Workers Vanguard No. 695

28 August 1998


“Free Tibet”: Rallying Cry for Counterrevolution in China

For Unconditional Military Defense of China Against Imperialist Attack and Internal Counterrevolution!

In recent years, one of the most backward and inaccessible regions on the earth has come to the fore as a cause célèbre for Hollywood movie stars as well as imperialist politicians. The clamor for “freedom” for Tibet from Chinese rule has also managed to yoke a significant number of liberal and leftish youth behind one of U.S. imperialism’s longstanding anti-Communist crusades. This has been aided by a seemingly endless barrage of films extolling Tibet’s “traditional”—and benighted—culture, its self-exiled god-king and star of Apple computer ads, the Dalai Lama. Among these is Seven Years in Tibet, idolizing a German Nazi in the 1930s who became a convert to the Tibetan cause. Meanwhile, a range of rap and rock groups like the Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers have donated their efforts for “freedom concerts” to raise funds for this anti-China campaign.

The “Free Tibet” cause originated with the machinations of the American CIA and other imperialist forces intent on fomenting capitalist counterrevolution in China. Until its overthrow following the 1949 Chinese Revolution, the Tibetan “Lamaocracy” ruled a society where slavery—sexual and otherwise—was rampant, medical care nonexistent and literacy the preserve of (some of) the ruling priest-caste. Although bureaucratically deformed from its inception, the 1949 Revolution overthrew capitalist/landlord rule and established a collectivized, planned economy, laying the basis for huge strides forward by the workers, peasants and minority peoples of China, including the Tibetans.

Today, the nationalist regime of the Stalinist Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is itself leading the charge toward capitalist restoration, re-establishing both imperialist and domestic capital investment, with its own cadre immersing themselves in money-grabbing entrepreneurship. The Beijing bureaucracy is rapidly oxidizing the “iron rice bowl”—the guarantee of jobs and housing and other social benefits—including current moves to eliminate the housing subsidy for state workers, which threatens to create millions of homeless. The looming threat of “free market” misery has led to widespread resistance, including strikes, by the Chinese proletariat.

For now, the imperialists, especially in business circles, have adopted a “soft cop” strategy, correctly perceiving that the Beijing regime has pushed China to the brink of counterrevolution. But the U.S. ruling class has, in the Korean and Vietnamese wars and earlier in World War II, demonstrated that it will readily perpetrate mass slaughter—up to and including nuclear incineration—to maintain world dominance and eradicate the “menace” of communism. And it would do so again in China should such be deemed warranted. Indeed, unlike the situation at the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution, when the imperialist powers were exhausted and ideologically bankrupted by World War I, today they have been reinvigorated by the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet degenerated workers state, which was prepared by decades of Stalinist misrule.

Particularly in the face of the “free Tibet” frenzy against the Chinese deformed workers state, the Trotskyist International Communist League reasserts the need for unconditional military defense of China against imperialist attack and domestic counterrevolution. To stop the devastation threatened by the reintroduction of capitalist slavery, China’s toiling masses must carry out a proletarian political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucratic caste. This requires the forging of an authentically communist party rooted in the internationalism of Lenin’s Bolsheviks and the early Communist International, whose revolutionary program was carried forward by Trotsky’s Fourth International. Key to this is the understanding that the only path to a socialist society of abundance lies through the rapid spread of proletarian revolution throughout South and Southeast Asia and to South Korea and Japan.

The Hell of Lamaist Tibet

Tibet is of little geopolitical importance for the imperialists. But it does pose a test of the resolve of the CCP Stalinists to defend their rule. Former Soviet leader Gorbachev’s willingness to cede the Baltic states and, most importantly, the USSR’s “influence” over East Germany intensified imperialist pressures against the Soviet Union and emboldened domestic counterrevolutionaries, finally leading to Yeltsin’s pro-imperialist coup in August 1991.

