Tibet and the National Question

This article on the national question in Tibet and China was first published on 22 September 2005

Tibet – the “rooftop of the world” – was occupied by the People’s Liberation Army in 1950 and later incorporated into People’s Republic of China as the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” (TAR).

The Beijing regime’s claim over Tibet is the subject of heated debate. What stand should socialists take? Despite a booming Tibetan economy, which has grown by over ten percent per year for the last decade, resentment against Chinese rule is widespread.

This is the legacy of the the Chinese Stalinist regime’s heavy-handed bureaucratic and repressive measures, which in the consciousness of the Tibetan masses overshadow its role in abolishing serfdom in Tibet and instituting far-reaching social reforms. As Robespierre warned, people do not like “missionaries with bayonets”. Today, new tensions are emerging as Han migrants (China’s dominant ethnic group) outnumber Tibetans in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and other cities.During the last half century, more than one-fifth of Tibet’s population have been arrested or harassed in connection with ‘anti-separatist’ crackdowns, according to official Chinese figures.

At least 100,000 have been killed in the course of numerous rebellions, or as a result of detention and forced labour. While the rules governing religious worship have been relaxed since the days of the so-called Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when most Tibetan monasteries were destroyed, it is still an offence to carry the portrait of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Buddhist ‘god-king’. Yet despite all this the Chinese regime’s hold on Tibet is still tenuous.

This conflict has its origins in the occupation and forcible incorporation of Tibet into the People’s Republic of China (PRC) by Mao Zedong in 1950, one year after the victory of the Chinese Revolution. Similarly, national tensions are rife elsewhere in China, especially the sparsely populated border areas, where Han Chinese are a minority. As John Pomfret pointed out in the Washington Post, “Areas dominated by China’s two most recalcitrant minorities – Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs – comprise 1.5 million square miles, almost half of China, and much of its historically vulnerable border areas.”

In recent years the Tibetan people have been confronted by a new threat: economic marginalisation in an increasingly capitalist economy, imported from China, and dominated by Han businessmen and professionals. This “is greatly exacerbating income inequality between the city and the countryside and between Han and Tibetans,” warns Arthur Holcombe, president of the Tibet Poverty Alleviation Fund, a non-governmental organisation. Even in the state sector, a good command of the Chinese language (Putonghua) is a condition for employment. Given that adult literacy among Tibetans is around 50 percent, compared to 85 percent for Han Chinese, the urban labour market is weighted against the indigenous population.

This is reinforced by more or less open racism towards Tibetans as “backward” and “inferior”, ideas implanted over decades by the Beijing regime to justify its repressive policies.

“It is even worse than the discrimination of the white people against the Indians,” according to the dissident Chinese writer, Wei Jingsheng.

Immigration and rural poverty 

“China’s economic development policies for Tibet,” commented Business Week (19 September, 2003), “are also fuelling urban poverty, crime and a swelling problem with prostitution, as young, often poorly educated Tibetans move to the cities and find few legitimate opportunities to make a living.”

The economic boom is anyway an urban phenomenon, largely bypassing the rural areas where 80 percent of the Tibetan population live. Official figures reveal what is probably the largest wealth gap anywhere in China, between rural areas, where the population is wholly Tibetan, and the cities, increasingly dominated by Han immigrants. The per capita net income of Tibetan farmers and herdsmen was 1,861 yuan (225 US dollars) in 2004, among the lowest in China. Salaries for professionals and state officials on the other hand are the highest in China, and for industrial workers the second highest after Shanghai. In an age when the central government can no longer command Han officials and specialists to move to ‘strategic’ regions, a de facto ‘Tibet premium’ operates to attract Han personnel to the region. Holidays are longer, hours are shorter, and settlers can receive altitude allowances, remoteness bonuses and a host of other subsidies.

Despite this, the Beijing government’s attempts to bring about large-scale Han settlement of Tibet as a bulwark against “separatism”, has met with mixed results. Officially, ethnic Tibetans still account for 93 percent or 2.4 million of the TAR’s 2.7 million population. The size of the Han population is certainly higher than these figures suggest when PLA troops garrisoned in the TAR and tens of thousands of migrant workers are factored in. But even so, Han migration to Tibet has not been on the same scale as in neighbouring Xinjiang – where they now make up 40 percent of the population – and this is no accident. In addition to the cold, oxygen-thin atmosphere – Tibet is known as “the rooftop of the world” – Han settlers must brave the general poverty and resentment of the indigenous population. In the years 1959-99 a total of 111,000 Chinese officials were sent to Tibet. Some of these, in the early years at least, volunteered from a sense of revolutionary or patriotic fervour. The majority did not stay.

