“The Witless Gang of Foxes are the Governor-General and his Band”

The title of this post comes from a line in a Tibetan street song sung in Lhasa during China’s invasion of Tibet referring to the incompetence (“witless”) and cowardice (“foxes”) of Ngabo (“governor-general” of Eastern Tibet) and his Lhasa officials (“band”):

From among one hundred men Commander Muja is the most able, The witless gang of foxes are the governor-general and his band.

On December 23, 2009 Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, a former minister in the Tibetan government passed away in Beijing at the age of ninety-nine. As a controversial figure during and after the People’s Liberation Army’s Invasion of Tibet in 1950, Ngabo’s death led to the emergence of many mixed reactions regarding his legacy on Tibetan history. On February 2nd, 2010, Jamyang Norbu, an influential Tibetan political activist and writer, stated his continued support for his analysis of Ngabo as a treasonous traitor in a reiteration of his journal article titled “Deconstructing Ngabo,” that was first published in the Tibet Review in May 1980.[1] Much earlier in an April 4th, 1998 interview, Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya explained how “most Tibetans despised [Ngabo] as a traitor,” and that “the Chinese [used] him to legitimise their rule.”[2] In Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1997 film “Seven Years in Tibet,” Ngabo was depicted conspiring with the Chinese and sabotaging the Tibetan resistance effort in 1950.[3] In contrast, earlier on December 24th, 2009, a statement issued by the General Office of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, described Ngabo as “a great patriot, renowned social activist, good son of Tibetan people, outstanding leader of China’s ethnic work and close friend of the CPC.”[4] On that same day, a statement issued by the Kashag (Cabinet) of the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE) also similarly eulogized Ngabo’s legacy as “Honest and patriotic” and as “someone who upheld the spirit of the Tibetan people.”[5] However, contrary to these accounts by the CPC and the TGIE, Ngabo Ngawang Jigme’s actions during the invasion of Tibet in 1950 were not “patriotic” and in the “spirit of the Tibetan people”; rather, they were incompetent, and harmful, and paved the way to the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet.

Ngabo’s Beginnings and the Impending Invasion:

In June 1950, at the age of thirty-nine, Ngabo was appointed as the new Governor of Eastern Tibet, a promotion which marked a significant and critical moment in the political career he had begun in 1936. Ngabo was simultaneously promoted to the rank of Kalon (Cabinet Minister) in the Tibetan Government. His appointment quickly tested his competence as a governor. In the previous year the Communists under Mao Zedong in China had finally defeated the Nationalist forces of Chang Kai-shek, and on October 1st, 1949 Mao Zedong announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. It was well known that the Communists were determined to incorporate Tibet into the administrative and constitutional structure of China. On October 20th, 1949, Mao vowed that the time had come for the Chinese people to rule their own land and “rise and rule the East.” He declared that “the primary and most urgent goal of the new Chinese People’s Republic was to ‘liberate Tibet’.”[6] On January 1st, 1950 Radio Peking’s New Year’s broadcast announced that “the tasks for the People’s Liberation Army for 1950” were to, “liberate Taiwan, Hainan, and Tibet.”[7] From early 1950, rumours of a coming Chinese invasion began to spread in Tibet’s capital of Lhasa.[8] Ngabo, as newly appointed Governor of Eastern Tibet, was now caught in the crossfire of this troubling political climate.

Immediately on coming into power, the Communists began to do their best to court the ruling and religious elite of Tibet, while also doing their best to search for any exploitable internal divisions while also preventing any foreign power from establishing a base in Tibet.[9] However, the Communists soon realized that they could not rely on an internal revolution to bring Tibet under their control. In the winter and spring of 1950 the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China began to amass along the Tibetan frontier.[10] By the time Ngabo was appointed as Governor of Eastern Tibet in June of 1950, an attack was imminent. By the beginning of May, after Hainan had been “liberated” by the PLA, the Chinese began to diffuse radio broadcasts conceived specifically for the Tibetan people and the Dalai Lama, implicitly warning that they would use force if necessary to “liberate Tibet.”[11]

Failure to Maintain Communications with the Frontier:

Although officially appointed in June, Ngabo would not leave Lhasa for his month-long journey to Chamdo in Eastern Tibet until the July 11th, and he would not actually take full responsibilities of the office until the previous Governor, Lhalu Tsewang Dorjee, had left Chamdo in September. Chamdo served as the command headquarters for Eastern Tibet and it was where the resistance against the coming Chinese invasion would be organized. Shortly after arriving at Chamdo, Ngabo’s began to compromise the Tibetan defences and military capabilities. Ngabo had many shortcomings as a Governor of Eastern Tibet but his principle shortcoming was his failure to realize the importance of maintaining relations with his frontline, a communication link Robert Ford[12] repeatedly attempted to persuade Ngabo was essential. Ford reminded Ngabo of the portable radio station he had brought with him from Lhasa, upon Governor Lhalu’s request. However, Ngabo believed that it was not urgent for him to send the radio station out to a region closer to the Sino-Tibetan border where attack from the PLA was most imminent because he wished to have a spare radio station set in case his current set in Chamdo broke down. As a result of Ngabo’s incompetence in realizing the importance of maintaining communication with his frontline, when the Chinese finally advanced on October 7th, 1950, the eastern command headquarters at Chamdo did not learn of the attack until October 11th.[13] Adding to Ngabo’s incompetence was his failure to redress his initial failure. Even after his reluctance to send out the radio set to the frontier had proven fatal, Ngabo still did not order for it to be sent. Instead he continued to maintain his worry about not having a backup radio set to maintain communications with Lhasa.[14] This has persuaded some critics of Ngabo, like journalist Vijay Kranti, to argue that Ngabo, “deliberately deprived the radio facility to the frontier posts to stop any ‘bad’ news from reaching Lhasa,” and that, “he quietly let the PLA massacre the entire force of the Tibetan Army men at the frontier posts.”[15]

Ngabo’s predecessor Lhalu had recognized the importance of maintaining communication with his frontline. The Chinese invasion strategy was dependent on a quick encirclement of the Tibetan forces with three “lightening” thrusts: along the northern route from a base in Kanze, from a southern route in a base at Batang, and a third thrust that would strike directly at Chamdo from the center. The first two thrusts would strike directly behind the Tibetan forces at Chamdo in order to cut off their escape route to Lhasa.[16] The village of Dengo, about 100 miles northeast of Chamdo, was thus a vital strategic point because of its location on the main PLA route from Kanze to Jyekundo. This would be the route of the PLA’s northern encircling thrust. Therefore, before the PLA and Tibetan forces clashed at Dengo at the end of May in 1950, Lhalu had placed one of his two wireless sets at Dengo.

Lhalu’s competence in understanding the importance of maintaining a radio communication link with the frontlines allowed him to receive immediate word of the PLA attack and capture of Dengo from a radio message sent directly from Dengo. Lhalu was therefore able to act quickly in response to this PLA attack by recalling Commander Muja and his 500 men stationed near the Jyekundo border to link up with his forces at Chamdo in order to plan a recapture of Dengo. He also sent a scouting unit out to monitor any further PLA movements.[17] This last action highlights the stark contrast between the competence of Lhalu and the incompetence of Ngabo as the head commander of the Tibetan resistance.

