An objective look at the "Free Tibet" movement
(The following is a statement from the Party for Socialism and Liberation.)
Many U.S. progressives and liberals are supporting the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan opposition to the People’s Republic of China. So are George W. Bush, Rush Limbaugh, the CIA and every pro-imperialist government and media outlet. The vast majority of the peoples of China, including many in Tibet, oppose the U.S.-supported separatist movement.
How could progressive people be on the same side as Bush, the CIA and the ultra-right? How do we explain the paradox of progressive people supporting a movement that is financed and supported by the proponents of the U.S. Empire, as well as by all of the other old European colonial powers that had divided, humiliated and looted China for a full century prior to the 1949 revolution?
This riddle is solved by appreciating the impact of the effective CIA propaganda supporting the Dalai Lama and the old Tibetan ruling class that lost its power, privileges, serfs and slaves because of the Chinese Revolution. This propaganda is echoed in the western media constantly and it has affected liberal public opinion.
The National Endowment for Democracy funds the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan opposition. It also funds or funded the pro-U.S. opposition to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, the fascist opposition to former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the opposition to the Cuban Revolution. The NED also funded Ronald Reagan’s contra war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
From 1995 to 2005, the NED gave $2,047,479 to opposition Tibetan publications, radio stations, organizations and other institutes.
The Dalai Lama has a long, close history of working with the U.S. government. In fact, he and his supporters have been on the CIA payroll since the 1950s.
The International Campaign for Tibet, the Tibet Fund, the Tibet Voice Project, the Tibet Information Network, the Tibetan Literary Society, the Tibetan Review Trust Society and the Voice of Tibet all advance the progressive-sounding call for a "Free Tibet." They are all funded by the NED, which is itself funded by the U.S. State Department and the CIA.
According to historian Allen Weinstein, "A lot of what [the NED does] today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA." Weinstein helped draft the legislation that created the NED. (1)
Many progressives in the United States believe that Tibet is severely oppressed by the government of the People’s Republic of China. They have been convinced that the Dalai Lama is a man of peace who has been ruthlessly suppressed by China, and that he has the allegiance of nearly all Tibetans. Most of these Dalai Lama supporters sincerely believe in the right of self-determination and believe that the People’s Republic of China has violated this right.
Among this sector of liberal and progressive opinion, the reflex to any struggle between China and what they perceive to be the Tibetan people as a whole is to express profound solidarity with those they consider to be the oppressed.
This view obscures the essential social and class dynamic in Tibet. Influenced by this false conception, people who should know better lose their critical faculties.
Knowing that George W. Bush is an imperialist criminal, one must pause and ponder the question: Why did Bush award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama in a highly publicized White House ceremony in 2007? Bush would never conduct such a ceremony for a genuinely progressive person. Bush views the Dalai Lama in much the same way he viewed Ahmed Chalabi before the invasion of Iraq—as a useful tool for the U.S. Empire.
Demonization campaign a prelude to imperialist intervention
The demonization of China is in full swing now. Demonization is the imperialists’ preferred tool to delegitimize their targets and prepare the ground for a destabilization campaign and possible military intervention.
The demonization tactic has been consistently applied preceding regime changes, coups and invasions: the invasion of Panama in 1989, Iraq in 1991 and 2003, Haiti in the first half of 1990s, the aerial destruction of Yugoslavia in 1999, the military coup in Venezuela in 2002, and the new threats against Iran. The pattern is crystal clear.
Although our organization has profound political differences with many of the policies of the Chinese Communist Party, especially its promotion of capitalist-style market practices, we feel that it is necessary to expose the hidden and not-so-hidden efforts of the Bush administration, the CIA, the Democratic Party and other centers of political power to destabilize and dismember the People’s Republic of China. Most Chinese people recognize that this effort, if successful, would hurl both China and Tibet backward.
Some in the liberal camp might argue that, though U.S. motives may be impure and even imperialist toward China and Tibet, this does not diminish the legitimacy of Tibet’s fight for independence.
Progressives should think this through. For more than a century, Washington has sought to build a world empire. Its foreign and military policies focus exclusively on achieving and maintaining its global aspirations. It is not tenable for progressives to view the issue of self-determination in the abstract; we must account for the strategic designs of imperialism.
