China’s programs in Tibet: Mao Zedong’s legacy

From the early 1950s Mao Zedong's attitude to Tibet, and that of his successors, was not to eradicate its inhabitants' way of life, nor to colonise the region.

China Tibet

Considering its size, prestige and historical value, Tibet is a region within China’s frontiers, of a vital nature to Beijing. Tibet in fact has a centuries-long association with mainland China; and, in modern history, was ruled from a distance by China’s authorities following the 1720 Chinese expedition to Tibet.

For almost two centuries from 1720, Tibet was under the sway of China’s authorities, up to a point. By 1903 and 1904 Western intrusion in Tibet, from the British Empire, broke Beijing’s limited influence on the area. British forces entered the Tibetan capital Lhasa during early August 1904, in a campaign where their forces killed up to 3,000 Tibetans, who were poorly armed and equipped.

The Manchu-led Qing dynasty, which had governed China since 1644, was by then in difficulty and its complete collapse arrived in 1912. For the next four decades until 1949, China entered one of the greatest periods of decline in its history – as the country was dominated by the imperial powers of Britain, Japan, and the most powerful of them, the United States.

Mao Zedong’s attitude towards Tibet China

From the early 1950s Mao Zedong’s attitude to Tibet, and that of his successors, was not to eradicate its inhabitants’ way of life, nor to colonise the region.

The English scholar Prof. Robert Barnett, a notable specialist in Tibetan history, wrote that, “If we try to envisage the perspective of Chinese officials and the CCP [China’s Communist Party] toward Tibet over the last 60 years, what we see for the most part is not an effort to destroy or attack Tibetan culture, as some critics have alleged, but the opposite: a long series of ‘gifts’, interrupted only by what the party now describes as the ‘errors’ of the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976]”.

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Mao furnished the Tibetan leadership with offerings, and in return expected their obedience and respect when required, while he refrained from directly meddling in their internal affairs. The opening gift bestowed by Mao’s government on Tibet, according to Prof. Barnett, “was that of liberation in 1950”.

Following this, as he outlined, came “the gift of class struggle and the accompanying dispensing of land” in 1959 to the Tibetan peasantry. Then “regional autonomy” was introduced in Tibet by 1965 (Tibet Autonomous Region), and a classless society the next year. Subsequent to Mao’s death in 1976, further gifts were granted, but the nature of them altered with the shift in ideological leanings in China’s capital.

Beijing has instituted wide-scale health care and educational programs in Tibet, leading to the construction of hundreds of medical centres, hospitals and schools. Following the communist accession to power, the average life expectancy of a Tibetan citizen has almost doubled, from 35 years in 1950 to 68 years over six decades later.

Tibetan populace, geography and standard of living 

The Tibetan populace today remains surprisingly small at just over three million, considering its status as the second largest region in China, behind neighbouring Xinjiang. Like each Chinese province, living standards and cultural tolerance has “improved extremely rapidly” in Tibet during the past four decades, spurred on by investment initiatives implemented by Beijing.

At least in GDP terms Tibet remains the poorest area of China. Around 80% of Tibetans currently reside in rural areas and make a living from agriculture, where overall earnings are low.

Tibet and the Plateau which bears its name has enormous planetary importance. Over 25% of the world’s human population are dependent upon fresh water continually delivered to them, by major rivers like the Yangtze and Mekong, whose sources are traced to the Tibetan Plateau’s glaciers.

However, due to unchecked climate change, these glaciers have been diminishing for decades resulting in less available fresh water for humans. Tibet, which holds the largest amount of frozen fresh water outside of the poles, lost 27% of its glacier ice cover between the documented years 1970 and 2010.

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Tibet has considerable strategic and political significance, partly because it shares a lengthy border with India – a country led since 2014 by Narendra Modi, who has been dismantling Indian secular democracy.

Under Modi, India’s relations with president Donald Trump are close. The Trump administration has provided strong public support to India during the ongoing Himalayan border disputes, in which casualties were inflicted on both India and China in June 2020. The two states are now bolstering their forces along the contested Himalayan regions, meaning further clashes could occur in weeks to come.

Tibet’s diminutive population is mainly due to the area’s remote and rugged terrain, along with an average altitude of 4,500 metres above sea level. Ethnic Tibetans comprise about 90% of people residing in the region, with 8% of Tibet’s remaining populace made up of Han Chinese, along with smaller numbers of Hui, Mongols, etc. The vast majority of the population adhere to Tibetan Buddhism, which was first introduced to Tibet in the 8th century.

China’s policy: Give the Tibetan leadership everything they want

Mao’s policy towards Tibet was similar to the Qing dynasty before him: Give the Tibetan leadership everything they want, short of outright independence.

In May 1951, the Tibetan government signed a surrender document (Seventeen Point Agreement) in which they consented to officially become part of China, recognising Beijing’s sovereignty over their territory, but the Tibetan government would retain a great level of power regarding their own affairs. Prof. Barnett noted, “This was a policy of exceptionalism, according to which Tibet was to be treated quite differently from the rest of China and given the gift of continuing, unreformed governance and society, with a treaty-like document to confirm its status”.

In 1951, the Harry Truman administration offered modest US military support to the Tibetan government. The Dalai Lama’s advisers rejected these early proposals as being “too tentative and unreliable”.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, succeeding Truman in 1953, significantly increased US backing for Tibet’s separatist forces which was accepted. CIA involvement in Tibet – with the assistance of other secret agents from the special services of Nepal and India – played a role in the March 1959 US-supported Tibetan uprising against Chinese control, which descended into a fiasco for the rebels.