Judging by his decision to not maintain proper relations with the frontier, Ngabo did not realize the absurdity of choosing to fight this way. Lhalu in comparison knew that the success of his strategic decisions as Governor were dependent on information of the PLA movements. After Dengo fell to the PLA forces, so too did Lhalu’s radio communication link with that particular front, therefore rendering him blind on the next movements the PLA forces would make. Lhalu counteracted this problem by sending out a scouting team to re-establish his link to the front at Dengo and therefore could obtain information on the PLA forces’ and their next movement. Lhalu also informed Lhasa of the attack and asked for more wireless equipment and operators to be sent in order to re-establish communications in Dengo, and set up additional ones in Riwoche, Gangto Druga, and Markham.[18] Four days later his scouts reported back to him the relative size of the PLA force as 500-700 strong and their position in Dengo as not yet entrenched.[19] With this valuable information Lhalu was able to mount a successful attack on the PLA forces at Dengo and retake the village. In comparison, Ngabo, because of his failure to maintain proper communication links with his frontier, was given late news on October 11th of the Chinese offensive which began on October 7th. Upon hearing this news Ngabo sent requests to Lhasa for a surrender or retreat. On October 17th, Ngabo was given the order to retreat but by then it had proven too late, and as a result of Ngabo’s failure to maintain radio communication with his frontline he was trapped by the Chinese before any escape was possible. Ngabo was forced to burn the weapon supplies and by October 19th, Ngabo, his officials, and a large contingent of his forces and arms were captured by the Chinese.

Relations with the Khampas:

While serving as Governor of Eastern Tibet, Lhalu had based the headquarters at Chamdo. He knew the strategic importance of holding the city, not only for defensive purposes against the PLA forces but also for good relations with the Khampas who made up a large contingent of his forces. As Melvyn C. Goldstein explains, one of the main impediments of the military defence of Kham was bitterness that the Khampas held towards the Lhasa government.[20] The Khampas had traditionally always held hatred towards the authorities of Lhasa. They viewed the authorities of Lhasa as a “ruling clique of rich and often corrupt lords,” who were, “a despicable breed of courtiers,” who “besieged Kham with taxes and requisitions for which the Khambas received little or nothing in return.”[21] Since the Dalai Lamas were selected as children they were incapable of ruling until they reached the age of eighteen. Thus, during this period Tibet was frequently administered by “ruthless, unscrupulous regents,”[22] who in some cases murdered young Dalai Lamas before they could come of age in order to maintain their power.

The necessity of mending these hostile relations was recognized by Lhalu during his service as Governor of Eastern Tibet in Chamdo. In the spring of 1950, news had spread about one of the Lhasa soldiers who had “taken liberties with a Khampa girl.”[23] The Khampa troops massed outside the regular troops’ barracks, and began to wave their swords and taunt the soldiers to come out. However, the situation was diffused when, Khenchi Dawala, an elderly high-ranking and well-respected local monk, arrived and urged the Khampas to return to their camp and prepare for the fight with the Chinese and not with each other.[24] Lhalu knew that the longer he could maintain his position at Chamdo, the more favourably impressed the Khampas would be towards him, his Lhasa troop contingent, and the Lhasa government he represented.[25] He stated candidly to Ford that, “we must fight back, even if it is only to keep the Khampas [respect]. We cannot hope to have them stand by us if we do not react firmly.”[26] The support of the Khampas was crucial to the Tibetan resistance, the Khampas provided the best contingents of troops and officers in the entire resistance force and in most cases they were overwhelmingly better soldiers than the Lhasa troops. Lhalu described the Khampas as “fine people,” and stated that “they’ll make fine troops.”[27]

Ngabo, as Lhalu’s successor, did not share the same strategic considerations. As soon as news arrived that the PLA forces had reached northwest of Chamdo at Riwoche, therefore potentially cutting off Ngabo’s escape route to Lhasa, Ngabo ordered the destruction of the army’s arms and ammunition and fled with his Lhasa officials and left no animal transports for any of the Khampa soldiers. Panic broke out in Chamdo; people began to quickly flee before the Chinese could reach the city. The Khampa soldiers were furious at the betrayal and began looting the governor’s residency and killing any Lhasa officials they could find.[28]

Ngabo’s Unwillingness to Fight:

The task of organizing a successful defence against the PLA army was something that Ngabo believed was impossible. Even before he had reached Chamdo, he had already reached the conclusion that a fight against the PLA would be futile and that it would be better to negotiate for terms of surrender with the Chinese.[29] When Ngabo left Lhasa on July 11th, 1950, for Chamdo, he met an official from Kundeling Labrang to whom he stated that “Tibet could not fight against the Chinese Communists, because the Chinese had the latest weaponry and well-trained and experienced soldiers,” he then stated that “he was convinced it was better to try and negotiate a peaceful solution.”[30] Upon taking office in Chamdo, Ngabo ordered the removal of defensive measures taken by Lhalu, like the fortifications constructed in the mountains. He believed that Tibetan defensive measures would be interpreted by the Chinese as provocation.[31] Ngabo also issued orders to stop the recruitment of local Khambas, something Lhalu had done to bolster his army’s strength.[32] Ngabo assured Robert Ford that he would resist the Chinese invasion and evacuate to Lhasa if needed, and would under no circumstances surrender to the Chinese at Chamdo.[33] However, in hindsight we see from Ngabo’s own admission that he had no intention of defending the Tibetan frontier from the PLA’s invasion. In an interview twelve years after the invasion, Ngabo told a British journalist that he never had the “slightest wish to pursue a war aimed at separating Tibet from the Chinese motherland.”[34] According to Jamyang Norbu, Ngabo’s conduct “even by the laws of an enlightened nation, was sufficiently disgraceful to warrant a court martial and at least a dishonourable discharge.”[35]

The PLA army was 5,000,000 million strong, battle hardened, well-equipped, and well-led. Although daunting, the Tibetan resistance effort against it was not, as Ngabo believed, impossible. On June 13th, 1950, following the small frontier clashes between the Tibetans and the PLA, the U.S. State Department sent a communiqué with an informal statement on the views of the U.S. on Tibet’s ability to withstand a Chinese military invasion. It stated that:

“…It is probable that the Chinese have the military strength to capture Tibet. However, the terrain through which a military force attacking Tibet from China would pass lends itself to guerrilla resistance and confronts the attacking force with major logistic problems. Comparatively little assistance in the form of specialized military instruction and supplies might stiffen Tibetan resistance and make a Chinese Communist military expedition so costly that it would not be undertaken, particularly in the absence of a manifestation by the Western States of extraordinary interest in Tibet or an attempt to alter its international status.[36]

Tibet was very remote, harsh, and mountainous and thus the Americans recognized that it would be an ideal environment for guerrilla warfare, and therefore potentially cause problems for the PLA.  Another factor that made Tibet an ideal environment for a resistance against the Chinese was because of the hostility that the Tibetan population had towards the Chinese, particularly the Khampas. The Chinese knew this, and they did their best to appeal to the Tibetans by learning their ways and attempting to win the hearts and minds of the locals and also the combatants. Chinese soldiers “were taught the local religion, customs, and language, and were under strict orders not to requisition even a cup of tea from the local people.”[37] A Khampa survivor of a Chinese attack on his garrison at Gangto Druga described the Chinese as “strange people,” he explained, “I cut off eight of their heads with their sword and they just let me go.”[38]

By surrendering without putting up a resistance Ngabo forfeited any chance of military support from India. On a July 15th, 1950 the US Ambassador to India, L. Henderson, sent a telegram to the U.S. State Department. Henderson suggested that the Government of India (GOI) “might be prepared to agree to some negotiated figure if convinced Tibetans were ready to take the risks of resistance and could defend [their] country with effectiveness.”[39] Consequently, Ngabo’s decision destroyed any chance of a larger Khampa support for a resistance against the Chinese, unified under the Lhasa government. As Tibetan Finance Minister explained, “[Khampa cooperation] could be counted upon if there was assurance [of] foreign aid.”[40]

Conclusion:

