In January 1950, Chinese Communist troops entered Tibet for what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still calls “the peaceful liberation of Tibet.” Aside from whether it was really peaceful, another question remains: who were they liberating Tibet from?
Throughout history, Tibet has had complicated and nuanced relationships with different Chinese dynasties. Before 1950, this had never involved direct control over Tibet’s political and cultural affairs, and after the fall of the Qing Empire in 1911, Tibetans had achieved de facto independence. But from the point of view of the Chinese Communist Party, Tibet was part of the Chinese nation-state, and in 1950 they invaded and established control over the region. Tibetan History by Chen Qingying (China Intercontinental Press, 2003) gives a representative example of the Chinese communist narrative of these events. It claims that up until 1950 “British imperialists” and “splittist elements of the upper echelon of the Tibetan ruling class” had been the biggest obstacle to Tibet “return[ing] to the big family of the motherland.” The “liberation” of 1950 and ensuing “anti-imperialist, anti-feudal new democratic revolution” freed Tibet from enemies without (imperialists) and within (feudalists).
The Chinese Communist narrative puts heavy emphasis on the deviousness of the British and other foreign “imperialists.” While by 1950 the British had left India and no longer threatened Tibet by land, they still disputed Chinese control, writes Chen, by “promoting so-called ‘Tibetan Independence.’” As evidence of imperialist scheming, Chen describes how “Ford and other English and Indian people had sneaked into the Tibetan army giving them evil ideas, helping them set up radio stations and teaching them to master communication skills.” The bizarrely unspecified “Ford” mentioned here is Robert Ford, a radio agent who was working directly for the Tibetan government when the Chinese arrived. In Captured in Tibet (1957) Ford recounted the five years he spent in a Chinese jail, being interrogated and subjected to sessions of “thought reform.” He recounted being forced “to tell grovelling lies, accusing myself of fictitious crimes,” including being a spy working for the British government. As he was one of only two Europeans in Tibet at the time, the CCP was much in need of Ford’s confessions to justify their claims about imperialists.
The CCP line also stresses the peacefulness of its entry into Tibet. “Chairman Mao,” writes Chen, “expressed clearly, that: ‘The [People’s Liberation Army] entering Tibet… will resolutely do no harm to the populace.’” Chen does concede that some “hard line pro-British elements” required “fierce struggle” even after the liberation. In fact, violence began almost immediately after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered Tibet. By their own admission, in October 1951, “a total of 5,738 enemy troops had been liquidated.” Forced “reforms” including collectivization soon followed, initially only in eastern Tibet, where the armed resistance of local populations and ensuing crackdown resulted in a 7.4 percent drop in the Tibetan population—and all this before the reforms and corresponding revolts had spread across Tibet, culminating in the March 1959 uprising in Lhasa, when an estimated 10,000-15,000 Tibetans were killed by the PLA over three days and nearly 100,000 others followed the Dalai Lama into exile in India.
Palden Gyatso, who was a young man when the Chinese arrived, was one of the bad “elements” Chen speaks about. In his memoir Fire Under The Snow (1997), Gyatso recounts how after being labelled a “rich monk” and refusing to accept his interrogator’s claims that his teacher was a spy for the Indians he was tortured and thrown in jail for 33 years. Gyatso also recounts early attempts to introduce Marxist doctrine to Tibet. Tibetans were told that they had been exploited by the Tibetan government and monasteries: “We were bewildered. We were simple village monks and the official’s jargon meant nothing to us. Exploited masses?… What was he talking about?… Our faces remained blank. The official lost his composure. He interpreted our incomprehension as obstinacy.” Like Ford, Gyatso had to undergo regular self-criticism and “thought reform” to satisfy the CCP’s need for enemies.
Chen, who repeatedly states that the Chinese had the support “of the broad masses of Tibetan people”, concludes his book with the following lines: “The establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region [in 1965] marked the beginning of a new phase in Tibetan history.” Memories of Life in Lhasa Under Chinese Rule, the 2008 memoir by “class enemy” and requisitioned laborer Tubten Khétsun, tells a very different story: “Wherever you went, instead of seeing attractive people or hearing pleasant talk, there was only the din of killing, chopping and beating, and the majority of the citizens lived in fear, hunger and fatigue. Whichever aspect one considered, it had become an unredeemed hell on earth, and seeing that brought on a profound sadness.”
Sixty-seven years later, the Chinese Communist Party still celebrates its “liberation” of Tibet every year. What most Tibetans in Tibet themselves think of this we can’t be sure, as the “autonomous region” is one of the most tightly restricted areas in the world. However, there are strong indications. Hundreds flee their native land each year, despite the risks, and protests against Chinese rule are a frequent occurrence—from mass demonstrations to brave, near-suicidal solo protests to the shocking spectacle of self-immolations.
By continuing to repeat the crude propaganda about “the peaceful liberation of Tibet” that we see in Chen’s book, the CCP compounds its crimes; as Elie Wiesel wrote, “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” Its convenient and self-aggrandizing story and its hypersensitivity to criticism regarding Tibet is a strong indication of its doublethink in this area, where enemies have always had to be invented to fit the narrative.
 Tsering Shakya, The Dragon in the Land of Snows (New York: Penguin Compass, 2000), 45.
 Shakya, 271.