Tibet: 50th Anniversary of 1959 uprising

Chinese regime fearful of renewed revolt

10 March 2009 marked the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Tibetan Uprising against Chinese rule. It is one of a series of anniversaries taking place this year that the Chinese regime awaited nervously. As the world economic crisis bites, unemployment has hit record heights across China and the government fears that these anniversaries could become a focal point for discontent. This is particularly the case with the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June. But following last year’s protests in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and their violent suppression, March is another ‘flashpoint’ in what could turn out to be a year of revolt.

In preparation for the anniversary, Chinese leaders ordered the largest troop deployment since the Sichuan earthquake last spring. An evening curfew is still being enforced in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Desperate to avoid a repeat of last year, when 220 Tibetans were killed and nearly 1,300 injured, the Chinese regime is tightly policing the TAR. So far, it seems this clamp-down has deterred the mass protests Hu Jintao and his allies feared, but anger at the Chinese regime is still strong and could still boil over into revolt.

The Tibetan Uprising of 1959 peaked with a protest of 300,000 and was followed by a wave of suppression, with 86,000 Tibetans dying in the events surrounding it according to both Tibetan and Chinese figures. Socialists have the up-most sympathy with the ordinary Tibetan masses involved in the movement, in particular the thousands who lost their lives. But to understand the character of the uprising it is necessary to look back to the policies pursued by the Maoist bureaucracy in relation to Tibet and also the aims and aspirations of the self-appointed leadership of the uprising based around the Dalai Lama and the old feudal order.

Tibet and the Chinese revolution

For socialists, the Chinese revolution of 1949 is second only to the Russian Revolution of 1917; capitalism and landlordism was abolished and China shook off the yoke of imperialism. But the regime that stemmed from the revolution was not the same as that which followed in Russia 32 years earlier. The Bolshevik leaders Lenin and Trotsky saw events in Russia as the starting point for socialist transformation on a world scale and always had an implacable internationalist outlook. The People’s Republic of China, however, came onto the stage of history in a very different time to that which the young workers’ state in Russia was born into. Following the Stalinist ‘model’, rather than attempting to spread the revolution the Chinese regime sought to shore up its own position. This was reflected in the invasion of Tibet in 1950.

The French revolutionary Robespierre warned that people don’t like “missionaries with bayonets.” But when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) first moved into Tibet they could not even be initially described as ‘missionaries’, although they did carry bayonets with them! Rather, the invasion began as a tactical manoeuvre in the face of the escalating Cold War. With the Korean War having begun three months previously, the PLA’s move into Tibet was aimed at pre-empting a western-backed push for independence in Lhasa that could have opened up another front in the cold conflict between ‘East’ and ‘West’.

There was a base in Tibet which a movement for genuine socialist change could have been built up around; the urban population and the working class in particular was a tiny minority but a minority that could have played a leading role in a mass movement nonetheless. But rather than base themselves on this layer, Mao’s regime sought to secure its position through a ‘patriotic alliance’ with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan feudal elite. There was no attempt made to base themselves on the oppressed masses in general or the proletarian layers of rural and urban workers in particular because the CCPs actions in Tibet did not stem from an internationalist perspective of spreading the gains of the revolution. Instead, it was to defend the ruling bureaucracy’s strategic interests. As such, the CCP did not initially attempt any social reforms in the area.

With the promise that the Beijing government would not alter any of the existing political system in Tibet, a treaty was signed in 1951 which saw the Dalai Lama endorse the CCPs presence. This collaboration with the feudal lords in Tibet had a confusing effect amongst ordinary Tibetans. As Tom Grunfield pointed out in his book ‘The making of modern Tibet’, the CCP “urged ‘liberation’ of the serfs from the feudal masters while creating alliances with these masters.”

But despite the fact that prime minister Zhou Enlai argued the wait for agrarian reform in Tibet “could be extended for another 50 years,” a very different approach was employed in neighboring regions, including amongst the Tibetan population in those regions. Forced collectivisation of agriculture in provinces such as Qinghai and Gansu provoked a series of rebellions which had an impact in Tibet also. On the one hand, many of the Tibetan masses still lived under the heel of feudalism while on the other hand they saw social change being bureaucratically forced from above in other areas; these contradictory factors both fed into a resentment of the occupying PLA troops and the CCP regime.

