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Imperial Twilight
A Tibetan Perspective on China after Deng Xiaoping

Sunday, Jun 30, 1991
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Sometime in seventh century China, at the Tang capital Chang’an, the Tibetan envoy to the court asked for copies of Chinese classics. A worried Chinese minister supplicated the throne saying:

How can we give the contents of our classics to these barbarian enemies of the West? I have heard that these Tibetans have a fierce and warlike nature, yet are steadfast in purpose, intelligent and industrious, intent on learning undistractedly. If they were well read in the Book of History they would know about war-strategy. If they were well versed in the Odes, they would know how fighting men should be trained to defend their prince…

Whether the books they got improved Tibetan military acumen, the Tang annals do not tell us, but it is worth noting the curiosity of the Tibetans then in things Chinese, if only to contrast it with their later indifference. The Tibetan emperors not only sent students to India, as our own history books tell us, but also to China. Many of these students were as brilliant as those trained in India. In 672, the Tibetan minister known to us by his Chinese name of Zhong-Zong astonished the emperor of China with his profound knowledge of Chinese language and literature.

But since the end of the imperial age Tibetans have remained singularly ignorant about China and unconcerned about Chinese studies. Unlike our more astute ancestors, we did not bother to study an important principle laid down in one of the Chinese classics (the Sunzi bingfa) which the Tibetan minister probably took home with him: that a determining factor in the successful pursuit of war or statecraft is knowledge of your enemy. Although there are individual Tibetans these days well educated in Chinese language and culture, on a national and official level, this disturbing indifference for studying China is very much the norm.

Its effects are evident in the consistent failure of all the various China policies formulated by the Tibetan government for the past many years. Some attempts have been made to set up research offices to study China but these have been desultory, and no substantial interest or money has ever been committed to these projects.

Much of this indifference has been, of course, a product of resignation, stemming from a false perception of the permanence of Chinese power. In the sixties and seventies we shared an intellectual weakness with the West in assuming that what was not foreseeable in the immediate future was non-existent. Events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and even in China in the last couple of years, have shown us how wrong we were.

historical flux

The Chinese themselves have traditionally never regarded the course of their history as static or linear. On the contrary, the opening line of the first and one of the most popular novels in the Chinese language, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (San guo yan yi), now almost a proverbial saying, sums up the theme of the novel and also aptly epitomizes an abiding truth of Chinese history:

Empires and dynasties when united tend towards dissolution, and when partitioned strive once more for unity.

But what is happening in China now, and what does it portend for the future? Will democracy emerge once Deng Xiaoping and the other Communist gerontocrats cease to breathe, as so many young Chinese dissidents in the West seem to believe, or is the PRC really tending towards dissolution in the inevitable manner of Chinese dynasties and empires preceding it, into chaos and civil war, with the accompanying famines, massacres and dislocations, on the usual mind-numbing, scales?

Traditional Chinese historiography holds that most dynasties collapse under the twin blows of “inside disorder” (neiluan) and “outside aggression” (waihuan). Although the latter has tended to appear unexpectedly, the former has often been heralded by natural disasters, celestial portents, and the appearance of millenarian faiths and messiahs.

In the remote villages of Sichuan province, a cult has sprung up promising a saviour in the form of a new emperor. It has the authorities worried, and in Neijiang, the administrative centre for villages and hamlets along the river Tuo, the police have arrested a number of “chieftains” and members of banned sects. The main target of the crackdown is a group calling itself the Yiguan Dao, “The Way of Basic Unity Society”, a sect which also plagued Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government before 1949. Though the authorities claim to have crushed the organisation, its roots remain deeply embedded in rural life. Its emergence is just a small indication of a new nation-wide craze for all kinds of religious beliefs, ancient cults and bizarre traditional arts.

In Chinese history the emergence of such quasi-religious movements has often come about at a time of crisis in the dynasty, and sometimes even caused or contributed to its downfall: the Red Eyebrows at the end of the first Han dynasty, the Yellow Turbans at the end of the later Han, the White Lotus and the Red Turbans who rebelled against the Yuan dynasty, the White Lotus again in the declining years of the Ming, the Taiping and the Boxers during the decline of the Manchu dynasty, to name but a few. Even aside from these notable historic uprisings, Chinese history is so full of countless peasant revolts animated by strange cults, that the Communist Party has good reason to take such phenomena seriously.

