It was no Shangri-La
Hollywood hides Tibet's true history
Gary Wilson, Workers World, December 4, 1997
With two major Hollywood movies about Tibet this year, the Tibetan region of China is being put in an unusual spotlight.
The Tibetan people are just one of the many national minorities in China. Yet most people in the United States have heard only of the Tibetans.
In China, there are 56 national minorities. Most of the population is Han.
Tibetans are the eighth biggest nationality. In terms of numbers, Tibetans are about 4 million—or .39 percent of China’s population.
There are other nationalities in Tibet itself, besides the Tibetans: Moinbas, Lopas, Naxis, Huis, Dengs and Xiaerbas.
But only the Tibetans are stars in Hollywood. No, that’s not it. Common Tibetans aren’t the stars of Hollywood films. The focus is almost exclusively on a very small group of Tibetans—the former elite of Tibet and the person the media sometimes call the "god-king," the Dalai Lama.
Hollywood’s fictional accounts are presented as based on historical fact. That’s like saying the movie "Gone with the Wind" shows what the South was like during slavery, when really it is only a glorification of the slave masters and completely ignores life for African Americans.
The Tibet movies are very much like "Gone with the Wind." They present the view of a defeated oligarchy, and ignore the reality of those who are oppressed.
The movie "Seven Years in Tibet" not only glorifies feudal Tibet and its aristocrats; it also makes a hero of a Nazi storm trooper—Heinrich Harrer.
So what is the history of Tibet? And why is it getting so much attention now?
For 700 years a part of China
In the 13th century, Genghis Khan and the Mongolians unified China and founded the Yuan Dynasty. This included Tibet. For the next 700 years, Tibet was an administrative region in China.
The Tibetan Autonomous Region of China today includes Tibet as it was defined in 1911 at the fall of the Chinese empire, plus an area called Chamdo. During the last days of the empire, Chamdo had been part of a province called Sikang.
Today’s Tibet includes the territory of "U," where the Dalai Lama directly ruled, and the territory of Tsang, where the Panchen Lama ruled.
When the promoters of a "Greater Tibet" refer to Tibet, much more is included. They include large parts of adjacent provinces: Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Quinghai. This includes the oil-rich Tsaidam Basin.
Today, about 1.8 million Tibetans live in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. There are another 2.1 million Tibetans in the neighboring four provinces.
While a greater part of the Tibetan population lives outside Tibet in these neighboring provinces, this does not make these other areas part of Tibet any more than the big Irish population in Boston makes Boston part of Ireland. There has been a centuries-long migration of Tibetans into these areas, where the Tibetans remain a minority population. Hans have also been migrating to these neighboring provinces.
However, when the promoters of "Greater Tibet" talk of Hans "penetrating Tibetan lands," they are really talking about these non-Tibetan provinces and a migration process that has occurred over centuries.
The central government was weak after the fall of the Chinese empire, and had little or no influence on domestic affairs in Tibet. But Tibet was still considered part of China.
"No nation has ever publicly accepted Tibet as an independent state," writes A. Tom Grunfeld in the history book "The Making of Modern Tibet."
Britain invades in 1903
At the turn of the century, in 1903, Britain decided that Tibet should come under its influence along with India, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and China. At that time, Britain sent an invading force into Tibet.
Earlier British government expeditions had reported that Tibet was rich with natural resources and even said that "masses of gold were lying around in the rivers." They may have believed they had found another empire like the Incan empire in what is now Peru, where Spanish conquistadors stole a wealth of gold.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, in July 1903 Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, authorized Col. Francis Younghusband and a military escort to cross the Tibetan border to negotiate a trade treaty.
"When efforts to begin negotiations failed," the encyclopedia reports, "the British, under the command of Maj. Gen. James Macdonald, invaded the country and slaughtered some 600 Tibetans at Guru. Younghusband moved on to Chiang-tzu (Gyantze), where his second attempt to begin trade negotiations also failed. He then marched into Lhasa, the capital, with British troops and forced the conclusion of a trade treaty with the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s ruler. This action brought him a knighthood in 1904."
British journalist Alan Winnington writes in his book "Tibet" that the treaty "made Tibet as far as possible a British sphere of influence."
