The issue of Tibetan liberation has recently become very hot with big name liberal activists and the capitalist press in America. Both the press and American Free Tibet activists themselves often use idealized images of traditional Tibet as a simple, spiritual utopia untainted by problems of class conflict or authoritarianism. The ethos of the Free Tibet movement has the potential to alienate radical grassroots activists from the issue and cause them to dismiss it as nothing but a bourgeois new-agey cultural fetish. As someone who spent 4 months living in Tibet and Tibetan refugee camps, I both understand such dismissals and find them to be heartlessly uninformed. I write this article to show how the struggle for Tibetan liberation is about ending the misery of the Tibetan people, not about Richard Gere or the Beastie Boys.
When the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) marched into Tibet in 1950, they came with promises of liberating the Tibetan masses from feudalist oppression. Traditional Tibet was certainly not (as some western liberals claim) a society where no class antagonism or capitalist style oppression existed. Nor did old Tibet’s theocratic government of Buddhist monks rule with perfect wisdom and justice. There was a level of corruption and injustice in old Tibet, as in all times and places. Yet, the true face of traditional Tibet still had far more potential for positive social change than the current brutal Chinese regime. One important proof of this is that the first action of the current Dalai Lama (Tibet’s feudalist leader) upon escaping into India was to create an exile government composed of a popularly elected parliament with the right to veto any of his own ideas or decisions.
The possibilities for positive social change in traditional Tibetan society begin with the Buddhist philosophy which has guided Tibetan culture since the religion was introduced to the country 700 years ago. When separated from the corruption of the monolithic Tibetan theocracy, we find at Tibetan Buddhism’s base a philosophy of total love and compassion for all sentient beings. Its ideal practitioners are boddhisattvas who have achieved non-attachment to the transient, material world which most of us perceive. Yet these bodhisattvas remain grounded in the material world in order to help others to achieve an equal level of compassion and enlightenment.
Though the Tibetan church has created its own pantheon of so-called Buddhist deities, Tibetan Buddhist philosophy at its simplest is basically atheistic and humanistic. Its basic tenets include an egalitarian acknowledgment of all living beings’ innate Buddha-nature, or potential for kindness, compassion and spiritual enlightenment. And, like all Buddhism, the Tibetan strain adheres to the revolutionary idea of the middle path — the concept that no one can reach any kind of enlightenment when either glutted on sensual and material pleasures or when starved and deprived.
With its Buddhist philosophical base, traditional Tibetan society was unusual throughout the world for its compassion. Anyone who spends much time with Tibetans will notice their level of ingrained courtesy and hospitality towards. Tibetan Buddhism is also a particularly optimistic lens through which to view the world. Difficulties and set-backs are fatalistically accepted as the production of accumulated karma from past lives. This allows people to more readily overcome their problems and move on to accumulating good karma (and therefore future happiness) through acts of selfless kindness. Almost all accounts from the few foreigners who visited Tibet prior to 1950 tell of a country where even the poorest peasants seemed basically happy, optimistic and carefree due to the psychological cushioning of their spiritual culture.
The precepts of their religion shaped not only the Tibetan people’s internal attitudes and treatment of each other, but also their attitude towards nature. Though the extraordinarily barren landscape of central Tibet forced the people there to rely mostly on meat as a food source, Tibetans raised only a few types of livestock for this purpose. All other animals were strictly left alone, and hunting was considered to be a very evil act. Even today, in the dingy, filthy refugee camps of northern India, this level of concern over the lives of other animals continues. At least twice in these places I witnessed Tibetans walking down the road in the rainy season with a small stick, carefully removing each slug they encounter so that it would not be run over by a fast-moving car.
As in many pre-industrial societies, environmental sustainability was important to Tibetans, often due to their culture’s religious precepts. Most livestock herders in Tibet (previous to the drastic plans of agrarian reorganization introduced by the Chinese Communists) were nomadic, moving from one area to another in order to not overgraze anywhere. This was due to the fragile vegetation on central Tibet’s high altitude plains — the extremely low rainfalls and short summer months made all livestock herders hyper- conscious about preserving the natural environment.
And, in this mountainous area with its extraordinary mineral riches, mining was seen as an attack on the earth which would bring upon the Tibetan people the wrath of various nature deities in the Buddhist pantheon.
The Tibetan people’s Buddhist heritage of compassion not only helped them to maintain a relatively high level of social and ecological harmony. It has also given them the psychological and emotional strength necessary to survive in scattered, filthy refugee camps and under the authoritarian rule of an imperialist power. And the Chinese policy in Tibet can only be described as imperialism and assimilation.
