Review by Zhang Huasha
This book portrays the prison and ‘reform’ experiences of a young Tibetan from a family of Tibetan government officials during the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s occupation of Tibet after the 1959 uprising. In his book, Tubten Khétsun provides the readers with a vivid account of what the life of a ‘class enemy’ was like from 1959 to the end of the Cultural Revolution as well as the sufferings of the Tibetan people both in Lhasa and other regions of Tibet under the Chinese rule.
Born in 1941 in a government official family, the 18-year-old Tubten Khétsun had just completed examinations held by the local Tibetan government and became a low-rank official in the Norbu Lingka summer palace when the 1959 uprising took place. Not being able to run away after the failure of the Tibetan army’s resistance against the PLA (People’s Liberation Army), Khétsun was caught and sent into prison for four years of arduous compulsory labor under harsh living conditions. After being released, Khétsun was subject to 15 years of ‘political reeducation’ as ‘class enemy’, which belonged to the lowest social ranks in the Cultural Revolution. When the Cultural Revolution ended, Khétsun was pleased to accept the job of repairing and cleaning the Potala, and then worked for the Tibet Academy of Social Science. In 1983, Khétsun moved to the United Stated where his elder brother was living. In the year 1998, the first edition of his autobiography was published in Tibetan in Dharamsala. The English edition was published in 2008, translated by Matthew Akester. In his book, Khétsun provides the audience with a detailed account of the lives of Tibetan people after 1959 from the perspective of one who belonged to the ‘former ruling class’, who had suffered most after the downfall of the Tibetan government in 1959. In his two decades of life under the PRC’s physical and mental torture in occupied Tibet, Khétsun witnessed the suffering of common Tibetans in the Great Famine, the devastation of the environment, the massacre of Tibetan people, the destruction of Tibetan Buddhism religion, the exploitation of Tibetan natural recourses and discrimination against the Tibetans by the PLA and Chinese officials. By writing this autobiography, Khétsun hopes to keep a record of how the Tibetan people and land have been entirely decimated by the PRC, and show it to ‘the world’ and ‘the next generation’ (Khétsun, xix ).
The Gyatso Tashi household in which Khétsun was born was a family whose members successively served in the Tibetan government for generations. Khétsun’s father had been appointed government trade officer in western Tibet before he died of illness in 1948. Khétsun’s uncle was a monk official of a relatively high rank, who had served as governor of Lho-ka and then became the palace secretariat till the 1959 uprising. Khétsun’s mother was one of the delegates in the Tibetan Women’s Association, who played an important role in the 1959 demonstration. Khétsun himself was serving in the Norbu Lingka as one of the Dalai Lama’s attendants. After the 1959 uprising was put down by the PLA, almost all of Khétsun’s family was kept in PLA’s custody except Khétsun’s elder brother, who managed to flee to India. Khétsun’s mother’s physical and mental health had been greatly damaged in the interrogations held by the PRC and died soon thereafter. His uncle was regarded as one of the most important prisoners and died of mistreatment in prison in 1963. Khétsun himself was sentenced to 4 years’ imprisonment as a participant in the uprising and family member of anti-revolutionaries along with his eldest brother (who spent 20 years in prison) and elder sister (who was released in 1962).
When Khétsun was first captured, he was imprisoned in the Tibet Military District Headquarters. At seeing the formidable defenses inside the camp, he was sure the PRC ‘had been preparing for conflict for a ling time’, and ‘must have long since resolved to impose their rule by force’(40). In jail, Khétsun was ‘encouraged’ to inform on his uncle and began to experience the Chinese’s maneuver of stirring the Tibetans by raising internal squabbles and internal contradictions, which would be one of the main themes in the next 20 years. Not being able to reveal anything against his uncle, Khétsun was accused of ‘dishonesty’ and was transferred to the Norbu Lingka Prison, and then the Nga-chen Power Station Construction Site, the Téring Prison, the Drapch Prison, and at last the Trong-nying Prison Farm before he was finally released. In the first two years of his prison sentence, he received no trial and was not informed of how long he was going to be imprisoned. At the same time, the Great Famine was afflicting Tibet, which made the living conditions of the prisoners go from bad to worse. A large number of prisoners died from the combination of starvation, the abuse of prison guards, and lack of medical treatment. After surviving the Famine, Khétsun was sent to work at several construction camps according to the PRC’s ‘compulsory labor transformation’ policy towards its prisoners. In construction camps, Khétsun suffered from harsh living conditions, arduous work, abuse from prison guards, endless labor competitions and nightly political meetings. The Chinese people in charge completely disregarded of the prisoners’ physical conditions or whether they were experienced with the always tough and dangerous work. In his years of work in construction camps, Khétsun witnessed several tragedies in which precious lives were lost because of the irresponsibility of people in charge. Unlike the Tibetan guards who appeared harsh but always have good heart inside (several Tibetan guards were kind to the prisoners and tried to protect monks in prison), the Chinese guards were evil people who were notorious for abusing prisoners verbally and physically. To prisoners like Khétsun, the Chinese guards were like ‘henchman of the lord of death’ (123).
