Nigel Harris Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Nigel Harris

[China & Tibet]

(November 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 103, November 1987, p. 10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THERE IS a myth that governments learn lessons from history and experience. There’s another one: that “ideologies” control their adherents so that when Chinese Communists call themselves Marxist-Leninists it shows they are dedicated to Lenin’s aims.

The recent events in Tibet – now bludgeoned into silence by a quarter of a million Chinese troops (and the expulsion from Lhasa of the 14 foreign journalists who witnessed the riots) – shows how wrong both ideas are. You would have thought the evidence overwhelming that if you beat a people into national loyalty over 37 years, you will reduce them to a permanent simmering rage – sullen hatred, punctuated by explosions of violent rage. Consider the beating in Tibet – the average expectation of life for Tibetans is 40, for Chinese over 65. Agricultural income per head in Tibet is half the Chinese average. Over 70 percent of Tibetans are illiterate, compared to 32 percent of Chinese.

Even given all this, Peking still expresses hurt horror at the striking exhibition of Tibetan hatred of the Han Chinese in Lhasa. After all, the Chinese have been liberalising their rule since 1980. But does anyone think the savageries of the conquest of Tibet in 1950 are so easily forgotten, let alone forgiven? What of the punitive devastation of Tibetan civilisation following the 1959 rebellion? And what of the even more dreadful ransacking of the culture of the high plateau by the Red Guards, supported by the provincial government, during the Cultural Revolution?

It took Peking nearly 14 years to reverse the grotesque blunder of the Cultural Revolution – forcing the nomadic herdsmen to give up their herds, settle in collectives and terrace the shallow soil of the hills to grow winter wheat (which leached the soil) instead of traditional barley – without herds or grain famine was the result.

The Chinese say they have pumped in the equivalent of nearly three billion US dollars between 1952 and 1983 just to keep Tibet going. They have now announced spending equal to 160 million dollars on construction works – the repair of temples and monasteries among other things. But this is not to make up for past savageries, but as preparation for the big expansion of the tourist industries.

Having failed in 37 years to do much in Tibet, now the foreign tourist is to be the saviour. Big construction work will attract more Han Chinese into Tibet in search of the premium wages paid to the Chinese for working there. Even more Tibetans will feel expropriated.

As for being “Marxist-Leninist”, it would be laughable if it were not tragic. Given Lenin’s fury at the slightest trace of Great Russian chauvinism, can you imagine his dumbstruck horror at the performance of Han Chinese chauvinism in Tibet? Remember poor old Shahumyan who had the temerity to suggest in 1913 that a future socialist state ought to make the Russian language be used throughout the country? Lenin blasted away:

“Why will you not understand the psychology that is so important in the national question and which, if the slightest coercion is applied, besmirches, soils, nullifies the undoubtedly progressive importance of centralised, large states and a uniform language?

“But the economy is still more important than psychology: in Russia, we already have a capitalist economy, which makes the Russian language essential. But you have no faith in the power of the economy and want to prop it up with the crutches of the rotten police regime. Don’t you see that in this way you are crippling the economy and hindering its development?”

Lenin’s point is absolutely clear – the economy integrates, but social and political oppression divides. It is the Han Chinese who make it impossible to integrate Tibet in China.

The Chinese Communist Party has power, overwhelming power in Tibet, so a chauvinist orientation fits its role as a ruling class. That is not true of much of the left which, even if by silence, accepts the Chinese repression of Tibet. This is – as in the case of the opposition to the Russians in Afghanistan – because the old order in Tibet which the Tibetan nationalists wish to restore is “feudal”, so the Chinese are progressive “even if, comrades, we do not approve of their methods”.

Now the old regime was unequivocally monstrous, and it is not accidental that the leaders of the anti-Chinese movement are monks of that peculiarly awful religion, Lamaist Buddhism.

Yet the fact that the old society was hideously oppressive is no justification at all for the Chinese to copy it, even if in different ways. On the contrary, the backwardness of the Tibetans is the most powerful argument for more sensitive treatment, not less. That unbelievably stubborn and passionate devotion to religion and the fourteenth incarnation of the Dalai Lama means that the memory of the old order (or the fantasy) is the heart of a heartless world for Tibetans – and to repress is to seek to liquidate their very existence.

There can be no trust whatsoever between Tibetans and Chinese until Tibet has the right to secede and the right to establish that regime which constitutes “self-determination”.

Denying the right of Tibetans to secede is forcing them into the arms of the old order. There can be no reform or progress in the long struggle to overthrow the Lamaist order while Chinese domination continues. Peking’s violence is what keeps reaction in power in the hearts of Tibetans. So all the educational schemes in the world, all the progressive reforms, emancipation of women, due process of law rather than arbitrary aristocratic rule, all are turned into new forms of oppression without the initiative and wholehearted promotion by the Tibetans.

Meanwhile, the silence of Lhasa returns – broken only by the clatter of the 24 Sikorsky Blackhawk helicopters over the Dalai Lama’s old Potala palace. The Great Powers are embarrassed since they are busy wooing the new Saatchi and Saatchi People’s Republic. Of course, the secret agents of Moscow, Washington and Delhi will be seeking to make mischief in Lhasa, just to keep the options open, but ultimately no one cares very much. No struggles to secede from an existing country have succeeded in modern conditions without the support of an outside power, and even then it is rare.

The Tibetan case is not very promising. But the riots show, just for a brief moment, the real nature of the Chinese regime under its new liberal leadership. And they show it to the workers of Shanghai, since the exposure in the foreign press forced the Chinese television to give a full coverage – that is possibly its biggest likely effect.

Nigel Harris Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 31 October 2019