The recent protests in Tibet have again put the spotlight firmly on China and its politics. By global standards, both the violence and the Chinese Government’s efforts to control it are not unprecedented. More people die in the US colonies of Iraq and Palestine in a week than have been reported killed in Tibet over the past week by even staunchly pro-Tibet information sources. Even the information clampdown and externment of foreigners ordered by the Chinese authorities, pales in comparison to the track record of the US and its allies in media manipulation. Moreover, it is also likely that Governments and media in the US and Europe are encouraging a bigger coverage of the events in Tibet for clearly political reasons. It is easy to do this since unorganised citizen protestors facing heavily armed soldiers and armoured personnel carriers readily lends itself to heroic adulation.
These eye-catching visuals of Tibetan struggle for freedom and Chinese oppression should not make us forget the history of the region. Tibet is part of the large mountainous landmass which has historically separated the civilisations of South Asia from those of China. Of this vast landmass, Tibet has been the Chinese face and the Himalayas the Indian face. A perusal of the relations between the rulers in Tibet and the Chinese empire in the few centuries before modern colonialism intervened, shows that while Tibet was under the influence of China, it remained a peripheral province, often un-ruled and un-rulable. Chinese authority over Tibet, in the 17th and 18th centuries was a function of the might of arms of the Chinese army as well as the balance of forces between the Chinese, the Mongols and the Tibetans. There were also short periods when the Gurkha kings of Nepal and then the Khalsa kings of Punjab controlled almost the entire Tibetan landmass.
With the entry of Britain and Russia into the region in the 19th century, and China itself coming under colonial domination, China’s influence waned and Tibetan rulers could manage to wrangle a relatively long period of de facto sovereignty for themselves during the first half of the 20th century. This Tibetan Government was a classic theocracy based on an extreme form of feudalism. The head of State, the leader of the Government and the religious leader was one single person, the Dalai Lama. The top administrators and officials were almost all Lamas of drawn from a few high ranked lay families. The entire country was governed and administered through a network of monasteries which numbered in the thousands. They owned all the land but the actual cultivators were serfs bonded to their masters for life. It is estimated that upwards of 80%, perhaps even 90% of Tibetans were such serfs. Far from any democratic rights, for an overwhelming majority of Tibetans, the rule of the Dalai Lama was one of unending unpaid labour, cruelty and debt-bondage and not some spiritual, Shangri-La. Some historians have even asserted that Tibetan feudal oppression was even worse than its Chinese counterpart while one prisoner in Dalai Lama’s prison in the 1950s called it “hell on earth”.
This is the Tibet which was left behind by the Dalai Lama and his followers in 1959 when they left Lhasa and took refuge in India. The communist revolution in China in 1949 was primarily one of the oppressed Chinese peasant against the landlords. It instituted one of the greatest land reforms of the modern world which liberated the Chinese peasant from the shackles of feudalism. It was merely a matter of time before the empowered Chinese peasant, backed by his communist party, would challenge the gross oppression of Tibetan feudalism and help in the emancipation of his Tibetan compatriots. Since Tibetan feudalism was based on the power structure of Lamaism and the network of monasteries, an attack on the former had perforce to be also an attack on latter. The Lamaic order and their monasteries not only provided the material foundation for Tibetan feudalism, they also provided the ideological legitimisation of its oppression through its elaborate concept of karma and re-birth, which justified the serfs’ oppression as caused by their own sinfulness in earlier lives.
It was this attack on Tibetan feudalism and its religio-cultural baggage, which the Dalai Lama and his friend – the United States – termed an assault on the Tibetan way of life by the Han Chinese. Even if one discounts the testimonies of the ex-serfs who welcomed the revolutionary Chinese communists as “liberators”, there is one objective fact which indicates that an overwhelming number of Tibetans were not too unhappy with the end of the Dalai Lama’s rule. The utter failure of the rebel Tibetan army in the 1960s due to lack of popular support. The CIA had trained over 2,000 Tibetan exiles in its facility in Colorado, and parachuted them into Tibet but over 90 per cent of them were captured or killed. It was similar to CIA’s Bay of Pigs misadventure in Cuba but less well known. It would also be a sobering fact for all the liberal supporters of the Dalai Lama that he acknowledged democracy as a system of governance only in 1965.
Over the past five decades, the social and economic development of Tibet has matched the Chinese mainland and Tibetans have access to education, medical care and economic opportunities. In almost all respects, the condition of the Tibetans is much better than it ever was under Dalai Lama’s rule. But what Tibetan’s lack today is not food, shelter, clothing or work. They lack freedom. But it is important to remember that they share this soul sapping disability with all the other 1.3 billion people who live under the Chinese State.
Today China is a far cry from the revolutionary days when its communist party led the Chinese peasants to liberate themselves from millennia old feudalism. Today the Chinese Communist Party is building capitalism and has converted the Chinese State into an important pillar of global capitalism by converting the erstwhile ‘Middle Kingdom’ into a vast manufactory of cheap commodities. Today capitalists become members of China’s communist party which uses State repression to discipline peasants and workers for the tasks of capital. Reports mention that each day there are over 200 cases of “unrest” and “rioting” in China and almost two thirds of these are related to peasant and worker distress.
Five decades after the Tibetan serf was empowered by the Chinese revolutionaries, it is highly unlikely that they will come out on the streets to demand a restoration of the old system. It also seems that the Dalai Lama does not have the level of control over the protestors in Tibet which he, as well as the Chinese State, would like the world to believe. Therefore, it appears that the present unrest in Tibet is similar to these daily rebellions of the Chinese working people against the restoration of capitalism in China. These protesters in mainland China are mostly ignored by the West’s corporate media since their protests disrupt the smooth integration of China into the “world economy” and endanger the manufacturing of goods needed to sustain the West’s consumerist orgy. Tibet’s protesters, marginal to the story of Chinese capitalism, provide the ideal geo-strategic fodder to attack China politically and weaken it in the game of inter-imperialist rivalry.
To merely support Tibet’s current protest in isolation is to fall into the trap of the US and become a pawn for its geo-strategic moves. It is not possible to support this particular protest in Tibet unless one also stands in solidarity with the workers and peasants in China who daily are taking to the streets to oppose the re-establishment of capitalism in their country. But to remain silent is to allow the legacy of Marx and Lenin to be slandered and bloodied yet again by renegades masquerading in the name of socialism.
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This article was published in The Post on 19 March, 2008.