Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy: China's Cold War and the People of the Tibetan Borderlands

Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy: China's Cold War and the People of the Tibetan Borderlands

Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy: China's Cold War and the People of the Tibetan Borderlands

Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy: China's Cold War and the People of the Tibetan Borderlands

Synopsis

In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa, leaving the People's Republic of China with a crisis on its Tibetan frontier. Sulmaan Wasif Khan tells the story of the PRC's response to that crisis and, in doing so, brings to life an extraordinary cast of characters: Chinese diplomats appalled by sky burials, Guomindang spies working with Tibetans in Nepal, traders carrying salt across the Himalayas, and Tibetan Muslims rioting in Lhasa.

What Chinese policymakers confronted in Tibet, Khan argues, was not a "third world" but a "fourth world" problem: Beijing was dealing with peoples whose ways were defined by statelessness. As it sought to tighten control over the restive borderlands, Mao's China moved from a lighter hand to a harder, heavier imperial structure. That change triggered long-lasting shifts in Chinese foreign policy. Moving from capital cities to far-flung mountain villages, from top diplomats to nomads crossing disputed boundaries in search of pasture, this book shows Cold War China as it has never been seen before and reveals the deep influence of the Tibetan crisis on the political fabric of present-day China.

Excerpt

It was the birds that broke his heart.

When the People’s Liberation Army flooded Lhasa in 1959, food grew scarce; the city was not equipped to supply so many people. Food prices rose, and the soldiers ordered people to start killing animals: yaks, dogs, and birds. There was a lake behind the Potala Palace where black-necked cranes—the black-necked cranes that so many Tibetans saw as symbols of peace—used to nest. These had been slaughtered. He had been told that he too must bring in his share of food. So he and his friends had somehow caught six nestlings, and put them on the ground. But then, they had not known how to kill them; they had never killed before. Finally, someone had produced a rock—but this he would rather not remember. The soldiers later told him that the birds were not large enough anyway.

Now he is climbing among the mountains, along paths unknown to the soldiers. Below, he can see the Lhasa River and how the geese are gone. The snow is thick, but in Tibet, the sun blazes hard and keeps you warm.

He pulls out his radio, and starts fumbling for the station he wants. The broadcast is in Tibetan, but it comes from Taiwan. Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Guomindang in the republic, is urging the Tibetan people to rebel against the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

▀ The soldiers did not see the boy in the mountains that day. But as the stories told in this book show, the non-state actors who peopled the Tibetan frontier had a dramatic impact on the nature and diplomacy of the PRC. The nomads in search of grasslands for their herds, the traders swapping goods and gossip in the markets of the Himalayas, the spies who brought anticommunist propaganda to . . .

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