Anna Louise Strong Reference Archive

When serfs stood up in Tibet


When rebellion flamed in Lhasa in mid-March of 1959 and the defeated rebels fled to India taking with them the Dalai Lama, the world press handled it as a ruthless suppression of Tibet. An overwhelming Chinese army was pictured — one newspaper ran it up to several hundred thousand — massacring the Tibetan nation, with "fifty thousand armed men in a man-hunt for the god-king" across the Tibetan wilds.

Even before I left Peking I knew that this was nonsense. Apei had told me that no attempt whatever had been made to detain the Dalai Lama, since "to try to take him from armed rebels would have endangered his life". This was borne out by the complete indifference shown in Peking at his departure to India; it seemed to be felt that his absence would make easier the coming reforms.

In Lhasa we learned that the total number of armed rebels had been estimated at about 20,000, mostly concentrated in Lhasa and Loka, and that the total PLA force in those parts of Tibet where rebellion occurred had been some 5,000 men. Specifically, in Lhasa itself there had been only ten companies of PLA infantry, two of which were kept throughout on reserve, and one artillery regiment, an indication of some fifteen hundred men. These had been enough to put down some 7,000 armed rebels in forty-seven hours.

Casualty statistics were unavailable but the "wholesale slaughter" in the Western press had left in August just sixty wounded rebels in the Lhasa General Hospital, which had handled all rebel casualties except those that could walk home from field clinics. Later, in a private dinner with army chiefs, I was told that rebel casualties, both killed and wounded, might have reached six hundred in Lhasa. The figure seemed borne out by the general appearance of the city, where a few buildings, damaged in battle, were being repaired; by the brisk appearance of citizens, who referred to men killed in battle as special individuals, not as masses; and by the mood of joyous harvest everywhere.

The victory was far greater in importance for the future than the size of battles or casualties indicates. When four of the six kaloons, who composed the kashag, Tibet's local government, led rebellion and later fled into India, they freed Peking from the 1951 pledge to leave the political structure of Tibet unchanged. When seventy percent of Tibet's 642 noble families and 2,136 monasteries joined the rebel forces, yet proved unable to enlist more than 20,000 rebels, half of whom were obviously unwilling, the dominance of Tibet's ruling class over the souls of Tibetans was broken. Thus the rebellion, and its defeat, with the dispersal of the leading serf-owners and their flight into India, opened the way to the quick abolition of serfdom. The suppression in Lhasa of what was hardly more than a large scale riot, became a watershed in history between a thousand years of serf society and a future in which Tibet proceeds towards socialism.

The rebellion was thus seen to be no "national conflict", but an uprising by serf-owners who were unable to mobilize followers. But if it failed to become a civil war, even dragging in finally the intervention of foreign powers, as the rebels clearly intended, in a war to separate Tibet from China, this was because Peking's strategy was based not only on arms, but on careful political planning, and especially because in the eight years after the 1951 Agreement, Peking had built support among the people of Tibet.

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When the serf-owning rulers of a society in which serfdom had been the way of life for a thousand years, agreed in 1951 to move towards socialism under the leadership of Peking, the stage was clearly set for a long struggle. This must have been known to both sides from the start. Yet Peking's Communists and Tibet's serf-owners both signed that 1951 Agreement, and the Dalai Lama wired Mao Tse-tung that Tibet's "officials, monks and people", were giving it unanimous support. Both sides had reason for postponing struggle, both counted on the changes time might be made to bring.

Tibet's ruling nobles, knowing their army defeated in Chamdo, gained through the Agreement continued control of Tibet's local government, for Peking pledged to "leave unchanged the political structure, the powers of the Dalai Lama, the income of the monasteries" and not to "use compulsion for reform". They counted on preventing or delaying reform through their control of Tibet's government, monasteries and people, whom they owned, body and soul, as serfs. They played for time in which Peking's policies might change or be corrupted, or foreign powers might act against China or might at least give aid and arms to rebellion in Tibet. They began at once to work for this.

Peking also needed time. The People's Liberation Army had beaten the Tibetan Army but had not "won Tibet". It had won from Tibet's local government the recognition that Tibet was part of "the motherland of China", and the right to place the PLA in frontier posts towards India and Nepal as "the national army". This was the first essential at the time, for in 1951 American troops were fighting Chinese in Korea and off Taiwan and threatening to fight in Indo-China, while Washington was raising the question of "Tibet's independence" as Britain had done for decades, as a means of detaching Tibet from China. The immediate need was to secure China's territorial sovereignty with Tibetan support. For this Peking postponed reforms in Tibet for an indefinite number of years, while binding the Tibetan nobles to eventual reform.

Peking knew that the serf-owning nobles hated the idea of any reform of serfdom, and hardly dreamed what socialism was; that even the serfs, hungry and tortured as they might be, were bound in soul by age-old suspicion of the Hans and by a religion which taught that their misery was direct result of their karma, a destiny decreed by their sins in a past incarnation, and therefore to be borne with patience in the hope of a better next incarnation. Tibet's serfs dared not sit down in the same room with nobles, nor face them directly on the road; they had no dream of what "freedom" might be. Peking counted on the political and economic measures that would slowly knit Tibet to the rest of China and on winning at least part of the nobles to the knowledge that even for them, serfdom did not offer a good life, and that they might better sell their estates to the central government. Most of all, Peking counted on the changes that would grow in the souls of serfs through contact, even distant, with China's dynamic life.

So, from the very "unanimous acceptance" of the 1951 Agreement, both sides began to prepare for future conflict for the loyalties of the Tibetans. Peking began with the behavior of the People's Liberation Army, with the great highways, that knit Tibet to the motherland of China, not only in a military but in a political and economic sense, with hospitals, schools, experimental farms, seed loans without interest, free gifts of better farm tools to peasants. The serf-owners prepared by anti-Han agitation, by rumors that the hospitals poisoned, that the schools endangered the soul, by withholding land from the experimental farms and even from the roads. When these measures failed to halt the slow march of progress, the serf-owners turned to conspiracy and promoted revolts, first in the Tibetan areas of adjoining provinces and finally in Lhasa itself.

Even before the battle of Chamdo, Peking's strategy began with instructions given to the PLA in Szechuan, as they prepared for Tibet. In the strategy of winning indifferent or even initially hostile groups, the PLA has long experience; this helped it to win all over China. In Szechuan in 1950, the PLA troops were instructed, not only in the general attitudes of friendship and equality towards minority nationalities, but in the special ways they must act in Tibet. I was told of this instruction by Captain Yang who went from Szechuan to Lhasa in those years.

"We learned enough of the Tibetan language for first contacts; we learned the polite greetings for different social classes, the proper way to pass shrines on the road and the way to respect the Tibetan religion. We must not enter any religious places, neither the monasteries nor the special rooms or corners in the homes where the religious images are kept". The "hardest discipline" was the absolute prohibition of hunting or fishing anywhere in Tibet. This was hard because food was scarce and transport difficult on the long way, and open hills and rivers were full of game and fish. But the PLA was forbidden this indulgence because the Tibetan religion forbids the killing of animals, and though Living Buddhas evade this precept, the PLA must not evade.

"This discipline was severe but very useful," said Captain Yang. "Our reputation went ahead of us; we were even called 'the army of Buddhas'. This was one cause why part of the Tibetan Army came over to us in Chamdo, because we respected their beliefs."

The second move in Peking's strategy was the eight months' halt of the PLA in Chamdo, awaiting the 1951 Agreement. For when at last the troops moved into Tibet towards Lhasa, they were able to stop at every populated point on the way and explain that they were the "national army" by agreement of the Dalai Lama with Peking. They behaved with greater consideration towards the people than any army had before, not only in that they abstained from rape and loot, but in that they paid actual money for transport service, which in Tibet was usually done by forced labor, on orders of a government paper. The PLA did not ask, and did not know, whether the money they paid for draft animals and porters actually went to the serfs who did the work, or whether their masters took it. What was important was that the serfs knew the PLA paid money, and the idea of wages became a new idea, undermining the old habit of forced labor.

On reaching Lhasa, the PLA was given a formal banquet by the kashag, but underground sabotage against the PLA at once began. Fuel for its cooking was unavailable. When the PLA tried to raise its own food, the kashag made it hard to buy or lease land, though wasteland lay everywhere. By persistence, the PLA secured land of poor quality, and by the third year was able to raise its own vegetables. It never secured enough land to grow all its own grain but imported this with difficulty from other provinces of China.

