Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Benno Weiner's "The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier"

Benno Weiner is Associate Professor in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University and co-editor of Conflicting Memories.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Concerned that elites often expressed enthusiasm but harbored anxieties, the provincial directive added that propaganda needed to be carried out first among indigenous Tibetan leaders. Having secured their support ‘in action’ as well as ‘in words,’ ordinary herdsmen would also develop faith in the [Chinese Communist]Party. By paying close attention to propaganda work, assigning local leaders to appropriate positions with real responsibility, and consulting with them in good faith, provincial leaders insisted, “We can win over the majority and minimize resistance.”
When the Chinese Communist Party marched into the Sino-Tibetan borderlands of Amdo in late-Summer 1949, its leadership was painfully aware that it lacked a pre-existing presence in the region, could count on few friends, and had only a rudimentary understanding of the region’s demographic, economic, or sociopolitical makeup. Given these obstacles, obtaining the cooperation of indigenous Tibetan, Mongol and Muslim elites was considered absolutely vital. Page 99 is part of the introduction to a chapter focusing on these relationships. It is not the sexiest chapter. There are no armed confrontations between the state and local Tibetan communities, for example. Instead, there are seemingly endless meetings—to which Tibetan headmen rarely show up on time, if they show up at all. While a browser who opened the book directly to page 99 would be hard pressed to grasp its scope, the issues that are introduced are crucial for understanding the CCP’s early and ultimately failed efforts to “gradually,” voluntarily,” and “peacefully” integrate the Tibetan frontier into the new Communist state and nation.

The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier argues that the CCP’s goal in 1950s Amdo and other ethnocultural borderland regions was not just to construct a state, but to create a nation. While the former might have been accomplished through force, the latter required the construction of narratives and policies capable of convincing Amdo’s inhabitants of their membership in a wider political community. For this reason, the CCP employed a strategy known as the United Front. In short, this referred to a transitional period during which class struggle would be deemphasized in favor of forming alliances with the region’s religious and secular leaderships. As outlined in the quote above, the idea was that through the charisma and authority these people possessed, the Party would be able to implement its progressive program while gaining direct access to the masses. Eventually, the fruits of these policies would convince the masses to request full political integration and the transformation to socialism. At that point, the period of the United Front would draw to its peaceful conclusion.

As I note on page 99, however, the CCP’s program was riddled with “ambivalences and tensions embedded in a system that combines centralized political power with meaningful popular participation.” First, it relied on indigenous elites to create the conditions for their eventual elimination as a privileged class. Second, although the United Front was meant to operate through “consultation” rather than compulsion, power relationships between the CCP and society ensured that both decision making and coercive capacities were always in the hands of Party elites. This came to head in 1958 when the United Front was abandoned in favor of immediate, forced collectivization. This led to large-scale rebellion, which was brutally put down with tens of thousands arrested and many thousands killed. Amdo and the rest of the Tibetan Plateau were integrated through overwhelming and often indiscriminate use of state violence, a violence that persists in the memories of Amdo Tibetans and others. Six decades later, history confirms that Party leaders had been correct about one thing: while ethnocultural violence can be an effective tool of state making, rarely is it a successful means of nation building.
Learn more about The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue