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China’s Unknown War Against Tibet Documented in New Book

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A hada is hung on the tree below the Potala Palace on June 20, 2009 in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

The Communist Party’s greatest military victory is also its least documented and publicized, according to a new book by historian Li Jianglin.

Based on collected historical documents, confidential files, and visits with hundreds of elderly Tibetans, Li’s book When the Iron Bird Flies, documents the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) military operation in Tibet from 1956 to 1962. The military campaign ravaged the Buddhist culture of the Tibetan people and resulted in the loss of an estimated 350,000 lives.

For decades, this war has been carefully evaded and covered up and the historical data left incomplete, writes Li, a Tibetan historian with family ties to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that invaded Tibet. Further, Li believes the killing is the origin of the current unrest in Tibet

“Many incidents such as the Lhasa incident in 2008, the Lhasa incident in the late 1980s, and the Tibetan self-immolations now, are actually the after-effects of that war. It continues to date,” said Li in an interview with New Tang Dynasty (NTD) Television.

Chairman of the Tibet Religious Foundation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Dawa Tsering said the Tibetan’s concept of reincarnation led some Tibetans during protests in 2008 to say: “We are the Tibetans you killed in 1958.” The war has been inscribed into the Tibetans, Dawa said.

Li describes in her book the simplicity of the Tibetan people, who, having lived upstream of the Yellow River, had never seen a Han Chinese prior to the PLA invasion.

“The People’s Liberation Army fired along the bank. Those Tibetans who crossed the Yellow River did not know to hide from the shooting. While warplanes were bombing, the Tibetans were simply looking and talking about the aircraft,” Li writes.

It is not just Tibetans who were innocent, Li told NTD. Decades ago when there was no killing, no land reform, and no political movements waged by the CCP, the rural Chinese were also very simple people.

Li believes that the CCP has been using violence and promoting atheism to suppress both the Han and Tibetan peoples, and destroying their belief at the same time.

She writes that the invasion of Tibet and the mass killings served to build up the CCP’s power, while in mainland China the CCP used the same kind of violence to seize political power.

Prior to the Tibet invasion, the CCP has already destroyed temples of various religions throughout China, writes Li.

Li said, “class struggle sees it as reasonable to kill and to struggle, whereas the compassionate Buddhist ideology opposes killing. These two are completely the opposite.”

The Dalai Lama has repeatedly said that the suffering of Tibetans is not the fault of the Chinese, but that of the Chinese communist regime. Li quoted the Dalai Lama as saying, “We have never given up our confidence in the Chinese.”

Li said, “Most Chinese know nothing about what happened in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in the 1950s. I do not quite believe that the Sino-Tibetan problem is good wording. I think the problem is between the Communists and Tibet, not the Hans and Tibetans.”

When the Iron Bird Flies took Li one and a half years to write. The title comes from the prophecy of Guru Padmasambhava from the eighth century AD: “When the iron bird flies, and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the world and the Dharma will come to the land of the Red Man.”

The author, Li Lijiang, a native of Nanchang, Jiangxi, graduated from the Department of Foreign Languages, Fudan University in Shanghai in 1982. She has masters degree from the School of Foreign Languages and Literature at Shandong University, American Jewish History at Brandeis University, and Library Science at Queens College in New York, respectively. Her interest in Tibet issues started in 2004, and since 2007, she has extended her research into the history of Tibet’s exiled, visiting 17 Tibetan refugee settlements in India and Nepal, and nearly 300 refugees from Tibet. She has published a number of articles on the issue of Tibet and the Tibetan community-in-exile. Her book, 1959: Lhasa!—How Dalai Lama Left, contributed to the reconstruction of historical facts about the 1959 exile of the Dalai Lama.

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