Nation & World

At 92, party insider again urges China to loosen reins on Tibet

At 92, Bapa Phuntso Wangye may not have much time left to urge China’s leaders to change their ways in Tibet and other ethnic regions of the country.

But the founder of the Tibetan Communist Party _ a political insider in Beijing known as “Phunwang” _ refuses to give up. On Friday, a Hong Kong publishing house will release his latest book, in which he urges China to grant greater autonomy to Tibet and other restive minority areas.

Supporters of Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, have eagerly awaited Phunwang’s book because it calls for China to allow the Dalai Lama and other exiles to return home. But it goes far beyond that, aiming to remind a new generation of Chinese leaders that their hard-line policies represent a broken promise to ethnic minorities who helped bring the Communist Party to power in 1949.

“It is huge to have someone that high in the communist system continually writing these pieces about what China should do with its policy in Tibet and other areas,” said Robbie Barnett, the director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University. “It completely dissolves the notion that there is one single, monolithic view within the party on how to deal with these issues.”

Whether Phunwang’s book will nudge Beijing in a different direction remains to be seen. For decades, he’s been working within the Communist Party system, seeking more autonomy for Tibet but also urging Tibetan exiles to compromise and back away from calls for full independence for their homeland.

He’s been only partly successful. While the Dalai Lama has been advocating a “middle way” approach that would give Tibetans more control of their homeland but not complete independence, China’s leaders have continued to distrust what they call “the Dalai Lama clique.” They often depict the exiled leader’s “middle way” approach as a ruse that hides his true goal: a full split from China.

Phunwang’s book, “A Long Way to Equality and Unity,” is expected to arrive in Hong Kong bookstores and be shipped elsewhere Friday, said the book’s publisher, Bao Pu, the founder of Hong Kong’s New Century Press.

Bao and New Century Press are known for publishing political blockbusters about Communist Party leaders in Hong Kong, where press restrictions are nowhere near what they are on the mainland. In 2009, they rocked China by publishing the secret journal of purged Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang. In this case, Phunwang used an intermediary to approach New Century about publishing his book. Bao jumped at the opportunity.

Bao said the book was significant because it came from a party insider who argued that Beijing wasn’t delivering on past promises to China’s dozens of ethnic groups.

“What he thinks is that Han Chinese have an imperial attitude towards minority communities, and that is in direct conflict with the constitution itself,” said Bao.

This may be Phunwang’s last chance to get that message across. He is thought to be ill and was unable to proofread an edited version of the manuscript, said Bao, prompting New Century to publish the 432-page set of essays in its entirety. For the past 35 years, Phunwang has made Beijing his home. Attempts to contact him through an intermediary were unsuccessful.

Many of Phunwang’s views on Tibet and China’s ethnic regions were laid out in “A Tibetan Revolutionary,” a 2006 biography of Phunwang by historian and anthropologist Melvyn Goldstein and two other scholars. Based on several years of interviews, their book describes how Phunwang was born and raised in Batang, in what’s now Sichuan province, and went to live at age 4 at the local monastery with his uncle.

“Had things gone the way my parents planned, I would have been a monk,” he’s quoted as saying.

Instead he became a revolutionary.

Phunwang founded the Tibetan Communist Party, and as a guerrilla leader he helped Mao Zedong defeat Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces before merging his party into that of the Chinese Communist Party. After China annexed Tibet in 1950, Phunwang held out hope that Tibet would be given the chance to maintain its culture and largely run its affairs. But Mao had other plans.

Phunwang clung to a form of Marxism _ espousing international revolution, with self-determination for indigenous peoples _ that eventually got him in trouble with his Han Chinese comrades. Starting in 1958, he spent two years under house arrest, and then was held in solitary detention for 18 years in China’s notorious Qincheng prison, during which time he was tortured. His first wife was imprisoned _ she died there _ and their children also were jailed.

After Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, Phunwang regained his freedom and some of his party status, and he helped Deng by negotiating with the brother of the Dalai Lama, who’d fled from Tibet after a failed uprising in 1959. According to Columbia University’s Barnett, these meetings were instrumental in persuading the Dalai Lama to abandon public advocacy of Tibetan independence, in favor of a “middle way” accommodation.

In his book, Phunwang writes about his less successful efforts to persuade the Chinese leadership to allow the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan exiles “to return home, live and work in peace.” He blames the impasse partly on an imperial attitude among some in Beijing’s inner circle.

“This is someone who really knows all the promises that have been broken, and the people who broke them,” Barnett said about Phunwang. “He’s the kind of person that makes many senior-level people in China very uncomfortable. . . . He is a man who is beyond fear.”

Bao said he was curious to see how party leaders would react after the book was released. Party officials have attempted to use their clout to prevent publication of previous New Century books about party leaders, but Bao said he’d received no interference on this one.

The book’s publication comes as China wrapped up its highly ceremonial, annual National People’s Congress this week, and just a few weeks after a grisly knife attack in the southern city of Kunming left 29 bystanders and four suspects dead. Authorities have labeled the attack an act of terrorism and blamed it on “separatists” from Xinjiang, a region of west China that is the homeland of Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people who’ve chafed for decades under Beijing rule.

Some analysts warn that if China’s leaders don’t reconsider their policies of assimilation and intimidation in ethnic areas, they’ll only breed more violence. In the Xinjiang city of Kashgar, for instance, Chinese authorities have been accused of steadily eliminating Uighur architecture and culture, a practice that “is only going to add to resentments,” said China book author Jonathan Fenby, who appeared at a Beijing book festival event Wednesday.

Barnett agrees. “If you look at what happened in Kunming, you could easily argue that it would be much better for China if they listened to someone like Phunwang,” he said. “Phunwang is offering a serious analysis of how the majority in power in China should deal with minority members.”

McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.