From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 43-45:
The Communist Party had identified feudalism and imperialism as the greatest evils of society. Their dilemma was how to destroy feudalism without becoming imperialists themselves; they couldn’t simply force “reforms” on the Tibetans. In order to live up to their own lofty propaganda, they needed the Tibetans to carry out reforms voluntarily, joyfully. To convince them, they dispatched young Chinese recruits, some of them still in high school, to spread the word. These young Chinese cadres lectured about the corruption of the aristocracy and the monasteries, which also had large holdings of land. Delek remembers their speeches.
“You will be your own master,” the Chinese promised poorer Tibetans. “We will topple the feudal landlords.”
“Nobody will be able to exploit you anymore.”
“Religion is superstition. You are worshipping demons.”
The mass uprising never materialized. But the pitch did appeal to those Tibetans who hoped the redistribution of wealth would improve their lot in life. Tibetans who joined forces with the Communist Party were known as jiji fenzi, which loosely translates from Chinese as “activists.” The Tibetan term was hurtsonchen—the lowest level of enforcers, the collaborators who squealed on and beat up neighbors who resisted Communist rule. As a reward, hurtsonchen were allowed to loot clothing, shoes, and household goods from their wealthier countrymen. But anything of real value went to the Party-controlled communes, which turned out to be far greedier than the worst of the feudal landlords. Tibetans of this generation refer to this period simply as ngabgay—’58. Like 9/11, it is shorthand for a catastrophe so overwhelming that words cannot express it, only the number. But there are some evocative figures of speech. Some will call it dhulok, a word that roughly translates as the “collapse of time,” or, hauntingly, “when the sky and earth changed places.”
The “Democratic Reforms” in eastern Tibet roughly coincided with the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s misguided experiment in jump-starting the Chinese economy. Like so many catastrophes, it was the result of ambition run amok. Mao was a utopian who hoped to create not just a new society, but new, improved human beings. He believed that people could transcend their individual desires for the greater good and through collective enterprise boost their living standards and the country’s output. This was to be accomplished by herding 700 million people into cooperative farms.
Even to a child as young as Delek, it was obvious that Mao’s reforms were doomed to failure. The Chinese cadres in charge of the Tibetans had no experience with herding and even less with farming at high altitudes. Most of the Chinese troops came from lower-lying regions; they didn’t realize that barley was the only grain that thrived in the plateau and that the higher altitudes couldn’t support crops at all and were better used for grazing. Giddy from Mao’s exhortations, they denied the expertise of the people who had lived off the land for generations, insisting that the Tibetans were backward. “As the Han are the bulwark of the revolution…any thinking against learning from the Han nationality and welcoming the help given by the Han nationality is completely wrong,” expounded one propagandist at the time. The nomads were made to hand over animals to the collectives that didn’t know how to keep them alive, and to farm land that would never produce crops.
The result was years of failed harvests and dead animals. Grasslands where the crops failed were now stripped bare of vegetation, exposed to the winds that swirled through the plateau spewing dust into the air. The Communist cadres didn’t understand that the Tibetan way of sustenance required both nomads and farmers; in order to obtain enough nutrition, people needed to swap their animal products for grains, and that required markets. Now the markets were closed. Buying or selling grain was forbidden. Internal travel restrictions were imposed so people could no longer barter goods with other villages. When Delek’s mother returned from Lhasa, she would saddle up a horse in the dead of night to visit a cousin in another village with whom she could trade some butter for barley to prevent her family from starving. She only dared make the trip a few times a year.
Unlike Han Chinese, Tibetans had little experience with famine—the exception being the Long March interlude of 1935 and 1936 when the Red Army decimated their food supply. In the past, Tibetans were poor, often poorly nourished because of the scarcity of fresh fruit and vegetables, but they rarely went hungry.