The True Story of Maoist Revolution in Tibet

Storming Heaven

Revolutionary Worker #945, February 22, 1998

Bringing the Revolution to Tibet

By 1949, Mao's People's Liberation Army had defeated all the main reactionary armies in central China. The day of the poor and oppressed had arrived! But the big powers in the world were moving quickly to crush and "contain" this revolution. French troops invaded Vietnam, south of China's border. By 1950, a massive U.S. invasion force would land in Korea with plans to threaten China itself.

The western mountains and grasslands of China's border areas are inhabited by dozens of different national groupings, whose cultures are different from China's majority Han people. One of those regions, Tibet, had been locally ruled as an isolated, "water-tight" kingdom by a class of serf-owners, headed by the monk-abbots of large Lamaist Buddhist monasteries. During the Chinese civil war, Tibet's ruling class conspired to set up a phony "independent" state that was really under the wing of British colonialism.

Maoist revolutionaries were determined to bring revolution to Tibet--to secure China's border regions against invasion and to liberate the millions of oppressed Tibetan serfs there. There was no doubt that Mao's hardened peasant-soldiers could defeat any army of Tibetan feudalists.

But the revolution faced a problem: The huge, sparsely populated region of Tibet had been completely isolated from the revolutionary war sweeping the rest of China. In 1949 there was no force among the Tibetan masses to carry out real liberation. There was yet no rebel underground among Tibet's serfs. There were almost no Tibetan communists or even Han communists who spoke Tibetan. The masses of Tibetan serfs had never heard that a great revolution had swept the rest of their country. Tibetan serfs had been taught that their current misery and poverty was justified--caused by their own sinfulness in earlier lives.

Mao Tsetung taught that a true revolution must rely on the masses--on the needs, wishes, and actions of the oppressed people themselves. Maoism calls this principle the Mass Line. Mao said: "It often happens that objectively the masses need a certain change, but subjectively they are not yet conscious of the need, not yet willing or determined to make the change. In such cases, we should wait patiently. We should not make the change until, through our work, most of the masses have become conscious of the need and are willing and determined to carry it out. Otherwise we shall isolate ourselves from the masses. Unless they are conscious and willing, any kind of work that requires their participation will turn out to be a mere formality and will fail."

In October 1950 the People's Liberation Army (PLA) advanced into the grasslands and mountains of southwest China. At Chamdo, they easily defeated an army sent against them by the Tibetan ruling class -- and then they stopped. They sent a message to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa.

China's new revolutionary government offered Tibet's rulers a deal: Tibet would be reattached to the Chinese republic, but for the time being the regime of Tibetan serf-owners (called the Kashag) could continue to rule as a local government, operating under the leadership of the Central People's government. The Maoists would not abolish feudal practices, or challenge the Lamaist religion until the people themselves supported such changes. The People's Liberation Army would safeguard China's borders from imperialist intervention, and foreign agents would be expelled from Lhasa. About half of the Tibetan population lived in regions of Tsinghai and Chamdo that were not under the political rule of the Kashag. These regions were not covered by the proposal.

The Tibetan serf-owners signed this special "17-point agreement" and on October 26, 1951, the People's Liberation Army peacefully marched into Lhasa.

Both sides knew that struggle would eventually break out. How long could the aristocrats and monasteries continue to enslave "their" serfs--when everyone could now see Han peasants who had liberated themselves from similar conditions using guns and Maoism?

The most powerful serf-owning families started to plan an armed uprising. The Dalai Lama's brother traveled abroad to cement ties with the CIA, to get arms and request political recognition. Monasteries organized secret conferences and spread wild rumors among the masses: like saying Han revolutionaries fueled their trucks with the blood of stolen Tibetan children. Long mule-trains of U.S. arms started winding their way from India to key Tibetan monasteries. The CIA set up combat training centers for its Tibetan agents, eventually based in the high altitude of Camp Hale, Colorado. CIA planes dropped weapons into Tibet's eastern Kham region.

Applying Mao's Mass Line to the Special Conditions of Tibet

Meanwhile, Mao instructed the revolutionary forces to win over the masses for the coming revolution--without provoking an early polarization in which the masses might be against the revolution. Mao wrote: "Delay will not do us much harm; on the contrary, it may be to our advantage. Let them [the lamaist ruling class] go on with their senseless atrocities against the people, while we on our part concentrate on good deeds--production, trade, road-building, medical services and united front work (unity with the majority and patient education) so as to win over the masses."

