- Daphna Whitmore
Recent protests in Tibet have thrown the spotlight on one of the world’s most remote regions. Led by Tibetan monks, protesters attacked Han Chinese and Hui Muslim immigrants. Tibetans say the Chinese authorities favour the new migrants while treating the locals as second-class citizens.
As the government clamped down on demonstrators. reports have come in of dozens of deaths and hundreds of arrests. With the Beijing Olympics just six months away, the protests may stay centre-stage.
Tibetans accuse China of trying to destroy their culture by swamping the region with ethnic Chinese. On the other hand, allowing some of China’s vast population to move into sparsely occupied areas makes sense.
Tibet remains one of the most underdeveloped parts of the world. Fifty years ago the region had no roads or rail. Travel was by foot, or by mule or yak. The population numbered just a couple of million spread over an area the size of Western Europe. As revolution was sweeping China in the 1940s, the Tibetan region was largely unaffected.
While some Hollywood stars romanticise the old Tibet, it was a hellhole for the majority. They had no more rights than the slaves on the plantations of the southern states of America. It wasn’t until the Chinese People’s Liberation Army went into Tibet in October 1950 that the old lama feudal system of serfs and masters was challenged.
Liberation was not something that could be simply decreed by revolutionary China; the groundwork needed to be laid, and it would take time. In the mid-1950s, revolutionary land seizures began on some of the richest lamas’ estates.
The lamas resisted, and in 1959 they staged an uprising. It failed, and the Dalai Lama fled along with 80,000 followers. Most settled in India; some in Bhutan, Nepal and Sikkim.
Land reform in Tibet progressed, and hundreds of communal farms were established in the 1960s. No longer would serfs be seen in rags, carrying the litter of a noble dressed in gold and riches. Disease and superstition declined, and life expectancy grew from 35 years to 67.
A single Tibetan dialect was promoted to make communication across the region possible, and literacy campaigns were launched. For the first time in history, books and films were produced in Tibetan.
Opposition from Tibetans outside China continued, supported, funded and spurred on by the United States as part of the Cold War.
While telling his followers to eschew worldly possessions, the Dalai Lama smuggled out millions of dollars when he fled in 1959. Something of a deity to Western “New Agers”, this gold-laden god-king also draws support from some peace activists who fail to notice his silence on the war in Iraq.
Whatever the double standards of the Dalai Lama, he is not the only hypocrite. The United States, while carrying out slaughter in Iraq, castigates “communist” China for human rights abuses. Those outbursts are mainly for public consumption. Washington knows full well that China, now brimming with stock exchanges, has well and truly joined the capitalist club. For the US, China today is both a trading partner and a competitor . New Zealand too has strong economic links with China and has concluded a free trade agreement. While some here decry the agreement on the grounds that “New Zealand jobs will be lost” neither free trade or protection are mutually exclusive. Both are used in the process of capitalist exploitation. Genuine free trade does not exist in a world dominated by big multinational corporations, and even the loudest cheerleaders for free trade - the United States - practice a high degree of protectionism, while demanding open access to other countries.
In the West the progressive stance is not to insist on protectionism to maintain local capitalists - who if successful will grow to become multinationals in their own right anyway. The important thing is to oppose capitalist exploitation, be it local or foreign, and extend international solidarity to Chinese workers.
Despite China’s rapid growth, it still is a third-world country and a long way off superpower status. Since capitalist restoration in China, Washington is less interested in supporting Tibetan separatism. Its aim nowadays is to encourage the Dalai Lama to pressure Beijing to move away from strict centralisation and to open the country up further to supply cheap labour and lucrative markets. That is the sort of freedom Washington really believes in.