The true face of the Dalai Lama
May 23, 2006
This is a backgrounder of the struggle in Tibet and how the US has been building up Dalai Lama to pursue their ideological struggle. In the US many uninformed people had been awed by his philosophy on “peace” and “non-violence”. This article will bare facts to the real color and intent of the Lama, why the US had given him a Nobel Prize and many more. - Kalovski Itim, The True Story of Maoist Revolution in Tibet, When the Dalai Lamas Ruled: Hell on Earth
Revolutionary Worker #944, February 15, 1998
Hard Climate, Heartless Society
Tibet is one of the most remote places in the world. It is centered on a high mountain plateau deep in the heart of Asia. It is cut off from South Asia by the Himalayas, the highest mountains in the world. Countless river gorges and at least six different mountain ranges carve this region into isolated valleys. Before all the changes brought about after the Chinese revolution of 1949, there were no roads in Tibet that wheeled vehicles could travel. All travel was over winding, dangerous mountain trails–by mule, by foot or by yaks which are hairy cow-like mountain animals. Trade, communications and centralized government were almost impossible to maintain.
Most of Tibet is above the tree-line. The air is very thin. Most crops and trees won’t grow there. It was a struggle to grow food and even find fuel for fires.
At the time of the revolution, the population of Tibet was extremely spread out. About two or three million Tibetans lived in an area half the size of the United States–about 1.5 million square miles. Villages, monasteries and nomad encampments were often separated by many days of difficult travel.
Maoist revolutionaries saw there were “Three Great Lacks” in old Tibet: lack of fuel, lack of communications, and lack of people. The revolutionaries analyzed that these “Three Great Lacks” were not mainly caused by the physical conditions, but by the social system. The Maoists said that the “Three Great Lacks” were caused by the “Three Abundances” in Tibetan society: “Abundant poverty, abundant oppression and abundant fear of the supernatural.”
Class Society in Old Tibet
Tibet was a feudal society before the revolutionary changes that started in 1949. There were two main classes: the serfs and the aristocratic serf owners. The people lived like serfs in Europe’s “Dark Ages,” or like African slaves and sharecroppers of the U.S. South.
Tibetan serfs scratched barley harvest from the hard earth with wooden plows and sickles. Goats, sheep and yaks were raised for milk, butter, cheese and meat. The aristocratic and monastery masters owned the people, the land and most of the animals. They forced the serfs to hand over most grain and demanded all kinds of forced labor (called ulag). Among the serfs, both men and women participated in hard labor, including ulag. The scattered nomadic peoples of Tibet’s barren western highlands were also owned by lords and lamas.
The Dalai Lama’s older brother Thubten Jigme Norbu claims that in the lamaist social order, “There is no class system and the mobility from class to class makes any class prejudice impossible.” But the whole existence of this religious order was based on a rigid and brutal class system.
Serfs were treated like despised “inferiors”–the way Black people were treated in the Jim Crow South. Serfs could not use the same seats, vocabulary or eating utensils as serf owners. Even touching one of the master’s belongings could be punished by whipping. The masters and serfs were so distant from each other that in much of Tibet they spoke different languages.
It was the custom for a serf to kneel on all fours so his master could step on his back to mount a horse. Tibet scholar A. Tom Grunfeld describes how one ruling class girl routinely had servants carry her up and down stairs just because she was lazy. Masters often rode on their serfs’ backs across streams.
The only thing worse than a serf in Tibet was a “chattel slave,” who had no right to even grow a few crops for themselves. These slaves were often starved, beaten and worked to death. A master could turn a serf into a slave any time he wanted. Children were routinely bought and sold in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa. About 5 percent of the Tibetan people were counted as chattel slaves. And at least another 10 percent were poor monks who were really “slaves in robes.”
The lamaist system tried to prevent any escape. Runaway slaves couldn’t just set up free farms in the vast empty lands. Former serfs explained to revolutionary writer Anna Louise Strong that before liberation, “You could not live in Tibet without a master. Anyone might pick you up as an outlaw unless you had a legal owner.”
Born Female–Proof of Past Sins?
The Dalai Lama writes, “In Tibet there was no special discrimination against women.” The Dalai Lama’s authorized biographer Robert Hicks argues that Tibetan women were content with their status and “influenced their husbands.” But in Tibet, being born a woman was considered a punishment for “impious” (sinful) behavior in a previous life. The word for “woman” in old Tibet, kiemen, meant “inferior birth.” Women were told to pray, “May I reject a feminine body and be reborn a male one.”
Lamaist superstition associated women with evil and sin. It was said “among
ten women you’ll find nine devils.” Anything women touched was considered
tainted–so all kinds of taboos were placed on women. Women were forbidden to
handle medicine. Han Suyin reports, “No woman was allowed to touch a lama’s
belongings, nor could she raise a wall, or ‘the wall will fall.’… A widow was a
despicable being, already a devil. No woman was allowed to use iron instruments
or touch iron. Religion forbade her to lift her eyes above the knee of a man, as
serfs and slaves were not allowed to life the eyes upon the face of the nobles
or great lamas.”
Monks of the major sects of Tibetan Buddhism rejected sexual intimacy (or even contact) with women, as part of their plan to be holy. Before the revolution, no woman had ever set foot in most monasteries or the palaces of the Dalai Lama.
There are reports of women being burned for giving birth to twins and for practicing the pre-Buddhist traditional religion (called Bon). Twins were considered proof that a woman had mated with an evil spirit. The rituals and folk medicine of Bon were considered “witchcraft.” Like in other feudal societies, upperclass women were sold into arranged marriages. Custom allowed a husband to cut off the tip of his wife’s nose if he discovered she had slept with someone else. The patriarchal practices included polygyny, where a wealthy man could have many wives; and polyandry, where in land-poor noble families one woman was forced to be wife to several brothers.
Among the lower classes, family life was similar to slavery in the U.S. South. (See The Life of a Tibetan Slave.) Serfs could not marry or leave the estate without the master’s permission. Masters transferred serfs from one estate to another at will, breaking up serf families forever. Rape of women serfs was common–under the ulag system, a lord could demand “temporary wives.”
The Three Masters
The Tibetan people called their rulers “the Three Great Masters” because the ruling class of serf owners was organized into three institutions: the lama monasteries possessed 37 percent of the cultivated land and pasture in old Tibet; the secular aristocracy 25 percent; and the remaining 38 percent was in the hands of the government officials appointed by the Dalai Lama’s advisors.
About 2 percent of Tibet’s population was in this upper class, and an additional 3 percent were their agents, overseers, stewards, managers of estates and private armies. The ger-ba, a tiny elite of about 200 families, ruled at the top. Han Suyin writes: “Only 626 people held 93 percent of all land and wealth and 70 percent of all the yaks in Tibet. These 626 included 333 heads of monasteries and religious authorities, and 287 lay authorities (including the nobles of the Tibetan army) and six cabinet ministers.”
Merchants and handicraftsmen also belonged to a lord. A quarter of the
population in the capital city of Lhasa survived by begging from religious
pilgrims. There was no modern industry or working class. Even matches and nails
had to be imported. Before the revolution, no one in Tibet was ever paid wages
for their work.
The heart of this system was exploitation. Serfs worked 16- or 18-hour days to enrich their masters–keeping only about a quarter of the food they raised.
A. Tom Grunfeld writes: “These estates were extremely lucrative. One former aristocrat noted that a ’small’ estate would typically consist of a few thousand sheep, a thousand yaks, an undetermined number of nomads and two hundred agricultural serfs. The yearly output would consist of over 36,000 kg (80,000 lbs.) of grain, over 1,800 kg (4,000 lbs.) of wool and almost 500 kg (1,200 lbs.) of butter… A government official had ‘unlimited powers of extortion’ and could make a fortune from his powers to extract bribes not to imprison and punish people…. There was also the matter of extracting monies from the peasantry beyond the necessary taxes.”
The ruling serf owners were parasites. One observer, Sir Charles Bell, described a typical official who spent an hour a day at his official duties. Upper class parties lasted for days of eating, gambling and lying around. The aristocratic lamas also never worked. They spent their days chanting, memorizing religious dogma and doing nothing.
The Monasteries: Strongholds of Feudalism
Defenders of old Tibet portray Lamaist Buddhism as the essence of the culture of the people of Tibet. But it was really nothing more or less than the ideology of a specific oppressive social system. The lamaist religion itself is exactly as old as feudal class society. The first Tibetan king, Songsten-gampo, established a unified feudal system in Tibet, around 650 A.D. He married princesses from China and Nepal in order to learn from them the practices used outside Tibet to carry out feudalism. These princesses brought Tantric Buddhism to Tibet, where it was merged with earlier animist beliefs to create a new religion, Lamaism.
