Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 10

By Jonathan Mirsky

Last week President Bush welcomed to the White House China’s prospective president, Vice President Hu Jintao, a man whose career and character are usually noted as virtually unknown. The New York Times recently described him as “blandly modern–never seen with a hair out of place and never heard speaking out of turn” … “businesslike and bright, known for his photographic memory.” Headlines often employ the cliche “Who’s Hu?” and China-watchers fall back on speculations about power politics in Beijing if Hu takes over from President Jiang Zemin.

But why is Hu the heir-apparent? Why did Deng Xiaoping elevate him, in 1992, to the ruling seven-man Politburo Standing Committee as its youngest-ever member? Surely not because he is bland and possesses an excellent memory.


One of the reasons Hu was given the job is that, starting in 1989, he had performed ruthlessly as the party secretary of Tibet for several years. There is no more sensitive subject in China than Tibet, where Deng himself was the commissar in 1950 when the People’s Liberation Army attacked across the Tibetan border. Yet in an article taking up almost half a page, The Times devoted only two sentences to this defining moment in Hu’s career, which was also one of the most brutal periods in China’s rule over the region.

It was soon after Hu’s arrival in Lhasa that I met him there. I was then the China correspondent of The Observer, a London Sunday newspaper. I asked him how he was enjoying his new job. He told me how much he disliked Tibet’s altitude, climate and lack of culture. His family was in Beijing, he said, a safe and healthy place in comparison. When I suggested that he must have made some Tibetan friends, he replied that if there were ever a disturbance in Lhasa he feared no Tibetan would protect him.

Hu Jintao’s arrival in Lhasa had in fact intersected with two events that would have shaken the confidence of the toughest pro-consul. The Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second-highest religious leader, who had been in Beijing’s hands for thirty years, had just said in public that “[t]he price paid by Tibet for its development over the last thirty years has been higher than its gains.” That statement wrote off the entire period of Chinese occupation. Soon thereafter the Panchen Lama suddenly died. Hu’s second crisis came on March 5. A small party of monks walked through the centre of Lhasa protesting the gunning down and killing of monks a year earlier. These monks, too, were fired on. Tibetan crowds, armed with paving stones, rioted and looted Chinese shops and a Chinese policeman was hurled to his death from a roof. Chinese security officers, under orders from Party Secretary Hu, opened fire for three days, killing somewhere between 100 and 700 Tibetans.


March 10 is the most dangerous date in the year for the Chinese in Tibet. It is the anniversary of the day in 1959 when Tibetans rose in revolt against the occupation and the Dalai Lama fled into Indian exile. On March 8, 1989, martial law was declared in Tibet, a precursor of the same proclamation in Beijing during the Tiananmen tragedy. Policy pragmatists might argue that Hu’s Tibetan period was long ago and should not be a measure of the man. But Tibet remains central to the concerns of this man who rarely says anything in public but did in Lhasa only last year.

It was July and Hu was there to mark the fiftieth anniversary of “the peaceful liberation” of Tibet. Hu was obviously well remembered. The visit of the vice president was not publicized until the day he left Beijing. Lhasa’s residents were told to put out flags and banners with no explanation and the streets of the city were thick with soldiers. In a speech on July 19 Hu declared, “[The peaceful liberation] ushered in a new era in which Tibet would turn from darkness to light, from backwardness to progress, from poverty to affluence and from seclusion to openness.” Hu warned that the struggle against the “separatist and disruptive activities of the Dalai clique and anti-China forces” would not stop.

He referred to the 1951 Seventeen Point Agreement. In it Chinese civilian and military officials forced a few members of the Tibetan government (the Dalai Lama had fled to near the Indian border) to sign a compact sealed with counterfeit seals, agreeing to Chinese rule over Tibet. This bogus agreement led to what Hu called “a great truth: It is only under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, only in the embrace of the big family of the motherland, that Tibet can enjoy today’s prosperity and progress. This is the most important conclusion that we have drawn from the fifty years of Tibet’s development and also the fundamental principle that must be followed in building and developing Tibet in days to come.”


George W. Bush knows what the Dalai Lama has said about the embrace of the big family of the motherland in Tibet. If he mentioned this to Hu in the Oval Office his guest may well have replied, in official terms, that the Dalai Lama is a “criminal splittist.” Someone should tell Mr. Bush how in 1962, the Tenth Panchen Lama, China’s chosen leader within Tibet (the Dalai Lama no longer being a resident), had sent a petition to Mao Zedong. In it, he condemned China’s attempt to “eliminate Buddhism, which was flourishing in Tibet and which transmitted teachings and enlightenment. This is something that I and more than 90 percent of Tibetans cannot endure.” The Panchen said as well, of the Chinese crackdowns that began in 1959: “Many people were imprisoned, no matter whether they had or had not committed a crime or whether their crime was large or small; in addition, bad management led to many people suffering abnormal deaths. In the past, though Tibet was a society ruled by a dark and savage feudalism, there had never been such a shortage of grain… and we have never heard of a situation where people starved to death.” Two years later, the Panchen Lama began his fourteen years in detention as an enemy of the Communist Party. After his release, he lived under close supervision, often denounced–unjustly–as a Chinese puppet. In 1995, six years after his death, the Dalai Lama announced his recognition of a six-year-old Tibetan boy as the Eleventh Panchen, the incarnation of the Tenth. Beijing promptly kidnapped the boy and his family, together with the senior monks who had helped the Dalai Lama identify him and designated another six-year-old as the approved incarnation. The Dalai Lama’s choice and his family have not been seen since.

In my six short visits to Tibet between 1981 and 1990, I saw that what the Panchen Lama had said in 1962 remained only too true. Equally true on those visits was the ceaseless assurance to me from Tibetans of every sort that they longed for the Dalai Lama to return and for the Chinese to depart.

Last year George Bush was in Shanghai, where President Jiang asked him to support China’s struggle against its own “terrorists,” which meant those who opposed Communist rule in Muslim Xinjiang and Buddhist Tibet. Mr. Bush replied unmistakably: “The war on terrorism must never be an excuse to persecute minorities.” I hope he used the same words when he met Hu Jintao.

Jonathan Mirsky was the China correspondent of The Observer [London] and East Asia Editor of The Times [London]. In 1989 he was named the British editors’ International Journalist of the Year for his reporting from Tiananmen. He lives in London.

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