Nationalism and Famine: The Role of Hunger in the Tibet Conflict

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Hunger and famine in the Chinese narrative

The Chinese official historiography on Tibet

Against the background that the official historiography in China went through significant changes after the death of Mao Zedong, the continuity of the official view on the history of Modern Tibet is astonishing. If one compares the propaganda brochures of the early fifties about the building of the new highways and propaganda in the context of the Goldmund-Lasha railway today, the messages are very similar to the current.69 These connections with the Chinese motherland would bring development, prosperity, education, modern infrastructure and health care to Tibet. Tibet was, is and will be a part of China is the main messages. In the periods between 1951 and 1959, the alliance of the CCP with the Tibetan elites, and since the beginning of the reform policies in 1978, the narrative is more focused on the achievements in Tibet than on the “atrocities” of the theocratic regime than during the “democratic reforms” in the early sixties and during Cultural Revolution.

Despite the fact the policies of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) towards the minorities is consider as a disaster, “leftist mistake” are only briefly mentioned in the official history books on Tibetan. Since the last years, some Chinese publications have carefully questioned the narrative of class struggle within the context of the land reform (1947-1953), but in the Tibetan context the description of the exploitation of the Tibetan serfs is unchanged. The story that Tibetans were liberated twice, ones in 1951 from Imperialism and in 1959 from serfdom is retold again and again. In the publications since the nineties, the Chinese scholars are making more references to Western research, especially to scholars such as Tom Grunfeld or Melvyn Goldstein who are considered as “objective”. One goal of the Chinese research is to deconstruct the counter-narrative of the Dalai Lama.

Tibet is one of the most sensitive political issues in China. Therefore, even critical Chinese academics who are publishing their books on the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution in Hong Kong did not dare to touch the impact of these campaigns in Tibet. Two major publications of PRC scholars on the Great Leap which were published on Hong Kong do not include a chapter on the famine in the Tibetans eras.70 The limits of the accessibility of useful population statists might only be one reason for this gap. Despite the lacking research on the famine in the Tibetan eras, the topic of food and hungers appears in the official Chinese narrative frequently. However, the description of hunger is used in a very different way than in the Tibetan exile narratives as we will see below.

Eating mice for the liberation of Tibet

The narrative of the Tibetan exile portrays the Chinese troops in Tibetan as a heavy burden for the population. As a matter of fact, the feeding of the PLA became one of the biggest challenges for the Chinese government during the “peaceful liberation”.71 After a long and dangerous march with horses and mules through the highlands, the PLA reached Lhasa in late 1951. An official textbook which was published in 1984 describes the suffering of the PLA soldiers who carried food for just seven days on their own back: “The large majority of the cadres and soldiers were tightening their belts […]. Sometimes they could not even eat two meals of millet gruel a day. When masses and patriots saw this situation, many of them felt sorry. Sometimes at night they brought bags with barley to the base of the soldiers.”72 Memoirs of PLA soldiers and official textbooks are emphasizing the suffering of soldiers on this “Long March” for the sake of the unification of the motherland. The lack of a good road made the import of large amount of grains from inner China almost impossible. For example, in the memoirs of two PLA soldiers who marched over the highlands from Ganzi to Lasha, the search for food plays an important role. This book was published as part of a series in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet in 2001. Huang Daojun describes how the PLA soldiers, in Ganzi tightened their bells in order not to harm the local Tibetan population. Mao Zedong had ordered that the PLA should not to eat local grain while entering Tibet. Against the background that the level of production was low, no grain was available for purchase in Ganzi. The soldiers received rations below 400 gram per day while they performed hard labor to build an airstrip which would allow food to be brought in by plane. In order to fight the hunger, the soldier ate all kinds of weed (wa yecai cong ji). Some soldiers even caught mice and ate them (zhua dishu cong ji).73 (The story of mice eating PLA soldiers is also told in the book “Blood is speaking for Tibet” of two Chinese journalists in great detail74 and mentioned in the “grain gazette of the Tibet Autonomous Region”75.) When the local population saw the soldiers working while starving, they helped the PLA to build the airstrip. Huang remembers: “Under the condition of a serious shortage of grain, we did not purchase on pound of grain. We would rather be hungry than to increase the burden of the Tibetan countrymen.”76 After the airstrip was built, the nutrition of the soldier improved. On the march into Tibet, the PLA became the order that individuals or subunits were not allowed to purchase any food on the market or buy things in small shops. The purchase and distribution of food was centralized under the Department for Finance and Trade. However, some hungry soldiers violated the discipline and bought things in small restaurant or teashop in Lhasa.77 Huang also describes a clash of cultures in the terms of eating. In the beginning, some comrades felt like barfing when they smelled yak butter (suyou). Furthermore, they did not know how to make tsampa (zanba) and butter tea. Later, the Tibetan comrades taught them how to use yak butter and prepare tsampa. Finally, the Chinese soldiers began to like it.78 In the story of Huang, food is used to describe the ability of the PLA soldiers to fit in the new cultural environment and adopted Tibetan customs.
Breaking the “grain boycott” to feed the PLA