When U.S. imperialist chief Clinton visited Beijing in June, he unfurled the banner of “autonomy” for Tibet—which, not accidentally, is the current program of the Dalai Lama—as part of his program for a “democratic” China. Clinton’s trip had all the trappings and hypocrisy of an Elmer Gantry revival, replete with tedious sermons on the virtues of democracy accompanied by confessions of human frailty. Autonomy under the Dalai Lama would have approximately the same relationship to democracy as Clinton’s (unremarkable) sexual proclivities have to chastity.

The stunning, picture-postcard beauty of “Shangri-La” notwithstanding, Tibet has the most minimal basis for human habitation, a reality which has facilitated its development as a distinct society, isolated, in the large, from the rest of the world as well as from such modern intrusions as literacy, medical care and civilization in general. Formed through the merger of a feudal-like aristocracy and a vast clerical estate making up, at times, over 20 percent of the male population, the Lamaocracy held sway over a society of peasants and herdsmen for hundreds of years until 1959. Only then, nine years after the entry of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into the territory, did the Beijing bureaucracy begin to implement fundamental reforms in Tibet.

The theocracy in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa so effectively and brutally dominated the society that there is no accessible history of the kind of episodic peasant uprisings which characterized precapitalist societies throughout the rest of the world. In fact, there is no record of any unrest at all. It is a measure of the intensity of oppression and exploitation in Lamaist Tibet that what was perhaps proportionally the largest and most idle ruling stratum in human history was economically supported by growers of barley and herders of yak. At base, this meant the labor of women, since both the monks and a not small portion of the male population, who emulated the monastic life after “sinning” by procreating, were employed in contemplation.

After the PLA’s 1950 occupation of Tibet, American imperialism—with parallel efforts by the ruling classes of India, Taiwan and Japan—utilized Tibet’s ruling stratum and its fear of the least reform to foment resistance against the newly formed Chinese deformed workers state. In 1959, a rebellion inspired, armed and financed by the CIA originated in Tibet’s eastern reaches in China’s Sichuan province and culminated in a monk/aristocrat-led uprising in Lhasa. This effort—preordained to fail—was cynically launched by the U.S. simply to harass China. Against the imperialist hue and cry over “poor little Tibet,” the Trotskyists stood forthrightly for the defense of China (see “Trotskyist Youth Protest U.S. Moves Against Mao’s China,” page 13).

The rebellion was smashed, the Dalai Lama fled to India and the CCP quickly abolished his administration—the “Tibet Local Government”—which had been formed in 1951. Only then did Mao move to abolish ulag (forced peasant labor), slavery and the myriad of mandatory taxes paid to the aristocracy and monasteries. Previously, the monasteries simply appropriated children to replenish the monk population while villages were forced to hand over children for state functions in Lhasa, with boys thus “donated” taken by the monks as consorts. The land, livestock and tools of the aristocrats who fled into exile were distributed to the peasants, as were the land and chattel of the monasteries which had participated in the uprising. As one frequent visitor to the area described post-revolutionary Tibet, “at least now you don’t see emaciated serfs in rags carrying the litter of a noble dressed in warm clothing, turquoise rings and gold bracelets” (Guardian, 29 December 1973, quoted in A. Tom Grunfeld, The Making of Modern Tibet [1996]).

Even the modest reforms instituted under CCP rule were attenuated through sabotage by the remaining Tibetan aristocrats, as well as through the narrow policies of the Stalinist bureaucracy, which was shot through with “Great Han” Chinese chauvinism. Those aristocrats who stayed were reimbursed for their property, as were the “loyal” monasteries which were then subsidized by the Chinese state. Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” of the late 1950s—a utopian campaign to catapult China to the status of an advanced industrial power on the basis of raw peasant labor—grievously undermined agrarian and social reform. Substituting utopian sloganeering for material reality, this leap backward brought industrial and agricultural production to a standstill, leading to a devastating famine throughout China.

