NEXT MONTH WILL mark the 50th anniversary of the “liberation” of Tibet by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). As Beijing — and purportedly all Tibetans — ready themselves to rejoice in the festivities surrounding “Serf Emancipation Day” on March 28, people in Taiwan would be well advised to turn to the history books.
For starters, the so-called liberation of Tibet did not occur in 1959, but rather nine years earlier, when the PLA made its first incursion into Tibet. Along with thousands of soldiers, the liberators brought the Seventeen-Point Agreement, a document that was purportedly intended as a blueprint for the “modernization” of “backward” and “barbaric” Tibet by a benevolent China and which called for the ouster of “reactionary governments” and “imperialist” forces that had thrown Tibet “into the depths of enslavement and suffering.”
It is less well known that, although the Seventeen-Point Agreement was a creature of Beijing in which Tibetans had had no say, Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama sought to make the best of the situation by agreeing to give China’s “offer” a chance and to facilitate the implementation of the agreement. This was a decision that, as it turns out, essentially spelled the death of Tibet as a sovereign country. Seeing no incompatibility between Buddhism and communism, the young Dalai Lama accepted an invitation to visit Beijing, where he held talks with the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), including personal meetings with Mao Zedong (毛澤東). During a succession of banquets, the Dalai Lama also had exchanges with “chew and lie” — the Tibetan delegations’ telling sobriquet for then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) — and other CCP cadres.
Soon enough and in spite of the many attempts by the Tibetan leadership to make the best of a difficult situation, Beijing began reneging on its own agreements and cracked down on the growing number of Tibetans who felt betrayed by the turn of events. Aside from a few improvements in certain technical sectors, it was becoming increasingly evident that the benefits of modernization were mostly being enjoyed by the Chinese settlers, while the environment and cultural heritage of Tibet were being dismantled one piece at a time. The Tibetan leadership appealed to Beijing, which cajoled and threatened while painting an optimistic portrait of the situation in Tibet. All was well and in time Tibetans would prosper, Beijing officials said, a lie that failed to deceive the Dalai Lama and his entourage.
Things came to a boil in 1955 after Beijing imposed collectivization on Tibet, sparking an uprising in the eastern part of the country. With that began a long succession of demonstrations and uprisings, to which the PLA responded with increasing force. Monks were arrested, humiliated, tortured and murdered, as was anyone who opposed Chinese benevolence. Surrounded by the PLA, facing certain arrest (or death) and amid preparations for a major uprising in Lhasa, in March 1959 the Dalai Lama and his followers fled Tibet and were granted asylum in India, ending, in Beijing’s view, years of “theocratic slavery” in Tibet, hence the “Serf Emancipation Day” holiday. For those who still care about history, March 28, 1959, is the day China dissolved the Tibetan government after 18 days of uprising.