Even then, Britain recognized Chinese "sovereignty" in Tibet—and sent a bill for 750,000 pounds to the central Chinese government for the expenses incurred in the invasion.
Tibet then became an area of intrigue and a pawn in the competition between the imperialist powers, particularly Britain, czarist Russia and Germany. The 13th Dalai Lama, the one preceding the current Dalai Lama, worked closely with the British. And until the victory of the Chinese Revolution in 1949, the Tibetan aristocracy looked to Britain and India, even sending their children to British schools in India.
According to Winnington, "When [the 13th Dalai Lama] died in 1933, Tibet was more and more becoming a British sphere."
This is part of the reason Nazi Germany sent an expedition to Tibet in the 1930s. Its defeat in World War I had stripped Germany of its colonies. The rise of the Nazi regime was driven in part by the big German capitalists’ need to expand and gain new colonies, new "spheres of influence."
Reality vs. romanticized view of Tibet
Reports by the British and German imperialists, primarily, have created the popular image of Tibet in the West.
Books like "Lost Horizon" by James Hilton and "Seven Years in Tibet" by Heinrich Harrer promoted a romanticized view of Tibet.
Harrer’s book is the basis for the Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt. Leaving aside for a moment the issue of Harrer’s role, what was Tibet like in the 1940s when the story takes place?
Because of its extreme isolation high up in the Himalayas, Tibet might have looked exotic to an outsider. Tibet was a region with no roads, only horse trails. The wheel was unknown. It was practically untouched by industrialization.
But Tibet was not that much different from the rest of the world. It just hadn’t caught up to the 20th century.
"The parallels between Tibet and medieval Europe are striking," writes Grunfeld in "The Making of Modern Tibet."
In the 1940s, Tibet was a feudal theocracy with a dual papacy—the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. By all accounts, the Dalai Lama was considered supreme in political matters.
Below the Dalai Lama were the aristocratic lords—owners of the estates, most descended from the ancient kings of Tibet before the Mongol invasion. "Despite claims to the contrary, heredity and ennoblement were the only avenues for joining the nobility," Grunfeld writes.
"As in all agricultural societies, the source of power and wealth was not titles but land. Land was divided among three ruling groups: the monasteries, the lay nobility and the Lhasa government," Grunfeld says.
The Dalai Lama himself was never from a ruling family, for that would have given an individual family domination. Rarely did the Dalai Lama ever reach adulthood, with fierce disputes often leading to murder of the young ruler.
The aides to the Dalai Lama really ruled the local government. The 13th Dalai Lama was one of the few to have survived into adulthood.
The vast majority of the people of Tibet were serfs. A small part of the population, about 5 percent, was slaves to the nobility.
Women were considered inferior to men. Polyandry—where one woman was the wife of several brothers—and polygamy were common.
As in every agricultural society, religion played a big role in Tibet.
Tibetan Buddhism is a distinct branch that incorporates ancient pre-Buddhist beliefs. This makes it unique in many ways.
But the ruling oligarchy controlled religion and the interpretation of its meaning. Tibetan Buddhism was used as a means of repressing the serfs.
Much is made of the Tibetan Buddhist prohibition against killing any life form, including animals or insects. But the death penalty was imposed under Tibetan law for killing a monk.
According to Gorkar Mebon, the mayor of Lhasa in the 1950s, when the death sentence was administered "it was in the form that made no person responsible for the death: by hurling the person from a precipice or sewing him in a yak skin and throwing him in a river. Lighter sentences were of amputation of a hand, both hands, a leg or both legs, the stumps being sterilized with boiling butter." ("Tibet," Winnington)
The whip was also a common form of punishment, Mebon says. "If a person had 300 strokes of it properly applied he would almost certainly die afterwards." In this way it could be said that the government, in accordance with religious law, had directly killed no one.
After the overthrow of Tibetan feudalism, in 1959 the serfs opened an exhibition of the torture instruments used against them. The exhibition was presented as a show on the "abuse of religion" and the execution of "evil deeds under cloak of religion."
Heinrich Harrer’s hidden role
During the rule of the 14th Dalai Lama in the 1940s, Tibet was again a center of intrigue. The German Nazis hoped to expand into Asia, particularly into India, Nepal and Tibet, leaving the penetration of China to their ally, imperialist Japan.