This new religion had to be imposed on the people over the next century and a half by the ruling class, using violence. King Trosong Detsen decreed: “He who shows a finger to a monk shall have his finger cut off; he who speaks ill of the monks and the king’s Buddhist policy shall have his lips cut off; he who looks askance at them shall have his eyes put out…”
Between the 1400s and the 1600s, a bloody consolidation of power took place, the abbots of the largest monasteries seized overall power. Because these abbots practiced anti-woman celibacy, their new political system could not operate by hereditary father-to-son succession. So the lamas created a new doctrine for their religion: They announced that they could detect newborn children who were reincarnations of dead ruling lamas. Hundreds of top lamas were declared “Living Buddhas” (Bodhisattvas) who had supposedly ruled others for centuries, switching to new bodies occasionally as old host bodies wore out.
The central symbol of this system, the various men called Dalai Lama, was
said to be the early Tibetan nature-god Chenrezig who had simply reappeared in
14 different bodies over the centuries. In fact, only three of the 14 Dalai
Lamas actually ruled. Between 1751 and 1950, there was no adult Dalai Lama on
the throne in Tibet 77 percent of the time. The most powerful abbots ruled as
“regent” advisors who trained, manipulated and even assassinated the child-king
Tibetan monasteries were not holy, compassionate Shangrilas, like in some New Age fantasy. These monasteries were dark fortresses of feudal exploitation–they were armed villages of monks complete with military warehouses and private armies. Pilgrims came to some shrines to pray for a better life. But the main activity of monasteries was robbing the surrounding peasants. The huge idle religious clergy grew little food–feeding them was a big burden on the people.
The largest monasteries housed thousands of monks. Each “parent” monastery created dozens (even hundreds) of small strongholds scattered through the mountain valleys. For example, the huge Drepung monastery housed 7,000 monks and owned 40,000 people on 185 different estates with 300 pastures.
Monasteries also made up countless religious taxes to rob the people–including taxes on haircuts, on windows, on doorsteps, taxes on newborn children or calves, taxes on babies born with double eyelids…and so on. A quarter of Drepung’s income came from interest on money lent to the serf-peasantry. The monasteries also demanded that serfs hand over many young boys to serve as child-monks.
The class relations of Tibet were reproduced inside the monasteries: the majority of monks were slaves and servants to the upper abbots and lived half-starved lives of menial labor, prayer chanting and routine beatings. Upper monks could force poor monks to take their religious exams or perform sexual services. (In the most powerful Tibetan sect, such homosexual sex was considered a sign of holy distance from women.) A small percent of the clergy were nuns.
After liberation, Anna Louise Strong asked a young monk, Lobsang Telé, if monastery life followed Buddhist teachings about compassion. The young lama replied that he heard plenty of talk in the scripture halls about kindness to all living creatures, but that he personally had been whipped at least a thousand times. “If any upper class lama refrains from whipping you,” he told Strong, “that is already very good. I never saw an upper lama give food to any poor lama who was hungry. They treated the laymen who were believers just as badly or even worse.”
These days, the Dalai Lama is “packaged” internationally as a non-materialist holy man. In fact, the Dalai Lama was the biggest serf owner in Tibet. Legally, he owned the whole country and everyone in it. In practice, his family directly controlled 27 manors, 36 pastures, 6,170 field serfs and 102 house slaves.
When he moved from palace to palace, the Dalai Lama rode on a throne chair pulled by dozens of slaves. His troops marched along to “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” a tune learned from their British imperialist trainers. Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama’s bodyguards, all over six-and-a-half feet tall, with padded shoulders and long whips, beat people out of his path. This ritual is described in the Dalai Lama’s autobiography.
The first time he fled to India in 1950, the Dalai Lama’s advisors sent several hundred mule-loads of gold and silver bars ahead to secure his comfort in exile. After the second time he fled, in 1959, Peking Review reported that his family left lots of gold and silver behind, plus 20,331 pieces of jewelry and 14,676 pieces of clothing.
Bitter Poverty, Early Death
The people lived with constant cold and hunger. Serfs endlessly gathered scarce wood for their masters. But their own huts were only heated by small cooking fires of yak dung. Before the revolution there was no electricity in Tibet. The darkness was only lit by flickering yak-butter lamps.
Serfs were often sick from malnutrition. The traditional food of the masses
is a mush made from tea, yak butter, and a barley flour called tsampa. Serfs
rarely tasted meat. One 1940 study of eastern Tibet says that 38 percent of
households never got any tea–and drank only wild herbs or “white tea” (boiled
water). Seventy-five percent of the households were forced at times to eat
grass. Half of the people couldn’t afford butter–the main source of protein
Meanwhile, a major shrine, the Jokka Kang, burned four tons of yak butter offerings daily. It has been estimated that one-third of all the butter produced in Tibet went up in smoke in nearly 3,000 temples, not counting the small alters in each house.
In old Tibet, nothing was known about basic hygiene, sanitation, or the fact that germs caused disease. For ordinary people, there were no outhouses, sewers or toilets. The lamas taught that disease and death were caused by sinful “impiety.” They said that chanting, obedience, paying monks money and swallowing prayer scrolls was the only real protection from disease.
Old Tibet’s superstition, feudal practices and low productive forces caused the people to suffer terribly from disease. Most children died before their first year. Even most Dalai Lamas did not make it to 18 years old and died before their coronations. A third of the population had smallpox. A 1925 smallpox epidemic killed 7,000 in Lhasa. It is not known how many died in the countryside. Leprosy, tuberculosis, goiter, tetanus, blindness and ulcers were very common. Feudal sexual customs spread venereal disease, including in the monasteries. Before the revolution, about 90 percent of the population was infected–causing widespread sterility and death. Later, under the leadership of Mao Tsetung, the revolution was able to greatly reduce these illnesses–but it required intense class struggle against the lamas and their religious superstitions. The monks denounced antibiotics and public health campaigns, saying it was a sin to kill lice or even germs! The monks denounced the People’s Liberation Army for eliminating the large bands of wild, rabies-infested dogs that terrorized people across Tibet. (Still today, one of the “charges” against the Maoist revolution is that it “killed dogs”!)
The Violence of the Lamas
In old Tibet, the upper classes preached mystical Buddhist nonviolence. But, like all ruling classes in history, they practiced reactionary violence to maintain their rule.
The lamaist system of government came into being through bloody struggles. The early lamas reportedly assassinated the last Tibetan king, Lang Darma, in the 10th century. Then they fought centuries of civil wars, complete with mutual massacres of whole monasteries. In the 20th century, the 13th Dalai Lama brought in British imperialist trainers to modernize his national army. He even offered some of his troops to help the British fight World War I.
These historical facts alone prove that lamaist doctrines of “compassion” and “nonviolence” are hypocrisy.
The former ruling class denies there was class struggle in old Tibet. A typical account by Gyaltsen Gyaltag, a representative of the Dalai Lama in Europe, says: “Prior to 1950, the Tibetans never experienced a famine, and social injustices never led to an uprising of the people.” It is true that there is little written record of class struggle. The reason is that Lamaism prevented any real histories from being written down. Only disputes over religious dogma were recorded.
But the mountains of Tibet were filled with bandit runaways, and each estate had its armed fighters. This alone is proof that constantdefined Tibetan society and its power relations. struggle–sometimes open, sometimes hidden–
Revolutionary historians have documented uprisings among Tibetan serfs in 1908, 1918, 1931, and the 1940s. In one famous uprising, 150 families of serfs of northern Tibet’s Thridug county rose up in 1918, led by a woman, Hor Lhamo. They killed the county head, under the slogan: “Down with officials! Abolish all ulag forced labor!”
Daily violence in old Tibet was aimed at the masses of people. Each master punished “his” serfs, and organized armed gangs to enforce his rule. Squads of monks brutalized the people. They were called “Iron Bars” because of the big metal rods they carried to batter people.
It was a crime to “step out of your place”–like hunting fish or wild sheep that the lamaist declared were “sacred.” It was even a crime for a serf to appeal his master’s decisions to some other authority. When serfs ran away, the masters’ gangs went to hunt them down. Each estate had its own dungeons and torture chambers. Pepper was forced under the eyelids. Spikes were forced under the fingernails. Serfs had their legs connected by short chains and were released to wander hobbled for the rest of their lives.
