Revolution#125, April 6, 2008

The Protests in Tibet and the Discontent Below

Starting March 14, days of protests and rebellion broke out in Tibet against the reactionary Chinese government. It is difficult to get reliable news about these developments because most reports are from the Chinese government or unverified individual accounts. But this appears to be the biggest outbreak of anti-government protests in Tibet in 20 years.

This conflict in Tibet is very complex, involving different class forces and interests and different political forces, including religious reactionary groups tied to U.S. imperialism.

On the one hand this struggle is about the national oppression of the Tibetan people by a regime that calls itself “socialist” and “communist”—which it is NOT. The Chinese government is reactionary and capitalist. On the other hand, this struggle is taking place against a bigger international backdrop. The United States is aggressively setting out to extend and tighten the global dominance of U.S. imperialism. And Tibet is in a geostrategically important region of the world where there are big stakes for the U.S. in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The U.S. has a long history of backing reactionary forces in Tibet – the CIA has worked with and directly supported the Dalai Lama. And today, sections of the U.S. ruling class are championing the Dalai Lama and using his movement to try and pressure, destabilize, and even tear China apart because they consider it a long-term strategic, economic, political, and military rival to U.S. global power. Attempts by U.S. imperialism to interfere in Tibet must be opposed.

Several reports say things started when hundreds of Buddhist monks began marching from the Drepung Loseling Monastery to the city center in the capital city of Lhasa. They were stopped by the police, and 50 to 60 monks were arrested. Then a sit-down strike was joined by additional monks from Drepung.

The next day, on Saturday morning, in a busy market area, monks and other ethnic Tibetans continued to protest, and violent clashes broke out with Chinese security forces. According to eyewitness accounts and video footage, angry Tibetans burned cars and military vehicles and attacked government buildings and Han Chinese-owned shops. By nightfall, the authorities had clamped down, imposing a curfew, and military police officers were blocking city streets.

Protests continued for several days, with thousands of Tibetans clashing with riot police. And there were reports of demonstrations by Tibetans living in other parts of China and in India. While reports of the number of casualties are mostly unreliable, it seems pretty clear that there have been deaths among protesters, shopkeepers and security forces. On March 24, 11 days after the first protest broke out, the New York Times reported that Lhasa was occupied by thousands of paramilitary police officers and army troops of the Chinese central government.

Three Stages in Modern History of Tibet

The Tibetan people are an ethnic minority in China that is oppressed by the capitalist system in China—and this oppression has greatly intensified in recent years. To understand this, it is first of all important to understand that the history of Tibet (officially designated as the Tibetan Autonomous Region) is NOT, as most mainstream news reports would have us believe, one unbroken history where the Tibetan people have faced the same government since 1949.

There are basically three distinct stages in the modern history of Tibet. Before 1949 Tibet was not, as is sometimes portrayed, a Shangri-la of harmony and peace. It was a brutal theocracy where Buddhist doctrine reinforced class order and social oppression. From 1951-1976, with the victory of the Chinese communist revolution, Tibet became part of the revolutionary process of building socialism with sweeping and liberating economic and social changes. Then since 1976, with the restoration of capitalism in China, the Tibetan people have been subjected to exploitation, subjugation as a people, and suppression of their culture and fast-paced capitalist development that threatens the environment. (See accompanying article, “Tibet: From Brutal Theocracy to Socialist Liberation to Capitalist Nightmare.”)

What Is the Discontent About?

Many people think the struggle going on in Tibet is about “a communist government oppressing religious forces.” But this is a misperception because again, the Chinese government is NOT socialist or communist. Also, while the Chinese government is repressing Buddhist religious forces (including reactionary theocratic supporters of the Dalai Lama who are tied to U.S. imperialism), this is part of and in the context of the larger, overall national oppression and suppression the Tibetan people face.

A lot of what people in the United States know and think about Tibet comes from what they have read in the news about the Dalai Lama. And a lot of people see the Dalai Lama as a symbol of “peace and non-violence.” But in reality, the Dalai Lama and his family were feudal owners and oppressors in Tibet. And since he fled Tibet in 1959 he has been the religious leader of a pro-U.S., pro-imperialist movement among exiled Tibetans. His vision for Tibet today is one that straddles the fence between accommodation with the Chinese regime (and its program of capitalist development); and more direct integration of Tibet into the designs of western, particularly U.S., imperialism.

Again, the main character and contours of these protests are hard to determine at this point because of the difficulty in getting reliable reports. And an analysis of this is beyond the scope of this article. But some things can be said at this point about the different class forces that are a part of this upsurge.

Support for the Dalai Lama and the issue of religious freedom is only one factor in the current upheaval in Tibet. There is real repression of those who support the Dalai Lama and call for independence. For example, Tibetan government employees are reportedly pressured (or even required) to denounce the Dalai Lama, and it is illegal to fly the Tibetan flag. As a part of the overall oppression of the Tibetan people, there is certainly suppression of Tibetan Buddhist religion and Tibetan culture. And the different religious and independence forces, which includes those who support the Dalai Lama, have clearly been a big part of those who have been protesting. But what is not mainly covered in the mainstream press, and what is not so immediately apparent, is that there are bigger and deeper economic and political issues that are giving rise to the massive, widespread discontent in Tibet, now erupting into violent confrontations with the Chinese government forces.

