Democratic/Thought Reform in Tibet

Man liveth not by links alone, but I did want to make note that, as of Labor Day, this blog will very likely be turning its attentions with greater regularity toward the issue of Tibet and its historical relations with the (maternal and adoptive, or coercive and abusive? but unquestionably Chinese) motherland.

These attentions will likely take the form of broader pedagogical inquiries, guest posts from the socialist or Lutheran motherland, and discussion of new Tibetan history research.

Today, an excellent place to start is Columbia University professor Robert Barnett’s priceless and precise analysis of Xi Jinping’s choreographed appearance in Lhasa earlier this summer. The essay contains within it a nearly three-hour long and rather rare CCTV feed (live, of all things!) covering the CCP’s litany of speeches and plaques and stilted Tibetan communist phrases in Lhasa this past August, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of that city.  Quibble with Barnett if you like — after all, he posits plastic stools as the key to understanding the CCP’s mistrust of Tibetans —  but his analysis at least forced me to say “Oh yeah, where were all the monks, anyway?”

When parsing events in Lhasa, the riot cop/monk ratio is always one to watch.

As when fellow traveler Anna Louise Strong went to Tibet on a CCP-sponsored/spoon-fed trip about a month after the March 1959 revolt, the lack of monks at the commemoration ceremony would seem to make clear that the Party makes no apologies for interpreting monks as barriers to socialist production, sexual reproduction, and economic development.

At about the 30′ clip of Xi Jinping’s speech, when he talks about “democratic reform (民主改革)” in Tibet, it’s almost as if he wants to say “thought reform (思想改造)” instead.  Of course, the phrase has fallen out of the CCP’s stated orthodox vocabulary, but it doesn’t mean the Party doesn’t believe that thought reform would do the Tibetans good.

After all, Xi finally mentions that great enemy, the Dalai Lama, at about 36′, and the danger he poses to “social stability,” an assertion which is heartily applauded by a few Tibetans sitting across from a bunch of young Han cops before it was summarized into Tibetan and Xi Jinping turns to discussing the great contributions to the revolution of Mao Zedong.

This whole speech is so predictably drenched and dried in the thick syrup of orthodoxy that I can’t look away.  Unlike the fleet Chinese internet, where ephemeral artifacts stimulate our critical gaze and demand a rapid capturing, Xi Jinping’s speech is like the CCTV building: immense and stilted, yet completely stable and predictable in its output.

An antidote exists, and immediate gratification, via mental transport to, say, Ladakh and New Delhi in 1959: look no further than this tremendous historical film fragment from my new favorite YouTube channel.  All that black and white film makes my heart pulpy and quickened, spattering blue into red.

Someday a real scholar is going to apply some rigorous analysis to the assertions made by the Dalai Lama in his first press conference in India in 1959.  (If any diligent readers can locate a transcript or intelligible-to-an-Anglo/Sinophone footage of that event, please do inform me!)  The Tibetan Government in Exile wasted very little time in prompting reports on the CCP “genocide” in Tibet which, as Patrick French writes in his highly recommended Tibet, Tibet, have gone virtually uncritically into the canon of Chinese atrocities accepted in the West as absolute fact.

Doesn’t it seem a little weird that the same people who are so interested in the factual basis for claims about “excess deaths” in China during the concurrent Great Leap Forward have virtually no interest in the factual basis of the Dalai Lama’s claims about CCP “genocide” in Tibet, claims which His Holiness repeats in his official autobiography?

But let us leave these disputes aside and move down from the plateau and into the placid and warm waters of the Taiwan Strait, wading in with that novice swimmer and grizzled politician, Zhou Enlai.

As an added Cold War contextual bonus, please enjoy this rather rare bilingual Zhou Enlai interview dating from 1965 in Beijing with a man who appears to be the eminent journalist Edgar Snow.  Among other things, Zhou lays down the gauntlet (which he later quietly picked up in 1971) on the Taiwan issue, predicting that without American removal of all military interests from Taiwan, no Sino-US rapprochement could be considered:


  1. Excellent to hear that more info on this….issue will be forthcoming! Greetings from Beijing’s very own Ethnic Minorities Theme Park University! My internet, while now more stable, required a passport that was not my own, which means I want to be very responsible about knowing what I can and cannot do online before I proceed. Otherwise, I hope to also add more commentary both on this blog and, of course, write on my own.
    In the meantime, rest assured there are many things I could comment on already.
    Until next time,

  2. Quite fascinating! I am intriuged by Enlai’s comments on no Sino-U.S reproachment if the U.S still has military interests, particularly becuase Biden was in China few weeks ago to establish cordial relations with Xi Jinping, the future of CCP’s leadership!

  3. My (American) family lived in Lanzhou, China when Mao’s thugs came in. They just shot people in the street; no warning, no arrests, no trials, and at least in the case of our family’s friends, no reasons we could think of. They shot nursing students, pharmacists, staff…these were not gun-toting Nationalists resisting the invasion, just common people trying to stay alive. And that was their OWN people doing the shooting. I am not inclined to doubt the reports of countless Tibetan friends who, with their own eyes, experienced and saw worse atrocities against Tibetans.

