Issue #145, May 2008

Electronic Journal & Daily Report BEHIND THE FOOD CRISIS Global Markets and Deregulation Strike Again by Gretchen Gordon, Food First THE NEW WALLS OF BAGHDAD How the US is Reproducing Israel’s Flawed Occupation Strategies in Iraq by Steve Niva, Foreign… Read moreIssue #145, May 2008


Middle Ground Between Mao and the Dalai Lama?

by William Wharton, WW4 Report

Book Review:

The Political Life and Times of Bapa Phuntso Wangye
by Melvyn C. Goldstein, William R. Siebenschuh and Dawei Sherap
University of California, 2004

There is little middle ground in the China-Tibet debate. Grace Wang found this out the hard way when the Duke University freshman attempted to mediate a hostile encounter between pro-Tibet and pro-China demonstrators. The reward for her efforts was an attack on her parent’s house in China and a string of death threats. This individual incident highlights the need to identify independent perspectives within a sea of polarized positions. A Tibetan Revolutionary: The Political Life and Times of Bapa Phuntso Wangye offers the unique voice of an historical actor who is both culturally Tibetan and politically Marxist.

Bapa Phuntso Wangye, commonly known as Phunwang, has dedicated his life to the liberation of the greater Tibet region. The vehicle for achieving this liberation changed over time— moving from peasant rebellion to Tibetan-Chinese cooperation to advocacy of national self-determination within the Chinese Communist Party. Such personal transformations occurred within shifting Chinese-Tibetan relations in the 20th century. If this is the only lesson one takes away from this work it is useful. Relations between China and Tibet reached critical turning points in the 20th century, and are not the simple representations of some ancient regional antagonism. Much of the current conflict is rooted in decisions made in this conjuncture.

Phunwang’s testimonial (made in a series of interviews and then translated and slightly annotated by the book’s editors) is organized into four distinct historical periods. The first runs roughly from the early 1940s until the Chinese Revolution of 1949. The second is smaller but contains the most important opportunities for a rapprochement between Tibet and China, from 1949 until the Great Leap Forward of 1957. Much darker is the period from 1957 until Mao’s death in 1976 which includes the experiences of the Cultural Revolution. Finally, Phunwang provides a brief sketch of the period from 1976 until the present.

Phunwang was born in a region called Kham, just to the east of Tibet proper (today part of Sichuan province). Despite the cultural distinctiveness of the region, its inhabitants still consider themselves to be culturally Tibetan (anthropologists use the categories “political” and “ethnographic” Tibet). The region’s eastern location also led to a more direct engagement with China. During Phunwang’s formative years, Kham was occupied by the Chinese nationalist government led by the Guomindang (GMD). His early years in universities nominally controlled by the GMD led to a rather elaborate education in Marxist theory. His primary university was run by the GMD’s Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission, the Chiang Kaishek Central Political Institute. The goal was to educate Mongolian and Tibetan students from Kham and Qinghai as GMD administrators for the region, but the school was infiltrated by teachers sympathetic to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Phunwang was immediately drawn to the notions articulated by Josef Stalin regarding the components necessary for identify a nation and Vladimir Lenin’s writings on the rights of nations to self-determination. The troika was made complete by an acceptance of Mao Zedong’s strategies of guerilla war.

Theory soon turned to action as Phunwang abandoned his studies, and organized a group of classmates to seek out political, financial and military backing in order to launch of a war of liberation in Tibet. This journey took him from a brief flirtation with the CCP to secretive meetings with a pro-Soviet faction of the Communist Party of India. In both cases, his appeal for support was met by little else but promises for the future delivered via messages that made the Chinese and Soviet desire for balance and stability clear.

Phunwang believes that the Soviets rejected him because they were not sure of the outcome of World War II—would they be negotiating with the GMD, CCP or Japanese? The CCP was leery of opening up a western front which they did not have direct control over. Rejection by the international left did little to damper the revolutionary élan of Phunwang, but did force him to seek out allies in unusual places.

