For the right to self-determination of the Tibetan people

By Pierre Rousset

March 24, 2008 -- The Chinese army has Tibet and its provinces under tight control. The repression of the ``rioters'' who have descended into the streets these last two weeks has been severe. Solidarity and the effective recognition of the right of the Tibetan people to self-determination is urgent.

Some on the left (rare in France, but more numerous elsewhere) refuse to commit to solidarity for fear of playing the game of the United States against China. Others, on the right, call for demonstrations against 59 years of Chinese occupation –- it was in 1950-1951 that the Peoples Liberation Army entered the country -– and denounce a ``communist'' dictatorship. These two positions ``mirror'' one another, attaching little importance to history: the ``Tibetan question'' arises in very different contexts according to different periods.

Sovereignty or suzerainty relations between China and Tibet have been an issue since way back in the past. They were sometimes very formal, or non-existant, and sometimes more substantial (with Chinese military occupation), before the country reasserted its independence in 1911-1913. But, to stick to the contemporary period, after the victory of the Chinese Revolution (1949), the question of self-determination was inextricably linked to the violent conflicts of the time. Could the impact of this revolution support a mobilisation of Tibetan peasants against the harsh exploitation of which they were victims, an exploitation exercised in particular via the clergy and the monasteries? Who at that time could speak in the name of the people? Could Tibet be used as a point of support by imperialism?

The years of 1950-1960 were those of the Korean War, of the beginning of the US military escalation in Indochina, of the armament of Taiwan, of the construction of immense US bases in the region, of the Chinese-Indian showdown in the Himalayas... In order to avoid the opening of a new front, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) concluded an agreement in 1951 with the Tibetan ruling/possessing classes, the Buddhist clergy and the Dalai Lama. This compromise was broken off and it was the CIA who armed the anti-Chinese insurrection in 1957-1959. The confrontation between revolution and counter-revolution tore up the region. How can we forget this?

In its program of the 1930s, the CCP recognised the right to self-determination, including for Tibetans. But this internationalist principle was rapidly ignored, once the 1949 victory had been acquired, with the rise to power of the bureaucracy and ``Grand Han'' nationalism (the Han constitute the ethnic majority in China). In Tibet, in 1950-1951 and singularly after the repression of 1959, the People's Liberation Army was perceived as an occupying force. For Beijing, the country held importance before all of the ideological considerations (nationalist), due to its geo-strategic position and its natural resources (water, mines, forests ...). Despite the social reforms which benefited the peasants, the Tibetan people were submitted to a specific national oppression, as much on a cultural level as economic. The mobilisations of 1987-1990 in particular were violently repressed. The right to self-determination was at that time clearly opposed by the bureaucratic order.

Is it still the same today? The development of capitalism in progress in China did not solve the national question, far from it. The situation has remarkably worsened since 1995. One witnesses a rather classic process of colonisation of a population: Tibetans risk becoming a minority in their own country and are threatened by either by marginalisation or by forced assimilation. The ``development'' of the country meets increasingly capitalist standards and risks leading to a situation as inextricable as Sri Lanka (Tamils) or in the south of the Philippines (Moros and Lumads). The right of self-determination is now opposed at least as much by the new Chinese bourgeoisie as by the transnational corporations interested in the riches of the country. Why still talk about ``communism''?

To write is part of the duty of solidarity. However, it is quite delicate for a non-specialist to deal with Tibet. What would have been possible in 1950? What has become of Tibetan society today? Which demands respond best to the current situation? These are important questions that nevertheless remain unanswered for the author of this article. Tibet is known by everyone, and yet what do we know beyond the clichés? The time is for solidarity -– but also for a real work of militant knowledge.

It is not necessary however to wait for the answers to these questions in order to defend, today --like yesterday -- the right of self-determination: it is up to the Tibetan people to make their choice freely.

[Pierre Rousset is editor of the Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières (ESSF) website and a member of the Revolutionary Communist League of France (LCR). The original French version of the above article is at and a shorter version was published in the LCR's newspaper Rouge. Translated for Links - International Journal of Socialist Renewal by Katie Cherrington.]