This is how Heinrich Harrer ended up in Tibet. His book on Tibet is really a fictionalized account of his adventures.
Who Harrer is and what his role was is of interest not just because of the movie. Harrer by all accounts was a teacher of the Dalai Lama and has remained a close adviser ever since.
"It came as a bombshell five months ago when the German magazine Stern reported that, as early as 1933, Harrer had been a Nazi, a member of the ruthless SA [storm troopers] and, later, the SS [elite protective guard]," according to a report in the October 1997 issue of the magazine Men’s Journal.
Harrer had always denied he had been a Nazi. When he could no longer deny it, it was said that he had been a Nazi but he had only joined in order to further his career as a mountain climber. This claim did not hold up, since his 1933 entry would not have helped his career in Austria, where he lived. The Nazi Party was illegal in Austria and had to operate underground.
The Men’s Journal story is written by someone who had seen Harrer as a hero and reluctantly came to the conclusion, after extensive research, that Harrer was a "150-percent Nazi" and had to have been involved in some of the most brutal crimes in Austria in the 1930s. Harrer had first been recruited by Heinrich Himmler, the second most powerful person in the Third Reich.
Harrer was part of the Dalai Lama’s inner circle at the time of the Chinese Revolution in 1949. At that time the Dalai Lama was a teenager who, by his own account, knew nothing of the outside world. He was completely dependent on his advisers.
China’s liberation in 1949
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army did not go into Tibet in 1949.
The Chinese Communist Party was committed to insuring the rights of all national minorities. In fact, a Communist constitution was put forth in 1931 to show the principles that would be the basis for a socialist China.
That constitution said that "all Mongolians, Tibetans, Miao, Yao, Koreans and others living in the territory of China shall enjoy the full rights to self-determination."
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army did not enter Tibet because its ranks had few Tibetans. The policy was to first win the Tibetan population to the Communist Party and its ideals. Then political power could be won from within Tibet.
But the Chinese Communist Party was not given a chance to carry out such a slow policy. Tibet immediately became the target of not only the British imperialists but the United States imperialists as well.
There were many reasons for the interest in Tibet. One State Department expert even suggested that in the age of rocket warfare, Tibet was the ideal center for controlling all of Asia.
George Merrell, the top officer at the U.S. Embassy in India, wrote, "Tibet is in a position of inestimable strategic importance both ideologically and geographically." ("The Making of Modern Tibet," Grunfeld)
But Tibet was the focus of so much attention primarily because of the Communist revolution in China. The United States had launched a fierce war to "take back" China. At the time of the Chinese Revolution, the Tibetan oligarchy was in a panic. They sent out appeals to Britain, the United States and India for military aid.
U.S. forces in Korea march toward China
There were reports that Washington was preparing to recognize Tibet as a sovereign state. In June 1950, U.S. forces landed at Inchon in Korea and were driving up the peninsula. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was threatening to cross the Yalu River and carry the war into China.
President Harry Truman had ordered the Navy’s Seventh Fleet to encircle Taiwan and protect Chiang Kai-shek’s "jumping-off ground" for an attack against China. There was talk that French-controlled Vietnam would also be used as a base in a many-pronged invasion aimed at reversing the Chinese Revolution.
The Kwangming Daily, a Chinese newspaper, reported, "America and Britain have been making energetic efforts to keep their control of Tibet so that it may be used as a continental base for the invasion of China."
The People’s Liberation Army advanced into the Chamdo area, which was not part of Tibet at that time. In Chamdo, the PLA was confronted by the Tibetan Army, sent there by the Dalai Lama. Its commander-in-chief was Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, a descendant of Tibetan kings and a top Tibetan noble.
It was not much of a battle. Many of the Tibetan Army soldiers—serfs forced into service by the nobility—went over to the side of the PLA. The battle was quickly over.
Ngapo Ngawang Jigme expected death as the normal outcome of defeat. The PLA surprised him by treating him well and giving him long lectures on the New China’s policies toward minor nationalities, such as Tibetans. He liked what he heard.
Within a year, Ngapo Ngawang Jigme was the deputy commander-in-chief for the PLA forces in Tibet. He became a leader not only of Tibet but also the Chinese Communist Party. His account of the battle and his conversion can be found in Anna Louise Strong’s book "Tibetan Interviews."