In the 1980s, under Hu Yaobang’s campaign of “Tibetanisation”, Han officials were ordered home and made the scapegoats for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution period. When the current president, Hu Jintao, held the top post of party secretary in the TAR from 1988-92, he spent most of his tenure in Beijing recovering from “altitude sickness”. This was not the only reason Hu kept his distance. Jonathan Mirsky of The Guardian recalled that: “I once had a chance encounter with Hu. Not knowing I was a journalist, he told me how much he disliked Tibet’s altitude, climate and lack of culture. He was keeping his family in Beijing, he told me, and feared that if there were ever an uprising against the Chinese, no Tibetan would protect him.”

The Han migrant workers and demobilised soldiers who drive Lhasa’s taxis and work its construction sites are evidently made of sterner stuff. But they too, for the most part, plan to return home once they’ve saved enough money, usually after two to three years. As one pro-Tibet campaigner who has travelled the region extensively was forced to admit: “There is something a bit tenuous about the Chinese presence in Tibet. Once you get above 9,000 to 10,000 feet and outside the cities, there are just no Chinese… Most Chinese really don’t want to be there.”[John Ackerley, ICT, from the Washington Post, 31 October 1999]

To reinforce its hold on Tibet the central government has built the soon-to-be-completed 1,142-kilometer Qinghai-Xizang Railway. This is one of the most prestigious and costly infrastructure projects ever undertaken in a country where prestigious projects abound. At a height of more than 4,000 metres above the sea it will be the world’s highest railway, operating at an altitude higher than many small planes can fly. The project confronts massive technological challenges by virtue of the freezing mountainous terrain, problems of oxygen shortage and low air pressure. The train engines will be equipped with turbochargers to get enough oxygen to run, while the passenger compartments will be pressurised like airline cabins. With a first class section including health spas and luxury restaurants, the train symbolises China’s current predilection for class distinctions. Beijing is also building new roads, hydropower projects and power stations in Tibet as a means to speed up economic integration with China.

Abolition of feudalism 

Contrary to the romanticised Hollywood ideal of pre-1949 Tibet as a land of spiritual harmony, conditions resembled those of Europe in the Middle Ages. 58 percent of the population were serfs, forced to perform unpaid labour for their masters, mostly lamas (monks). Serfs who attempted to escape were subjected to cruel punishments such as flogging or mutilation. Even Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, the authors of Mao: The Unknown Story, an attempt to discredit the Chinese Revolution, admit there was “a very dark side” to the old Tibetan theocracy (religious state), although they don’t develop this point with any facts, immediately adding that “Mao’s rule was far worse”.

Tibetan feudalism was bound together with the ‘Lamaist’ branch of Buddhism, the product of centuries of isolation in a harsh natural environment where large-scale human settlement was impossible. The monasteries were themselves large landowners, owning 40 percent of Tibet’s farmland in 1950. They also functioned as law courts and tax collectors, imposing steep religious taxes on the poor. Even today, it is estimated that Tibetans pay one-third of their annual income to the monasteries.

Just as China’s feudal-Confucian system eventually imploded under the weight of external economic and military pressure, so too did outmoded Tibetan feudalism, only in this case at the hands of Chinese Stalinism. Since the Buddhist theocracy was overthrown, per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) has risen 33-fold. Big improvements have been made in the field of electrification, provision of clean drinking water and other infrastructure. But because these undeniably progressive measures were imposed bureaucratically – by means of military occupation – rather than developing from an indigenous social movement (that could have turned to the Chinese workers and peasants for help), this has been at an enormous and unnecessary cost to the Tibetan and Chinese masses.

Despite rapid economic growth on the basis of capital and technology from China, Tibet trails badly behind other regions of the PRC in regard to health, education and most other criteria. According to the 2000 census, 45.5 percent of Tibetan children receive no primary schooling, compared to an all-China average of 7.7 percent. This represents a huge improvement on the situation prior to 1959, when just two percent of Tibetan children received a primary education, but is still by far the worst showing for any of China’s national minorities. Similarly, only 13.3 percent of Tibetans receive a secondary education compared to a 52.3 per cent average across the PRC [2000 national census]. The prevalence of subsistence farming means that peasant families often keep a child, usually a girl, at home to work (hence the extremely high rate of female illiteracy). This is also one reason why Tibetans, and other national minorities, are exempted from Beijing’s one-child policy.

The infant mortality rate has also been sharply cut from 43 percent in 1959, to 3.7 percent in 1998, but this remains three times the rate for the PRC as a whole. And again, while average male life expectancy has risen from 36 years before 1949, to 65 years today, this is the lowest ranking among China’s 18 major nationalities (the average for the PRC is 68.9 years).

