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

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Between 1953 and 1964, the Tibetan population declined by 9.9 percent which means a total loss of 270,000 people. Tibet itself lost about 66,000 people in total. The population of China declined between 1959 and 1961 by 13,480,000 people112, but the statistics still show an increase of the population between the first national population survey in 1953 and the second in 1964 in contrast to Tibet. The Tibetans belong to the very few nationalities which lost population in total during that period of time. The population of other larges minorities such as the Mongols, Hui, Miao and Uigures increased.113 In contrast to other regions, birth and death data of the Tibetan population for this period of time are not available. As a matter of fact, in all provinces the Tibetan population declined, except for Sichuan, because the province Xikang was abolished in 1956 and integrated into Sichuan province.

How do Chinese authors explain the population loss of the Tibetans? Liu Juan argues that the “period of economic difficulties” (1959-1961) must have effected the Tibetan population as well.114 However, she does not explain why Tibet lost population, despite the fact that the Great Leap Forward was not implemented in this region. She considers the numbers of 1964 as a proof that the Tibetan population grown faster outside Tibet, because the “democratic reforms” were enforced earlier and the standards of living were higher there. This implies that she links the decline of population in Tibet with the bad nutrition and health condition under the rule of the Tibetan elite. The Chinese scholar Ma Rong questioned the correctness of the numbers at all. In 1953, the Tibetan government was in charged for the population survey and a hukou system did not exist. He considers the number of 1953 as guess which might be too high. He doubts the number of 1964 as well, because the hukou system was not fully implemented. 115 Furthermore, the migration of tens of thousand Tibetan to Southeast Asia after the crack down of the uprising in 1959 contributed also to the decline of the population. The Australian trained demographer Yan Hao estimated the missing Tibetan population between 1953 and 1964 on 152,000 which also includes around 90,000 people who fled with the Dalai Lam to India or migrated elsewhere. As a result, only the missing of 60,000 people had to be explained in relation to the famine, political repression and the uprising.116 Yan estimated the excess death of the Tibetan population during the entire famine period on less than 30,000.

It seems that Yan Hao is doing accurate academic demographic experiments with official statistics. Despite the fact that the article was published in a Western journal, his arguments in order to downplay death by starvation show a lack of understanding of the historical circumstances of the Great Leap Forward. He argues that more than half of the Tibetan population is made up of self-sufficient nomads to these days. Their livelihood would seldom depend on external food supply. He ignores the fact that during the Great Leap the nomads in Amdo and Kham were organized in People’s Communes and were forced to “combine agriculture with animal husbandry” (nongshou jiehe). Some of them were forced to settle down. Official documents of the Central government from 1962 described the disastrous results of this policy and criticized this practice. The loss of the Tibetan population in Gansu and Qinghai province show that the nomadic population was not immune of the famine. Furthermore, Yan questions claim of Warren Smith that large amounts of agricultural and pastoral products were trucked out of Tibet. Yan argues that the government exempted Tibetan peasants in the TRA from all agriculture taxes at that time. By contrast to Yan, the official “grain gazette” says after the “patriotic grain tax” was introduced in 1959.

Yan goes on: “What was the point of loading barley on small trucks and sending them along the zigzag road 3,000 meters above sea level to feed numerous and rice-easting Sichuanese a thousand miles away, especially since the Soviet Union had cut off oil supplies, so that fuel was seriously short in China at the times.”117 The Sino-Soviet split took place in spring 1960. Against the background that most Soviet experts were employed in the industry, this event was hardly responsible for the famine in the countryside. As matter of fact, the Soviet did not cut off the oil supply or launch an economic embargo against the PRC at that time. It might be true that no food was trucked out of Tibet, but Yan’s explanation deserves a deeper examination. A Tibetan refuge in his statement quoted a very similar argument of a Chinese official in the early sixties: “Recently, the reactionaries have been circulation malicious rumors to the effect that we transport barley to China. The Chinese do not eat tsampa, so why do we need barley? All the truckloads of barley that is being transported are taken to feed the nomads of the northern regions.”118 Why would starving peasants in Sichuan rather die than eat barley? Are the Han “rice eaters” and the Tibetan “barley” eaters so different in terms of culture that Tibetan products could not be used to feed Han Chinese? A chooser reading of Yan’s article shows that there is a relativistic story behind his demographic arguments.

My article shows that it is worse to treat the statists which were published in the PRC as part of the official narrative. The suffering of the Tibetans is excluded, because the tabooing of the famine as an event of Tibetan history and the lack of statistics make it difficult to write about starvation in the Tibetan eras at all. The Chinese sources do not claim that no famine did occur in the Tibetan eras, but the extent of it can only be guessed. By contrast, the data from other provinces and various books and memoirs on the Great Leap Forward made it possible to reconstruct the event in inner China in more detail.


To sum up, hunger is an important factor in the Tibet conflict. In the narratives of the Chinese and the Tibetan exile, memories of starvation are used to create nationalists version of history. While Tibetan exile narratives focus on famine as a result of the Chinese “occupation”, the Chinese sources emphasis the suffer of the PLA soldiers to liberate Tibet and the great effort of the Chinese government to nourish the army and the people in Tibet. Tibetan authors are describing the transformation of the food habits in under the socialist regime of accumulation in nationalist terms. The ‘Chinese” forced “Tibetans” to eat things which humiliated them as human beings. Furthermore, the Tibetan exile government is using the famine to map the nation and claim that Tibet should include Kham and Amdo.

More research has to be done. In his latest book, Melvyn Goldstein describes the Nyema (Nimu) Incident of 1969 has a bloody peasants uprising in order to reduce the heavy tax burden in the context of the factions struggles during the Cultural Revolution. In Nimu county, near Lasha the Maoist Gyenlo faction attack the grain collection and promised the peasants that the rations would be increase from 12 khe (168 kilograms) to18 khe.119 This research shows one of bloodies events of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet in a new light.


The map of the Tibetan exile government

“TIBET here means the whole of Tibet known as Cholka-Sum (U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo). It includes the present-day Chinese administrative areas of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai Province, two Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures and one Tibetan Autonomous County in Sichuan Province, one Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and one Tibetan Autonomous County in Gansu Province and one Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province.”
The official Chinese map of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)

Remember the suffering, mapping the nation
The Ukrainian Soviet Republic during the famine of 1932/33

Before 1945, the West Ukraine (Galicia) was a part of Poland and Crimea was part of the Russian Soviet Republic. Galicia became ethical “Ukrainian” as a result of the population transfer between Poland and the Soviet Union. The Kuban region remains a part of Russia until today. However, maps of the “genocide famine” work with the Ukrainian ethnographical borders. In the two maps below, the mapping of starvation is used to define an ethnical Ukraine and community beyond the borders of nation state.

The genocide famine of the Ukraine 1932-33”
The „genocide famine“ and the Ukrainian ethnographical Borders

1 For detail see Makley, Charlene: “‘Speaking Bitterness’: Autobiography, History, and Mnemonic Politics on the Sino-Tibetan Frontier”, in: Comparative Studies in Society and History (2005), Vol. 47, 40-78.

2 Powers, John: History as propaganda: Tibetan exiles versus the People's Republic of China (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

3 Vernon, James: Hunger: A modern history (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 43

4 Vernon, 2007, 69

5 Davis, Mike: Late Victorian holocausts: El Niño famines and the making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2001), 7

6 Davis, 2001, 22

7 Kissane, Noel: The Irish famine: A documentary history (Dublin: Nation Library of Ireland, 1995), 38

8 Ó'Gráda, Cormac: Black '47 and beyond: The great Irish famine in history, economy, and memory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 82

9 Gray, Peter: The Irish famine, (London: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), 95

10 Miller, Kerby: “ ‘Revenge for Skibbereen’: Irish Emigration and the Meaning of the Great Famine”, in: Gribben, Arthur (Ed.): The great famine and the Irish Diaspora in America (Amherbst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 181

11 Miller, 1999, 181

12 For the Irish nationalist debate see Vernon, 2007.44-48

13 Mitchel, John: The crusade of the period: and Last conquest of Ireland, (perhaps.) (New York: Lynch, Cole & Meehan, 1878, pp.323

14 Gray, 1995, 127

15 Miller, 1999, 189

16 Miller, 1999, 181

17 Mulcrone, Mick: “The famine and collective memory: The role of the Irish-American Press in the Early Twentieth Century”, in: Gribben, 1999, 234

18 Kinealy, Christine: The great Irish famine: Impact, ideology and rebellion (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), 3

19 Kinealy, 2002, 14

20 Kissane, 1995, 180.

21 The video

22 Kinealy, Christine: “The great Irish famine: A dangerous memory?”, in: Gribben, 1999, 240

23 Kissane, 1995, VIII

24 Dung, Bui Minh: “Japan’s role in the Vietnamese starvation of 1944-45“, in: Modern Asian Studies (1995), Vol.29, No.3, 580

25 Dung, 1995, 598

26 Bose, Sugata: “Starvation amidst plenty: The making of famine in Bengal, Honan and Tonkin”, 1942-45, in: Modern Asian Studies (1990), Vol. 24, No.4, 720

27 Marr, David G.: Vietnam 1945: The quest for power (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1995), 96

28 For example see Marr, 1995, 508-509

29 Bose, 1990, 726

30 Ho Chi Minh, Ho, Chi Minh: Selected Works, Vol. III (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publication House, 1961), 19

31 For example see History of the Communist Party of Vietnam (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publication House, 1986), 75

32 Marr, 1995, 104

33 Ho Chih Min, 1961, 40p.

34 Ho Chih Min, 1961, 42

35 For example, an official textbook of the History of the Communist party from 1986 only provides a few lines on the famine. It describes that the mobilization for famine relief brought out anti-Japanese upsurge all over the country and attracted all classes from workers to the national bourgeoisie. (History of the Communist Party of Vietnam ,75) The books says that after the independence the famine was rapidly stamped out thanks to the collection of rice and the grown of subsidiary crops everywhere (History of the Communist Party of Vietnam, 90).

36 For details see Wemheuer, Felix: “Regime Changes of Memory Creating the Official History of the Ukrainian and Chinese Famines under State Socialism and after the Cold War”, in: Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History (2009) Vol. 10, No. 1, 131–59.

37 Conquest, Robert: Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986)

38 Dietsch, Johan Making Sense of Suffering: Holocaust and Holodomor in Ukrainian Historical Culture (Lund: Lund University Press, 2006), ?

39 For example see Davies, R.W/ Tauger, M.B./ and. Wheatcroft, Stephen G: “Stalin, Grain Stocks, and the Famine of 1932–1933,” Slavic Review (1995), Vol. 54, No. 3. and Green, Barbara: “Stalinist Terror and the Question of Genocide: The Great Famine,” in: Rosenbaum, Alan (Ed.): Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives on Comparative Genocide, (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996), 137–61.

40 Marcus, David: “Famine crimes in international law”, in: American Journal of International Law, Vol.97, No.2, 267

41 Goldstein, Melvyn C.: The snow lion and the dragon: China, Tibet and the Dalai Lama (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1997), ?

42 Powers, 2004, 156

43  Roemer, Stephanie: The Tibetan Government-in-Exile: Politics at large (London: Routledge, 2008), 147

44 Goldstein, 1997, 16

45 The official website of the Central Tibet Administration Tibet: Proving Truth from the facts (1996)

46 Dalai Lama: My land and my people (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1962), 223

47 Yang, Kuifu: Zhongguo shaoshu minzu renkou [The population of the minority nationalities in China], (Beijing: Zhongguo renkou chubanshe, 1995), 21

48 Tibet: Proving Truth from the facts (1996) (viewed March 4 2009)

49 Tsampa is the traditional staple food stuff in Central Tibet. It is usually roasted barley flour which can be mixed salty tea butter.

