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