The Communist government in China did not enter Tibet in the way an imperialist power would. No immediate changes were introduced in Tibet. Serfdom remained and would not be outlawed until 1959.
The Chinese policy was to win over the population to end serfdom.
There had been no change in the local government. The Buddhist church continued to operate as it had before. Freedom of religion was guaranteed. Reforms in Tibet were not compulsory.
Tibet was changed forever
But Tibet was changed forever.
Schools were built. Newspapers were introduced. Telephones and a postal service were begun.
Hospitals and movie theaters were built. And for the first time, highways to the outside world were built.
When the Tibetan oligarchy says the Chinese government did not respect Tibetan customs in the 1950s, this is what they are referring to.
The Chinese did violate local customs. Wages were paid to Tibetans who worked building the roads. This disrupted the custom of servitude. Paying Tibetan children to attend school also gave the serfs economic leverage against the age-old work practices as well as providing avenues for rising out of serfdom.
Some of the old aristocracy of Tibet were like Ngapo Ngawang Jigme and saw that serfdom had to be ended, but others resisted change. These are the Tibetan nobility who turned to the United States and the CIA.
In 1955 or possibly earlier—the date varies according to different sources—the CIA began to build a counter-revolutionary army in Tibet. The Dalai Lama’s older brother, Gyalo Thondup, coordinated this operation from a base in India.
Contrary to the popular image of nonviolence that has been built up around the Dalai Lama and his supporters, this CIA mercenary force was armed and murderous. It included contra-style death squads.
The Tibetan mercenaries were trained at Camp Hale in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. They were then parachuted into Tibet by the CIA’s Civil Air Transport. According to the Pentagon Papers, there were at least 700 of these flights in the 1950s; these same Air Force C-130s were later used for CIA operations in the Vietnam War. The mercenaries were dropped in with submachine guns and ammunition, according to a detailed report in the Jan. 25, 1997, Chicago Tribune.
More details of this operation are given in "Presidents’ Secret Wars—CIA and Pentagon Covert Operations Since World War II," by John Prados. Also, "The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence," by Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks, has some information on the CIA in Tibet.
After several years of isolated attacks and assassinations, this CIA-trained squad attacked a PLA barracks in Lhasa. This is commonly portrayed in the U.S. media as a popular uprising. But a secret U.S. State Department study called this a "wild exaggeration." ("The Making of Modern Tibet," Grunfeld)
The "rebellion" was confined almost exclusively to Lhasa, the Dalai Lama’s headquarters. Residents of Tibet’s second biggest city didn’t even hear of the events until a month later.
The mercenary army apparently kidnapped the Dalai Lama at that time and took him to India. They needed the Dalai Lama to give legitimacy to the Tibetan aristocrats’ claim to be the Tibetan "government in exile."
Some contend that since the mercenary army’s leadership was in the hands of four of the Dalai Lama’s six top aides, he had been at the center of planning the armed attack.
Whatever the truth about that, the CIA and the U.S. government has remained the main force keeping alive the so-called government in exile. That is true to this day. According to ex-CIA employee Ralph McGehee, who has written many exposés of the agency, the CIA has stepped up its Tibetan contra operations in recent years, working closely with the Dalai Lama’s brother.
An internal matter
The issue of Tibetan self-determination is an internal affair for China and no one outside. The right of self-determination depends on the conditions of the time when it is raised and the international situation, which can be of enormous significance.
China is a state with a considerable number of nationalities. And if there is one aspect where the People’s Republic of China stands out for its progressive character, it is its policy with respect to national minorities.
Tibet has been a part of China for centuries. It is not a province that was purchased, like the United States did with Alaska. It is not a conquered territory a thousand miles away like Hawaii.
The kind of self-determination proposed by the "Tibetan government in exile" and the Dalai Lama would be a neocolony of imperialism and a dagger aimed at the heart of China.
There are unlimited possibilities for self-determination within the framework of the multinational state of China, or any other relationship that is mutually worked out between the Chinese government and the Tibetans in the spirit of socialist solidarity. But it is a problem that is exclusively theirs to work out.