I. Old Tibet: Dark and Backward

Old Tibet: Dark and Backward

Even in the 1950s, Tibet was still a society ruled by feudal serfdom under theocracy. Having existed for several centuries, this wretched system stifled human rights and destroyed human qualities. It was thus the most backward mode of human society under which the people had no democratic, economic, social, or cultural rights, and their basic human rights were not protected. Old Tibet was a far cry from modern civilization.

Under feudal serfdom, serfs suffered cruel political oppression and had no personal freedom or fundamental rights.

Old Tibet implemented laws, as represented by the "16-Article Code" and "13-Article Code," that oppressed serfs. These laws divided people into three classes and nine ranks, whereby nobles, Living Buddhas and senior officials were born into and thus constituted the upper class, while the broad masses of serfs constituted the lower class. Value accorded to life correspondingly differed. The value of the life of a person of the upper class was measured in gold according to his weight. The value of the lives of butchers, blacksmiths, and others of the lowest rank of the lower class was equivalent to hempen rope. When people of different classes and ranks violated the same criminal law, the criteria in old Tibet for imposing penalties and the means of punishment were quite different. The laws stipulated that the punishment for a servant who injured his master was to have his hands or feet chopped off, but a master who injured a servant was not required to pay compensation. Serf owners and serfs had overtly unequal standing according to law. Serf owners held absolute power over the lives of serfs and slaves, and ensured their rule over the latter through savage punishments, including gouging out eyes, cutting out flesh or tongues, cutting off hands or feet, pulling out tendons, and being put in manacles.

The Kashag (cabinet) of old Tibet prescribed that all serfs must stay on the land within the manors of their owners. They were not allowed to leave without permission; fleeing the manor was forbidden. "All serfs have owners and all plots of land are assigned." Serfs were possessed by the three major estate-holders (local government officials, nobles and upper-ranking lamas in monasteries). They remained serfs from generation to generation, and confined to the land of their owners. All serfs and their livestock able to labor had to till the plots of land assigned to them and provide corvee labor. Once serfs lost their ability to labor, they were deprived of livestock, farm tools and land, and their status was degraded to that of slave. Since serfs were their private property, the three major estate-holders could use them as gambling stakes, mortgages for debt, present them as gifts, or transfer and trade them. All serfs needed permission from their owners to marry, and male and female serfs belonging to different owners had to pay "redemption fees" before such permission was granted. After marriage, serfs were also taxed on their newborn children, which were registered the moment they were born, so sealing their fate as lifelong serfs. Serfs that needed to make a living in other places were required to pay "servitudetax," and had to produce proof of having paid such tax or they would otherwise be punished as fugitives.

After presiding over the enthronement ceremony of the 14th Dalai Lama in 1940, Wu Zhongxin, chief of the Commission for Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs of the Kuomintang Government, described the rulers' oppression and the people's sufferings in old Tibet in his "Report on Tibetan Affairs on a Mission": "Located in frigid highlands, Tibet has rare agricultural products. The people live a hard life, whereas the Tibetan authorities do their utmost to oppress and exploit them, making the lives of the Tibetans one of hell and misery. The Tibetan authorities regard the people as slaves and beasts of burden and do not pay them as a rule; the people even have to find their own food and horse fodder; meanwhile they endure incessant, copious and complicated corvee labor and never enjoy days of peace. You can thus imagine how harassed they are. The authorities can issue an order to appropriate the people's property without compensation and bestow such property on lamaseries or meritorious nobles. In short, in Tibet, the people have lost their guarantee of survival and freedom, and their miserable life is beyond description."

Ruled by feudal serfdom under theocracy, serfs had no means of production, and their right to subsistence was under threat.

In old Tibet, the three major estate-holders and their agents accounted for only five percent of Tibet's population, but they owned almost all of Tibet's farmland, pastures, forests, mountains, rivers, and beaches, as well as most of the livestock. About 95 percent of old Tibet's population was made up of serfs, including "tralpa" as they are known in the Tibetan language (people who tilled plots of land assigned to them and who were obligated to provide corvee labor for serf owners), "duiqoin" (small households with chimneys emitting smoke), and "nangzan" (hereditary household slaves who were deprived of any means of production and personal freedom). They had no means of production and suffered cruel economic exploitation.

The first exploitation serfs suffered was land rent. Serf owners on feudal manors divided the land into two parts: The largest part was kept as manor demesne while smaller lots were rented to serfs under stringent conditions. To use the lots, serfs had to work on the demesne with their own farm implements and provide their own food. Such unpaid labor constituted the rent they paid to serf owners. Most of the grain that serfs harvested from the lots was finally taken away by estate-holders. A "tralpa" could only keep 100-150 kilograms of grain annually, which was not enough to live on; his diet mainly consisted of wild herbs and weeds mixed with a little grain. In addition to the heavy land rent paid in the form of labor, serfs had to pay numerous taxes and fees.