Acting as a cultural insider, he was able to associate with younger more progressive members of the Tibetan aristocratic class. These “reformers” craved Phunwang’s knowledge of the outside world and, through conversation, expressed a desire to renovate and modernize Tibetan society. In exchange, they provided Phunwang with easy passage across the Tibetan border, thereby providing a safe-haven for cross-border anti-GMD activity.

But it was the GMD that really opened the conjunctural possibilities by allowing the formation of small-scale anti-Japanese militias. Operations reached a head in 1946 as Phunwang and his compatriots forged an alliance with a military leader contesting for local supremacy, Gombo Tsering, in the south of Kham. Tsering first acted as a Red Army-appointed commander (after the CCP set up a nominal Tibetan government in the region during the Long March), and then as a leader of anti-Japanese Tibetan militias for the GMD. He was easily swayed as to the necessity of the liberation of Kham from the GMD—while certainly understanding the possibilities for self-promotion offered by a successful revolt. With a funding and weapons source secured, Phunwang organized the Eastern Tibetan People’s Autonomous Alliance and set out to launch a guerilla war. Two days prior to the launch date, a local rival militia attacked Gombo Tsering and Phunwang after rumors were spread that Tsering had sold the community’s guns to “communists.” Phunwang and a handful of followers were forced, penniless and unarmed, west into Tibet proper.

After a perilous trip across the mountains, the defeated Phunwang and comrades arrived in Lhasa in 1947. Once again, he relied on the protection of progressive aristocrats to this time organize the underground Tibetan Communist Party (TCP). By 1948 the possibility of the CCP seizure of power in China had become a reality. Conservative sectors of the Tibetan aristocracy became unnerved and began to accuse Phunwang of being a CCP-supporter. Finally, in July 1949, he was expelled from Tibet and forced back across the eastern border. In October 1949 Mao Zedong proclaimed the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), thereby ending Phunwang’s dream of self-emancipatory peasant guerilla war.

As a committed communist and cultural Tibetan with the contacts and linguistic skills necessary to facilitate the “liberation” of Tibet, Phunwang became a valuable resource for the CCP. After a bit of contentious brokering which foreshadowed later conflicts, the TCP was folded into the structures of the CCP. The next two years were spent building a progressive bloc which united the leadership of the CCP with the cultural and political leadership of Tibet, including the Dalai Lama.

This process culminated in the drafting of the Seventeen-Point Agreement of 1951. Phunwang admits that these negotiations took place under the implicit threat of the invasion of Tibet by the forces of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) although he does defend the document as a reasonable solution to Tibet-China relations. The document served the CCP by ensuring that Tibet would accept the organization of a Military and Administrative Bureau to govern the region (with the Dalai Lama at the head of the bureau), by accepting a resolution to the dispute between the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama and, perhaps most importantly, by acquiring Tibetan consent to the installation of PLA troops in the region.

For Tibetans, the agreement avoided an uneven war, secured guarantees of cultural and political autonomy, and ensured that “reforms” of the Tibetan social structure would proceed slowly. In this period, necessary reforms were (slowly) implemented in Tibet and Kham—health care, labor laws, public works. There was a general agreement between the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan aristocracy to support these measures. Phunwang, as one of the few Tibetan cadre, acted as a key cultural and political broker for the CCP.

Unfortunately for Phunwang, the revolutionary leaders who signed the agreement, such as Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, were not the CCP operatives charged with implementing it on the ground. A series of PLA commanders charged with securing the region practiced a form of Han Chinese chauvinism and ultra-leftism, and proceed to carry out acts of cultural insensitivity and corporal punishment—including the public whipping of Tibetans. CCP administrators such as Fan Ming did little to hide their distaste for Tibetans and desire to rapidly transform the region, thereby violating the Seventeen-Point Agreement.

Then, in 1955, Mao shifted to the left and began a process of criticizing the central government for the slow implementation of communism. One year later, Ming launched an aggressive campaign to accelerate the reform process. Thousands of Han Chinese CCP cadre flooded into Tibet and the Chinese authorities began buying up real estate and businesses from the Tibetan elite. This sudden infusion of wealth into the region had the unintended effects of exposing the local population to a hyper-inflated economy and allowed the aristocracy to easily smuggle its now-liquid wealth across the border into India.

