The Tibetan Genocide (Part I)7 min read

HT on Tibet’s Chinese revolution, 1949-1976

Everybody knows that there was suffering when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) marched into Tibet in 1949 and ’50, but for a long time it has been hard to say exactly what happened. 2020 is a good year to ponder the fate of the Land of Snows under Maoism. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is on the march again: the concentration camps in Xinjiang are operating in full swing, dozens are reported dead in clashes along the Sino-Indian border in the Himalaya, and the free enclave of Hong Kong has been brought to heel by China’s security apparatus. Meanwhile, a series of important new memoirs and histories have come out on Tibet, clarifying parts of the story little-understood before today. Below are reviews of two of them, with a further two reviews to follow.

The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier
Benno Weiner (2020)

Benno Weiner’s study is based on Maoist-period archival documents from a small county on the high-altitude prairie of the northern Tibetan plateau, in what the Tibetans call Amdo and the Chinese call Qinghai province. This in itself is quite a feat – only one other Western historian has ever got access to a Communist-period archive in the Tibetan regions (Melvyn Goldstein, On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet). Given how things are going in the PRC right now, it may be many years before another such book is written. The archive, and Weiner’s book, covers a roughly ten-year period between the first Communist arrival in northern Tibet in 1949, and the final pacification of the Tibetan uprising in 1959.

Weiner’s interest is in the details of state- and nation-building in nomadic Tibet, and particularly in the ideology of the United Front – the organization tasked with persuading influential members of society to ally with the Communist cause. (Today, among other things, the United Front manages religious figures within China, is connected to the Confucius Institutes abroad, and conducts influence-campaigns among Chinese diaspora communities world-wide.) In Weiner’s telling, before the Communists arrived, the fragmented chiefdoms of the Tibetan plateau had operated under an imperial “hub-and-spoke” political logic, in which non-Chinese elites rendered nominal allegiance to successive Chinese states, in exchange for official recognition and local autonomy.

This arrangement persisted into the early Maoist period, when the United Front, backed by PLA artillery, proffered peaceful surrender terms to those Tibetan leaders who would cooperate. United Front ideology was “voluntaristic,” in that it expected these traditional units to willingly undertake Communist reform. Over the course of the 1950s, this “sub-imperial” alliance was transformed into a “high-modernist” direct-relation between individuals and the socialist state. To put this in layman’s language, Weiner’s book is a chronicle of the brutal betrayal of these initial surrender agreements: see-sawing campaigns of communization, de-communization and re-communization; compulsory re-education, destruction of monasteries, mass-imprisonment, starvation, and Tibetan “banditry.” Finally, in 1958 and ’59 the plateau erupted in rebellion, and was crushed by the PLA.

In 1958 and ’59 the Tibetan plateau erupted in rebellion, and was crushed by the PLA”

Weiner notes that the present PRC narrative of “peaceful liberation” is predicated on defining away most of what happened in the 1950s: “A decade-spanning picture emerges in which Qinghai’s grasslands were racked by sustained (if diffused) resistance and an ever-present potential for violent conflict.” Weiner carefully demurs about the death toll of all this: “Extant sources simply do not allow for such undertakings at this time.” Nevertheless, “much of Amdo appears to have been enveloped in a cloud of political terror and state violence that could strike irrespective of class status or prior collusion.” Amid the brutality, there are some fascinating details: Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, appears briefly as the “primary architect of the 1950s United Front in Northwest China,” at least according to recent propaganda. At another point, the assembled Tibetan nomads get a lecture on the evils of capitalist countries, especially the scourge of racism in America (spot on!).

Weiner is writing for an academic audience, and he tries to avoid politicizing his scholarship. Nevertheless, I found myself wishing for a more publicly-engaged model of history-writing. The obvious example is Robert Conquest’s work on Stalinist repression and the Holodomor famine in 1930s Ukraine. Whatever Weiner intended, his work is inevitably going to be read in the context of contemporary PRC politics and the Tibetan independence debate, not to mention larger polemics surrounding minority nationalities, modernist state-building, terror-famine and genocide in the 20th century. At times there’s a sense that Weiner is apologizing for his source material: one of his central arguments is that the Maoist-period United Front rhetoric was neither “empty sloganeering [n]or Orwellian doublespeak,” but instead a genuine leftist political ideology, brought down by its internal and external contradictions. Nevertheless, while reading the book it’s hard not to think about George Orwell’s classic essay ‘Politics and the English Language.’ Weiner tells us: “These mechanics of nationality rapprochement and transformation operated through a dialectical relationship between what was often referred to as ‘consultation’ (xieshang) and ‘persuasion’ (shuofu).” Orwell might translate: “The Communists would kick you in the teeth, and then require you to like it.”

While I remain unsympathetic to the United Front operatives of 1950s Tibet, Benno Weiner is undeniably a serious thinker, and The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier is a fascinating and important book. It’s going to be a while until the next one of these comes along.

My Tibetan Childhood: When Ice Shattered Stone
Naktsang Nulo (2014, orig. Naktsang Zhilü Kyiduk, 2007)

Naktsang Nulo’s Tibet is a fever dream of violence. His whole family dies in his early childhood, one after another, through feuding and disease. Finally there’s just him, his older brother Japey, and his father, who abandons them. Nulo adopts a puppy whose mother has died in a trash pile. He abandons the puppy. The boys’ father returns and takes them on a caravan journey from their home in Amdo to Lhasa. Everything, even the sky and the earth, tries to kill them. Bandits ambush them in the passes; wolves by the hundreds surround them in the night and tear stray caravan members apart; deadly snow-storms sweep down over the hills and freeze them in place for days at a time. Finally the caravan gets to Lhasa, where they visit temples and get in fistfights with the monks. Then they go home again, but by now it’s late 1958, and Tibet is catching fire. What follows is an extraordinary panorama of a land at war. They ride south again, through massacred nomad camps where dogs and wolves feast on slaughtered men and livestock, past burning monasteries, poaching animals for food, as starving refugees do battle with Chinese patrols.

The Tibetan Genocide has produced its first literary masterpiece”

Naktsang Nulo published this account in Tibetan, inside Tibet, in 2007, where it quickly became a bestseller, then was banned. His child’s-eye narrator has a clarity of vision in the midst of suffering that becomes a kind of Buddhist liberation, but at the same time a ferociously political j’accuse. As scholar Robert Barnett points out in the introduction, it’s a long-form account of the Communist invasion of Tibet that never once uses the word “communism.” And yet complicity in cyclic violence is at the heart of this story. The final chapter is a bloodbath of a different kind: as their state orphanage is decimated by famine, the two brothers, by now hardened plateau survivalists, hunt and slaughter thousands of marmots and sheep for food. When the Great Leap Forward ends, the boy Nulo goes off to a Communist-run school. He grows up to be a policeman, then a prison governor.

The wheel of karma continues to turn, but by now two things are clear. First: An obscure provincial official and retiree named Naktsang Nulo has put a vengeful bullet through the throat of the claim that the Communist takeover of Tibet was a “peaceful liberation.” Second: The Tibetan Genocide has produced its first literary masterpiece. ∎

Benno Weiner The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier (Cornell University Press June 2020).
Naktsang Nulo, My Tibetan Childhood: When Ice Shattered Stone (Duke University Press Books, November 2014).

Correction: This post has been amended to date the beginning of Tibet’s occupation by the PLA in 1949 (in its northeastern territories) not in 1952, as well as other small corrections of tone and detail.