A secret report obtained by TIN documents mass arrests, political executions
and man-made starvation in Tibet in the early 1960s, and shows that the top
Tibetans who collaborated with the Chinese had deep misgivings about Chinese
policies in Tibet, some of which have recently re-emerged.
The report attributes mass starvation among Tibetans at the time to government
directives, and, four years before the Cultural Revolution, expresses fears
that Chinese policies were aimed at the eradication of religion and could lead
to the elimination of Tibetans as a distinct people.
The document is possibly the most extensive contemporary criticism of Chinese
Communist policies ever submitted to the leadership, other than from within
the Party, and is said to have been described by Mao Zedong as "a poisoned
arrow shot at the Party by reactionary feudal overlords". It was later judged
to have exceeded the criticism levelled at the party by the famous 10,000
character letter of General Peng Dehuai which led to his downfall in 1959.
The report was written by the former Panchen Lama, the most important
religious leader remaining in Tibet as well as the head of the then Tibetan
government, who presented it to China's Premier, Zhou Enlai, on 18th May,
1962. For some three months Li Weihan, head of China's United Front
Department, took initial steps to implement the report's suggestions, but in
August that year Mao called for the resumption of class struggle and in
October Li was criticised for his links with the Panchen Lama. In the same
month the Panchen Lama was ordered to undertake a self criticism, and a year
later was subjected to a 50 day long struggle session in Lhasa before being
sent to Beijing, where he spent 14 of the following 15 years in detention or
under virtual house arrest.
The Panchen Lama was fully rehabilitated only in 1988, the year before he
died. His report, known as "the 70,000 Character Petition", remains secret and
has never before been seen outside inner Party circles in China. Its release
will have wide implications in Tibet, where it will undermine any claims that
the Panchen Lama was an unquestioning follower of the Communist Party. The
Party is currently involved in controversial attempts to force Tibetans to
accept an 8 year old child whom it has unilaterally declared to be the Panchen
Lama's successor, and to reform the thinking of monks and nuns.
Publication of the 1962 report, whose proposals were in effect implemented in
1980 by the Chinese reformer Hu Yaobang, could also have impact on leadership
politics in China, where Hu's successor Zhao Ziyang remains under house arrest
Mass Arrests and Starvation
The 120 page document, divided into eight sections, gives details of the
situation in all Tibetan-inhabited areas after inspection tours there by the
Panchen Lama in 1961 and early 1962. One of its major criticisms was the
excessive punishment imposed by the authorities to avenge the 1959 Uprising in
Tibet. "We have no way of knowing how many have been arrested. In each area
10,000 or more have been arrested. Good and bad, innocent or guilty, they have
all been arrested, contrary to any legal system that exists anywhere in the
world. ... In some areas the majority of men have been arrested and jailed so
that most of the work is done by women, old people and children," says the
It alleges that there was a policy of collective punishment, by which Tibetans
had been executed because their relatives were involved in the uprising, and
it accuses officials of deliberately subjecting political prisoners to harsh
conditions so that they would die. "Even family members of the rebels were
ordered to be killed. ... Officials deliberately put people in jail under
conditions which they are not used to so that there were a large number of
abnormal deaths", it says.
The primary concern of the report, however, was to persuade the Beijing
leadership to stop Tibetans dying from starvation, especially in Eastern
Tibet, where communes had already been established. "Above all you have to
guarantee that the people will not die from starvation," says the petition's
final paragraph, addressing Premier Zhou.
"In many parts of Tibet people have starved to death.. . . In some places,
whole families have perished and the death rate is very high. This is very
abnormal, horrible and grave. In the past Tibet lived in a dark barbaric
feudalism but there was never such a shortage of food, especially after
Buddhism had spread," the Panchen Lama wrote. "The masses in the Tibetan areas
were living in conditions of such extreme poverty that the old and young
mostly starved to death or were so weak that they had no resistance to disease
and died," he adds.
He noted that, as a result of the decision to force people to eat in communal
kitchens, people were allowed a ration of around 5 oz (180 gms) of grain per
day, supplemented by grass, leaves and tree bark. "This terrible ration is not
enough to sustain life and people are forced to suffer terrible pangs of
hunger," he wrote, adding that people were still being forced to do hard
labour, especially released prisoners. "There was never such an event in the
history of Tibet. People could not even imagine such horrible starvation in
their dreams. In some areas if one person catches a cold, then it spreads to
hundreds and large numbers simply die."
In a crucial passage the Panchen Lama makes it clear that these deaths were a
result of official policies, not of any natural disasters, as Mao was claiming
to his foreign visitors, a claim still accepted by some western sinologists.
"In Tibet from 1959-1961, for two years almost all animal husbandry and
farming stopped. The nomads have no grain to eat and the farmers have no meat,
butter or salt. It is prohibited to transport any food or material, people are
even stopped from going around and their personal tsampa [roast barley] bags
are confiscated and many people are struggled against in public," he says. He
goes on to describe a meeting he convened in Qinghai where villagers told him
deaths could have been avoided and good harvests achieved "if the state
allowed us to eat our fill".
1959-61: Famine in China
The famine which the Panchen Lama documented in his report had spread
throughout China as a result of the Great Leap Forward in 1958, when Mao
Zedong ordered the peasants to set up communes as part of a radical
acceleration of the advance towards utopian communism. By the time of the
Lushan Plenum, a party meeting in August 1959, pragmatic leaders led by Liu
Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping had already begun to curb the excesses of Mao's
programme, but starvations was widespread in China for two more years. The
70,000 Character Petition showed that starvation still existed in Qinghai in
1962, and other evidence shows that in Kham, the adjoining Tibetan area within
Sichuan, it continued until 1965.
