as in a dream.

It is this heritage – a sort of inverse of modern rationalism – that Gendun Chopel builds on in The Adornment. The text’s discussions belong to a tradition that is distinctly Tibetan, but the flair and originality of their presentation lack precursors. In The Madman’s Middle Way, Lopez’s detailed commentary and inspired introduction open up the text’s many historical and philosophical dimensions to patient readers new to the topic. Until Chopel’s extensive travel writings are translated and published, this book is likely to remain the most important non-specialist English-language source for the study of Gendun Chopel and his thought.

HOLMGREN Felix
* From the Himal Southasian:
http://www.himalmag.com/2006/october/review_1.htm
Notes

[1] The Madman’s Middle Way: Reflections on reality of the modernist Tibetan monk Gendun Chopel by Donald S Lopez Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 2006.

 

***

The “Angry Monk”
PROYECT Louis
28 February 2007

For most people, including me, Tibetan politics consisted exclusively of two radically opposed camps.

On one hand, there is the traditional Buddhist leadership of the Dalai Lama that is highly visible in the West and that enjoys a reputation as spiritually enlightened and politically progressive. With celebrities like Richard Gere spreading the word and a Nobel Peace prize belt under his belt, the Dalai Lama is lionized everywhere he goes. There is occasional grumbling about his adherence to traditional Buddhist teachings that homosexuality is impure (but not for non-Buddhists, bless his heart) but nothing sufficient to drag him down to the level of ordinary mortals.

On the other hand, there is the perspective of the Chinese government, especially when it had some kind of leftwing credentials, that the Buddhist priests were a kind of a parasitical feudal growth that needed weeding. When the Red Army poured into Tibet in the early 1950s, this was interpreted by Maoist-leaning radicals as something like the Union army taking control of the South during Reconstruction.

It is to the enormous credit of Swiss director Luc Schaedler to reveal another player in Tibetan politics in “The Angry Monk,” his excellent documentary now available from First Run/Icarus Films. This is a portrait of Gendun Choephel (1903-1951), a legendary figure in Tibet, who was opposed to both the religious elite and to forced Chinese assimilation. The film not only sheds light on a most unique personality. It also is an excellent introduction to Tibetan culture and politics.

Gendun Choephel

Choephel began life as a Buddhist monk but evolved into a scholar of Tibetan history and a political activist during his extended visit to India in the 1930s, where he became inspired by Gandhi’s revolt. He decided to travel to India after coming into contact with Rahul Sankrityayan, an Indian researcher of ancient Buddhist texts in Tibet. Surprisingly, Sankrityayan was also a Marxist revolutionary who fought for Indian independence. (It should be mentioned that many of these texts were burned in huge bonfires during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a barbaric act that rivals the Taliban’s destruction of ancient statues of Buddha in Afghanistan.)

When in India, Choephel not only politicized, he left behind the kind of Puritanism expressed in the Dalai Lama’s strictures against homosexuality. He was proud of his ability to sleep with 4 or 5 prostitutes in an evening and to get roaring drunk in the process, as Golok Jigme, a 85 old monk and former traveling companion of Choepel, reveals in an interview. In addition to writing the very first history of Tibet, Choepel translated the Kama Sutra into Tibetan! In the introduction to this classic work on sexual techniques, he wrote:

As for me — I have little shame I love women. Every man has a woman. Every woman has a man. Both in their mind desire sexual union. What chance is the for clean behaviour? If natural passions are openly banned, unnatural passions will grow in secrecy. No law of religion — no law of morality can supress the natural passion of mankind.

Choephel was the quintessential modernizer. Like Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal, he wanted to reduce the power of the clergy. In a 1946 poem, he wrote:

In Tibet, everything that is old
Is a work of Buddha
And everything that is new
Is a work of the Devil
This is the sad tradition of our country

In 1946 Gendun Choephel took up residence in Kalimpong, a town that sat on the India-Tibet border, where he joined the Tibetan Revolutionary Party, which was founded 7 years earlier. He designed (he was a gifted artist as well as a scholar) their logo: a sickle crossed by a sword.

The Tibetan Revolutionary Party sought to overthrow the tyrannical regime in Lhasa. When Gendun Choephels arrived in Lhasa, the capital city, he was arrested by the Tibetan government, which had learned about his activity from British operatives working out of India. He was accused of insurrection and thrown in jail for three years.