The third move in Peking's strategy was the building of three great highways, connecting Tibet with the rest of China, militarily, politically and economically. Its advantages for Tibetans have been noted in the previous chapter, the improved communications, the consequent lowering in prices of consumer goods, like tea and textiles, the wages paid to serfs. The schools, hospitals, experimental farms, seed loans and farm implements have also been noted. All these new developments were sabotaged by the kashag. The two primary schools in Lhasa never filled up with pupils, the experimental farms had difficulty securing land, the hospitals were beset by rumors that "the Han doctors poison patients", the seed loans were often diverted from the peasants to their masters, the farm implements were put into warehouses on the plea that "iron poisons the soil". Yet despite the slow rate of progress, as people told me, "the consciousness of the people increased".

Open opposition to Peking began in 1953 when a kaloon named Lokongwa, led a demand that the PLA and all Hans be expelled from Tibet. The Dalai Lama dismissed Lokongwa and the latter went into India, where he organized in Kalimpong the foreign contacts for future rebellion, securing air-drops from Chiang Kai-shek and an undisclosed amount of aid from sources in India. In 1954 the Dalai Lama and Panchen Erdeni visited Peking as deputies to the session of the National Congress. They toured various parts of China and the Dalai Lama expressed much pleasure in the "motherland's great achievements". This was the time when he wrote that extravagant "Hymn to Mao Tse-tung", comparing his deeds with those of "Brahma, creator of the world". On his return to Lhasa by the newly built Szechuan-Tibet Highway in early 1955, members of the Dalai Lama's retinue dropped off in west Szechuan and toured the Tibetan monasteries there to organize rebellion.

This "Kangting rebellion" broke in winter of 1955-56, and took the form of murdering central government officials and Han citizens, there being no PLA forces in the area. As soon as any PLA troops arrived, they easily put down the rebels, but these fled into deeper hills and eventually into Chamdo. It was estimated that there were 10,000 armed rebels at the highest point. Arms were easy to get, for at least 50,000 rifles had been left in that area from the warlord battles between Tibetan and Szechuan warlords. The few air-drops from Chiang Kai-shek of American weapons and radio transmitters were hardly needed, except for the sense of foreign support they gave the rebels. The Szechuan-Chamdo rebellion was "basically suppressed" by the end of 1956, though isolated groups would remain as "bandits" as long as any monastery fed them, until local "people's control" was organized. The bulk of the defeated rebels moved into Tibet and lived by looting the peasants and by connivance of the kashag until they joined the Lhasa rebellion. They were the Khampas, or Sikang troops, cavalry, wild, undisciplined, accustomed to living by loot.

A later, smaller rebellion broke out in spring of 1958 in the Tibetan areas of Chinghai and Kansu, led by monasteries and pasture lords against the "democratic reform" in the pastures. At this stage, the "democratic reform" went no further than reducing the excessive land rents and usury charged by the monasteries, and removing the monasteries' right to maintain courts and jails. After the rebellion was suppressed, the "democratic reform" went further, giving "freedom of person" to lamas, whereupon a fairly large part of the lamas left the monasteries and went home to take up land.

As these revolts were suppressed, documents were found that showed them to have been inspired from Lhasa and organized through the monasteries as a "holy war" against Communism. Printed curses against the Chinese Communists, found on dead rebels and behind Buddha pictures in monasteries, connected the rebellion with printing facilities in India. An organization emerged called the "Four Rivers and Six Ranges". When located in Lhasa, it claimed to be a fund-raising appeal for the Dalai Lama; it was later found to be the organ of terrorism and sabotage and air-drops for rebellion in Tibet.

Rebellion moved in 1958 into Tibet proper. Airdrops of American weapons began in Loka, a large area southeast of Lhasa known as "the granary of Tibet" whose long border with India facilitated foreign contacts and whose food supply gave rations for armed forces. Armed rebels from Loka, including Khampas, began raiding the PLA transport of lumber, which was being brought to build a new power-plant in Lhasa. Complaints also poured into the PLA headquarters that the rebels were terrorizing, looting and raping the Tibetan people.

"All such complaints were referred to the kashag, which was the government of Tibet, responsible for local law and order," I was told by all PLA officers. "The kashag always agreed to handle them, but actually was conniving with the rebels."

This scrupulous respect for the kashag was taken by Tibet's upper class as a sign of Peking's weakness. In February 1959 when pilgrims from all Tibet began pouring into Lhasa for the Great Prayer Festival, the Monlam, which lasts three weeks and begins the Tibetan New Year, the provocations grew bolder. A member of the kashag demanded the right to occupy the State Trading Office of the central government. When this was refused, the Tibetan Army set up machine-guns, trained on the Communist Party headquarters. Thus the stage was set for the launching of open rebellion.

