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Atrocity and Amnesia
Goldstein and the Revision of Tibetan History

Friday, May 1, 1992
No Comment

Intellectuals are, I suppose, no more dishonest than other people. On the other hand, they can call upon far greater resources to sustain a lie than the average person, who, when confronted with the obvious truth, generally has no other recourse than to accept it, even if with bad grace. The naivety and dishonesty of many Western intellectuals in their dealings with leftist totalitarian regimes, especially China, have now been pretty well exposed. Such books as Stephen Mosher’s China Misperceived and Paul Hollander’s Political Pilgrims, are profoundly disturbing records of this unfortunate phenomenon, providing a lamentable catalogue of the folly and cupidity of those who, by their very calling, should have been most proof against such failings.

Among the many incidents recounted in these books two in particular still rankle, for I once admired the particular intellectuals mentioned in them. In one, a well-banqueted George Bernard Shaw is travelling across a famine-struck Russia and blithely dismissing the horrors around him. In the other, John Kenneth Galbraith (equally well-dined) sings the praises of Maoism while touring a country bled white by famine and the Cultural Revolution.

Yet at a time when Communism is fast disappearing, and Maoist-inclined academics become a near extinct species, the reader may well ask what value, other than as records of more unenlightened times, do these two volumes hold for us ? Well, for one thing they provide an unexpected psychological dimension to certain very contemporary questions in the Tibetan world. Take, for instance, the row we’ve had in the Tibetan Review over Melvyn Goldstein’s controversial article, “On the Dragon’s Side of the Tibet Question”. The two books not only ought to help one to appreciate the issues in this particular debate in a wider and less personal context, but also serve as useful references for anyone trying to make sense of the strange dichotomy of academics like Goldstein, whose accomplishments in the field of Tibetan Studies stand uneasily alongside a self-serving political naiveté regarding Communist China’s crimes in Tibet.

Lively as it has been, the debate over Goldstein’s article is not, I feel, as important as it would once have been. World opinion has reversed from a position of gushing idealisation of Communist China to the present state of moribund scepticism, which though far from ideal is, without doubt, a definite improvement. And at least for the present, the objectivity of intellectuals trying to portray the CCP as a congenial institution open to dialogue and compromise is not entirely unquestioned. In such a relatively rigorous intellectual and moral climate, apologias for China have naturally become rare commodities, and even those, half-hearted and hardly worth the effort of refuting.

Yet I found that certain aspects of Goldstein’s article could not be so easily ignored. They had an immediate relevance (though probably not in the way the writer had intended) to certain disturbing developments in contemporary events: namely the resurgence of neo-Nazism, the ascendancy of far right-wing political parties in many parts of Europe and the emergence of “revisionist historians” attempting to “prove” that events like the Holocaust had never taken place.

Of the many provocative assertions made by Goldstein in his article, the one that disturbed me profoundly was his claim that “there was never any Chinese policy aimed at eradicating Tibetans by singling them out and murdering them, as was the case in Nazi Germany with Jews”. This brought to mind what I had read about the unbelieving and derisory reaction of politicians, academics and journalists in the West when first confronted with evidence of Nazi persecution of Jews in the thirties. There was a widespread belief at the time that Jewish propaganda was exaggerating, out of all proportion, random acts of brutality committed by a small section of the Nazi Party (Rohm and SA thugs) that was certainly not representative of the views and policies of Adolf Hitler and the mainstream of the party. To many it was inconceivable that a nation and a culture that had produced Beethoven, Goethe and Wagner could be capable of such acts of barbarity as Jewish “refugee accounts” were claiming. It was only after the war, when allied troops entered concentration camps and extermination centres, and when Nazi archives were captured and studied, that the full extent of the Holocaust was revealed to the world.

More recently the accounts of mass killings in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge were disparaged by many in the West. Only when the Vietnamese army threw out Pol Pot and brought to light overwhelming and incontrovertible physical evidence of the “killing fields” did many Western intellectuals belatedly acknowledge the terrible reality of a carnage they had deliberately ignored or played down. Before Vietnam’s ouster of the Khmer Rouge the eminent linguistician, Noam Chomsky, had pooh-poohed reports of genocide in Cambodia, dismissing with vehement scorn and certainty “tales” of Communist atrocities, and declaring refugee accounts to be “extremely unreliable”.

