MARCH 2000 NEWS   


Dagens Nyheter (Daily News), Sweden, March 10, 2000

Tibet and China. Today, exactly 41 years ago, the uprising broke out in Lhasa, culminating with the Dalai Lama's dramatic escape to India. On the basis of a recently published book by a Tibetan scientist, Rolf Jonsson depicts the modern history of the conflict.

THE TIBETAN ISSUE, that is, Tibet's relation to China, has been of concern to many people in the West since the Chinese army marched into the capital of Lhasa in 1951.

Some European and American observers have wanted to see the Chinese annexation of Tibet, and the subsequent reforms, as a necessary and beneficial modernization of the country, which was regarded by them as backward and bogged in superstition. Another group of Western observers, which have gradually come to dominate in the debate, are instead speaking of genocide, a destroyed cultural heritage, environmental destruction, and China as a exploiting colonial power in Tibet.

Also, it seems undisputable that a ruthless exploitation of the country's resources has been taking place, and is still going on. The huge virgin forests in the Southeast have been cut down with a tremendous speed, which has aggravated the serious floodings which have struck China in recent years. The wildlife, too, has been drastically reduced. The large herds of wild ass and antelopes, described by European travelers from the first half of the 20th century, are now almost totally gone, even if it should also be noted that vast national reserves have been established in recent years.

An increasingly outspoken choir of critics, often supported by famous rock artists and film stars from Hollywood, is also talking of deposition of nuclear waste and the stationing of nuclear missiles in Tibet. Here, the great strategic importance of the country becomes evident as well: missiles stationed in Tibet can easily reach important population centers on the Indian subcontinent, and also far into Central Asia.

However, needless to say, most important of all are the abuses committed against the population of the country. Recurrent reports tell of forced abortions in Tibetan women so as to reduce the Tibetan part of the population, at the same time as the influx of Han Chinese is encouraged in all possible ways (in the capital of Lhasa, the Tibetans are now a minority); of the systematic wiping out of the Tibetan culture so as to assimilate the Tibetans with the Han Chinese; of how the two religious traditions of the country - Buddhism and Bon, the latter being very little known outside the ranks of specialists - have been persecuted with a particular frenzy since in the eyes of the Chinese, these are the root of all backwardness and superstition which, according to them, was prevalent in Tibet until they marched into the country - "the peaceful liberation", according to Chinese historiography. So, what kind of society was Tibet before this happened?

Concepts such as "feudal society" and "theocracy" have often been used about the old Tibet, and certainly the large monasteries was the most important factor of power in the ocuntry. The tax pressure seems to have been high. A long-lasting policy of isolation, caused by fear of the European colonial powers who were in control of the neighboring countries, made Tibet loose contact with the development in the rest of the world, what hit back on the Tibetans when China invaded in 1951, and the Tibetans had to seek help in a modern world, difficult for them to understand. However, up to the end, Tibet was a living civilization, seeing herself as taking care of and upholding a tradition of inestimable value - Mahayana Buddhism that was brought to the country from India during our Middle Age.

The debate on Tibet is still dominated by strongly polarized views and simplifications. Those taking part do most often function as mouthpieces for one or another side in the conflict - either for Beijing or for the exiled Tibetan government of the Dalai Lama based in Dharamsala in Northern India.

VERY FEW have gone to the source material accessible; knowledge of Chinese and Tibetan have not been strikingly impressive, and solid knowledge of the distinct character of the Tibetan civilization, as well as the changes and motives behind the policy of the Chinese Communist Party, have often been missing,

Therefore, when "The Dragon in the Land of Snows. A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947" by Tsering Shakya, Tibetan historian, is now published, this book fills a long-felt need and will certainly be the standard work on the subject for a long time ahead.

His work is free from the usual political mythology and is characterized by a much-needed and matter-of-fact objectivity, together with a solid and wide-ranging knowledge of his subject. Among other things, he has had the opportunity to study unpublished reports by several central Tibetan figures about the developments in the 1950:s. Due to the delicate nature of the Tibetan issue, however, much material in British, American and Indian archives remain inaccessible to scientists.

After the victory over Koumintang, the People's Liberation Army turned West in 1951 to return Tibet to the "Motherland". Tibet was totally unable to defend herself. Because of the long-lasting policy of isolation, pursued by the great monasteries in particular, the army was old-fashioned and seriously neglected.