It began March 10th in the morning. The Dalai Lama had fixed that date to attend a theatrical performance at the Military Area Command of the PLA. Camera-men, tape-recorders and leading functionaries waited outside the auditorium for the honored guest, and a water-cart sprinkled the road to lay the dust for the Dalai Lama's car. He failed to appear but a radio-mechanic came running to stammer: "Reactionaries are holding the Dalai Lama in his summer palace in Jewel Park. They are killing progressives. People who live near the Park are in panic, seeking a place to hide."

Down the road came armed, mounted Tibetans, leading a horse on whose back had been thrown the bloody corpse of a prominent progressive noble, exposed to terrify the people. A Tibetan employee in the Central Government offices sprang to a sub-machine-gun, shouting: "We cannot endure this lawlessness. I will fight".

"We have no orders yet", said a Han, restraining his Tibetan comrade with difficulty. This set the tone of disciplined restraint which was to last for ten days more.

A meeting of leading rebels, from the kashag and the three big monasteries, held on the 10th in Jewel Park, declared Tibet's independence from China, and wired the announcement to Kalimpong, India, asking that the news be spread. Then for ten days the terror built up in Lhasa. The rebels went around conscripting men into their army under pain of death. They dug fortifications in parks and on the hills. They demolished the mosque in Lhasa in a nationalist frenzy against Moslems. On the 15th came the report that the rebels had raped all the nuns in a nunnery near the Jokhang. Other reports of atrocities poured into the PLA and the PLA kept referred them to the kashag, demanding that the kashag act to restore order.

The People's Liberation Army itself remained in barracks, closing its compound gate. Inside the barracks, it made dugouts, awaiting orders from Peking. The various civilian offices of the central government in nine or ten different places — the state trade, the transport company, the postoffice, the bank, the school and hospital, the working committee of the Communist Party, all closed the gates of their walled compounds and began making dugouts in their yards. None of the civilians asked for help from the troops or sought refuge with the PLA; they had weapons and training sufficient for the first defense of their compound walls. Their Tibetan employees, however, asked permission to bring their families into the compounds from the city, where the rebels raged through the streets. This was granted and the Tibetan employees with their families camped in the auditorium and the office buildings.

On the 16th a news-photographer went around in an armored car and took photographs of rebel demonstrations and the fortifications they were digging. He also got pictures of a man whose eyes had been gouged out by the rebels because he had helped the PLA transport, and another whose nose was cut off for the same reason. These were on stretchers, being taken to hospital. In general, the hospital was closed as the out-patients, who usually numbered 700 to 1,000 daily at this period, had stopped coming. They could not have got through the rebel-held streets.

During these days three letters were sent by General Tan Kuan-san of the Military Area Command to the Dalai Lama in his summer palace and three letters were sent from the Dalai Lama in reply to General Tan Kuan-san. The first letter was carried by Living Buddha Jaltsolin, the Dalai Lama's reader. He reached the Dalai Lama but was then imprisoned by the rebels in the Jewel Park. The remaining letters were handled by Apei, in contact with different lamas in attendance on the Dalai Lama; they were later acknowledged by the Dalai Lama in India.

The letters claimed that the Dalai Lama was detained in Jewel Park by the rebels against his will, and depicted him in distress and anger, sometimes expecting to "bring the reactionaries to order" and again proposing to "come in secret" to General Tan "as soon as I have people I can trust".

On the 18th word came that the Dalai Lama had left Lhasa. "The rebels kidnapped him last night", it was said. The exact conditions in which he left were still a mystery, but it was known that he remained for several days in Loka with the rebels, and after the rebels were defeated in Lhasa, he left with them for India. In India, he said that he came of his own free will. Whether he was throughout the leader of rebellion, as Nehru, in receiving him, seemed to assume, and the letters he sent to General Tan were deliberate deceit, or whether, a tool of stronger, older men, he wavered, dreamed that his godhead might win without battle, and later yielded to defeat on the road to India, was being debated. In any case, he left Lhasa with the rebel leaders before the battle was joined, awaited its outcome in Loka, and did not return.

From India in following months several anti-China statements were issued in the Dalai Lama's name, either by his entourage of reactionary serf-owners or by his older brothers, whose connections with Washington and Taiwan were hardly concealed, but some in the presence of the Dalai Lama himself. Of these the strongest was the June 30th statement, handed out as a press release in English to world reporters in the Dalai Lama's presence. It denounced every act of Peking towards Tibet from the 1951 Agreement to the present, demanded an independent and "Greater Tibet", and refused even to deal with Peking directly, since he would not trust Peking's word, but would only deal through a third power, presumably India. It was so extreme that Western commentators said the Dalai Lama had chosen to "slam the door" against possible return to Tibet.

