Enter the Dragon: The invasion of Tibet  

By Calum MacLeod
The Independent, 10 October 2000

The people of Lhasa were out in force last week in the bright, sunlit streets of the Tibetan capital. Which meant that China's security forces were out, too, though the holiday crowds were peaceful as they thronged Potala Square to watch ceremonies marking China's National Day. In the shadow of the Dalai Lama's empty winter palace, Chinese soldiers saluted the red PRC flag on the 51st anniversary of Communist Party rule.

This week, however, marks another, more poignant anniversary in Tibet's modern history. But only the foolhardy would risk public commemoration. On 7 October 1950, some 40,000 troops of Chairman Mao's People's Liberation Army (PLA) crossed the upper Yangtse river from south-west China and entered eastern Tibet. The commander of 400 poorly armed Tibetans near the border was quickly overpowered by the speed of the Chinese advance.

It was the start of a one-sided military campaign that brought Tibet to heel, forced the god-king Dalai Lama to flee his homeland, and began a brutal occupation that has seen no let-up since. Yet the outside world missed it. All eyes at the time were indeed turned to Asia, but their focus was the Korean peninsula, where UN soldiers had been sent to repel a North Korean invasion.

For the most isolated nation on earth, the fate of its centuries-old theocracy was sealed. "I was in a tea-shop in Lhasa when someone translated the news from a Chinese radio broadcast," remembers Tashi Tsering, then a 20-year-old junior clerk at the Potala Palace. "China had decided to send troops to 'liberate' Tibet. The announcement was not a complete shock; we had heard reports that the poor people of China had risen in revolution, and all the rumours that these Communists would come to Tibet. But still there was panic."

Buddhist monks in Lhasa and the eastern town of Chamdo prayed hard and performed rituals to ward off the coming evil. In view of the military disparity between the Tibetans and the Chinese, divine intervention was as solid a hope as any. But Chamdo fell on 19 October, and by the end of the month, the PLA had captured more than 5,000 troops, almost half the Tibetan army, better described as a border patrol that was charged with preserving the country's self-imposed retreat from the world.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th reincarnation of Tibet's secular and spiritual ruler, was just 16, yet responded to the crisis by agreeing to take the reins of office two years before the official age. "I had to put my boyhood behind me," the Dalai Lama later recalled, "and immediately prepare myself to lead my country, as well as I could, against the vast power of communist China." While the PLA could have marched on Lhasa with impunity, the Chinese paused for negotiations, conscious of the political capital of a "peaceful liberation". The Tibetans used the borrowed time to appeal to Britain, India, the United States and the United Nations to recognise their de facto independence since the last Chinese dynasty had collapsed in 1912.

But de facto was no longer enough. The Tibetans had shown no previous interest in joining the League of Nations, the forerunner of the UN. "It never occurred to us that our independence... needed any legal proof to the outside world," the Dalai Lama wrote in his autobiography, My Land and My People (1962). The UN, preoccupied with Korea, postponed any debate on the occupation of Tibet. "Now we had to learn the bitter lesson that the world has grown too small for any people to live in harmless isolation."

A May 1951 settlement between Lhasa and Peking promised to maintain the status quo. In October, Tashi Tsering watched the PLA march into the holy city, through the same gates used by Britain's Younghusband expedition, the first Westerners to visit the holy city, in 1904. But this was no "Great Game" manoeuvre by a distant imperial power. The new arrivals boasted a revolutionary ideology of social, political and economic reform, backed by powerful land forces.

Their methods fascinated young Tibetans like Tashi. He was appalled when he saw the atheist Chinese soldiers skewering worms on to fishing hooks, and spreading "night soil" on their vegetable plots ("I felt it was so dirty I would never eat Chinese vegetables!"), but he admired their efficiency and honesty. "I never heard they took as much as a needle from the ordinary people." By contrast, Tashi's office at the Potala treasury was "a real robbery shop... I knew I had clean hands but many old clerks resented my pointing out the corruption. It was like an eggshell, intact on the outside but rotten within." Yet Tashi was lucky to have the job. As a pretty 10-year- old, he had been plucked from a remote village seven days' horse ride from Lhasa ("or 25 days by yak") to join the Dalai Lama's dancing troupe. He fought hard for some education, impossible for most peasant children, helped by the senior monk who, as was customary, kept Tashi as his drombo, or sexual partner. Yet Tashi was free to fall in love with a noble woman who bore them a son. Only his lowly background prevented their marriage.

