1980s >> 1988 >> no-1001-january-1988

Protests in Tibet

In October there was a series of riots and demonstrations in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, in which several thousand people took part and perhaps a dozen were killed. The violence was directed against the Chinese-run government and against ordinary Chinese who are sent to work in Tibet. The Chinese rulers responded with a show of military force, imprisonments and expulsion of journalists. amounting to the imposition of a police state.

According to official government policy, the Tibetans form one of the 54 “minority nationalists” who, together with the majority Han Chinese, constitute the inhabitants of China. The minorities, who are primarily distinguished in terms of language, make up only six per cent of the population, though this means over 60 million people. The Tibetans number getting on for four million, about half of whom live, together with a smallish number of Chinese migrants, in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. This supposedly means that Tibet is autonomous in internal affairs but its relations to other parts of China and other countries are determined by the Chinese government in Beijing. In fact such autonomy is a sham as, quite apart from the lack of political democracy throughout China, nearly all important posts in Tibet are held by Hans and not by Tibetans.

Most of the minority nationality areas are in the backward and isolated lands around China’s borders, which often gives them strategic importance. Many are also sources, or potential sources, of raw materials — in Tibet’s case, minerals such as uranium and plutonium and also timber. So for both military and economic reasons many new roads have been built into and across the inhospitable Tibetan plateau, bringing in tourists as well as soldiers.

We can leave it to the nationalists of all varieties to decide whether Tibet “ought to” belong to China. Certainly it was for centuries a theocracy ruled by a king-cum-pope. the Dalai Lama, regarded by the faithful as a reincarnation of Buddha. Lamaism is a variant of Buddhism, involving a massive religious bureaucracy run by so-called monks who were quite prepared to kill and torture in order to maintain their rule. The ordinary peasants were virtually serfs, oppressed by the priests and landowners and mentally stultified by their uncomplaining acceptance of Buddhism.

The Chinese “Communist” Party gained power in the rest of China in 1949 and in Tibet the following year. Their policy of introducing state capitalism was not at first pursued very actively throughout most of Tibet, which was far from China’s major population centres but gradually anti-Chinese sentiment (on nationalist, religious and economic grounds) built up. In 1959 there was a large-scale revolt in Tibet, put down by Chinese troops with great loss of life, and the Dalai Lama fled to exile in India. Land was then confiscated and redistributed, industries were started and many Han workers brought in to help run them. The “Cultural Revolution” saw much destruction of monasteries, mostly by young Tibetans, in what are now seen by the government as regrettable excesses.

Tibet is now used by the Chinese ruling class as a source of cheap and abundant labour and raw materials. Goods such as dried milk and leather shoes are made in Tibet and sold elsewhere in China or exported. Vast areas of natural forest are being denuded of timber. Religious feelings remain strong and traditional-style worship is still practised. Few Tibetans speak Chinese and fewer of the Hans sent to Tibet learn Tibetan.

The October protests were probably triggered off by a number of causes. The “reforming” policies of the Chinese government under Deng Xiaoping have led to greater contacts with abroad, which in Tibet’s case mainly means overseas tourists (there’s now a Holiday Inn in Lhasa). At least some Tibetans now have some knowledge of the outside world and hopes of their views being reported there. The Dalai Lama’s visit to the United States in September must have focused their attention and many still regard him as a living god.

But above all, life for the ordinary Tibetans is just plain hard, with no legitimate means of protest. They must work long hours and can afford only poor-quality food. Alas many cling obsessively to their traditional faith, spending large parts of their pitiful wages on religious items and performing prodigious feats of prostration. A recent rainbow and a solar eclipse were widely seen as omens for the end of Chinese rule in Tibet.

It is not clear whether the Tibetan protestors simply wanted an end to Chinese occupation. a return to the pre-1949 situation, or what. No doubt there are various different strands among the protests, including monks anxious for the restoration of religious power and ex-landlords wishing to become part of the ruling class again. But it is clear enough that the view of many ordinary Tibetans that their problems are caused by the Chinese-run regime is wrong-headed. A change of rulers will not lead to liberation — whether in Tibet, South Africa or Nicaragua.

Paul Bennett