Peking's only response was to publish the charges, side by side with the dozens of very laudatory statements which the Dalai Lama had issued regarding China's policy in the past eight years. Peking gave him the benefit of the doubt and kept his posts and palaces waiting in case he should choose to return. Peking did not even deprive him of his titular post of Tibet's local government nor of his vice-chairmanship in the Standing Committee of China's Central Government. But his once great prestige in Tibet faded rapidly when he departed. [1]

The puzzle to me was not so much the Dalai Lama's action as the fact that the People's Liberation Army remained in its quarters for ten days from March 10th to 20th while the rebels raged through Lhasa, conscripting men under threat of death, raping, murdering, blinding. When I asked PLA men, as I did several times, the reply was always the same: "The kashag was still the lawful government and the people of Lhasa had not yet taken sides. In such situations our strategy is always never to start or develop the fighting but let the enemy start it and continue it until it is fully clear to all people who are the aggressors and the destroyers of law. Then, when we counter-attack, we have the people with us; their support shortens the fighting and lessens the casualties in the end. The rebels lost the people of Lhasa in those ten days."

The rebel artillery began their all-out attack at 3.40 a.m. before dawn on March 20th. Bursts of fire came from Potala Palace, from Jewel Park, from Iron Hill, the highest point in Lhasa. At once the whole city resounded with rifle and artillery fire. In all the compounds of the Hans the people awoke and remained awake till dawn. Rebels charged the walls of the compounds of the Transport Company and the Working Committee; they were repelled. Elsewhere the attack was only by artillery, and the people found refuge in the dugouts. Tibetan employees were saying: "When do we counter-attack? Is our artillery asleep?" One of the Han editors wrote in his diary before dawn: "The reactionary clique has finally chosen the road to self-destruction."

At 10 a.m., [2] on orders from Peking, the People's Liberation Army went into counter-attack, in assault by a single company straight up Iron Hill. This was the steepest and highest hill in Lhasa; the rebels had trenches and artillery on the sides and the top, and covering artillery from Potala Palace. By 1.30 p.m., Iron Hill was taken. Only a few rebels were here killed or captured; most of them ran away beyond the hill. The taking of this height by a single company was the fiercest fight in the entire conflict and it gave the PLA command of Lhasa. Members of the company told me how they went up.

Said Fu Lo-min: "I was squad leader in the first platoon. I dashed up with three men to take a house where the rebels had a machine-gun nest. The hill was very steep but in eight minutes we got on the roof, all four with automatics. Here I was hit in the leg by a bullet but continued to give command till other units stormed up and covered our advance. After we got on the roof we seized the machine-gun. It was British-made. The rebels threw away arms on the hill and ran. Most of the ones we met seemed to have been coerced." Fu gave as reason for the quick victory "good direction from our commanders, good support from the Tibetan people. They were coming right behind us bringing us food."

Chang, of the heavy machine-gun platoon, said: "Our task was to cover the units that took the hill. A heavy machine-gun is a strong force and with it we wiped out strong rebel points. At first we fired from the foot of the hill but after the hill was taken we went to the top to hold it. The local Tibetan people encouraged us and helped carry our equipment up to wipe out the bandits".

From Iron Hill the PLA dominated Jewel Park where the main force of 3,000 rebels was encamped. New companies now moved on Jewel Park and took it by seven that evening. Here the greater part of the rebels were captured; only a few were killed or got away. As twilight fell, the PLA posted a few troops to hold Iron Hill and Jewel Park and moved the bulk of its forces to surround the city of Lhasa for the night.

All day on the 21st, the PLA cleaned up rebel groups in Lhasa. Some surrendered quickly, some ran away and hid in people's houses, only a few fought hard. The hardest fighting of that day was at Ramogia Monastery which the rebels had turned into a fort. The PLA sent a small group into Ramogia for parley; the rebels killed some of them. After that the fighting was fierce. Ramogia was taken in a few hours, with some damage done to its front wall and a corner of roof.

By nightfall the only rebels holding out were in the Potala and Jokhang. So the PLA went over to a political campaign. The two kaloons who had remained loyal, Apei and Sampo Tsewang-rentzen, went with megaphones to call upon the rebels to surrender. If they surrendered, their lives were guaranteed. The rebels talked it over all night and came out at nine in the morning with hands in air. The camera-men were waiting to take pictures of the surrender.