1959 uprising

Taking advantage of these growing tensions, and attempting to strike a blow in the continuing Cold War, US imperialism helped to arm and train ‘anti-communist’ guerrillas, in particular those in the Khampa region. The Maoist regime’s response to the guerrilla attacks that followed only helped fuel tensions further. Monasteries were attacked by the PLA, public executions were carried out. The CCPs attempt to quash the guerilla threat was seen as a form of ‘collective punishment’ on the Tibetan people and only fuelled support for the guerrillas.

As repression continued, a rumor was spread that the PLA intended to kidnap the young Dalai Lama. Thousands swarmed round the Lama’s Palace on March 10th 1959. This was followed within two days by protests and barricades being erected on the streets of Lhasa. The PLA was quick to suppress the uprising, with Tibetan forces outnumbered and poorly armed. Wary of the reaction in Buddhist countries and India if the Dalai Lama were harmed, Mao Tse Tung himself personally intervened to ensure the Dalai Lama and his entourage was allowed to escape. Around 100,000, mostly drawn from the old feudal elite, fled to northern India where they set up a government in exile.

The aims of the leadership of the uprising were reactionary in their character. It was a feudal movement which drew its support in the main from the lamas, the feudal nobility and the officer corps of the old Tibetan army. Its leaders dressed the movement up in the clothing of religion and Tibetan nationalism. But in reality their aim was to defend the backwards feudal land relations that still existed in Tibet which they felt were threatened by the forced collectivisation taking place in neighboring regions, and the Chinese regime’s clumsy response to the US-backed guerilla activities of the previous year.

The bureaucratic manoeuvring of the CCP and the lack of social change in Tibet meant that many Tibetans had seen no real improvements in their daily lives since becoming part of the ‘Peoples Republic’. This reactionary uprising was seen in terms of a national struggle against Chinese occupation. The regime had pushed ordinary Tibetans into the hands of feudal nationalists.

Following the putting down of the uprising, the Chinese regime went on to make an about turn on its approach in Tibet, attempting to eliminate feudalism from above without the Tibetan masses having a hand in the process, and becoming the “missionaries with bayonets” of which Robespierre warned.

The right to self-determination and the position of socialists

As socialists, we cannot offer support to an attempt to turn back the film of history by re-establishing a feudal state. But it is vital to understand how the policies of Maoism fuelled the movement and how it could have been avoided.

Compare, for example, the approach that the CCP took with the approach of the Bolsheviks in Russia. Under Lenin, the constitution of the USSR allowed for the right of self-determination for all the member republics. This included the right to separate from the USSR, which was proved in practice in December 1917 when Finland was granted independence. At the same time, religious rights of all oppressed minorities were treated with extreme sensitivity, this was part and parcel of their approach to the national question – where their aim was at every stage to minimise division and differences between different sections of the working class. They understood that to achieve this it was necessary to demonstrate again and again that Soviet power was the only road to national liberation for the oppressed nationalities of what had been the tsarist Russian empire. From the start, this was the policy that the Bolsheviks set out to develop. However, following Lenin’s death and the rise of the bureaucracy many of these policies were reversed. Where Stalin ended up, Mao took as his starting point.

The inconsistent and bureaucratic approach of Mao undermined support for socialist change and offered a cover for reactionary forces, such as those around the Dalai Lama, to exploit.

Since 1959 much has changed, but as last year’s protests demonstrate, the desire for national rights and improvements in living conditions are still strong in the TAR. Experience shows that these rights cannot be won by looking back to the past or looking to religious ‘leaders’; the Tibetan masses need to link up with working people and youth in China and the surrounding area, who themselves are struggling for the same fundamental freedoms. The Chinese regime is particularly fearful of a repeat of last year’s protests because these links could begin to be tentatively forged.

Rather than repeating the mistakes of the past, any new movement needs to sensitively take into account the desire of the Tibetan people and other minorities to control their own destiny and have the right to self-determination. The Chinese bureaucracy still has vested tactical interests in Tibet, in particular as a flank between China and India. It is only on the basis of a voluntary socialist federation of China and other Asian states, as a step towards a world socialist federation, that capitalism, national oppression and Chinas ruling bureaucracy can be shaken off and the masses of the region can move society forward through genuine democratic planning and cooperation.

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March 2009