Mystical sects and secret societies were ruthlessly proscribed in 1951, to be replaced by the exclusive cult of Maoism. But now, with the obvious moral and ideological bankruptcy of the Chinese Communist Party, it is not difficult to see why, in spite of strenuous official attempts to combat “counter-revolutionary feudal superstition”, the craze for cults and religions among the Chinese people will probably increase, with unpredictable results. [1]

limits of modernisation

Popular disenchantment with the Party has increased with the leadership’s attempts at modernisation, and the partial opening up of China to the West. Comparison with the West and Japan has provided the Chinese people with a point of reference for their discontent and sharpened their grievances. It has also underlined to them, as nothing else could have done, the enormity of the Party’s failure, and the heartbreaking price in suffering, violence and moral degradation that the people have had to pay.

The modernisation programmes have also forced the Party into a profound and seemingly irreconcilable dichotomy with its present decision to forbid the free passage of ideas and innovations from the West into China, while at the same time constructing an economic structure that is essentially dependent on the unimpeded flow of ideas of all kinds. But an ideological resolution, of sorts, has been concocted for this paradox whereby technological knowledge from the West, becomes acceptable whereas political and cultural influences have to be resisted. Although, on the face of it, it may sound workable, it ignores the fact that Western science emerged from Western philosophy and that there is a fundamental interrelatedness between the two.

The great advances in modern scientific thought took place in the West in an atmosphere of political and cultural freedom. Therefore in a society like the PRC where the truth has always had a “class character” (or whatever character was required of it by the reigning ideology), it is not surprising that the sine qua non of Western science, the objectivity of truth, takes on the attributes of a dangerous virus. It may not be entirely by chance that an eminent scientist like Fang Li Zhi should have emerged as a champion of human rights in China. With every advance in technology, especially communications, this dilemma will probably become more acute. The use of fax machines in China to spread dissident propaganda from Hong Kong after the Tiananmen Square massacre may be just a hint of things to come.

China faced a similar dilemma in the last century when Western colonial powers used their superior military and technical knowledge to force concessions from a relatively backward China. Certain Confucian scholar-officials as Zhang Zhidong, and the utopian reformist Kang Youwei, were attracted to a widespread philosophy of the time that attempted to tackle this problem with the formulation: “Chinese learning for essence, Western learning for utility” (zhong xue wei ti, xi xue wei yong). Generally abbreviated as the ti-yong idea (from the Chinese words for “essence” and “practical use”), this was a culturally reassuring position in a time of ambiguous, often painful change. It affirmed that there was indeed a fundamental structure of Chinese moral and philosophical values that gave continuity and meaning to the civilization, upon which the necessary Western technical and scientific developments could be grafted.

But it didn’t work then, and it is difficult to see how it will work now, especially when the basis of Chinese philosophy and culture, the “essence”, seems to have been violated beyond redemption. For the past forty years, the energy of the Communist Party, and to a considerable extent that of the nation itself, has been expended in savage campaigns to “destroy the four olds” (po si jiu) — old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits — and to replace them with one of the most unrelentingly sterile and soul-destroying versions of Stalinism, never quite achieved by Stalin himself. Is this the “national essence” (guo jing) that present-day leaders of China are seeking to protect from decadent Western influence?

social and economic breakdown

Present attempts by the leadership to force the nation back to purer ideological ways are doomed to failure. In the past, the hold of the Party on the people came largely from a simple idealism in the people themselves, and their willingness to believe whatever the Party told them, no matter how obviously untrue. But this mental bamboo curtain is gone forever. The Chinese people have seen through the lies of the Party and cannot be fooled as they were before, when their patriotism, and hope for some kind of decent future were exploited by the Party to enslave them.

Cynicism is now the order of the day, and the Party’s control over society is slipping away slowly. A dramatic and telling example of this was, of course, the students’ and workers’ defiance of authority at Tiananmen Square in May 1989, and the subsequent massacre in June. But even on a less dramatic scale, the appearance of vast numbers of mobile casual workers all over China, in clear contravention of Party dictates on illegal movement, is indicative of a breakdown in the danwei “work unit” system. A communist refinement of the traditional baojia “mutual security” system, and structured into groups within communes, neighbourhoods, offices, factories and universities, it was a sophisticated and near-perfectly effective system of policing and regulating the lives of every Chinese. The danwei not only controlled physical movement beyond a permitted locality, and such things as job assignments, housing, education and travel opportunities, but even the right to marry and to have a child. Manned by forty-eight million Party members, it was the world’s most pervasive network of social control.

The escape of such activists such as Chai Ling, who managed to hide out in various places in China for nearly a year before managing to leave the country altogether, is another indicator of how this near-perfect system of mutual surveillance and control has broken down, though to what extent we cannot yet be certain.

Even in the countryside, strong indications of a new attitude of defiance towards officialdom is emerging, seen in recent physical assaults on tax collectors. A year ago five were murdered and more than three thousand wounded in the line of duty. So violent were the attacks that 353 of those injured were permanently disabled. Even the authorities are having to admit to incidents that betray a growing conflict and tension throughout the countryside. The People’s Public Security Journal recently reported a violent battle between two villages in Fujian province over a stolen dog, but that appears to be only the visible tip of a larger, unreported breakdown of party bureaucracy and threat of chaos, appearing everywhere in the Chinese countryside. The apolitical and often petty nature of the causes of all these conflicts (a riot in Sichuan over water-melons, for example), seems to indicate not only the erosion of party authority but loss of the individual’s sense of social order as well.

China’s economy, too, is in a fairly grim situation, even by the admission of the Finance minister, Wang Binqian, last year; and is still reeling from the impact of an austerity programme launched in late 1988 in an attempt to tame inflation. Even the relative economic success of the coastal regions has caused disturbing rifts between these areas and the centre, and poorer inland provinces. Embarrassing and previously unthinkable delays were caused in the drafting of the five-year plan last autumn, when certain provincial leaders rejected proposals for richer regions to subsidise massive failures in the state-owned industrial sector, and prevent the centre itself from going broke. This division can only widen as the leadership’s attempts to control power, and inevitably the economy, intensify with every perceived hint of challenge to its authority, no matter how insignificant.

In comparison to its moribund Soviet counterpart, the Chinese economy may dazzle at the moment, but its advantages are essentially short-term, as events during the end of the eighties effectively demonstrated. In the long term, economic progress can only come with the stability and confidence generated by fundamental and substantial political and social reforms, and that is where the Soviets may have made the correct decision, even at the very stiff price they are paying now.

the crisis in leadership succession

Contrary to the expectations of many Chinese dissidents, China’s problems will probably be compounded by the death of Deng Xiaoping, for the political system in China has an endemic inability to effect an orderly succession of power. This failure has deep roots in the CCP’s practice of leadership by “lines”, whereby the top leadership group is divided into those of the “first lines,” who are the designated successors and who manage the day-to-day work of the party, including some policy formulation, and the “second line” leaders, who are the paramount leaders who never really retire, but for reasons of age and health are involved only in major issues of strategy and policy. The concept originated in part from Mao’s concern over the succession issue in the early 1950s and in part as a result of the failure of the Great Leap Forward.

Such an arrangement must obviously create constant friction between the two lines, as members of the first line, who are expected to do most of the work, are not granted sufficient power to meet their responsibilities, while second-line leaders, in semi-retirement, enjoy the real authority and frequently interfere in the decision making of the first line. Such a system also places tremendous and sometimes intolerable strains on new leaders who, in order to survive, must build independent power bases, but who in so doing nearly always run the real risk of offending and alienating second line leaders who were their patrons previously.

This is why planned attempts at leadership succession in the history of the CCP have invariably failed, and failed under remarkably identical circumstances. For instance, Mao’s first two officially designated heirs, Liu Shaoqi, and later Lin Biao, were not only unsuccessful in taking over the leadership, but were removed from their positions under circumstances involving humiliation, incarceration, and even death. Deng Xiaoping’s two protégés, Hu Yaobang and then Zhao Ziyang, also experienced similar misfortunes, though Zhao has been luckier than his predecessors and is still alive. Even more ironically, Deng Xiaoping selected a relative unknown in Jiang Zemin at the eleventh hour, much as Mao finally settled on another nobody, Hua Guofeng, from his deathbed.

politics of revenge

This crisis in China’s political future is not solely limited to the question of leadership succession. It has its origins in a range of institutional problems that, although sometimes masked by the very personal nature of political power in China, have been building to a head since the death of Mao.