Thus Lhasa was cleared of rebellion in forty-seven hours. "For the next two weeks", we were told by the army chiefs in Lhasa, "our troops fanned out around Lhasa for thirty miles, cleaning up rebels in the hills. Meantime the people of Lhasa, who had seen that we did not kill captives, were turning over to us the rebels who hid in the houses and whom they induced to surrender. By April 5th we had liquidated 5,600 rebel troops, some of them killed but most of them captured. We estimated that 1,400 had run away. We captured 79 artillery pieces with 20,000 shells, and 10,395 rifles with ten million rounds of ammunition! Weapons were from all countries, Britain, America, France, even old arms from Tsarist Russia."

The kashag was still recognized until March 28th as the lawful local government of Tibet, though four of its six members had led rebellion, and three of them had taken the Dalai Lama from Lhasa. It might still have been possible, after the rebel defeat, for the three kaloons to return with the Dalai Lama, state that they had only taken him out of the fighting, and make their peace with Peking. When they chose instead to proceed into India, the State Council in Peking abolished the local government of Tibet on March 28th, — two days before it would have been in India, issuing decrees from a foreign land, — and instructed the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region to take over its powers. Since this Committee had been formed in 1956, amid universal acclaim, for that very purpose, and the two loyal kaloons were among its members, the functions of government were continued without a break.

The Dalai Lama, as chairman of the Preparatory Committee, remained titular head of Tibet even in absence. The Panchen Erdeni, as first Vice-President, was asked to become Acting Chairman, "until the Dalai Lama's return." The Panchen accepted by wire from his seat in Shigatse in which no armed rebellion had occurred. He arrived in Lhasa by car on April 5th in the afternoon, was welcomed by dignitaries of army, state and religion and conducted to a "new palace" in Shirtsit Park, while the populace burned pine needles and prostrated themselves as he passed. The palaces of the Dalai Lama, the Potala and Jewel Park, which two weeks earlier had housed the rebels, lay empty in the sun.

Meantime the Panchen Erdeni went rapidly through the routine that established him in Lhasa: a banquet on April 6th given by military and political personages in his honor; ceremonial visits on the 7th to Jokhang and Ramogia Monasteries where he worshipped and recited sutras with two Living Buddhas as attendants and the opening session of the Preparatory Committee as the new local government where he presided as Acting Chairman on the 8th. Next morning he left by plane for Lanchow and thence to Peking as head of the Tibetan Delegation to the National People's Congress of China.

The People's Liberation Army now moved from Lhasa out into Tibet, to put down rebels in the name not only of the government of China, but also in the name of Tibet's new local government which, under the Panchen Erdeni, had declared for reform. Wherever the troops now went, they confiscated the great whips and torture instruments from the monasteries and manor-houses, and turned them into the county governments under military control. They announced that, on all the lands of the rebels, the harvest this year would go to those who sowed it, without rent or taxes. This was an emergency measure to promote the sowing but, as Apei told me: "It is the kind of measure from which one does not retreat." The PLA was giving out seed grain in quantities to peasants the rebels had looted.

On April 7th and 8th, the PLA crossed the Tsangpo River southeast of Lhasa, and moved into Loka, the rebel's main base. This great rectangle of grain land, with its sixteen supply routes into India and Bhutan, its air-drop in the center, and the wide, swift river guarding the north, was designed by the rebels as their "new capital", to supply a long guerrilla war all over Tibet. The rebel forces here were later found to have been some 12,000, almost twice as many as in Lhasa. The PLA forces here fought forty-seven engagements in two weeks, disposed of two thousand rebels — some killed, some wounded, but most of them captured — and occupied the four main towns.

An incident of that period shows the nature of the rebel forces. There were many high marches through mountains, and most of the PLA troops had frozen or blistered feet. Corporal Chou and Private Yen, falling behind their detachment because of bad feet, encountered a force of a hundred rebels. They took good positions with one sub-machine-gun, one rifle and some grenades. As the rebels advanced, the two men shot and killed three leaders and wounded another; on this the remaining ninety-six surrendered under a lesser leader, and turned over 90 horses, 29 rifles, 14 muskets and 76 swords, for which the PLA men figured they had "expended 26 sub-machine-gun bullets". The PLA men ordered them to load the weapons on the horses and then went off with the horses and two captives to lead them, to find their detachment, leaving the other ninety-four captives to await their return, under command of the leader who had surrendered. By dawn they caught up with their detachment, reported the battle, turned over the booty. Other PLA men then went back with the two captives and found the ninety-four rebel prisoners, who had been waiting all night. This episode, with its mixture of weapons, its totally passive rank and file, waiting for someone to lead them and feed them, indicates the morale of the conscripted serfs.