By the time Mao’s left-critique was translated into policy in 1957 with the Great Leap Forward—which the CCP claimed would allow the country to surpass both the USSR and US in economic production—Phunwang’s progressive bloc had been shattered. This began the second period of relations from 1957-1976 which, according to Phunwang, was characterized by Han chauvinism under the guise of ultra-leftism.

As the previous compromise was unwound, conservative elements in Tibet and the scorned reformers organized a rebellion against the PLA in 1959. (Phunwang employed a Chinese proverb to express the futility of any armed resistance by the Tibetan leadership—”Whether the rock hits the egg, or the egg hits the rock, the result is always the same.”) Meanwhile, the CCP ran an internal purge against “local nationalisms” and began to systematically eliminate any representatives of Tibet’s local ethnic groups (even though they, like Phunwang, were loyal members of the CCP).

When Phunwang returned to Beijing in 1958 he was instructed by CCP officials to “cleanse his thinking of local nationalism.” Remarkably, one piece of evidence used against him was a dog-eared copy of Lenin’s On Nationality Self-Determination, which he was accused of bringing into Tibet. The first stage of punishment was exclusion from party activities, but this soon grew into imprisonment as the general purge accelerated.

Phunwang was held without explicit charges from 1960 until his release in 1979. He recounts in vivid detail the excruciating mental and physical suffering of his incarceration, most of which was served in solitary confinement. After years of futile verbal sparring with interrogators, Phunwang decided in 1969 to take a vow of silence. His wife was also arrested and committed suicide rather than suffer a similar fate.

Phunwang served his sentence alone and in silence for the next six years until officials transferred him to a mental hospital for prisoners. When his family was finally allowed to visit in 1975, Phunwang had physical difficulties speaking as no words had passed his lips in more than six years.

After his release from prison, he waged a one-person campaign within the CCP to have his name “rehabilitated.” After accomplishing this, Phunwang went to work attempting to bring the CCP’s policies on ethnic minorities more in line with what he viewed as a Marxist-Leninist position. In this section of the book, Phunwang is guarded, preferring to speak less about Tibet in particular and more about ethnic minorities in general. He specifically advocates the recognition of local ethnic leadership with political autonomy within the greater PRC, an end to the use of the PLA as a police force and as a weapon to suppress revolts, the placing of strict limits on Han Chinese internal migration, and the prioritizing of local interests and decision-making in the planning of national economic projects. He calls for free and open education in ethnic minority culture and language, and open discussions on China’s future which include representatives who explicitly self-identify with the interests of ethnic minorities.

Phunwang remains in China and, as of 2004, was still a member of the CCP. The last official position he held was the deputy director of the Nationalities Committee of the National People’s Congress from 1985-1993.

Overall, A Tibetan Revolutionary can serve the role of dispelling myths being circulated by both the pro-Tibet and pro-China camps. Phunwang’s argument concerning rights to self-determination as advocated in the Leninist tradition is convincing and highlights the overall drift of the Chinese Revolution. More importantly, he illustrates the manner in which policies crafted during the ultra-left period of 1957-1976 have continued to be employed by the CCP. What is left unmentioned are the economic and political interests served by their continuance. Taken together, these arguments seriously undermine the Chinese claim that the Tibet movement is a product of exile agitation. Instead, Tibet seems to be one part of a much broader contradiction within the PRC regarding the rights of ethnic minorities. This is a problem which many communist projects have, in practice, offered little solution to beyond the maintenance of “unity” through political repression.

Pro-Tibet claims for independence are also complicated by Phunwang’s testimonial. He is quite explicit in indicating that in the 1950s the desire/demand for complete independence from China was expressed only by the more conservative sectors of the Tibetan religious and economic aristocracy. The Dalai Lama and a significant portion of the aristocracy were interested in modernizing Tibet and viewed integration into the newly-created PRC as a vehicle to do so. However, one wonders whether in 2008 the reforms mentioned by Phunwang are either acceptable to the majority of Tibetans or even possible within the framework of the PRC.