The historical analogy of Cuba’s war for independence from the Spanish Empire comes to mind. The U.S. military invaded Cuba in 1898 under the pretext of supporting Cuba’s independence from Spain. Soon, the U.S. government’s own imperialist goals were revealed as it turned Cuba into a protectorate, seized Puerto Rico from Spain and invaded the Philippines.
Mark Twain and the other leaders of the Anti-Imperialist League in the United States exposed the true nature of the U.S. project to incorporate Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines into a new U.S. sphere of influence. Progressives in the United States would be well served by remembering this legacy and applying it to U.S. imperialism’s unfolding struggle to "liberate" Tibet from China.
Mark Twain and his colleagues were deeply sympathetic to the cause of Cuban independence from Spain but they still militantly opposed the U.S. intervention. They understood it was a cruel and cynical U.S. ploy to conquer Cuba. Unlike the current struggle by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Youth Congress, Cuba’s independence movement was led by genuine revolutionaries like José Martí.
José Martí, the "Apostle of Cuban Independence," represented the slaves, ex-slaves, workers and peasants against their Cuban bosses and tormentors, as well as the foreign colonizing power. The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, is the voice and figurehead for the ruling elites who lived off of the labor of serfs—modern-day land-slaves. Martí fought the foreign occupier while the Dalai Lama was a well-paid cog in Britain’s colonial machine in Asia.
Myths and facts of pre-revolutionary Tibet and the Dalai Lama
The popular presentation of old Tibet is the Hollywood version of reality. It is both Orientalist and racist. Old Tibet is viewed as a nation founded on peace and spiritual harmony, populated by gentle monks who lived humbly side-by-side with a rustic peasant population at one with nature. In this mythical depiction, the brutal communist government of China is cruelly occupying this idyllic Shangri-la.
Tenzin Gyatso, known as the Dalai Lama, heads the Tibetan opposition movement financed and cultivated for more than 50 years by Washington. He is the religious leader of Tibetan Buddhism and former ruler of Tibet—the "god-king" of the Tibetan feudal system until 1959.
Prior to 1959, 95 percent of the people lived in shocking, slave-like conditions, while an extremely repressive aristocracy "lived in opulent splendor. … Among the populace, a common appellation for the rich was ‘ones whose lips are always moistened by tea.’" (2)
A 1940 survey showed that "38 percent of the households never got any tea, but either collected herbs that grew wild or drank ‘white tea’—boiled water. … 51 percent could not afford to use butter (tea and yak butter were main staples), and 75 percent of the households were forced at times to resort to eating grass cooked with cow bones and mixed with oat or pea flour." (3)
Education was almost non-existent, and what existed was exclusive to the nobility. Health conditions were abysmal, with an estimated 90 percent of the people suffering venereal disease and about 30 percent infected with smallpox. (4) In 1959, infant mortality was 430 deaths per 1,000 births and average life expectancy was 35.5 years. (5)
Of a serf’s production, 50 to 70 percent was owed to his manorial master, in addition to forced labor called "ulag." Dozens of taxes had to be paid, including butter tax, meat tax, wool tax, woolen cloth tax and a tax on tsampa—a staple food usually made from barley—to support the monasteries. Prayer festival taxes, hay taxes, utensil taxes, meat taxes, past-due taxes, corvée taxes in the form of labor, military taxes and others had to be paid to the government. Many additional taxes were paid to the feudal lord.
The extremely high number of manor estates and monks—who performed no work but lived from others’ labor—was an enormous drain on society. Out of the 37,000 inhabitants in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, 16,000 were monks. The Drepung monastery alone had "185 manors, 20,000 serfs, 300 pastures and 16,000 herdsmen." (6)
Profoundly superstitious beliefs, complete religious control by Tibetan Buddhist lamas over the masses and severe punishment, including death, for any type of disobedience effectively kept the people from rebelling or questioning their condition.
It is no coincidence that the recent chain of events leading up to the present turmoil began on March 10. On that day in 1959, the Dalai Lama and the feudal nobility launched an armed rebellion in Tibet in opposition to major social changes introduced shortly after the triumph of the Chinese Revolution.