Grunfeld writes: “Buddhist belief precludes the taking of life, so that whipping a person to the edge of death and then releasing him to die elsewhere allowed Tibetan officials to justify the death as ‘an act of God.’ Other brutal forms of punishment included the cutting off of hands at the wrists, using red-hot irons to gouge out eyes; hanging by the thumbs; and crippling the offender, sewing him into a bag, and throwing the bag in the river.”
As signs of the lamas’ power, traditional ceremonies used body parts of people who had died: flutes made out of human thigh bones, bowls made out of skulls, drums made from human skin. After the revolution, a rosary was found in the Dalai Lama’s palace made from 108 different skulls. After liberation, serfs widely reported that the lamas engaged in ritual human sacrifice–including burying serf children alive in monastery ground-breaking ceremonies. Former serfs testified that at least 21 people were sacrificed by monks in 1948 in hopes of preventing the victory of the Maoist revolution.
Using Karma to Justify Oppression
The central belief of lamaism is reincarnation and karma. Each living being is said to be inhabited by an immortal soul that has been born and reborn many times. After each death, a soul is supposedly given a new body.
According to the dogma of karma, each soul gets the life it deserves: Pious behavior leads to good karma–and with that comes a rise in the social status of the next life. Impious (sinful) behavior leads to bad karma and the next life could be as an insect (or a woman).
In reality, there is no such thing as reincarnation. Dead people do not return in new bodies. But in Tibet, the belief in reincarnation had terrible real consequences. People intrigued by Tibetan mysticism need to understand the social function served by these lamaist beliefs inside Tibet: Lamaist Buddhism was created, imposed and perpetuated to carry out the extreme feudal oppression of the people.
Lamaists today tell the story of an ancient Tibetan king who wanted to close the gap between rich and poor. The king asked a religious scholar why his efforts failed. “The sage is said to have explained to him that the gap between rich and poor cannot be closed by force, since the conditions of present life are always the consequences of actions in earlier lives, and therefore the course of things cannot be changed at will.”
Grunfield writes: “From a purely secular point of view, this doctrine must be seen as one of the most ingenious and pernicious forms of social control ever devised. To the ordinary Tibetan, the acceptance of this doctrine precluded the possibility of ever changing his or her fate in this life. If one were born a slave, so the doctrine of karma taught, it was not the fault of the slaveholder but rather the slaves themselves for having committed some misdeeds in a previous life. In turn, the slaveholder was simply being rewarded for good deeds in a previous life. For the slave to attempt to break the chains that bound him, or her, would be tantamount to a self-condemnation to a rebirth into a life worse than the one already being suffered. This is certainly not the stuff of which revolutions are made…”
Tibet’s feudalist abbot-lamas taught that their top lama was a single divine god-king-being–whose rule and dog-eat-dog system was demanded by the natural workings of the universe. These myths and superstitions teach that there can be no social change, that suffering is justified, and that to end suffering each person must patiently tolerate suffering. This is almost exactly what Europe’s medieval Catholic church taught the people, in order to defend a similar feudal system.
Also like in medieval Europe, Tibet’s feudalists fought to suppress anything that might undermine their “watertight” system. All observers agree that, before the Maoist revolution, there were no magazines, printed books, or non-religious literature of any kind in Tibet. The only Tibetan language newspaper was published in Kalimpong by a converted Christian Tibetan. The source of news of the outside world was travelers and a couple of dozen shortwave radios that were owned only by members of the ruling class.
The masses created folklore, but the written language was reserved for religious dogma and disputes. The masses of people and probably most monks were kept completely illiterate. Education, outside news and experimentation were considered suspect and evil.
Defenders of lamaism act like this religion was the essence of the culture (and even the existence) of the Tibetan people. This is not true. Like all things in society and nature, Lamaist Buddhism had a beginning and will have an end. There was culture and ideology in Tibet before lamaism. Then this feudal culture and religion arose together with feudal exploitation. It was inevitable that lamaist culture would shatter together with those feudal relations.
In fact, when the Maoist revolution arrived in 1950, this system was already rotting from within. Even the Dalai Lama admits that the population of Tibet was declining. It is estimated there were about 10 million Tibetans 1,000 years ago when Buddhism was first introduced–by the time of the Maoist revolution there were only two or three million left. Maoists estimate that the decline had accelerated: the population had been cut in half during the last 150 years.
The lamaist system burdened the people with massive exploitation. It enforced the special burden of supporting a huge, parasitic, non-reproducing clergy of about 200,000–that absorbed 20 percent or more of the region’s young men. The system suppressed the development of productive forces: preventing the use of iron plows, the mining of coal or fuel, the harvesting of fish or game, and medical/sanitary innovation of any kind. Hunger, the sterility caused by venereal disease, and polyandry kept the birthrate low.
The mystical wrapping of lamaism cannot hide that old Tibetan society was a dictatorship of the serf owners over the serfs. There is nothing to romanticize about this society. The serfs and slaves needed a revolution!
Tibet Meets the Maoist Revolution
Through the 1930s and ’40s, a revolutionary people’s war arose among the peasants of central China. Under the leadership of the Communist Party and its Chairman Mao Tsetung, the revolution won overall state power in the heavily populated areas of eastern China in 1949. By then, U.S. intrigues were already starting at China’s northern border with Korea, and French imperialists were launching their colonialist invasion of Vietnam along China’s southern border. Clearly, the Maoist revolutionaries were eager to liberate the oppressed everywhere in China, and to drive foreign intriguers from China’s border regions.
But Tibet posed a particular problem: In 1950, this huge region had been almost completely isolated from the revolutionary whirlwind that swept the rest of China. There were almost no Tibetan communists. There was no communist underground among Tibet’s serfs. In fact, the serfs of Tibet had no idea that a revolution was happening elsewhere in their country, or even that such things as “revolutions” were possible.
The grip of the lamaist system and its religion was extremely strong in Tibet. It could not be broken simply by having revolutionary troops of the majority Han nationality march in and “declare” that feudalism was abolished! Mao Tsetung rejected the “commandist” approach of “doing things in the name of the masses.” Maoist revolution relies on the masses.
In Part 2 of this series, we will discuss how Maoist revolution got its foothold in Tibet, and how the revolution grew into great mass storms that blew away the lamaist oppression.
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 Chinaitself.
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.
Fertile Soil in Tibet for Mao’s Cultural Revolution
One sun-filled day in August 1966, Mao Tsetung stood in front of a million young Red Guards who had flooded into Peking–and he put on one of their red armbands. Mao Tsetung did something no other head of state in history had done: he called on the masses of people to rise up against the government and the ruling party that he himself headed. “Bombard the Headquarters!” he said. The intense and historic struggle he unleashed was to rage across China for the next ten years–from 1966 until 1976. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was on.
Within a couple days of that great rally, some Red Guards flew into Lhasa, Tibet–where their radical message found an eager audience. The new high school in Tibet had graduated its first senior class in 1964. A core group of youth from serf and slave backgrounds now knew how to read–and had learned basic Maoist principles about revolution.
Immediately, students of Lhasa High School and the nearby Tibet Teacher’s Training School formed their own Red Guard organizations. They were in no mood to wait for orders. They debated how to push the revolution forward. And they immediately took action.
Here, in Part 3 of this series, we will tell what we know about the ten years of struggle that followed in Tibet. It is not easy to uncover the truth. These were wild, complex events in a large and isolated region.
On one hand, those class forces who were targets of the Maoist revolution portray the Cultural Revolution as a senseless nightmare of fanaticism and destruction. The Publicity Office of the Dalai Lama, based in India, offers “eyewitness accounts”told by ultra-conservative, mainly upper-class Tibetan exiles. The men who rule China today talk of “ten wasted years” filled with the “excesses of the Gang of Four.” (”Gang of Four” is the name they give to Mao Tsetung’s closest supporters.) Such anti-revolutionary accounts are highly unreliable.
On the other hand, the revolutionary activists in Tibet have themselves not found a way to make their own story heard. Many of them are undoubtedly in prison or dead.
To write this article we examined leaflets written by Tibetan Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution itself. We read the writings of different observers and progressive scholars and even critically examined the claims of Maoism’s enemies. There are major gaps in the story. But it is possible to piece together a basic picture of what the revolutionaries in Tibet were trying to accomplish in these intense ten years.
Real Communists vs. Phony Communists in Tibet
Mao unleashed the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution because he saw a great danger for the people: The Chinese revolution that came to power in 1949 had stalled.
Powerful forces in the government and the Communist Party of China called for building a “modern” China by focusing on orderly production. Though these forces called themselves “communists,” they really had no intention of going farther than abolishing feudalism and building a powerful national state. They wanted a halt to revolutionary change.
Mao saw that their imitation of “efficient” capitalist methods would leave the masses of people powerless. Their road would create a soulless, de-politicized, state-capitalist system similar to the one that came to power in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev. Mao labeled such forces “revisionists” and “phony communists.” He said they were “bourgeois democrats turned capitalist roaders.” Their main national leaders in the mid-’60s were Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.
In Tibet, this conflict between the revisionist line and Mao’s line was not widely known among the people–but it had been very sharp.
Mao’s line called for a continuing revolutionary process conducted one step after another–a process that fundamentally relied on and organized the masses of Tibetan people themselves.
Mao had urged patiently building revolutionary organization in Tibet during the 1950s. By the early 1960s, a great alliance of Tibet’s serfs and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had shattered the heart of the old oppressive society–liberating the masses from serfdom and slavery, seizing land from the ruling class, and forbidding many old oppressive practices. It was a great advance and application of Mao’s line.
Mao believed the revolution had to advance beyond anti-feudal land reform if the masses of people were to be truly liberated. He envisioned the systematic development of new, collective organization in the countryside–so that the masses of peasants could pool their resources: dig irrigation, build roads, create armed peasant militias and schools. Without socialist collectivization, Mao believed, poor peasants would ultimately be oppressed by richer peasants and new exploiters. This applied to Tibet, just as in the rest of China. Mao argued for a self-reliant socialist industrial base in the Tibetan highlands to meet the needs of the people there. And Mao envisioned a revolution of ideas that would uproot the hateful superstitions of the past and on that basis bring about the flowering of a new liberating Tibetan culture.
But the powerful revisionist forces saw Tibet through very different eyes. They were not interested in the revolutionary potential of Tibet’s people. They wanted to develop “efficient” systems for exploiting Tibet’s wealth–so the region could quickly contribute to the “modern” China they envisioned.
The revisionists intended to turn Tibet’s peasants into efficient grain producers. They planned to import workers and technicians from other Chinese regions to develop a few mineral-based industries.
The revisionists wanted to eliminate those aspects of Tibetan feudalism that held back increased production. But they intended to offer the old feudal rulers a permanent slice of power–to use their feudal organizations and ideology as instruments for stabilizing a new revisionist order.
Everyone knew that the lamaist aristocracy was involved in all kinds of counterrevolutionary conspiracies. But the revisionists believed they could contain such plots: first, by offering to protect different aspects of the old society from the masses, and second, by relying on the overwhelming military power of the PLA.
This line was clearly hostile to the masses of Tibetan people: It saw them as hopelessly backward, while it based itself on alliances with their oppressors. This line justified itself by talking constantly of “special conditions in Tibet”–but in practice had an extreme “Han chauvinist” approach to anything Tibetan, and expected to eventually absorb Tibetans into the Han nationality–the majority nationality of China. And the revisionists were not about to tolerate the people rising up to make revolution.
In particular, the revisionists were hostile to any plans for a new
revolutionary wave in Tibet. They were against socialist measures–including both
collective land ownership and an autonomous industrial base. They said these
socialist things would be premature, disruptive, inefficient, and would forever
break their “united front” with the feudalists.
In short, the revisionist line for Tibet was essentially a plan for a new oppressive order in which the revisionists (in alliance with the old oppressors) relied on military means to exploit Tibet. This “capitalist road” was sharply opposed to Mao’s line in every way.
The revisionist program is familiar because this line is precisely the oppressive capitalist policies that have been carried out by Deng Xiaoping’s government and troops in Tibet since they defeated the Maoists in 1976. Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to overthrow exactly those forces who oppress the people of China (including Tibet) today.
Revolution Hits Lhasa Like a Thunderbolt
“Revolutionary successors of the proletariat are invariably brought up in great storms.”–Mao Tsetung
In 1966 the revisionists in Tibet were quite arrogant. They controlled the army and had powerful connections in Peking, including with Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. The top Tibetan revisionist was PLA General Zhang Guohua, who had arrived in 1950 and saw Tibet as his private “kingdom.”
Zhang’s forces planned to ride out Mao’s new campaign. They used the tactic
of “waving the red flag to oppose the red flag.” When the Cultural Revolution
was announced, they organized their own official “Cultural Revolution Group.”
They literally painted LhasaTibet’s authorities announced “there are no two
lines here in Tibet.” The main reactionary forces, they said, were the bands of
CIA-backed feudalists and so the armed struggle by the PLA was the main
revolutionary activity that was still needed. In short, the revisionists wanted
the Cultural Revolution in Tibet to be confined to orderly production, quiet
study, and army actions. They sent squads to every factory and school to make
sure that the growing Red Guard movement did not get out of their control.
Powerful forces in Peking, including Premier Zhou Enlai, one of the top
officials in the government, tried to help by ordering the Red Guards to stay
out of Tibet. They even gave the Red Guards a going-away dinner party. But the
Red Guards refused to leave. red–announcing that every house should fly the red
flag and display a Mao poster. Loudspeakers broadcast revolutionary songs and
streets were given new names. Having “proven” their revolutionary enthusiasm in
this way, Tibet’s Cultural Revolution took off like a
prairie fire! Red Guards formed everywhere and rocked the house. Some Red Guard
organizations immediately seized the Jokhang shrine in Lhasa–declaring war on
those who tolerated continued feudal oppression and superstition. Shocked
authorities declared this illegal and “counter-revolutionary.” Building
The Red Guards demanded to know why senior Party officials kept putting forward serf-owners and top lamas–like the Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama and Ngawang Jigme Ngabo–as “leaders of the Tibetan people.” Red Guards revealed that Deng Xiaoping even suggested recruiting Tibet’s upper strata lamas as Communist Party members. Didn’t class analysis and social practice show such forces were oppressors?
The special conditions of Tibet, one early leaflet said, did not mean that Tibet was “a zone of vacuum for the class struggle.” The Red Guards said the authorities were violating Maoist principles: “The core of Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line is the mass line… to have complete faith in the masses, to give free rein to the masses, to have the courage to rely on the masses.”
First Seizure of Power, Then Exercise of Power
“In the new situation of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, surrounded by war drums repudiating the bourgeois reactionary line, the Lhasa Revolutionary Rebel General Headquarters is born!… We don’t fear winds or storms, or flying sand, or moving rocks. We don’t care if that handful of capitalist-roaders in authority…oppose us or fear us. We also don’t care if the bourgeois Royalists denounce us or curse us. We will resolutely make revolution and rebel. To rebel, to rebel and to rebel through to the end in order to create a brightly red new world of the proletariat.”–Founding of Tibet’s “Revolutionary Rebels” Red Guards, December 1966 Hundreds of Red Guard groups united to form the Revolutionary Rebels. They were based among the masses: the new generation of Tibetan activists and students, Han truck drivers, ordinary soldiers, lower-level cadre, and Red Guards who arrived from other parts of China.
Some people will be surprised to learn that the Cultural Revolution was not imposed on the Tibetan people by Communist Party authorities and by Red Guards “imported” from the rest of China. Even supporters of the Dalai Lama, like John Avedon and the “exile accounts,” acknowledge that large numbers of young Tibetans joined the Revolutionary Rebels from the beginning and that many older Tibetan cadres enthusiastically joined the struggle.
Tibetans were involved in both sides of this revolution. Some, recruited and trained by the revisionists, hoped to become a new elite–Maoists called them the “bourgeois Royalists.” Others, especially among the ex-slave and ex-serf youth, were eager to push the revolution forward to socialism. During the coming storms, a whole new generation of communist Tibetan activists was tempered and the Maoist current took far deeper root among the masses of Tibetan people.
In January 1967, when Maoist organizations seized power in Shanghai, Tibet’s Revolutionary Rebels declared that they too would seize power from Zhang, “the overlord of Tibet.” In February, worker-rebels at the Linchih Woolen Textile complex took over their factory–it was the first power seizure of Tibet’s Cultural Revolution. Revolutionary Rebels seized the Tibet Daily newspaper and part of the capital. One Rebel fighter said: “Various kinds of fighting organizations acted first, were declared `unlawful’ by the `reactionary line,’ and later gained Chairman Mao’s approval.” These were brave and dangerous moves.