In 1951 Lhasa had a population around 30,000 people. A Chinese source says that the 8,000 PLA troops in Lhasa needed 5.7 million pounds of grain per year for the men and 1.3 million pound for the horses.79 According to the “17 point agreement”, the local government should assist the purchase and the transport of food. The Chinese government was aware that a requisition or purchase of Tibetan grain could cause unrest. In April of 1952, Mao Zedong outlined how to solve the problem. In contrast to Xinjiang, the absence of Han Chinese in Tibet meant that the implementation of rent reduction or land reform would not be possible within the next three years. PLA should promote its own production and became self-sufficient. Mao was also concerned that reactionary forces in the Tibetan upper class could use a food crisis to attack the PLA. Therefore, a decline of the standards of living of the Tibetan population should be prevented. Furthermore, highways must be built to alleviate large imports from inner China and India. Mao warned: “In the case that India in the future one day does not give us grain, our troops still should be able to make a living.”80 Later, this policy of Mao was concluded with the saying “When the PLA enter Tibet, it not should eat local food” (jiefangjun ru Xizang, but chi difang). In the early fifties, self-sufficiency of the PLA was more a goal than reality. One Chinese source says that in 1952, the PLA planted 943 hectares and could produce all of their vegetables and 30 percent of the grain needs.81 As a result, grain and rice had to be imported and purchase from the Tibetan aristocrats and monasteries. With the permission of the Indian government, the Chinese shipped 28 million pounds of rice from Guangdong province to West Bengal and than from there to Tibet.82 From India the rice had to be transported via Phari to Lasha on mules, yaks and horse carts. In 1952, the Chinese government organized a large land transportation program from Sichuan. More than 66,900 animals and over 15,600 laborers were used in this effort. As one could imagine these imports were extremely costly. Therefore, the building of the Qinghai-Tibet highway and the Xikang-Tibet highway became the major project of PLA. The highways were finally completed in 1954. The CCP published several books to praise the heroism and the suffering of the soldiers and Tibetan contract workers who built the highway and make scarifies for the sake of the nation.83 However, Tibetan guerilla fighters were able to interrupt the highways temporally until the early sixties.

Nevertheless, the imports and the self-production of the PLA were not adequate to feed cadres and soldiers. Against the background that the grain stores in Tibet where controlled by the monasteries and the aristocracy, the Chinese were depend on the co-operation of the local elite. An official Chinese textbook of 1984 blames the “reactionary” forces of the Tibetan elite for organizing a grain strike. In contrast to the patriotic Tibetan masses, reactionary parts of the upper classes and the Tibetan government “gloated over other’s misfortune” (xing zai le huo). They were happy to see the Chinese soldiers starving and try to boycott the selling of grain to the PLA according to the motto “If we can’t defeat the PLA, hunger will force them to leave.”84 In the official Chinese narrative, hunger is used to draw lines between friends and enemies. While the PLA soldiers suffered for the sake of the nation, the Tibetan masses supported them and the reactionaries try to use hunger as a weapon to force the Chinese troops to leave. The official “grain gazette” of the TRA says that the reactionary clique of the Tibetan upper class closed down the grain market (shixing liangshi fengbi) and caused a shortage of grain (zhizao lianghuang).85