Can ethnic minorities gain representative rights through dialogue with the thoroughly undemocratic internal political decision-making apparatus of the CCP? Is independence and a revolutionary splitting-off from the PRC the only way to secure such rights? The Dalai Lama’s recent request to initiate dialogue with the CCP suggests a willingness to accept a compromise resolution short of independence. Such an approach stands in stark contrast to both the sentiments of pro-Tibet supporters in the West and his demonization in the official media organs of the CCP.

Thus, in Phunwang’s eyes, the Dalai Lama remains a central figure to the resolution of the Tibet-China conflict: “[T]here is no reason to have suspicions regarding the intentions of the Dalai Lama, and no reason to distort his sincere, selfless thought and attack his incomparable character.”


William Wharton is editor of The Socialist, monthly magazine of the Socialist Party USA.


Vladimir Lenin, The Rights of Nations to Self-Determination

Josef Stalin, Marxism and the National Question

Mao Zedong, On Guerilla Warfare

Addendum: The 1924-1937 Panchen Lama dispute

See related story, this issue:

Colonization and Resistance on the Roof of the World
by Carole Reckinger, Toward Freedom


Special to World War 4 Report, May 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution



Colonization and Resistance on the Roof of the World

by Carole Reckinger, Toward Freedom

On March 10, a group of about 500 Buddhist monks marched from the Drepung monastery (one of the “great three” university monasteries in Tibet) to demand the release of monks arrested last October for celebrating the award of a US congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama. Marking the 49th anniversary of the failed uprising against the Chinese occupation of Tibet, they chanted “Free Tibet” and “Dalai Lama” outside the holiest temple in Tibetan Buddhism where they were joined by hundreds of lay Tibetans. Between fifty and sixty monks were arrested as police and paramilitary units blocked roads and surrounded other monasteries in the Lhasa area to prevent protests from growing. Despite the heavy crackdown, over the next days the protests rapidly spread, and unrest has been reported throughout Tibet and in provinces close to Tibet with large ethnic Tibetan populations.

China’s harsh response to the uprising has sparked international criticism and has marred preparations for the upcoming Beijing Olympics. China claims 18 people have been killed by rioters in Lhasa, but the Tibetan government in exile argues that at least 99 people have died in the crackdown at the hands of Chinese troops. Hundreds of people have reportedly been arrested, and in Lhasa the containment continues, with the military patrolling every corner of the city.

China has been aggressively censoring international media, and foreign journalists remaining in Tibet were forced to leave the province. The authorities in Tibet gave the protesters an ultimatum on March 17; the region’s governor said protesters who turned themselves in would be “treated with leniency within the framework of the law… otherwise, we will deal with them harshly.” Two days later the authorities announced that 160 Lhasa rioters had given themselves up. How many more have been arrested is still unclear. The violence is not over yet, and sporadic demonstrations continue to flare up.

The People’s Republic argues that the violence was orchestrated by the exiled Dalai Lama and has accused him and his supporters of trying to sabotage the Olympics to promote Tibetan independence. The Dalai Lama, who won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to nonviolence in the quest for Tibetan self-rule, has denied these allegations and instead has called for talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Almost half a century after he fled into exile in India, the Dalai Lama has raised the extraordinary prospect of travelling to Beijing to hold face-to-face talks.

In truth, the demonstrations reflect a convergence of longstanding grievances and more temporal issues ranging from recent tension over Tibetan cultural practices to China’s rising demand for raw materials which has substantially increased the Chinese presence in Lhasa. The planned passage of the Olympic torch through Lhasa in the coming weeks has been another factor in lifting tensions, although the Dalai Lama himself does not support an Olympic boycott.

Longstanding Grievance: Chinese Occupation
In 1949, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) crossed into Tibet. After defeating the small Tibetan army, the Chinese government imposed the so-called “17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” in 1951. The threat of immediate occupation and the presence of over 40,000 troops left Tibetans with little choice other than to sign the document acknowledging Chinese sovereignty over Tibet but recognizing the Tibetan government’s autonomy with respect to Tibet’s internal affairs. The treaty was repeatedly violated as the Chinese consolidated their control, and open resistance to Chinese rule grew—leading to a National Uprising in 1959.