Subsequently, Tibetans were subjected to fierce Great Han chauvinism during the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” beginning in the mid-1960s, in which Mao mobilized millions of student youth to buttress his position in an intra-bureaucratic factional feud. In this grossly misnamed campaign, which took aim at all things “foreign” and at such “capitalist” influence as accumulated scientific knowledge and classical music, Tibetan language and native dress (including the distinctive hairstyle) were proscribed. Much of what had been at the core of Tibetan “culture”—monasteries, religious artifacts and texts—was simply smashed up and destroyed, although with the appreciable side effect of driving monks into actual labor. By decree, nomadic herdsmen were “transformed” into farmers overnight and the peasantry organized into large agricultural communes which lacked not only the machines but the soil necessary for large-scale farming. Predictably, agricultural production was so disrupted that by 1981 one-fifth of the Tibetan population required subsidies from the central government merely to survive.

Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power shortly after Mao’s death was accompanied by the lifting of Han-chauvinist strictures against Tibetan language, attire and hairstyles. The monasteries were rebuilt and refurbished, while the idle monks returned in droves and currently number some 40,000 to 50,000. At the same time, the “market reforms” initiated under Deng have increased Han privilege in the area, as well as the distaste of most Tibetans for their occupiers. The growing presence of the PLA, with its relatively well-paid officers and soldiers and their families and its prominent role in business ventures (geared in Tibet primarily to tourism), has also led to an infusion of ethnic Han entrepreneurs employing Han workers.

Thus, the real gains for the Tibetan masses from the export of the 1949 Chinese Revolution—from the introduction of modern health care to the establishment of a modicum of education, which lowered the level of illiteracy from 90 percent to roughly 45 percent—stand alongside continuing glaring inequalities. Tibetan farmers and herders earn an average of $68 a year, while 79 percent of Tibetan women of childbearing age are illiterate. Such inequalities are rapidly increasing with the introduction of capitalist market “reforms.”

Hollywood Stumps for Counterrevolution

Keenly attuned to the opportunities provided by the policies of the CCP bureaucracy, which has engaged in off-and-on discussions concerning the status of Tibet, the Dalai Lama has “evolved” from his earlier calls for independence, which faded out after the anti-Soviet rapprochement between the U.S. and Mao’s China in the early 1970s. Now the godking has expressed a willingness to dicker over some sort of “autonomy” arrangement, with occasional statements of approval of modernization and, even, some sort of “socialism.” At the same time, following the final undoing of the Russian October Revolution in 1991-92, the aristocrats and Lamas who maintain the Tibetan exile communities in the Indian subcontinent have increasingly sought to mobilize international pressure for Tibetan independence.

These developments have inspired a gaggle of American entertainers to lend their efforts to the reactionary anti-Communist crusade against China. Prominent among them is Richard Gere, the actor and sometime pupil of the Dalai Lama, who has vowed to make Tibet “a household word in the United States, like Maalox or Lysol.” However, Gere has apparently recently been supplanted in the Dalai Lama’s inner circle. If Christopher Hitchens’ report in the Nation (27 July) is to be believed, “Steven Seagal, the robotic and moronic ‘actor’ who gave us Hard to Kill and Under Siege, has been proclaimed a reincarnated lama.” Hitchens observes, “Suggestions that Seagal’s fortune helped elevate him to the Himalayan status of tulku [sacred vessel] are not completely discounted even by some adepts and initiates.”

These jet-setting “artistes,” who invariably exceed their gurus in vacuity, wish to add to their collections of causes and extravagant toys a Tibet to be preserved “au naturel,” a theme park where tranquil and simple humans live in “organic” relationships unspoiled by “civilization.” In reality, they uphold a society only decades ago so ravaged by sickness that an estimated 90 percent of the population suffered from venereal disease; a society in which women were shared with their husbands’ male relatives if poor or added to the stables of wives of the rich; a society where life was brutal, harsh and short and where the masses were offered not the least hope for amelioration or any kind of change. And that society, or one very much like it, would re-emerge if the Lama/aristocrat exiles returned to power in an “independent” Tibet.