The crowds of angry Tibetans, which included unemployed youth, attacked and burned symbols of capitalist development, like a branch of the Bank of China. They targeted hotels and other facilities that cater to tourists. And they also targeted Han and Hui Chinese shopkeepers, which can seem like the most visible and immediate reflection of the discrimination Tibetans face. The Han Chinese are the majority people in China, and the Hui are Muslim Chinese who also play a prominent role in Tibetan commercial life. And over the last two decades, and especially in the last few years, Han and Hui Chinese have been coming into Tibet as a key part of building up a capitalist economic infrastructure and social structure in which the Tibetan people are highly discriminated against. And the more than a million tourists a year who come to Tibet are mainly Han Chinese.

In Tibet and the neighboring provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan, the Tibetan people intersect with and live near the thousands of Han people who have been moving in, enticed by a wave of state-driven investment and state subsidies for capitalist ventures. But there are two separate and unequal worlds—where many Han have blatant disdain and distrust for Tibetans, who they consider inferior. And among the Tibetan people there are deep feelings of resentment and anger against the oppression and subjugation they face. Privilege and power in Tibet is overwhelmingly the preserve of the Han, and a lot of businesses are owned by Han and Hui Chinese. Meanwhile the masses of Tibetans are subjected to discrimination, treated as inferior, and largely confined to poor districts in the cities and impoverished villages in the rural areas.

The Nightmare of Capitalist “Modernization” in Tibet

Capitalist China, even as it is dependent upon and subordinate to imperialism, has regional and larger world ambitions. And the program of the Chinese government for Tibet is in line with the economic and social program being implemented throughout the whole country—a program of fast-paced capitalist “modernization.”

For the masses of Tibetan people, as with the masses of people throughout China, this means increased exploitation and misery. And it means a widening gap between rich and poor, haves and have-nots. The restoration of capitalism has been and continues to be a nightmare for the masses of people living in China, including and especially for oppressed nationalities like the Tibetan people. And it will take nothing less than another revolution and the establishment of a genuine socialist society to liberate all the people living in China.

There are many dimensions to how capitalist exploitation and oppression, along with national oppression, is taking place in Tibet. But one thing that illustrates this very sharply is the much-celebrated railroad that now links Tibet to the rest of China. This railway, completed in 2006 at a cost of $4.1 billion, was touted as vital to developing the Tibetan economy. There were hopes among the Tibetan people that this would bring jobs, lower prices for consumer goods, and a higher standard of living. But in fact, unemployment among Tibetans remains very high — as is generally the case, most new jobs (or at least the good ones) went to Han Chinese. There has been little improvement for the majority of the Tibetan people who mainly live in the rural areas. Reckless economic development in the area is also intensifying threats to the environment. And as a number of analysts have pointed out, along with all this has come the usual and unbridled corruption among government officials and businessmen.

A big part of the reason for building the railway is that the central government, with an eye towards developing cheap sources of raw materials for a profit-driven development, wants to create a more efficient transport system to be able to extract and transport the rich deposits of copper, iron, lead and other minerals in the large unspoiled Tibetan highlands.

In the past, mining in Tibet was largely carried out on a small scale by world standards. But Chinese metal and processing industries are now operating according to competitive world scale standards and are looking to world markets and importing vast quantities of minerals. Gabriel Laffitte is a development consultant who works with reactionary Tibetan exiles around the Dalai Lama who support capitalist development. But an article he wrote about the mining industry in Tibet is revealing. He says: “Chinese steel mills and copper smelters, in deciding whether to locate a mine and perhaps a smelter as well, in Tibet, will make their choice by comparing costs of extraction from Tibet with the costs of a similar plant in Brazil or Canada or Australia or Orissa... Tibetan mineral deposits that until now seemed too distant, expensive and complicated for China’s largely coastal metal manufacturers, may now be profitable, due to the worldwide price rises and shortages of energy and minerals.” (“China’s 100 billion spending spree in Tibet,” Tibetan Bulletin, January-April 2007, available at

The development of mining is only one snapshot of the kinds of interests and demands that globalized capitalism are imposing and that are setting the terms for investment in Tibet – and driving and shaping economic development. In addition, the central government is pushing tourism as a major component of profit-based development in Tibet. And here too, the results are harmful to the Tibetan people, with industry that caters to non-Tibetans and a lot of development focused in the city. All of this contributes to greater inequalities, like between city and countryside and between those working in the cities and peasants in the poor countryside.

For the Tibetan people, all this has meant a deepening of super exploitation, inequality, and discrimination. And this is giving rise to profound discontent and anger which has erupted in the streets.   

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