Apr 14, 2008
Worldwide protests against Chinese repression in Tibet have encompassed the Olympic Games. Starting in Athens, then moving to Rome, Paris, London and San Francisco, protesters interrupted the carrying of the Olympic torch through crowds in those cities.
These protests grew out of earlier demonstrations in Tibet on March 13. Thousands of Tibetans were commemorating the date on which the Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetan Buddhists, was forced into exile by the Chinese government 49 years earlier, in 1959. The police force, dominated by the Chinese in Tibet, fired into the crowd, killing dozens. Many more were wounded and arrested.
Then as now, the Dalai Lama claims to be the political and religious leader of Tibet, which is officially a province of the People’s Republic of China. In 1949 when Mao Zedong came to power, China emerged from decades of chaos, civil and foreign wars. The rival great powers had cut China up into fiefdoms, which encouraged separation. Thus Tibet, attached for centuries to China’s Middle Kingdom, had gained a kind of “independence.”
Tibet remained stuck in profound backwardness, which was even worse than in the rest of China. The lamas, Buddhist monks, lived as parasites off the peasantry. At the summit of this medieval society the Dalai Lama was enthroned as the temporal and spiritual leader. By the time the Maoist regime came to power in 1949, less than 5% of all landowners had forced half the population into serfdom.
In 1951, after the Chinese Army of “national liberation” penetrated into Lhasa, a “17 point agreement on the peaceful liberation of Tibet” was signed with the Dalai Lama. In exchange for recognizing the Beijing regime, the social system represented by the Dalai Lama was allowed to continue in Tibet by agreement with Beijing.
Anti-Chinese riots broke out there in 1956, and again in 1957 and 1958. So Beijing chose to end its agreement with the Dalai Lama. To escape prison, he fled in March 1959. After his departure, serfdom and slavery were officially abolished. Beijing decided to “collectivize” the land in 1961 in a measure aimed at the feudal landlords and Tibetan monks, whom the Chinese authorities viewed as disloyal.
Meanwhile, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and its allies tried to weaken the Maoist regime by stirring up Tibetan separatism. Tibetan guerrillas even went to a CIA training camp in Colorado – although, it seems, without much result.
The majority of Western leaders ignored the Dalai Lama’s past as the head of a feudal theocracy practicing torture, serfdom and even slavery. Instead they discovered his “spiritual example,” granting him, among other things, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
In order to reinforce its hold over Tibet, the Beijing regime imprisoned oppositionists and settled numerous people of Chinese descent in Tibet. The Beijing government persecuted Buddhist monks. During the supposed Cultural Revolution, a number of them were defrocked by force, and some were executed. The regime tried to economically and politically unify China. It also attempted to push Tibet out of the Middle Ages, often with positive consequences. Living conditions of the population improved: average life expectancy rose from 36 years in 1950 to more than 61 in 1990. Infant mortality fell and the population more than doubled in size. Public education, carried out in Tibetan and Chinese languages, spread in place of religious education.
Nonetheless, the regime, which was undemocratic for the entire Chinese population, was even more oppressive in Tibet. The relative economic and cultural progress also made the oppression much more intolerable.
In other Chinese regions, explosions of anger by the population occur frequently, sparked by corruption, exploitation and theft by the authorities and the Chinese bosses. But in Tibet, all social and political protest also takes on the form of a national protest, if only because the language and ethnic origin of those who have the guns aren’t the same as the protesters’. And the awful policies and methods of the Chinese regime also tend to make the Tibetan working classes forget what separates their interests from those of their old masters. The Chinese regime has pushed them back into the clerical-feudal camp of the Dalai Lama and his supporters.
A number of newspapers and official governments of the great powers managed a few verbal protests against repression in Tibet. Commentators in various places again mentioned a boycott of the Olympic Games in Beijing, although even the Dalai Lama came out against a boycott. Washington called on Beijing to show “more restraint.” In diplomatic language, everyone knows what that means: carry on as usual!