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The Chinese Invade Tibet

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October 7th, 1950

There is some uncertainty over the precise date, but it was apparently on October 7th that units of the Chinese so-called People’s Liberation Army crossed the River Yangtze into Kham, the eastern province of Tibet in the foothills of the Himalayas. Varying estimates put their numbers at 40,000 or more than 80,000, but either way they were in overwhelming strength. The invasion had been planned in detail by Deng Xiaoping, a future Chinese premier, and two other senior Communist officials in China’s Southwest Military Region. The rest of the world was preoccupied with events in Korea at the time, but the Chinese Communist regime had been announcing its intention of integrating Tibet with ‘the motherland’ for months. The Tibetan government in Lhasa, which had appealed for help in vain to both Britain and the United States, declined to receive Chinese emissaries, though a Tibetan delegation in India held inconclusive talks with the Chinese ambassador there. Back in January, Beijinghad released a telegram from the Panchen Lama to Chairman Mao. ‘On behalf of the Tibetan people, we respectfully plead for troops to be sent to liberate Tibet, to wipe out reactionaries, expel the imperialists …and liberate the Tibetan people.’ The Panchen Lama was traditionally one of the most important religious figures in Tibet. This one was twelve years old and living in China.

The Tibetan Army was hopelessly outnumbered and outclassed. With fewer than 10,000 men, it had only some fifty artillery pieces, 250 mortars and a couple of hundred machine guns. Its commanders were government officials with no special training. The soldiers took their women and children on campaign with them, with all their family belongings loaded on yaks and mules - tents, carpets, cooking pots and clothes, and babies in bundles on their mothers’ backs. The Chinese, who were reported as feeling ‘like a tiger trying to catch a fly’, planned to surround them swiftly and prevent them from falling back to Lhasa. This was achieved over the next ten days or so, despite sporadic brave resistance by Tibetan horsemen wielding swords. The Tibetan provincial governor, Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, radioed Lhasa urgently for instructions. No answer came, and when another message was sent, on October 15th, the word was that the ministers and officials were all out on their annual picnic. On October19th Ngabo told the Chinese he would surrender. The Chinese filmed him signing the formal document in the local monastery. All available Tibetan prisoners were assembled and subjected to a lecture on socialism and the unity of the motherland, after which they were given food and money, and told to go home and stay there.


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