The early 20th-century Qing bureaucrat is mostly remembered for his crimes against humanity. In Xi Jinping’s China, he is hailed as a model.
by Lopsang Gurung
Speaking of “crimes against humanity,” an expression used by the United Nations to describe what China under Xi Jinping is doing in Xinjiang, Tibetans have experienced them at the hands of the Chinese well before the Chinese Communist Party was established.
At the beginning of this month, it was revealed, and even discussed in social media, that CCP cadres in Tibet are requested to study the policy of “gaitu guiliu” (改土归流) implemented by Qing official Zhao Erfeng in the first decade of the 20th century. CCP documents claim that Zhao’s policy “maintained the stability and development of Tibet,” “is a valuable reference, and has a rich significance” for governing Tibet in the 21st century. Apart from Party documents, Tibetans have read such claims in the works of revisionist CCP historians.
The problem is that “gaitu guiliu” (translated as “reforming the land and returning to the stream,” or simply “reform”) was a Qing policy that produced crimes against humanity where it was implemented, and Zhao Erfeng is remembered by Tibetans as a criminal and a butcher.
“Gaitu guiliu” was created by the Qing dynasty in the 18th century to put an end to the system of governance of ethnic minorities within the Chinese empire that dated back to the Middle Ages and was called “tusi zhidu” (土司制度). It consisted in “ruling the native people through native officers” (以土官治土民), based on the idea that ethnic minorities would more easily obey imperial bureaucrats selected from their own fold.
The Qing believed that the system had degenerated and, rather than controlling separatism, was fueling it. Although the Ming had already substituted the local chieftains with Chinese Han officers in some areas, the Qing abolished the “tusi zhidu” system almost everywhere, provoking rebellions of the local chieftains and the ethnic minorities, which were crushed by killing tens of thousands of people.
“Gaitu guiliu” was pursued brutally and started the destruction of the ethnic identities the CCP later continued. Zhao Erfeng is credited (so to speak) with fully implementing “gaitu guiliu” first in Kham, an area which is part of historical Tibet but not of the present Tibet Autonomous Region, and then in Lhasa, as assistant amban and then amban (a Qing high official). Zhao believed that the “chieftains” to get rid of in Tibet included the Buddhist monks, and killed hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of them, putting non-Tibetan officers in charge of local administrations. In 1910, Zhao asked Chinese troops to occupy Lhasa, and the 13th Dalai Lama had to escape to India.
For his ruthlessness, he was renamed “Butcher Feng,” but was rewarded by the Qing and promoted Viceroy of Sichuan. This did not bring him luck, though, as when the republican uprising started in 1911 he was captured and beheaded by the rebels.
It is not surprising that “Butcher Feng” and “gaitu guiliu” are now praised by the CCP. “Gaitu guiliu” was an early form of “Sinicization,” minus the ideology and technology the CCP has today at its disposal to control and terrorize the ethnic and religious minorities. Killing Tibetans, including monks, persecuting the Dalai Lama, and putting non-Tibetan officials in charge of Tibetan land: this is exactly what Xi Jinping is doing today. He and “Burcher Feng” are birds of a feather.