Tibet was independent at the time of China’invasion. From 1911 to 1950, it successfully avoided undue foreign influence and remained neutral during the Second World War. China argues today that “no country ever recognized Tibet” and that Tibet has been part of the Chinese nation since the 13th century. In the course of Tibet’s 2,000-year history, however, it came under foreign influence only for short periods in the thirteenth and eighteenth century. Tibet was ruled by Dalai Lamas since the 17th century. The International Commission of Jurists’ Legal Enquiry Committee on Tibet reported in its 1960 study on Tibet’s legal status that”

Tibet demonstrated from 1913 to 1950 the conditions of statehood as generally accepted under international law. In 1950, there was a people and a territory, and a government which functioned in that territory, conducting its own domestic affairs free from any outside authority. From 1913-1950, foreign relations of Tibet were conducted exclusively by the Government of Tibet, and countries with whom Tibet had foreign relations are shown by official documents to have treated Tibet in practice as an independent State.

Resistance to Chinese Rule
In the early years of the Chinese occupation, control was maintained by force. More than one million of the province’s six million people died according to an estimate by the Tibetan government in exile. Furthermore, an unknown number of people languished in prison and labor camps or fled the country. Limited relaxations of China’s policies in Tibet came only very slowly after 1979. Resistance to Chinese occupation started to take an organized form as early as 1952. As the Chinese presence became increasingly oppressive, resistance reached massive proportions and Tibetans rose up in March 1959. The uprising was brutally crushed by the Chinese military and in the next months at least 87,000 Tibetans died in Central Tibet alone. The Dalai Lama fled the country only hours before the compound he was staying in was shelled by Chinese artillery, killing thousands of people who had gathered around the building to protect him.

Very similar to Burma, Buddhist monasteries are among the few institutions in China which have the potential to organize resistance and opposition to the government. BBC’s Peter Firstbrook argues that China’s crackdown on the monk-led rallies in Lhasa is part of a long history of state control of the monasteries and Buddhist orders. The government’s regulation of monasteries started almost as soon as the PLA marched into Tibet in 1950. Still today, every aspect of the lives of Buddhist monks and nuns is monitored.

Following the invasion, Tibet’s culture was suppressed and more than 6,000 monasteries, temples and historic buildings were destroyed. The population was subjected to terror campaigns and massive “re-education” efforts. China’s consistent use of excessive military force to stifle dissent has resulted in widespread human rights abuses, including political imprisonment, torture and execution. At least 60 deaths have been documented by human rights groups since 1987 and the names of over 700 Tibetan political prisoners have been confirmed. Many are detained without charge or trial through administrative regulations entitled “re-education through labor.”

China’s grip on the Buddhist orders became very visible in 1995, when the Dalai Lama named the new reincarnation of the Panchen Lama (second only to the Dalai Lama in terms of spiritual seniority in Tibet). The selected six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his immediate family disappeared within days and until today his whereabouts are unknown. The Tibetan government in exile claims that he continues to be the youngest political prisoner in the world. The Chinese government asserts that he is leading a normal life somewhere in China and that his whereabouts are kept secret to protect him. Soon after the disappearance, the Chinese government announced that it had found the real Panchen Lama, a six year old who happened to be the son of two Tibetan Communist Party workers. Most monks regard him as a “false” lama, though he is venerated by ordinary Tibetans.

China’s Closing Grip
More recently, Beijing has attempted to pacify Tibet by large transmigration schemes. In 1987, open demonstrations took place against Chinese rule in Lhasa that were mainly triggered by the large influx of Chinese migrants into Tibet. It is estimated that the immigrant Han Chinese now outnumber the Tibetans in their own land. They are resented by Tibetans, who argue that they take the best jobs, and the Dalai Lama has accused China of “cultural genocide.” The overall impact of the influx has been devastating and the Chinese have gained political, economic and military control in Tibet. “The more Tibet is converted into a Chinese province, populated by Chinese, the stronger China’s strategic position along the Himalayas will be,” the International Campaign for Tibet sums up Beijing’s policy.