In any discussion on mass-murder in Tibet, it is important to constantly bear in mind that, unlike Nazi Germany or Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Communist China has not lost a major war. In fact, this last totalitarian state has so grown and prospered that it has become respectable in the eyes of Western governments, which have consistently viewed the policies and deeds of the regime in Beijing with calculated and cost-free high-mindedness. Though some lip service is paid to the question of human rights in China, thousands of slave labour camps still exist all over China and Tibet, the unremitting and bone-grinding toil of millions of its wretched inmates providing Goldstein and other Americans with cheap cotton underwear, shoes, toys, and steel pipes, among a host of other things. In fact, according to a Newsweek article of 23 September 1991, prison labour has become a mainstay of the Chinese economy in a number of regions and a very important source of foreign exchange. According to Harry Wu, a Hoover Institute scholar: “The labour reform camps are the reason China is so stable.”

Since the Chinese government is ultra-secretive about official information, especially that concerning its massacre of its own citizens, and is furthermore under no pressure from any source, domestic or foreign, to open its records, our knowledge of the true extent of the great killings in China is necessarily limited. Yet a number of China experts and institutions have, through extensive and laborious research, managed to put forward possible figures on the number of people exterminated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since its accession to power. Jean-Pierre Deyardin published in Le Figaro of 19–25 November 1978, a figure of 63.7 million killed. 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. At a time of relative peace and no real challenge to its rule, the Communist Party of China murdered more of its own citizens than the total number of people killed in every theatre of action during World War II, soldiers, civilians as well as the victims of the Holocaust.

Goldstein buttresses his initial statement with a supplementary line of quite extraordinary mendacity, that: “Those Tibetans who died unnaturally in Tibet during this period did so through revolts and famines, not through a deliberate policy of genocide.” Even a cursory knowledge of modern Chinese history shows us that though the CCP may not have had a program to exterminate people on purely racial lines, it definitely had a clear policy of wiping out entire groups of people, entire strata in society, such as landlords, feudal elements, counter-revolutionaries and so on.

We know that in 1950–51, when the Party launched the “Land Reform” program, it insisted that landlords not only be “struggled” but also executed, though in many areas peasants were reluctant to do so. Millions of so-called landlords were killed. Mao himself admitted in 1957 that 750,000 people were killed in the campaign. One of the most brilliant and discerning China watchers, the late Laszlo Ladany was absolutely clear about this in his last book on the history of the Communist Party of China. The investigative reporter for People’s Daily, Liu Binyan, one of China’s top journalists and dissidents in exile, gives a personal account of participation in a local “land reform” campaign in his book, A Higher Kind of Loyalty, and stresses the official involvement in the persecution and killings of the accused, whom the poor peasants were for the most part reluctant to “struggle” or execute.

The “Land Reforms” were only the beginning of a continual series of various campaigns where invariably large scale-killings took place. The Cultural Revolution is the only one most of us have heard about, as that is the only one the Chinese government finds it convenient to own up to.

Tibetans may not have been specifically killed because of their race (though Chinese xenophobia and racism would preclude us from ruling this factor out altogether) but they were killed nonetheless because of their unsatisfactory class backgrounds, ideological unreliability, counterrevolutionary crimes and so on — for, as Simon Leys point out in Broken Images “you can be a counterrevolutionary in Maoist China in the same way you could be a Jew in Nazi Germany”. Such reasons were, incidentally, much the same for the murder of a couple of million Cambodians. The Khmer Rouge did not kill to exterminate a race, just to remove certain undesirable classes in society.

The great killings that took place in China and Tibet were not mere fleeting episodes of random brutality, as Goldstein tries to imply, but the direct result of a systematic application of Maoist theories of social engineering. These were, incidentally, a major source of inspiration for the development of Pol Pot’s own ideas on “transforming society”. [1] But going by the kind of political philosophy that Goldstein probably subscribes to, it would seem less reprehensible to murder people for theories of class-struggle than for eugenics.

The deaths of many Tibetans through starvation, especially in the concentration camps, were not just caused by natural events like famine, but were rather the result of a deliberate policy of the Chinese authorities to control prisoners and their productivity through slow starvation. According to Jean Pasqualini, who wrote the classic account on Maoist prisons, Prisoner of Mao, the Chinese authorities had developed the system to such a degree of efficiency and sophistication that Stalinist gulags and Nazi concentration camps were crude and unproductive by comparison. The Chinese did not have to resort to such primitive and wasteful ways of getting rid of people as gas-chambers or bullets. Instead they simply starved a person to death, and during the time it took him to die, used the powerful incentives of slight variations in the wretched farce of a daily ration to extract the maximum amount of labour and submission from him. It is probably as horrible a way to die as being gassed to death — and it takes a much longer time to accomplish.

Furthermore, the fact that the Tibetans revolted against the Chinese in no way diminishes the enormity of China’s crimes in Tibet. The Tibetans revolted for the same reasons that the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto rose up against the German occupation army in 1943. The extermination of those courageous Jewish fighters is no less a part of the overall genocide as the murder of Jews who entered the gas chambers without offering any resistance.

Yet while Goldstein’s insinuations that the violent deaths of people in Tibet were largely the result of legitimate military operations conducted by the PLA (the suppression of revolts and civil disorder) or the consequence of natural disasters like famine, can be largely discredited, it must be acknowledged that accurate figures on the killings in Tibet are difficult to come by. The Tibetan government’s figures of over a million people killed in Tibet is not unquestionable and probably obtained by methodology less than absolutely

scientific. On the other hand the weight of anecdotal evidence thus collected has been overwhelming, and disturbing enough not to be casually disregarded. Bearing in mind that the very same regime that committed the crimes is still in power, it would be wise, especially for someone laying claims to academic objectivity, to refrain from cocksure pronouncements of Chinese innocence, until such a time, and it may come sooner than we think, when official records can be opened and mass-graves disinterred.

The Panchen Lama, in his address to the Tibet Autonomous Region Standing Committee Meeting of the National People’s Congress held in Beijing on 28 March 1987, was quite clear as to the mass killings of people in Amdo. A part of the address reads:

In Qinghai (Amdo), for example, there are between three to four thousand villages and towns, each having between three to four thousand families with four to five thousand people. From each town and village, about eight hundred to one thousand people were imprisoned. Out of this, at least three to four hundred people of them [ sic ] died in prison. This means almost half of the prison population perished. Last year, we discovered that only a handful of people had participated in the rebellion. Most of these people were completely innocent. In my seventy thousand-character petition, I mentioned that about five per cent of the population had been imprisoned. According to my information at that time, it was between ten and fifteen per cent. But I did not have the courage to state such a huge figure. I would have died under thamzing (public struggle session) if I had stated the real figure.

A couple of years ago, at a conference “Forty Years On: Tibet 1950–1990″, at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, Goldstein presented a paper on the nomads of Phala. Based on his study of this nomad community, he concluded that nomads in Tibet had not faced tremendous upheavals in their lives, as other sections of Tibetan society may have done. He did acknowledge that they had faced difficulties during the Cultural Revolution (he makes the same claim in the article under discussion). I was present at the conference and astonished at Goldstein’s statement, coming as it did from a scholar of his considerable reputation. When I got an opportunity, I asked him if he was not aware that the nomads of Phala were part of the estate of the Panchen Lama’s monastery, Tashilhunpo, which had actively collaborated with the Chinese, and therefore not only been treated exceptionally well, but had this privilege extended to communities that belonged to it. Goldstein did not give me a straight answer.

Phala was no more representative of the nomadic communities of Tibet than the Maoist Disneyland of Dazhai was representative of China’s agricultural communes, or Daqing of its industries. The experiences of the people of Phala before the Cultural Revolution were, without doubt, very different to those of most other nomad communities throughout Tibet. Many nomad tribes in Amdo, Kham and Central Tibet revolted violently against the Chinese and paid for their presumptions. One of the earliest and largest uprisings against the Chinese was led in 1956 by Yuru Pon, the paramount chief of the nomadic tribes of Lithang. In Central Tibet too, the nomadic tribes of Sog, Naktsang, Namru and other areas rose up against the Chinese and many were wiped out. The Panchen Lama, in his address of 1987, makes particular mention of the fate of the Golok nomadic tribes:

If there was a film made on all the atrocities perpetrated in Qinghai province, it would shock the viewers. In Golok area, many people were killed and their dead bodies were rolled down the hill into a big ditch. The soldiers told the family members and relatives of the dead people that they should all celebrate since the rebels had been wiped out. They were even forced to dance on the dead bodies. Soon after, they were also massacred with machine guns. They were all buried there.

When I first thought of writing this article a couple of months ago, a book appeared in London which made a declaration similar to Goldstein’s — not about Tibetans, but Jews. The gist of it was that the Holocaust had never happened, that the gas chambers had never existed, but were invented for British propaganda purposes and then picked up by Jews to extort German and American finance for Israel.

What surprised me about the book, Hitler’s War, was that it did not seem to be the usual anti-Semitic rantings of the loony right, but a well-selling book marketed in London’s main bookshops. The writer, David Irving, is a bona-fide historian, who shot to fame some years ago through his exposé of the phony “Hitler Diaries” that the popular German magazine Stern had not only published but even sold rights to The Times (London) and Newsweek. The “Diaries” had even duped the respected English historian, Hugh Trevor Roper.

David Irving’s books have been published by major publishing houses in Sweden and Germany, and Macmillan in Britain. Irving has extensive knowledge of Germany and its history, and speaks, reads and writes German with native proficiency. Goldstein, whose Tibetan though good, is not on the same level. Irving is well acquainted with many Germans, including some of those very close to Hitler, as Christa Schroeder, the Fuhrer’s second senior secretary, and his aide, Nicolas von Bulow. Some of these Germans later bitterly regretted confiding in Irving. Goldstein, too, has been on intimate terms with many Tibetans, including prominent aristocrats. In fact, he even married the niece of a former Tibetan cabinet minister.

Irving is getting a fair bit of publicity in Britain, his opinions being reported in many of the major papers like The Sunday Telegraph and The Independent. He has also had a number of TV and radio interviews and appeared on Thames TV’s This Week. In Germany, Irving attracts crowds shouting “Sieg Heil !”, with his lectures extolling the heroism of Rudolf Hess and condemning the war crimes of the British. In one lecture in the East German city of Halle, before a mob of flag-waving youths, he announced that as an Englishman and an historian, he declined to have any part in the victor’s refusal to give the Germans justice and truth. “I want people still to be reading my books hundred years from now,” he said, “so that they will say: ‘ Well, through people like David Irving, we got closer to the truth.’”

Other “revisionist historians” and “experts” I have read about are Robert Faurisson of France, and “the gas chamber specialist”, Fred Leuchter of the United States. Three years ago Leuchter was commissioned by a German-Canadian neo-Nazi, Ernst Zundel, to conduct “scientific” tests in the former gas chambers in Auschwitz and Majdanek. Leuchter found no traces of Zyklon B gas there, which is hardly surprising after forty-three years.

Thirty-five years have passed since the murder of the Tibetans first began in the villages, monasteries, grasslands and slave-labour camps throughout the Tibetan plateau. Though hard physical evidence of what happened in these places may be as difficult to detect now as traces of Zyklon B at Majdanek, what happened, did happen. The ubiquitous control of information by a totalitarian state and the disingenuity of perverted scholarship may have been able to gloss over the truth till now ; but if international events in the last few years are anything to go by, there is hope that such a state of affairs cannot be sustained for long. Indeed, in order to bring about such a positive conclusion sooner it is important that such falsification of history, especially when perpetrated by someone of Goldstein’s reputation, be constantly and promptly challenged in print as has been done on this particular issue first by Phintso Thonden, and later by others.