Yet the one crucial predicament, the resolution of which I am convinced is imperative for any progress in Chinese political conduct, is of a cultural and psychological nature, and was festering in the national and individual psyche long before Mao Zedong came into power. It is unfortunately a condition of which, as far as I know, most Chinese people do not readily admit to. Yet their thinking and behaviour are rooted in its subtle, all-pervasiveness and central role in Chinese political culture.

In January this year, for three nights running, Beijing’s main opera house, a drab and draughty concrete auditorium on Protect the Nation Street, once again echoed to the strident revolutionary arias of The Red Lantern, one of a handful of “model operas” promoted by Jiang Qing during her heyday as China’s supreme cultural commissar. Officials who ordered its production, however, got more than they bargained for. Rather than a lesson in revolutionary zeal and obedience, it seemed to many in the audience to contain a more subversive message, one calling for revenge. “You can’t kill all the Chinese people”, sang the hero, “a debt of blood must be paid in blood.” The crowd cheered.

An endemic cancer in Chinese political culture has been an obsession with revenge. It has prevented the leadership and people from utilising any opportunities for reforming society or redressing injustices without concomitantly laying claim to an exclusivity of virtue, hence justifying violent revenge against previous wrongdoers and oppressors, real or imagined. A never-ending cycle of revolution following repression following revolution is thus perpetuated where compromise and common sense are the first victims.

This characteristic of Chinese political culture has been commented on by a number of distinguished Sinologists as Merle Goldman, Geremie Barme, and Lucian W. Pye, to name but a few. [2] Pye feels that everybody in present-day China has “scores to settle”. Within the leadership, the hardliners wanted revenge against the reformers who, for the last few years, had been insulting them, saying that they did not understand how to manage China’s economy. The reformers, in turn, must seek revenge against the hardliners for pushing them aside and saying that they had brought China to chaos. The dissidents, of course, also need revenge, and the officials who were humiliated will be out to settle their scores too.

Geremie Barme points out that the rampancy of revenge in Chinese public life today will certainly damage the country’s social fabric. He notes that the Beijing Public Security Bureau reported that by the end of July 1989 it had received some sixteen thousand calls on its informer “hot line” denouncing “Counter-Revolutionaries,” of which four thousand turned out to involve neighbours, husbands or wives hoping to use the police to settle scores with each other. People who had lost out during the decade of private money-making sought revenge against those who had prospered under the reforms. Indeed, in offices, factories, schools and universities, the men and women who thrived in the atmosphere of the political campaigns of the Mao era were becoming the watchdogs of the new morality, for they were “the mediocrities who are inept at everything but betrayal”.

cycles of terror

It would be an error to see all these forces threatening to tear apart the empire as recent phenomena, a reaction to the Tiananmen Massacre, or even the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution. They have their origins in the policies of the Communist Party right from its coming to power, and even earlier. Those who only know of (or profess only to know of) the Tiananmen Massacre and the Cultural Revolution should be aware that these were only two incidents in the long and tragic catalogue of terror and mass-murder perpetrated by the Communists on the Chinese people.

Large scale massacres commenced right from 1949, with the “Land Reforms” after which came the “Suppression of Counter Revolutionaries” campaign in 1950, the “Three Antis” (san fan), and the “Five Antis” (wu fan) campaigns from 1949 to 1952, the Sufan purges in 1955, the “Anti-rightist” campaigns in 1957, the aftermath of the Hundred Flowers campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the establishment of communes in 1958, the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), the “Anti-Lin Biao and Anti-Confucius” campaign (1973–75), the campaign for the denunciation of the “Gang of Four” (1976–78), and so on, all of which entailed the killing of tens, even hundreds of thousands of people, the true extent of which will probably never be known.

One estimate, The Walker Report, published by the US Senate Committee of the Judiciary in July 1971, placed the total death toll since 1949 between 32.25 and 61.7 million. The astronomical scale of the killings makes even such infamous events as the Nazi Holocaust and Cambodia’s “Killing Fields” seem minor, at least in scale. At a time of relative peace with no real challenge to its rule, the Communist Party of China murdered more of its own citizens than everyone — civilians and soldiers — who were killed in World War II.