Fearing arrest, Zhang plotted a counterattack and then fled Lhasa. Loyal police units started a conservative “Red Guard” group, called the Great Alliance. It based itself on upper-level party officials and Tibetan aristocrat-cadre. Within weeks, army units suppressed the Revolutionary Rebels with the backing of the Great Alliance. This coup (part of a China-wide anti-Mao movement called the “February Adverse Current”) was driven back when Mao Tsetung told the army to “support the masses of the left.”
We don’t know many details of the complex and sometimes armed struggles that spread through Tibet over the next two years. This much is known: In September 1968, a new government, the Tibetan Revolutionary Committee, was finally established. It united diverse forces around Mao’s line. Once this new revolutionary power was consolidated, the Cultural Revolution entered a new phase–leaving no part of social life and thought unchanged.
The Creation of the People’s Communes
“When wild geese fly in formation, they can fly over the highest mountains. We poor people can overcome any difficulty if we unite and help each other.”–Tsering Lamo, communist leader of a township’s Woman’s Association explaining the socialist road to other ex-serfs
The liberation of Tibet’s people was, and is, intimately tied up with the revolutionization of land ownership and production. After the land reform of the early 1960s, the new arrangement based on small individually owned farms contained the seeds of new oppression. Rich and poor started to reappear as prosperous farmers hired and bought out their poorer neighbors. Focused on family survival, serfs were often too unorganized to face constant feudal attempts at restoration.
With the victory of Mao’s line in 1969, experimental new farms–called People’s Communes–started to be organized throughout Tibet’s vast countryside. The collective methods that had built the new roads of Tibet were now used to change rural life. In each commune, the land was worked collectively by hundreds of peasants. Collective harvests were divided up based on “work-points”–a measure of the amount of work each person did. By 1970 nearly 666 communes were operating in 34 percent of the region’s township districts. Soon the communes were everywhere.
It took both patient political work and fierce class struggle to make such changes. Some peasants just wanted their own land–and didn’t see the larger picture. Often the poorer farmers, like ex-slave women, were willing to try the new ways first. People’s dictatorship was exercised over oppressors–the serf-owners and top lamas. They had to work now too–whether they liked it or not. Counterrevolutionaries were uncovered and pursued.
For centuries, forced labor of the people had served idle aristocrats and built great temples to honor superstition. Now, collective labor brought irrigation and drinking water to 80 percent of Tibet’s farmland. Because each family’s survival no longer depended on just their own plot of land, it was now possible for the peasants to experiment with dozens of new vegetables, fruits and crops.
Some experiments worked, some didn’t. The class struggle itself disrupted some harvests. But big leaps in land productivity were achieved. Food production in Tibet doubled.
The People’s Communes also made it possible to organize the first rural schools, mass education and rural theater troops in Tibet’s history. Old people were now taken care of even if they had no children of their own. Women had new power. One young Tibetan woman Red Guard said, “Since we, the women, did the labor, of course, the communes were good for us.” Arranged marriage and polygamy stopped. Exiles complain that children were revolutionized and no longer obeyed reactionary parents.
The famous Maoist Barefoot Doctor’s Manual was published in Tibetan and used to train thousands of new doctors among the serfs. Soon 80 percent of Tibet’s hospital beds were in rural areas–and medical personnel arrived from urban hospitals in eastern China. Over half of the 6,400 barefoot doctors were women (who had once been forbidden to practice medicine by Buddhist dogmas).
The People’s Communes greatly increased the political power of the peasants. Commune members were armed and trained by the PLA. Each commune produced a yulmag militia brigade to fight the oppressors. They hunted the Dalai Lama’s CIA-trained contra bands and broke up all kinds of feudal gangs. These militias are proof of the support for revolutionary change among the Tibetan masses.
Once the revisionist line was overthrown, huge strides were taken in developing a new socialist industrial base in Tibet. In 1964 there had only been 67 factories. By 1975 there were 250 enterprises–most of them serving local and agricultural needs. Small hydroelectric plants brought electricity to the people. Manufactured goods were available to the masses for the first time: Sun goggles cut down the widespread cataract-blindness among old people. Pressure cookers wiped out many child-killing diseases passed in old-style Tibetan cooking. New farm implements increased productivity and made life easier.
Revolution in the Thinking of the People
“The communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development involves the most radical rupture with traditional ideas.”–Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, 1848
“We emancipated serfs have today thrown to the very bottom of the Tsangpu River all the old wicked songs, dances and dramas that prettify the serfowners and spread superstition about gods and supernatural beings. Let the rushing waves carry them away, never to come back.”–Dzomkyid, a 50-year-old emancipated serf of Gyatsa county, 1966
“Before I studied Chairman Mao’s works, all I cared about was what belonged to me. I knew exactly how many piles of yak dung fuel I had stored at home. I could even tell you how many were dry and how many were wet without looking at them. But I did not care as much for the herds of the collective. Chairman Mao’s teachings widened my outlook. My purpose in life is now clear to me. Today I am concerned with not only the collective but the whole world and the world revolution.”–A Tibetan herdsman, 1967
“We now know that it was not gods, not demons, that made the motors work. We handled them and we saw that it was not the blood of children that made them run, as the lamas told us.”–A new Tibetan machinist
In the Cultural Revolution, Maoists took aim at the “four olds”–old ideas, old customs, old culture and old habits. And in Tibet there were many “olds” to challenge. Heavy religious superstition held back the struggle of the people. It was a central instrument of the old feudal order and was used by the new revisionists too.
Before the Cultural Revolution, most serfs had never discussed matters that, to them, were defined by religious authorities. Iron plows, tanning hides, canning milk, shearing sheep, acupuncture, surgery, antibiotics, metal working–all ran into taboos of Lamaist dogma. Women were constrained by countless taboos. Many animals were considered too sacred to eat. In the 1950s the first Tibetan medical students would often pray hard at night, begging the gods to forgive them for the sins they were committing during the day.
New ways were discovered to help the people liberate themselves from the chains of superstition. Bold serf women organized teams to hunt sacred animals and “iron brigades” to break plowing taboos. In 1966, 100,000 farmers waged a two-month mass campaign to exterminate earth rats, rodents that were eating their grain. In the past the monks had protected these rats, saying they were sacred reincarnations of lice from Buddha’s body.
The spread of communist ideology–especially the writings of Chairman Mao Tsetung–played a key role in this revolution of the mind. Top revisionist officials had opposed the publication of Mao’s Red Book in Tibetan. But soon tens of thousands of bilingual Red Books were distributed–in traditional Tibetan-style red purses. Memorizing key quotations and revolutionary songs was especially popular, because many poor people could not read.
On the mountainsides, huge carved revolutionary quotations from Chairman Mao appeared, in the place of carved prayers. On mountain passes, new red flags showed that the people held power.
Herdspeople in Tibet’s grasslands described how PLA Mao Tsetung Propaganda Teams helped them deal with a winter disaster. In the past, they would have accepted their “fate” and many would have died. Now they developed collective plans for saving lives and herds. One old herdsman said, “With Mao Tsetung Thought, we dare to struggle even with god!”
Dismantling the Feudal Fortresses of the Lamas
“It is the peasants who made the idols, and when the time comes they will cast the idols aside with their own hands.”–Mao Tsetung, 1927
It was the thousands of monasteries that inspired the greatest superstitious awe. In the heady days of the Cultural Revolution, these feudal strongholds themselves were targeted. In a huge mass movement, the many monasteries of Tibet were emptied and physically dismantled.
Supporters of Tibetan feudalism often say this dismantling was “mindless destruction” and “cultural genocide.” But this view ignores the true class nature of these monasteries. These monasteries were armed fortresses that had loomed over the peasants’ lives for centuries. Under the revisionist line, many monasteries were kept alive by paid government subsidies. These fortresses provoked justified fear that the old ways might return–one conspiracy after another was plotted behind monastery walls. Dismantling these monasteries was anything but “mindless.” These were conscious political acts to liberate the people!
All available accounts agree that this dismantling was done almost exclusively by the Tibetan serfs themselves, led by revolutionary activists. Mass rallies of ex-serfs gathered at the gates, daring to enter the holy sanctums for the first time. The wealth stolen from them over centuries was revealed to all. Some especially valuable historic artifacts were preserved for posterity.
