Historic Changes in Society

Updated: 2021-05-21 (Xinhua) Print

The Tibetan people yearned for democratic reform, but the timing had to be determined by the situation. In 1956, the Central People's Government made a decision that no reform need be carried out in Tibet for the next six years. However, some members of the Tibetan ruling class wanted to preserve serfdom forever, and staged a full-scale armed rebellion in March 1959. The Central People's Government quelled the rebellion, and carried out democratic reform to abolish feudal serfdom, putting an end to the old system and laying a solid foundation for forming the Tibet Autonomous Region.

– Wretched and backward feudal serfdom was doomed to die out.

Old Tibet was ruled by a theocratic feudal serfdom. This system crushed human dignity, ignored human rights, and impeded development in Tibet, all of which flouted the progressive trend in China and elsewhere in the world.

In old Tibet, there was no separation of religious and political power, and the former enjoyed absolute supremacy. Religious power prevailed over political power, while political power protected religious privileges. The two combined to defend the interests of the three major stakeholders: officials, aristocrats and higher-ranking lamas in the monasteries. Under theocracy, monasteries became fortresses from which the local rulers organized religious activities, exercised administration, exploited the serfs, built up armed forces, and passed legal judgement. Some monasteries even had private dungeons, with instruments of torture used for eye gouging and hamstringing, in addition to handcuffs, chains and clubs.

In old Tibet, there was a rigid hierarchy and the higher ranks of society gave no thought to human rights. The three major stakeholders applied every means to maintain feudal serfdom. The 13-Article Code and 16-Article Code, which had been enforced for several hundred years in old Tibet, stipulated that people were divided into three classes by blood and position, and that each class was further divided into three ranks. The value of a life corresponded to the difference in class and rank. The bodies of people of the highest rank of the upper class were "worth their weight in gold", while the lives of people of the lowest rank of the lower class were "worth a straw rope".

In old Tibet, polarization of the rich and the poor hindered development. The three major stakeholders and their agents, who made up less than five percent of the population, owned almost all of the land, pastures, forests, mountains, rivers and flood plains, and most of the livestock. Before the democratic reform in 1959, there were 197 hereditary aristocratic families, and the few top families each possessed dozens of manors and thousands of hectares of land. The family of the 14th Dalai Lama owned 27 manors, 30 pastures, and over 6,000 serfs. The Dalai Lama alone owned 160,000 taels (one tael = 30 grams) of gold, 95 million taels of silver, over 20,000 pieces of jewelry and jade ware, and more than 10,000 pieces of silk clothing and rare furs.

Meanwhile the serfs and slaves, who accounted for 95 percent of the population, had no means of production or freedom of their own. They were subjected to the three-fold exploitation of corvée labor, taxes, and high-interest loans, and struggled for mere existence.

– The central government upheld the 17-Article Agreement and honored its promise not to carry out reform for six years.

The 17-Article Agreement stipulated, "In matters related to reform in Tibet, there will be no compulsion on the part of the central government. The local government of Tibet shall take initiative to carry out reform, and when the people raise demands for reform, the central government shall consult with the leading personnel in Tibet to settle the issue." Following liberation, amidst the growing demand of the Tibetan people for democratic reform, many enlightened people of the upper and middle classes also realized that, if the old system were not reformed, the Tibetan people would never attain prosperity.

In consideration of Tibetan history and the region's special situation, the Central People's Government adopted a circumspect attitude of patient persuasion, waiting for the ruling elite to carry out reform, and giving them adequate time to do so. In 1956, still awaiting a change in the attitude of the ruling upper class, the Central People's Government made a decision that no reform should be carried out in Tibet for six years. During his visit to India in January 1957, Premier of the State Council Zhou Enlai handed a letter from Chairman Mao Zedong to the 14th Dalai Lama and 10th Panchen Lama, and the accompanying senior local Tibetan government officials. The letter informed them of the central government's decision that reform would be deferred for six years; whether reform should be carried out after six years would still be decided by Tibet in accordance with its own situation and the prevailing conditions. The Central People's Government showed the utmost patience and made every concession.

– The armed rebellion was quelled and democratic reform was implemented.

Reforming the social system was an essential requirement of social development and the fundamental aspiration of the Tibetan people. To preserve serfdom, the reactionaries from Tibet's upper class planned a series of activities to split Tibet from China, in blatant violation of the 17-Article Agreement. These led to a full-scale insurrection on March 10, 1959. The Central People's Government, together with the Tibetan people, took decisive measures to suppress the rebellion, and subsequently implemented a democratic reform in Tibet that brought feudal serfdom to an end.

Through this reform, the theocratic system was annulled and religion was separated from government. The feudal serf owners' right to own the means of production was abolished and private ownership by farmers and herdsmen was established. The personal bondage of serfs and slaves to the officials, nobles and upper-ranking monks was annulled, and they won their freedom as individuals. Former serfs and slaves were granted around 186,700 hectares of land in the democratic reform.

During this period Tibet's first supply and marketing cooperative, first rural credit cooperative, first community primary school, first night school, first literacy class, first film projection team, and first medical institution were established. The Ngachen Hydroelectric Station was completed and entered service, bringing electric lighting for the first time to the citizens of Lhasa.

Democratic reform represented an epoch-making change in Tibetan society and in the human rights of its people. It granted political, economic and social emancipation to a million serfs and slaves, effectively promoted the development of social productive forces in Tibet, and opened up the road toward modernization.

– The Tibet Autonomous Region was established to launch Tibet on the path to socialism.

The democratic reform in Tibet coincided with the introduction of democratic politics. After the rebellion broke out in March 1959, the State Council issued an order to dissolve the Tibetan local government and decided to have the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region exercise the duties and power of local government. Later, the Qamdo People's Liberation Committee and the Panchen Kampus Assembly were abolished, and a centralized people's democratic government was set up. In 1961, a general election was held across Tibet. For the first time, the former serfs and slaves were able to enjoy democratic rights as their own masters, as they elected people's governments at all levels. Many emancipated serfs and slaves took up posts of leadership at various levels in the region. In August 1965, elections were completed in townships and counties across Tibet. In September, the First Session of the First People's Congress of Tibet was convened in Lhasa, at which the founding of the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Regional People's Government were officially proclaimed. With regional ethnic autonomy established and through the socialist transformation of agriculture and animal husbandry, Tibet embarked on the road of socialism.

The founding of the Tibet Autonomous Region and adoption of the socialist system provided a guarantee for the realization of ethnic equality, solidarity, mutual help, and common development and prosperity in the region. It also created the conditions for all ethnic groups in Tibet to enjoy equal rights to participate in the administration of regional and state affairs. In this way, an institutional structure was put in place that would allow Tibet to develop along with other parts of China.