“Achievements are predominant, mistakes are secondary”:
the Panchen Lama’s meetings with Li Weihan and Zhou Enlai about his 70,000 character report on conditions in Tibet
Jianglin Li and Matthew Akester
The 10th Panchen Lama’s ’70,000 character report’ on problems with the ‘pacification of rebellion’ and implementation of ‘Democratic Reform’ in Tibet was the most significant critique of Communist rule in minority regions ever acknowledged by the Party. It was handled by the United Front (UFWD), the branch of government charged with coopting and coordinating loyal figures of authority outside the Party, and its eventual rejection by the central leadership signalled both the fall of the Panchen Lama, the most eminent such figure in Tibet, and the end of any meaningful consultative role for the United Front organisations in minority regions generally.
The report was submitted to Premier Zhou Enlai, the member of the top leadership who had sanctioned it thus far, in late May 1962, on conclusion of the Nationalities Work Conference in Beijing. This event marked a tide of optimism among some nationality cadres that the spirit of rectifying Leftist mistakes fostered by the post-Great Leap Forward leadership would now be extended to their regions. Premier Zhou, however, found that the report came too close to suggesting that the CCP was deliberately eradicating Tibetan religion and identity, and asked for a suitably revised version, which was submitted in early June. A series of high-level meetings was then convened by the central UFWD, June 21st – 25th, involving the Tibet Work Committee leaders Zhang Jingwu and Zhang Guohua, and the Panchen’s group, along with other senior Tibetan officials, notably Ngabo Ngawang Jigme. The transcripts of those meetings are presented here in English translation.
The actual contents of the report remained unknown to all but a few insiders until a leaked copy was published by the Tibet Information Network in London in 1997, and it is still a ‘state secret’ inside China. It was organised under eight headings:
1. The ‘pacification of the rebellion’, dealing with the problem of indiscriminate arrests, and the failure to implement the Party’s “Four No-s” policy (“no killing, no jailing, no sentencing, no struggling” of surrendering rebels)
2. ‘Democratic Reform’, dealing with indiscriminate conduct of ‘struggle’, property confiscation and class categorisation during the Democratic Reform campaign, and emphasising the low quality of local cadres and activists
3. Livelihood and economy, dealing with grain tax, and restrictions on travel and trade, in the context of mass impoverishment and starvation
4. ‘The ‘United Front’, dealing with the alienation of ‘upper and middle strata’ and failure to implement the Party’s policy of ‘winning over’
5. ‘Democratic Centralism’, dealing with the absence of openness and tolerance in the Communist system, and the dominance of the Party over other branches
6. ‘Proletarian Dictatorship’, dealing with punitive reeducation and mass imprisonment
7. Religion policy (the most detailed section), dealing with the failure to implement the Party’s policy of freedom of religious belief
8. Nationality issues, dealing with attacks on Tibetan language, dress and customs, and drastic population reduction.
The petition concluded with a discussion of the situation in ‘fraternal provinces’, meaning eastern Tibet, principally Qinghai and the Gannan prefecture of Gansu province, about which the Panchen was most worried, but which he, as a TAR official, had less authority to discuss. Concerning the ‘pacification of the rebellion’ there, he said too much military force had been used; on proletarian dictatorship, he commented that 10,000 had been imprisoned in each area, ‘worse than in Tibet itself...huge numbers died of abnormal causes, so many that their corpses could not be buried’; discussing nationality rights, he referred to a ‘blind Leftist tendency at prefecture and county level’; the state of religious affairs too was worse than Tibet, no monasteries were left at all; and livelihood was seriously affected by mass imprisonment, and the hasty collectivisation of the remaining population (‘only women, infants and the elderly are left’), who were burdened with unachievable production targets, and had been reduced to eating grass and treebark.
The outcome of the June meetings was the formulation of four policy documents on rectification, duly approved by the Central Committee and handed down to the Tibet leadership. These covered 1. Strengthening relations between Party (TWC) and government (PCART) to improve Tibet work collectively 2. Regulations on full implementation of the freedom of religious belief policy
3. Recommendations for fully implementing regulations on dealing with rebels
4. More training for local officials.
The four documents were never implemented, as within a few weeks of being approved, Mao Zedong staged a successful counter-attack against his reformist critics, and began his return to power. Among the first to go were senior United Front leaders Li Weihan and Xi Zhongxun, the Panchen Lama’s two most senior interlocutors at the June meetings. At Beidaihe in August, and at the Central Committee meetings in Beijing in September, Mao accused them of ‘capitulationism’, failing to adhere to ‘class struggle’ in United Front work, and is said to have denounced the Panchen’s report as ‘a poisoned arrow shot at the Party by a reactionary serf-owner’.
