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.
During the ensuing half-century, China continued to dismantle and disfigure the Tibetan state, poisoning parts of its territory with uranium and nuclear weapons tests, while crushing anyone who stood in its way. As of the early 1990s, when the Dalai Lama published his autobiography Freedom in Exile, more than 1 million Tibetans had died as a result of PLA violence, starvation or suicide, while hundreds of thousands were forced to flee to refugee camps abroad. Symbols of Tibetan spirituality — temples, practices and so on — were for all intents and purposes extinguished, and the country was virtually isolated from the outside world. Through population transfers, meanwhile, China turned Tibetans into a minority group within their own country, adding yet one more violation of international law to an already towering list.
From his exile, the Dalai Lama was accused by Beijing of being a “splittist” for refusing to go along with China’s destruction of his native land — an irony that was not lost on the Tibetan leader, as prior to liberation China had inked official documents, such as the “perpetual treaty” of 821AD, which clearly referred to Tibet as an independent country. A report by the International Commission of Jurists issued after Tibet’s “return to the motherland” also attested to Tibet’s existence as a sovereign legal entity. But in China’s world, international law was a very malleable concept indeed.
The lessons for Taiwan at this juncture in its history could not be any starker, nor the need for a close reading of historical precedents any greater. Under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), Taiwan has embarked on efforts to improve ties with Beijing, in the process inking its own series of agreements, first in November during the visit to Taipei by Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), with more agreements expected for April, probably in Nanjing or Beijing.
So far, the agreements have covered economic matters, with both sides leaving the more contentious political discussions for future consideration. What we should bear in mind as Taipei welcomes Beijing’s goodwill and signs official pacts with China, however, is that even when the other side participates in good faith and willingly — as Tibet did in the early 1950s — Beijing has a propensity to break agreements and to bully the other party when the latter raises objections.
In his memoirs, the Dalai Lama makes the observation that behind the reveling, toasts and smiles at the many banquets he attended, Chinese diplomats had a tendency to intertwine handshakes with threats and laughter with bullying, especially when they regard their counterpart as an inferior (including Taiwanese, as demonstrated by the long history of discrimination by Chinese against Taiwanese). There is no reason to believe that Chinese diplomats have grown any less perfidious, or that the meetings between ARATS and Straits Exchange Foundation officials were a departure from that age-old practice.
The Dalai Lama came close to making the mistake of believing that change within the CCP was possible when Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) — as moderate and pragmatic a CCP leader as there ever was — seemingly extended a friendly hand in the late 1970s, only to realize that the offer was nothing more than a trap. To this day, nothing the Chinese government has done, what with the Tiananmen Square Massacre almost 20 years ago to its more recent crackdowns in Xinjiang and Tibet, would indicate that the CCP has abandoned the duplicitous mindset that marked the Mao era, when Tibet was taken over.
The implications for the future of Taiwan are therefore of the utmost seriousness. Even if Taipei negotiates in good faith and sticks to its side of the agreements it reaches with Beijing, we can expect that in time China will alter, reinterpret or moot those pacts and make short shrift of anyone who stands in its way.
Regardless of whether the agreements are perceived by Taipei as means to “reduce tensions in the Taiwan Strait,” “reunify” the two sides, “modernize” or simply rescue the economy, Ma and his negotiators had better tread cautiously, for through CCP eyes and the historical revisionism the party has refined into an art form, Taiwan is just like Tibet half a century ago, “lost” property that needs to be “liberated.”
Taiwan is blessed with a substantial Tibetan refugee population. As China prepares to celebrate the “liberation” of Tibet, Taiwanese would benefit tremendously from listening to what Tibetans have to say about what “liberation” meant for them, or just how trustworthy a negotiator Beijing can be.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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