I haven't yet had the chance to read the book by Tibet historian Li Jianglin, titled When The Iron Bird Flies: A Secret War. I have only seen some of the reports and the author's preface online. The key sentences in the author's preface are:
"The mid-1950s to the early 1960s saw a tragic war in southwestern and northwestern China, covering a geographical area of Tibetan homelands across three Tibetan districts, 'autonomous districts,' and the 'Tibetan areas in the four neighboring provinces.'
In it, the modern weapons of the field army of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) field and local armed forces as well as the armed militia with military training, were pitted against Tibetan farmers, herdsmen, monks, a small number of government officials, and some of the Tibetan army, who were armed only with homemade guns, rifles, swords and knives."
As a Tibetan myself, I must thank Li Jianglin for researching and unmasking this chapter of history. But in reality, what happened back then wasn't so much a war as a massacre.
Also, it didn't take place in southwestern and northwestern China, but in the three traditional regions of Tibet: Amdo, Uke and Kham.
As Indiana University professor Elliot Sperling wrote in his recent article about that chapter of history, "The Body Count": "It is beyond dispute that there have been massive deaths in Tibet in the period between approximately 1950 and 1975… One simply cannot know the exact number without free access to Chinese records. But the fact that a large-scale slaughter took place ought to be unquestioned."
The article offers as evidence of this massacre photos of [the] bones of people who were shot to death in the [former kingdom of] Nang-chen, in Kham, now classified as Qinghai province, from recently excavated mass graves, as well as data derived from the 1982 census, which "began to present pictures that were not immediately obvious from the raw data. And...it was something quite ghastly: the Tibetan Plateau, in 1982, had a widespread imbalance between males and females, an imbalance that can really only be explained by violent struggle.
Across the entire [People's Republic of China] the Tibetan Plateau stands out in red as the largest expanse of territory in which the number of women so consistently outstripped that of men."
Whenever I have talked to people in Amdo about this period of history, whether they are old or young, they talk about it as 1958, or just '58. Around that time, in the long memories of the Tibetan people, the Chinese army and government brought disaster on the whole of Tibet, but especially on every family in Amdo.
So much so that they even refer to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) as "58." "58" is a blanket term that has come to mean all the disasters that followed "liberation."
Ms. Li Jianglin told New Tang Dynasty TV: "When it comes to Tibet, the war that took place there was in reality part of the Communist Party's state-building; part of its struggle for power across the whole country, and everything that happened there was no different in essence from all that happened elsewhere in China."
And NTDTV summed it up thus: "Li Jianglin told NTDTV that there was no essential difference between the Communist Party's violent oppression of the Tibetan people and its wreckage of their culture, and its actions towards the Han Chinese in the rest of China.
The so-called Han-Tibetan conflict was in fact a conflict between the Party and the Tibetans." (Li's original phrase had been "a problem between the Tibetans and the Party.")
I totally disagree. Of course there is an essential difference between the two; between the chaos that enveloped the so-called Chinese heartland and what happened in Tibet, which was invasion and occupation.
If, as Mao said, "the ethnic question is at heart a question of class struggle," then this would be a universal truth, and there would be high-sounding reasons to carry out invasion, occupation and colonization.
And isn't it a bit glib to start talking about massacre and resistance to it as if they were merely a question of a "problem" or of some "conflict" between the Party and Tibetans? Do we refer to the genocide of Jews by the Nazis as "a problem between the Nazis and the Jews" or as "conflict between the Nazis and the Jews"?
China's pro-democracy activists have held onto the view for a long time now that there is no racial oppression in Tibet, that this is all part of the political oppression meted out by the Communist Party, and that it is the same for Han Chinese and Tibetans alike.
But in their stubborn insistence, we can see that the official line, that "Tibet has been part of China from ancient times" is simply being repeated, but this time it has acquired the veil of democracy. There is a fundamental rift between this view and the way Tibetans see their history.
What gives Tibetans even more reason for despair is that such statements from the pro-democracy movement take no account of a Tibetan perspective, as if it's just fine to visit Han chauvinism and imperialism once more upon Tibetans, because it is done from the moral high ground of a democratic point of view.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie.