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World View: Tibet – from feudal theocracy to a market economy

Prior to AD 600, when Buddhism first began to penetrate Tibet its central doctrine had already been perverted into what came to be called Lamaism. The idea of a saving Buddha who reappears every 5,000 years as a man, and who through successive reincarnations has gained perfection, was being vulgarised into a phantom hovering between heaven and earth, attended by a host of demons. Moreover, the discipline imposed by Buddha of conversion by means of meditation had largely given place to a formal monasticism. This degeneration had, since the religion established itself in Tibet, advanced through its contact with the original demon-worship which, for a time, succeeded in driving Buddhism underground. By the 15th and 16th centuries the metamorphosis into Lamaism was complete.

A Dalai Lama, who is supposed to be the reincarnated Buddha of India, was at once a king and a High Priest. He ruled despotically in both civil and religious affairs, with an ordered series of “spiritual” officers and monks. At one time, about one man in every six or seven was a monk. The whole force of the Tibetan state was directed towards obtaining revenues which maintained the monasteries, their land, and the privileged lamas or officials. When a Dalai Lama dies, and his successor is elected, he in turn becomes a Buddha.

In 1897, a British explorer, A. Henry Savage Landor, spent about six harrowing months in the country. On his return to Britain he wrote two large volumes entitled: In The Forbidden Land – An account of a journey in Tibet, Capture by the Tibet Authorities, Imprisonment, torture, and Ultimate Release. (Victorian explorers rarely wrote short books with snappy titles.)

Of the lamaseries (monasteries), Landor observed that they are usually very rich, and that the Lamas

“are not backward in learning how to exhort money from the ignorant worshippers under pretences of all kinds. Besides attending to their religious functions, the Lamas are traders at large, carrying on a smart business, and charging a very high interest rate, which falls every month. If this is not paid, all the property of the borrower is confiscated, and if this proves insufficient to repay the loan the debtor becomes a slave of the monastery”.

The Lamas, noted Landor, lived in comparative luxury. And, he added:

“The larger lamaseries receive a yearly Government allowance, and considerable sums are collected from the oblations of the faithful, while other moneys are obtained by all sorts of devices which, in any country less religious than Tibet, would be considered hardly honourable and often even altogether criminal. To anyone acquainted with Tibet, it is a well-known fact that, except in larger towns, nearly all the people besides brigands and Lamas are absolutely poor, while the monks themselves and their agents live and prosper on the fat of the land. The masses are maintained in complete ignorance, and seldom is a layman found who can write or even read. Thus everything has to go through the Lamas' hands before it can be sanctioned.”

The lamaseries and the Lamas, and all the property belonging to them, were absolutely free from all taxes and dues to the state. Each monastery had a number of “depraved Lamas” who were slaves of the Grand Lama. Indeed, as early as the tenth century,

“Powerful monastic orders became major players in the fragmented power structure. Feudal leaders sent their sons into Buddhist institutions as a way of ensuring the maintenance of family authority. These local noble families became an increasingly strong force in the monasteries. Often the position of abbot was no longer chosen from among the monks, but was passed down within families from uncle to nephew . . . By the 13th century monastic dynasties controlled much of Tibet” (Lee Feigon, Demystifying Tibet).

Very little had changed by as late as the beginning of the 20th century.

During the latter part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, Tibet's trade, principally in wool, but also in salt, gold and silver, increased considerably, despite the fact that there were no roads in the country. Many of the traders, however, were Nepalese, Chinese or Indian. Tibetan farmers and herdsmen exchanged their products, sometimes using various currencies, for industrially-produced commodities. Nevertheless, commodity production was, as yet, far from universal in Tibet. Most production was in the form of handicrafts or for personal and family use. And prior to 1950, there were still 2,5000 monasteries in the country.

Imperialist rivalries

But by the end of the 19th century, Tibet had become a focus of imperialist rivalries. The Dalai Lama began to edge the country closer to an alliance with Tsarist Russia, whilst the Panchen Lama favoured China. The British feared a Russian plot to undermine their domination of India and elsewhere in Asia. However, by 1906, the British largely gave up what they had previously gained, except for a number of trade missions and, sometime later, three permanent Postal Agencies. China continued to send their armed forces into eastern Tibet.

In 1913 the Dalai Lama had fewer than 3,000 ill-trained troops to combat the Chinese incursions, or to quash internal rebellions and banditry. But shortly after, Britain supplied the Dalai Lama with 5,000 modern rifles as well as military training for the Tibetan army. In 1917 the Tibetans defeated a Chinese force in Kham, and extended their border as far as the Upper Yangtze river. Besides the Dalai Lama's modern army there was Tibet's older armed forces provided by the ruling monasteries, armed only with bows and arrows, spears and a few 17th-century muzzle loaders. Of the situation, Feigon commented:

“the contrast between the two armies had begun to excite opposition. Most of the money needed to fund the new army's expansion came from a land tax. Virtually all land in Tibet was owned by either aristocrats or monasteries and was worked by serfs. The more the need to support the military grew, the more taxes were increased on these estates. In effect, the old aristocracy was paying for the army that would in turn diminish the nobility's authority. Moreover, military leaders often came from families of low social position . . . These new leaders did not always approve of the nobility's traditional privileges . . . Like Tibet's aristocracy, its religious establishment opposed the army's growing influence. Before the twentieth century, almost all government revenues funded the monasteries, not the military. Monks became resentful of the army . . . The foreign manners and dress of the new troops exacerbated the situation.”


A destroyed monastery: the Chinese hoped to break the power of the lamas by breaking their hold over Tibetan minds


By 1920 the animosity grew strongest in eastern Tibet, where the Lhasa government had stationed 10,000 troops, virtually the entire army; and where the taxes imposed were the most severe. Conflict erupted between the Dalai Lama, who commanded the new army, and the Panchen Lama who was the owner of a large estate. The two had long been at odds. In 1922 the Panchen Lama appealed to the British to help him resist the Dalai Lama. When the British refused, the Panchen Lama fled to China, where he remained for the next fourteen years. The so-called reformers, led by the Dalai Lama, soon began to fight among themselves, and the reforms ground to a halt by 1925. By 1930 the Tibetan government lost eastern Tibet to the local Chinese warlord. The Dalai Lama was forced to reduce the size of the army; and by 1932, the Chinese had pushed the Tibetans back west of the Yangtze river. “As the Tibetan government weakened and the Chinese government strengthened, Tibet assumed an increasingly vulnerable position” (Feigon). In 1933 Britain established a new, permanent mission to Lhasa in an attempt to counter Chinese influence. They even tried to introduce golf and soccer to Tibet. And shortly after, Himmler, on behalf of Nazi Germany, sent an expedition, led by Ernst Schaefer, to Tibet in an attempt to prove that the Tibetans were a lost Aryan race.

From 1927 until 1949, there was a civil war between the Nationalist forces of the Koumintang (KMT) and the Chinese Red Army, led by the "Communist" Party. By 1949, the Chinese Red Army had driven the KMT from the Chinese mainland, and the Communist Party now controlled the country. As direct British influence had been removed from India by 1947, so Mao Tse-tung decided that time was ripe for China to assert her authority over Tibet and in 1950 the Red Army invaded. They met little resistance from the Tibetan army, although the Khams, a fierce, warlike tribe, gave the Chinese forces some trouble. Fearful of exile, the Tibetan establishment pressured the Dalai Lama to remain in the country. On 28 September the Tibetan National Assembly ratified the agreement, and the Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa and the Potala Palace.

During the early part of the 1950s the Chinese authorities did not control internal policy in Tibet. However although they refrained from interfering in central Tibet they began to transform eastern and outer Tibet. In 1954 the Dalai Lama accepted an invitation to visit China and, against the advice of his ministers, stayed there for almost one year. Whilst there, he seems to have been influenced by Maoist ideas. On his return, he wanted to divide the monastic lands among the Tibetan peasants, but was surprised when the Chinese authorities opposed his plan and supported the Tibetan landowning class. The Chinese constructed an airfield 60 miles north of Lhasa. They also began to cut down the forests, for timber, in the eastern part of the country. Many former Tibetan serfs now became wage-workers, employed by Chinese contractors in the timber camps and on road building. Numerous nomads began to settle down. By 1956 there was unrest in Kham and other areas of eastern Tibet. In the words of John Prados:

