By Tony Iltis
March 28, 2008 -- A
demonstration by Buddhist monks in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, on March
10 to commemorate the anniversary of China’s crushing of the Tibetan
independence movement in 1959 triggered protests for self-determination
that, by March 14, had escalated into anti-Chinese riots in which 19
people were killed.
Over 100 Tibetans are reported to have been killed, and hundreds more arrested, by Chinese occupation forces.
This eruption of mass anger — that spread to cities throughout the
Tibetan Autonomous Region and the neighbouring provinces of Gansu,
Qinghai and Sichuan, historically part of Tibet and with large ethnic
Tibetan communities — was a response not only to the 58-year-old
Chinese military occupation of Tibet, but to the dispossession and
marginalisation of Tibetans by an influx of both global capital and Han
For Tibetans, the integration of Tibet into China’s rapidly growing
economy has meant expropriation of land, loss of grazing rights,
environmental destruction, discrimination in employment, education and
economic opportunities and the prospect of becoming a dispossessed
minority in their own country.
This has been accelerated by the linking of Lhasa to the Chinese
railway system in July 2006, facilitating increased transmigration and
export of copper and uranium. The profits from resource extraction are
The growth in the work force and commerce has largely involved
non-Tibetans, who comprise 22% of Lhasa’s population according to
official statistics — although the figure would be about 60% if migrant
workers and military personnel were included.
There is 80% unemployment for ethnic Tibetans. The explosion of
Tibetan anger on March 14 included attacks on Han Chinese and members
of the Hui minority and the burning and looting of Han- and Hui-owned
small businesses, something that has been emphasised by the Chinese
government and official media who described the riots as a racist
The Chinese government has also argued that the disturbances were
orchestrated by the Dalai Lama, who has headed the Tibetan
government-in-exile in Dhramsala, India, since he fled during the 1959
uprising. However, while he supported the initial March 10 protest by
monks, the Dalai Lama has distanced himself from the spontaneous mass
upsurge that followed, threatening to resign if violent protests
Furthermore, the Dalai Lama has ruled out Tibetan independence
despite this being a prominant demand of the protesters. After March
14, the Buddhist hierarchy inside Tibet also distanced itself from the
The riots have revealed a gulf between the government-in-exile and
the aspirations of Tibetans inside the country. Among the 300,000
Tibetans living in exile, mainly in India and Nepal, there are also
tensions between the Dalai Lama’s leadership and the 30,000-strong
Tibetan Youth Congress, which supports independence and refuses to rule
out armed struggle.
“China does not deserve the Olympics because the human rights
situation has deteriorated. Independence is the only solution”, TYC
president Tsewang Rigzin told the March 18 British Times. The Dalai Lama has opposed boycotting this year’s Beijing Olympics.
While the Chinese government has portrayed the protests and riots as
part of a Western plot to dismember China, the Western response has
been restricted to vague calls for respect for human rights and
“restraint” by both sides.
The response of Australian PM Kevin Rudd was typical. “Australia
has a sophisticated relationship with China and there are areas, such
as human rights, where the trading partners disagree. We are … going to
prosecute a robust economic relationship, a robust foreign policy
relationship”, he told ABC television’s 7.30 Report on March 27.
The Beijing portrayal of Tibet as an indivisable part of China is
false. While at different times the theocratic nobility of Tibet
recognised Chinese overlordship, historically they constituted seperate
A 1904 British invasion was repulsed in 1909 with Chinese help, but
the 1911 Chinese revolution left Tibet as an effectively independent
state until 1950 when it was occupied by troops of the Peoples Republic
of China, established by the previous year’s revolution.
Initially the PRC left the Tibetan theocratic ruling class, headed by the Dalai Lama, intact.
However, a combination of popular opposition to the occupation
troops, concerns by the nobility over the spectre of land reform and
support from the CIA — who from 1956 were arming Tibetan nationalists
as part of their attempts to roll back communism — led to the 1959
uprising, the flight of the Dalai Lama and the expropriation of the
While the land reform gave some benefits to the Tibetan people, the
denial of national self-determination, discrimination in education and
employment, and attacks on Tibetan culture and religion — which reached
a peak during the “Cultural Revolution” of the late 1960s — meant that
Tibetans remained hostile to Chinese rule.
In 1969 a mass uprising in Tibet was brutally suppressed.