Expediency required the Chinese take a generally liberal approach to traditional cultural mores and existing power structures, but the propaganda barrage was underway. "A loudspeaker was set up in the heart of Lhasa, broadcasting propaganda in Tibetan," recalls Tashi. "I kept asking myself what all these new ideas were, these -isms; socialism, communism, capitalism and imperialism. We had never heard of them before."

Tashi was amazed by the Chinese efforts to integrate Tibet into the "motherland". "The PLA worked unbelievably hard, building the Tibet-Qinghai and Tibet-Sichuan high- ways, completed in 1954. There were only paths before where man and animal walked. They built schools and hospitals, too, where once there were hardly any."

Yet there were tensions under the surface of apparent tolerance. Chairman Mao remarked during a meeting with the Dalai Lama that "religion is poison". China was determined to break the stranglehold of Tibet's aristocratic and monastic estates, which terrorised their serf tenants with violence in this world, and the torments of the damned in the next. Mao agreed to postpone "democratic reforms" until at least 1962, but the 1959 Lhasa Uprising marked an end to the honeymoon period of Chinese rule and the start of a life in exile for the Dalai Lama and 80,000 followers. World interest picked up after their harrowing escape over the Himalayas.

Eager to learn more about those all those -isms, but not from the Chinese perspective, Tashi left Tibet for India in 1957 and subsequently moved to the US. In 1964, disregarding his friends' warnings, and an offer to join the government-in-exile that had been established in Dharamsala in northern India, he returned "to build socialism, democracy and happiness in Tibet". At the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Tashi could not resist tagging along with a group of ecstatic Red Guards to get a glimpse of Chairman Mao at Tiananmen Square. Soon afterwards, he was picked up by police and charged with being a counter-revolutionary and an American agent.

After six years in a Chinese prison in Shaanxi province, Tashi was rehabilitated and assigned as English professor to Lhasa's Tibet University in 1981. In his long absence, his brother had starved to death in jail, while their parents barely managed to survive in a half-destroyed monastery. In 1959, at least 1,600 monasteries were functioning in Tibet. By 1979, only 10 remained open.

Over the past 20 years, the Chinese Communist Party has begun to condone Tibetan efforts to rebuild their devastated land. Nomads were allowed to abandon the communes that made no concessions to Tibetan reality. Some monasteries, too, have reopened, although the psychological damage will be harder to repair.

Foreign leaders tempted to take up the Tibetan cause are usually tempered by the business lobby and the lure of China's 1.2 billion consumers. The Party men in Lhasa issue daily attacks on the "splittist clique" in Dharamsala. Last month, the Dalai Lama responded with a warning of cultural genocide in his homeland. And all the while, the steady influx of Chinese settlers into Tibet threatens to wipe out all traces of Tibetan civilisation.

This encroachment is the spur for Tashi's life work. He has dedicated himself to teaching the Tibetan language. "The pillar of Tibetan culture is the written language. When that is finished, the basis of our culture is finished. That will not happen. But there is a weakening... and particularly among our young people. I say to them, 'This is your forefathers' language, to be learned and respected. If you can't read or write Tibetan, you are only semi-literate.'"

After completing the first Tibetan-English-Chinese dictionary, Tashi has financed 50 schools in his home country through his own efforts and by raising foreign donations. He maintains this is ultimately more useful than campaigning for Tibetan independence. "Modernisation is my generation's duty. I am not interested in other, unreachable goals," he says. "When I met the Dalai Lama in America in 1994, I said the Tibetans must know how to oppose the Chinese when their policies seem unreasonable, but also how to live with them. Policies must be guaranteed by the rule of law, not the rule of man as so often in the past."

Half a century after the invasion, there is no negotiation between the Tibetan government in exile, and the puppet administration in place in Lhasa. As increasing numbers of Chinese are moved into the region, Tibetans are still divided as to whether they should, like Tashi the realist, be focused on ensuring that something of Tibetan culture survives. Others still believe that they should take up arms against the occupying force - a course that could threaten this ancient civilisation with annihilation.

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