One red soldier later said, "We were given much detailed instructions as to how to behave."

The Tibetan masses were too poor to spare any grain for the revolutionary troops. So the PLA soldiers often went hungry until their own fields were ready for harvest. They were taught to respect Tibetan cultures and beliefs--even, for now, the intense superstitious fears that dominated Tibetan life.

During those first years, the PLA worked as a great construction force building the first roads connecting Tibet with central China. A long string of workcamps stretched thousands of miles through endless mountains and gorges. Alongside these camps, the Han soldiers raised their own food using new collective methods. Serfs from surrounding areas were paid wages for work on the road.

The rulers of old Tibet treated the serfs like "talking animals" and forced them to do endless unpaid labor--so the behavior of these PLA troops was shocking to the Tibetan masses. One serf said, "The Hans worked side by side with us. They did not whip us. For the first time I was treated as a human being." Another serf described the day a PLA soldier gave him water from the soldier's own cup, "I could not believe it!" As serfs were trained to repair trucks, they became the first proletarians in the history of Tibet. One runaway said: "We understood it was not the will of the gods, but the cruelty of humans like ourselves, which kept us slaves."

The PLA road camps quickly became magnets for runaway slaves, serfs, and escaped monks. Young serfs working in the camps were asked if they wanted to go to school to help liberate their people. They became the first Tibetan students at Institutes for National Minorities in China's eastern cities. They learned reading, writing, and accounting "for the agrarian revolution to come"!

In this way, the revolution started recruiting activists who would soon lead the people. The first Communist Party member from central Tibet was recruited in the mid-1950s. By October 1957, the Party reported 1,000 Tibetan members, with an additional 2,000 in the Communist Youth League. (See "Recruiting Young Rebels to the Revolution.")

All through Tibet's eastern rural areas and the valleys around Lhasa, the People's Liberation Army acted as a huge "seeding machine" of the revolution--just as it had during Mao's historic Long March of the 1930s.

Any Hint of Change Shook the Water-tight Kingdom

Once the first white-sand road was completed, long caravans of PLA trucks arrived, carrying key goods like tea and matches. The expanded trade and especially the availability of inexpensive tea improved the diet of ordinary Tibetans. By the mid-'50s, the first telephones, telegraphs, radio station and modern printing had been organized. The first newspapers, books and pamphlets appeared, in both Han and Tibetan. After 1955, Tibet's first real schools were founded. By July 1957 there were 79 elementary schools, with 6,000 students. All this started to improve the life of poor people and infuriated the upper classes, who had always monopolized all trade, book-learning and contact with the outside world.

When revolutionary medical teams started healing people, even monks and the upper classes started showing up at the early clinics. The first coal mine opened in 1958 and the first blast furnace in 1959. This undermined superstitions that condemned innovation and preached that diseases were caused by sinful behavior.

Starting in 1956, increasingly intense armed revolts organized by feudal landowners started in Han-Tibet border areas. These areas were not covered by the 17 points, and the serfs there were being encouraged by the revolutionaries to stop paying land rent to the monasteries and estates. In 1958 a communist leader in Tsinghai wrote, "The great socialist revolution in the pastoral areas has been a very violent class struggle of life and death."

Some forces within the Communist Party urged compromise. They suggested slowing down the land reform and closing down the schools and clinics that were opposed by the lamaists. Teachers and medical teams were withdrawn. But this did not stop the conspiracies of the lamaists.

In the late '50s, the Tibetan ruling class pressed ahead with a full-scale revolt. They believed that the intense struggles breaking out in central China--called the Great Leap Forward--might give them an opening to drive out the PLA. CIA support was increasing, and trained agents were in place.

Serf-Owners' Revolt Triggers Revolution

"Historically, all reactionary forces on the verge of extinction invariably conduct a last desperate struggle against the revolutionary forces."--Mao Tsetung

In March 1959, armed monks and Tibetan soldiers attacked the revolutionary garrison in Lhasa and launched a revolt along the Tibet-India border. One monk later said, "All of us were told that, if we killed a Han, we would become Living Buddhas and have chapels to our name." Without much support among the masses, the lamaists were soon dug in at some shrines. The main revolt was over within a few days.

