March 10th is commemorated by Tibetans throughout the world as “Tibetan Uprising Day.” On this day in 1959, a huge crowd of Tibetans surrounded the palace of the Dalai Lama to urge him not to attend a celebration at the People’s Liberation Army headquarters nearby. The Tibetan people feared this invitation was a ruse on the part of Chinese forces, who had occupied Tibet since 1950, to kidnap the Dalai Lama. The PLA, in turn, used the protest as a pretext to crush all Tibetan resistance in the city of Lhasa. The Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala, India.
VOC recently had the opportunity to interview Jianglin Li, author of Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959, which deals with these events. This is the first of a two-part transcript.
VOC: First of all, Ms. Li, thank you again for agreeing to this interview. You certainly picked one of the most controversial issues, really in the world, to make your debut in English scholarship. Would you like to begin by giving us a synopsis of the events that led up to the uprising of 1959?
JIANGLIN LI: When I was in Dharamsala, I asked people I interviewed about the tension surrounding the events of 1959 because I didn’t understand why people were afraid of the Dalai Lama being invited to a performance inside the People’s Liberation Army military compound in Lhasa. People got so frightened that they surrounded the Dalai Lama’s palace, preventing him from going out because they feared he would be kidnapped, and that protest at the palace triggered the PLA attack.
But why? In 1954, the Dalai Lama went to China, but the Tibetan people didn’t react like that. So when I asked people about it, they told me, “Because of the kidnappings of monks and lamas that happened in Kham and Amdo [outlying provinces of Tibet] all the time.” I asked, “When?” They said “In 1956, 1957, and 1958.” So I started looking into that. Then I started to understand why people were so afraid in 1959. Those kidnappings of lamas and monks did happen. That’s why I think it’s important to have the background set before 1959. I actually spent six months in Dharamsala in 2009 trying to figure out what happened before the Lhasa incident itself. I found that the events of 1956 through 1958 were very closely linked to the events of 1959. And yet, things that happened before 1959 are really still hidden and misunderstood. That’s what my second book [When the Iron Bird Flies] is about. It’s being translated and hopefully next year it’ll come out in English.
VOC: So the first of the CCP’s “Democratic Reforms” began in the outlying Tibetan regions of Kham and Amdo in 1956 and 1957, and that caused a refugee crisis in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Only then did Beijing turn its attention to Lhasa and Tibet’s interior.
JIANGLIN LI: Right. At that time, I honestly still kind of debated whether the term “reform” was the right one. In Chinese, the word they used is gai ge [改革]. In English, it’s like “reform.” It has a positive connotation. But what happened in China and in Tibet was not positive at all. That’s why in the English translation, my translator Susan and I discussed how to best to use each term quite a lot. One of them was “reform;” sometimes we’d say “social engineering” instead—I think that’s closer to the reality of what they did. Nothing was getting better, more positive, but actually getting worse. All this social engineering was totally based on the communist ideology, which required them to remake the original social structure that had been passed down for hundreds and thousands of years, based on certain livelihoods, traditions, and values. This is especially true, for instance, in nomadic areas. Once the communists destroyed that culture, it caused problems that still exist today.
VOC: Were the “Democratic Reforms” imposed on the Tibetans common to what the rest of China experienced under Mao?
JIANGLIN LI: It was quite close, in a way. Chinese revolution, in Mao’s own words, was divided into two steps, or two stages. The first stage they called “democratic revolution,” which is basically the takeover of government power. After that, when you get into power, the second stage is to restructure society, and that step they call the “socialist revolution.”
But in minority, or non-Han regions, they put those two stages of revolution together and implemented them in less than ten years. Another major difference was the forceful dismantling of the traditional belief systems. That happened inside China too, but in Chinese society religion was never as powerful as in Tibet. So dismantling Tibetan religion was basically dismantling the whole foundation of culture.
VOC: Was resistance to these measures unique to any particular social stratum, or was it cross-societal?
JIANGLIN LI: It was cross-society. Actually, the majority of people who resisted were lower classes, pushing back in a grassroots way.
VOC: So ironically the people that Mao said they were “liberating,” the serfs they said they were “emancipating,” were the ones who most opposed this kind of utopian restructuring by the CCP. Did some Tibetans side with the CCP?
JIANGLIN LI: The first group of Tibetan communist sympathizers were called jiji fenzi [積極份子], “activists” or “progressives.” It’s interesting—the more these Tibetan sympathizers interacted with Han Chinese, the more they realized their own cultural identities. This was because of the way they were treated by the Han Chinese. Before they had any contact, they didn’t know each other, they didn’t know how the Han viewed them.
But once they met Han CCP cadres, they realized that the CCP called them “barbarians,” which they didn’t know before. These Tibetan sympathizers felt the discrimination, felt they were being treated as stupid people, and that their former way of life was being mocked and laughed at. Those kinds of things, they actually made progressive Tibetans identify more strongly with their own nation. And many of those people later rebelled against the Chinese reform.
VOC: Do you feel that violent resistance in Tibet was a foregone conclusion based on Mao’s policies?
JIANGLIN LI: I think the CCP expected this to happen. Resistance actually started in 1955, but it was very much on the local level, it didn’t spread. But they knew it was going to spread eventually. They didn’t want it to happen, as they understood that beating back a rebellion would cost a lot, financially and politically. So they tried to proceed slowly to avoid greater violence breaking out.
Nevertheless, as early as 1955, Mao expected that once they started to “reform” central Tibet, violent resistance might occur. So they told the PLA to get ready. In 1956, they slowed down and pulled back a little bit because they were not prepared militarily to put down a rebellion.
VOC: That brings us up to the incident of March 10th. By then, Lhasa was a militarized PLA garrison. Can you speak to how it must have felt to be a Tibetan at that time?
According to the people I interviewed in exile, they had this feeling that for whatever they wanted to do, they had to get permission from their Chinese overlords. There was tension; everybody told me this, that you could feel it in the air. I described a few incidents in my book, but there are more. The two sides understandably never got along well. The Chinese had this “savior complex” that made them feel that they came here to liberate people, but the Tibetans replied that they didn’t need liberation because Tibetans were already free. The Chinese cadres didn’t trust the Tibetans and the Tibetans didn’t trust the Chinese. So the Tibetans certainly never prepared for war, but they felt this tension everywhere. However, by January 1959, Chinese cadres and PLA military forces inside of Lhasa had started to prepare for a battle they knew would come.
Part two of VOC’s interview with Jianglin Li can be found here.