Lhasa after 1963
After being released in 1963, Khétsun went back to Lhasa to live with his sisters and brothers. Even though he was a young and strong man, Khétsun could hardly find a workplace where a former prisoner and ‘class enemy’ could be accepted, so he and his family had to rely on their former servants and tenants, who didn’t turn his family out for profit, but kindly gave food to them. In the city of Lhasa, Khétsun was sad to see the monks were no longer allowed to practice religious activities, but had to do construction work on Chinese buildings. The ostracized families’ offspring, including Khétsun’s younger brother, were not allowed to get a proper education. The Tax Campaign, the Muslim Agitation and the campaign against the Panchen Rinpoché successively made the city full of blood and terror. Apart from that, Khétsun discovered to his consternation that the forests near Lhasa were being decimated under Chinese orders.
The Culture Revolution
It was not long after the onset of the Culture Revolution in 1966 in Beijing when Khétsun saw Red Guards rushing to Lhasa from all over China, joining local revolutionary activists in damaging cultural relics and dragging people from their homes for ‘struggling’. When the campaign was in its climax, even some people from ‘proletarian’ families were struggled against, not to mention former nobles who had been labeled ‘progressives’ by the PRC for not participating in the 1959 uprising. When they were publicaly humiliated, Khétsun was sorry to see some ‘mindless’ Tibetans abusing them by spitting and throwing dirt towards them. Tibetans who believed in the PRC propaganda, joined the Red Guard or engaged in the faction conflicts were referred to by Khétsun as ‘mindless’ (see 175, 189 and 204 for Khétsun’s definition and description of ‘mindless’ Tibetans) people, for they were beguiled by the PRC to turn against their own people. However, there were also ‘real traitors’, who were Tibetan people from noble families who occupied positions in Chinese government departments, and ‘refused to acknowledge not only former colleagues but even their own parents and relatives, in the cause of “taking a clear stance”.’(180) Unlike those pitiful ‘mindless’ people, Khétsun held that the ‘traitors’ deserved to suffer in the Cultural Revolution as punishment of their shameful behavior.
The anarchy of Lhasa featuring factional fighting was ended by the PLA’s brutal massacre of the Gyenlok faction, including women and children, which marked the onset of the white terror. Public executions were frequently held and citizen’s attendance was compulsory in order to intimidate people. At the same time, more forests in Tibet were decimated and transported into China proper, Ganden Monastery was destroyed under Chinese order, and a great number of Tibetan people, especially ‘class enemies’ were forced to do large scale government construction, but most of them turned out to be useless. Apart from that, the locals had to endure the PLA’s harassment, which was witnessed by Khétsun himself several times.
End of Life as a ‘Class Enemy’
Khétsun was ranked as a ‘class enemy’, which was one of the lowest social ranks in the Cultural Revolution, and people in this class were subject to every aspect of public discrimination. An educated young man though he was, Khétsun was only allowed to do the hardest physical work, and could only receive the lowest payment. He and his family were under close surveillance of the neighborhood committee, subjected to endless interrogations, and the last to get food and other necessities, which were always the worst quality and not enough in quantity. The constant fear of being ‘struggled against’ ferociously as were people he saw on the streets was another torment of Khétsun.
The Cultural Revolution ended soon after Mao’s death in 1976 and the PRC’s policy towards Tibet fundamentally changed. Although Khétsun’s life was getting better and better, he decided not to endure the PRC’s tyranny anymore and moved to the US, for he had lost hope completely for the government after witnessing its 20 years of injust treatment inflicted upon to himself and the Tibetan people.
Khétsun’s 20 years of miserable life under rule of the PRC was not only the evidence of the brutal natural of the PRC, but also the tragic result of mutual hatred between Khétsun and the PRC. To the PRC, Khétsun was a dangerous man who belonged to the family which was planning to overthrow its government thus his subjugation under ‘people’s dictatorship’ was necessary; to Khétsun, the PRC was the tyrant which had killed his beloved ones and imposed unimaginable suffering upon him and his family. Although it is beyond any doubt that extremism was characteristic of the PRC’s governance in Tibet from 1959 to 1976, it was people like Khétsun who suffered the most. It is understandable that Khétsun hated not just the PRC government, but all ethnic Chinese, which is explicit in his autobiography. To keep a record of the Tibetan people’s sufferings under the PRC’s rule was one of Khétsun’s purposes of writing this autobiography, and he was successful in doing so by making the reader’s heart weighed down when reading about scenes like barefooted prisoners being made to carry their guards across a river with ice flows. However, to whom ‘the Tibetans’ Khétsun was referring in his narrative needs to be investigated, for there were also Tibetans who appeared in his book whose lives were much different from Khétsun’s, such as the Tibetan prison guards, the Tibetan Red Guards, activists and faction members, the former servants who gave Khétsun’s family food, the ‘mindless’ Tibetans and the Tibetan ‘traitors’. Moreover, as 70% (260) of Lhasa’s population were ‘offspring of former ruling class’, the situation in Lhasa might be very different from other parts of Tibet. What I am indicating is not necessarily that Tibetan who were not of Khétsun’s rank were not suffering, but that their lives under PRC’s rule and how they see the PRC or the Chinese might be different from the author’s perspective.
Tubten Khétsun, Memories of Life in Lhasa under Chinese Rule (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).