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In Tibet, China Moves from Empire-lite to Empire-heavy: book review by Thubten Samphel

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Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy: China’s Cold War and the People of the Tibetan Borderlands
Author: Sulmaan Wasif Khan
University of Carolina Press, 208 pages

There are libraries of literature on the Cold War as seen from Western, Soviet, Third World or independent scholarly perspectives. But rarely has there been a book on how the Cold War as it was played out on the remote, sprawling plateau of Tibet reveals the Chinese state’s weakness back then and provided Beijing the opportunity to strengthen its presence in its new imperial real estate. Pragmatic and hard nose as ever, Beijing brewed an ideological storm of “the east wind prevailing over the west wind”, socialism over the capitalist West. At the same time, Beijing used the Cold War it helped to launch and the age of decolonization to which it paid lip service to strengthen its weak imperial structure in Tibet. During this period, Beijing moved from “empire-lite” to “empire-heavy” on the Tibetan plateau.

It is a pleasure to read a book that combines a scholar’s knowledge with a writer’s clarity. Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy delves into a complex subject and weaves this path-breaking research into a rattling, fast-paced narrative. The book both delights and informs. Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy is inspired by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carre’. In telling his own spy and empire-building story, Sulmaan Wasif Khan, a professor at Tufts University, draws on the Cold War archives of China, Taiwan and interviews to show how the 1959 Tibetan uprising influenced the shaping of the very structure of the Chinese communist state itself.

From a Chinese perspective, one of the many accomplishments of Mao’s revolution in China was that the Great Helmsman restored imperial China’s territorial expanse, after years of fragmentation. Khan writes, “Mao took China to territorial limits it had not seen since the glory days of the Qing dynasty,” which in its new incarnation constituted an empire in the disguise of a nation-state. The fear of new China was that if any rebellion within the empire and the Tibetan resistance were not snuffed out, this would bring the whole imperial structure crashing down. Khan asks, “Could the state regulate the movements of people and goods across mountain passes it was only just learning to name, or stanch the flow of ideas, rumors, whispers of impending doom that came with these movements? Out in the Tibetan borderlands, the Chinese state lacked the capacities to enforce its will.”

Given China’s overwhelmingly superior military hardware, Beijing’s imperial will was easily imposed on Tibet. The 1959 uprising was suppressed within days. Along with cementing its rule in Tibet, the Tibetan uprising provoked Beijing to go onto an energetic neighbourly diplomacy. Long ignored and having then relevance to China only through its Tibet connection, Nepal became critical to Beijing’s neighbourhood policy of stemming the flow of Tibetan refugees to the kingdom and containing their activities in the realm. Suddenly finding itself wooed by both India and China, Nepal played a skilful balancing act. As small nations squeezed between big, rival neighbours are wont to do, Nepal conducted “auction diplomacy”, giving its friendship to the highest bidder.

Watching all this from afar was Taiwan. President Chiang Kai-shek of Taiwan, hoping to piggyback on the Tibetan resistance to return to power in China, had planned to supply the resistance with arms. Khan writes, “Chiang saw Tibet as a beachhead for an anticommunist revolution. His grand plan seems to have involved developing resistance in the Kham areas, coupling it with Guomingdang special forces … and eventually bringing the mainland back under Guomingdang control.”

All these are fresh perspectives, not fully examined before, nor told with such relish and bracing narrative skill. Adding another strength to this study of Tibet is that the author has been allowed unprecedented access to archives in Taiwan and China. The author says many of the documents he had access to in China are now “reclassified.” Perhaps, this is a gesture to a scholar from China’s “all-weather friend,” Pakistan.

Amidst all the scholarly excellence of the book, one piece of hilarity rears its astounding head. Khan considers the Dalai Lama of being an “intelligence agent” of the People’s Republic of China. How this piece of fiction is allowed to reincarnate as solid scholarship perhaps can be attributed to a novelist’s license in keeping with the cloak-and-dagger mood of the book’s title. And the evidence the author provides is flimsy beyond belief. Khan writes, “The Dalai Lama was willing, eager even, to share the information on India that he had picked up during his stay. When Indians discussed global problems, the Dalai Lama said, they said that the world was divided into two camps. There were many contradictions within the imperialist camp, but the socialist camp had made errors too, its unity fraying – a point that Indians would illustrate by alluding to Hungary. It was a fascinating moment: a Tibetan leader, having talked to Indians uneasy about China’s role in Tibet, was passing information on to a premier from Beijing – in effect functioning as an intelligence agent for PRC.”

In diplomacy, this is called exchanging notes. Based on Khan’s argument, could Henry Kissinger whom he quotes approvingly be accused of being a spy for China? Kissinger shared all his notes of discussions with Soviet leaders with the top Chinese leadership in Beijing. Kissinger did not offer the same courtesy to his Soviet counterpart. This abuse of scholarly tricks of the trade, either to increase sales or provoke controversy, demeans a great story.

* The writer is the director of the Tibet Policy Institute, a think tank of the Central Tibetan Administration. The views expressed here are his own. They do not reflect those of the Central Tibetan Administration.

Watch the author Sulmaan Wasif Khan on ChinaFile talking about his book here.


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