Mao, enraged by what he perceived as a lack of gratitude by Tibet’s leadership for his lenient strategy, ordered that the rebellion be crushed. Over the course of just a fortnight it was all over, resulting in many thousands of casualties for the Tibetans. When US relations with China warmed slightly in the early 1970s, all American support for Tibet’s separatists quickly ended.

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US governments channel cash to Tibetan opposition groups

Yet from the early 1980s until today, US governments resumed and continue to channel cash to Tibetan opposition groups and exile organisations. Some of this money is funnelled through the US State Department branch, the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

The Trump administration is providing many millions of dollars to Tibetan separatist causes. In the year 2019 alone Washington dispensed with $17 million to Tibet’s “independence” goals, extending to Tibetan-linked groups based in India and Nepal.

The Great Leap: A catastrophic and ill-judged attempt to reshape China

Regarding Mao’s 27 year reign, Western historical and media accounts claim he was directly responsible for the deaths of tens of millions; due to the seemingly brutal nature of his policies during the Great Leap Forward, which lasted from 1958 to 1962. This was a catastrophic and ill-judged attempt to reshape China from an agrarian-based economy, to a communistic society.

Between the spring of 1959 and late 1961, about 30 million Chinese people starved to death. On top of this, another few million may simply have died in the sheer exertion and turmoil of the Great Leap’s transformation; while 15 million fewer children were born because women, suffering from malnutrition, became too weak to conceive.

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The Chinese population in 1958 was around 650 million people, meaning that approximately 5% of the country’s populace then perished; whereas during the Korean War 20% or more of its population was killed, resulting in a higher death rate per capita.

There are also mitigating circumstances involved relating to the death toll in China, and Mao’s influence that is supposedly to blame entirely for it. In the late 1950s and into 1960, more than a third of all China’s cultivated land was experiencing the worst drought in a century. These affected crops, amounting to 100 million acres of farmland, ultimately failed and the national grain harvest plummeted.

In the heavily populated Shandong province of eastern China, eight of its 12 main rivers had completely dried up by 1960, an indication of the drought’s astonishing severity.

China’s Yellow River not far to the south of Beijing, the sixth longest river on earth, had dropped so low by mid-1960 that men could comfortably wade across its lower reaches. This had not been seen before. On the outskirts of Beijing, China’s best supplied city, people were forced to eat tree bark and weeds.

To compound matters, in 1961 record-breaking floods arrived in China that washed away more arable land. A further 50 million acres were wiped out, and some of this flooding in China during 1961 is yet to have its record broken.

The extreme climatic events added to a death toll that would have been appreciably smaller, but for these weather phenomenon, which Mao had no control over and could not foresee. Maoist policies, based on misguided ideological beliefs, greatly exacerbated a precarious situation, at a time when China’s economy was mostly closed off from the outside world.

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The Great Leap ended in an apocalyptic failure China Tibet 

Philip Short, a biographer of Mao and veteran English journalist, wrote that, “As Mao contemplated the ruins that his delusions had brought about, he began gloomily to implement his long-delayed promise to retire to the ‘second front’. The Great Leap had ended in an apocalyptic failure. His grandiose dream of universal plenty had metamorphosed into an epic of pure horror”.

It was Mao’s “grandiose dream of universal plenty” for China’s people, an unrealistic utopian project, which significantly contributed to the tragedy that afflicted China in the late 50s/early 60s; rather than deliberate genocidal actions such as the Nazi Holocaust or Great Purge. Unlike Hitler or Stalin, Mao quite clearly did not set about intentionally killing people en masse.

In Short’s well researched biography of Mao, he acknowledged that, “The overwhelming majority of those whom Mao’s policies killed were unintended casualties of famine” which he writes “was partly attributable to the weather”; and this lack of intent to harm people places Mao “in a different category from other 20th century tyrants”.

Another factor in the Great Leap Forward’s humanitarian disaster was the Sino-Soviet split – one of the Cold War’s major episodes – as personal relations soured between Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev and Mao.

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1950s: China’s largest trading partner was the Soviet Union China Tibet 

Trade between these neighbours peaked in 1959, equivalent to over 45% of China’s foreign investment. In July 1960, as drought and famine tightened its grip in China, a spiteful Khrushchev terminated all Russian aid to the Chinese, withdrawing almost 1,400 Soviet technicians from the country.

This left many factories half-constructed in China that the Russian experts had been overseeing, and other research projects were also abandoned. The loss of Soviet assistance to China was sorely felt. Short recognised, “the Soviet action inflicted enormous economic damage at a time when China was least able to deal with it”.

Focusing on the health care programs, the average life expectancy of a Chinese person in 1949 was less than 40 years. By the mid-1970s, when Mao died in office, Chinese citizens were living for over a quarter of a century longer on average, reaching 66 years of age.

It ranks as among the most rapid rises of average life expectancy in global history. This was no coincidence, as it had indeed been made possible because of the Mao government’s nationwide health care plans – which saved as many as 100 million lives by comparison to India during the same period from 1949 to 1979, encompassing almost all of Mao’s tenure.

Shane Quinn has contributed on a regular basis to Global Research for almost two years and has had articles published with American news outlets People’s World and MintPress News, Morning Star in Britain, and Venezuela’s Orinoco Tribune. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

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