Valuable building materials were taken from fortresses and distributed among the people to build their houses and roads. One exile describes how sacred wooden blocks were snatched up by the serfs, used for fuel and carved into handles for new farm tools. Backward elements claim they were criticized for not participating. Often idols, texts, prayer flags, prayer wheels and other symbols were publicly destroyed–as a powerful way of shattering century-old superstitions. As a final comment on restorationist dreams, the ruins were often blown sky high by the revolutionary armed forces.
Later in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a few lamaist monasteries were restored, so that they could serve both as religious shrines and museums of national relics. But the verdict of the Cultural Revolution was that these monasteries should never again exist as feudal fortresses living from the suffering of the masses.
Difficult Struggles over the Four Olds and the Four News
Like all revolutions, the Cultural Revolution in Tibet advanced through complex debates and struggles. The “four olds” were criticized, and the revolution fought to bring the “four news” into being–New ideas, new customs, new culture and new habits. Important questions were raised and struggled over again and again: What practices are reactionary feudal culture and what practices are Tibetan national culture? Was it revolutionary or Han chauvinist to promote new cultural forms that the revolution had developed in eastern Han regions of China? Was it feudal to wear the old braided hairstyles of serfdom, or was it just Tibetan? Was it reactionary to bless people when you met them–and how reactionary was it?
Han chauvinism (anti-Tibetan prejudices among the majority Han people) remained a problem. Han Suyin gives proof of this in her 1977 book on Tibet where she endorses the view of some in the Party that higher education in Tibet should be conducted in the Han language because, according to her, the Tibetan language was incapable of expressing the ideas of modern subjects like chemistry.
At the same time, others fought for Mao’s line on minority nationalities. When that line led, there was a new blossoming of Tibetan culture. The first Tibetan typewriters were developed–allowing for easier communication and records in Tibetan. A single Tibetan dialect was promoted so people from various areas could communicate. Films were dubbed into Tibetan. Millions of books were published in Tibetan–many dealing with the theory and practice of liberation. Tibetan short stories and plays were published. And many Tibetan festivals were transformed to celebrate the people’s new triumphs–their People’s Communes and their rich new harvests.
Traditional Tibetan medicine was studied and its herbal discoveries were made available to the lower classes for the first time.
New revolutionary leaders were developed among the Tibetans. By 1975, half the top leaders were native Tibetans. Half of these were new cadre in their early thirties–often from serf and slave backgrounds. Women became leaders at all levels. In one county the revolutionary committee was all women. Out of 27,000 Tibetan cadre, 12,000 were women. One Tibetan woman, Phanthog, climbed Mount Everest in 1975!
During the Cultural Revolution, the young revolutionary son of a slave-herdsman named Jedi said, “Where would I be, what would we the people of Tibet be like, if Chairman Mao and the Revolution had not come to us?”
The Last Great Battles
“We are in the process of doing things our forebears never attempted, following a road they never took.”–A veteran Tibetan communist, 1975
One observer captured a basic truth about the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in Tibet: “Now you don’t see emancipated serfs in rags carrying the litter of a noble dressed in warm clothing, turquoise rings and gold bracelets.” The old, hateful system of lamaist feudalism had been shattered by the people themselves. The life of the people improved. Disease declined. The population increased. The numbing isolation of old Tibet was broken. Literacy and basic scientific knowledge spread among the people. Even enemies of Maoism admit that the wide gap between rich and poor vanished.
At the same time, the Cultural Revolution represented far more than the historic defeat for feudalism. For ten years it prevented the revisionists from carrying out their schemes–of turning the Tibetan people into wage-slaves in a capitalist China.
But the life-and-death struggle between Maoism and revisionism was not over!
In 1971 a high-level military coup by revisionists was defeated in Peking. The powerful general Lin Piao was exposed and overthrown. Some of his close supporters were prominent leaders of Tibet’s Revolutionary Committee and they lost power. In the following struggle Ren Rong, a leader of the “February Adverse Current,” suddenly emerged as the new leader in Tibet. A cold, rightist chill crept over Tibet.
In Tibet, a campaign was launched upholding the so-called “four basic freedoms” (to practice religion, to trade, to lend money with interest, to hire laborers and servants). This slogan of “four freedoms” had not been upheld since before the serf-owners’ uprising of 1959. Upper class Tibetans reappeared in high posts. Negotiations were opened with the Dalai Lama–seeking to bring him back in a prominent figurehead position.
The revolutionary forces regrouped and counterattacked. In the end of 1972, a new campaign criticized “bourgeois extravagance, capitalistic profit motive and economic waste.” In 1973 the intrigues with the Dalai Lama were abruptly halted. And in 1974 a national campaign was launched against capitalist restoration. It was called the “Criticize Lin Piao and Confucius Campaign.” In Tibet, it was used to deepen the anti-religious consciousness of the people–and to reaffirm the revolutionary verdict that aristocrat-monks like the Dalai Lama were “wolves in monk’s clothing.” Throughout China the key message of this campaign was “capitalist roaders were still on the capitalist road,” and this was very true.
The struggle between Mao’s forces and the revisionist forces tightened throughout China. And in the end, the revisionists succeeded in launching a decisive blow to revolutionary Maoist forces. In October 1976, shortly after Mao’s death, the revisionist right staged a coup d’état in Peking. They arrested Mao’s closest supporters and started a countrywide purge of revolutionaries. They put into place all the policies that Mao and the Cultural Revolution had rejected. Mao’s enemy Deng Xiaoping came to power.
Two Lines Clash in Tibet
The Maoist revolutionaries fought powerful forces within the Communist Party who wanted to impose a capitalist road on China, including Tibet. In Part 3, we described the program of these “capitalist-roaders”–whose leaders included Deng Xiaoping. They called themselves “communists” and talked of building a “powerful modern socialist state,” but they really wanted to stop the revolution after abolishing feudalism. Mao Tsetung considered these forces to be bitter enemies of the revolution–he called them “revisionists,” “capitalist roaders” and “phony communists.” Mao saw that their imitation of “efficient” capitalist methods would bring class polarization and capitalist exploitation back to China. The result would be that China would once again be penetrated and dominated by foreign investors and exploiters.
The contrast between Mao’s revolutionary communist line and the revisionists’ capitalist line is very clear on all the issues related to Tibet.
Mao’s line called for organizing and relying on the masses of Tibetan people in a continuing revolutionary process. He rejected imposing change on national minority areas before the masses there were able to participate in liberating themselves.
Mao repeatedly criticized the traditional “Han chauvinist” prejudices that considered the Tibetan people “backward” and “barbaric.” Mao envisioned a revolution of ideas that would uproot the hateful superstitions of the past and on that basis bring about the flowering of a new liberating Tibetan culture. He argued that the masses needed the new revolutionary ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism to liberate themselves.
And Mao insisted that the revolution had to move beyond anti-feudal land reform to socialism, if the masses of people were to be truly liberated–including People’s Communes in the countryside. Mao argued for a self-reliant socialist industrial base in the Tibetan highlands to meet the needs of the people there.
The revisionists had a completely different plan for Tibet: They wanted “efficient” systems for exploiting Tibet’s wealth–so the region could quickly contribute to the “modern” China they envisioned. They considered Tibet’s people backward–and wanted to bring in lots of workers and technicians from eastern China, while the Tibetans were supposed to be little more than efficient grain producers.
The revisionists complained that the Maoist revolution’s “socialist new things” broke up their “united front” with elements of the old feudalist class. The revisionists wanted to offer the old feudal rulers in Tibet a permanent slice of power–to use their feudal organizations and ideology as instruments for stabilizing the new revisionist order.
In short, the revisionist line for Tibet was a plan for a new oppressive, militarized order in which the revisionists exploited Tibet’s people in alliance with the old oppressors. This is the program that the revisionists followed after they overthrew Mao’s close supporters and seized overall power after Mao’s death in 1976.
The Bitter Turning Point: The 1976 Revisionist Coup
The complex class struggles of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution ebbed and flowed from 1966 to 1976. During high tides of mass struggle, innovation swept across the region. When the revolutionaries were forced to retrench, the revisionist forces pushed to overthrow the revolutionary changes.
In October 1976 the revolutionary forces suffered a decisive setback. Two
weeks after the death of Mao Tsetung, army forces loyal to the revisionist line
arrested key Maoist leaders in Beijing–including Chiang Ching and Chang Chun-chiao.
It was a revisionist coup d’état. Over several years of transition, capitalism
was more and more openly imposed on the Chinese people. The arch-revisionist
Deng Xiaoping emerged as the national leader of the new state-capitalist ruling
The historic defeat was deeply felt in Tibet. Many details of the counterrevolution in Tibet are still not known. However, this much is clear: the capitalist-roaders, who still held many key posts in Tibet, put their program into full effect.