Bapa Phüntso Wangye (known as Phünwang) reports in his memoirs about the threat of a grain boycott. Phünwang was a communist and the only Tibetan in the so-called Tibet Work Committee (Xizang gongwei) which was set up under the leadership of the PLA commander Zhang Guohua and represented the Chinese government. In his memoir which was published by Western scholars Phünwang presents himself as a critical Tibetan communist who was not afraid of conflicts with the Chinese government for the good of a Socialist Tibet. According to him, Lukangwa, a member of the aristocracy and the acting Premier Minister of the Tibetan government, said to Wang Qimei, a senior commander in the 18th army: “Now, after you have defeated our troops, you have arrived in Lhasa promoted to ‘Commander Wang’. But we here will not be easy to suppress. Leaving everything else aside, the grain for the soldiers will not last.”86 The Anti-Chinese Prime Minster Lukangwa was dismissed from office in 1952.

It might be the case that some Tibetan aristocrats planed to organize a grain boycott again the PLA, but there is no evidence that a boycott took place on a large scale. According to Phünwang, the real problem was not the shortage of grain per se, but rather the lack of an efficient system to get surplus grain from the countryside to Lasha.87 In order to limit the food shortage in Lhasa and inflation, the PLA encouraged the Tibetan government to establish a new joint grain authority with Phünwang was the vice director. The central government in Beijing provided hundred thousand of silver dollars for the purchase of grain to this institution. However, the collection of grain was not a simple task. The Chinese were shocked when they found out that 140,000 pound of grain were stored in granary below the Potala Palace for fifty year.88 This grain was inedible. The story that the clergy allowed that mountains of grain were rotting while the Tibetan peasants had not enough to eat fit into the class struggles narrative which the CCP established in their publications on Tibet after 1959. The 140,000 pounds of rotten grain in the Potala Palace is the only event which the chronology of “grain gazette” mentions for the year of 1951. 89 To sum up, the official Chinese narrative differs from the exile Tibetan version in striking ways. While some Tibetan authors accuse to the PLA for confiscation without compensation, the Chinese sources emphasizing the great efforts to avoid any burden for the Tibetan population, even though the import of grain was dangerous and expensive.
Feeding and securing Tibet

After the highways to inner China were built in 1954, the food situation improved in Tibet. According to Chinese sources, no food for the PLA soldiers and party cadres was purchase in Tibet later on, but huge amounts of grain were imported from China.90 Furthermore, the Chinese government provided famine relief and low rate credits for the victims of the flood in 1954 and 1955. In the eras of Jiangsong and Bailiang 170 villages were affected by a natural disaster, 691 people and 8000 cattle died in the flood.91 An official textbook of 1984 describes the heroic actions of PLA soldiers to save the Tibetan peasants from the flood. From their own recourses, the PLA gave over 200,000 pounds of grain to the flood victims. Despite this great effort to help the Tibetans, reactionary forces in the Tibetan upper class spread the rumor that large amounts of the relief grain was embezzled by the PLA. The textbook claims that after the flood of 1954/55 never again Tibetans died as a result of natural disasters thanks to the effective relief system.92

The “grain gazette” tells also the story how huge amounts of grain were shipped in from inner China to stabilize the market in 1956 and to fight the inflation.93 However, the source does not mention that the transfer of Han Chinese cadres to Tibet was one reason for this inflation. The Chinese bought many buildings from the Tibetan aristocrats in order to provide housing for these cadres. In 1957, the government began to establish a rationing system for Han and Tibetan workers, cadres and students. Rice and wheat flour was provided to Han, while Tibetans mainly received their rations in barley. The Tibetan uprising in April 1959 and the following “democratic reforms” resulted in a transformation of the grain supply system. The Indian government which sympathized with the Tibetan rebels stopped the exports to China and closed the land way to ship Chinese grain over India to Tibet. As a result, the Tibetan Work Committee decided to abolish the free trade of grain and established a state monopoly.94 Like in the rest of China since 1953, purchase and distribution was state organized in Tibet from 1960 on. In the same year ration cards were introduced to the whole urban population and also to the nomads. From that year on, the Tibetan peasants had to pay the “patriotic taxes” (aiguo liang). The tax was set on 8 percent of the agriculture income of every rural household. In 1961 the Tibet Work Committee made the decision that the tax rate should be 7 percent of the income for the next five years.95 The tax was very moderate compare to inner China where the tax burden peasant had increased, despite of the famine of the Great Leap Forward. Furthermore, areas which were strongholds of the Tibetan uprising could pay taxes later, because the Chinese government wanted to secure these areas.