During the fighting, the Dalai Lama fled into exile. This flight is portrayed by lamaists as a heroic, even mystical event. But it is now well documented that the Dalai Lama was whisked away by a CIA covert operation. The Dalai Lama's own autobiography admits that his cook and radio operator on that trip were CIA agents. The CIA wanted him outside of Tibet--as a symbol for a contra-style war against the Maoist revolution.

Defeated in their revolt, large sections of the upper clergy and aristocracy followed the Dalai Lama south into India--accompanied by many slave-servants, armed guards and mule-trains of wealth. In all, 13,000 went into exile, among them the most hard-core feudal forces and their supporters. Suddenly, many of Tibet's Three Masters--the rich lamas, the high government officials, and the secular aristocrats--were gone!

Revolutionary forces mobilized to root out the feudalist conspiracy. And a thousand Tibetan students rushed back from the National Minorities Institutes to help organize the first great wave of revolutionary change in Tibet.

The Dalai Lama's Kashag government had largely supported this counterrevolutionary revolt and was dissolved. New organs of power were created in every region called "Offices to Suppress the Revolt." The new regional government was called "Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet" (PCART)--in it, new Tibetan cadres and veteran Han cadres worked together.

This first stage of the revolution was called "the Three Anti's and the Two Reductions." It was against the lamaist conspiracy, against forced labor, and against slavery. In the past serfs had paid three-quarters of their harvest to the masters, now the revolution fought to reduce that "land rent" to 20 percent. The other reduction eliminated the massive debts that serfs "owed" to their masters.

This campaign attacked the heart of Tibet's feudal relations: Forced ulag labor was abolished. The nangzen slaves of the nobles and monasteries were freed. The masses of slave-monks were suddenly allowed to leave the monasteries. Arms caches were cleaned out of the main monasteries, and key conspirators were arrested.

Some people like to talk about "struggle for religious freedom in Tibet"--but throughout Tibetan history, the main struggle around "religious freedom" has been for the freedom not to believe, not to obey the cruel monks and their endless superstitions. The sight of thousands of young monks eagerly getting married and doing manual labor was a powerful blow to superstitious awe.

Women's liberation got off the ground--under the then-shocking slogan "All men and women are equal!" Revolutionary property changes helped ease old pressures for polygamy. With a large new pool of eligible men, there was no longer the same pressure for women to accept a situation where one man could have many wives. With the redistribution of the land, women were no longer under the same pressure to marry several brothers in one family--a practice that had been used to limit the population who depended on small plots of land.

Without the land rent, the huge parasitic monasteries started to dry up. About half the monks left them and about half the monasteries closed down.

In mass meetings, serfs were encouraged to organize Peasant Associations and fight for their interests. Key oppressors were called out, denounced and punished. The debt records of the serf-owners were burned in great bonfires. Women played a particularly active role. They are seen in the photographs of those days leading such meetings and denouncing the oppressor. Soon, the serfs seized the land and livestock. Ex-serfs, former beggars, and ex-slaves each received several acres. Serfs received 200,000 new deeds to the land and herds--decorated with red flags and pictures of Chairman Mao.

Serfs said: "The sun of the Kashag shone only on the Three Masters and their landlord henchmen, but the sun of the Communist Party and Chairman Mao shines on us--the poor people."

Sharp Class Struggle

These revolutionary moves took intense and often bloody class struggle. There was all the complexity, heroism, mistakes, advances and setbacks of real-life revolution.

The revolutionaries aroused the class hatred of the serfs. The serf-owners countered by accusing revolutionary Tibetans of being foreign collaborators and destroyers of holiness. Sometimes the revolutionary forces had the upper hand--and huge changes happened in the lives of the people. In other places the feudal forces gained the upper hand--and tried to wipe out any challenge. For years, there were pitched battles, raids, and executions by both sides. As Mao Tsetung teaches: "A revolution is not a dinner party.... A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.... Without using the greatest force, the peasants cannot possibly overthrow the deep-rooted authority of the landlords which has lasted for thousands of years."

The revolutionary army was a powerful force backing the upsurge, and many eager serfs volunteered to join the People's Liberation Army. But Tibet is a huge land of isolated valleys. Organizers in the widely scattered settlements were largely on their own. They risked everything for the people and were often killed by feudal gangs--just like the early Klan killed freed slaves in the days after the U.S. civil war.

