Rewriting History

The Dalai Lama's eldest brother, Gyalo Thondup, reflects on Deng Xiaoping and what went wrong for Tibet.

2008-11-21
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Moynihan-305.jpg Maura Moynihan with Tibetan Youth Congress President Tsewang Rigzin.
Photo: Phil Void
By Maura Moynihan

DHARAMSALA—On Wednesday Nov. 19th, a special press conference was held within the halls of the Tibetan Parliament in Lower Dharamsala.

The Dalai Lama's eldest brother, Gyalo Thondup, and Thubten Namgyal, a member of the First Tibetan Exploratory Mission to China in 1982, addressed a new propaganda thrust issuing from Beijing. It rewrites the history of Deng Xiaoping’s pledge that on the matter of Tibet "except for independence all other issues can be settled through discussions."

On Nov. 10, 2008, Zhu Weiqun, Vice Minister of the Central United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing declared: "Comrade Deng Xiaoping never made such a statement. It is a falsehood made by [Tibetan special envoy Lodi] Gyari and a complete distortion of Deng Xiaoping’s statement."

Gyalo Thondup's press statement read: “I am shocked to hear such a statement from the Chinese officials because it was myself to whom the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping spoke."

Gyalo Thondup has played a singular role in the history of modern Tibet, He is now 80, his legacy arouses reverence and controversy. He first visited China at age 14, left Tibet for India in 1952, worked with the Tibetan resistance, then settled in Hong Kong, and has for years traveled within China. Leaning back into his chair, encircled by reporters and cameras, Gyalo Thondup seemed pensive, melancholy.

"Let's settle the Tibetan issue"

He told of his first encounter with a man from Xinhua, who implored him to fly to Beijing to meet with Deng Xiaoping. Mr. Thondup insisted that he first ask his brother, the Dalai Lama, for permission to do so.

The Dalai Lama was encouraging; for 20 years Tibet had been sealed behind the Bamboo Curtain; the exiles did not know if relatives and friends in Tibet were dead or alive.

And so Gyalo Thondup went to Beijing to meet Deng, Chairman Mao's erstwhile rival, the new supreme patriarch of the Peoples' Republic of China.

Mao confined Deng to a labor camp for several years; his son was later tossed from a window and paralyzed for life.

After Mao's death in 1976, Deng rose to power and steered a wounded nation into the world's 3rd largest economy.

"Deng was a very straightforward man, very small, but determined," Mr. Thondup recalled. "He told me how he had suffered in prison, and whatever happened before, it is over, the future is more important. He wanted to do something about the poverty and destruction in Tibet caused by the Red Guards. He said to me ‘Let us talk at once, to settle the Tibetan issue.’ The first thing I asked was that he open Tibet; it has been completely sealed by the PLA since 1959."

This he did; in the early 1980's, a new highway connected Kathmandu to Lhasa, and Tibet became the next frontier for global travelers. And in 1985 Deng allowed thousands of Tibetans to travel to India to attend the Kalachakra Puja in Bodhgaya, where a special tent was erected to reunite relatives and friends, parted since the flight of the Dalai Lama in 1959.

This brief period of "reform and opening up" emboldened minorities and dissidents to challenge the Communist Party. The Tiananmen Square massacre was foreshadowed in Tibet; demonstrations in 1987, 88 and 89 were suppressed by violence and martial law.

Deng's successor, Jiang Zemin, accelerated the persecution of Falun Gong and the "Strike Hard Campaign" inside Tibet. On this topic Gyalo Thondup grew animated.

A private pocketbook

"I don't understand the new hard-line in China. The world is changing; China is changing. But my Chinese friends tell me that the regional officials treat Tibet like a private pocketbook.  They don't want any dialogue, any solution, because they are making a fortune exploiting Tibet."

At nightfall, foreign correspondents gathered at McLo's bar for Tibetan dumplings and Indian beer, to ponder the puzzling contradictions within modern China, trying to peer into the future. In the mainland, there is new wealth, mobility, and centers of power.

In Tibet, techniques of Maoist repression and thought control have returned with alarming vigor.

Despite Chairman Mao's campaign to create a communist monoculture, China's 60 million minority peoples did not reincarnate as "red and expert" citizens; ethnic identities persist.

The collapse of the Soviet Union shattered a primary tenet of Marxist theory, that socialism would vanquish the social stratifications of class and ethnicity.

This is why Gyalo Thondup's younger brother, the 14th Dalai Lama, Buddhist monk and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, incites such irrational fear within Beijing's Politburo; he is a Tibetan, living in a piece of old Tibet that fell upon a mountainside above the Kangra Valley.

Maura Moynihan, a writer and musician, has been a consultant to the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, America's largest Himalayan and Tibetan cultural institution. She worked for many years as a refugee consultant in India and Nepal and recently completed a master's degree in political science at the New School.

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