Roots of the conflict 

The argument of Han nationalists, including the Beijing regime, that Tibet has always been an “integral” part of China is false. Historical precedent is anyway not decisive in regard to the rights of small nations but rather the consciousness of the masses, particularly the working class and the peasantry. On the basis of events, especially of major upheavals, a national consciousness can develop where previously none existed as we have seen in states such as Pakistan and Eritrea.

During the past thousand years Tibet has at different times been a tributary state of the Mongol empire, Mogul India, and later, China’s Qing (pronounced Ching) dynasty. Tibet was brought under Qing control in 1728, on the basis of the so-called “priest-patron” relationship between the Dalai Lama and the imperial court. The Qing emperors (who were not Han but ethnic Manchu) provided protection for the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s feudal elite against internal rebellion, while in exchange Lamaism was adopted as China’s national religion and the Dalai Lama its “supreme spiritual leader”. This arrangement flowed from the Qing court’s plans to subdue the northern and western regions dominated by Mongol tribes who also practised Tibetan Buddhism. Even with the Dalai Lama’s blessing, the conquest of these Mongol dominions by the Qing dynasty required a series of horrific, genocidal, wars. This process saw the Chinese state expand southwards into Burma and Vietnam, eastwards into Korea, and westwards into Central Asia and Tibet.

But as the Qing state began to unravel in the 19th Century under the combined impact of internal rebellion and external imperialist pressure, Tibet began to slip from its control. By the early 1900s, British imperialism was vying for hegemony over Tibet, seeking a buffer against Russian expansion in Central Asia.

The British Colonel Younghusband, heading a mostly Indian military force, massacred more than 900 poorly armed Tibetans in 1904 to impose a trade agreement upon the Lhasa government. A 1906 treaty, forced upon a decrepit Qing government, made Tibet a de facto British protectorate. This is the truth behind the so-called ‘independent’ Tibet of that time, which features as an imagined ‘golden age’ in the propaganda of the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile. On the basis of capitalism and imperialism there can be no genuine independence for small, economically weak states; no more than small ‘independent’ companies can survive in the modern capitalist economy other than as subcontractors to major corporations. The 13th Dalai Lama’s attempts to curry favour with British imperialism included the very ‘pacifist’ offer of 1,000 Tibetan troops to fight for Britain in the First World War.

From the Chinese perspective, the transfer of Tibet to Britain’s sphere of influence was yet another example of humiliating foreign encroachment, on a par with Russia’s seizure of Manchuria in 1901 and the Japanese annexation of Formosa (Taiwan) in 1895. The reunification of Tibet with the Chinese “motherland” became an article of faith among Chinese nationalists, from Chiang Kai-shek to Mao Zedong and the Chinese Stalinists.

This was not the attitude of the Chinese Trotskyists, however. Chen Duxiu, the founder of the CCP and later prominent supporter of Leon Trotsky’s Left Opposition, warned against “selfish nationalism and patriotism” commenting ironically that these were “inferior goods from Japan”, to be boycotted by the Chinese working class along with other Japanese goods!

The 1949 Revolution 

The Chinese revolution of 1949 represented an enormous historical paradox. By abolishing capitalism and landlordism and undertaking industrialisation on the basis of state ownership and planning, it shook China out of more than a century of paralysis and decline. This was living proof of Karl Marx’s words that “revolution is the locomotive of history”. But because of the distorted character of the revolution under a Stalinist leadership whose model was the bureaucratic dictatorship in the USSR, the new state soon came into collision with the Tibetans and other national minorities, and later with broad layers of Han Chinese workers and peasants.

Rather than the conscious working class internationalism that animated Lenin, Trotsky and the leaders of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the worldview of Mao Zedong’s regime could best be described as radical Han nationalism, combining opposition to foreign imperialism with an intolerant and chauvinist attitude towards the national minorities of the former Chinese empire. Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia were regarded as so much strategic real estate, to be incorporated at all costs into the new state both for reasons of national security and on grounds of Han prestige. Due to this approach much initial goodwill among the oppressed minorities was squandered.

The situation was somewhat different in Inner Mongolia, which unlike Tibet and Xinjiang had been occupied by Japan in the 1930s, and where Mongolian Communists had taken an active part in the civil war against Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces. But today, Mongolian nationalism is on the rise among the younger generation. Despite spectacular economic growth based on booming demand for its coal (Inner Mongolia’s GDP doubled in nominal terms between 1999 and 2004), protests have erupted recently over plans to privatise the grave of Genghis Khan, a national hero. Despite both being formally ‘socialist’ (in reality, Stalinist) states in the past, the two Mongolia’s – ‘Inner’ and ‘Outer’ – were kept divided by the Russian and Chinese Stalinist bureaucracies.