Two years after his release, the Red army overran Tibetan troops in eastern Tibet and took control of the country. A physically ailing and psychologically broken Gendun Choephel characterized the invasion in his characteristically blunt manner: “Now we’re fucked!”

“The Angry Monk” is also an excellent introduction to some of the more sophisticated thinkers in today’s Tibet, who are interviewed throughout the film. I especially appreciated the comments of journalist Jamyang Norbu, who derided the Western obsession with Tibetan spirituality. His remarks in a PBS Frontline documentary reveal his continuity with the Angry Monk:

Q: How does the West see Tibet?

A: I think, primarily the West sees Tibet, to some extent, as a fantasy land, as a Shangri La. Of course, this is a kind of stereotype that has existed in the Western kind of perception for a very long time, even before the movie “Lost Horizon,” the movie was made. Initially, the perception came from ideas of medieval Europe that they had of … … (inaudible), the Christian king who lived behind the mountains of Gog and Magog, and who would come maybe to make the whole of Asia a Christian country.

Because maybe people in medieval times heard of Tibet and a lot of liturgical practices in Tibet, religious rites and ceremonies, resembled the Roman Catholic ones.

Q: Tibet is suddenly very chic in America. Why is that?

A: There’s a kind of New Age perception of Tibet, which is fed to some extent quite deliberately by propagandists for Tibet, many New Age type Buddhists, Tibetan Buddhists. And, also subscribed gradually by Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama and a lot of prominent Lamas. The idea that this even materialist west will be saved by the spiritualism of the Tibetan Buddhists. It’s total nonsense.

Tibetans are in no position to save anyone, least of all themselves in the first place.

But, this is the kind of idea that’s being subscribed by a lot of New Age type people. This is the problem that Tibetans face, because their issues and the tragedy of Tibet has not being taken seriously. Primarily, it’s very fuzzy; it’s sort of a feel good issue, rather than a stark, ugly reality.

You have the Palestinian problem. Now, whether you like the Palestinians–and I’m sure a lot people in the West don’t like them—- but you give them the respect that their condition is real.

A lot of people love Tibetans in the West, tremendous sympathy, but it’s a very fuzzy kind of sympathy, because it never touches on the reality. It doesn’t touch on the reality that the Tibetan people are disappearing, they’re being wiped out.

You look at even supportive friends of Tibet like Galen …. Have you seen his calendars? It just says everything is wonderful. Tibet is wonderful. The culture is wonderful. The land is wonderful. It does not touch on the tragedy that people are actually being wiped off the face of the earth and their culture is being wiped out. That is not touched; it’s considered in bad taste.

Official Angry Monk website: http://www.angrymonkthefilm.ch/en/about/

PROYECT Louis
* From Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist website:
http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2007/02/28/the-angry-monk/
***
Red Tibet
ASTHANA Anant K.
15 September 2007

World knows little about the communists Tibet produced and certainly not much about Bapa Phuntso Wangye alias ’Phunwang’, one of the most important Tibetan revolutionary figures of the 20th century. Born in 1922, Phunwang grew up in a region inhabited mainly by ethnic Tibetans but not considered part of ’political’ Tibet. During his schooling in Nanjing, the capital of China under Guomindang, he developed an inclination towards the writings of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. There he founded a secret Tibetan Communist Party and in his early days resisted Chinese domination over his homeland through guerrilla techniques. In 1949, when communists took control over China, he merged his independent Tibetan Communist Party with Mao’s Chinese Communist Party. He was the translator for the young Dalai Lama during his famous 1954-55 meetings with Mao Zedong. In spite of his devotion to socialism and staunch faith in the Communist Party, Phunwang’s persistent commitment to the welfare of Tibetans and strong advocacy for the interests of Tibetan nationality made him a suspect in the eyes of Han Chinese party colleagues. In 1958, he was secretly detained then imprisoned for 18 years in solitary confinement. From 1985 to 1993, Phunwang served as a deputy director of the Nationalities Committee of the National People’s Congress and was an advisor to the 10th Panchen Lama. In 1990, Tibetan People’s Publishing House published his major study New Explorations of Dialectics that attracted wide appreciation throughout China. This led to a conference focusing on his works. In his late 1980s, he continues to work with Chinese government and holds a good reputation even among most anti-communist Tibetans.