The second exploitation serfs suffered was corvee labor - a broad term covering not only corvee, but taxes and levies, and rents for land and livestock. The former local government of Tibet alone levied more than 200 kinds of taxes. Serfs had to contribute more than 50 percent or sometimes even 70 to 80 percent of their labor, unpaid, to the government and estate-holders. Corvee labor was divided into two kinds: one was that which serfs provided to the estate-holders they were bonded to and their agents; the other was the unpaid work serfs did for the local government of Tibet and its subordinates. The heaviest was transport corvee, because Tibet is large but sparsely populated and transport was inconvenient, necessitating the transport of all kinds of goods by humans or pack animals. Year after year, serfs were made to transport materials over mountains and rivers for the local government. This gave rise to the saying, "The boots have no soles, and the backs of the cattle are hairless."

Driving out imperialist forces, and realizing peaceful liberation

After the Opium War of 1840, imperialist forces intensified aggression on China, gradually reducing the country to a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society. China's Tibet region also suffered imperialist aggression. In face of the British invasions of 1888 and 1904, Tibetan military and civilians put up a heroic resistance, but it failed due to the corrupt Qing government and declining national strength, and feudal serfdom. Britain coerced the Qing government, even bypassing it and directly forcing the local government of Tibet to sign unequal treaties, thus grabbing a series of privileges in Tibet that seriously damaged the sovereignty of China. Economically, it forcibly opened trading ports there, making Gyantse and Yadong two ports where permanent British trade representatives resided and official institutions were set up. Militarily, it stationed troops, one company in Gyantse and a platoon in Yadong. In addition, it built such infrastructure as posts, telecommunications, and courier stations managed and run by the British that served Britain's pillaging, and provided long-term service for British and Indian officers and a few Tibetan separatists.

It was the urgent desire of all ethnic groups in Tibet and of upper-class patriots to free Tibet from imperialist aggression. The founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949 was a great inspiration for the people of Tibet. They keenly expected the Central People's Government of China to liberate Tibet and drive out imperialist powers at the earliest opportunity. On October 1, 1949, the very day the People's Republic was founded, the 10th Panchen Erdeni telegraphed Chairman Mao Zedong and Commander-in-Chief Zhu De, expressing his support for the Central People's Government and urging the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) to liberate Tibet as soon as possible. In December 1949, Reting Yeshe Tsultrim, aide to the Fifth Regent Reting Rinpoche who suffered persecution from pro-British forces, arrived in Xining, Qinghai Province, to report to the PLA on imperialist attempts to destroy Tibet's internal unity, urging the PLA to liberate Tibet without delay. Sherab Gyatso, a famous master of Tibetan Buddhism, delivered a talk in Xi'an, denouncing the imperialists for hatching a plot through which Lhasa authorities would seek "independence."

Through the efforts of the Central People's Government and of the people of Tibet, the Agreement of the Central People's Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet (the "17-Article Agreement") was signed on May 23, 1951. The first article stipulated, "The people of Tibet should unite and drive out imperialist aggressive forces; they will return to the family of the People's Republic of China." In the agreement, the local government of Tibet promised to "actively assist the PLA in entering Tibet and consolidating national defense." On May 25, Chairman Mao Zedong of the People's Revolutionary Military Committee of the Central People's Government issued an order, so marking the PLA's entry into Tibet. All ethnic groups of Tibet expressed heartfelt support for and a warm welcome to the PLA, and helped the troops enter Tibet.

The PLA troops' entry to Tibet to drive out imperialist forces and abolish unequal treaties that imperialist forces had imposed on the people of Tibet was a major historical event signifying that the Chinese nation, including the Tibetan group, had realized liberation and independence. It utterly changed the history and destiny of Tibet, and provided its various ethnic groups with a fundamental guarantee of being liberated and becoming masters.

--Abolishing feudal serfdom, and the people becoming masters

In the mid-1950s, feudal serfdom under theocracy came to an end. To preserve serfdom, the reactionary forces from the upper class of Tibet tore up the "17-Article Agreement" and staged an all-out armed rebellion in Lhasa on March 10, 1959. On March 22, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) issued the Instructions on Several Policy Issues about Carrying out Democratic Reform in Suppressing the Rebellion in Tibet (draft), demanding that troops mobilize the people to carry out democratic reform amid the battles to suppress the rebellion. On March 28, Premier Zhou Enlai promulgated a State Council decree, dissolving the local government of Tibet and ordering that local government power be taken over by the Preparatory Committee of Tibet Autonomous Region, with the 10th Panchen Erdeni acting as its chairman. In the meantime, the Central People's Government implemented a policy of "suppressing the rebellion while conducting reform," and led the Tibetan people in a surging tide of democratic reform. The reform wrecked the feudal serfdom under theocracy, liberating the people and making them their own masters, so creating important social and historical conditions for the establishment of regional ethnic autonomy.

Abolishing the feudal serfdom and establishing the people's regime created institutional conditions for regional ethnic autonomy in Tibet. By the end of 1960, Tibet had established 1,009 organs of state power at the township level, 283 at the district level, 78 at the county level (including county-level districts), and eight at the prefecture (city) level. Meanwhile, more than 4,400 liberated serfs and slaves had become government officials at various levels. All township-level government officials were from the Tibetan group, 90 percent of district-level government officials were Tibetan, and more than 300 Tibetans held leading posts at or above the county level.