In March 1959, China suppressed a protest in Lhasa by slaughtering thousands of civilians and, in breach of the agreements it had subscribed in 1951, dissolving the Tibetan government and converting Tibet into a Chinese province. It was the beginning of a policy where CCP decided to ignore international law and answer the world’s protests mostly by fabricating fake news.
2019 will mark the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Lhasa of 1959, a crucial turning point in the history of CCP’s violations of human rights and open defiance of international laws and conventions. What is happening in Xinjiang now is the logical continuation of a policy initiated in Tibet in the 1950s. For the CCP, the pursuit of its own ideological interests is more important than its international image and public relations. When confronted with international criticism, the CCP’s first reaction is to start fabricating fake news.
Most of what was not previously known about the Battle of Lhasa, at least to Western readers not familiar with Chinese and Tibetan language, can now be found in the English edition of the book Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959 by Li Jianglin, a Chinese historian who has been academically trained in the United States and lives there . Li’s book, published by Harvard University Press in 2016, is an updated and expanded edition of the text she published in Chinese, in Taiwan and Hong Kong, in 2010. It is also the definitive study of the subject.
Li’s key point is that most misunderstandings about Tibet are based on an incomplete knowledge of geography. What is Tibet, exactly? If Tibet is the area where the majority speaks the Tibetan language and believes in the Tibetan Buddhist religion, then the present-day territory of what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) includes roughly half of it. The other half includes the regions traditionally called Amdo and Kham, today divided between the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan. This larger area is called by geographers and historians “Ethnic Tibet.” Present-day TAR is the “Political Tibet.” There are complicate historical and juridical questions on whether Tibet was legally an independent State before the Chinese invasion of 1950. Nobody doubts, however, that it enjoyed a de facto independence and, for all practical purposes, was governed by the Dalai Lama and his government. This comment refers to the territory of present-day TAR (plus the area called Chamdo, that the Chinese occupied in 1950 and separated from Political Tibet). Before the CCP came to power in 1949, both China and Tibet claimed sovereignty on Amdo and Kham, but neither of the two powers controlled them. A myriad of small subdivisions of these two regions were ruled by the abbots of their Buddhist monasteries or by hereditary tribal headsmen.
From the documents mentioned by Li, it emerges with absolute clarity that Chairman Mao (1893–1976) had decided since his accession to power to take over all of Tibet and make it a province of China. He, however, advised that this should be done gradually and patiently, in order to avoid or limit international reactions.
First, Mao secured the control of Amdo and Kham, areas that were culturally and religiously Tibetan but were not controlled by the Tibetan government in Lhasa. Republican China had already divided these territories into various Chinese provinces, but this was merely theoretical, as in fact they remained governed by their traditional rulers. Mao quickly disposed of the traditional rulers and converted Republican theory into Communist practice.
Second, Political Tibet, consisted of six main subdivisions, plus the capital Lhasa. The easternmost subdivision, bordering Kham, was called Chamdo. After coming to power in 1949, Mao revived old Chinese claims that Chamdo was not part of Tibet, and engineered the formation of a Communist Chamdo Liberation Committee, which rebelled against Lhasa’s authority. In October 1950, Chinese troops invaded Chamdo, and proclaimed it autonomous under the rule of the Chamdo Liberation Committee (later, it became part of TAR).
In 1950, Mao regarded it as premature for the Chinese army to march to Lhasa. Not that he had much to fear from the small and poorly armed Tibetan army. He was afraid of international reactions. However, the occupation of Chamdo sent a clear message to the Tibetans. They were compelled to sign in 1951, under duress, the Seventeen-Point Agreement of Beijing, which had three main points. First, it recognized that Tibet was part of China. Second, it promised that it will keep being administered internally by its government and traditional religious and social structures, while China will manage its foreign affairs. Third, it allowed a massive contingent of Chinese soldiers to be stationed in Lhasa, and gave the Chinese free rein for CCP propaganda in Tibet.