Sharp struggle also broke out in the new Institutes of National Minorities--often along class lines. Some Tibetan students from aristocratic background intended to become a new elite--some resented it when land reform affected their serf-owning families back in Tibet. They also rejected moves toward social equality: demanding to have servants who would make their beds and clean their rooms, and they refused to mingle with fellow students from slave and serf backgrounds. Similar issues divided the new schools in Lhasa itself: aristocrat-students demanded that slave-students carry their "master's" books. Lamas were sent in to "oversee education" and conduct prayers before and after study sessions. These early struggles prepared the students from serf, slave and beggar classes for the day when such issues would be struggled out throughout Tibet's society.

Even as most land was divided into individual plots, far-sighted experiments tried out socialist, collective forms in the countryside. Mao taught that the road to liberation in the countryside required new forms of cooperation among the people. In Tibet, new "mutual aid teams" shared farm implements and animals, worked the fields together and pooled their labor to dig canals, dam streams, collect fertilizer and build new roads.

Through these great storms of struggle, the Maoist revolution created a wide base for itself among the newly freed serfs of Tibet.

In Part 3: The Revolution Within the Revolution

Tibet's storm of class struggle displeased some powerful forces inside the Chinese Communist Party itself. These forces, called revisionists, opposed Mao's revolutionary line. These forces were grouped around the party leader Liu Shao-chi, the top general Lin Piao, and Deng Xiaoping (who rules China today.) They had a completely different (and quite capitalist) view of what should be done with Tibet.

The revisionists did not see much reason to mobilize the masses to overthrow the feudal landlords. They were "Han chauvinists" who looked down on the masses of Tibetan people--considering them hopelessly backward and superstitious. They thought the Tibetan students in the Institutes of National Minorities should be trained as administrators, not as revolutionary organizers. They thought Tibet should be ruled through the educated upper classes, while relying on military means to keep the region "under control."

To these revisionists, Maoist class struggle was just "disruption" of their plans for exploiting Tibet. When they looked at Tibet, they saw only a border that needed defending, mineral resources to be exploited, and a potential "breadbasket" that could help feed the rest of China. They thought that developing independent industries or diversified agriculture was "inefficient" and a waste of time. The revisionists imagined that they could reach a long-term arrangement with the Lamaist ruling class--that would be profitable for them both.

But at that time, these capitalist-roaders did not have overall power. Mao was determined to lead the masses of people in all-the-way revolution. He fought to have a revolutionary approach carried out in Tibet and other national minority areas.

As early as 1953, Mao wrote in the essay Criticize Han Chauvinism: "In some places the relations between nationalities are far from normal. For Communists this is an intolerable situation. We must go to the root and criticize the Han chauvinist ideas which exist to a serious degree among many Party members and cadres, namely, the reactionary ideas of the landlord class and the bourgeoisie...which are manifested in the relations between nationalities.... In other words, bourgeois ideas dominate the minds of those comrades and people who have had no Marxist education and have not grasped the nationality policy of the Central Committee."

In 1956 Mao again raised the issue in his famous speech "On The Ten Major Relationships": "We put the emphasis on opposing Han chauvinism. Local-nationality chauvinism must be opposed too, but generally that is not where our emphasis lies.... All through the ages, the reactionary rulers, chiefly from the Han nationality, sowed feelings of estrangement among our various nationalities and bullied the minority peoples. Even among the working people it is not easy to eliminate the resultant influences in a short time.... The air in the atmosphere, the forests on the earth and the riches under the soil are all important factors needed for the building of socialism, but no material factor can be exploited and utilized without the human factor. We must foster good relations between the Han nationality and the minority nationalities and strengthen the unity of all the nationalities in the common endeavor to build our great socialist motherland."

The storms of revolution in Tibet after 1959 were a great step forward for Mao's line. While the serfs were fighting for their land, struggle intensified within the Communist vanguard itself over how far such movements should go. In many places in Tibet there were still rich and poor, even after the land was distributed. Feudal customs and practices of all kinds were still strong. New revolutionary organizations were just getting started. The revolution still had a long way to go.

In the early '60s, revisionist forces called for "five years of consolidation" within Tibet--which to them meant a cooling-out of the struggle. Socialist experiments in Tibet, like the early rural communes and many new factories, were disbanded.

The revisionists did not get "five years of consolidation" to suppress the people in Tibet. In 1965 the sharp line struggle came to a head within the Central Committee of the Communist Party itself. Chairman Mao unleashed an unprecedented "revolution within the revolution" called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

In Part 3 of this series we will examine how the storms of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution rocked Tibet.

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