Tibet and China before the 1949 revolution
In present-day China, the Han nationality makes up 91 percent of the population. The remaining 9 percent adds up to 105 million people of 55 different nationalities, including 16 million Zhuang, 10.6 million Manchu, 8.3 million Uyghur, 8.9 million Miao, 8 million Tujia, 7.7 million Yi and 5.4 million Tibetan.
Roughly half of the Tibetan nationality lives within the borders of the 470,000 square miles that make up the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China. The remaining Tibetan population lives in the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan. There are also Tibetans in India, Bhutan and Nepal.
Tibet has long been recognized as part of China. The relationship goes back until at least the 13th century, in an arrangement whereby the Tibetan rulers exercised local autonomy while the central Chinese government conducted Tibet’s foreign affairs and defense. In 1906, Britain signed a formal recognition of China’s sovereignty over Tibet.
During an exchange of diplomatic statements between Britain and the United States in 1943, Washington stated: "For its part, the Government of the United States has borne in mind the fact that the Chinese constitution lists Tibet among areas constituting the territory of the Republic of China. This Government has at no time raised a question regarding either of these claims." (7)
Before the Chinese Revolution, Tibet’s lamas and nobility accepted the political arrangement with China’s dynastic rulers—and later British colonizers in the early 20th century—as long as the Tibetan rulers could lord over the Tibetan masses unimpeded. Only when the prospect of socialism threatened their privilege, which was founded on the exploitation of the peasantry, did the Tibetan ruling class decide to break ties with China.
In September 1949, fearful of the impending revolution and a challenge to their power, the Tibetan leaders immediately expelled China’s mission in Lhasa on instructions of longtime British agent Hugh Richardson.
Revolution brings change to Tibet
The aim of China’s October 1, 1949, revolution was the emancipation of all the people of China, including the 55 smaller nationalities within Chinese territory.
The government’s initial attitude toward Tibet was one of extreme caution on the matter of reforms. The government was cognizant of the profound control that Tibetan rulers wielded over the serf population, as well as the historic resentment of the Tibetan nationality towards the Han nationality.
The 1951 "Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet" signed by the new revolutionary government and local Tibetan leaders provided for economic development, education and health care programs.
At first, the old, reactionary social relations were not disturbed. The pact established that "the local government of Tibet shall carry out reform voluntarily, and, when the people demand a reform, shall settle it through consultation with the Tibetan leaders."
Public social projects were inaugurated immediately. The first two roads ever built in Tibet began construction in 1950 and took almost five years to complete. One crossed 14 mountain passes over 1,500 miles from Ya’an in Sichuan province to Lhasa. One truck could transport in two days what it used to take 12 days for 60 yaks to haul. Schools and hospitals were built. (8)
But by 1959, the ruling priesthood, still owners of virtually all the country’s wealth, strongly opposed any attempt to reform their system. Counterrevolutionary bands opposed to change waged paramilitary attacks.
Despite the obstacles imposed by the Tibetan ruling circles, the central government continued the development projects. It firmly believed that the impoverished Tibetan masses, gaining from the progress, would eventually take part in their own emancipation.
There were tremendous difficulties, as one directive from the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party to the reformers showed in the early 1950s:
"As yet, we don’t have a material base for fully implementing the Agreement, nor do we have a base for this purpose in terms of support among the masses or in the upper stratum. To force its implementation will do more harm than good. Since they are unwilling to put the agreement into effect, well then we can leave it for the time being and wait. ...
"Let them go on with their insensate 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 and bide our time before taking up the question of the full implementation of the Agreement. If they are not in favor of the setting up of primary schools, that can stop too." (9)
After eight years of harsh opposition by the feudal lords, the new Chinese revolutionary leadership took direct action in 1959 to overturn the serf system.
The Dalai Lama set the date of March 10, 1959, for a reactionary uprising. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army stayed in the barracks for ten days while the Dalai Lama’s forces attacked, winning over the people by revealing who the real aggressor was. Because the uprising lacked popular support and was confined to the area around Lhasa, it was quickly defeated.