Devastation of Tibet under communist rule, is often described and explained in a dominant context of struggle between two opposing ideologies based on religion and atheistic communism but with Phunwang, Tibet as he describes ’Tibetan nationality’ stands as a victim of ’Han majoritarianism’ for which he claims there is no scope under Marxism. In 1979, in a conversation with a delegation sent by the Dalai Lama, Comrade Phuntso Wangye declared, “I was and am still a communist who believes in Marxism. I am a communist, true, but I was also in solitary confinement in a communist prison for as long as 18 years and suffered from both mental and physical torture” but then he does not blame party, at all, rather he says, “I was put into prison by people who executed the laws, broke the laws and violated party discipline and the laws of the country.” Prominent Tibetans, of course in exile, accuse him of being a ’Red Tibetan’ who led the ’Red Han’ into Tibet and he, unhesitantly admits, “To be accurate, I led the People’s Liberation Army. I was the Tibetan who guided the people, who in the words of Chairman Mao, were there to help the Tibetans - the brotherly Tibetans - to stand up, be the masters of their homes, reform themselves, and be engaged in construction to improve the living standards of the people and build a happy new society. But I never meant to lead the Han people into Tibet to establish rule over Tibetans by the Han people.” Few months back in July 2007, in Beijing, he accused Chinese government hawks of closing the door on dialogue with the Dalai Lama and misleading the leadership about the exiled Buddhist monk’s influence.

Contemporary discourse on Tibet tends to depict realities in black and white, where all the Tibetans are oppressed and the very term ’Chinese’ stands for ’oppressor’ but Phunwang differs on such bland categorisation. He wants the world to believe that there were people in China who wanted to help Tibetans as brothers and that he made alliance with such brotherly Chinese only, not with Hans who wanted to rule over Tibet. He was a staunch communist who thought that the people whom he is helping to enter Tibet will be as staunch communists as himself and, therefore, would help creating a new Tibet as they did in case of China.

Phunwang, an admirer of Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach, continues to speak out for Tibet intelligently and forcefully without fear and holds a view that there are no major differences between the Dalai Lama, who wants autonomy, and the Chinese government, which cherishes national unification. In an interview with Melvyn Goldstein in 2002, Phuwang describes, “First, in the decade between 1939 and 1949, we struggled to achieve progress and development for the Tibetan nationality, social reforms in Tibet, the happiness of the Tibetan people, and the reunification and liberation of the entire Tibetan nationality. Although we did our best, under the prevailing historical conditions, we failed to make much progress. After the new China was founded in 1949, I continued to work unwaveringly for the progress and development of the Tibetan nationality through new channels, in new ways, and with new methods under the new historical conditions. I believe that under today’s historical conditions, Tibetans and other minority nationalities should unite with the powerful Han nationality for their mutual benefit. This has been my basic point of view since the founding of new China.”

Contemporary discourse on Tibet tends to depict realities in black and white, where all the Tibetans are oppressed and the very term ’Chinese’ stands for ’oppressor’ but Phunwang differs on such bland categorization.

He accuses ’Wrongful line of Leftism’ for causing harm and destruction to Tibet and its unique culture in the late 1950s but all his defence of ’Real communism’ goes unattended and unappreciated by exile intellectuals who perceive Phunwang as a traitor. “Therefore, if the essence and goal of our guiding the Han into Tibet was for the Han people to rule the Tibetans or that the Han themselves wanted to rule the Tibetans, we would have been traitors to Marxism and traitors to the Tibetan Nationality and people,” says Phunwang in a powerful rebuttal of accusations made against him.

Gelek Namgyal, a staff from Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Centre, New Delhi on being asked to describe Phunwang’s general reputation among Tibetan in exile says, “He is a Tibetan nationalist who wanted to reform feudal system in Tibet.”

