A History of Modern Tibet. Volume 2: The Calm before the Storm, 1951-1955

By Barnett, Robert | China Perspectives, July 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

A History of Modern Tibet. Volume 2: The Calm before the Storm, 1951-1955


Barnett, Robert, China Perspectives


Melvyn C. Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet. Volume 2: The Calm before the Storm, 1951-1955, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2007, 638 pp.

Melvyn Goldstein, the leading Western scholar of twentieth century Tibetan language and political history, has always been exceptionally productive, and his latest work is a 600-page study of just half a decade - the first five years of the incorporation of Tibet into the People's Republic. Much of his work has been controversial, with nationalist critics among Tibetans often impugning his intentions instead of taking on the much more productive task of trying to match his prodigious scholarship and knowledge. The climate of debate has improved as more Tibetan exile scholars have emerged, and the current volume is likely to stimulate important and productive debate rather than calumny.

It also contains much that will be new, perhaps startling, even to readers familiar with this critical period in Tibetan and Chinese history, for the early 1950s were the only years when Chinese efforts to win Tibetan cooperation were - almost - stunningly successful. In 1954 the Communist generals stationed in Lhasa persuaded the Dalai Lama, then 19 years old, to travel to Beijing, where Mao lavished on him attention and praise that were earnestly reciprocated. Goldstein sympathetically chronicles the admiration that the young Lama developed for China's leader at that time, something that the older Dalai Lama has often since discussed. Goldstein also shows the extraordinary lengths to which Party officials went to assuage Tibetan doubts, especially in terms of protocol. We learn, for example, that after their first meeting Mao walked the Dalai Lama to his car and opened the door for him. But we are also shown the astonishing importance attached by the Chinese to winning over the Dalai Lama: when the then Party Secretary of Sichuan, Li Jingquan, refused to greet the Dalai Lama (who was furious) on his arrival in Chengdu in 1955, the Party's Central Committee immediately had Premier Zhou Enlai fly to the city on his way back from the Bandung Conference to repair the damage. On his return to Lhasa, the Tibetan leader gave his first public political speech (the date and venue are not given), showing a positive commitment to the new situation, but carefully placing the emphasis on equality and gradualism: "The Chinese nationality cadres living here came to help us because we couldn't manage secular matters well. They didn't come to be our lord." Within five years, trust between the two sides had collapsed and has yet to be restored.

The Calm before the Storm hints at some of the factors that in the author's view led to the breakdown of relations. Its first part, drawing on the pioneering work of Tsering Shakya, John Kenneth Knaus,(l) and the previous volume of Goldstein's history, The Demise of the Lamaist State,(2) shows that, except for the coterie around the Panchen Lama, Tibetans were forced unwillingly into China's embrace. The British and the Indians had avoided responsibility when faced with the Tibetans' last-minute effort to get international support in 1950 (a phenomenon that has only gotten worse: in 1950 the British described their treaty-bound recognition of Tibet's autonomous status as wrapped in "legal obscurity" (67), whereas in 2008 they said it was "anachronistic" and "outdated"). The United States secretly offered support to the Tibetans, but, as Tibetan officials noticed immediately, the American letters were ambiguous, always conditional on Indian support, and never signed or on headed paper. This led to the reluctant but inevitable decision of the Tibetan leadership to finally accept the 17 Point Agreement with China in 1951.

If the first part of the book describes the dysfunctional response of the international community to China's absorption of Tibet, the second part reveals the intense internal conflicts within both the Tibetan and the Chinese elites in Lhasa. …

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