The stand of Mao and the Chinese Stalinists was completely at odds with the tradition of genuine Marxism, which advocates the right of nations to self-determination. In China’s case, the new regime only recognised “the right of exercising national regional autonomy” within the Chinese state. Contrast this to the position of Lenin who granted Finland independence in December 1917 because this was the clearly expressed wish of the Finnish people, after decades of forced ‘Russification’ under the Tsarist regime. For the Russian Bolsheviks (Communists) the decisive issue was the unity and political cohesion of the working class, regardless of national boundaries. Under Lenin, the constitution of the USSR allowed for the right of self-determination for all the member republics up to and including the right to separate. As a result of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union under Stalin, this right was abolished in practice, as were the soviets – elected workers’ councils – through which the working class had exercised power in the early years of the Soviet state. In contrast, the Chinese revolution triumphed without democratic working class organs of power, but with a ready-made bureaucratic caste in the “communist” officer corps of the peasant-based People’s Liberation Army. The exaggerated faith of the new Chinese regime in military solutions (“power comes from the barrel of a gun”), in combination with Han chauvinism, meant that instead of resolving the national question in China, new explosive conflicts were prepared.

Tibet and the Cold War

The October 1950 invasion of Tibet took place three months into the Korean War, which signified a dramatic escalation of the ‘Cold War’ between the Stalinist ‘East’ and capitalist ‘West’. Mao was forced by the dramatic escalation of international tensions to bring forward his invasion plans. On 7th October, 40,000 PLA troops occupied the eastern Tibetan city of Chamdo, crushing the tiny Tibetan army and forcing the Dalai Lama’s government into negotiations. This approach, rather than a full-blown invasion, reflected the logistical problems for the PLA of supplying a large army at high altitude in terrain with hardly any roads.

The occupation of Chamdo took place just two days before “United Nations forces” – a flag of convenience for a mainly American military force – took the fateful decision to cross the 38th parallel into North Korea with the aim of toppling its Stalinist regime. The PLA’s move into Tibet was therefore aimed at pre-empting any western-backed push for independence by the Lhasa government. On the third day of the Korean War, 27th June, president Truman ordered the US Seventh Fleet to “neutralise” the Taiwan Strait, thwarting an imminent Chinese attack on Taiwan. The Republican right in the United States, whose champion was the Commander-in-Chief of UN Forces in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur, were clamouring for the war to be taken to China. MacArthur advocated the bombing of Chinese air bases and even the use of tactical nuclear weapons on the Chinese side of the Korean border, especially after more than a million Chinese ‘volunteers’ (in reality regular PLA units) entered the Korean conflict in November 1950. In the event, wiser counsels prevailed in Washington, leading to MacArthur’s dismissal by Truman in April 1951.

The position of Truman reflected geo-political realities. The US and its allies were in no position to risk a direct attack on Chinese territory, so soon after the Second World War, at a time when national liberation struggles were shaking Asia, Africa and Latin America. Britain’s Labour government had been hard pressed to meet its obligations to the war in Korea. Neither the US nor Britain were in a position to intervene in Tibet, and their attempts to push India into a military response fell on deaf ears with the Nehru government. After the Korean War, US imperialism did provide arms and training for a sporadic anti-Chinese guerrilla movement in Tibet, but instructively, this support was aborted in 1969, on the eve of Henry Kissinger’s visit to China, through which Washington and Beijing arrived at a historic entente. This was the fourth occasion in half a century that Tibetan leaders had pinned their hopes on one of the great powers (Britain, Japan, India, and now the US) only to be cruelly disappointed.

The Chinese regime’s massive commitment to the defence of North Korea – up to 400,000 Chinese troops were killed, including one of Mao’s sons – flowed not in the first hand from the lofty ideals of ‘Aid to Korea’ that featured in official propaganda, but from the dire consequences of a US victory for its own rule (not least in a US puppet state and military base on China’s eastern border). Nevertheless, because it intervened in support of an indigenous struggle against foreign imperialism, the Chinese regime’s intervention in Korea enjoyed widespread support both at home, in Korea, and throughout Asia.

‘United Front’ with Feudalism

In Tibet, however, instead of coming to the aid of an indigenous movement against feudalism or colonialism, the Chinese regime itself was cast in the role of military aggressor. Making matters worse, Beijing then sought to secure its position by means of a ‘patriotic alliance’ with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan feudal elite.

As one commentator explains, “Mao was in no hurry to bring the revolution to Tibet. The intention of the CCP, on the contrary, was to ‘manage’ the country from afar through something very like the Qing model. Despite its revolutionary commitments, the CCP did not at first attempt any social reforms in Tibet. Sovereignty took precedence. As long as Tibet ‘returned to the arms of the motherland’s big family’, Beijing was quite willing to tolerate the preservation of the ‘feudal serf system’ there.” [Reflections of Tibet, Wang Lixiong]

A genuinely socialist government in China would have set about assisting the development of the democratic, i.e. agrarian, revolution in Tibet, agitating for land to the peasants, the confiscation of the feudal and monastic estates, and far-reaching democratic rights including the right to self-determination. It would explain that in the age of imperialism, with the neo-colonial countries under the ruthless domination of foreign capitalism, the revolutionary struggle would be forced to go beyond these purely bourgeois tasks, to adopt socialist measures and link up with the revolutionary struggle of the workers and peasants in China, India and internationally.

But rather than basing themselves on the small layer of radicalised urban intellectuals and workers in Tibet, the CCP leaders preferred to deal with the ‘tops’ of Tibetan society. The small Tibetan Communist Party, led by Phüntso Wangye, whose independent status would have been an enormous asset given the complexity of the national question, was forcibly merged into the Chinese Communist Party in 1948. Reluctantly, the Tibetan communists agreed to abandon their slogan for “an independent communist Tibet”, but still hoped that the Chinese revolution would lead to the restructuring of Tibet “as an autonomous republic that would function in a similar way to the autonomous socialist republics in the Soviet Union… it would be under Chinese sovereignty, but it would be controlled by Tibetans.” [A Tibetan Revolutionary, Phüntso Wangye]. In 1958, Wangye was denounced by the Chinese regime for “local nationalism” and sentenced to 18 years in prison. His arrest was a foretaste of the repression that would convulse Tibetan society following the collapse of Beijing’s alliance with the feudal oligarchy.

The 1951 treaty between Mao’s regime and the then 16 year-old Dalai Lama, was a prototype of Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” formula for Hong Kong and Macau in 1990s. It stipulated that the Beijing government would not “alter the existing political system in Tibet” and that “in matters relating to various reforms in Tibet there would be no compulsion on the part of the central authorities.” The agreement provided a retroactive endorsement of the Chinese invasion by the Dalai Lama, and gave Beijing control of foreign policy and defence. In the social sphere, however, apart from reducing usurious interest rates and building a small number of hospitals and roads (which primarily served a military purpose), the changes introduced in this period were very limited. As one chronicler explains, “No aristocratic or monastic property was confiscated, and feudal lords continued to reign over their hereditarily bound peasants.”[The Snow Lion and the Dragon, Melvyn Goldstein]

Mao portrayed this as a “united front” with the Tibetan people, when in fact it was a revival of Stalin’s catastrophic class collaborationist policies in China during the 1920s and 30s (the CCP’s ‘alliance’ with Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists). The difference this time, of course, was that Mao’s regime acted from a position of strength. They exercised ultimate control of the state by virtue of the 100,000 PLA troops stationed in Tibet. While courting the Tibetan elite, the Chinese regime’s efforts to build support among the masses in Tibet were at best incompetent:

“Confused by the new ways offered by the Han, fearful of the Han who simultaneously urged ‘liberation’ of the serfs from the feudal masters while creating alliances with these masters, they did not join their ‘liberators’ in large numbers.” [The Making of Modern Tibet, Tom Grunfeld]

In 1954, the Dalai Lama was made a Vice-Chairman of the Standing Committee of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, despite the fact that his application to join the CCP(!) was rejected. In 1955, Mao’s prime minister Zhou Enlai told the Tibetan leader that if Tibet was still not ready for agrarian reform, the waiting period “could be extended for another 50 years”.

