Sunday, 15 June 2008 20:00 Monica Hill

ImageThe media has been bursting with headlines about Tibet in recent months. There were anti-Chinese riots in the capitol city of Lhasa in March. Then pro-Tibet/anti-China demonstrations faced off with Olympic torch processions in a number of countries. Meanwhile, U.S. politicians warmly welcomed the visiting Dalai Lama, exiled god-king of Tibet. Anyone leery of anti-communist China-bashing has to wonder who’s on the right side in all this furor.

It’s difficult to dig out the hard facts. Little is known of the views of Tibetan workers and peasants. Most information comes from two opposing sets of reportage.

One is the Dalai Lama’s embittered, anti-communist Tibetan exile movement, which organizes and propagandizes against the People’s Republic of China and is funded by the U.S. government.

The other source is the Chinese Communist Party, which overstates Tibet’s social advances, understates the failures of Stalinist policies in Tibet, and is now restoring capitalism that bodes no good for Tibetan or Chinese workers and peasants.

The task of Marxists is to try to understand the ever-changing material realities of Tibet and to then take a stand —the side of the oppressed. Happily, there is trustworthy scholarship on the region produced by Trotskyists and independent thinkers who do not advocate either capitalism or Chinese Stalinism.

Natural wealth and location. Tibet is located, literally, at the top of the world, surrounded by mountain ranges. It is the source of seven of Asia’s biggest rivers, which provide water for two billion people. It contains 80,000 gold mines and some of the world’s largest deposits of other minerals, as well as petroleum and massive timber reserves. Chinese industry needs these precious resources to compete with global capitalism.

Tibet sits between China — with the largest population in the world — and India and Africa. Any railroad, highway or pipeline that bridges that corridor is of keen interest to imperialist powers, East and West. The Tibetans, like Afghans, stand in the crossfire of competing countries whose bottom line is profit and power, not the welfare of humanity.

Entwined histories of Tibet and China. The Chinese government claims that Tibet has always been an integral part of China. Actually, the relationship was looser. For a thousand years Tibet was a self-governing tributary state of the Mongol empire, Mogul India, and then the Chinese Qing Empire (1644-1911). It was run by a brutal feudal regime of a couple hundred Tibetan noble families, who ruled the state and held two-thirds of the land, and Buddhist high clergy — lamas — who controlled the rest of the land, all the schools and law courts, and collected one-third of the people’s income for their monasteries.

The populace served their secular and religious masters as powerless peasants, shepherds and domestic slaves. Runaway serfs were dealt barbaric punishments. Buddhism’s reincarnation concept also discouraged resistance. The poor and afflicted were taught they deserved abuse due to their wicked previous lives.

In 1949, China at last accomplished its stunning revolution, and the People’s Liberation Army moved into Tibet. The Chinese Communist Party signed an agreement with the Dalai Lama establishing the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). This compact essentially agreed not to rock the feudal/Buddhist boat and could not have inspired trust among Tibetan serfs, shepherds and slaves who, like the Chinese masses, desperately needed revolutionary relief from their landlord class.

In neighboring provinces, the property of Tibetan aristocrats and monasteries was, however, confiscated and redistributed to the peasants. With help from the American CIA, dispossessed elites started counter-revolutionary organizing in 1956. But by 1959 the pro-feudalists had lost the battle. So the Dalai Lama, together with about 80,000 other dissidents and 60 tons of treasure, left Tibet to establish a “government in exile” in northern India. This effort was supported by the pro-imperialist Indian government.

China then began to distribute feudal land to the peasants in the TAR. Slavery, floggings, mutilations, and punitive amputations were abolished. Access to healthcare and education leaped. Lhasa got indoor plumbing and electricity. Chinese funds and technology brought huge social improvements to Tibet and an end to the despised feudalism.

But the methods of the People’s Republic of China were brutal, top-down and culturally arrogant. In the 18 months after the 1959 rebellion, 87,000 Tibetans were killed. Mao’s cruel Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976 further inflamed anti-Chinese sentiments. Peasants fiercely resisted the ill-conceived, forcibly imposed collective farms that caused agricultural stagnation and poverty. The Cultural Revolution also ruthlessly destroyed Buddhist temples and monasteries, and banned Tibet’s Sanskrit-based language and traditional songs.

An indigenous underclass. Tibet is still primarily agricultural. Women do most of the subsistence farming in rural Tibet, while male family members seek unskilled, low-paying jobs in cities and towns. Some live-in maids from the countryside receive only food and lodging rather than wages. Jobless young Tibetan men were heavily involved in the recent outbreak of arson and violence against Han Chinese in Lhasa. According to the newspaper China Worker, only 13.3 percent of the population gets a high school education, compared to 52.3 percent across the rest of China. Female illiteracy is extremely high.

Although only 6 percent of the population in the TAR is non-Tibetan, nearly all of them live in Lhasa, where Tibetan workers and small merchants, who do not speak Chinese, cannot compete successfully against them. Better-educated Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in China, get favored treatment. And the Han’s long-standing chauvinism toward “backward” Tibetans is much resented. Tibet’s improving economy is largely an urban phenomenon that excludes most Tibetans, who live in rural areas where poverty and lack of education prevail. Capitalist restoration in China will inevitably lead to worsening exploitation in Tibet.

So what is the answer?

Class solidarity. Tibetans are an oppressed nationality with the right to self-determination. They share a common cultural tradition, history, economy, religion and language. Marxists recognize their right to full equality and to decide for themselves the question of sovereignty, while encouraging them to join in building revolutionary socialism.

Tibetan feudalists are clearly no friends of Tibetan workers, women and peasants. The road forward is through linking arms with Chinese workers who are also mad as hell at their rulers for destroying the social gains of the Chinese Revolution. Together, along with the angry working class of India and the entire Himalayan region, Asia’s working class is powerful enough to create a future free of exploitation.

Image: Bush, the Dalai Lama, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi laugh it up in Washington, D.C. during the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony for the Dalai Lama on Oct. 17, 2007. Credit: Evan Vucci / AP

Article and Image Contributed by Freedom Socialist magazine.

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