In summary, Ngabo Ngawang Jigme’s actions during the invasion of Tibet in 1950 were incompetent, and harmful, and paved the way to the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet. Firstly, his failure to recognize the importance of radio communications severely hindered his decision making capabilities. When Ngabo was given news on October 11th of the Chinese offensive he received the news four days late. As a result, Ngabo and his forces found themselves encircled with no escape route to Lhasa. Secondly, Ngabo did not maintain the support of the Khampas after his failure to establish a successful resistance and decision to evacuate Chamdo without the Khampa soldiers. Lastly, Ngabo falsely viewed a resistance against the Chinese as impossible from the very start and therefore overlooked the aspects of Tibet like geography, local hostility to the Chinese, and Western support, which made a resistance against the powerful PLA not “futile” as Ngabo believed.


[1] Jamyang Norbu, “Deconstructing Norbu (in 1980).” In Shadow Tibet: Jamyang Norbu’s Blog. February 2nd, 2010. http://www.jamyangnorbu.com/blog/2010/02/02/discussing-ngabo-in-1980/ (accessed March 23rd, 2010).

[2] Jasper Becker, “An Interview with Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme,” South China Morning Post, April 4th, 1998.

[3] Seven Years in Tibet, Videocassette, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud (1997; United States: Tristar Pictures/ Sony Pictures Entertainment, 1997).

[4] Liu Jun, “Tibetan official Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme dies at 99,” in China Daily (Beijing), December 24th, 2009 http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2009-12/24/content_9221869.htm (accessed March 23rd, 2010).

[5] “The Kashag Mourns and Remembers Ngabo Ngawang Jigme,” in Tibet.net. December 24th, 2009. http://www.tibet.net/en/index.php?id=1320&articletype=flash&rmenuid=morenews (Accessed March 23rd, 2010). English Translation: http://www.tibetcustom.com/article.php/20091225001359605

[6] Michel Peissel, The Secret War in Tibet (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973), 10.

[7] Robert Ford, Captured in Tibet (Great Britain: George G. Harrap & Co., 1957), 11.

[8] Thomas Laird, The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama (New York: Grove Press, 2006), 301.

[9] Tsering Shakya, The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947 (New York: Penguin Compass, 2000), 33-35.

[10] Shakya, 36-37.

[11] Shakya, 37-38.

[12] British radio technician appointed by the Tibetan Government to establish radio communications and train radio operators.

[13] Ford, 109.

[14] Ford, 110.

[15] Vijay Kranti, “Loosing Distinction Between a ‘Traitor’ and Patriots.” December 30th, 2009. http://www.phayul.com/news/article.aspx?article=Loosing+Distinction+Between+a+%E2%80%98Traitor%E2%80%99+and+Patriots%3A+By+Vijay+Kranti&id=26314 (accessed March 23rd, 2010).

[16] Melvyn C. Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet – The Demise of the Lamaist State: 1912-1951. (University of California Press, 1989), 642.

[17] Shakya, 38. Goldstein, 680.

[18] Goldstein, 680.

[19] Ford, 21.

[20] Goldstein, 640.

[21] Peissel, 23.

[22] Peissel, 23.

[23] Ford 51

[24] Ford, 51.

[25] Ford, 56-57.

[26] Peissel, 21.

[27] Ford, 60.

[28] Ford, 124-125

[29] Bhuchung D. Sonam, “Ngabo –Yes Tibetan, No Patriot.” December 26th, 2009. In Tibet Writes. http://www.tibetwrites.org/?Ngabo-Yes-Tibetan-No-Patriot (accessed March 23rd, 2010)

[30] Goldstein, 687.

[31] Shakya, 42.

[32] Sonam.

[33] Ford, 103.

[34] Peissel, 35.

[35] Norbu.

[36] Goldstein, 666.

[37] Goldstein 662

[38] Ford, 158.

[39] Goldstein, 668.

[40] Goldstein 670

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