Half a century ago today, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces were launching their final assault on Lhasa, forcing the Dalai Lama and eventually hundreds of thousands of Tibetans to flee their homeland. Fifty years ago, Tibet as a free state was disappearing, engulfed by China, which expanded its empire dramatically.
During the last 50 years, the Dalai Lama has become a symbol of peace, religious wisdom and self-determination, welcomed by crowds and governments alike, praised and showered with honorifics.
Still, the reality is that the Dalai Lama’s charisma and universal appeal, as well as the peaceful resistance that he espouses, have failed. Today, generations of Tibetan exiles are no closer to going home than they were when the tanks first turned their turrets toward the old capital. In fact, the tanks are still there. Half a century of occupation and repression has taken its toll on symbols of Tibetan religion and culture, while society has become polarized between the subjugated and those who, out of self-interest or for other reasons, are now repeating the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) line that the PLA “liberated” Tibet.
Facing growing criticism within his ranks, the Dalai Lama has himself admitted that peaceful resistance — or the “middle way” — hasn’t worked, that the CCP has been a dishonest negotiator and that hope is dwindling. So humiliating has been Beijing’s lack of response to the Dalai Lama’s call for “meaningful autonomy” for Tibet that other, younger generations have been wondering if means other than pacifism might not be the solution. That this implies taking on China’s formidable tool of repression, the PLA, shows the level of desperation and frustration — and hope — that flows in their veins.
Despite its success in crushing rebellion and peaceful resistance, Beijing has failed to understand one precious lesson of history — “the indestructibility of man’s yearning for freedom,” as Soviet war correspondent and author Vasily Grossman, who was among the first to report on the Nazi extermination camps, wrote in his critique of Fascism and totalitarianism, Life and Fate.
A totalitarian or authoritarian regime’s ability to control the masses is contingent on the use of force or the threat of the use of it. Either it uses “eternal violence” until a point is reached where there is no one left to kill, or it dies of its own choosing by relinquishing its prerogative to violence. The CCP not only faces this challenge with Tibetans, but also with Uighurs in Xinjiang, Falun Gong practitioners, ordinary Chinese who strive for freedom and, should it come to this, Taiwanese.
By making force the principal agent of its legitimacy and its primary means to remain in power, the CCP is ensuring its eventual demise. For while it can use or promise “eternal violence,” the human thirst for freedom will always be stronger — as strong as life itself. It is this spirit of hope, of unremitting resistance to oppression even when the odds are bad, that we cherish today as we remember the terrible events of half a century ago.
“Man’s fate may make him a slave,” Grossman wrote, “but his nature remains unchanged.”