Tibet: No struggle for freedom / FRFI 203 Jun / Jul 2008

FRFI 203 June / July 2008

Tibet: No struggle for freedom

The rioting that started in Tibet on 14 March was quickly seized on by the imperialist media as a stick with which to beat China. There followed widely-reported protests as the Olympic torch made its passage through Europe. However, claims that what was taking place was a struggle for national liberation are wide of the mark, as THOMAS VINCENT reports.

Before the revolution: the rule of brute force and superstition
The socialist revolution which started in 1951 was a historic advance for the mass of Tibetan people.* Prior to the revolution the majority of Tibetans were held in serf slavery to the religious and secular aristocracy, and below this around 5% of the population were ‘chattel slaves’, lacking even the right to grow crops for themselves and were often starved, beaten or worked to death. The religious and secular aristocracy and the government accounted for 2% of the population, with just 626 people out a population of two to three million owning 93% of all land and wealth and 70% of yaks. Serfs worked 16 to 18 hours a day, keeping only a quarter of the food they grew, whilst the ruling classes spent their time eating, gambling, memorising religious dogma and relaxing. Poor monks were subject to menial labour and beatings from the upper abbots. To be a woman was considered proof of sins in a past life. Women were forbidden from raising their eyes above a man’s knees and husbands were permitted to slice off the end of their wife’s nose as punishment for sleeping with another man. Freedom of religion was forbidden, and women were reportedly burnt to death for practising the pre-Buddhist traditional religion of Bon. Armed gangs were employed by the aristocracy to enforce their rule, combined with groups of monks known as the ‘Iron Bars’ after the metal rods they used to beat people. Whipping a person to the point of death and then leaving them to die elsewhere was considered consistent with the Buddhist conception of ‘non-violence’.

Religious superstition dominated the lives of the Tibetan masses and was used to justify their exploitation. At a time when half of the Tibetan population could not afford butter, the main source of protein available, a third of all butter produced in Tibet was burned as religious offerings. Women were burned to death for giving birth to twins, which was considered proof of having slept with a devil. Using iron ploughs, mining coal, harvesting fish or game and medical innovations were all prohibited by religious dogma, holding back the development of the productive forces to meet people’s needs.

The revolution comes to Tibet
Socialism was not ‘imposed on Tibet’ at the end of a gun. When the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered Tibet in 1951 it was under a ‘17-point agreement’ with the Tibetan ruling class, whereby they would remain in power as a local government, and Tibet would have the status of an autonomous region within the Chinese republic. Previous to this Tibet’s geographical isolation had meant there had been little contact between the Tibetan masses and the revolutionary movements sweeping the rest of China. Yet it was not long before news of the freedom of serfs in the rest of China began to spread, and the actions of the PLA in building schools, hospitals and roads and importing affordable goods such as tea and matches, attracted more and more Tibetans into the revolutionary movement.

Tibetan serfs had already been fighting back against their class oppression, with documented uprisings in 1908, 1918, 1931 and the 1940s, which were all brutally repressed. Now, with the spread of the Chinese revolution into Tibet they had the opportunity for a lasting victory against their oppressors. No longer bound to the monasteries for life, thousands of young monks abandoned the priesthood to take up productive work. PLA road-building camps became a magnet for escaped serfs and chattel slaves, where they studied the principles and analysis of the Chinese revolution.

In March 1959, in an attempt to put a stop to this, the Tibetan ruling class with CIA funds and training, organised an assault on the Chinese garrison in Lhasa and along the Chinese-Indian border. With little support from the masses, the uprising was defeated in a matter of days. 13,000 members of the old feudal aristocracy went into exile and new organs of popular power were created, with a thousand Tibetan students rushing to contribute to the organisation of the revolution. In the initial stages land rents were slashed, forced labour was abolished, slaves were freed, and the massive debts of serfs to their former masters were cancelled.

Exploitation returns to Tibet
In the years following the end of the Cultural Revolution and Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in China, these movements were defeated, and Deng’s aims of establishing Tibet as an ‘efficient’ capitalist area of exploitation are now being realised. Major investment is taking place as part of China’s Western Development Policy, and in 2006 the Qingzang railway was inaugurated, connecting Lhasa to the rest of China. Tibet’s GDP in 2006 was $3.8 billion, more than double that of 2000, with an average annual growth of 12%. In 2006 more than half of this was contributed by the service sector, such as hotels and taxis, with the service sector exceeding the area’s primary sector for the first time.

There are more than 70 known mineral types in Tibet, with reserves of 12 of them ranking among the top five in China at a provincial level. These include minerals crucial to the metallurgical, chemical, construction, national defence and electronic industries. Whilst having few reserves of coal, oil and natural gas, Tibet has strong potential for hydro, geothermal, wind and solar energy, already producing around 30% of China’s hydro energy annually at 200 million kw and leading China in geothermal reserves. It is this wealth which is being fought over by the Tibetan and Chinese ruling classes, in a counter-revolutionary process which has set the context for the recent violence.

Violence targets ethnic minorities
Although in the initial rioting police cars, fire engines and other official vehicles were torched, available eyewitness accounts suggest rioters quickly moved on to target homes, hotels and businesses owned by Han Chinese (China’s largest ethnic group), Hui Chinese (a Muslim minority) and other non-Tibetan ethnic groups. Shops were smashed and looted, hotels vandalised. Han and Hui Chinese were beaten in the streets and had their homes torched, and at least one mosque was reported to be set on fire. The official Chinese media agency Xinhua reported that on 14 March rioters in Lhasa injured 623 people, 382 of them civilians, and killed 18 civilians. Tibetan exiles were quoted in The Times as saying five people were killed by police.
Dawa Tsering, an Additional Secretary in the Department of Information and International Relations of the Tibetan government-in-exile, argued in an interview with Radio France International on 2 April that these actions were consistent with the Buddhist conception of ‘non-violence’:

‘First of all, I must make it clear that the Tibetan [rioters] has been non-violent throughout...From the video recordings you can see that the Tibetan rioters were beating Han Chinese, but only beating took place. After the beating the Han Chinese were free to flee. Therefore [there was] only beating, no life was harmed. Those who were killed were all results of accidents. From recordings shown by the Chinese Communist government, we can clearly see that when Tibetan [rioters] were beating on their doors, the Han Chinese all went into hiding upstairs. When the Tibetan [rioters] set fire to the buildings, the Han Chinese remained in hiding instead of escaping, the result is that these Han Chinese were all accidentally burnt to death. Those who set and spread the fire, on the other hand, had no idea whatsoever that there were Han Chinese hiding upstairs.’

Following this, protests took place involving Tibetans in Chinese provinces outside the Tibet Autonomous Region including Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Beijing. According to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, attacks on between 10 and 20 Chinese embassies and consulates around the world took place at the same time as the riots in Tibet and other Chinese provinces. There have followed widespread support for the protests and vocal condemnations of the Chinese government by imperialist media and governments. Chinese students have mobilised across Europe to expose press misreporting of the riots, and the Cuban and Venezuelan governments have issued statements condemning the imperialists’ attempts to isolate China for their own interests.

Forces behind the protests
The Dalai Lama’s movement has received substantial backing from the CIA, with an intelligence operation established between the CIA and the Dalai Lama’s second eldest brother, Gyalo Thundop, as early as 1951. Currently Tibetans in exile in India continue to receive an annual $2 million from the US Congress via the National Endowment for Democracy and other channels, with additional millions for ‘democracy activities’ within the Tibetan exile community. The Dalai Lama has received additional funding from the likes of financier George Soros. Backing for the protests within Tibet has been reported as arising from anger at high inflation within the region, which has been attributed to the high levels of migration of other ethnic groups to Tibet in recent years.

In contrast to those who support a ‘Free Tibet’, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile do not support total independence for Tibet, but only greater autonomy within China. The protests seem intended to establish a new accommodation with the Chinese government which will further return the privileges of the religious aristocracy alongside a new layer of wealthy landowners that has arisen as a result of capitalist reforms.

This is the tragedy of Tibet, not the denial of the freedom of the monks to accumulate wealth and live off the backs of the masses. Today monks continue to do no productive work and live luxurious lifestyles on the basis of donations to the temples, from where they travel into the cities to purchase luxury items such as DVDs and computer games and eat for free at restaurants.

The response of the left
Unable or unwilling to grasp the significance of the counter-revolutionary processes which have led to the present situation, the majority of the British left have given support to the protests which is as fulsome as that of the imperialists. Socialist Worker uncritically parroted the line of the CIA-funded Tibetan exile groups, describing the protests as ‘the product of decades of national oppression’. The Socialist Party cited casualty figures without mentioning that the majority of those injured and killed had been at the hands of rioters.

We should not forget that these are the same groups which have consistently supported counter-revolutionary movements such as the CIA-backed Solidarnosc in Poland, and the mujahideen in Afghanistan. The virulently anti-communist Reporters Without Borders, who have repeatedly attacked the Cuban Revolution, waged a high-profile campaign not only for the freedom of journalists to report from Tibet, but also against any press criticism of the ‘Dalai Lama clique’ or of the violence carried out by rioters against ethnic minorities.

There is no national liberation movement in Tibet. There is, on the one hand, the religious aristocracy and the new landowners, jockeying for a greater share of Tibet’s profits, and gaining support from a section of Tibetan society through racist scapegoating of ethnic minorities for the problems caused by China’s capitalist restoration, and from the US ruling class seeking to strengthen its strategic interests in the region. On the other hand, there is the Chinese ruling elite seeking to reach
a compromise with Tibet’s religious aristocracy which will allow it to maintain a large share of Tibet’s growing wealth.

* Much of the historical material in this article is drawn from the Revolutionary Worker, newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Party, US.