The opening of China to foreign capital in the 1980s and ’90s and
the transition to a capitalist market economy has exacerbated tensions
in Tibet, whose role in China’s “miracle economy” is a source of raw
materials and destination for transmigrants.
The integration of China into the global economy has meant that the
West has ended support for Tibetan independence. Calls for the
recognition of Tibetan rights and Western politicians’ relationship
with the Dalai Lama have become a bargaining chip to be used with an
economic partner that is sometimes a rival. The Dalai Lama’s
renunciation of the goal of independence in 1994 reflects his closeness
to the West.
However, the history of the Tibetan struggle being promoted in the
West for its own ends during the Cold War, and in some cases the
illusions created that Tibet under the theocratic landowning class was
some kind of spiritual paradise, has meant that the Tibetan cause
remains relatively popular among people in the West, including
high-profile “celebrity activists”, such as actor Richard Gere.
Support based on the “spiritual paradise” myth mirrors the Chinese
portrayal of the Tibetan struggle as a struggle against modernity.
In a 1997 interview with the PBS Frontline program,
Tibetan journalist Jamyang Norbu said, “I think, primarily the West
sees Tibet, to some extent, as a fantasy land, as a Shangri La. Of
course, this is a kind of stereotype that has existed in the Western
kind of perception for a very long time, even before the movie Lost Horizon was made …
“There’s a kind of New Age perception of Tibet … The idea [is] that
even [the] materialist west will be saved by the spiritualism of the
Tibetan Buddhists. It’s total nonsense …
“This is the problem that Tibetans face, because their issues and
the tragedy of Tibet has not being taken seriously. Primarily, it’s
very fuzzy; it’s sort of a feel good issue, rather than a stark, ugly
reality. A lot of people love Tibetans in the West, tremendous
sympathy, but it’s a very fuzzy kind of sympathy, because it never
touches on the reality.”
Norbu explained: “When I talk about my politics, about my country,
oftentimes the critics I get are not Chinese or other Tibetans, but
Westerners. They say, ‘How dare you contradict the Dalai Lama? How dare
you say Tibetans should take up arms against the Chinese?’ And, I reply
to them, ‘I’m a Tibetan. This is my country. These are issues that are
close to me.’
“Whether the Tibetans want to get their country back [through] peace or violence or whatever, that’s their business.”
Rather than resisting modernity, Tibetans are resisting a
modernisation process being forced on them by an occupying power and
whose benefits they have been excluded from. Norbu raised the spectre
of Tibetans suffering the fate of indigenous people in North America,
being confined to reservations, a “sort of broken third-rate people …
begging from tourists”.
Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities are attempting to reimpose
“normality” in Tibet through an overwhelming military presence. On
March 27 they felt secure enough to invite the first group of foreign
journalists into Tibet since the protests started for a stagemanaged
visit to a Lhasa temple. However, this did not go as the authorities
planned, when 30 younger monks gatecrashed the event shouting
Regardless of which powers have sought in the past to manipulate
the Tibetan struggle for its own purposes, and whatever the political
character of a figure such as the Dalai Lama (the position of which is
a relic from Tibet’s theocratic past) the Tibetan people retain the
same rights as all people to self-determination.
From Green Left Weekly issue #745 2 April 2008.
The Tibetan and Uighur struggles for justice
4 April 2008Chinese
authorities had detained more than 1000 Tibetans by April 3 in the wake
of protests and riots calling for self-determination that started on
March 10, the BBC reported on April 4.
to Tibetan sources, 140 protesters have been shot by police and troops.
The Chinese government has only acknowledged 18 deaths: those that
occurred on March 14 when crowds rioted in Lhasa. Most of these victims
were Hui and Han Chinese, killed by rioters who were burning and
looting non-Tibetan businesses.
The protests began on March 10 with commemorations by Buddhist
monks and nuns in Lhasa of the anniversary of the unsuccessful 1959
uprising against Chinese rule. Perhaps seeking to avoid a public
relations problem in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, the response
of the Chinese authorities was initially relatively restrained.