“reformers” and “hardliners”

In spite of the leadership’s efforts to demonstrate that nothing untoward has actually occurred in China, it is difficult to see how long present attempts at maintaining a Potemkin facade, even with such skilfully engineered public relations extravaganzas as the Asian Games can be successful. The sophistication of Communist leaders at manipulating Chinese public thinking and Western perceptions of China are impressive, but, as events of 1989 revealed, they are not without limits.

Yet Chinese cultural abhorrence of individual expression, their idealisation of the collective will, and their overriding need to maintain face, will probably prevent the kind of noisy, chaotic and unembarrassed airing of dirty linen now taking place in the Soviet Union, and more’s the pity. No such therapeutic release will mitigate the gigantic and certainly violent outburst of rage and despair when the Chinese people finally break their silence to “Speak Bitterness” (su-ku) and “Sever the Mandate” (geming).

However much the Chinese people desire it, a gradual movement towards reform and change, even in the uncertain and chaotic Soviet fashion, is difficult to envision happening in China. No Chinese Gorbachev has yet appeared on the political horizon, and I do not expect one to show up for a long time yet. Many Western analysts have nominated such “reformists” as “One-chop Zhu” Rongji, the mayor of Shanghai, and Li Ruihan, the Politburo member in charge of propaganda, for the role, but in China the track record of “reformists”, once ensconced in power, is far from reassuring.

Until very recently, Mao Zedong was considered a great reformer, even by eminent scholars as John King Fairbank, who should have known better. And though we now cannot view Deng Xiaoping as anything other than a poisonous old dwarf, we must remember the days when Deng the outspoken “reformist” was removed from office in disgrace after the previous Tiananmen incident of April 1976, where “tens of thousands of police and militia-men” violently cracked down on a peaceful crowd paying homage to the dead Zhou Enlai. Just thirteen years later Deng was doing the same to another “reformist”, Zhao Ziyang, and cracking down with far more deadly force on another crowd of peaceful demonstrators at Tiananmen.

But no tears should be wasted on Zhao Ziyang either. Though he wept with the demonstrators and was removed from office in disgrace, it is fairly certain that had he been in power and challenged in the same way by demonstrators, he would have reacted in like manner. The massacre in Lhasa in March 1989 was directly ordered by Zhao Ziyang himself, then Party secretary. After the killings he sent a message to Lhasa praising the Armed Police as “brave and persistent”. Friends of China, and indeed, the Chinese people themselves, looking for reformers, should bear in mind what Lu Xun said about such types: “Whoever was in power wishes for a restoration. Whoever is now in power is in favour of the status quo. Whoever is not yet in power calls for reforms. The situation is generally such”.

the national character

Lu Xun’s despair at such shortcomings in the Chinese political character has been echoed in recent times by the Taiwan-Chinese writer, Bo Yang. In his pamphlet, The Ugly Chinaman (1986), he decries what he sees as the cruelty and narrow-mindedness of the Chinese, whose unbalanced personality he believes functions only at two extremes. “In his inferiority, a Chinese person is a slave; in his arrogance, he is a tyrant. The result of these extremes is a strange animal with a split personality.” Even Chinese democrats in the West seem to suffer from this. They want freedom and justice for themselves, but are unwilling to extend it to others, such as the Tibetans.

Last year a friend, Lhasang Tsering and I talked to a large number of Chinese students in the USA, all of whom were unequivocally opposed to the Communist regime. When the discussion turned to Tibet the “split personality” clearly came to the fore. Where one minute the Party’s lies about events at Tiananmen were being vehemently denounced, the next minute Communist propaganda of the crudest kind was being coolly trotted out to justify China’s occupation of Tibet. Gross racial and cultural misrepresentations about Tibet and Tibetans, that would have caused apoplexy if applied to Jews or Blacks, were aired before us by the Chinese students without a hint of embarrassment or self-consciousness.

When Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, a young Russian, Pavel Litvinov, and a number of his friends, unfurled a banner in Red Square expressing their shame at the oppression of a small nation by a large one. Andrei Sakharov also denounced the Czech invasion and suffered for his courage as Litvinov and his friends did. No Chinese in China has ever protested the invasion of Tibet, much less gone to jail for it.

