Embracing Communism

In 1949, the new communist Chinese government initially attempt- ed to engage the Tibetan government in peaceful negotiations to resolve their disputes. But when in September 1950 the Tibetans’ official representatives failed to arrive for negotiations in the Chinese capital, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was ordered by Chairman Mao Zedong to enter Chamdo in eastern Tibet. Chinese troops crossed the Yangtse River on 7 October 1950.128

The Tibetan forces were poorly led, equipped and organised, and were quickly defeated. Within two weeks the PLA had captured the entire Tibetan army, including the governor-general of the region. Although, with this easy military victory the road to Lhasa was open, the PLA did not advance further; instead they again called on Lhasa to negotiate. Melvyn Goldstein explains:

‘Mao did not want simply to conquer Tibet, even though it would have been easy to do so. He wanted a political settlement approved by Tibet’s leader, the Dalai Lama. He wanted China’s claim to Tibet legitimized by having the Dalai Lama accept Chinese sovereignty and work with the PRC [People’s Republic of China] gradually to reform Tibet’s feudal economy.’129

In effect, Mao Zedong was using his military might to force the Tibetans to the negotiating table, for he understood the dangers of a protracted guerrilla war in Tibet’s mountainous terrain.130 With the advent of the Cold War there was also the very real possibility of such a conflict drawing in the United States as part of its worldwide stance against communism.131

In Lhasa the news of the Chinese victory brought fear and confusion. High lamas and the traditional oracles were consulted to determine a course of action. It was agreed that the sixteen- year-old Dalai Lama should be ‘officially enthroned’ and given full powers of government.132 Shortly afterwards the Dalai Lama and many of the Lhasan nobility fled to the town of Yatung, just north of the Indian frontier, and established a provisional government there.133

Before his departure from Lhasa, the Dalai Lama sent a message to the PLA in Chamdo saying that he ‘sincerely wanted to restore the friendship’ between the Tibetan and Chinese peoples. Moreover, he authorised two delegations to travel to Beijing to begin negotiations with the Chinese, and finally on 23 May 1951, under direct order from the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the ‘Agreement of the Central People’s Government and the Local Government of Tibet’ was signed, now more commonly known as the ‘Seventeen-Point Agreement’.134 As Goldstein says,

‘The Seventeen-Point Agreement ushered in a new chapter in Sino-Tibetan relations since it officially ended the conflict over the Tibet Question. Point 1 sets this out clearly: “The Tibetan people shall unite and drive out imperialist forces from Tibet: the Tibet people shall return to the big family of the Motherland—the People’s Republic of China.” Tibet, for the first time in its 1,300 years of recorded history, had now in a formal written agreement acknowledged Chinese sovereignty.’135

The Dalai Lama sent the Chinese leadership a telegram expressing ‘unanimous support for the agreement’ by the ‘local government of Tibet, the monks and the entire Tibetan people’. Whatever his reasons were for sending this message, with his return to Lhasa and ratification of the Seventeen-Point Agreement the political incorporation of Tibet into China was accomplished. Tibet was now formally part of the Chinese state. Mao Zedong had the political agreement he wished for that would lead to the peaceful liberation of feudalistic Tibet, and the Tibetan nobility and clergy had assurances that their positions of power and privilege would continue.136

Contrary to popular belief the Chinese invasion of Tibet was peaceful after the initial clash in Chamdo. In some parts of the country the Chinese were even welcomed. Han Chinese soldiers and civilian cadres were authorised to enter central Tibet only after the formal signing of the Seventeen-Point Agreement. They were well- behaved and under strict instructions not to become a burden on the local populace.137

The Chinese went to extraordinary efforts to work with the Tibetan elite in a ‘united front’. Goldstein writes that:

‘… [Mao’s] Tibet strategy sought to create cordial relations between Han (ethnic Chinese) and Tibetans, and allay Tibetan anxieties so that Tibet’s elite would over time genuinely accept “reintegration” with China and agree to a societal transformation … Between 1951 and 1959, not only was no aristocratic or monastic property confiscated, but feudal lords were permitted to exercise continued judicial authority over their hereditarily bound peasants. At the heart of this strategy was the Dalai Lama. Mao saw him, in particular, as the vehicle by which the feudal and religious elite (and then the masses) would come to accept their place in China’s new multi-ethnic Communist state.’138

It is under these circumstances that the Dalai Lama’s view of communism evolved. Far from taking a confrontational position as he would have his western audience believe, instead he embraced the communist ideology in general and Chairman Mao in particular.

The first foreigner to interview the Dalai Lama after his signing of the Seventeen-Point Agreement in 1951 was Alan Winnington. In an interview that was obviously warm and respectful, the Tibetan leader shared his convictions with the British journalist, who first asked him what had happened since the signing of the agreement. The Dalai Lama replied:

‘Before the agreement … Tibet could see no way ahead. Since the agreement Tibet has left the old way that led to darkness and has taken a new way leading to a bright future of development.

‘… I heard Chairman Mao talk on different matters and I received instruction from him. I have come to the firm conviction that the brilliant prospects for the people of China as a whole are also the prospects for us Tibetan people; the path of our entire country is our path and not any other.’139

In 1954 he accepted an invitation to visit Beijing and represent Tibet in the Chinese People’s National Assembly. It was the young Dalai Lama’s first trip out of Tibet.

‘It was only when I went to China in 1954-55 that I actually studied Marxist ideology and learned the history of the Chinese revolution. Once I understood Marxism, my attitude changed completely. I was so attracted to Marxism, I even expressed my wish to become a Communist Party member. …

‘I … went to China to meet Chairman Mao. We had several good meetings.’140

While in Beijing the Dalai Lama agreed to be chairman of Mao’s proposed Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet (PCART), whose purpose was to prepare Tibet for regional autonomy under Chinese rule. At the inaugural festivities of the PCART in Lhasa the Dalai Lama praised the Han in Tibet saying they had:

‘… strictly adhered to the policy of freedom of religion, carefully protected the lamaseries and respected the religious beliefs of the Tibetan people…. All this has greatly helped to remove the apprehensions that previously prevailed … as a result of the rumors and instigations made by the agents of the imperialists.’141

Right up until the events in 1959 the Dalai Lama was working closely with the Chinese to develop Tibet under communist rule. He expressed ‘his most effusive support for China in speeches and articles as late as January 1959 (published in Xizang Ribao).’ He also continued to express admiration for Mao, speaking in 1955, for example, of his joy at meeting him face-to-face.142 As Gelder and Gelder have pointed out:

‘… the god-king … in his public statements had proved to be Mao’s most valuable ally in Tibet.’143