How China’s strategy of repression has led to decades of violence in Tibet

If there are lessons to be learned from Eat the Buddha, Barbara Demick's compelling account of the subjugation of China’s borderlands, they are on the future of Hong Kong.

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History, as Mark Twain may have said, does not repeat, but it rhymes. Reading Barbara Demick’s tragic history of one Tibetan town following the recent events in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, there is no shortage of rhymes. The confrontations in Hong Kong have recently been compared to Tiananmen Square in 1989. In fact, the long and brutal process of subjugation of China’s borderlands, ­including Tibet, may be a better analogy.

There are many poignant echoes, beginning with a promise: the 17-point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet was a treaty signed, under duress, by representatives of the Dalai Lama’s government and the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1951. Leaving aside why, if Tibet had “always” been part of China, as Beijing claims, a treaty was an appropriate instrument to sanctify a military invasion, the terms of the deal remain noteworthy: it promises to preserve internal autonomy and that the government of the Dalai Lama can continue to order Tibet’s domestic affairs, including, but not limited to, its religious practices, leaving Beijing to take care of borders and security. It was an early version of one country two systems, the arrangement proposed by Deng Xiaoping to Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s as the Hong Kong handover was negotiated, and enshrined in a treaty between the PRC and the UK governments.

The Tibetan arrangement collapsed within seven years in what is now known as the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) – the Tibetan heartland under the jurisdiction of the Dalai Lama’s government. In the town that is the subject of Demick’s book, it never applied. As it established the new governing arrangements, Beijing divided historic Tibet into the TAR, which accounted for just over one-third of Tibet’s extensive cultural geography. The remaining two-thirds, where most Tibetans lived, were assigned administratively to neighbouring Chinese provinces. Ngaba County, the focus of Demick’s study, sits in the Chinese province of Sichuan. That was to matter. Among the promises made to the Tibetans was that socialist reforms would not be forced on them, but it turned out that only applied to Tibetans living in the TAR.

By 1958, those outside that protective border would be exposed to the full force of an ideology that defined all rival ways of life as hostile and was determined to be rid of them. For Tibetans, that meant the monasteries, which were at the core of economic, spiritual and cultural life, would be attacked and looted, and the monks forced out, ­humiliated and sent to labour camps.

It was an assault on deeply held beliefs and culture that provoked an uprising in Kham, as the Tibetans called eastern Tibet. When Khampas gathered in Lhasa for the annual Monlam prayer festival in 1959, they brought their rage with them, and the consequent unrest and fear of detention triggered the flight into exile of the young 14th Dalai Lama.

Today Ngaba, the administrative seat of Ngaba County, is a small, relatively prosperous town that sits 20,000 feet in altitude, on the edge of a band of temperate rainforest. With a population of 13,000, it has two monasteries, Se, and the more important Kirti Monastery. Both would suffer terribly in 1958, but this was not the first time Ngaba County had attracted Chinese attention: it was a community still traumatised, Demick reports, by the violent passage in the 1930s of Mao’s Red Army troops, who had escaped Nationalist encirclement and were fleeing to the caves of Yan’an, in what was subsequently mythologised as the Long March.

The Tibetans mounted armed resistance and the then queen of the district set fire to her palace to deny the use of it to the Chinese army, before the outgunned Tibetans were forced to flee to the mountains.

The Red Army visit had not been forgotten. In recent years, Ngaba has been tragically celebrated for another distinction: it is the capital of self-immolation, where more Tibetans have chosen an agonising death in protest at Chinese rule than anywhere else. It was this that attracted Demick and her signature in-depth reporting – honed in earlier books such as Nothing to Envy, her account of life in famine-riven North Korea.

That, too, focused on the story of a community of people who were bound together over generations by a life-changing ­experience. The approach allows her to check individual accounts and memories against each other, and the result is a vivid, exhaustively researched ground-level view of the impact of history on people’s lives.

Remarkably, she managed to make three trips to Ngaba, under conditions that were not friendly to anyone making enquiries, let alone a foreign reporter. She reinforced her investigation through records, the works of scholars and experts, and interviews with Tibetans in exile. Her dramatis personae include Gonpo, the daughter of the 14th, and last, king of the Mei Kingdom – with her memories of 1958 when, as a child, she returned home from an ­uncle’s funeral with her family to find they were being forcibly evicted by the People’s Liberation Army. The world she had known ended, in a time that is called in Ngaba simply ’58 – a reference as recognisable to Tibetans as 9/11 is to New Yorkers.