Of the many million Chinese living outside China, none has expressed any moral concern at this crime committed by the mother country; many in fact have tacitly approved of it, and regimes like the Kuomintang in Taiwan have sought to take advantage of the tragedy in Tibet for their own ends. This failure of the Chinese people to speak out against injustice was pointed out by the alleged mastermind of China’s crushed democracy movement, Wang Juntao. In a letter recently smuggled out of Biejing’s maximum security Qincheng prison he said that it reflected a spiritual malaise for which all Chinese, not just the Communist Party leadership, must bear responsibility.

Until I heard him speak to Chinese students at Edinburgh University, I had always accepted the media’s comparison of China’s best-known dissident and astrophysicist, Fang Lizhi, to Sakharov. Fang was an impressive speaker with a sardonic yet attractive sense of humour that probably did him no good in his own country. His sincerity was obvious, and his energetic denunciation of the Chinese leadership contained none of the mealy-mouthed qualifications so usual in the statements of many Chinese dissidents with distorted notions of face or patriotism. But when someone asked him a question about Tibet, Fang replied that he knew very little about Tibet but he thought that the Tibetans ought to negotiate with the Central government. Just that. His answer surprised me. If the Chinese government was so amenable to negotiations, why hadn’t he negotiated some settlement for himself with the authorities instead of fleeing to the West?

Somewhere in its recent history the Chinese psyche has undergone a peculiar kind of moral lobotomy, whereby no pain, humiliation or suffering, except for that experienced by itself, could ever be real. Unless this morbid condition is corrected in the Chinese “national character” (minzuxing) it is hard to see how any genuine peace, freedom or happiness will ever take root in China.

ending the empire

Since Chinese insensitivity towards such basic human rights’ issues is rooted in their veneration of the collective will, as is usually pointed out, I believe that a moral and cultural regeneration of China can only come about with the dissolution of the super-collective, the Empire. Solzhenitsyn’s exhortation to the Russians (in his recent message in the Komsomolskaya Pravda, “How we must Rebuild Russia”) to let the Baltic republics, Armenia, Georgia, Moldavia and four of the Central Asians republics go, is one that has equal relevance to the Chinese. “We have no need for empire, for it destroys us,” said Solzhenitsyn.

Never in its history have China’s frontiers extended as far as they do now, and never has social, moral and cultural life in the “Middle Kingdom” sunk to such depths of sterility and brutality either. Is it simplistic to postulate some kind of connection in China between imperial ambition and inhumanity, between size and happiness?

The Song dynasty is unique in Chinese history not only for its conscious renunciation of imperialism, but also for the consistent humanity and efficiency of its rule. Song rule was based on general acquiescence and constitutional to an extent never before and since achieved in Chinese history. It never made any attempt to extend its borders beyond the Great Wall, and was never threatened by internal rebellions of any importance. And the many buffer states on its frontiers that Song diplomacy consciously encouraged and sometimes even subsidised, fended off the irresistible advance on China of Ghengis Khan’s Mongol hordes for over half a century. Chinese civilisation reached an apogee in these years, with many arts, especially painting, never since being equalled. It was also the time of the greatest development in science and technology. Chinese traditional medicine seems to have attained its highest point then. Another important and significant field of development in Song time was jurisprudence. In the realm of philosophical development it was the most active period China had ever experienced, apart from the feudal age.

China’s feudal age, the Spring and Autumn Period (Chun qiu), 770–476 b.c., and the Period of the Warring States (Zhan guo), 475–221 b.c., was an era of many disparate states, small duchies and kingdoms. Yet it was the most glorious age in the history of Chinese thought, a period when ethical and philosophical systems arose which have exercised a lasting influence on the culture of the Far East, similar to the influence of classical Greece on European civilisation. It was the age of the “Hundred Schools of Thought” (Zhuzi baijia) when such philosophers and sages as Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu, Mo Tzu and others attained such rarefied heights of moral and political speculation that all later intellectual achievements, right up to this century, appear to be mere footnotes. Even Beijing’s current chosen intellectual hack, He Xin, waxes lyrical about the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States periods, as times in China’s history “that were full of vigour and democratic spirit”. (Beijing Review, 20–26 Aug. 1990)

understanding the future

There can be no doubt that China is on the verge of a great crisis. We can see the cracks in the facade of the Empire, though when that vast edifice will crumble and break up is difficult to predict. The vastness of the country and its immense age gives its history a rhythm very different to that of other nations. A follower of Confucius once asked the sage whether it was possible to predict the future ten generations. Confucius replied that the careful study of China’s past would reveal truths about life under future dynasties, “even a hundred generations hence”.