There is no doubt that story of ’Phunwang’ gives wonderful perspectives and insights about Tibet’s occupation by communist forces and what actually went wrong. “Phunwang sees China as a multiethnic state where large minorities like Tibetans constitutionally have the right to cultural, economic and a modicum of political autonomy, and should be considered equal in all ways to the Han (majority ethnic) Chinese. The issue for Phunwang is not that Tibetans demand to separate from China, but that they want the Han Chinese to treat them as equals. And it was to say this to people in China and throughout the world, that Phunwang took a great risk and gave me interviews over many years,” says Melvyn Goldstein. He exposed Phunwang to the modern world by his wonderful biographical book on Phunwang A Tibetan Revolutionary: The Political Life and Times of Bapa Phuntso Wangye written with the help of Wiliiam Siebenschuh and Dawei Sherap.

In spite of growing curiosity about the life and personality of Phunwang, he by and large remains a controversial figure in Tibetan world, whose loyalty towards Tibetans is often disputed on the grounds of his contribution in facilitating Chinese occupation over Tibet.

ASTHANA Anant K.

* From Phayul [Monday, October 15, 2007 13:29]:
http://www.phayul.com/news/article.aspx?id=18229&t=1&c=1.

* Writer is a Campaigner for Tibet and a Human Rights Lawyer with Human Rights Law Network.

 

 

 

From Socialist Unity: The tragedy of Tibet's first Communist

1 April, 2008

http://www.socialistunity.com 

PHÜNTSO WANGYE - THE TRAGEDY OF TIBET’S FIRST COMMUNIST

Andy Newman @ 8:53 am

phunwnag.gifIn 1979 an article entitled ‘The Twentieth-Century Bastille’ appeared in a Chinese dissident magazine. It described the fate of two Tibetan prisoners, the founder of the Tibetan Communist Party, Phüntso Wangye, and his close ally Ngawang Kesang, who were languishing in Beijing’s Qingchen Number One Prison, where high-ranking Communists opposed to the policies of Mao Zedong had been incarcerated. It was the first that had been heard of either of them since their arrest in 1960.

Phüntso Wangye (affectionately known as Phünwang) was special adviser to the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army in 1950 when they entered Tibet. His biography was published in 2005, based upon interviews carried out with Melvyn Goldstein.

Phünwang comes from Kham, an area that has always had a mixed Tibetan and Han population, Western Kham has been incorporated into the Autonomous Region of Tibet, and Eastern Kham became part of Sichuan Province in 1955, the Yangtse river forming a natural administrative boundary, but people of both nations continue to live on both sides of the border. It was the disastrously insensitive implementation of secularisation and collectivisation in the areas of Kham in Sichuan province that precipitated armed revolt in 1956, and afterwards some 60000 Tibetans from Kham fled into the Ü Tsang Autonomous Region, a contributing factor in the Tibetan revolt in 1959, that was also precipitated by CIA involvement.

Phünwang grew up in Batang under the rule of Chinese warlord Liu Wenhui. A garrison town under the late Qing dynasty, Batang had a modern government school that had sent a stream of students, Phünwang’s uncle among them, to train as Chinese administrators in Nanjing. This is a very interesting detail because it shows how being an ethnic Tibetan was not an obstacle in the Qing period to becoming part of the mandarin state bureaucracy, provided you mastered the Putōnghuà language. The dismemberment of China by colonialism and warlordism therefore closed the route to economic and social advancement for Chinese of all nationalities, even those not under direct foreign rule.

In 1932 Kesang Tsering, a local Nanjing-educated commander acting for the Chinese nationalist Guomindang (KMT), led an uprising in Batang against Liu Wenhui and proclaimed Tibetan rule. Again it is interesting that Tibetans fought for the Chinese nationalist KMT of Chiang Kai-shek, illustrating how the politics and history have always been intertwined.

Phünwang was determined to follow in the footsteps of Kesang to study in Nanjing, as he puts it:

“so that I too could become a leader in the fight for freedom for our Tibetan people . . . I didn’t admire Kesang Tsering and my uncle simply because they had defied the Chinese [but] because they were educated, sophisticated and modern, as well as committed to the belief that Khampas had to rule Kham.”

Tsering Shakya in New Left Review explains how it was a teacher, Mr Wang, at the special academy run by Chiang Kai-shek’s Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission, who first introduced the sixteen-year-old Phünwang to Lenin’s “Nationality and the Right to Self-Determination”. With the Japanese invasion the academy was evacuated west to the temporary capital of Chongqing in Sichuan. Discipline loosened and political debate increased. For Phünwang and his fellow Tibetan students, Lenin’s formulations on national self-determination came as a revelation to him:

“I understood what Lenin meant when he talked about the inevitable tension between the nationality that has power and the ones that do not . . . that the strong nationality would often use its power to oppress the smaller, weaker one, and that the smaller ones would fight bitterly against this. I felt sometimes as if Lenin knew exactly what I was thinking, what I cared about most.”