Tibet is the highest country on earth, and its fragile high-altitude environment is increasingly endangered by China’s exploitative policies. Five of Asia’s great rivers have their source in Tibet and more than half of the world’s population depends on these rivers. Deforestation in the high plains of Tibet due to extensive resource extraction has already been linked to severe floods in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. It is still unclear what impact the crisis in Tibet will have in the long term. The options for many Tibetans are changing, and many are increasingly frustrated as they can see little sign of progress after decades of waiting. Many young Tibetans have become increasingly impatient with the Dalai Lama’s peaceful means. Although they remain loyal to the Dalai Lama, they believe that confrontation might be more effective for securing their rights.

Even if demands for independence are growing among Tibetans in exile, it seems politically a distant hope. The idea of independence puts Tibet in direct conflict with Beijing, and it is very unlikely that China would agree to any negotiations unless independence was ruled out as a pre-condition. China will try to avoid by all means setting a precedent that could influence other ethnic minorities. The Dalai Lama calls for greater autonomy within China, along the lines of either the “one country—two systems model” of Hong Kong, or the self-rule formula agreed on from 1951-1959 which gave Tibet much more control over its affairs than it has now. Although many Tibetans perceive the upcoming Olympic Games as a sort of leverage in negotiations, it is unlikely that the Chinese will give in.

The spotlight is nonetheless on China, and it cannot afford to crack down too hard on the Tibetan people. During the last upheaval in 1987, very few in the West knew where Tibet was, let alone knew much about its tragic history. The Chinese government responded in its typical manner with executions, arbitrary arrests and torture, and very few in the world took note of what was happening. China was still a relatively isolated country and didn’t need international opinion on their side. Nineteen years down the road, much has changed. The Dalai Lama has managed to raise Tibet’s profile and China has “opened up.” It has been admitted to the WTO, has secured billions in corporate capital, and is hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Beijing 2008

China has tried hard to remove politics from the Olympics and takes the line that political protesters agitating about China are violating the spirit and charter of the Games. However, eliminating politics from the Olympics will prove very difficult, if not impossible. The games have indeed served as a stage for politics a number of times: Hitler, for example, used the Berlin 1936 games; Helsinki 1952 was the beginning of the Cold War; and Munich 1972 was marked by the slaying of 11 Israeli athletes.

Since Beijing was selected, international opinion has been sharply divided between those who thought the Games could help reform China and those who thought they would simply validate the regime. International pressure will undoubtedly have an effect; the question is only how much high-level pressure will be put on the Chinese government. This point could prove to be the most disappointing.

The Tibetan people are today one of the best examples of a people with the right to self-determination. Solidarity protests have taken place over the whole world. Public opinion matters at the moment for China, and more pressure must be put on the Beijing government. What would happen if every single sportsman would express their grave concern about the human right situation in Tibet and other places in China? Could Beijing ignore this? Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky’s outraged comment about the holding of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow—”Politically, a grave error; humanly, a despicable act; legally, a crime”—remains valid for Beijing 2008.


This story first appeared March 24 in Toward Freedom.

More of Carole Reckingers stories can be read at:


Latest update on Tibet Protests
The Government of Tibet in Exile, March 32, 2008

Beijing seals off Tibet as deadline for protesters passes
The Guardian, March 21, 2008

History since the Chinese Invasion
International Campaign for Tibet

History of Tibet before the Chinese Occupation
International Campaign for Tibet

Human Rights
International Campaign for Tibet

Tibetan Environment
International Campaign for Tibet

Tibetan Monks: A controlled Life
BBC News, March 20, 2008

White Paper, Government of Tibet in Exile, March 21, 2008

The Dalai Lama attacks cultural Genocide
The Independent, March 21, 2008…

China’s Quandary over Tibet’s Future
BBC News, March 21, 2008

Beijing Olympics: Let the Politics Begin
International Herald Tribune, March 21, 2008)

Repression continues in China six months before the Olympic Games
Reporters without Borders, March 21, 2008

From our daily report:

Chinese police gird for repression
WW4 Report, April 28, 2008


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, May 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution