Evaluating China’s Role in Tibet

18 03 2008

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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.

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13 responses

18 03 2008
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18 03 2008
Adnan

You confirm what the average enlightened native here in Hong Kong believes about the Tibet protests/riots. That these riots are not about freedom from China.

18 03 2008
Anoop Saha

Tibet might be the only freedom struggle in the world that uses redundant culture and ethnic pride as its fodder, has zero revolutionary zeal and still has wide international support. The credit for that must be given to Dalai Lama.

But what is real is that Tibetans, in large numbers want to be freed from Chinese oppression, more physical than cultural. It symbolizes a collective society rising against an oppressive state, which has scant respect for human rights. Given a chance, Chinese government will not think twice about killing what it claims to be its own citizens, in mass numbers. A state that does not give the right to criticize to its citizens loses its legitimacy. Whether you see it as a larger Chinese problem or an isolated Tibetan problem, any attempt to suppress the will of the people by the state machinery to maintain status quo should be strongly denounced.

20 03 2008
johng

I agreed with much of this, but think it might be a mistake to underestimate the close connection between neo-liberalism and national chauvinism. I think its right to draw the connections between different struggles in China in the way the author of this article does, but mistaken to attempt to downplay issues connected to national oppression therefore. In order to draw the connections the author points to more then rhetorically I think it is neccessary to recognise and oppose rather then down play issues of national oppression. The difficulty is that everybody from the Chinese State to US Imperialism prefers this to be a discussion about the politics of the exile community versus the Chinese state rather then a discussion about what is actually going on on the ground in Tibet.

21 03 2008
Vinayak

Hi Aniket,
I though it was going to be about Evaluating China’s Role in Tibet!
Ended up reminding me of articles by N. Ram.

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.

I had no idea that it was so little well known that one could compare it with Bay of Pigs.

CIA working closely with Gyalo Thondup, Dalai Lama’s elder brother, trained around three hundred Tibetan rebels on a remote Pacific island of Saipan, and later at Camp Hale in Rocky Mountains in Colorado. These men, dressed in chubas and equipped with rifles, mortars, hand-cranked Morse radios and cyanide capsules, were parachuted into Tibet by night from US planes. These men were not going in to start as popular rebellion instead they were going in to fight the Chinese. According to the few survivors it was “like throwing meat into the mouth of a tiger.” More so, they found it difficult to link up with Chushi Gangdrug, the indigenous rebel movement that started as a religious army whose men riding on their ponies used to carry raids on Chinese posts.

It is worthwhile to note that Chushi Gangdrug didn’t just have members from a particular superior social background but included serfs too. Of course, these serfs did not yet know the greatness of Marx and Lenin.

In the 60s, instead of training Tibetans in US, a large operation was set in Mustang, a mountainous region of Nepal bordering Southern Tibet. The plan was to arm Tibetans with mortars, carbines and 55mm recoil-less rifles, setting up guerrilla units to conduct raids inside Tibet. CIA was spending nearly US$ 2 million annually on this operation and giving Dalai Lamas private office around US $ 180,000 a year. When stories of Mustang base spread, Tibetan refugees began to make way in hundreds to fight the Chinese. This influx coincided with a ban on covert over flights by Eisenhower – following the shooting down of U2 spy plane in May 1960. This meant that supplies could not be dropped to the rebels. According to film-maker Tenzing Sonam: “There were more than two thousand people up in the mountains with nothing to eat. They were even boiling shoes and eating the leather. People died.”
The Mustang fighters lacked the military or financial backing to establish a proper resistance force inside Tibet, and by the late 1960s the operation was mired in internal feuding between the CIA – trained generation of fighters and the original Chushi Gangdrug leaders. Soon America did what it does best – it tactically withdrew support. The resistance came to an end with Nixon’s rapprochement with Beijing in 1972. All funding stopped. Dalai Lama asked th fighters to lay down the arms, but rather than surrender, many preferred to die. One senior officer Gyen Pachen, slit his own throat, and Wangdu, the commander of Mustang was shot dead in an ambush by Nepalese army. Tibetans were no longer of any use to Americans and were discarded just like as they had been two decaded earlier by the British. It was the British who first started arming Tibetans (an act that aggrieved Chinese a lot), flamed their claim of separate nationhood and yet at the same time failed to officially acknowledge special status of Tibet. India was no different. Soon after Independence, under the leadership of Nehru, India sold Tibet new rifles, Bren guns, Sten guns, mortars, explosives and ammunition. But when in 1950, forty thousand Chinese soldiers invaded Kham, India stood aside worrying that accession of Hydrabad and Kashmir might be questioned.

In 1950s, when Tibetans sought foreign backing, Mao was to say in a party meeting:

There’s a group in Tibet who want to set up an independent kingdom. Currently this organization is a bit shaky…There is a place in India called Kalimpong, where they specialize in sabotaging Tibet. Nehru himself told the Premier [Zhou Enlai] that this place is a center of espionage, primarily American and Britis. If Tibet wants to be independent our position is this: if you want to agitate for independence, then agitate; you want independence, I don’t want you to have independence. We have a Seventeen Point Agreement.

The attitude of China has since remained unchanged.

You said:
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.

And then you said:
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.

Certainly, it appears that you too feel the pinch of lack of credible news coming in from the region.
And rightly it has been said: Free Tibet without Free China makes no sense.

21 03 2008
RD

//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. //

Unless there is more proof of this or some numbers, this seems mere speculation as good or bad as any other. It also fails to account for action centers all over the world by Tibetans demanding freedom for Tibet, which can hardly be classified as akin to Chinese workers protesting. If things were as rosy as you say, why would the Chinese govt be so paranoid about free flow of information from Tibet and the rights of people to organize. The Chinese Govt is just another expanded form of corrupt dictatorship – a sentiment expressed by Chinese themselves who have freedom to letting their thoughts known – curbing basic freedoms of speech and action and tries to cover it all under the guise of economics. China has no business being in Tibet and if it really cares about the interest of Tibetans, it should allow them self determination and if at the end of it they want to join China, well and good. Till then, irrespective of US interests, China should not be condoned in any way.

24 03 2008
johng

I’m increasingly depressed by some of the discussion around this (despite an earlier more measured response). Here you have the fastest growing chunk of global capitalism, led by a regime pursuing an authoritarian brand of neo-liberal economic reform (its useful to remember that if you did not include economic growth in China the figures trumpeted about the benefits of neo-liberal policy would look as silly as they undoubtably are). Here you also have what is almost certainly the fastest growing proletariat in the world and at the same time the beginnings of the break up of the political ice age that followed the events of 1989. This has produced a welter of activism inside China itself, ranging from protests at village level around enviromental issues to strikes and agitations in the massive industrial heartlands on the eastern seaboard. At the same time you’ve seen over the last decade a larger understanding across the region based on a critique of neo-liberalism and the rise of different kinds of social movement activism. The regime has responded with a combination of repression and concessions, and spends much of its time internationally attempting to engage in jostling with some of the older imperialist countries to carve out a better position for itself. Much of the western coverage of events in Tibet is simply part of this jostling between hostile brothers and this conceals the identity of interest between Washington and Beijing on fundementals. Is this jostling really the most important thing? (perhaps some think that a powerful China will allow some kind of return to non-alignment type positions for weaker countries when of course all it does, as the case of India shows, is drive countries further and further down the neo-liberal path). Surely we have to look at this from the point of view of the new movements emerging in China and from the point of view of the future. In that framework the kind of chauvinism the regime is currently whipping up will easily be used against other movements in China as well. No to Imperialism of course. But China is not venezuela. Its the regional engine of global capitalism. As all these momentous changes occur there is a danger that we’re left walking around like the undead with slogans which have no bearing on reality at all.

4 04 2008
Pardeep S Attri

Free Tibet

16 04 2008
Nirmalya

The conclusion, though quite imaginative, doesn’t quite follow . This gives the impression that till China moved towards capitalism, the Tibetans had been a content lot . But Tibetan discontent is not that new. This is a version of events that seems credible to me.

Back in 1979 , Deng Xiaoping invited the Dalai Lama to send fact-finding delegations to Tibet, confident that the delegation would be impressed by Tibet’s progress and their support to the Chinese nation. Beijing was assured by party leaders from Tibet that Tibetans were strong supporters of the party. However when one of D.L’s delegations got there they received a tumultuous welcome from the masses. Thousands even mobbed the delegates, some of whom shouted ‘Han go home’ and ‘Tibet is independent’. Beijing was rattled.

After carrying out some preliminary investigations, the party convened a Tibet Work Conference in the early 1980s. This statement made in the conference is significant:” We have been established [in Tibet] for thirty years. Now the international situation is very complicated. If we do not seize the moment and immediately improve the relationship between the nationalities [Han and Tibetan] we will make a serious mistake. All the members of the Party must recognize the seriousness and we must reach a consensus”

Soon after, Party Secretary Hu Yaobang made a fact-finding visit to Tibet. On his return he publicly announced a six-point reform program for Tibet. In his announcement he openly admitted that ‘Compared with other provinces and autonomous regions of the country, it is conspicuous that in Tibet the people’s living standards lag far behind.’ And ‘
Education has not progressed well in Tibet.’ . .

His liberal six point program was something like this:

(1) Full play must be given to the right of regional autonomy of minority nationalities under the unified leadership of the party Central Committee . . . .
The right to decide for oneself under unified leadership should not be abolished. It is necessary fully and independently to exercise this right. Anything that is not suited to Tibet’s conditions should be rejected or modified, along with anything that is not beneficial to national unity or the development of production. The autonomous region should fully exercise its right to decide for itself under the unified leadership of the party central committee, and it should lay down laws, rules and regulations according to its special characteristics to protect the right of national autonomy and its special national interests.

(2) . . . Compared with other provinces and autonomous regions of the country, it is conspicuous that in Tibet the people’s living standards lag far behind. This situation means that the burden of the masses must be considerably lightened. The people in Tibet should be exempt from paying taxes and meeting purchase quotas for the next few years. . . . All kinds of exactions must be abolished. The people should not be assigned any additional work without pay. Peasants’ and herdsmen’s produce may be purchased at negotiated prices or bartered to supply mutual needs, and they should be exempt from meeting state purchase quotas. . . .

(3) Specific and flexible policies suited to conditions in Tibet must be carried out on the whole economic front of the region, including the agricultural, animal husbandry, financial and trade, commercial, handicraft and communication fronts, with a view of promoting Tibet’s economic development more rapidly. . . . .
(5) So long as the socialist orientation is upheld, vigorous efforts must be made to revive and develop Tibetan culture, education and science . The Tibetan people have a long history and a

rich culture. The world renowned ancient Tibetan culture included fine Buddhism, graceful music and dance as well as medicine and opera, all of which are worthy of serious study and development. All ideas that ignore and weaken Tibetan culture are wrong. It is necessary to do a good job in inheriting and developing Tibetan culture.
Education has not progressed well in Tibet. Taking Tibet’s special characteristics into consideration, efforts should be made to set up universities and middle and primary schools in the region. Some cultural relics and Buddhist scriptures in temples have been damaged, and conscientious effort should be made to protect, sort and study them. Cadres of Han nationality working in Tibet should learn the spoken and written Tibetan language. It should be a required subject; otherwise they will be divorced from the masses. Cherishing the people of minority nationalities is not empty talk. The Tibetan people’s habits, customs, history and culture must be respected.
(6) The party’s policy on minority cadre must be correctly implemented and the unity between Han and Tibetan cadres must be even more closely enhanced…. Full time cadres of Tibetan nationality should account for more than 2/3rds of all government functionaries in Xizang [Tibet], within the next 2–3 years [emphasis added]

The CCP implemented many of these proposals: monasteries were re-opened, Tibetans were allowed to cultivate private plots, sell their harvest surpluses, decide for themselves what crops to grow, and keep yaks and sheep. The use of Tibetan language was resurrected, number of Tibetan officials were increased, plans to improve education were made. Communication with the outside world was again permitted, and frontier controls were eased to permit Tibetans to visit exiled relatives in India and Nepal. Large funds were allocated for development of Tibet . Beijing was trying to develop and modernize Tibet while allowing the Tibetans to practise their religion culture.

Again the rapid economic development created some problems. This opened up the job market and caused an influx of Hans from the mainlands. The Tibetans had deep-seated resentment towards the Hans whom they believed had taken over their country, and were now taking their jobs. The Tibetans wanted an ethnically homogenous Tibet, and Hans were most unwelcome there.

This resentment surfaced in the 1987-89 riots in Tibet during which hundreds of Tibetans turned upon Chinese officials. The riots were originally sparked off by demonstrations by monks in support of Dalai Lama. The recent diplomatic successes of Dalai Lama in Us had led them to believe that the US may come out in support of Tibet’s freedom movement. Anyways, the situation in Tibet progressively deteriorated and Beijing decided that strong measures needed to be taken to bring back control.

Deciding that the earlier liberal program had been a failure, Beijing decided to implement a more hard-line and integrative policy for Tibet, starting from 1989. This included stricter security measures, rapid economic development to bring Tibet’s economy at par with the rest of China, sending educated personnel to modernize the region better and invigorating the party structure at all levels. In the new policy, Tibet is no longer special but another ethnic group in a multi-ethnic state. Ethnic homogeneity in Tibet is no longer a priority. The Chinese hoped that these policies would give rise to a new breed of ‘modern Tibetans’ would be integrated into the Chinese society.

However the new policy allows people of other ethnicities to do business in Tibet. In fact, most of the Tibetan econmy is in the hand of Hans, a fact that is deeply resented by Tibetans.

Also,the harsh treatment of those harboring nationalist sentiments may have created some resentment. According to some reports, ‘Tibetan government employees suspected of harboring nationalist sympathies were purged from office, individual Tibetans reportedly were subjected to arrest, imprisonment, and forced labor for carrying out separatist activities and engaging in political “subversion.” Some arrestees were held in administrative detention without adequate food, water, and blankets, subjected to threats, beatings, and other mistreatments. ‘

Under such circumstances, clashes are, IMO, bound to happen.

15 08 2009
Axidentive

Tibet is no longer special but another ethnic group in a multi-ethnic state. Ethnic homogeneity in Tibet is no longer a priority. The Chinese hoped that these policies would give rise to a new breed of ‘modern Tibetans’ would be integrated into the Chinese society which was not a faulty idea for integration of two states as rapid economic development was taking place in Tibet. Again it is also true that free Tibet without free China makes no sense. China’s capitalism made them globally open and if Tibet and china could be integrated then both could get the benefit.The problem was somewhere else that Chinese government failed to realize before undertaking the policy. The rapid development in Tibet was opening up the job market and caused an influx of Hans from the mainland. The Tibetans had deep-seated resentment towards the Hans whom they believed had taken over their country, and were now taking their jobs. Hans were most unwelcome there.
This bi-lateral issue unfortunately turned into an international issue which is subjected to be mostly criticized. Whatever policy China undertakes if that makes China prone to many countries to attack diplomatically is going to be a major loss for China. The anarchy has given chance US to get involved by the name of Humanitarian intervention and trap Tibet to get geopolitical advantage. This can weaken the China economy also.

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