What does ‘people's war' mean in Tibet?
By Claude Arpi
AS Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were reelected to their posts of President and Premier of the People's Republic of China at the end of the 11th Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), bad news was in store for them.
As in March 1989 in Lhasa (and three months later on the Tiananmen Square), ‘people' demonstrated against the Beijing regime. Today, there is only a minor difference: Premier Wen Jiabao, who was seen with his mentor Zhao Ziyang on the side of the students in June 1989, is now with the apparatchiks.
After riots erupted last week in Lhasa and spread to different parts of Tibet during the following days, the immediate reaction of the Chinese authorities was the customary Party line: "We must wage a people's war to expose and condemn the malicious acts of these hostile forces and expose the hideous face of the Dalai Lama group to the light of day."
What is this ‘people's war'? For many China's watchers, this has been one of the unanswered questions since the Communists came to power in 1949.
It was in the name of the ‘people' that Mao started the Great Leap Forward during which more than 30 million perished of starvation; it was ‘for the people' that the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution left millions of ‘people' dead and devastated an entire generation; it is again in the name of the ‘people' that war is being today waged against pacifist Tibetan monks.
The People's Liberation Army entered Tibet in October 1950 to ‘liberate' the Roof of the World. In March 1959, the entire population of Lhasa rose against the colonisers by assembling around the Summer Palace to protect their leader. Sensing bloodshed, the Dalai Lama escaped at night, heading towards India. A couple of weeks later, he was given refuge by the Indian government.
In the repression which followed his departure, thousands were massacred by the People's Army in Lhasa.
A first rapprochement between Beijing and Dharamsala happened in 1979 when Deng Xiaoping met Gyalo Dhondup, the Dalai Lama's brother. He told him that he was ready to discuss everything except Tibet's independence. This meeting was followed by the setting up of four fact-finding delegations.
After twenty years, the Chinese Communist government was under the impression that the ‘backward Tibetan people' had finally been liberated. The local Communist authorities briefed the Tibetan population in Lhasa about the forthcoming visit of the Dalai Lama's delegates: "You should not resent this visit. You should not insult the delegates; you should not spit on them, just receive them as your own countrymen," were the strict Party instructions.
They had, however, misread completely the people's feelings, their deep resentment, as well as their will to resist colonisation. The three first delegations visited Tibet between 1979 and 1982; wherever the Dalai Lama's envoys went, they were mobbed by crowds of Tibetans. One delegation member remembers: "The Tibetans tried even to tear our chubas (Tibetan dress) to have them as relics." The entire Lhasa population was in the streets; everybody wanting a darshan of the Dalai Lama's envoys.
By the time the fourth and last delegation journeyed to Tibet in 1984, the Communist authorities had learned their lesson. Spies were everywhere, infiltrating crowds: "At first Tibetans came forward to speak to us. But one discovered that some of the Chinese dressed in a Tibetan chuba, were spying (on us) with a small walkman in the chuba sleeves. People became nervous, they knew they were taped and would be interrogated later. People became more cautious."
Twenty four years later, the surveillance is more sophisticated with video cameras strategically located all over Lhasa and other big cities. All the mobile phone calls are monitored and it is today rumoured that people who have sent files (pictures or videos) to their relatives in India are being arrested.
During the visit of the 1984 delegation, the ‘liberated people' of Tibet had their own way to show their unyielding respect for the Dalai Lama: "Because we were sent by His Holiness (the Dalai Lama), to get something touched by us was (for them) a blessing… when our cars would leave, the Tibetans would collect the soil out of the prints of the tyres of our cars and keep this dust as prasad to eat or preserve it."
During the last few days, tens of thousands have taken to the streets knowing fully well that they are being videoed and that they will eventually have to pay for their act of bravery. It shows the state of despair and desperation of the people of Tibet. And Beijing has now decided to wage a ‘people's war' against them.
While doing so, the Communist leadership is taking a risk. During the next few months, they were supposed to uphold the spirit of Olympism and respect the traditional truce, not to wage a war against people, whether they are ‘minorities' or not. How will the international community react?
Interestingly, the Communist leaders have not always responded with such brutality. In May 1980, the politburo decided to send a high level fact-finding delegation to the so-called ‘Tibet Autonomous Region' (TAR). The delegation was headed by the top Party functionary, Hu Yaobang, who was then the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. Reaching Lhasa, Hu Yaobang was shocked to see the level of poverty in Tibet. During a meeting with the Party cadres, he asked "whether all the money Beijing had poured into Tibet over the previous years had been thrown into the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) river." He said the situation reminded him of colonialism. Hundreds of Chinese Han cadres were transferred back to China.
Unfortunately, this sensible policy did not last long. In 1988, Hu Jintao took over as Tibet Party Chief. In January 1989, the new Tibet boss visited the Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse. He was accompanied by the Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking Tibetan Lama after the Dalai Lama. To everyone's surprise, during the function, the Panchen Lama denounced the Communist Party's role in Tibet.
"Although there had been developments in Tibet since its liberation, this development had cost more dearly than its achievements.
This mistake must never be repeated," he said. Four days later, he passed away in the most mysterious circumstances.
On March 5, when some demonstrations erupted, the People's Armed Police quickly ‘took control of the situation.' A Chinese journalist Tang Daxian witnessed some of the events. He later wrote in The Observer that on March 6 alone, 387 Tibetans were massacred around the Central Cathedral in Lhasa.
The next day, Hu Jintao declared: "The PAP following the instructions of the Central Committee had maintained the unity of the Motherland… the majority of Tibetans who had joined the disturbance… must be made to feel guilty and promise they would never do so again."
Nineteen years later, the population of Lhasa did it again. Retrospectively, the tragic events of 1989 in Lhasa seem to have been a rehearsal for an even more serious incident: the student rebellion on Tiananmen Square in June.
A few days after the incident Hu Jintao told Xinhua news agency: "We should maintain vigilance against possible activity by the handful of separatists and strike them with relentless blows." His ruthless implementation of his bosses' orders and the subsequent replay of Lhasa events at Tiananmen Square proved he was a leader who could be relied upon.
What is a ‘people's war'? It is still not clear to me.