However, this restraint disappeared after March 14, when the
clergy’s protests triggered spontaneous outpourings of anger by
ordinary Tibetans that spread throughout the Tibet Autonomous Region
and the Tibetan-majority areas of the neighbouring Gansu, Qinghai and
Meanwhile, on March 23 and 24 more 1000 people from the Uighur
nationality demonstrated in the city of Khotan in the south of
Xinjiang. The protests were sparked by the killing in police custody of
Uighur businessperson Mutallip Hajim and restrictions on women wearing
The Uighurs, along with most of the non-Han nationalities in
Xinjiang, are Muslim. More than 500 Uighurs have been detained by
Chinese authorities who blamed the Khotan protests on the “three evil
forces” of seperatism, terrorism and religious extremism.
The grievances fuelling both Tibetan and Uighur opposition to
Chinese rule are broadly similar. In both cases, while incorporation
into the People’s Republic of China in the decade following the 1949
revolution brought economic development and the elimination of
oppressive pre-capitalist class relations, this was offset by cultural
and religious persecution and discrimination vis-a-vis Han Chinese,
reflected in significantly lower indicators in education, health and
In both Tibet and Xinjiang, the market-driven economic reforms of
the 1980s and ’90s that lead to the integration of China into the
global capitalist economy increased national tensions. The boom in
Chinese manufacturing has been largely concentated in the coastal
provinces of the east, with Xinjiang and Tibet confined to being
sources of raw materials.
Furthermore, the sparsely populated autonomous regions have become
destinations for Han Chinese transmigration. The discrimination and
educational disadvantage faced by the local population has meant that,
in both Xinjiang and Tibet, the rapidly growing modern sector of the
economy and the work force is dominated by transmigrants.
The Chinese government portrays the separatists movements as
backward-looking. However, it is the exclusion of the local populations
from the benefits of development, not development itself, that is
fuelling anti-Chinese sentiment in Tibet and Xinjiang.
In both Tibet and Xinjiang, the national movements have a religious
aspect: Buddhist in the case of the former, Muslim in that of the
latter. That the Tibetan protests have become a major issue in the
Western media while those of the Uighurs have been largely ignored can
be partly explained by the Islamophobia that has become a central
feature of imperialist propaganda since the “war on terror”, which has
replaced the anti-Communist Cold War as the main justification for
Western aggression against the Third World.
The main pro-independence organisation in Xinjiang, the East
Turkestan Islamic Movement, is classified as a terrorist group in the
US as well as in China. During the Cold War, the CIA supported armed
nationalist groups in both Tibet and Xinjiang until the rapprochement
between China and the West in 1972.
However, the prominent coverage of Tibet also reflects a popular
Western myth that portrays the isolated, Himalayan country as having
been a spiritually inclined utopia.
In reality it was a society comprised mainly of impoverished,
overworked and illiterate serfs whose subservience to the theocratic
nobility was enforced with institutionalised torture. During the Cold
War the myth of a utopia was promoted and it was successfully exploited
by the leader of the theocratic elite, the Dalai Lama, after he fled to
India following the crushing of the 1959 uprising.
Notwithstanding that he started his political career as theocratic
despot, and took 60 tonnes of treasure with him into exile, the Dalai
Lama’s saintly image has seen him win the Nobel Peace Prize. Not
surprisingly, Western politicians are as keen as rock gods and movie
stars to be seen meeting him.
However, while verbal support for Tibet is sometimes used by the
Western politicians to strengthen their position with respect to China,
it would be a mistake to assume that, as was the case during he Cold
War, Western imperialist powers are seeking Tibetan independence.
Not only is China embracing capitalism, it has become essential to
the globalised economy. The booming manufacturing industry of eastern
China is either directly or indirectly controlled by Western capital.
While many leftists and anti-imperialists see self-determination
for Tibet as tool to open up Tibet to the imperialist global market,
this is ignoring the fact that the imperialist global market is
reaching Tibet through the Beijing-Lhasa railway.
The Western desire not to see China dismembered is reflected by the
Dalai Lama, who supports autonomy, as opposed to independence, as makes
moral strictures against rioting. This is creating a divergence between
his government-in-exile and Tibetans inside the country.
For its part, the Chinese government are using the similarity
between the self-determination struggles in Tibet and Xinjiang to tar
the Tibetans with the terrorism brush. On April 1, public security
ministry spokesperson Wu Heping accused the Dalai Lama of preparing
squads of suicide bombers to attack the Olympics.
From: Comment & Analysis, Green Left Weekly issue #745
2 April 2008.
[Tony Iltis is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective of Australia.]