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Tibet in 50 Years
Special> Tibet in 50 Years
UPDATED: March 4, 2009
Full Text: Fifty Years of Democratic Reform in Tibet
Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China March 2009, Beijing

A Russian traveler in Lhasa in the early 20th century, wrote in his book A Buddhist Pilgrim to the Holy Place of Tibet: "The offenders are mostly poverty-stricken Tibetans punished either by having their fingers or noses cut off, or, in most cases, by being blinded in both eyes. Such disfigured and blind people are seen begging in the streets of Lhasa every day. Exile is another type of punishment. Offenders are shackled and chained, and have to wear a large round wooden collar around their necks all their life. They are sent to remote regions for hard labor or work as serfs for feudal aristocrats and patriarchal chiefs. The severest punishment of all is, of course, the death penalty, with the victims drowned in rivers (as in Lhasa) or thrown over rocky cliffs (as in Xigaze)."5

David MacDonald, a Briton, wrote in his book The Land of the Lama: "Capital punishment is deemed the heaviest category of punishment in Tibet, to which the most inhuman practice of dismemberment is added based on the hypothesis proposed by Tibetan lamas that after dismemberment the human soul cannot be reincarnated. The most common practice is to throw the condemned prisoner into a river in a leather wrapper, which will sink in about five minutes. If he remains alive after this time, he will be tossed into the water again until he dies. Afterwards, the body will be dismembered, and hurled into the river to drift downward with the current…Even more appalling is the practice of gouging out a prisoner's eyes. A piece of heated, U-shaped iron is inserted into the eye sockets, or boiling water or oil is poured in, and the eyeballs are prized out with an iron hook."6

There were penitentiaries or private jails in monasteries and aristocrats' houses, where instruments of torture were kept and clandestine tribunals held to punish serfs and slaves. In the Ganden Monastery there were many handcuffs, fetters, cudgels, and instruments of torture used for eye gouging and hamstringing. The private monastery administrative office set up by Trijang Rinpoche, junior tutor of the present 14th Dalai Lama, killed and injured more than 500 serfs and poor monks, in Dechen Dzong (present-day Dagze County) jailed 121 people, sent 89 into exile, forced 538 into slavery, forced 1,025 commoners into exile, forced 72 divorces, and 484 women were raped there.

In the Archives of the Tibet Autonomous Region there is a letter from a department of the Tibet local government to Rabden in the early 1950s, saying that, to celebrate the Dalai Lama's birthday, all the staff of Gyumey (The highest school of the Gelug Sect in Tibet.--ed.) would chant the sutra. To successfully complete this ceremony, some special food would be thrown to the animals. Thus, a corpus of wet intestine, two skulls, many kinds of blood and a full human skin were urgently needed, all of which must be promptly delivered. A religious ceremony for the Dalai Lama used human blood, skulls and skin, showing how cruel and bloody the feudal serfdom system under theocracy was in old Tibet.

Heavy taxes and corvee. Serf owners exploited serfs by imposing corvée labor, taxes and levies, and rents for land and livestock. There were over 200 kinds of taxes levied by the former local government of Tibet alone. Serfs had to contribute more than 50 percent or even 70 to 80 percent of their labor, unpaid, to the government and manor owners. At feudal manors, serf owners divided the land into two parts: Most fertile land was kept as manor demesne while infertile and remote lots were rented to serfs on stringent conditions. To use the lots, serfs had to work on the demesne with their own farm implements and provide their own food. Only after they had finished work on the demesne could they work on the lots assigned to them. In the busy farming season or when serf owners needed laborers, serfs had to contribute man or animal power gratis. In addition, serfs had to do unpaid work for the local government of Tibet and its subordinates, among which the heaviest was transport corvée, because Tibet is large but sparsely populated and all kinds of things had to be transported by man or animal power.