The Dalai Lama fled Tibet for exile in India, eventually landing in Dharamsala. There, he developed a close and long relationship with the CIA. His two brothers had already been working actively with the CIA since the late 1950s.
The Dalai Lama’s treasures preceded him out of the country, as well as the wealth of the nobility who joined him in India. Smaller numbers went to Bhutan and Nepal.
Tibetan progress since the 1949 revolution
The obstacles of poverty, illiteracy, isolation and deeply superstitious beliefs made it difficult to bring even minimal development to Tibet.
The Chinese government, which has a long experience in handling the issues confronting national minority peoples in a multi-national state, has also dealt with the problem of chauvinism and racism emanating from the Han population and the government itself.
Members of the Han nationality living or stationed in Tibet exhibited chauvinism in their relations with the Tibetans at times. Ignorant of the Tibetan language, culture and religion—the latter deeply permeated into all facets of life—the cadre had to be intensively trained at the initiative of the Communist Party leadership.
In "The Making of Modern Tibet," A. Tom Grunfeld writes: "They were taught to respect local customs and etiquette, never to defile temples and holy sites, and to never criticize the Dalai Lama or religious practice. They were told not to bring up communism and class struggle. They arrived carrying whatever provisions they could, and paid for everything they purchased. They paid wages to the Tibetans who worked for them and practiced egalitarianism among themselves to set an example." (10)
Although not all statistics compare to those in the more developed areas of China, progress made during the last 50 years has revolutionized life for Tibetans.
Infant mortality has dropped from 430 deaths per 1,000 births, to a range of 6.61 to 24.5 per 1,000 in 2002. Where only 2 percent of school-age children in the 1950s were in school, today the figure is 85.8 percent; however, there is still a need to increase secondary-level educational levels. The region’s 6,348 hospital beds and 8,948 medical personnel exceed China’s national per-capita average. (11)
Before the revolution, the masses had no elections or political life. In 1965, the First People’s Congress of Tibet was held, which led to the founding of the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the Regional People’s Government. There are 70,000 elected representatives on all levels of government in the TAR.
Beijing is intensifying its development programs in Tibet, with substantial investments in housing, medical care, infrastructure and restoration of cultural sites.
The Ninth People’s Congress of the TAR put forth a housing plan for farmers and herders—the backbone of Tibet’s economy—that will build 52,000 housing units in 2008. By 2010, new housing will have been constructed for 80 percent of farmers’ households. (China Radio International, March 22)
In 2006, the annual income of farmers and herders grew 13.1 percent, the fourth double-digit growth in as many years.
Tourism has increased greatly, especially with the construction of two main railroad lines from central China—the world’s highest in elevation. Four million tourists traveled to Tibet in 2007, up 60 percent from 2006, adding substantially to the region’s income.
Tibetan exiles and the CIA
In the late 1950s and 1960s, the CIA trained hundreds of counterrevolutionary exiles in sabotage and terrorism. This took place on bases from Saipan to Virginia, including the main center of Tibetan operations: Camp Hale, in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
U.S. intelligence documents, which were released in the late 1990s, document the close relationship between the CIA, the Tibetan exile movement and the Dalai Lama personally: "[F]or much of the 1960s, the CIA provided the Tibetan exile movement with $1.7 million a year for operations against China, including an annual subsidy of $180,000 for the Dalai Lama." (12)
Imperialist support for the Tibetan "independence" movement is reminiscent of their support for Cuban counterrevolutionary forces that fled to exile in Miami after the island’s 1959 liberation from U.S. neo-colonial rule.
Soon after Fulgencio Batista’s overthrow, the CIA trained several thousand Cuban reactionaries in bombings, assassination and other terror tactics in the name of "freedom" and "democracy." The terrorist project, codenamed JM WAVE, became the largest operation in the CIA’s history.
Cuban extremist exiles in Miami claim to speak for Cubans who live in Cuba as they work to destroy the social gains that the vast majority of Cubans support. Similarly, the Tibetan reactionary opposition exiled in Dharamsala fights to overturn the social gains of Tibetans living in Tibet.
This time, the U.S. imperialists would dominate Tibet instead of the British. China has made it clear that it will defend its territorial integrity.