At the end of April, the PLA began the second phase of the Loka campaign, a political and military struggle combined. Notices were posted in the towns and meetings were held among the people, announcing that no captured rebels would be killed, that those who surrendered voluntarily would not even be imprisoned nor accused in public meetings of past misdeeds and rewards would be given for "meritorious deeds" in restoring order. The leader of the ninety-six who had surrendered was given a reward of one hundred yuan for "saving the cost of a battle". The townspeople and the peasants and the captured rebels themselves were urged to go into the hills and find the other rebels and induce them to surrender.

Fathers went to bring back sons, wives to bring back husbands, peasants to round up groups of neighbors whom they now saw as "deceived". The task was not without danger for rebels in the hills might shoot first without parley or might seize and torture the emissaries. But the local people knew their way around and had many successes; to them it became a matter of bringing home peasants who might otherwise become bandits. Thus a captured rebel company commander named Lobsang, now working for the PLA, went into the hills and brought over a leading rebel chief with 43 men. In another place seven hundred local people joined the PLA in a search of the hills. Among them was a woman of seventy, who said: "When you people come so far to help us clean up bandits, then everyone must help." In a place called Lhagyari, a girl tending sheep was approached by two rebels who asked her for "news of the PLA". When she replied that there were many PLA and they did not kill prisoners, the men asked her to lead them to the PLA. One of them then turned over a rifle and the other a sword. Within a month three thousand more rebels had been disbanded with the aid of the local people.

In reporting the campaign, the PLA estimated that there had been 12,000 armed rebels in Loka, of whom 2,000 had been disbanded in the first part of the campaign and 3,000 in the second, and the remaining 7,000 had fled into India, taking with them many relatives, servants and also the peasants on the border whom they conscripted as transport service.

"The rebellion," they analyzed, "was not a fight for nationalism or religion, but a fight of serf-owners to continue serfdom. Only the leaders fought hard; of the rebels in the ranks, about eighty percent had been coerced or deceived. There was conflict within the rebel ranks, between the people of Tibet and the Khampas, between the lamas and the Tibetan army; these conflicts even reached armed clashes. The rebel ranks had thus so little morale or unity that, when a few leaders were killed or captured, at a little explanation the ranks fell apart."

A thousand PLA men now went in twenty groups to organize the peasants who were technically still serfs, and to prepare them for the coming reform. The first "law and order" groups to round up outlaws, were expanded into "Peasant Associations" to enforce the "three abolitions" and eventually, to organize township and county government. For by this time the Panchen Erdeni and the other Tibetan deputies were returning from Peking, and the second session of the Preparatory Committee was under way.

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When the Panchen Erdeni left Lhasa for Peking in early April, the medical teams were helping the wounded and the women the rebels had raped, the PLA in Lhasa was distributing seed grain to peasants the rebels had looted, and other PLA forces were crossing the Tsangpo to begin the Loka campaign. When the Panchen returned to Lhasa in mid-June, the people were working peacefully and the fields were green with new grain. Primary schools were growing swiftly; when the schools organized by the central government proved insufficient, the people of Lhasa themselves set up twenty-three "special schools" in which all ages came to study side by side.

For two months various groups of the PLA and the Preparatory Committee and Working Committee, had been touring Tibet on various errands, and also collecting informations, opinions and demands from the people. Everywhere the people were asking: "When will the reform begin?" Everywhere they knew that the confiscation of the whips and torture implements was only the first symbol, the promise of harvest to the tiller only the first pledge. The abolition of serfdom by law was awaited. Serfs and household and field slaves were coming to the various offices, asking: "How shall we set about the reform?" Members of the upper strata also were coming, volunteering to be the first to carry out the reform on their manors. People's county governments had been organized already in a few counties. The Tibetan people were becoming masters in their own house.