That September, the 10th plenum of the 8th Central Committee coined the slogan ‘Never Forget Class Struggle’, re-asserted the primacy of class in nationality issues, and cancelled measures designed to ameliorate the impact of Democratic Reform. At the annual PCART meeting in Lhasa shortly after, the Panchen Lama was effectively dismissed from office and spent much of the next 18 months under house arrest, awaiting trial. At almost exactly the same moment (October 1962), the central leadership opted to go to war over the Indo-Tibetan border. The Panchen’s chief antagonist in the regional leadership, Zhang Guohua, was also commander of the PLA forces that scored a thumping victory over India in the eastern sector where most of the fighting took place. This strengthened the TWC’s hand in gaining the confidence of the centre, and further sealed the Panchen Lama’s fate.
The transcripts of the five meetings in June and July 1962 are previously unpublished, with one exception - an edited and abridged transcript of the July 24th meeting with Premier Zhou appeared in Xizang gong zuo wen xian xuan bian, 1949 - 2005 [Selected Documents on Tibet Work 1949-2005] Beijing: Zhong yang wen xian chu ban she, 2005). They contain no absolute revelations, but do offer an informative and candid picture of relations between the central leadership and its Tibetan élite. They show that the meetings were conducted by the UFWD as a high-level arbitration between the two acrimonious partners in the regional polity – the hardcore Party-military leaders of the TWC and the softcore symbolic leader of the PCART – rather than as a substantive discussion of the Panchen Lama’s report. The tensions between the two sides are evident; the Panchen’s impatience and youthful impetuousness breaks surface at times, and Zhang Guohua in particular delivers the requisite acknowledgement of mistakes defensively and grudgingly. Proceedings are dominated by the chair (Li at the June meetings and Zhou at the July meeting), with others speaking when invited and as scripted to do so. Apart from the Panchen himself, the only Tibetan voices are Ngabo (twice) and Pakpala (once).
The first meeting on June 8th, chaired by Peng Zheng, is a preliminary ritual in which both sides listen to an avuncular lecture on the greatness of the Party, confess their mistakes and pledge to work together.
At the first working meeting on June 21st, Li Weihan sets out the Party’s rather sinuous response to the report: he commends the Panchen Lama for speaking out, saying that pointing out mistakes helps us do our work better, although the more he reassures the Panchen not to worry about getting into trouble, the less reassuring he sounds. Suppression of the rebellion was basically correct, he emphasises. We didn’t want to fight, but war was inevitable. Of course, mistakes were made, and in Qinghai they were worse than you say, but this was because local cadres tried to cover them up, and we are dealing with that (a reference to the dismissal of provincial Party secretary Gao Feng et al). Achievements are primary, mistakes are secondary. The main mistake for which he seems concerned to apologise is the subjection of the Panchen’s family and colleagues to ‘struggle’ during Democratic Reform in Shigatsé, although as ‘progressives’ they were supposed to be exempt. His speech also incidentally refers to now little-known episodes of Tibetan armed resistance to Democratic Reform, in Rongdrak, Sichuan in 1956, Amchok, Gannan in 1958, and Tengchen, Chamdo in 1959.
The June 22nd meeting starts with a ponderous discussion of problems in minority language teaching and usage, wherein the main concern is with standardisation and modernisation, not with the Panchen’s contention that “If language, clothing and customs are lost... a nationality will disappear.” Clothing and hairstyle, in Li’s view, have no importance. This discussion is conducted without Tibetan participation.
Li then switches rather awkwardly to the question of deaths during the suppression of the rebellion. Betraying some insecurity, he wavers between denial (“Those who were killed should be considered the responsibility of the rebellious upper strata, because it was they who incited the rebellion”) and guarded admission of excessive force (“We should not take life like children playing games”). Recovering composure, he goes on to concede the Panchen Lama’s concerns on excesses in religion reform, particularly assuring him that his complaint over the appointment of anti-religious activists to the Democratic Management Committee of Tashi Lhunpo monastery will be addressed. The Panchen is clearly less than convinced. Measured concessions are also offered on the issue of training local cadres and the overbearing role of the Party in government.