The 1959 Rebellion

But the class struggle and changes in popular consciousness do not take place according to a bureaucratic plan. Under the impact of the social transformation in China itself, the old Tibet began to crack apart. Then as now, over half the Tibetan population lived in the neighbouring provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan. The narrow bureaucratic mindset of the Beijing regime meant that, while it stood implacably for “no reforms” in Tibet itself, it saw no reason to apply the same rule to the Tibetan communities in other provinces. In response to the collectivisation of agriculture, introduced in these provinces from the beginning of 1956, hundreds of rebellions broke out, with over 10,000 Tibetans being killed. [Work Report of the 11th PLA Division, 1952-1958]

US imperialism, through bases in Nepal, supplied arms and training for the leaders of this “Khampa” rebellion. Naturally, the leaders of this movement – mostly rich peasants and dispossessed nobility – raised the banner of religion and nationality in order to rally the poorer sections of the population behind them. Once again, the situation was aggravated by the ham-fisted response of the Maoist authorities. The PLA began shelling monasteries, arresting senior monks and guerrilla leaders and staging public executions to reassert its control. These events led to a dramatic rise in tensions across the border in Tibet, where the crackdown against the “Khampa” rebels was widely interpreted as a genocidal attack on the Tibetan people and their religion in Han-dominated regions. The atmosphere became explosive when massive PLA reinforcements began arriving in Lhasa at the end of 1958, with the stated aim of rounding up the 60,000 “Khampa” refugees who had fled there. A rumour spread to the effect that the PLA planned to arrest the Dalai Lama, resulting in thousands surrounding his Summer Palace, erecting barricades and shouting, “Kick out the Han” and “Tibet for Tibetans”.

The uprising in Lhasa on 10 March 1959 was swiftly crushed, with the Dalai Lama and around 100,000 followers, mostly from the old feudal elite, fleeing to Dharamsala in northern India. There, a government-in-exile was set up, which however has not been recognised by any government. Mao intervened personally to insure the Dalai Lama would be allowed to escape, fearing the reaction in Buddhist countries and in India had he been killed. The uprising was a reactionary, feudal movement, which drew support in the main from the lamas, the feudal nobility and the officer corps of the old Tibetan army. But due to the criminal policies of the Beijing regime, based not on winning the masses for socialism but on bureaucratic manoeuvres in the name of “unifying the motherland”, big layers of the Tibetan population saw the March events purely in terms of a national struggle against Chinese occupation.

In the 18 months immediately after the uprising, 87,000 Tibetans were killed according to PLA figures, further alienating large sections of the population. This excessive force was dictated not so much by the situation in Tibet, but by a serious crisis within the Beijing regime itself. Criticism of Mao was mounting as the catastrophic results of his ‘Great Leap Forward’ began to emerge. The original estimate for the grain harvest in 1958, of 375m tons, had been drastically cut to only 215m tons. In the coming three years China would be ravaged by the worst famine of the 20th Century, aggravated by a series of natural disasters, with as many as 30 million people perishing.

One month after the Lhasa uprising, Mao was replaced as head of state by Liu Shaoqi, an ally of Deng Xiaoping, although Mao retained the more important post of Communist Party Chairman. So infected was the mood in the corridors of power at the time that Mao complained of being treated like a “dead ancestor”. In the international sphere a bitter clash was brewing with Moscow that would burst into the open within three months of the Tibetan uprising. In June 1959, the Soviet leader Khrushchev publicly ridiculed Mao’s communes as the handiwork of those “who do not understand communism or how it is to be built”. In the same month, the Soviet Union withdrew its support for China’s nuclear weapons program. In a perverse revival of the Great Game in Central Asia, the Soviet bureaucracy for its own cynical ends began to inflame anti-Beijing sentiment among Kazakhs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang. Beijing’s heavy-handed response to the Tibetan rebellion was an attempt to shore up its prestige – at home and abroad – and deter ‘separatism’ in other parts of China. This according to the Chinese maxim: Kill the chicken to scare the monkey!

In the aftermath of the uprising, Beijing executed a 180-degree turn in Tibet: from tolerating the worst feudal humiliations to the elimination of feudalism from above. Given the low level of literacy and administrative experience among the Tibetan population, large numbers of Han Chinese ‘cadres’ (bureaucrats) were drafted into Tibet to implement the new policy. Ongoing military repression, the destruction of monasteries which had served as bases for the rebellion, and an absurd order by Mao that monks and nuns should be forcibly married, were all designed to “destroy the elite’s capacity to initiate revolt.” [Wang Lixiong]

The Cultural Revolution

While the distribution of monastic and feudal land in the early sixties did create a base of support for the Chinese regime in Tibet, this was largely negated by the events of the Cultural Revolution. In 1969, the central government decided to introduce the so-called People’s Communes (large-scale collective farms) in Tibet, a decade behind the rest of China. The peasants and herdsmen interpreted this as the expropriation of the pastures and livestock they had gained at the start of the decade, and once again armed revolt swept the Tibetan countryside. Socialists are in favour of collective farming, which can enormously improve efficiency. But this can only be achieved on a voluntary basis, with incentives to those who opt to join the collective. For this to work there must be a sufficiently strong industrial base to provide farm machinery, fertilisers and an adequate supply of manufactured goods to exchange for farm products. This was not the case in China in the 1960s, even less so in Tibet.