Today, the masses of Tibetan peasants are suppressed and exploited by new rich classes closely allied with state functionaries. The revisionists are carrying out a Han chauvinist policy of flooding central Tibet, especially its cities, with Han immigrants. Government troops and police have shot down protesters. Tibet’s resources are being thoughtlessly exploited–serving the capitalist god of profit.(See, for example, “Revisionist Clear-Cutting.”)
These policies have nothing to do with Maoism. They have everything to do with the restoration of capitalism in China–which has full support from the U.S. imperialists.
The Purge of Tibet’s Maoist Revolutionaries
When “the sky changed” in revolutionary China, the new revisionist rulers focused on consolidating their rule. They had two immediate needs in Tibet: First, to overthrow and break up the vast revolutionary forces trained and organized under Mao’s line. And second, to unleash all available counterrevolutionary forces under their leadership.
There was a widespread purge of Maoist revolutionaries from the party and government. It is likely that many were jailed or killed. Historian A. Tom Grunfeld documents that the number of Tibetan communists had risen dramatically during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) and then dropped sharply after 1976: In 1973 alone, during the GPCR, the Chinese press reported the recruitment of 11,000 new Tibetan members into the Chinese Communist Party and the Communist Youth League. The year after the coup, the CCP reported having only 4,000 Tibetan party members. A decade later, the Communist Party was reporting it had 40,000 members in Tibet–without describing how many were Tibetan and how many were immigrated Han. This suggests that the whole generation of young Tibetan revolutionaries, overwhelmingly from the poor classes, were driven from power. By 1979 a new party leadership was consolidated–including many revisionist figures who had been discredited during revolutionary periods.
The revisionists stretched their hand to the forces among the Tibetans who could help them beat back the revolutionaries–including the remnants of the die-hard feudal-lamaist classes. Starting in 1977, the revisionists issued sweeping pronouncements restoring “rights” to feudal customs and forces–saying that the revolution’s condemnation and expropriation of all kinds of oppressors and class enemies had been “unjust.” They promised to create great prosperity by distributing collective property.
In April 1977, shortly after the coup, Ngawang Jigme Ngabo stated that the new revisionist government “would welcome the return of the Dalai Lama and his followers who fled to India.” Nagabo is a Tibetan feudal-aristocrat who fled Tibet during the Cultural Revolution and later returned to prominence. This public call was followed by secret negotiations where Deng Xiaoping contacted the Dalai Lama’s older brother, Gyalo Thondup, to discuss a possible return of significant sections of the old feudal ruling class, including the Dalai Lama himself.
On February 25, 1978 the Panchen Lama, one of old Tibet’s greatest exploiters and a “reincarnated Buddha,” was released from prison and given a prominent government post. Thirty-four prominent Tibetans from the CIA-backed 1959 revolt were released from prison. From 1977 on, U.S. officials started making regular trips to the region.
The rehabilitation of new and old exploiters set the stage for a sweeping counterrevolution in all aspects of Tibetan life.
The So-called Reforms in Tibet’s Countryside
Countless villages and nomadic settlements lie scattered, far from each other, across Tibet’s vast rural plateau. The struggles and changes there have been largely ignored by lamaist exiles and the Western media–however, this is the heart of Tibet, where the majority of its people live. Once the revisionists consolidated overall state power for themselves, they quickly turned to reversing the revolution in Tibet’s countryside.
The new revisionist rulers abolished socialist farming by stages. First, in 1980 they abolished the People’s Communes and abolished any centralized guidance of the smaller, local Production Teams (which involved 20 to 30 households). Soon they abolished the Production Teams altogether.
Reactionaries routinely portray this as “giving the peasants more power over their lives.” But, in the most profound way, this broke up peasant organization into isolated family units. It left the masses powerless again–in the face of capitalist market forces and in the struggle against their emboldened class enemies. Solidarity was declared a thing of the past–aspiring families could again get rich by exploiting their poorer neighbors.
Reactionary forces assume the abolition of collective farming was uniformly popular among Tibet’s peasants. These claims are contradicted by the information available.
It is revealing, for example, that the revisionists abolished taxes in Tibet’s countryside for ten years at the same time that they instituted their counterrevolutionary “reforms.” They hoped that the bribery of “tax relief” would neutralize less conscious parts of the peasant population.
Some peasants probably welcomed the division of collective property–embracing the immediate power this gave the males within each family group and the promise that class enemies could retrieve their old wealth and privilege. At the same time, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution had seeded the countryside with class conscious serf-activists, and there was undoubtedly struggle against the restoration.
Observations from the Yak-Tents of Pala
Two prominent Tibet experts, Professors Melvyn C. Goldstein and Cynthia M. Beall, provided valuable firsthand observations on the current life of Tibet’s nomadic peoples in their 1990 book, Nomads of Western Tibet. Goldstein and Beall spent 16 months between 1986 and 1988 living in Pala, an extremely remote tent-encampment of 300 Tibetan yak-herders. This study does not describe the farmingTibet, where the Maoist revolution sank its deepest roots, and these authors are deeply sympathetic to old Tibetan feudalism. Still, it is useful when Beall and Goldstein, despite their hostility to revolution, document the return of oppression in Tibet’s remote countryside and signs of continuing class struggle. communities of Goldstein and Beall report that even in remote Pala, nomads had a history of participating in Tibet’s class struggles. In 1959 the herders waged an armed struggle against Bo Argon, a local supporter of the Dalai Lama, because the nomads did not want to join the counterrevolutionary revolt that was organized out of Lhasa. Goldstein and Beall also document how the overwhelming majority of Pala nomads, eager to struggle against local officals, joined the Gyenlo, one of Tibet’s two main Red Guard groups during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The cultural revolution stirred complex struggles, even among the herders of this most remote region.
Goldstein and Beall then document how the 1976 coup represented a fundamental “change of sky” for Tibet: “The end of the cultural revolution in China proper in 1976 and the destruction of the `Gang of Four’ brought a new group of leaders to the fore in the Chinese Communist Party whose views changed the fate of the Pala nomads. Holding an entirely different economic and cultural philosophy from Mao and the Gang of Four, they viewed the `Cultural Revolution’ as a catastrophe for China and terminated communes, implementing a more market-oriented rural economic system called the `responsibility’ system. Responsibility for production was shifted from the commune to the household.”
The coup installed a revisionist government over this region of Lagyab Lhojang (named after the old feudal estate that once owned all the people and animals there). “The full impact of these changes reached Pala in 1981…. [O]vernight, all the commune’s animals were divided equally among its members. Every nomad–infants one week old, teenagers, adults, the elderly–received the same share of 37 animals: five yak, 25 sheep, and 7 goats. Each household regained complete responsibility over its livestock, managing them according to their own plans and decisions. Pastureland was allocated at the same time to small groups of three to six households living in the same home-base encampments.”
Wealth, Poverty, Wage Labor and Malnutrition Return
However, the dividing of wealth was only a first step toward restoring a system of rich and poor in Tibet’s countryside. Goldstein and Beall give examples from the grasslands: “Another striking consequence of China’s post-1981 reform policy is the rapidity and extent to which economic and social differentiation has reemerged in Pala. Although all Pala’s nomads in the old society were subjects of the Panchen Lama, tremendous class differences existed among the subjects. Rich families had huge herds and lived in relative luxury alongside a substantial stratum of herdless laborers, poor nomads, servants and beggars. Implementation of the commune in 1970 removed these disparities since all private ownership of the means of production ended at this time…. The dissolution of the commune in 1981 maintained a rough equality since all nomads in Pala received an equal number of livestock. However, in the ensuing seven years, some herds have increased while others have declined dramatically. Once again there are both very wealthy and very poor nomads. One household actually has no livestock at all.
“While no households had less than 37 animals per person in 1981, 38 percent had less than 30 in 1988. At the high end of the continuum, the proportion of Pala households with more than 50 animals per person increased from 12 percent in 1981 to 25 percent in 1988. Ten percent of the households had more than 90 animals per person versus none in 1981. As a result of this process of economic differentiation, the richer 16 percent of the population in 1988 owned 33 percent of the animals while the poorer 33 percent of the population owned only 17 percent of the animals. The past seven years of family-based `responsibility’ system has resulted in an increasing concentration of animals in the hands of a minority of newly wealthy households, and the emergence once again of a stratum of poor households with no or few animals. These new poor subsist by working for rich nomads, several of whom now, as in the old society, regularly employ herders, milkers, and servants for long stretches of time.”