Although the Great Leap was officially acknowledged in the Party's landmark
1981 "Resolution on Party History" as a "serious mistake", it made no mention
of famine, referring only to "serious losses to our country and people".
Official Chinese texts which are publicly available still avoid the subject
and refer obliquely to "the three difficult years" without giving further
An internal report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 1989 included
a "conservative estimate" which placed the national death toll from the famine
at 15 million, while western scholars such as the demographer Judith Bannister
have estimated the total deaths in the famine at around 30 million.
A report by the Economic System Research Institute in Beijing in the early
1980s found that 900,000 people died during the famine in the Panchen Lama's
home province of Qinghai - 45% of the population - and 9 million in Sichuan,
according to research by the journalist Jasper Becker, author of a major study
of the famine issued earlier this year. "No other group in China suffered more
bitterly from the famine than the Tibetans," says Becker, adding that famine
remained endemic in central Tibet for the next 20 years.
Becker and others argue that the famine, during some of which China was
exporting grain, was only possible because of extreme secrecy within China and
because of the readiness of some western scholars, journalists and politicians
- notably Francois Mitterand - to accept Chinese claims that the problems were
a result of natural disasters and of withdrawal of Soviet aid. "Death by
hunger has ceased in China. Food shortages and severe ones there may have
been, but no starvation," wrote Felix Greene, an influential British
journalist whose brother ran the BBC, after a tour of China in 1960.
The Panchen Lama's petition appears to confirm the findings of Becker and
others that China has concealed a man-made famine in the years after the Great
Leap. The petition also substantiates some of the allegations made by Tibetan
refugees at the time, openly ridiculed in the West until recently, and appears
to support some of the findings of the 1960 report by the International
Commission of Jurists which concluded that there was prima facie evidence of
genocide in Tibet.
Threat to Religion and Nationality
The Jurists' report was widely condemned by Greene and others, but the Panchen
Lama also expresses in his petition concerns that Chinese policies were
threatening the survival of the Tibetans as a nationality. "The population of
Tibet has been seriously reduced. Not only is this damaging to the prosperity
of the Tibetan race but it poses a grave danger to the very existence of the
Tibetan race and could even push the Tibetans to the last breath," he wrote,
in a passage said to have been expressly rejected by Zhou Enlai.
The Panchen Lama had been encouraged to write his report by Li Weihan, of the
United Front, who reported directly to Deng Xiaoping and who may have hoped to
use it to mobilise support against ultra-leftists throughout China. But other
Tibetan leaders, including Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, had pleaded with the Panchen
Lama not to submit it in writing, according to a biography published in
Beijing by the Tibetologist Jamphel Gyatso in 1989. The Panchen Lama, who was
only 24 years old at the time, was not a Party member and faced considerable
risks, especially since the relatively liberal climate of the previous year
had already receded, and since steps had already been taken to address his
complaints after he had raise many of them directly with Mao. But he still
decided to write a criticism of Chinese policy which went beyond the immediate
reporting of the famine and of the arrests.
Thus the petition includes strong attacks on China's nationality and religious
policies, and even suggests that they too could lead to the extinction of the
Tibetans as a people. "If the language, clothes and customs of a nationality
are taken away then that nationality will vanish and be transformed into
another nationality. How can we guarantee that Tibetans will not be turned
into another race?" he asked.
It was this which was regarded as the most dangerous point made in the
document, together with his critique of religious policy. Although he fully
supported efforts to reform monasteries, and blamed all abuses on local
leftists who had ignored instructions by the Beijing leadership, the Panchen
Lama suggested that the Party was trying to eliminate religion. He insisted
that religion was an absolute right and implied that any attempt to remove it
altogether would lead to serious unrest, if not rebellion:
"Of the 2,500 monasteries which had once existed [in what is now the TAR] only
70 were left and 93 per cent of the monks and nuns had been forced out," he
wrote, four years before the Cultural Revolution, which is usually blamed for
the closure of monasteries in Tibet.
"The cadres are using a few people to denounce religion and mistakenly taking
this as the views of the whole Tibetan masses, with the result that they
mistakenly think the conditions for the elimination of religion itself are
ripe. ... Therefore the enlightenment-endowing Buddhist religion that
flourishes throughout Tibet seems to be on the verge of being erased in front
of our eyes from the land of Tibet. There is no way that I and 90% of the
Tibetans will tolerate this".
The petition has considerable contemporary relevance. In 1980 the Panchen Lama
met with the Chinese reformer Hu Yaobang, then Party Secretary, and
congratulated him for the reforms Hu had introduced in Tibet that year. "The
Panchen Lama told Hu how moved he had been by his reforms, and noted that if
the suggestions in the 70,000 Character Petition had been implemented when
they were proposed the problems in Tibet would not have continued," recalls
Tseten Wangchuk, a Tibetan journalist now working in the US who was present at
a debriefing session on the 1980 meeting between Hu and the Panchen. Party
criticism of Hu's reforms led to his demotion in 1987, and to major unrest in
China in that year and 1989.
The Panchen Lama's 1962 petition was based on the premise that the special
characteristics of Tibet should be taken into account by policymakers. This
premise was central to Deng Xiaoping's policies in China during the 1980s and
allowed the Panchen Lama to introduce many liberalisations in Tibet. In early
1992 the Party withdrew the "special characteristics" concession and, in the
current efforts to limit religious worship, to appoint political loyalists to
monastery committees, and to restrict language teaching, has since been
reversing some of the religious and cultural liberalisations initiated by Hu
and requested by the Panchen Lama.
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