The third meeting on June 25th is chaired by Xi Zhongxun, who reiterates Li’s approach, and invites the Panchen Lama to speak. The tone shifts significantly when, after the expected conciliatory remarks, there is an outburst of frustration. Objecting to his loyalty to the Party being taken for granted, the Panchen asserts that “I had the power to rebel if I wanted”, that his support for Democratic Reform is not mere opportunism but a real commitment to Socialist values. Faced with a flurry of disapproval from the elders, he backs down with a plea for genuine implementation of any agreed measures, and for the situation in Qinghai and Gannan to be also taken into account.
Ngabo is then called upon, and after the expected consensual speech, quite unexpectedly takes up the cause of Tibetan areas in Sichuan, those least covered in the report. He concludes with a direct request for the release of falsely imprisoned Lamas. Ngabo is thought to have been responsible for toning down the report in the drafting stage, stating more emphatically the recognition of achievements as primary, and was known more generally for careful and obedient diplomacy in his dealings with the senior leadership, and yet here we see him almost sticking his neck out in support of the report.
Emboldened by this, the Panchen Lama becomes outspoken, protesting that the situation in Sichuan has been overlooked, that learned people there “have all been locked up and wiped out.” He then directly accuses Zhang Guohua of failing to release falsely arrested persons on an agreed list. “Nowadays the system is so rigid, but orders passed down are still not executed. We are so surprised by such things, to the point that our heads are about to explode.”
Then Pakpala Gelek Namgyal is called upon. Few senior Tibetan ‘progressives’ had less integrity than Pakpala, and yet even he speaks out, about conditions in his native Chamdo (TAR). Chamdo itself did not rebel, and yet all the monasteries have been closed down, he reports. “Everyone belonging to the upper class was jailed; are they all connected with rebellion? are they all under suspicion? ...after some time they were told that it was a mistake. They got an apology and were released, only to be jailed again later.”
Faced with this barrage of discontent from the Tibetan side, the leaders express concern and suggest an inspection tour, to which the Panchen responds “What’s the point of us going, since we cannot solve any problems...”
It is then the turn of the TWC leaders: Zhang Guohua makes the apology for Leftist mistakes expected of him, and warms to the theme of mistakes in Chamdo where, he says, battle-hardened PLA units from the Korean front were deployed to crush rebellion indiscriminately. Zhang Jingwu’s speech, by contrast, is the polished presentation of a professional diplomat, and concludes with agreement on four issues, those on which the four policy documents were then formulated.
The final meeting on July 24th, once the four documents have been approved, is the occasion for the Premier himself to give his blessing. The Panchen Lama makes a final plea for the documents to be implemented, and Zhang Jingwu promises cooperation, gently chiding the Panchen for not trusting in the Party - a fine reassurance, considering that within two months, the documents, and the Panchen himself, would be consigned to political oblivion.
Zhou’s speech is complex and rich in insinuation, but comes down firmly on the primacy of the Party’s achievements over its mistakes. After attacking the Dalai Lama and Nehru, and making a theoretical digression on correct class standpoint, he concludes that suppression of the rebellion and the violence of Democratic Reform were justified, and that none need fear the eradication of religion. In another painfully ironic flourish of rhetoric, he admonishes the Tibetans: “You should also have faith that comrades in the Work Committee want to build Tibet well, and are not going there to eradicate the nation and religion. Once these are eradicated, no people will be left. It is tantamount to wiping ourselves out. Only imperialism will do such a thing.”
Alongside the classified transcript of this meeting, we have included a translation of the much shorter published version, because the differences between the two are instructive. The highlighted passages are those modified in the published version, and the italicised passages in the classified version are those omitted from the published version. The effect of these modifications and omissions is to downplay admissions of error, and to underline the primacy of the Tibet Work Committee over the TAR Preparatory Committee. Names of participants in earlier discussions have been removed, as have Zhou’s remarks about Nehru.
All the documents are dated Auguat 8th 1962 on the cover page, presumably the date of printing. Curved brackets are those used in the original, square brackets mark additions by the translator. Footnotes are by the translator.