50 Proving Truth from the facts (1996) v

51 Laird,  2006, 315

52 In the beginning, the leadership of the CCP accepted the report as a valuable criticism. Mao Zedong even met with the Panchen Lama to discuss the petition. After Mao had attacked the United Front Work Department in the summer of 1962, things changed and the report was consider as “anti-socialist” and a “poisoned arrow”. Especially the passage that the Tibetan nationality was closed to death was unaccepted for Mao. In December of 1964, the Panchen Lama was dismissed from his post as chairman. During the Cultural Revolution he was taken to Beijing for several struggle sessions of the Red Guards and was not release from prison before 1977.

53 Panchen Lama: A poisoned arrow: the secret report of the 10th Panchen Lama; the full text of the Panchen Lama's 70,000 character petition of 1962, together with a selection of supporting historical documents (London: Tibet Information Network , 1997), 82

54 Panchen Lama, 1997, 112

55 Panchen Lama, 1997, 103

56 Gashi, Tsering Dorje: New Tibet – Memories of a Graduate of the Peking Institute of National Minorities (Dharamsala: The Information Office of H.H. the Dalai Lama, 1980), 11

57 Gashi, 1980, 25

58 Chang is a beer made of barley.

59 Norbu, Dawa: Red star over Tibet (New York: Envoj Press, 1987), ?

60 Norbu, 1987, 216

61 Choedon, Dhondub: Life in the Red Flag People’s Commune (Dharamsala: The Information Office of H.H. the Dalai Lama, 1978), 37pp.

62 The Information Office of H.H. the Dalai Lama (Ed.): Tibet under communist rule: A compilation of refugee statements 1958-1975 (Dharamsala: The Information Office of H.H. the Dalai Lama, 1976), 73

63 Gashi, 1980, 73

64 Gashi, 1980, 106

65 Norbu, 1987, 212

66 Choedon, 1978, 36

67 Choedon, 1878, 62

68 Becker, Jasper: Hungry ghosts: China's secret famine (London: Murray, 1996), 168

69 For example see Xie, Weiming: Kangxi gonglu jixing (Shanghai: Shanghai chubanshe gongsi, 1955) andGong, Sixue: Xin zhongguo de xin Xizang [The New Tibet of New China], (Beijing: Zhongguo qingnian chubanshe, 1955).

70 See Yang Jisheng: Mubei – Zhongguo liushi niandai da jihuang jishi, (Xianggang: Tian di tu shu you xian gong si, 2008) and Cao, Shuji: Da jihuang, (Xianggang: Shi dai guo ji chu ban you xian gong si, 2005).

71 Goldstein writes a whole chapter on “the food crisis” of 1951/52. See Goldstein, Melvyn C.: A history of modern Tibet 1951 - 1955: The calm before the storm (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2007), 245-263

72 Xizang zizhiqu gaikuang bianxiezu: Xizang zizhiqu Xkuang [The general situation of the Tibet Autonomous Region] (Lasa: Xizang renmin chubanshe, 1984), 582

73 Wang, Gui/ Huang Daojun: Shiba jun xianqian zhenke jin zang jishi, (Beijing: Zhongguo zangxue chubanshe, 2001), 34

74 Yan, Yan: Xue dui Xizang shuo [Blood speaks to Tibet], (Shenyang: Shenyang renmin chubanshe, 1993), 36-43.

75 Zizang zizhiqu difangzhi bianzuan weiyuanhui (Ed.): Xizang zizhiqu liangshi zhi [The grain gazette of Tibet Autonomous Region], (Beijing: Zangxue chubanshe, 2007), 21 (below quoted as liangshi zhi)