The nineteen year old Phünwang returned to Kham, initially working as a Chinese language and music teacher while vigorously pursuing his political goals. The strategy of the tiny Tibetan Communist Party under his leadership during the 1940s was twofold: to win over progressive elements among the students and aristocracy in ‘political Tibet’—the independent kingdom of the Dalai Lama—to a programme of modernization and democratic reform, while building support for a guerrilla struggle to overthrow Liu Wenhui’s rule in Kham. The ultimate goal was a united independent Tibet, its feudal social structure fundamentally transformed. Phünwang gives testimony to the arrogance of the traditional fuedal elite, the cruelty of some of the monks he encountered during his travels and the poverty of the peasants—worse than in China itself—under the heavy taxes and corvée labour system.

In Lhasa, Phünwang tried to persuade the youngest member of the Kashag, Tibet’s Council of Ministers, to provide rifles for the armed struggle in Kham. But the Kashag was instead pinning its hopes on a fascist victory in the second world war to weaken China. Indeed, the modernising faction within the Tibetan state, led by Tsarong had earlier sought alignment with Imperial Japan in the first years of independence, until in 1925 the anti-reform feudal conservatives managed to have Tsarong ousted.

In the spring of 1949 the Tibetan Communists heard that the Chinese communists had established guerrilla bases in Khampa areas of Yunnan, and that the Burmese communists also had a strong force in the area. While making plans to join them, Phünwang and his comrades were expelled from Lhasa by the Tibetan government, now jumpy at the prospect of imminent Communist victory in China. Travelling via India, the Tibetan Communists reached the field headquarters of the Western Yunnan forces in August 1949. Here, however, the Red Army commander, a Bai named Ou Gen, demanded that the Tibetans dissolve their party into the CCP as a condition of joint guerrilla activity.

After much argument, Phünwang agreed. Having failed to locate a progressive reforming force within Tibet that could provide a path towards his aim of ‘self-rule as an independent communist Tibet’, he decided to work through the Chinese Communist Party with the aim of establishing ”an autonomous republic that would function in a similar way to the autonomous socialist republics in the Soviet Union . . . it would be under Chinese sovereignty, but it would be controlled by Tibetans.’

Phünwang played a key diplomatic role in negotiations over the Seventeen-Point Agreement between Beijing and Lhasa, and in winning acceptance for it from members of the Tibetan aristocracy. Almost from the start, he was critical of the Han chauvinism and ‘top-down’ attitude of many of the Chinese CCP cadres. But he succeeded in opening the country’s first ever secular school in Lhasa—earlier attempts to do so had been shut down by the monasteries—and established a newspaper, drawing in leading Tibetan intellectuals to write for it; reforms that would have been impossible in independent Tibet.

phunwang-and-dalai-lama.jpg[picture shows Phünwang and the Dalai Lama at the ceremony inaugorating the Tibetan Autonomus Region of the Peoples’ Republic of China]

Crucially, Deng Xiaoping, leader of the Southwest Bureau backed a cautious approach to social reform and winning the support of the Dalai Lama and monastic elite, and Phünwang was influential in shaping policy within Tibet within the first few years, advising that a slower pace that respected local traditional culture would be more productive in the long run.

Unfortunately, both Deng and Phünwang were opposed by the ultra-left Northwest Bureau under Fan Ming, an ally of Mao Zedong who maneuvered Phünwang out of Tibet and to a government post at the Nationalities Institute in Beijing. Phünwang acted as interpreter between Mao Zedong and the new, young Dalai Lama, and was convinced that Mao was at that time sincere in intending to allow full autonomy within the PRC for Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia.

But the nationalities policy of the PRC became subordinated to the ultra left turn of the Great Leap Forward. As a delegate to the 1957 National People’s Congress Phünwang was openly critical of Fan Ming’s policies in Tibet and Kham. The following year he was summoned before a disciplinary committee and ordered to ‘cleanse his thinking’. The “anti-rightist” campaign was getting under way, and Phünwang became a non-person. In 1960 he was arrested and disappeared into Qingchen gaol. It is perhaps important to note that he was arrested, like all too many dedicated CCP cadres, for political opposition not because he was Tibetan. Other Tibetans, like Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, have risen to high office in China, Ngapo became Vice president of the National Peoples’ Congress in Beijing. Indeed Tsering Shakya reports that if anything Tibetans are over-represtented on bodies like the PRC’s National People’s Congress and the People’s Consultative Conference.

Phünwang was released from prison in 1979, and had suffered torture and isolation, and mental distress. Impressively, after just a year’s recovery, he returned to active politics, drafting proposals for an ‘autonomous republic’ model for the 1980 debate on the PRC Constitution, and arguing powerfully that the Chinese Army should not be used for police work in the minority nationality regions, where its role was all too comparable to that of an army of occupation.

When his suggestions drew down a damning 10-thousand-character attack from Party officials, Phünwang responded with a 25-thousand-character rebuttal. Now in his eighties and officially rehabilitated, he remains a critical voice within the CCP, still attentively following developments in the Land of Snows.

As Tsering Shakya explains, Phünwang and other young radical Tibetans allied themselves with the CCP as a means of bringing reform and social change to Tibet; yet once China had established firm control over the region, the Tibetan Communists were deposed and replaced with Han officials. A leading political figure in the 1950s, Phünwang was the only Tibetan to possess any degree of authority during the first decade of Chinese rule. His knowledge of the language and his position as a socially aware figure made him into a vital cultural and political mediator, a role that gave him access to the highest levels of the CCP as well as to the Dalai Lama. Insensitivity, failure to respect cultural autonomy, and knee-jerk secularism exagerated the problems created by the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution

Phünwang’s active political life was over by 1958. His fate and those of his comrades reveal the problematic nature of Beijing’s approach: after fifty years, the Party has not managed to promote a Tibetan to the top leadership in Lhasa. The dangerous accusation of ‘local nationalism’ pinned on Phünwang is still applied to any Tibetan who opposes the CCP’s policy.

In 1979, in a conversation with a delegation sent by the Dalai Lama, Phuntso Wangye declared, “I was and am still a communist who believes in Marxism… I am a communist, true, but I was also in solitary confinement in a communist prison for as long as 18 years and suffered from both mental and physical torture” but then he does not blame party, at all, rather he says, “I was put into prison by people who broke the laws and violated party discipline and the laws of the country.”

Prominent Tibetans in exile, accuse him of being a ‘Red Tibetan’ who led the ‘Red Han’ into Tibet and he admits, “To be accurate, I led the People’s Liberation Army. I was the Tibetan who guided the people, who in the words of Chairman Mao, were there to help the Tibetans - the brotherly Tibetans - to stand up, be the masters of their homes, reform themselves, and be engaged in construction to improve the living standards of the people and build a happy new society. But I never meant to lead the Han people into Tibet to establish rule over Tibetans by the Han people.” He argues that those Chinese officials who exhibit Han chauvinism, and who are failing to respect Tibetan rights for autonomy are betraying the ideas of Marxism, and of the Chinese revolution. But without Chinese intervention, there would have been no social reform and emancipation in Tibet.

Although many in the Tibetan exile community regard Phünwang as a traitor, Gelek Namgyal, from Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Centre in New Delhi argues that his general reputation among Tibetans is just as “a Tibetan nationalist who wanted to reform the feudal system in Tibet.” Indeed, far from being a traitor, Phünwang is still an articulate voice for Tibetan interests in the PRC. As recently as July 2007, Phünwang declared that the CCP was going down a disastrous route, by closing the door on dialogue, and underestimating the influence of the Dalai Lama in Tibet.

Melvyn Goldstein sums up Phünwang’s position: “He sees China as a multiethnic state where large minorities like Tibetans constitutionally have the right to cultural, economic and a modicum of political autonomy, and should be considered equal in all ways to the Han Chinese. The issue for Phunwang is not that Tibetans demand to separate from China, but that they want the Han Chinese to treat them as equals. And it was to say this to people in China and throughout the world, that Phunwang took a great risk and gave me interviews over many years,”

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