In stressing the need for the Chinese proletariat to combat the Han chauvinism of the Stalinist bureaucracy and champion the rights of Tibetans, the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang and other national and ethnic minorities, we raised the call for “the right of independence for a Tibetan soviet republic” (“China on the Brink: Workers Political Revolution or Capitalist Enslavement?” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 53, Summer 1997). However, given the social conditions in Tibet, this call is mistaken. There is currently no basis for any sort of independent Tibet, where there exists neither a domestic capitalist class—not even a comprador capitalist layer—nor a working class of any significance. There is no way to even determine what the masses in Tibet might want. The toiling population—peasants and herders—remains unorganized, politically mute and isolated in myriad small villages and settlements.

In The Permanent Revolution (1930), Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky wrote:

“Under the conditions of the imperialist epoch the national democratic revolution can be carried through to a victorious end only when the social and political relationships of the country are mature for putting the proletariat in power as the leader of the masses of the people. And if this is not yet the case? Then the struggle for national liberation will produce only very partial results, results directed entirely against the working masses.”

As in the case of other horribly benighted and backward countries, like Afghanistan, even a modicum of modernization can only come from without. This is why, at the time of the Soviet military intervention against CIA-backed feudalist reactionaries in Afghanistan in 1979, we raised the call: “Hail Red Army! Extend social gains of October Revolution to Afghan peoples!” In that context, we pointed to the extension of Bolshevik power to Central Asia in the 1920s, which laid the basis for an enormous leap forward for that region’s toilers, particularly women who had been brutally oppressed under the Islamic hierarchy. The Kremlin’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 1980s set up women and leftists there for the horrendous rule of the Taliban cutthroats and led in short order to capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union itself.

In Tibet, it was only the entry of the army of the Chinese deformed workers state that enabled the masses to begin even the most minimal steps toward social progress. The fate of the Tibetan people is inextricably bound up with the struggle for proletarian political revolution in China and socialist revolution in the Indian subcontinent and throughout Southeast and East Asia.

China: For Proletarian Political Revolution!

To oust the bureaucratic caste that is rushing to liquidate the last remaining gains of the Chinese Revolution requires the leadership of a proletarian party which, as Lenin prescribed, must act as the tribune of the people, fighting on behalf of all the oppressed. This means, for example, struggling against the erosion of the gains made by women since 1949 and combatting every instance of Great Han chauvinism promoted by the nationalist bureaucracy. Proletarian political revolution in China would immediately face the fury of imperialist-led reaction. The only defense against this is the international mobilization of the working class, struggling to spread red revolution particularly to South Korea and Japan.

Key to the victory of the October Revolution was the Bolsheviks’ intransigent internationalism, including their defense of the right of self-determination for the many oppressed nations in the tsarist prison house of peoples. After seizing power, the Bolsheviks did indeed grant those nations the right to separate, while establishing measures of autonomy for various pre-national peoples. But particularly as the young Soviet republic was besieged by imperialist-led White counterrevolution, national self-determination, like all bourgeois-democratic questions, was subordinate to the defense of proletarian state power. The short-lived Ukrainian and Georgian “republics” of the time, despite their pretensions of “neutrality” and a patina of “socialist,” peasant radical and even anarchist rule, proved to be little more than highways for the military forces mobilized by the imperialists against Red Russia. Similarly, an “independent” Tibet today could only serve as a platform for imperialist provocations against the Chinese deformed workers state.

The preconditions for any meaningful Tibetan autonomy or, if desired, independence are the destruction of every remaining vestige of aristocratic and monastic power—and the end to all state support to the monasteries—through the mobilization of the Tibetan masses into soviets of toilers linked to proletarian soviet rule in China. Only then could the Tibetan people begin to overcome centuries of near slavery and hideous deprivation and embark on the road of progress, prosperity and human freedom that is the goal of socialist revolution. That advance today depends on a victorious working-class political revolution in China as part of the fight for a socialist Asia.