In 1950, the present Dalai Lama was fifteen years old. He was a precocious young man and learned quickly, but he was also a student (as late as 1959, one of his main tasks was preparing for his final academic exams) and had to rely on his tutors, counselors, and ministers, some of whom, as we now know, were in fact CCP double agents. As described in Li’s book, the Dalai Lama believed until the bitter end (and, in a way, even after) that he could negotiate with the CCP. Li claims that almost nobody in Tibet then, and very few scholars laters, clearly understood Mao’s strategy. Only recently, key documents have been either declassified or leaked.
Mao started the “sinicization” of Ethnic Tibet from Kham and Amdo in the mid-1950s. This meant that the century-old social structure was destroyed, several traditional leaders arrested or executed, a number of Buddhist monasteries closed and some even destroyed. Western historians have long believed that Mao made a mistake, not anticipating that the brutal and premature sinicization of Kham and Amdo would have generated both a revolt there, where thousands joined the guerrilla of the Chushi Gangdruk Defenders of the Faith—which, despite its ill equipment, would eventually inflict severe casualties on the Chinese—, and anti-CCP feelings in Political Tibet, where refugees from the newly sinicized regions started to flee.
In fact, the documents unearthed by Li demonstrate that the contrary was true. Mao consciously created the conditions for a revolt in Kham and Amdo, and wished with all its heart that an anti-Chinese revolt would erupt in Political Tibet too soon. And the more violent the revolt, the better. That would have given to the CCP the pretext to occupy Tibet and remove the Dalai Lama government, claiming internationally that it was simply defending the Chinese troops and citizens in Lhasa against “reactionary bandits.” Mao’s secret correspondence shows how often he rebuked local CCP leaders who tried to prevent insurrection, while Beijing’s instructions were to provoke it.
Mao was not omniscient, though, notwithstanding what Chinese Communist historians would later claim. While originally he regarded as irrelevant the fact that the Dalai Lama might flee abroad, ultimately he instructed that this should not happen. The Dalai Lama escaped to India thanks to the bravery of his bodyguards and their superior knowledge of the Himalayan mountain routes, not because Mao in his magnanimity allowed him to do so. And Mao for several years was very uncertain about how the West would react to an invasion of Tibet, although by 1957 he had two elements to comfort him. First, the West, much closer to home, had not reacted to the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Second, India’s prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), as we now know from recently declassified Indian documents, had assured him not only that India would not interfere but that he had been told by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969) that America would not go to war over Tibet either.
Thus, by the end of the 1950s, Mao had not only instructed the army to make the repression of Buddhist resistance in Kham and Amdo as spectacularly brutal as possible, bombing monasteries and destroying venerated statues of the Buddha, but he had also told CCP representatives and agents in Political Tibet to multiply the provocations, hoping that revolt in Lhasa would soon erupt. On June 24, 1958, Mao stated in a secret document that the CCP should favor “a large scale rebellion in Tibet. The bigger the rebellion, the better.”
One of the provocations consisted in spreading the rumor that the CCP was ready to kidnap the Dalai Lama and take him to Beijing. This strategy succeeded, and when the young Dalai Lama accepted the invitation to attend a show of Chinese dances at Lhasa’s Chinese Army military command on March 10, 1959, the rumor that the CCP was now about to carry out its kidnapping plot spread as a wildfire in the Tibetan capital. A large crowd assembled around the Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s residence, to prevent him from going. Although not a single shot was fired against the Chinese military, and the only casualty in the first day was a pro-CCP Tibetan politician recognized and killed by the crowd, anti-Mao slogans were shouted.