In the Maoist, socialist period, the social surplus in Tibet’s countryside went toward serving the people and supporting the revolution: funding of public works, schools and cultural institutions, and the armed revolutionary forces. As Bob Avakian explains in his book, Phony Communism Is Dead, Long Live Real Communism!: this reflected the line and practice of the revolutionaries in China–who aimed to create a “common abundance” which is more and more shared by the masses of people as a whole.
Now, however, that surplus is consumed by officials and the handful of new rich exploiters, creating an explosion in luxury purchases, while the masses endure malnutrition again.
Goldstein and Beall document that the “newly wealthy” are, in fact, the same “class enemies” who had exploited their neighbors in the old society. This was not accidental. The revisionist “reforms” were designed to restore an exploitative class system in the countryside and to unleash the old class enemies to support the new government. Large sums of money were given by the new revisionist government to the old class enemies–to help them restore their previous privilege. Goldstein and Beall document that one of Pala’s old exploiters received thousands of Chinese dollars, “a small fortune in Tibet where, by comparison, the annual salary of a university instructor in Lhasa is about 2,500 to 3,000.”
This counterrevolution is not a restoration of the old feudal order. The old aristocrats and monasteries have not been restored at the top of this new class structure. Property is increasingly concentrated in a wealthy stratum of farmers, while profits are often gathered by state-capitalists operating as merchant capital within the local and district governments. Production in Tibet as a whole is being shaped to serve the needs of the larger bureaucratic-capitalist class that now rules China as a whole.
The results of this restoration can be seen in the cities. Wealthy pilgrims have returned to Lhasa, and starving beggars have reappeared too. Journalist Ludmilla Tüting reports seeing Tibetan peasants traveling to Lhasa to sell their children–something common under the old Lamaist rule that had disappeared after the Maoist revolution. Tüting adds that while the poor go hungry, 55,000 tons of yak meat are now being exported from Tibet to Hong Kong every year.
Oppressive Customs Return Under the Dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie
Goldstein and Beall tell a story that illuminates some of the issues of today’s class struggle.
A “poor class” nomad who was an activist during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution sold a sheep in the late 1980s without thoroughly milking it. This violated an old feudal superstition that said selling a sheep with full udders would bring a curse on the herds of the whole camp. A nomad who had been a wealthy class enemy in the old society attacked the revolutionary nomad–demanding that the old superstitions be obeyed. The revolutionary said unscientific taboos should be rejected–as they had been under Mao. He said this class enemy was trying to exercise reactionary dictatorship over the poor nomads and over revolutionary ideas. There was a fight.
Later, the new local government officials ruled that it was wrong to uphold the revolutionary standards of the past. They fined both men for fighting and upheld the right of former class enemies to struggle for reactionary taboos.
Though Goldstein and Beall themselves support the restoration, they document such signs of opposition. They report widespread hatred of local officials. And they even brought back a photograph from one nomad camp that refuses to take down their picture of Mao Tsetung!
The stories from Pala are undoubtedly repeated in countless communities scattered across Tibet’s countryside–and across the rest of China too–as hundreds of millions of people have been forced back into a web of oppression by the counterrevolution.
Restoring the Rites
In mid-1977 the revisionist party chairman Hua Guofeng called for a revival of feudal customs in Tibet. Feudal rituals were soon restored at Lhasa’s main Lingkhor and Barkhor shrines. By the late ’80s, the Chinese government said there were over 200 functioning monasteries–with perhaps as many 45,000 monks. At the end of the ’80s, Li Peng (the butcher who ordered the Tiananmen Square massacre) was orchestrating the first officially sponsored “search for a reincarnated Buddha.”
In 1979 the revisionists announced Article 147 of their new legal system–making it a crime to challenge reactionary religious practices in Tibet. Goldstein and Beall say that in Pala, “the bulk of the traditional cultural system was essentially operational again in 1988″–including severe traditional taboos upon women. Wealthy fathers are refusing to allow their children to marry people from “unclean” strata.
The revisionist opening toward Tibet’s Buddhist lamas and aristocrats was a bid for a political alliance within Tibet–to carry out their counterrevolution. The revisionist state-capitalists and the old feudal forces have different class programs on what to restore in the place of socialism. But the revisionists wanted to rally all counterrevolutionary forces under their leadership–especially during the difficult early years of restoration.
The revisionists created a government-controlled clergy in Tibet–to support the spread of conservative religious beliefs and to create a tourist attraction for Westerners. Monasteries are used to restore the traditional fatalist, anti-struggle beliefs in karma–while they are tightly supervised by police and officials to prevent them from emerging as centers of suppressed separatist movements. In some Tibetan monasteries, tourists are offered rentable monk robes so they can pose among monks performing paid rituals for the cameras.
The revisionists, of course, claim that they are reversing an “injustice”:
they said that the class struggle the Maoists had led around the power of the
lamaist clergy had been an unjust suppression of “Tibetan culture.” Such
revisionist self-justification is drenched in hypocrisy. While the revisionists
flirt with the clergy, they are also the ones whose policies and ideas represent
the most intense and open Han chauvinism (anti-Tibetan prejudices). Almost all
visitors to Tibet today report that the revisionist Han functionaries openly
mock the masses of Tibetan people as “barbaric,” “lazy” and “backward”– in ways
that had been sharply criticized by Mao.
The revisionist approach to Tibetan culture is reflected in educational policy. Right after the coup, the revisionists shut down Tibet’s ten factory-run colleges. The education system was supposed to go “back to standard.” According to Grunfeld, new policies in the late 1970s may have caused the closing of many primary schools in rural areas. In 1988 a group of high-level Tibetans complained that 40 percent of the entire education budget of the Tibetan Autonomous Region was being used to finance schools in eastern Han regionsHan-ized specialists. where a few elite Tibetan students were trained as
The New Wave of Han Immigrants
Starting in 1983 the revisionists launched a policy that represents a true challenge to the survival of Tibetan culture and rights of the Tibetan people. They started a wave of Han immigration into the Tibetan Autonomous Region. (See also “The False Charges of ‘Genocide Under Mao.’”)
Even spokesmen for Tibet’s nationalist movement acknowledge that, under Mao, there was not an effort at Han settlement in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. In the collection Anguish in Tibet, Jamyang Norbu writes, “But with the death of Mao and the fall of `The Gang of Four,’ China’s new leaders seem to have gradually put together a scheme not only to fill Tibet with Chinese immigrants but even to make it pay.” Pro-lamaist writer John Avedon writes: “The current policy began in January 1983…. By September, the Beijing Review reported calls for wide-spread immigration to Tibet; age and home-leave incentives guaranteed, with bonuses at eight- and 20-year increments for all immigrants.”(Utne Reader, March/April 1989) The top revisionist Deng Xiaoping claimed that Tibet needed Han migration because the “region’s population of about two million was inadequate to develop its resources.” Billboards in some eastern Chinese cities read “MIGRATE TO TIBET.”
This immigration has not touched the countryside of the Tibetan plateau, but it has changed the character of most Tibetan cities–making urban Tibetans feel like strangers in their own lands. There is now a Holiday Inn in Tibet–built by the revisionists to accommodate Western tourists with a fascination for Tibetan mysticism.
The influx of Han into Tibet’s cities and emergence of many Han as a wealthy stratum of officials and merchants has created a great deal of resentment among Tibetans–giving rise to struggle and a series of justified rebellions since 1987.
“If the rightists stage an anti-Communist coup d’etat in China, I am sure they will know no peace either and their rule will most probably be short-lived, because it will not be tolerated by the revolutionaries who represent the interests of the people making up more than 90 percent of the population.”–Mao Tsetung
Beall and Goldstein tell another story about revolutionary resistance in Tibet’s remote grasslands. One night a nomad came to their tent. He had been a leading Maoist activist during the cultural revolution. And he wanted these foreign visitors to carry a message for him–to the revolutionary center he thought might still exist in Lhasa’s capital.
The revolutionary whispered, “You have to tell Lhasa what is going on here.” When Goldstein asked him what he meant, the man repeated himself, “You have to tell what is going on here.” After much prodding, he finally said, “You know, the class enemies! They are rising up again.”
Such opposition to the capitalist restoration is persistent enough that many in Pala believe the revolution may emerge again from among the people