76 Wang Gui/ Huang Daojun, 2001, 34

77 Wang Gui/ Huang Daojun, 2001, 158, see also Goldstein, 2007, 256

78 Wang Gui/ Huang Daojun, 2001, 53

79 Goldstein, 2007, 245

80 Zhonggong zhongyang wenxian yanjiu shi (Ed.): Mao Zedong Xizang gongzuo wenxian [Documents of the Tibet work of Mao Zeodong], (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 2008), 42

81 Goldstein, 2007, 257

82 Goldstein, 2007, 260

83 See Xie Weiming, 1955,

84 Xizang zizhiqu gaikuang bianxiezu, 1984, 583pp.

85 Liangshi zhi, 2007, 2

86 Goldstein, Melvyn C. (Ed.): A Tibetan revolutionary: The political life and times of Bapa Phüntso Wangye (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2004), 161

87 Goldstein (Ed.), 2004, 173

88 Goldstein, 2007, 250

89 Liangshi zhi, 2007, 293

90 Liangshi zhi, 2007, 2

91 Wang, Gui: Xizang lishi diwei bian [On the status of Tibet in history], (Beijing: Minzu chubanshe, 2003), 518

92 Wang, Gui, 2003, 519

93 Liangshi zhi, 2007, 3

94 Liangshi zhi, 2007, 22

95 Liansghi zhi, 2007, 9

96 Liangshi zhi, 2007, 77

97 Liangshi zhi, 2007, 92

98 Ma, Rong, 1996, 34

99 Dalai Lama, 1962, 223

100 Dreyer, June T.: China's forty millions: Minority nationalities and national integration in the People's Republic of China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University. Press, 1976), 158

101 Dreyer, 1976, 161

102 For example, an article in Minzu tuanjie about the Tibetan eras in Gansu was title “Communalization in a Single Strike”, in: Union Research Institute (ed.): Tibet 1950-1967 (Hong Kong: Union Research Institute, 1968), 330-333.

103 Ma, Rong, 1996, 176

104 Ma, Rong 1996, 177

105 For example see Sun Haiyang, 1999, 94 and Yan, Hao: “Tibetan population in China: Myths and facts re-examined”, in: Asian Ethnicity (2000), Vol.1, No.1, 17

106 Ma, Rong, 1996, 174

107 Ma, Rong 1996, 184/ According to the petition of the Panchen Lama, 110,000 monks and nuns lived in 2,500 monasteries before the “democratic reform”. This number was reduced to 70 monasteries with a population of around 7,000 people, which would be a reduction by 93 percent (Panchen Lama, 1997, 52).

108 “Lamas must take the socialist road” in: Union Research Institute, 1968, 232-234

109 Strong, Anna Louise: When the serfs stood up in Tibet (Beijing: New World Press, 1965), 214

110 Ma, Rong, 1996, 199

111 Yang, Kuifu: Zhongguo shaoshu minzu renkou [The population of the minority nationalities in China], (Beijing: Zhongguo renkou chubanshe, 1995), 21

112 Yang, Kuifu, 1995, 21

113 Shen, Lin: Sanza ju shaoshu minzu tongjin yu fenxi, (Beijing: Minzu chubanshe, 2003), 28

114 Yang, Kuifu, 1995,, 21

115 Ma, Rong, 1996, 35

116 Yan Hao, 2000, 24 According to statement of Tibetan exile government of 1976, 5,000 to 10,000 Tibetan died in the uprising. A Chinese book which was later banned says that 93,000 Tibetans in the rebel forces were killed, wounded or imprisoned in Central Tibet between 1959 and 1961 (Blondeau, Anne-Marie (Ed.): Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China's 100 questions (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 2008), 105

117 Yan Hao, 2000, 21

118 The Information Office of H.H. the Dalai Lama, 1976, 89


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