The result was more than a decade of economic stagnation as large sections of the peasantry effectively “worked to rule” in protest. This was disguised by the introduction of important reforms such as free healthcare and schooling. Nevertheless, by 1980, 500,000 peasants – over a quarter of the Tibetan population – were worse off than before the advent of the communes. Alongside the chaos in agriculture, the Cultural Revolution involved a ruthless crackdown on the Buddhist religion, with the destruction of Tibet’s remaining monasteries and compulsory ‘re-education’ of lamas and nuns. Whereas in 1959 there were 2,463 monasteries in Tibet, by 1976 there were just ten. According to the Panchen Lama, “Holy scriptures were used for manure, and pictures of the Buddha and sutras were deliberately used to make shoes.”

In 1980, Chinese leaders acknowledged committing “grave mistakes” in Tibet. This, at first sight, startling state of affairs was a byproduct of the bitter power struggle underway within the Chinese bureaucracy following Mao’s death in 1976. Faced with a deepening economic crisis, Deng Xiaoping and the ‘reform wing’ of the bureaucracy advocated a turn towards capitalist methods, a policy that initially encountered stiff resistance from Mao loyalists within the bureaucracy. Hu Yaobang, the radical ‘reformist’ CCP general secretary, visited Tibet in 1980 and at a conference of top officials remonstrated that “Tibetan cadres should have the courage to protect their own national interests”. Hu initiated sweeping changes – the dismantling of the communes, a relaxation of religious persecution, the release of over 300 prisoners from the 1959 uprising, and ‘Tibetanisation’ of the regional bureaucracy (the replacement of Han officials with ethnic Tibetan ‘cadres’). The rebuilding of many monasteries in this period was not just an attempt by Beijing to encourage religious escapism in order to pacify the population; the regime also saw an opportunity to use tourism as a means to revive the Tibetan economy. ‘Tibetanisation’ had to be scaled back, however, when the departure of so many trained administrators produced bureaucratic paralysis. Nonetheless the Han population in Tibet was reduced by over 40 percent between 1980-85 as large numbers of bureaucrats were repatriated. Their replacements were drawn overwhelmingly from the educated former Tibetan elite, traditional clan chiefs and nobles.

Hu’s choice of party secretary for Tibet was Wu Jinghua, a liberal, who as a member of the Yi national minority was the first non-Han appointee to the position. By reversing the hard-line policies of his predecessors, the Wu years appeared like a “reign of enlightenment”, albeit a short one. When anti-Chinese rioting erupted in late 1987 and early 1988, it was Wu’s “permissive” policies that were blamed for encouraging “separatism”. By this time, Wu’s benefactor, Hu Yaobang had also fallen foul of Deng Xiaoping, and been removed from office for the crime of “bourgeois liberalism”. The anti-Chinese protests of the late 1980s, set the stage for yet another abrupt change of policy in Tibet. The man charged with supervising a return to more traditional repressive methods was none other than Hu Jintao.

Hu was responsible for imposing martial law in March 1989, and enforcing a crackdown that served as a dress rehearsal for the even more brutal crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing three months later. This shows how the methods of repression perfected in the struggle against “separatism” in Tibet are used against workers and peasants from the Han and other ethnic communities in China when they dare to raise their voice against official corruption, injustice and the lack of democratic rights. This is one of the reasons why all workers must oppose the Chinese regime’s repression in Tibet.

Despite the grooming of a big layer of ethnic Tibetan officials (66 per cent of the regional bureaucracy in 1989), no Tibetan has ever held the key post of party secretary in the TAR. This is a more important position in China’s state hierarchy than the nominal head of government. Likewise, the commanders of the PLA and People’s Armed Police (PAP) forces stationed in Tibet have always been Han appointees. This is a particular source of resentment among Tibetan officials. The endless policy reversals on orders from Beijing have also led to growing support for the idea of “real” – or Hong Kong-style – autonomy among the Tibetan officialdom. This is almost identical to the position of the Dalai Lama and the exile leadership drawn from the old feudal class, underlining a broad symmetry of outlook between the internal and external wings of the Tibetan elite.

Dalai Lama drops ‘independence’

Outwardly, China-Tibet tensions appear to have cooled with the resumption of sporadic talks between Beijing and representatives of the Dalai Lama. Talks between the two parties were suspended after the pro-independence protests of the late 1980s. The Buddhist leader has waged a struggle within the Tibetan nationalist movement to drop demands for independence, advocating “genuine self-rule within China” as an alternative. This self-professed “middle-way” – an attempt to revive the terms of the 1951-59 treaty – is a recognition that attempts to win support for the Tibetan cause from Washington and other capitalist governments have failed. It also reflects the pressure of the new privileged elite inside Tibet, which has evolved and grown prosperous under Chinese patronage.