According to a survey conducted prior to the democratic reform of Tibet, the Darongqang Manor owned by Gyaltsap Tajtra (A title of the 14th Dalai Lama before he took over the reins of government.--ed.) had a total of 1,445 mu of land, and 81 able-bodied and semi-able-bodied serfs. They were assigned a total of 21,266 corvée days per year, the equivalent of an entire year's labor by 67.3 people, 83 percent of the total. The Khesum Manor, located by the Yarlung River in present-day Nedong County, was one of the manors owned by aristocrat Surkhang Wangchen Gelek. Before the democratic reform, the manor had 59 serf households totaling 302 persons and 1,200 mu of land. Every year, Surkhang and his agents levied 18 taxes and assigned 14 kinds of corvée, making up 26,800 working days; the local government of Tibet levied nine kinds of taxes and assigned 10 kinds of corvée, making up more than 2,700 working days; and Riwo Choling Monastery levied seven kinds of taxes and assigned three kinds of corvée, making up more than 900 working days; on average, every laborer had to do over 210 days of unpaid work for the three estate-holders, and contribute over 800 kilograms of grain and 100 liang of silver.

Exploitation through usury. Each Dalai Lama had two money-lending agencies. Some money coming from "tribute" to the Dalai Lama was lent at an exorbitant rate of interest. According to records in the account books of the two agencies, in 1950 they lent 3,038,581 liang of silver as principal, and collected 303,858 liang in interest. Governments at different levels in Tibet also had many such agencies, and lending money and collecting interest became one of the officials' duties. A survey done in 1959 showed that the three major monasteries, namely Drepung, Sera and Ganden, in Lhasa lent 22,725,822 kg of grain and collected 399,364 kg in interest, and lent 57,105,895 liang of silver and collected 1,402,380 liang in interest. Revenue from usury made up 25 to 30 percent of the total revenue of the three monasteries. Most aristocrats also engaged in usury, with the interest accounting for 15 to 20 percent of their family revenues. Serfs had to borrow money to survive, and more than 90 percent of serf households were in debt. French traveler Alexandre David-Neel wrote in his book Le Vieux Tibet Face à la Chine Nouvelle (Old Tibet Faces New China), "All the farmers in Tibet are serfs saddled with lifelong debts, and it is almost impossible to find any of them who have paid off their debts." Serfs were burdened with new debts, debts passed down from previous generations, debts resulting from joint liability, and debts apportioned among all the serfs. The debts that were passed down from previous generations and could never be repaid even by succeeding generations accounted for one third of the total debts. The grandfather of a serf named Tsering Gonpo in Maizhokunggar County once borrowed 50 ke of grain from the Sera Monastery. In 77 years the three generations of the family had paid more than 3,000 ke of grain in interest, but the serf owner still claimed that Tsering Gonpo owed him 100,000 ke of grain. There was another serf named Tenzin in Dongkar County who borrowed one ke of qingke from his master in 1941. In 1951 he was ordered to pay back 600 ke. Tenzin could not pay off the debt, and had to flee. His wife committed suicide, and his seven-year-old son was taken away to repay the debt by labor.

A stagnant society on the edge of collapse. Ruthless oppression and exploitation under the feudal serfdom of theocracy stifled the vitality of Tibetan society and reduced Tibet to a state of chronic stagnation for centuries. Even by the middle of the 20th century, Tibet was still in a state of extreme isolation and backwardness, almost without a trace of modern industry, commerce, science and technology, education, culture or health care. Primitive farming methods were still being used, and herdsmen had to travel from place to place to find pasture for their livestock. There were few strains and breeds of grains and animals, some of which had even degenerated. Farm tools were primitive. The level of both the productive forces and social development was very low. Deaths from hunger and cold, poverty and disease were commonplace among the serfs, and the streets of Lhasa, Xigaze, Qamdo and Nagqu were crowded with beggars of all ages and both sexes. American Tibetologist A. Tom Grunfeld pointed out that, although some people claimed before 1959, ordinary Tibetan people could enjoy milk tea as they wished and a great deal of meat and vegetables, a survey conducted in eastern Tibet in 1940 showed that 38 percent of Tibetan families never had tea to drink, 51 percent could not afford butter, and 75 percent sometimes had to eat weeds boiled with beef bones and oat or bean flour. "There is no evidence to support these images of a Utopian Shangri-la."

