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Case anthropologist tells story of Tibet Communist Party founder

Bapa Phunsto Wangye is not as well known in the West as Nelson Mandela or Mohandas Gandhi. But if resilience and a willingness to stand up for one's beliefs in the face of extraordinary brutality is any measure of greatness, he should be.

Wangye, founder of the Tibetan Communist party, spent 18 years in solitary confinement at the hands of China's Communist rulers. Yet after his release Wangye, known to everyone as Phunwang, never ceased demanding that the Chinese government grant his fellow Tibetans the rights due to them under China's constitution and Marxist ideology.

Melvyn Goldstein, the John Reynolds Harkness Professor of Anthropology and co-director of the Center for Research on Tibet has spent more than 100 hours interviewing Phunwang over the past decade. With the help of William Siebenschuh, professor of English, and Dawei Sherap, a Tibetan living in China who has also authored a book about Wangye, Goldstein has assembled the interviews into an oral history autobiography titled "A Tibetan Revolutionary" (University of California Press, 2004).

Born in 1922, Phunwang grew up in a region inhabited mainly by ethnic Tibetans but not considered part of "political" Tibet. He attended school in Nanjing, then the capital of China, where he was exposed to the writings of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. Along with other Tibetans attending the school he secretly organized a Communist party, an act which got him expelled.

Phunwang returned to his home in 1940, and spent the next nine years organizing and fighting against Chinese rule. When the Communists won control of China, he merged the Tibetan Communist party with China's. He became a functionary in the party and helped negotiate an accord by which Tibet would be gradually absorbed into China.

Throughout it all Phunwang considered himself a Communist and Chinese patriot, but also a defender of the rights of Tibetans. The latter belief aroused the suspicion of higher-ups in the Communist party and resulted in his being imprisoned from 1960 to 1978. After his release he was rehabilitated and continues to live in Beijing, although he frequently visits Tibet.

The seeds of the book were planted on one such visit to Lhasa, Tibet's capital, in 1993. As one of the leading Western authorities on Tibetan history and society, Goldstein was aware of Phunwang's importance in Tibetan history, and while conducting research in Lhasa learned that Phunwang was there.

"I called Phunwang and asked if I could interview him," Goldstein recalls. "As we talked I developed a relationship with him, so that he invited me to visit him in Beijing whenever I came to Tibet to do research. As time went on I got more and more tapes of him and began to think it would be useful to assemble the material into a book."

The significance of Phunwang's life, Goldstein believes, is that he defies many pre-conceived notions about Tibetans and their relationship with China, notions held by Westerners as well as ethnic Chinese.

"Many Chinese tend to dismiss the Tibetans as very religious and not really modern. But you can't do that with a person like Phunwang. This is a die-hard Marxist. If he's criticizing the way Tibetans have been treated, and claims the Chinese constitution is not being followed correctly, they can't say he's just some kind of monk who wants to go back to the old feudal system. It points up a different kind of problem."

Normally the conflict (between Tibet and China) is portrayed in the sense of Tibet wanting to be completely independent, and China is the enemy, Goldstein added. "But here's someone who says, 'I'm proud to be a citizen of China. I'm proud to be a Communist. But we Tibetans are not getting the right kind of treatment within China. Our rights are not being respected.'"

Phunwang's insistence on standing up for the rights of his fellow Tibetans landed him in trouble with the increasingly paranoid rulers of China. In 1958 he was labeled a "local nationalist" (someone who put the interests of his ethnic group above the interests of the state) and ordered to remain in Beijing. Two years later, following the Tibetan uprising against the Chinese, he was arrested and spent the next 18 years in solitary confinement, where he was subjected to repeated interrogations, beatings, and petty humiliations.

He writes, "I recall that often while sitting or pacing in my cell I would watch the ants on the floor and the spiders on the walls. The ants were busy carrying things back and forth and the spiders were spinning webs, and I envied them."

Goldstein notes that none of the better-known political prisoners of the 20th century, such as Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, had to endure such extended solitary confinement, with no work and no social contact with any other prisoners. "Then to feel strong enough afterwards to still stand up and continue to speak his mind, that's a guy you really have to respect." Phunwang, he notes, was never formally charged with a crime or brought to trial.

Finally, in 1978, Phunwang was released from prison and gradually rehabilitated in the Chinese Communist Party. Today he continues to speak up for Tibetans.

"After suffering for 18 years in solitary confinement, it is amazing he was willing to talk with me and risk the wrath of the Chinese government again," says Goldstein. While it is unlikely that he would be jailed again at his advanced age, Goldstein notes that the Chinese government still has ways of showing its displeasure if it chooses, such as revoking his pension or taking away his apartment and other perks. Still, says Goldstein "at the end of our interviews he told me all he has said is true and if the government wants to imprison him again he is ready. He is an amazing man."

While Goldstein enjoyed the hundred-plus hours he spent with Phunwang, interviewing him did present unique challenges.

"He's a prominent person and he lives in a residence of retired high government officials. Any time a foreigner comes the authorities ask who he is and where he's going. So to keep what I was doing discreet, Phunwang had to visit me at my hotel most of the time. But he didn't want to take taxis from his compound and couldn't walk well, so I had to live in a hotel near to his house, and then I had to do other things in Beijing so it would not seem I was coming to Beijing just to see him. So it was a bit complicated, and at times scary(not your normal research project."

Goldstein says that while the Chinese government may never be able to reach a negotiated agreement with the Dalai Lama, Phunwang's story suggests that they could resolve the longstanding ethnic dispute by meeting the criticisms of people in China like him.

"Phunwang sees China is a multiethnic state where large minorities like Tibetans constitutionally have the right to cultural, economic and a modicum of political autonomy, and should be considered equal in all ways to the Han (majority ethnic) Chinese," Goldstein explained. "The issue for Phunwang is not that Tibetans want to separate from China, but that they want the Han Chinese to treat them as equals politically. And it was to say this to people in China and throughout the world, that Phunwang took a great risk and gave me interviews over many years."


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