On June 28th, under the Panchen's chairmanship, the second plenary session of the new local government of Tibet opened. The first session had been held on April 8th, in which the Preparatory Committee had formally assumed power. The second session was to pass the "democratic reform". Already it could take account of hundreds of newly organized "peasants' associations", sending greetings, prepared to carry the reform through. Six hundred people of all social strata attended the session as "observers", from all parts of the land. Among them were one hundred serfs, sent by the new Peasants' Associations, sitting down in the same room with nobles for the first time in Tibet's long history.

After three weeks' discussion, the "democratic reform" was proposed in two stages. The first stage would be the "san fan and shuang jian", the "three abolitions and two reductions". Rebellion, forced labor, and personal servitude were to be abolished, exorbitant land rents and interest to be reduced. Peasant associations, under supervision of the military control, would enforce these new decrees. Land rents would be negotiated with nobles and monasteries that had taken no part in rebellion, but would be about twenty percent of the crop; on rebel lands the harvest would go to the tiller, without rent or taxes this year. Meantime the new local government of Tibet would negotiate with all loyal nobles and monasteries for the purchase of their estates, with cattle and implements, leaving to each of them whatever house they chose to live in, and whatever land they needed for personal use. When this was accomplished, the second stage of the "democratic reform" would come: the free distribution of land to the former serfs.

The plenary session closed July 17th, with the adoption of the "democratic reform". Across the roof of the world the news spread like wildfire, to peasants' and herdsmen's meetings and to new loudspeakers in market-places. In Lhasa they sang and danced in the streets.

* * *

Already the staff for the reform was coming, prepared for eight years by Peking. Over ten thousand Tibetans had been getting some education in other parts of China, most of them serfs who had run away to the PLA. Of these 3,400 were returning to help the reform; fifteen hundred came in early June, the rest after the June graduations. Five hundred and fifty Tibetan cadres, civil servants in autonomous Tibetan districts in adjoining provinces, were being transferred into Tibet; of these one hundred and twenty-five had enough experience to become county secretaries or district chiefs. Within Tibet itself the "activists" among the serfs were growing fast, illiterate still, but learning from local experience. There were even lamas who had taken part in suppressing rebellion and who were now helping to organize villages.

All of these together would be the staff to organize the new Tibet. They were not nearly enough for so wide a land. But everywhere new people were rising and learning. There had been no staff at all eight years ago.

In Peking I had seen the first group of returning Tibetan students take off by special train at the end of May. I had asked the man who came from Lhasa to pick them, whether any of these could have gone to Tibet safely before the rebellion. He shook his head. "They would have been safe in our offices," he replied, "but they could not have gone safely into the villages for the armed retainers of the serf-owners might have caught them, and they might have paid with, their lives.

"Now they can go safely with only normal caution. For the serf-owners concentrated all those armed retainers into a rebel army, and the rebels are beaten and scattered, some captured, some in India, a few hiding out in distant hills. Now the serfs have awakened, and the people of Tibet will protect the reform."

Looking back at the eight years in which these events were prepared one sees that all of those years were needed. The careful approach of the PLA, which began to win Tibetans before the battle of Chamdo, the eight months' delay in Chamdo, that the PLA might enter Tibet by agreement with its local government; the slow advance towards Lhasa explaining in every populated point, paying for goods and services; the three great highways that knit Tibet with the rest of China; the schools, hospitals, experimental farms, seed loans, gifts of implements, which, even though sabotaged, were known to the people — all these awakened the people while the staff for the coming reform was prepared.

The rebellion also played its part for when it was launched in Lhasa the Tibetan people had not yet chosen sides. It took the terrorist acts of the rebels, the disciplined waiting by the Hans in their compounds, the quick, final counter-attack by the PLA that cleared the city of disorder with minimum loss of life. It took the flight of the kashag's majority into India and the empowering by Peking, after the kashag's flight, of the Preparatory Committee, already designed for government, with the Dalai Lama still chairman, even in absence, while meantime the Panchen Erdeni led.

Thus the Tibetan people were never forced to choose between loyalty to Peking and to Lhasa. When the PLA moved out across the land to confiscate the whips and torture implements and tell the serfs that the harvest would be theirs, they went in the name of Peking and of Lhasa too. The people, without conflict of loyalties, could realize how deeply they hated those old torments and how they could now be free.


1.Not until 1964 at the December session of the National People's Congress of China did Premier Chou En-lai report that not only the 1959 armed rebellion by "the Dalai clique" but the Dalai's subsequent actions in India proved him a traitor and that the State Council had "decided to remove him from the posts of Chairman and member of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region".

2.10 a.m. Peking time; about 8 a.m. by Lhasa sun-time