Turmoil Erupts in Tibet

by Adam Ritscher

Tibet is again the topic of conversation around the world. And this time it’s not the result of some Hollywood movie, but rather the bloody clashes that have broken out there between Tibetan protesters and Chinese police. While a lot of details are still hazy as a result of a systematic attempt by Chinese authorities to control the news coming out of the region, the clashes appear to have begun with a series of demonstrations organized by Tibetans to mark the 49th anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising against China. The demonstrations began on March 10. By March 14 the demonstrations appear to have evolved into riots in which non-ethnic Tibetans were attacked, and numerous shops, cars and other properties, including a mosque, were set on fire.

The protests and clashes began in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, but have since spread to other parts of Tibet, as well as neighboring provinces of China that have large ethnic Tibetan populations, such as Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan. There was even reportedly a protest by Tibetan students in China’s capital of Beijing.

The Chinese government’s response to these protests has in most places been swift and brutal. Using tear gas, electric cattle prods, and in some instances, guns, Chinese police have forcefully broken up marches, broke into monasteries and raided homes of suspected Tibetan independence activists. There have reportedly been numerous beatings and a number of fatalities. The Chinese government has so far admitted that 22 people have died in the conflict, though claiming that most were non-Tibetans who were burned alive or killed by rioting Tibetan mobs. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government-in-exile claims that over 100 people have been killed, most of them Tibetan protesters at the hands of the Chinese.

These clashes have resulted in a flurry of denunciations of China by capitalist governments around the world, and has led to some to call for a Western boycott of the upcoming 2008 Summer Olympic games to be held in Beijing. An array of well known figures, from Richard Gere to Nancy Pelosoi have sided with the Tibetan protesters, and denounced China’s rule over Tibet.

History of Tibet

Tibet as a political entity began with a series of kingdoms starting in the 7th century. Over the centuries since then its borders have ebbed and flowed dramatically over the mountains ranges and plateaus of central Asia. Almost from its inception though, Tibet has had a complex relationship with China. For much of its history Tibet has been a vassal state of China, afforded a large amount of autonomy in exchange for recognition of the ultimate authority of the Chinese emperor.

During these early centuries Tibet became a Buddhist country. By the late 1300s its political and spiritual leadership became consolidated in the form of the Dalai Lama. The title and office of Dalai Lama was awarded to a prominent Tibetan monk by a Mongolian ruler, and since then the Dalai Lama has allegedly reincarnated 12 times (The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is considered the 14th Dalai Lama because the first person to be given the title Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, is now considered to have been the 3rd Dalai Lama, and the first and second Dalai Lama were given that title posthumously.).

While many of the current Dalai Lama’s supporters in the West consider these centuries to have been Tibet’s golden era, the reality couldn’t have been farther from the truth for the majority of Tibet’s people. Under the Dalai Lama’s the majority of Tibet’s people lived in grinding conditions of poverty in a highly stratified social order. While the top echelons of Tibet’s monastic orders, and the members of the 200 noble families, lived lives of luxury, the majority of peasants were locked in serfdom, forced to grow food and provide labor for the elites. Taxes were crushing, and debt bondage was passed on from generation to generation. Serfs could not get married or move without permission, were told what crops to grow and what animals to raise, and could be separated from their families at the whim of their lord. They could be sold or traded. Any attempt by serfs to leaves their owning lords, or in some other way buck the social order, resulted in brutal corporal punishment, or death.

At the top of this feudal like system the Dalai Lama literally towered over the population in his massive 1000 room main palace, the Potala. The Dalai Lama’s were absolute rulers, and had the power of life and death over the Tibetan people. They awarded massive amounts of land, and thousands of accompanying serfs to their favorites in a patronage system that would make many modern crooked politicians blush. The commander of the Tibetan army, for example, was awarded 4000 square kilometers and 3500 serfs. And this system remained in place right up to the mid-twentieth century.