Plenty of evidence has demonstrated that by the middle of the 20th century the feudal serfdom of theocracy was beset with numerous contradictions and plagued by crises. Serfs petitioned their masters for relief from their burdens, fled their lands, resisted paying rent and corvée labor, and even waged armed struggle. Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme, once a Galoin (cabinet minister) of the former local government of Tibet, pointed out that "all believe that if Tibet goes on like this the serfs will all die in the near future, and the nobles will not be able to live either. The whole of Tibet will be destroyed."7

II. Momentous Democratic Reform in Tibet

Carrying out democratic reform and abolishing the feudal serfdom of theocracy was an inevitable requirement for social progress. It was a major task of the people's democratic revolution led by the Communist Party of China, and was the only solution for social development in Tibet. Moreover, it reflected the yearning of the overwhelming majority of the Tibetan people. In 1959, the Central People's Government carried out a great historical reform in Tibetan history, and profoundly changed the fate of the Tibetan people by launching the democratic reform and abolishing serfdom, a grim and backward feudal system.

The People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, when the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) won decisive victories over the Kuomintang troops. Beiping (now Beijing) and provinces like Hunan, Yunnan, Xinjiang and the former Xikang were all liberated peacefully from the rule of the former Kuomintang Government. In light of the actual situation in Tibet, the Central People's Government also decided to use peaceful means to liberate Tibet. In January 1950, the Central People's Government formally notified the local authorities of Tibet to "send delegates to Beijing to negotiate the peaceful liberation of Tibet." In February 1951, the 14th Dalai Lama sent Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme as his chief plenipotentiary, and Kemai Soinam Wangdui, Tubdain Daindar, Tubdain Legmoin and Sampo Dainzin Toinzhub as delegates to Beijing to handle with full power the negotiations with the Central People's Government. On May 23, 1951, the 17-Article Agreement was signed in Beijing and Tibet was thus liberated peacefully. The peaceful liberation enabled Tibet to shake off the trammels imposed by imperialist aggressor forces, brought to an end to the long-term isolation of Tibet and stagnancy of its social development, thus creating favorable conditions for democratic reform and social progress in Tibet.

The 17-Article Agreement gained the approval and support of people of all ethnic groups in Tibet. On September 26-29, 1951, the local Tibetan government held a meeting to discuss the Agreement, joined by all ecclesiastical and secular officials and representatives from the three prominent monasteries. The participants concurred that the Agreement "is of great and incomparable benefit to the grand cause of the Dalai Lama, and to Buddhism, and the politics, economy and other aspects of life in Tibet. Naturally, it should be carried out." The 14th Dalai Lama sent a telegram to Chairman Mao Zedong on October 24, 1951, stating that "On the basis of friendship, the delegates of the two sides signed on May 23, 1951 the Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet. The local Tibetan government as well as ecclesiastical and secular people unanimously support this Agreement, and, under the leadership of Chairman Mao and the Central People's Government, will actively assist the PLA troops entering Tibet in consolidating national defense, ousting imperialist influences from Tibet and safeguarding the unification of the territory and the sovereignty of the motherland." In 1954, the 14th Dalai Lama and the 10th Panchen Lama participated in the First National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, with the former elected vice-chairman of the NPC Standing Committee and the latter a member of the same committee. The 14th Dalai Lama addressed the meeting, fully endorsing the achievements made since the implementation of the 17-Article Agreement three years previously, and expressing his warm support for the principles and rules regarding the regional autonomy of ethnic minorities. On April 22, 1956, he became chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region Preparatory Committee. In a speech at the founding of the committee, he reaffirmed that the Agreement had enabled the Tibetan people to fully enjoy all rights of ethnic equality and to "embark on a bright road of freedom and happiness."

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