    Seeking details is admirable, but there is an air of dismissiveness to it that implies (to my eye) that you don’t really expect to find any “genocide” in Tibet, whereas even the most conservative estimates for deaths in China proper put the number well beyond any minimum requirements for using the word.

    1. Sheila, this is a very good point and a particularly fair criticism as regards my tone and expectation. One of the things that continues to interest me, and which I will be continuing to hunt for in the coming months (with Melvyn Goldstein’s epic Volume 2 of History of Modern Tibet, 1951-1955 as a guide) is the extent to which the deep political violence going on in “China proper” spills over into Tibet. Because it seems to me, at least thus far, that the CCP was in fact far more moderate in the early 1950s in administrative Tibet than they were outside of it (which includes Lanzhou, and Qinghai, where the Dalai Lama’s older brother asserted a CCP wholesale killings of monks). The work of Julia Strauss, along with more regime-friendly scholarship published in China, about the “repression of counter-revolutionaries” and anti-rightist campaigns of the earliest years of the PRC has not been matched it seems by an in-depth factual investigation — and yes, facts are hard to come by when people are intimidated, in flight, unphotographed, or being killed — of the parallel movements as they occurred or were suggested in Tibet.

      Or is it the case that the “genocide” (I’m going to stick with my scare quotes there, in part because I am sympathetic to the doubts expressed by Patrick French in _Tibet,Tibet_) really begins in the late 1950s? But what really would need to be done — if we are going to follow our German counterparts and search for the policy origins of the would-be genocide — would be some in-depth look at Mao Zedong’s Tibet policy. Is it the case that Goldstein is basically completely wrong when he characterizes the CCP policy in Tibet in the early 1950s as gradualist and acommodating? How could there be genocide occuring all over the periphery of Tibet, concurrent to a still-standing if not militarily powerful Tibetan local administration that had not been fully co-opted by the CCP, with no outcry or uprising within Tibet proper?

      I’ve speculated in other places on this blog about the levels of violence in Sichuan and the late “ending” of the Chinese civil war in southwest China and how this may or may not have influenced the way that the CCP/PLA entered Tibet, but it’s quite difficult at present to ascribe genocidal motives to the Communist Party in 1951. Maybe 1959 and thereafter is a different story? I’m appreciative of your comment and glad to facilitate more dialogue on these kind of questions.

  4. Hello Adam,

    Good to hear from you – very much appreciate the response.

    I want to answer in detail, but just want to throw a thought into the mix: that genocide may in fact be genocide whether it’s policy or not. To some scholars we will be arguing 1st degree murder vs. manslaughter; whereas in my book, if a people are steadily removed (however slowly) from existence, and knocked from the geo-cultural (geographical and/or cultural) foundation of their existence, at some point when the last member of that group is breathing his last, genocide has occurred.

    A Hollywood definition would be purposeful, blatant, slaughter with handy, incriminating memos from the Generals concerned. But is steady, systematic crushing of one culture by another genocide?

    It doesn’t do any good to get hung up on terminology, if the outcome in either case is the end of a people. I fault the CCP for intentionally and methodically Clintonizing the debate with questions of what the definition of “is” is.

    If we’re going to admit defeat/exasperation in attempting to apply “genocide” to Tibet, I think it would be just as useful to ask linguists and anthropologists to answer the question: is Tibetan language and culture thriving, stable, or declining, and if declining, when did that decline begin?

    i thank you again very much for your thoughts, and I look forward to more dialogue.

    1. That’s quite a point about the decline of culture and its (the decline’s that is) origins…And taking the long view would certainly be the Chinese way. (Mao was always so irreverent of time insofar as his grand strategic goals, like unity with Taiwan, had any deadlines at all.) One wonders if there is in fact some master strategy and end outcome in place from Beijing, or whether as with so many other things the appearance of totalitarian uniformity masks a rather shoddy foundation and improvisatory method.

      One additional thought on the issue of cultural decline, and I hope you will forgive me for bringing North Korea into the mix (if any country or group of people is ripe for sloppy comparison, the Tibetans and North Koreans seem an unlikely pairing): China in some ways can argue that it, the PRC, has now become the agent of inevitable globalization for an isolated land and people, and that the PRC is carrying the financial burden for what is effectively handling what used to be called “the white man’s burden.” The civilizational tropes in CCP propaganda, in the case of Tibet, are completely on the surface and highly prevalent, whereas the Chinese “civilizing mission” in North Korea tends to be more sub rosa. In any event, the point I’m making is not that Tibet needs its own nuclear weapons (although this would probably change the equation significantly!) but rather that where modernization/communications/infrastructure is concerned, the PRC government can pay for everything and then melt back into the global community with which it largely shares a vision of the ultimate goal of a pacified “developed” state. Look how hard they hammer this home in their propaganda about Tibet! Cars, roads, pipelines, literacy, etc. figure prominently; and these are things we are supposed to understand.

      As for language learning and cultural extinction via assimilation, Kristiana Henderson (her often-rambling but also rather protean blog is deals with these things in a way that I don’t, and I need to turn more toward the anthropologists to bail me out. Not to dodge the ominous comment, but as a historian, I’m more interested in excavating the 1950s in English and Chinese and figuring out where things went wrong (or, occasionally, right) rather than trying to prognosticate whether or not there will be a Tibetan language 50 years from now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s