The bourgeois strategy and policies of the Tibetan government-in-exile have proven completely bankrupt. Despite the popularity of the Dalai Lama as a symbol of the Tibetan nation, there is growing dissent and criticism among Tibetan exiles of the leadership’s strategy. The Tibetan Youth Congress, an exile organisation, recently warned it would not rule out armed struggle in pursuit of independence. But this has been tried before, in the 1950s-60s, and then with US arms and training. A purely military i.e. guerrilla struggle would be an even more one-sided contest today following the modernisation of the PLA, and development of elite “counter terrorist” units. The methods of so-called ‘urban guerrillaism’ or terrorism, as the experience of Xinjiang in the late 1990s shows, invariably lead to intensified state repression and undermine the possibilities for developing a mass movement.

Only a socialist struggle, turning away from the capitalists and their governments, including the current pro-capitalist regime in Beijing, and towards the working class, especially the awakening colossus of Chinese labour, can show a way forward. Even if Tibet achieved independence on a capitalist basis, what would this mean for the mass of the population? Its Himalayan neighbours are a shocking example of what “independence” means on the basis of the imperialist division of the world. Bhutan and Nepal are in reality no more than vassal states of India, while Sikkim, which won independence from Britain in 1918, was deemed a “failed state” and absorbed by India in 1975.

These states suffer from higher rates of infant mortality (Bhutan’s at nearly triple the level in Tibet) and lower life expectancy (59.8 years in Nepal and 54.4 years in Bhutan, compared to 65 years in Tibet). As a result of the policies followed by indigenous rulers at the behest of imperialist agencies like the IMF and World Bank (upon which China exercises a growing influence), both Nepal and Bhutan have greater numbers of refugees outside their borders than Tibet. The racist policies of the Bhutanese government drove one-fifth of the population (134,000) into exile in the early 1990s. Nepal, ruled by its own (Hindu) ‘god-king’, is in the throes of Asia’s bloodiest civil war, which has claimed the lives of 10,000 people since 2001. By one of history’s great ironies, the Chinese government is supplying arms to King Gyanendra against the Maoist guerrilla insurgency, not least because it fears the ‘Nepalese sickness’ might spread to Tibet.

A socialist solution 

The new “middle way” of the Tibetan exile leadership – of accommodation with the Chinese regime – is no more likely to meet with success than its previous diplomatic stratagems. Beijing sees the talks primarily as a means to deflect international criticism of its actions in Tibet. In private, Beijing’s strategy is probably to wait for the 70 year-old Dalai Lama to die, and be “reincarnated” as a child. Having imposed its own Panchen Lama (the second most important figure of Tibetan Buddhism) following the mysterious death in 1989 of the 10th Panchen Lama, Beijing believes it can rig the selection of the next Dalai Lama.

For the Chinese regime, the renunciation of independence is not enough; it is insisting the Tibetan side also explicitly give up any hopes for a “one nation, two systems” arrangement along the lines of Hong Kong. In Hong Kong’s case, Beijing made significant concessions to insure that the city-state’s capitalist class did not decamp after reunification, taking their billions with them. According to the “one nation, two systems” formula, Hong Kong has its own legal, monetary and financial system, and although its ‘parliament’ is a facade, the population enjoy basic democratic rights (freedom of assembly, the right to strike etc.) which are unique in China. A similar ‘carrot’ has been dangled before Taiwan to coax it into “the arms of the motherland”. But Beijing fears – not without foundation – that similar concessions in Tibet’s case would set an extremely dangerous precedent. This would be seen as rewarding Tibetan insubordination, and could open the floodgates of similar demands from other provinces and regions.

To succeed, the Tibetan masses must link their struggle for democratic rights and an end to military occupation, to the unfolding struggle of the super-exploited Chinese working class. With perfect timing, the Tibetan elite is pursuing accommodation with Beijing at the very moment when an explosion of workers’ and peasants’ protests is shaking virtually every province of China. The Tibetan youth especially must support and build links with the struggle of the Chinese workers, who are fighting the same oppressor, and seek fundamentally the same freedoms: an end to one-party rule and police terror, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and religious worship, the right to organise, and the abolition of class exploitation through the socialisation of industry under democratic control. In other words, the Tibetan struggle must be a socialist one, linking up with the oppressed masses of the Himalayan region, China and the world.