Tibet's unfinished struggle


By Eva Cheng As the anniversary of the 1959 uprising in Tibet against Chinese occupation draws near, speculation is growing whether there will be new outbursts of pro-independence protests there. On March 10, 1959, Chinese troops went into the Tibetan capital of Lhasa to put down an uprising which involved hundreds of thousands of Tibetans. Even based on Beijing's figures, 87,000 were killed. That bloodbath took place 10 years after Beijing took over Tibet by force and was preceded by other pro-independence disturbances in 1954, 1956 and 1958. At the height of the 1959 crisis, Tibet's "god-king", the Dalai Lama, fled to north India with 100,000 followers. He set up an exile government there, from where he has been operating since. On March 5, 1989, shortly before the anniversary of the 1959 uprising and after more protests in 1987 and 1988, a small pro-independence demonstration took place in Lhasa. It developed into a general riot after being suppressed by Chinese troops. More brutal crackdowns followed, including reportedly indiscriminate shooting of Tibetans and extensive witch-hunts. Martial law was declared in Lhasa a few days later for the first time under Chinese occupation. The Dalai Lama proposed talks with Beijing in 1987 for partial autonomy for Tibet, but was turned down on the basis that Beijing would not entertain any "haggling" for any form of independence for Tibet. Beijing said any talks must start from the recognition that Tibet is part of China. Beijing's claim of sovereignty over Tibet rests on "historical fact". It justified the 1950 annexation as an act to regain sovereignty, and the 1959 crackdown as the crushing of unrepentant feudal forces. Beijing has ruled Tibet by force and terror, and has systematically discriminated against Tibetans, most noticeably in education, housing and jobs. Even the display of the traditional Tibetan flag can attract harsh punishment. The 1949 revolution brought to China, and later Tibet, a system of social relations far more equitable than the highly oppressive structure of semi-serfdom existing in Tibet before 1950. However, it is counterproductive to the development of socialist consciousness among the Tibetan people for Beijing to force this system on them in opposition to their desire for national independence. Tibetans, with a common language, territory, economy and culture arising from a shared history, have long existed as a distinct nationality. Whether they — despite the existence of class contradictions among themselves — opt to form a Tibetan state is a decision entirely their own. From 1911, when China's last dynasty was overthrown, to 1950, Tibet operated as an independent state. Beijing's sovereignty claim seems to base itself on the different periods of conquests and suzerainty over Tibet by various Chinese kingdoms. With a history dating back to 500 BC, Tibet has long existed in parallel with China as an independent state, which is the part of history that Beijing has chosen to ignore. The Communist Party adopted this claim only rather recently. During the Long March in 1934-35, Mao Zedong classified the food the Red Army took from the Tibetans as "foreign debt". There is no doubt that the majority of Tibetans suffered heavily under the system of serfdom and brutal theocracy before 1950, but there is no conclusive evidence that the 1959 uprising was not, at least in part, their struggle against Chinese domination. Nor was there conclusive evidence that the uprising was an attempt to preserve the feudal social order, although most western reports, like China's, claimed that the mobilisations were led by and/or loyal to, feudal forces. The situations was not so clear-cut. For example, in the April 16, 1977, issue of Polityka, a Polish government weekly, Wojciech Gielzynski reported that the Kampo tribe, was at the forefront of the 1959 uprising, which he observed as being against both the Dalai Lama's absolute rule and Chinese domination. According to Gielzynski, not only had the Dalai Lama not given the demonstrators support, but he had called in Chinese troops to protect himself from them when he was trapped in his summer palace in early March 1959 by tens of thousands of Tibetans. Gielzynski also reported that the demonstrators had chosen a 70-member Liberation Committee and formed a provisional government which disarmed the escort of the Dalai Lama and replaced it with a Kampo unit. Credible accounts of the state of class struggle in Tibet in the 1950s are hard to come by, but Gielzynski's article and other figures on the scale of mobilisations — for example, Beijing's figure of 20,000 insurgents in one place — indicate that a massive people's movement existed. However, Chinese domination did obscure the true nature of class contradictions in Tibet. The elimination of serfdom and the moves toward socialist transformations were a progressive step in the interests of the people of Tibet. But brutality and colonisation of the Chinese oppressors became the overriding issue, fostering the illusion that all sections of the Tibetan society have fundamental common interests. Washington has used the national struggle in Tibet for its own ends. It has, for example, funded and trained Tibetan guerilla forces in Colorado, Nepal and Taiwan. Beijing may place a high strategic and defence value on Tibet, and also fear that if Tibet gained independence, other ethnic minorities in China might be encouraged to secede. But the violent suppression of the aspirations of the Tibetan people for independence may push them closer into the embrace of reactionary forces.