“Economic development, industrial, production, even the introduction of money, required fundamental changes in a society that had used barter as a primary form of exchange . . . The Chinese situation worsened in Kham . . . the people rose up against the lowland Chinese. Khampa partisans managed to block the Kamgting road at three points . . . Kham and Ambo were the provinces the Chinese attempted to split off from Tibet, calling them Inner Tibet and incorporating them into the Chinese provinces of Sikiang and Tsinghai . . . by 1956, unrest was spreading” (Presidents' Secret Wars).

Unsurprisingly, the United States assisted the revolt. In 1956 the CIA supplied the rebels with weapons and other equipment; it trained commando squads, first in Taiwan and then in America, where it conducted special classes and, later, smuggled and parachuted Tibetan commandos into eastern Tibet. The Dalai Lama, helped by the CIA, fled to India, but returned shortly after. By 1957 there was open warfare in Kham. The Chinese airforce bombed a number of villages; and the CIA sent more and more arms into eastern Tibet. In 1959 unrest spread to Lhasa, where there were large demonstrations against the Chinese occupation. These were violently crushed. Again, the Dalai Lama fled to India.

The Chinese government sent in troops in large numbers and took complete control of the country. It confiscated land owned by “rebels” and officially abolished serfdom. War was declared on the monasteries, and many monks, nuns and former aristocrats were jailed. Thousands fled to India and Nepal. The CIA supported the rebels well into the 1970s. On 9 September 1965 Tibet became an “Autonomous Region” of the People's Republic of China.

Industrial and radical change

During the so-called Cultural Revolution (1966-77) the Chinese Red Guards destroyed 80 percent of central Tibet's monasteries. By 1978 only eight monasteries remained out of two thousand. Many were destroyed brick by brick .The political and economic power of the monks was completely destroyed. In 1990 the population of the Autonomous Region of Tibet was unofficially put at 2.5 million of whom 100,000 were Chinese (Han) workers. Unofficially, there were, and probably still are, between 100,000 and 250,000 Chinese troops in the country.

By the standards of Western Europe or North America, Tibet is not as yet heavily industrialised. Nevertheless, capitalism and a market economy now prevail. In 1992 the Chinese expanded Lhasa airport. The government approved 41 joint-partner enterprises with Nepal, Malaysia, Germany and a number of other countries. Export enterprises, including ones specialising in traditional handicrafts, grew. Indeed, according the Lee Feigon, “Chinese businessmen and manufacturers have even copied traditional Tibetan handicrafts, and begun to mass-produce them.” Han entrepreneurs have pioneered many investments, opening businesses throughout Tibet. By 1994 the Tibet Trust and Investment Company's shares were traded on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. Although not on a large scale, Tibet now has an iron and steel industry, and motor repair factories and factories manufacturing farm implements. Gyangtze has a large carpet factory, mass-producing “traditional” Tibetan carpets.

According to John Gittings, writing in the Guardian (17 June 2001), the Chinese authorities in Tibet aim to make the country “a market economy which will allow private enterprises to become the most dynamic factor in Tibet”. Gittings adds, however, that economic reforms in Lhasa “have created a city where corruption co-exists with hard-nosed commercialism, where prostitution thrives in areas previously better known as places of spiritual pilgrimage and where citizens may own computers and wide-screen TVs, but not necessarily toilets or running water”. The Chinese admitted last year that the standard of living of “ethnic Tibetans”, including “farmers and herdsmen”, was only half the national Chinese average.

In 1990 the exiled Dalai Lama accused China of “wantonly cutting down the vast forests, strip-mining the soil, overgrazing the plains, and using agricultural pesticides and chemical fertilizers that have destroyed the delicate ecology of his (sic) country”. He proposed that Tibet “should become the planet's largest natural, reserve”, and that the country “could return to the simple life of its ancestors”. What a hope! Tibet, including the so-called Autonomous Region, and the eastern part of the country incorporated into China proper, is now wholly an integral component of the world market, capitalist, system. There can be no turning back to the “simple life” of feudalism.