Others interviewees are the sons of farmers, nomads or craftsman who became monks or intellectuals. They include Delek, whose early memories include hiding in a laundry basket listening to the screams of his grandparents as their house was looted and treasures burned.

In the years following 1958, some 20 per cent of the Tibetan population were arrested and more than 300,000 died. Some committed suicide, others fled into exile. Gonpo and her family survived until the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, when they once again came under attack. Both her ­parents died: her father committed suicide in despair when her mother disappeared after being detained. Gonpo was sent to do hard labour in Xinjiang.

In the decades since 1959, the monasteries have been destroyed, rebuilt in the ­relatively liberal period that followed the death of Mao in 1976, then forced to operate as tourist attractions under the supervision of the party, with the monks subjected to “patriotic education”.

Over the years, thousands of people have been arrested, imprisoned or sent to labour on prison farms in Xinjiang. China’s policy towards Tibet and its religious life has oscillated between degrees of repression, all without achieving its goal – to re-create Tibetans as model citizens who love the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) above all else.

Tibetans are now an underprivileged minority in a land transformed by Chinese roads, railways, big hydro and the inward migration of settlers from China’s poorest provinces, who enjoy the privileges of the coloniser. Many Tibetans are also materially better off than 50 years ago, and do not oppose modernisation, despite the West’s preconception of them as a rural, tradition-bound people.

But there is little harmony between Tibetans and their Chinese fellow citizens, who frequently describe Tibetans as dirty, lazy and ungrateful; and there is certainly little sign that they love the party. In 2008, an incident in Lhasa triggered the most widespread rebellion in the Tibetan world for 30 years as young Tibetans, brought up entirely under CCP rule, called for the return of the Dalai Lama and for Tibetan independence. One of the protestors in Ngaba, a teenage girl called Llundup Tso, never returned: she was shot in the head as she watched a demonstration. The uprising was crushed and Ngaba’s monasteries locked down.

In the wake of the uprising, a comprehensive security system that covered every city street with electronic surveillance was installed. It was later to be reproduced in Xinjiang, where the Uighur population has been subject to even fiercer religious and political repression. From then on, Tibet would resemble a panopticon. Tibetans responded with self-immolation. At the time of writing, Demick notes, 156 Tibetans had set themselves on fire, a disproportionate number of them in Ngaba.

Demick attributes this phenomenon to intergenerational trauma: the young people setting fire to themselves were the actual or spiritual grandchildren of Tibetans who had fought the Red Army in the 1930s and 1950s. In response, Chinese police patrols began to carry fire extinguishers, and to arrest the families, the witnesses and suppliers of kerosene to the suicides. To avoid arrest, self-immolators took to drinking the kerosene as well as dousing themselves in it, and bound their padded clothing with wire so that it could not be easily removed.

After nearly 60 years of CCP propaganda and insistence on material progress, the gap between official images of apple-cheeked and smiling Tibetans and the reality of self-immolation could not be bridged. It had to be explained by ­repeating the accusations that Beijing routinely ­deploys: that all discontent can be blamed on ill-intentioned outsiders, or in Tibet’s case, on an octogenarian “wolf in monk’s clothing” in the Dalai Lama.

One remarkable characteristic of the long history of increasingly authoritarian rule in Tibet, Xinjiang and now Hong Kong is that it often perpetuates what Beijing wishes to suppress: in Xinjiang, repression has stimulated religiously inspired violence; in Tibet it keeps alive the hostility towards Chinese rule. In Hong Kong it has provoked a level of support for independence that only three years ago seemed implausible.

Repression removes the middle ground, destroys the leaders who might be interlocutors for a better solution, and creates resentments that last for generations. If there are lessons from Demick’s compelling account, they are that the repression that failed to achieve a sustainable peace in Tibet is unlikely to work in Hong Kong.

Eat the Buddha: The Story of Modern Tibet Through the People of One Town
Barbara Demick
Granta Books, 336pp, £18.99

Isabel Hilton is the editor of chinadialogue.net 

This article appears in the 11 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Saving Labour

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