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A History of Modern Tibet, volume 2: The Calm before the Storm: 1951-1955 / Edition 1

A History of Modern Tibet, volume 2: The Calm before the Storm: 1951-1955 / Edition 1

by Melvyn C. Goldstein


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It is not possible to fully understand contemporary politics between China and the Dalai Lama without understanding what happened—and why—during the 1950s.
In a book that continues the story of Tibet's history that he began in his acclaimed A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State, Melvyn C. Goldstein critically revises our understanding of that key period in midcentury. This authoritative account utilizes new archival material, including never before seen documents, and extensive interviews with Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, and with Chinese officials. Goldstein furnishes fascinating and sometimes surprising portraits of these major players as he deftly unravels the fateful intertwining of Tibetan and Chinese politics against the backdrop of the Korean War, the tenuous Sino-Soviet alliance, and American cold war policy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520259959
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/13/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 676
Sales rank: 925,110
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Melvyn C. Goldstein is John Reynolds Harkness Professor in Anthropology and Codirector of the Center for Research on Tibet at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author of many books on Tibet including A Tibetan Revolutionary The Political Life and Times of Bapa Phüntso Wangye (with Dawei Sherap and William R. Siebenschuh), Essentials of Modern Literary Tibetan: A Reading Course and Reference Grammar, and A History of Modern Tibet, 1913–1951, all published by UC Press.

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A History of Modern Tibet, Vol. 2. The Calm Before The Story, 1951-1955

By Melvyn C. Goldstein

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-24941-7

Chapter One

Chinese Perspectives Radio Beijing

On 27 May 1951, the sixteen-year-old Dalai Lama was living in Yadong, a small town on the Sikkimese border, where he and his leading officials had moved a few months earlier so that they could easily cross into India if the People's Liberation Army (PLA) were to invade Central Tibet suddenly. A group of top officials headed by the Kashag ministers Ramba and Surkhang accompanied him, while the remainder of the government stayed in Lhasa, headed by two acting chief ministers (sitsab) and two acting Kashag ministers who were specially appointed to remain in Lhasa just before the Dalai Lama left.

The Dalai Lama was relaxing in his quarters, listening to Beijing's Tibetan-language radio broadcast, when he suddenly heard the Xinhua News Agency announce that a "Seventeen-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet" had been signed on 23 May by the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the "local" government of Tibet. Tibet, the announcer enthusiastically said, was returning to the "motherland." The Dalai Lama was further shocked when he heard the list of points, because they included items the Tibetan government had explicitly instructed its negotiators not to accept, for example, that the local government of Tibet would actively assist the People's Liberation Army in entering Tibet, and because they reported that something ominously called the Military-Administrative Committee would be set up in Tibet. The Dalai Lama's reaction was instant and visceral.

I could not believe my ears. I wanted to rush out and call everybody in, but I sat transfixed. The speaker described how over the last hundred years or more aggressive imperialist forces had penetrated into Tibet and "carried out all kinds of deceptions and provocations." It added that "under such conditions, the Tibetan nationality and people were plunged into the depths of enslavement and suffering." I felt physically ill as I listened to this unbelievable mixture of lies and fanciful clichés.


This Seventeen-Point Agreement dominates the history of the 1950s and even today continues to have an impact in Sino-Tibetan relations. It came about through a shrewd Chinese policy that was crafted and personally directed by Mao Zedong and applied a combined diplomatic and military pressure against an ill-prepared and weak Tibetan government.

No Chinese internal documents are available in which the issue of liberating Tibet was specifically discussed, but two fundamental reasons clearly appear to have informed the PRC's decision to do so. The most important was the issue of national honor. Over the past hundred years, China had become weak as a result of the corruptness of the previous Chinese regimes and the interference of Western and Japanese imperialists. The Chinese Communist Party was committed to expelling all the vestiges of foreign influence and power that had humbled China for so long and to reversing what it considered its national humiliation. A part of this restoration of national dignity was restoring full sovereignty (actual control) over all that had been China during the Qing and Guomindang periods.

