The Tibetans are even harder to figure out, because on top of that Central Asian weirdness is all this Richard-Gere do-gooder nonsense about the peace-loving Tibetans assaulted by the ruthless Red Chinese. Both parts of that story are wrong, wrong, wrong. The Tibetans were never peaceful people at all. They were one of the most warlike peoples in Central Asia and even conquered the Chinese capital, Chang’An, in their heyday. And the Red Chinese—who could be brutal when the situation called for it, sure—were actually very decent when they took over Tibet in 1950. They felt bad about it at the time, a weird mixture of professional military embarrassment and sheer pity, taking the PLA, battle-hardened from twenty years of fighting the Kuomintang and the Imperial Japanese, into battle against the “Tibetan Army,” such as it was.
The military history of Tibet divides pretty clearly into two parts: the glory days of the 7th-9th century, when Tibet actually challenged China for dominance in south-central Asia, and the sad, slow decline ever since, where the slogan would be: “Tibet, where old meets new and loses.” The Chinese takeover in 1950 was just the latest in a series of one-sided defeats for Tibet.
The invasion was organized by one of Mao’s best generals, a short little dude with a knack for one-liners and a can-do attitude. You may have heard of him: Deng Hsiao-Peng. The guy who brought down the Gang of Four, coined the anti-Cultural Revolution line, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice”? Yeah, him. He had one of his classic lines about how organizing the attack on poor ol’ Tibet made him feel: “….like a tiger trying to catch a fly.” They love those animal sayings, the Chinese. Don’t like actual animals much, but they love to make them into proverbs—or soup, depending on whether it’s quip-time or lunchtime.
Deng only requested 80,000 troops for the invasion—not much for the PLA and its alleged addiction to human-wave tactics. The plan was always to do an Invasion Lite, with lots of talk about the ancient friendship of Tibet and China—which was also a lie, of course.
Against the Chinese the Tibetans had not so much an army as a mobile family campground—the Tibetan soldiers took their whole families with them on maneuvers. The governor of Tibet’s eastern province called the Lamas back in Lhasa to say, “Umm, I’ve got Chinese massing on the border, Your Holiness Sir!” He was told that it was very impertinent of him to bother the Holy Administrators because they were on their annual picnic. I’m sorry but it’s hard to feel much sympathy with a country like that.
When the Chinese crossed the border, the Tibetans fought as well as they could, which was pretty damn badly. Their army was mostly cavalry, a lot of it still armed with swords. There were about 200 artillery pieces and about that many machine guns to defend the whole country. The Chinese veteran soldiers, who’d marched thousands of miles and fought every kind of enemy, couldn’t believe it when they saw Tibetans charging them with swords raised. They didn’t so much defeat the Tibetans as restrain them, the way you would an escaped lunatic. “Whoa, take it easy there fella, c’mon, put down the sword before somebody gets hurt….” They could have wiped out the entire Tibetan force like the British did in similar circumstances in 1904, but whatever else you can say about the ChiComs, they were a lot harder on their own people than on foreigners, and they just flat-out pitied the Tibetans. They got the captured Tibetan soldiers together and lectured them on socialism—they were big believers in motivational seminars, those Maoists, talk your ear off—then gave the Tibetans money and noodles and a pat on the back and told them to go home and not play with swords any more.