Goldstein is not another obviously Maoist propagandist as Tom Grunfield or the early Chris Mullin, but an acknowledged Tibet expert, whose opinions on the subject are solicited by UN committees, US government departments and the like. He is therefore in a position to do considerable damage to the Tibetan cause when he bruits about his “ethnic solution” to the Tibetan problem, which requires for its realisation that the West not “continue to talk about a Tibetan ‘ Holocaust’ “, to use Goldstein’s own words.

What he really means is that the West should not take China to task for any of its crimes in Tibet, including human rights’ violations. That if the West kept absolutely silent regardless of what China did in Tibet, then eventually the Chinese leaders would come around of their own accord to endorsing Goldstein’s “ethnic solution”. This, by the way, being a rather ingenious scheme to marginalise the role of the Dalai Lama, play down the voice of Tibetans in Tibet calling for independence, and to legitimise, in the eyes of the world, those Tibetans (some, friends of Goldstein’s) collaborating with the Chinese in the continued enslavement of their own people.

Yet, after all’s said and done, I find it difficult to condemn Goldstein, even when he is being particularly annoying, striking statesmanlike attitudes as “Melvyn of Tibet” (as he has been dubbed by another Tibetologist). For right here in Dharamshala we have the senior-most minister of the Dalai Lama (and older brother), Gyalo Thondup, now openly urging Tibetans to give up independence and live under Chinese rule. Gyalo Thondup has also reprimanded Tibetans in Canada and the United States for campaigning against MFN status for China and for organising boycotts of Chinese goods manufactured in slave-labour camps. Goldstein at his self-seeking and arrogant worst is a less reprehensible figure.

Before concluding, I would like to say that though the subject of this article has obliged me to discuss the opinions of David Irving alongside those of Goldstein, maybe too substantial a comparison should not be drawn between the two. Irving, however monstrous and hateful his political views, is admittedly a genuine and accomplished historian. Goldstein, on the other hand, is an anthropologist attempting to write history, and his works clearly demonstrate the limits of such a fundamental perspective shift.

History is the first of the humanist disciplines while “Of all the modern social sciences, anthropology is”, according to Edward Said, “the one historically most closely tied to colonialism” (since it was often the case that anthropologists and ethnologists advised colonial rulers on the manners and mores of native peoples). The structural-anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss referred to his chosen profession as “the handmaiden of colonialism”.

Of course anthropology has come a long way since sahibs in pith helmets disdainfully measured (with oversize callipers) the skulls of “Hottentots”, but in Goldstein’s rationalisations of Chinese colonial rule in Tibet one gets a sense of what the real purpose of anthropology had been, not so very long ago. Yet it must certainly be recognized that Goldstein is a scholar of substantial accomplishment, probably leading the field in Tibetan studies in quantity of research work, though lacking breadth of vision, sensitivity and moral integrity for original and insightful interpretation.

Whenever a victorious Roman general was permitted a public triumph by the Senate, a slave held a jewelled Etruscan crown over his head during the procession and occasionally whispered in his ear a warning against hubris. I feel that a similar arrangement would be beneficial to Prof. Goldstein whenever he felt tempted to dismiss, in speech or in print, the truth of China’s crimes in Tibet. The message of the whispered admonition could, of course, be one more germane to the occasion, perhaps in Goldstein’s case the somewhat manifest observation that “suffering is not the exclusive preserve of one people”.

May 1992
Tibetan Review

* * *

References notes:

1. In Surviving the Killing Fields, Haing S. Ngor, the Cambodian doctor who also acted in the film The Killing Fields, writes: “Except for their dark skins, everything about the Khmer Rouge was alien, from China. They had borrowed their ideology from Mao — like the concept of the Great Leap Forward. Sending the intellectuals to the countryside to learn from the peasants was an idea of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Their ak-47s and their olive green caps and their trucks were Chinese. Even the music they played from the loudspeakers was Chinese, with Khmer words.”

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