Tibet was one of the most visible examples of China's decline from greatness. From Beijing's reading of history, British imperialism had played a major role in splitting off that vast territory from the Chinese state. The Chinese felt that the British invasion of Tibet in 1903-4 and Britain's subsequent support for Tibetan autonomy played a major factor not only in influencing the Tibetan government to desire independence from China but also in preventing China from reasserting its control over Tibet. Restoring Tibet to the People's Republic of China, therefore, had deep nationalistic and symbolic value, especially since another vast minority territory, Outer Mongolia, had already been lost during the Guomindang period. An exposition of some of these views occurred some years later in a 1954 internal party report on problems within the party in Tibet.

Tibet and the motherland have had a close, inseparable relationship since a long time ago. Tibet is one part of the territory of our great motherland. However, after the Republican Revolution (1911), Tibet's rulers, who were controlled and manipulated by imperialists, abandoned the motherland and went to rely on the imperialists. To a great extent, imperialists controlled Tibet, signed unfair treaties and gained great privilege in the spheres of politics, economics, and military. Also they took numerous pieces of territory from the border area of Tibet. Because of the development of the anti-imperialist struggle of the entire Chinese people and the existence of an anti-imperialist force within the Tibetan nationality (among them, including a part of the upper-class lamas and aristocrats), they failed to conquer the whole of Tibet. During this period of time, Tibet was semicolonial, and mainly took an independent attitude toward us.

In addition to this set of powerful historical and nationalistic issues, and in a sense inextricably intertwined with them, was the geopolitical significance of Tibet for China's national security. Losing Mongolia was not a great security risk, because it was a loyal Communist satellite of the USSR. Tibet, on the other hand, was a religious theocracy in which the elite aristocracy was influenced by British customs and language. When the elite wanted to give their children a modern education, they sent them to British missionary schools in India. They clearly valued British education and the English language, not Chinese. Consequently, it was obvious that Western and Indian interests would play a major role in Tibet should it continue to be, as it then was, a de facto independent state. And more dangerous, it was also likely that the United States would come to play a significant role in Tibet, given the Cold War and U.S. support of Chiang Kai-shek against the Chinese Communist Party. The Tibetan government, in fact, had already sent a state mission to America in 1948, and the Tibet situation had received a great deal of publicity and sympathy in the United States as a result of the well-publicized visit of the famous journalist Lowell Thomas. For China, the possibility that countries hostile to it could influence or secure bases in Tibet was an unacceptable risk, given that Tibet bordered on Xinjiang, Qinghai, Yunnan, and Sichuan provinces-and, of course, on India, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Arunachal Pradesh. Mao alluded to this in conversations he had with the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama in 1954, saying to the Panchen, "Now that the Tibetans are cooperating with the Han, our national defense line is not the Upper Yangtse River but the Himalaya Mountains." And to the Dalai Lama, "If you had chosen to cooperate with the imperialists and made the Upper Yangtse River as the border with us and made us your enemies, things would be very difficult for us." Thus, for both of these reasons, Mao and the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party were convinced that Tibet had to be liberated and reintegrated into the Chinese state and that this was best done at once.

Mao was realistic in undertaking this and believed military force would be needed to some degree. He was, in fact, prepared to achieve Tibet's liberation entirely by force if China had to. However, he also believed that to do so could have serious international consequences for the legitimacy of the People's Republic of China's assertion of sovereignty over Tibet, as well as for the attitudes and loyalty of the Tibetans, who would become part of the new Chinese state. Because of this, he felt the ideal solution for China was to accomplish Tibet's liberation peacefully, in other words, with Tibet voluntarily accepting Chinese sovereignty and allowing the People's Liberation Army to enter Tibet uncontested. Military liberation was to be used as the last resort when "persuasion" failed or as a tactic to gain leverage with Tibet's leaders. From early 1950, therefore, work proceeded both on military preparations for an invasion and on diplomatic and public relations activities to persuade Tibetans to accept peaceful liberation (ch. heping jiefang).

Mao's emphasis on peaceful liberation stemmed from his realization that the situation in Tibet was fundamentally different from that encountered in the other areas the PLA had liberated and was potentially far more dangerous to the long-term interests of China. So while straight military liberation was the simplest and quickest approach, peaceful liberation was the safest and most advantageous strategy for China's long-term interests. There were several major reasons for this.

