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TIN News Update / 5 October, 1996 / total no of pages: 3 ISSN 1355-3313

Secret Report by the Panchen Lama Criticises China

Mass Arrests and Starvation | 1959-61: Famine in China | Threat to Religion and Nationality

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 in Beijing.

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 report.

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 details.

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.

- END -

Copyright 1997 Spencer Sundell

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