Nation & World

Phunwang, Tibetan Communist who sought better treatment for his homeland, dies at 92 in Beijing

Bapa Phunsto Wangye attempted to transform Tibet by making common cause with the Chinese Communist Party. Later, he would feel partly betrayed by Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders over their policies toward Tibet, though he remained a party member all his life, even after his comrades had jailed and tortured him.

Phunsto, better known as Phunwang, died Sunday morning in Beijing at the age of 92, the rare Tibetan insider in Beijing, a confidant of both Mao and the Dalai Lama who attempted to push China to a more humane policy toward the country’s ethnic minorities, even at great personal risk.

Phunwang’s family confirmed his passing, and his significance as a Tibetan leader was acknowledged in a statement from the Dalai Lama. There was no immediate comment from the Chinese Communist Party.

“Through his own example, Phunwang showed that you could be a true Communist while at the same time proud of your Tibetan heritage,” the Dalai Lama said, in the statement, which was issued from Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama remains in exile.

The Tibetan spiritual leader said he first met Phunwang in 1951, when the communist insurgent surprised him by making prostrations before him, even though Phunwang was loyal to Mao.

“At the same time, while the Chinese officials were all dressed uniformly in their regulation Mao suits, he wore a traditional Tibetan chuba. When I asked him about this he told me it would be a mistake to think that the Communist Revolution was primarily concerned with how to dress,” the Dalai Lama said. “He said it was more about a revolution of ideas, indicating to me that he did not think that being a Communist meant a Tibetan needed to dismiss Tibetan traditions.”

Sadly, Phunwang was wrong on this point. Although he had allied his Tibetan Communist Party with Mao against Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces during the Chinese civil war, he later felt betrayed by government treatment of his ancestral homeland and other ethnic areas of China. When he voiced his concerns, he was detained, then imprisoned.

Starting in 1958, Phunwang 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 also was detained _ she died in prison _ as were their children.

Just two weeks before his death, Phunwang had managed to get his most recent book published through a Hong Kong publishing house known for releasing insider accounts of Communist Party dealings.

The book, “A Long Way to Equality and Unity,” was published this month by Hong Kong’s New Century Press, founded by Bao Pu, son of a Chinese Communist Party leader allied with the late Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang. After Zhao was sacked in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Bao shocked the state by publishing the premier’s autobiography in Hong Kong.

Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar in New York who hosted Phunwang at Columbia University in 2001, called his death “a great lost for China” and Tibet.

“Phunwang was an example of a leader who had an unwavering, unsentimental commitment to looking at the needs of an entire society, not just those of his own group or class,” said Barnett. “He tried to end abuse and oppression whether those came from within his own people or from the Chinese, and he proposed practical solutions that he believed would benefit both his own people and China.”

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 in 1922 and raised in Batang, in what’s now Sichuan province. His family sent him to a monastery with an uncle and hoped he’d be a monk. Instead he become a revolutionary and a communist, revolting against Tibet’s feudal way. He stayed a true believer even as Han Chinese leaders failed to keep promises he said they had made to their Tibetan cadres.

Phunwang was partly rehabilitated after Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978. Regaining his freedom and some of his party status, Phunwang helped Deng by negotiating with the brother of the Dalai Lama, who’d fled from Tibet after a failed uprising in 1959. Those meetings were said to have been instrumental in persuading the Dalai Lama to abandon public advocacy of Tibetan independence, in favor of a “middle way” accommodation.

Within the world’s Tibetan community, there is huge debate about whether the “middle way” strategy will result in less harsh treatment of Tibetans in their homeland and other parts of China. Many Tibetans have given up, and hundreds have gone so far as to set themselves on fire _ “self immolations” aimed at bringing attention to government mistreatment.