Tibetan right-wing groups could not exist without U.S. and European financing or the support of organizations such as Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch. Actor Richard Gere, chair of the International Campaign for Tibet, has given a high profile to the issue.
Today’s Tibetan "independence" movement
In 1989, a U.S.-influenced public campaign to elevate the Dalai Lama as leader of a Tibetan government-in-exile began to accelerate and continues to the present. The Dalai Lama was granted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. As a prelude to the present unfolding events, George W. Bush awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal in October 2007 despite protests from China.
The Dalai Lama claims to seek dialogue with China for discussions on autonomy, but that would only be the first step toward an eventual breaking away from China.
Tibetan counterrevolutionary forces lay claim not only to the 470,000-square-mile territory of the TAR, but also to much of four surrounding provinces that would triple the TAR’s political territory to 1.5 million square miles.
There are new formations in the Tibetan right-wing opposition movement, such as the Tibetan Youth Congress. These younger activists demand immediate separation from China, while the Dalai Lama claims to be only for autonomy. These are only minor tactical differences in what amounts to an internationally financed and coordinated counterrevolutionary campaign.
The method of operation, financing and putsch-style mobilizations are very similar to other U.S. plots targeting governments for overthrow.
The recent riots in Tibet, reminiscent of the "color revolutions" that took place in former socialist states like Yugoslavia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005), bear the markings of a CIA-directed offensive.
Attacks on 17 Chinese embassies and consulates—as well as on the Olympics ceremonies in Greece—is more evidence of a high level of central coordination and planning.
Tibetan "self-determination" under the present circumstances
In the current epoch, it is not possible to speak of independence in an abstract sense. Since the triumph of the first socialist revolution in Russia in 1917 and the subsequent development of a socialist camp—including China—imperialist influence has not permitted any state or nationality to remain neutral.
Every national struggle today contains within itself a class struggle. Tibet is not simply a nationality united by religion, culture and history. There are two classes deep in struggle.
One of these classes is the former ruling landlord class, which never gave up its dream to reconquer its privilege. It is backed by U.S. imperialism, whose ultimate objective is breaking up China.
The other is the vast majority of Tibetans, who—despite the shortcomings and mistakes of the central government—have greatly benefited from the Chinese Revolution, which ended feudalism not only for Tibetans but for all of China’s peoples.
If the Tibetan separatists succeed, Tibet will become a vassal state under the control of the United States. Washington will have dealt a major blow to China and taken one more step toward the full overturn of the Chinese Revolution. For Tibet, this would not be "independence" at all, but a return to feudal and neocolonial servitude.
It might seem hard to stand up in the United States against the maturing campaign against China. The media blitz, disinformation and well-crafted propaganda that is being pumped by the corporate-owned media is designed to delegitimize China while building credibility and sympathy for those favored by imperialism. This is all the more reason for progressive people and opponents of imperialism not to buckle under the pressure.
Bush, the Pentagon and the Democratic Party leadership would prefer nothing more than U.S. students forming "Free Tibet" committees and protesting against China’s fictitious "cultural genocide" in Tibet while Washington continues its very real war and occupation of Iraq. The death of one million Iraqis does qualify as real genocide.
The people of China, including those in Tibet, cannot be assisted by imperialist sanctions, covert operations and military intervention.
1. Washington Post, September 22, 1991. Cited in William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower (2000), 180.
2. A. Tom Grunfeld, The Making of Modern Tibet (Armonk, New York; London, England: M.E. Sharep, Inc., 1996), 16.
4. Ibid, 21.
5. "Tibet’s March Toward Modernization," Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, November 2001, Beijing.
7. Grunfeld, 258.
8. Ibid, 121.
9. Anna Louise Strong, When Serfs Stood Up in Tibet (Peking: New World Press, 1965), 45. Cited in Grunfeld, 112.
10. Grunfeld, 61.
11. "Tibet’s March Toward Modernization."
12. J. Mann, "CIA Funded Covert Tibet Exile Campaign in 1960s," The Age (Melbourne, September 16, 1998). Cited in "‘Democratic Imperialism:’ Tibet, China, and the National Endowment for Democracy," Michael Barker (Global Research, August 13, 2007).
Party for Socialism and Liberation