First, unlike in other large minority areas such as Xinjiang, where tens of thousands of ethnic (Han) Chinese resided, virtually no Han Chinese were living in Tibet, and almost no Tibetans spoke Chinese. Therefore, no obvious internal cohort was likely to provide overt or covert support.

Second, not only was Tibet homogeneously non-Han, but also it had been operating totally independently of China for at least the past thirty-five years and had secured an international identity of sorts. It had conducted relations China's Cold War enemy, the United States. Conquering Tibet militarily, therefore, could easily become an international issue. Mao himself alluded to this in a telegram he sent from Moscow to the Central Committee on 2 January 1950, saying, "Although the population of Tibet is not large, its international position is extremely important."

Moreover, Tibet clearly wanted to continue to be independent from China. This was stated clearly in a letter sent by the Tibetan Foreign Affairs Bureau to Mao on 2 November 1949


The Honourable Mr. Mautsetung, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Govmt., Peiping

Tibet is a peculiar country where the Buddhist religion is widely flourishing and which is predestined to be ruled by the Living Buddha of Mercy or Chenresig [Avaloketisvara, i.e., the Dalai Lama]. As such, Tibet has from the earliest times up to now, been an Independent Country whose Political administration had never been taken over by an [sic] Foreign Country; and Tibet also defended her own territories from foreign invasions and always remained a religious nation.

In view of the fact that Chinghai [Qinghai] and Sinkiang [Xinjiang], etc. are situated on the borders of Tibet, we would like to have an assurance that no Chinese troops would cross the Tibetan frontier from the Sino-Tibetan border, or any military action. Therefore please issue strict orders to those Civil and Military Officers stationed on the Sino-Tibetan border in accordance with the above request, and kindly have an early reply so that we can be assured. As regards those Tibetan territories annexed as part of Chinese territories some years back, the Government of Tibet would desire to open negotiations after the settlement of the Chinese Civil War.

Third, Tibet was a traditional religious theocracy in which Buddhist ideology and values dominated the population's worldview and the state's raison d'être. The authority and stature of incarnate lamas and monastic leaders were enormous, and the underlying theoretical framework of Tibetan Buddhism effectively inculcated political passivity among the lower classes and the poor. The masses were not at all clamoring for change. Tibetan Buddhism taught that life is characterized by inherent suffering, so the harsh lives of the poor and down-trodden did not seem unusual, especially since Tibetan Buddhism also taught that the cause of suffering is one's own bad behavior in past lives transmitted to the present via the laws of karma and reincarnation. The impoverished poor in Tibet, therefore, were suffering not because of the inherent oppression of their lords and the estate system but, rather, because of their own deficiencies in a past life or lives. The way to improve one's current circumstances, moreover, was to perform religiously meritorious actions so as to amass karma in this life and thereby secure a better rebirth in the next life; it was not to kill the lords and change the current sociopolitical system. Consequently, in Tibet, even the poorest strata-those who would normally constitute the core constituency of the Communists-were unlikely to be receptive to a call to rise up and struggle against the lay and religious landowners, at least initially.

Fourth, Tibet's physical geography and climatic circumstances posed serious logistical obstacles to a military invasion. The absence of any motor roads or airfields in Tibet meant everything would have to be brought in and resupplied by pack animals on crude and difficult dirt trails that stretched for hundreds and hundreds of miles over high mountain passes, which were often blocked by snow for long periods of time in winter.

Tibet, moreover, had a regular army, half of which, about thirty-five hundred to four thousand, were deployed on the Chinese border. These troops were supported by several thousand local militia, and there was a system for calling up still more militia. And although these troops were generally ineptly led and poorly trained, the Tibetan army in fact had some modern weapons-bren and sten guns, mortars, hand grenades, cannons, and machine guns. Moreover, the Tibetan government had started increasing the size of its army and was in the process of creating a new regiment (the Trongdra Regiment) because of the Chinese threat. Tibet's army, of course, was no match for the PLA in traditional combat, the latter having several million battle-hardened and well-equipped troops, but as the letter to Mao insinuated, Tibet was saying it was prepared to fight the Chinese, and the Chinese side could not, given the terrain and climate, take for granted that the Tibetan army would not try to employ guerrilla tactics to cut the PLA's long and exposed supply lines, particularly if Tibet secured assistance from China's enemies, such as America. In turn, given Tibet's international relations and the realities of the Cold War, there was a danger that extended guerrilla warfare might internationalize the conflict with regard to the political status of Tibet.