The means of diplomacy was virtually unknown to the Tibetans. The status of Tibet was unclear to the surrounding world. Consequently, no serious protests were raised when China annexed the country. The silence of the Western powers was probably also due to the fact that in the 1950:s, they were still colonial powers. China could then easily have discarded protests from them as double standard of morality.

WHEN CHINA and India had later signed the Panch-Sheela agreement in 1954, where India accepted that Tibet was a part of China, the Chinese could set about the work undisturbed. They saw themselves as apostles of modernization in a backward country that was lingering in medieval darkness. This attitude was enhanced by the traditional master race attitude of the Han Chinese toward non-Chinese nationalities. To this was added a theoretical super-structure of "half-digested" and vulgarized Marxist ideas about the course of the development of the society The Tibetans themselves were never asked. The combination of all this led to the greatest catastrophe in the history of Tibet.

Imposed land reforms, the introduction of people's communes and the abolition of the privileges of the monasteries led to an armed rebellion in Eastern Tibet from the middle of the 1950:s. There are no certain figures, but the victims of the fights could be counted in ten thousands on both sides. Gradually, as a part off the US policy of destabilizing China, the CIA came to support the rebellion through shipments of arms and training of Tibetan guerrillas at US military bases.

Until now, this bloody chapter of Tibetan history has hardly been known. According to the author, this is mostly because of the unwillingness of the Tibetan government in exile to put forth the events, since this might tarnish the picture of Tibetans as a "peaceful" and "spiritual" people, which they convey to the world.

The rebellion gradually spread and reached the capital of Lhasa, reaching its climax in March 1959 with the Dalai Lama's dramatic escape to India. After crushing the uprising, the Chinese set about their work with still more energy to reshape the Tibetan society. Massive re-education campaigns were initiated. The Tibetan language was refashioned by introducing a new Marxist terminology, nay, even changes in grammar were made.

Catastrophic attempts were made to replace the traditional grain of barley with wheat - but wheat does not stand the extreme climate on the Tibetan high plateau! The Tibetan identity was eradicated in all spheres. Efforts were made to assimilate the population, in the same way as had been successfully done with the Manchus and the population of Inner Mongolia.

A new, and still more intense attack on all things Tibetan came during the Cultural Revolution, a period so ghastly that in Tibet, it is referred to as "when the sky fell down on earth". After it ended, there were only thirteen monasteries left in Central Tibet - before the arrival of the Chinese there were 2700(!). Now, too, an armed Tibetan rebellion started - the so-called Nyemo rebellion, obviously a kind of thousand-year movement which was quickly and brutally crushed.

AFTER MAO'S DEATH and Deng Xiaoping coming to power, there was a "thaw period" for Tibet as well as in China as a whole. A "retibetanization" of Tibet took place in all speheres, and monasteries popped up like mushrooms after rain. During the new economic policy, Tibet came to be regarded as a supplier of raw material for the economic development of China.

In the region there are huge forests and rich mineral resources - chromium, lithium, copper, gold etc. The region was opened for commerce, which meant a strongly increasing influx of Han Chinese. Many of them settled down permanently in Tibet, which rapidly led to ethnic conflict. The "thaw period" made it possible for the Tibetan dissatisfaction to come to surface, and violent demonstrations, often led by monks and nuns, shook Lhasa repeatedly during the period of 1987-1990, when martial law was proclaimed in the capital. Since then, the hard line towards Tibet has been prevalent.

At times, since the Dalai Lama's exile in 1959, exploring talks have been going on between the Tibetan government in exile and Beijing. Since this dialogue seemed to have ceased completely in the late 1980:s, the government in exile chose instead to internationalize the Tibetan issue by appealing to the international opinion. There, indeed, progress has been made.

Issues such as human rights, environment and ecology, the rights and threatened cultural heritage of indigenous peoples have given rise to popular commitment in the West during the recent decades - questions which are only all too urgent in the case of Tibet. In short, the Tibetan issue is a characteristic part of our age.

On the level of popular commitment, the Tibetan community in exile has succeeded in gaining extensive support around the world. On the political level, however, the situation is altogether different. The interest and commitment for Tibet in the West does not present any larger problems to China, because the Chinese are aware of the fact that the West does not have any strategic or economical interests in Tibet. Issues such as human rights can be used by Western politicians to hit China (and also to catch votes among domestic voters) but does not mean much in the sphere of realpolitik.

In conclusion, Tsering Shakya notes that the future destiny of Tibet seems to be dependent on the development in China, above on what is happening in the governing party of the country.

Rolf Jonsson
archivist and linguist

Tsering Shakya
The Dragon in the Land of Snows.
A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947

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