Popular History: The Suppression of a Rebellion in Tibet
With appetite growing on the Chinese Internet for more information about the history of China’s dealings with Tibet, one elderly blogger has stepped up to feed it. The blogger, 72-year-old Jiang Dasan (江达三), is a retired pilot who was stationed in western China with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force in the 1950s. The following is the first of eight posts on his experiences with the PLA in Tibetan regions that have been circulating widely since the eruption of the Lhasa riots. Translated by CDT:
In the summer of 1958, Western China experienced instability.
In May of 1951, the Chinese central government and the Dalai Lama, acting as representative of the Tibetan government, signed the “Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” and Tibet declared it had been peacefully liberated. After the agreement had been signed, however, top Tibetan leaders and businessmen unwilling to part with their privileges began organizing troops and preparing for violent resistance against the central government. These troops were the beginnings of what would later become the formidable so-called “Four Rivers and Six Mountains Defenders of the Teachings,” (四水六岗卫教军; Tibetan: Chushi Gandrug).
The United States has a strong interest in supporting Tibetan independence. On several occasions, the CIA air-dropped weapons and espionage equipment to the “Defenders of the Teachings.” With American support, this self-proclaimed protectors of religious faith mobilized local reactionaries, launched surprise assaults on People’s Liberation Army bases and convoys, stole supplies, inflicted serious damage on PLA units stationed in Tibet and brought disaster on the Tibetan people.
From the beginning we tried to implement the party’s minorities policy, carrying out thought work to the best of our ability in order to impel them. But repeated efforts had little effect. They began to assassinate local officials. On one occasion, an official of ours went out to do his work with sincere intentions. They [the Tibetans] pretended to present him with a hada. When our official bowed his heads to receive it, they drew blades and beheaded him with a single stroke!
If this is tolerable, what is intolerable? Reality gave us an education. We’ve returned to the old magic formula: First attack by force, politics as a second course (军事打击为住，政治争取为辅). Working only through politics, they don’t understand your power. They see you as weak and pliant.
At that time, we discovered a few top people in the vicinity of Xining—lammas, living Buddhas, nobles, headmen, etc—were getting ready to launch a violent attack. One afternoon, the PLA unit stationed there rounded roughly a hundred of them up in three military trucks and, using a reinforced battalion, drove them to the Xining airport under the pretext of taking them to “attend” an air show.
…That day, we were standing about 50 meters from the southern end of the runway with 20 barrels of gasoline filled to the brim, arranged in a target with a radius of 10 meters or so.
After the Tibetan leaders arrived, there were taken to the center of the airport to “watch the battle.” First were two Lavochkin La-11s from the Air Force’s 26th Division that flew up to 1000 meters then turned around. When they were roughly 2000 meters away from the runway, they began a fierce dive while strafing the oil barrels with their machine guns. All you saw was the tongues of fire coming out the planes’ guns and suddenly the oil barrels exploded into the sky with a vicious roar. Add in the piercing sound of the planes as they dove and it was enough to make the average person tremble with fear. The La-11s each took a turn flying around the airport and spraying the ground with bullets then landed to make way for two Du-2 bombers from the 25th Division. They also flew from west to east, at an elevation of 600 meters, and began to bomb the mountain to the south, each plane carrying three 250-kilogram demolition bombs. The bombs hit their targets exactly, sending plumes of smoke into the sky, shaking the ground and sending out deafening shock waves. This frightened “the spectators” like they’d never been frightened before, particularly the superstitious lammas and living Buddhas, who’d never seen planes before and, out of fear and respect, referred to the bombers as “spirit eagles” (神鹰; note: this is the Chinese phrase for condor, the birds involved in Tibetan sky burials). At that point they really believed the PLA was “Heaven’s Army” (天兵天将) A few people couldn’t take it and fainted, some pissed in their pants, and others shouted slogans at the top of their voice: “Long live the Communist Party! Long live Chairman Mao!” A truly strange and ugly scene.
After that, we went to the airport lounge to have a discussion. No fighting spirit to speak of. One after the other, they all expressed their support for the Party’s minority policies and the People’s Government, saying they wanted to bring the Tibetan people in step with the Communist Party and be models of national solidarity. We knew, with these people, one or two lessons were far from enough. Our work going forward would be long and arduous. But this one air show definitely had a stabilizing effect on the situation at the time. Striking while the iron was hot, officials went back and launched mass work, using their invincible position to capture the vast majority of the people. Soon after that, there was an obvious change in the situation all across Qinghai. Everywhere was noticeably more stable. In a few places, there were still scattered groups of rebel bandits running around and continuing to resist. Dealing with them was a simple matter of encirclement and suppression with ground troops and the 25th Air Force Division.