Unbeknownst to the Tibetans, and the world at large—except perhaps the Soviet Union and India, which mistrusted their Chinese “friends” and kept spying on them—, Mao had already amassed a powerful army, with elite corps who had fought in the Civil and Korean Wars, just outside Political Tibet, with detailed plans for invasion, evidence that he knew before March 10 that he would invade, no matter what. Between March 10 and 20, tension escalated in Lhasa. The Chinese openly displayed their artillery ready to strike at the Tibetan historical palaces and monasteries. The Chushi Gangdruk Defenders of the Faith came to Lhasa from their mountains—this, too, was what Mao wanted, what he called the “old Chinese tactic” of having the mouses come to the open and then kill all of them—, and monks and civilians started arming themselves with 19th century rifles and cannons, the only weapons available in the city.
While the Dalai Lama still believed he could negotiate, and wrote humble letters to the Chinese army commanders, Mao had already ordered to wait patiently for the Tibetans to “fire the first shots,” then start the war telling the world it was “defensive.” It did not exactly work as Mao had anticipated. The commander of the Chinese army in Lhasa, General Tan Guansan (1908–1985), felt threatened, didn’t wait for a credible Tibetan first shot, nor from the reinforcement troops that were on their way from China, and started what would be later called the battle of Lhasa on March 20. Tan destroyed several Tibetan temples and historical buildings with the artillery, including the Norbulingka, and mercilessly slaughtered Tibetan soldiers, militiamen, and civilians who tried to defend them. In a rare show of forgiveness, Mao did not punish the general for having acted before receiving Beijing’s orders, as he admired how ferociously he had eradicated the Tibetan resistance. Their old sins, however, came back to haunt General Tan and his main collaborators in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution. Tan was persecuted, although he survived and was later rehabilitated, but other CCP key characters in Tibet during the Battle of Lhasa died in jail.
The Battle of Lhasa lasted just four days, as it did not take much to the Chinese Army to dispose of primitively armed peasants and monks. All the Tibetans could achieve was to take the Dalai Lama safely to his exile in India, where he remains to this day. The number of Tibetan casualties is still a closely guarded military secret in China, but they were probably in the thousands (while Chinese propaganda insists they were in the hundreds only). Many more Tibetans were arrested and deported, and several died in jail.
The Battle of Lhasa put an end to traditional, autonomous Tibet, dissolved the Dalai Lama government, curtailed religious liberty, and converted Political Tibet into a province of China, pompously but misleadingly renamed “autonomous region.” It also taught two important lessons to those studying the history of the CCP or analyzing its present suppression of other ethnic or religious minorities. First, the CCP is willing to pursue its policies even at the price of considerable international shaming. What happened in Hungary in 1956 confirmed to the CCP that the West was not ready to send its soldiers to “die for Budapest,” much less for Lhasa or the Xinjiang (that some would die for Saigon was a different and more complicated matter). Second, the CCP does not simply ignore international protests. Experience has taught it that organizing campaigns of fake news is cheaper and simpler than waging war.
In 1959, there were no Internet nor social media. Yet, the CCP was comparatively successful in telling its version of the story to the world. Fake news was spread that Tibetans had initiated the revolt unprovoked, and that the masses were manipulated by the reactionary government of the Dalai Lama. The contrary was true, as Mao did everything possible to instigate the revolt and the Dalai Lama and his government tried everything to prevent it and to negotiate. Even the CCP propaganda could not sell part of the story: nobody outside China really believed that the Dalai Lama was “abducted” by “reactionaries,” nor that Mao magnanimously facilitated his escape. But other tall tales are still in Wikipedia and elsewhere, including that the CIA organized the revolt. The CIA did take an interest in Tibet, and in 1957 trained in Okinawa and Saipan six members of the Chushi Gangdruk Defenders of the Faith, parachuting back to Tibet five of them (the sixth accidentally shot himself in the foot and had to be left in Okinawa), together with a radio. The radio was crucial, as their mission was more to pierce the information curtain the Chinese had erected and transmit first hand reports of what was going on to the CIA than to organize or lead any revolt.
Li’s book is an excellent tool to debunk a good number of fake news. But how many read scholarly books published by Harvard University Press, compared to those who rely on the much more easily accessible Chinese propaganda?