Following the Chinese Revolution of 1912, in which the Chinese emperor was overthrown and a republic was established, Tibet declared its independence. While China refused to recognize Tibet’s claim to independence, and no other government extended official recognition to it either, China was unable to assert any control as a result of the political turmoil, Japanese invasions and civil war that engulfed the nation for the next four decades.

Following the victory of the Mao Zedong’s Communist Party in the Chinese Revolution of 1949, China prepared to re-occupy Tibet. An army was sent in 1950 and occupied several regions of Tibet, easily defeating the Tibetan army. Stopping short of the Lhasa, the Chinese demanded that the Dalai Lama recognize China’s authority. Subsequently a deal was made where Tibet would once again become part of China, but the Dalai Lama could remain as a spiritual leader.

Initially the Chinese occupation appears to have been rather popular, especially among Tibet’s poor. Even the current Dalai Lama has stated how well behaved the Chinese soldiers initially were, and how well received a number of the reforms they introduced were. Lands was distributed to the peasants, the caste system was done away with, women were granted equal rights, as were ethnic minorities, and secular education and health care was introduced.

But there reforms were naturally not popular among the deposed elites – particularly the former large landowning monks and secular nobility. It was this strata that initiated a rebellion against Chinese rule. The rebellion began in 1956 in the Chinese provinces neighboring Tibet that had large Tibetan populations. In these provinces the land reform was carried much more quickly and in a more complete fashion, than in Tibet proper, were the Chinese took a more gradual approach. Soon though the rebellion spread to Tibet proper, and culminated in a major uprising in 1959.

The Chinese were easily able to crush the rebellion, in part because of the ineffective tactics used by the Tibetan rebels, but also because the Tibetan population was divided in its response to the Chinese occupation. It was during this uprising that the current Dalai Lama fled to India, where he set up a government-in-exile. Somewhere between 80,000 to 1000,000 Tibetans followed him into India, many of them monks, where India has allowed them to set up their own communities and institutions, and the Dalai Lama basically runs a mini-state.

During this time the U.S. imperialists seized the opportunity to cause turmoil in Red China by aiding the Tibetan rebels. While the main uprising was crushed in 1959, in some remote parts of Tibet insurgents continued the fight. Working closely with the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile, several hundred Tibetans were taken to Camp Hale in Colorado and trained in guerilla warfare. These agents were then parachuted into Tibet to hook up with resistance groups. Millions of dollars and significant amounts of arms were also smuggled in, and a base of operations was set up for the fighters across the border in the Mustang region of Nepal. The Dalai Lama also appealed for help directly for his government-in-exile from the CIA and from the anti-communist Nationalist Chinese government in Taiwan. The CIA responded by giving his government tens of millions of dollars. This aid continued until the early 1970s, when the U.S. government stopped aiding Tibetan rebels as part of its establishing diplomatic relations with Mao’s China.

During this time, the initial support that the Chinese government had enjoyed from some layers of Tibet’s poor evaporated in the wake of ever increasing repression. This repression reached its most brutal peak during China’s Cultural Revolution, when thousands of Tibetan monasteries and religious monuments were looted and destroyed. But China’s repressive policies continue, albeit in a slightly more subtle ways. While many monasteries and cultural monuments have been restored in hopes of attracting Western tourists, China still places considerable restriction on Tibet’s monks. More significantly, ethnic Han Chinese have been allowed to move to Tibet and now occupy many of the most important government posts and control a large piece of Tibet’s trade and commerce (the number of ethnic Han Chinese now living in Tibet is widely disputes, with the Dalai Lama claiming they now outnumber ethnic Tibetans, and the Chinese government claiming they only represent a small percentage of the overall population).

Tibet Today

The tensions that recently erupted into the ongoing protests happening today in Tibet are the result of China’s repressive and exploitative policies. While formally Tibet in an “Autonomous Region” of China, Beijing exercises nearly total control over Tibetan life. It’s safe to say that the large majority of Tibetans are opposed to China’s rule. Likewise, while on paper the Tibetan economy is booming, and the standard of living is improving, this boom has largely benefited ethnic Han Chinese. For the rest of the population, development has been very uneven, and has often come at a high cultural and ecological price. Tibetans are in many ways prisoners in their own country.

Among Tibetans though there appears to be a division between supporters of the Dalai Lama and more militant activists. The Dalai Lama has claimed that he does not support independence from China any more, and instead wants only cultural autonomy. His position basically boils down to a “leave the lamas” alone position, leaving political and military power in the hands of China. This is by no means a popular position among many Tibetans, most of whom seem to favor complete independence. Even the parliament of the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile has at times refused to endorse his position on accepting only limited autonomy.

There has also been conflict between the Dalai Lama and many independence activists over what type of tactics to use. While historically the Dalai Lamas have had no qualms about maintaining armies and using violent force, and even the current Dalai Lama gave his blessing to armed resistance against China in the past, he today calls for only non-violent tactics. During the recent uprising the Dalai Lama went so far as to denounce most of the protests, and has threatened to resign his political post in the government-in-exile (though not his spiritual post) if further violence occurs. Many Tibetan activists on the ground, particularly among the youth, seem to view the Dalai Lama’s pacifism as detached from reality, and as having failed to gain any concessions from China so far.

The Dalai Lame continues to be a popular figure, by most accounts, among the average Tibetan, but his authority is not universally accepted. Nor is his direction automatically followed. It should also be said that in talking about some of the more brutal aspects of Tibet’s past under the Dalai Lamas, including himself, the current Dalai Lama has expressed some remorse. In reading the Dalai Lama’s writings, and listening to his speeches, we certainly seem to have a case of a ruler who sounds a lot better now that he is out of power than when he was in. But at the same time, he remains wedded to at least a partial return to Tibet’s dark ages.

What is To Be Done?

While Socialist Action gives no political support to the Dalai Lama, and certainly has no nostalgia for the brutal feudal like system that existed in Tibet under the rule of the Dalai Lamas, we believe that the Tibetan people deserve the right to self-determination, up to and including full independence. The Tibetan people have a unique history and culture, together with their own language and national consciousness.

China’s claims to Tibet basically boil down to the fact that for most of the rule of the Dalai Lamas they accepted that they were vassals of the Chinese emperors. While this is the type of claim one would expect from an imperialist nation, it’s laughable that China’s Stalinist rulers, who call themselves Marxists, would use such an argument. While the Chinese Stalinists claim that the right of self-determination only applies to oppressed nationalities being occupied by advanced capitalist nations, we believe that the right of self-determination belongs to all oppressed nationalities, period. China has no right to determine the future of Tibet, only the Tibetan people have the right – in the same way that only the Chinese people have the right to determine China’s future.

The issue of Tibetan self-determination though is complicated by the fact that many imperialist powers, the U.S. first among them, claim to also be supporters of Tibetan freedom. Seeking to grasp onto any club that will help it in its economic, political and military competition with China, the U.S. ruling class has hypocritically wrapped itself in a number of righteous causes when it comes to China – from the right of religious minorities to practice their beliefs, to even the right of workers to form independent trade unions! It also must be said that many of the liberals and celebrities in the West who have become champions of Tibet do so from a position of anti-communism, and support for their idealized perception of Tibet’s old feudal like system.

The fact that these dubious characters though have jumped on board the bandwagon of Tibet does not negate the rights of the Tibetan people to self-determination. While it would be a mistake to make common cause in any way with the U.S. State Department and CIA on one hand, or the Dalai Lama’s project to revive Tibet’s dark ages on the other, it is right and necessary for workers and progressives the world over to defend the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination. National liberation movements often take on religious garb, and they likewise sometimes attract the poisonous support of misc. capitalist governments as part of the imperialists’ chess games to gain advantage over their rivals. But that does not negate the basic democratic right of oppressed peoples to their own state, and control over their own destiny. The role of Marxists is to expose the false support that the U.S. government and the Dalai Lama, et al are offering the people of Tibet, and to support the Tibetan workers and farmers in their just fight to determine their own future. In that spirit, we support the protesters in Tibet, we support their call for Tibetan independence, and we call for China’s immediate withdrawal.