It must be admitted that “China Experts” in the main have not been too successful in forecasting anything about China that has remotely resembled subsequent events. But where a few exceptions, as Miriam and Ivan London, Simon Leys, and the late Laszlo Ladany, have conscientiously observed the Confucian dictum on “careful study”, we have been rewarded with valuable insights into possible courses of events in China.

It is vital to be rigorously discerning about information concerning China. Aside from the cupidity of “experts”, reality in the “Middle Kingdom” too often succumbs to the sophisticated manipulative skills of Chinese leaders and the national obsession with keeping up appearances.

The Cultural Revolution brought China to the brink of absolute catastrophe, but we failed to see it then. It may serve as a sop to the Tibetan authorities that most countries in the world were equally ignorant of events in China, but their survival did not depend on that knowledge as ours did. Not only was virtual civil war breaking out in many areas of China, even in the capital of Mao’s birthplace, Changsha; but the dangers of recrudescent warlordism were becoming very real. China’s largest province, Sichuan, showed alarming signs of separating from the centre. Li Jingchuan, who was not only Party boss there, but directed the Party’s South-West Regional Bureau and controlled Guizhou, Yunnan, and Tibet, was accused by Maoists of running an “independent kingdom”. After tremendous bloodshed and manoeuvrings he was finally replaced with another equivocal figure, Zhang Guohua, who until then had been running Tibet, virtually as a personal domain. The “Gang of Four” accused him of this and of controlling all sources of power in Tibet.

I have often heard Tibetans with personal experience of the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet, bemoaning the failure of the Tibetan exile leadership to exploit the situation then. What might have happened if we had, is difficult to say, and such conjecture is best left to armchair strategists. My only regret is not that we failed to take advantage of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, but that we didn’t even bother to study China seriously enough to realise what was really going on there at the time. [3]

This disturbing indifference in Dharamshala to Chinese affairs reached a scandalous climax in 1976, when even after the death of Mao Zedong, the Kashag did not bother to meet for some weeks, to discuss the consequences of this monumental event for the Tibetan cause. I remember writing a somewhat histrionic denunciation of the Cabinet’s negligence in the Tibetan Youth Congress journal Rangzen. The Cabinet reacted to the piece like a bull to a red rag and a regrettably bitter clash ensued between the Youth Congress and the Tibetan government.

My hope is that our current leadership will undertake a thorough appreciation of events in China, not just with the intention of locating bits of information to prop up official dogma on the merits of “Associate Status” or “Genuine Autonomy”, but to discover a realistic basis on which a positive plan of action, no matter how modest, could be drawn up. It is just possible, even at this most desolate moment in our history, that destiny, or karma or whatever you want to call it, is preparing one last chance for us to save our nation and civilisation from extinction.

June 1991
Tibetan Review

* * *


1. In April 1999 hundreds of thousands of members of the Falun Gong sect held a peaceful demonstration before Communist Party headquarters in Beijing. The Party reacted some months later, in July, with large scale arrests of sect leaders.

2. Merle Goldman, “Vengeance in China”, New York Review of Books, 36;17 (9 November 1989); Geremie Barme, “The Politics of Revenge”, The Independent Monthly, Sydney, (14 Septembre 1989); Lucian W. Pye, “Tiananmen and Chinese Political Culture”, Asian Survey (4 April 1989)

3. One of the least examined, and hence, least known consequences of the Cultural Revolution and the factional fighting in Tibet is the growth of a national consciousness among Tibetans which resulted in violent uprisings all over Tibet around 1967–69, and which became so serious that the Chinese authorities dubbed it the “Second Tibetan Rebellion”. In a conference hosted by the Amnye Machen Institue in Dharamshala on October 29 & 30, 1996, “The Sea of Inhumanity: Tibet in the Great Proleteration Cultural Revolution”, among the papers presented and opinions expressed, what came across was that the extent of the factional fighting, which later developed into anti-Chinese uprisings, was nearly on a scale of the national uprising of the fifties.

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