At the beginning of the democratic, the Tibet Work Committee and the Preparatory Committee for the Establishment of the Tibetan Autonomous Region did not have their own granaries. Therefore, they heavenly depend on the grain stores of the monasteries. In 1962, over 39 percent of the grain seeds were stored in monasteries and over 26 in private households in the Lhasa and Linzhi era.96 It took until 1966 to build an independent granary system. For the authorities it was a difficult task to secure the granaries on a local level, because Anti-Chinese guerilla and “reactionaries” attacked, burned down the granaries or stole the stored food. In 1963, 20,083 kilos of grain were stolen or rotten in the granaries.97 The government set up a local responsible system to monitor the granaries.

Chinese and Tibetan exile sources are claiming that the first two harvests after the “democratic reforms” are good and production increased after the peasants worked on their own land. The reader of the “grain gazettes” get the impression that Chine government promoted a very moderate policy Tibet and no famine took place. The authors make no references to the development in Kham and Ando at all. In the year 1960, during the high tide of mass starvation in inner China, huge amounts of grain were shipped into Tibet to feed the PLA and secure the region after the uprising. The Tibetan peasants paid moderated taxes and the number of Tibetans who had the right to receive food rations from the state increased. Are the arguments and statistic in the “grain gazettes” only a part of the propaganda narrative that the Chinese government eschewed no effort in order to help and feed the Tibetan population? Grain gazettes from other provinces such as Henan show a sky rocking increase of the tax burden and a serious decline of the agriculture production. In the case of Tibet it is likely, that the Chinese state was not able to transfer many resources of food to the Chinese cities or other provinces, even if the government wanted to do so. The main instruments for this transfer (collective agriculture, a state controlled granary system and the hu kou) were not implemented in Tibet in the early sixties. The state grain monopoly had just been introduced in 1960. The government did not fully enforce the hukou-registration before 196498 and the People’ Communes were established between 1968 and 1973. The Chinese leadership was aware of the strategic importance of Tibet. In 1962, the border war with India broke out just three years after the Tibetan uprising.
Who should feed all the monks and nuns? A clash of ways of living

The “democratic reforms” revolutionized the economic and political system of Tibet. In the context of his article it is interesting how the destruction of the theocracy changed the food supply for the monks and nuns. In his autobiography the Dalai Lama argues that the actions of the Chinese government would qualify as genocide, because the policies were aimed to destroy Tibetan Buddhism.99 The Chinese government never officially questioned the “freedom of religion”. However, with the beginning of the “democratic reforms” of 1959 in Tibet, the CCP began to attack the system of theocracy. The transfer of land from the monasteries to the peasants undermined the power of the celery and made it impossible for the monasteries to support a huge number of monks and nuns. I would describe this process as an attempt to secularize the Tibetan society and to break the economic and political power of religious institutions in every day life.

To understand the link between the destruction of the theocracy, Great Leap Forward and the famine, one has to take the development outside Tibet into account. The “democratic reforms” started in the Tibetan eras in Amdo and Kham already in the mid-fifties and caused violent uprisings in 1956 in Sichuan and 1958 in Gansu and Qinghai. A significant number of rebels and refugees fled to Lhasa after the crackdown of these uprisings by the PLA and became the center of the Anti-Chinese opposition. Before the Great Leap Forward, the CCP treated minority eras as special cases100 and was aware of the problems which a radical social change would cause. However, the Great Leap Forward radicalized the policies toward the minorities. With the establishment of the People’s Communes in 1958, “backward costumes” became under attack. For example, Tibetan women in Gansu Province were said that the weight of their elaborate headdress slowed down work in the fields.101 In 1958, the CCP launched class struggle in the nomadic eras and mobilized the poor herdsmen against the herd owners. Literally over night, peasants in the minority eras, who did not have experienced the lower stages of collectivization, were organized in People’s Communes in a “single strike”.102 New multi-ethnical communes broke down the borders of the villages and increased the pressure for assimilation.

One characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism is the extra ordinary high percentage of monks and nuns of the population compared to other Buddhist countries such as Thailand, Burma or Laos. According to Chinese sources, 10 percent of the whole population in Tibet of the early fifties served as monks and 50 percent of the population in the cities.103 Two ordinaries families had to support one monk on the average.104 Chinese authors like to emphasis that the high percentage of the male population in the monasteries was one reason for the tradition of polygamist marriages and a high number of unmarried women with illegitimate children.105 Without the exploiting of the peasant, the monasteries had no budget and could not feed the monks and nuns. For example, in 1959 the three biggest monasteries in Lhasa owned 147,000 mu of land, 111,000 cattle and 40.000 serfs were subordinated to their authorities.106 In 1958, 2771 monasteries hosted 114,103 lamas. The “democratic reforms” caused a large decline of the monk population and the numbers of monasteries. In 1960, 370 monasteries included a lama population of 18.104.107 Many monks and nuns were sent to the countryside or had to perform forced labor.

The CCP considered the wiliness of monks and nuns to work and to produce the food with the own hands as part of their transformation from a “parasite” way of living to a socialist one.108 In order to draw a class line between the “feudalist” higher clergy and poor lower clergy, the poor monks and nuns were encouraged to “speaking out bitterness”. The food rations and the standards of living of the ordinary monks and nuns were indeed very low. The US-Journalist and sympathizer of the CCP, Anna Louise Strong, traveled to Tibet after the crackdown of the uprising and attended some “speaking bitterness” meetings and struggle sessions. Her reportage is very close to the official line of the CCP during that time. The whole tour of the journalist was organized be the party. Like the peasants, the ordinary monks and servants in the monasteries learned to speak out the bitterness regarding hunger before liberation. A servant told her: “For food he (the master) gave me the spoiled-over tsamba, and of this two small bowls a day. My hunger was never stilled. When anything went wrong I was beaten for it.” 109 Strong wrote that lower lamas told her that the best grain went to the upper lamas while they had to eat poor grain mixed with chaff and gravel. Furthermore, the obligatory “four bowls of buttered tea” which were served daily were water rather than real tea. After a committee confisticated the food storage of the monasteries, all monks were probably feed, so Strong. Just like in the context of the land reform, the party used the symbolic of food to draw the class line in the monasteries. The CCP could archive several goals at the same time with the means of the “democratic reforms”: The reduction of the burden of the peasant and the “unproductive eaters” in the monasteries. Because the religious, economic and political power of the clergy was linked, it could be destroyed in one single strike.

In Chinese books on Modern Tibet the argument that “unproductive” monks and nuns live on cost of the peasants is sometimes combined with assumption that the Tibetan government was also subsidize by the central government in Beijing. From 1952 to 1959 the subsidies from Beijing covered 89 percent of the income of the Tibetan government and in the early nineties even more.110 The Chinese authors also point that the government under the leadership of the Dalai Lama spend more than half of its budget on religious affairs. The critique of the “unproductive” way of living in the monasteries must been seen in this context. Instead of feeding “unproductive” population, organizing wasteful religious festivals and burning ton of Yak butter for religious purpose, the CCP is using the recourses for modernization, education and social progress of Tibet. In this the core of a critique of the traditional Tibetan society in which food plays an important role as a metaphor.

Did no famine occur in Tibet? Examining the story behind the Chinese statistics

The “grain gazette” keeps silence about the famine. If one look at the population statistics, it is obviously that “something” must have happened in Tibet.

The development of the Tibetan population in China111






















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