Consequently, "peaceful liberation" for Tibet was the strategy Mao pursued. This type of liberation had already been achieved in Beijing and Xinjiang, but Mao felt an even more peaceful approach was required in Tibet because of its international identity and its de facto independent status. So in Tibet, peaceful liberation was to be effected with a formal written agreement in which the Tibetan government/Dalai Lama accepted Tibet's return to the "motherland" under Chinese sovereignty. Chinese troops and officials would then enter Tibet peacefully with the consent and assistance of the Dalai Lama. The presence of such a formal document would, of course, preclude any international attempt to challenge China's assertion of sovereignty over Tibet and would also preclude the need to launch a full-scale military invasion. This was to be the first time that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) incorporated a polity via a written agreement with the local government.

However, since Tibet considered itself independent and did not want to be part of a communist Chinese state, achieving a peaceful liberation was not going to be easy, and to overcome this difficulty Mao pragmatically articulated a dual "carrot and stick" strategy. China would, on the one hand, offer the Dalai Lama very attractive terms to return to the "motherland" and, on the other hand, simultaneously threaten a full-scale military invasion if he did not.


It is not certain how early formal discussions started in Beijing regarding the liberation of Tibet, but it is clear that Mao had Tibet on his mind as early as August 1949, when the Northwest Bureau's (ch. xibei ju) First Field Army (ch. diyi yezhanjun), under the command of Marshal Peng Dehuai, was moving to liberate Qinghai and Gansu provinces. Mao's concern with winning over Tibetans was conveyed in a 6 August 1949 telegram to Peng, warning him to be sure his troops were very careful about how they treated Tibetans in these areas, because this would have implications later for China's success in Tibet. The telegram said: "The Panchen [Lama] is in Lanzhou now. When you attack Lanzhou, please pay close attention to the Panchen and the Tibetans in Gansu and Qinghai provinces. Protect and respect them so as to lay the groundwork for solving the Tibet problem." Similarly, both of the Panchen Lama's 1 October 1949 telegrams to Mao and Peng Dehuai, congratulating them on the founding of the PRC, explicitly mention the liberation of Tibet. (They are cited in chapter 10.)


Excerpted from A History of Modern Tibet, Vol. 2. The Calm Before The Story, 1951-1955 by Melvyn C. Goldstein Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Note on Romanization
List of Abbreviations
Glossary of Key Persons and Terms

Introduction: Tibetan Society on the Eve of
Incorporation into China

1. Chinese Perspectives
2. Tibetan Perspectives
3. Tibet Appeals to the United Nations
4. Negotiations with Beijing
5. The United States
6. The Dalai Lama Returns to Lhasa

Initial Contacts and Strategies
8. The Advance PLA Force Arrives in Lhasa
9. The Food Crisis
10. The Panchen Lama and the People’s Liberation Army
11. First Steps toward Implementing the Seventeen-Point Agreement
12. The Tibetan People’s Association
13. Turning to the Dalai Lama and Removing the Sitsab
14. The Return of the Panchen Lama

15. Winds of Change
16. Conflict within the Communist Party in Tibet
17. Tibet’s First Steps toward Socioeconomic Reform
18. Events in
19. The Dalai Lama Goes to Beijing
20. The Dalai Lama in Beijing
21. The Return to Lhasa
22. Conclusions

Appendix A. Lobsang Samden’s 1952 Letter to Tsipön Shakabpa
Appendix B. Kashag’s 1953 Edict Reforming Debts in Tibet
Appendix C. Agreement of the Secret Resistance Organization in
India, 1954
Appendix D. List of Correct Tibetan Spellings


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"Impressively meticulous. [A] wealth of well-ordered detail and primary source material, both Tibetan and Chinese."—Times Literary Supplement (Tls)

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