When the PLA swept into Tibet in 1950, declaring its liberation from feudalism and imperialism, almost no one in Tibet felt that they had to be liberated from anyone. Right or wrong, the majority of Tibetans identified their interests as identical with those of the theocracy’s leaders. No popular support existed for a social revolution and re-organization. Even if it had existed the traditionally xenophobic nature of Tibetan culture would have made such a mass movement only possible if the ideas originated with Tibetan people themselves, rather than the mouthpieces of Chinese leaders a world away in Beijing.
But as time went on, these issues came to matter less and less. Throughout the 1950′s the Tibetan theocracy retained some control over the nature and extent of socialist re-structuring in Tibetan society. But by 1959 when the Dalai Lama fled the country it had become clear that the Chinese government was at base concerned with assimilating the Tibetan people into Chinese society and culture in order to more easily exploit the country’s vast, untapped natural resources.
The 60′s and 70′s saw Tibet suffer all the horrors that plagued the rest of China during these years — the famines of the Great Leap Forward, the chaos and destruction of the Cultural Revolution, and more. But the Tibetans did not have this suffering inflicted upon them by the stupidity of their fellow countrymen, as elsewhere in China. They experienced it as the effect of policies instituted by an outside imperialist power with an alien value system and no appreciation for traditional culture (the vestiges of which were, for a time, completely outlawed as feudalist behavior).
At the same time as these attempts to assimilate Tibetans into mainstream Communist Chinese culture were going on, the environment of the Tibetan plateau was being exploited as rapidly as possible. Vast mining projects were undertaken in the rocky central regions, while the forests of the eastern, lower elevation areas were extensively clear-cut. Certain desert areas of northeastern Tibet were also utilized for both nuclear weapons testing and the dumping of hazardous materials from nuclear power plants and weapons production factories.
For a brief time in the mid-1980′s a more liberal administration in Beijing encouraged a small-scale re-flourishing of traditional Tibetan culture, so long as it coincided with the economic interests of recently opened tourism in the area. But this period of tolerance ended when the 1987 Tibetan nationalist riots in Lhasa and the events in Tiannemen Square caused liberal voices in the Chinese central government to be silenced.
Economic development and population transfer have now become key to the Chinese vision of a future Tibet, sometimes referred to as China’s Wild West. Large groups of immigrants from China are offered substantial economic incentives to make otherwise undesirable relocation. The hope is that this will aid stepped up economic development in Tibet, and give the majority of Tibetans a tantalizing reason to assimilate. They will need to go to schools and become fluent in Chinese language and popular culture in order to rise from the abject poverty in which most live, and get the high-paying jobs that will allow them to drive shiny new cars, live in high rise apartments, and go out to big discos playing Chinese pop (the biggest one in central Tibet was constructed in the last few years directly in front of the Potala palace, the Dalai Lama’s former winter residence and a major pilgrimage spot for Tibetan Buddhists).
What the Chinese occupation of Tibet comes down to is whether an environmentally sustainable society based on a religion of egalitarian compassion will be engulfed by a blend of brutal authoritarianism and totally materialist, anti-human capitalism. While it can be argued that no people should have their native culture destroyed by an invader who thinks themselves superior because they have more guns, Tibet is in many ways an extremely important case because of its uniquely spiritual, pacifist pre-invasion society.
Opposition to the Chinese occupation has always been problematic. Briefly during the 1960′s a rabidly anti-Communist faction of the CIA flew groups of Tibetans to the Rockies to train them in mountain-based guerrilla warfare, and then sent them back to fight in Tibet. Even then they were hopelessly out-manned and out-gunned. At this point the Chinese army has a presence in almost every tiny Tibetan village. And all violent, militaristic opposition often faces severe criticisms from the Dalai Lama and other pacifist elements of Tibetan Buddhist society. At the same time thousands of non-violent demonstrators have also been killed, tortured and railroaded to lifetime prison terms.
In the 1980′s there was a brief, positive period when representatives of the exile government were allowed to travel throughout Tibet and attended negotiations with the Chinese central government. But the 1987 riots and several diplomatic misunderstandings ended these positive times. Now Beijing basically just seems to be waiting for the aging Dalai Lama to die. And as Beijing has become less open to negotiation, the Dalai Lama has become more desperately open. During the last few years he has been supporting a plan to scale back Tibetan demands to ask for only greater political autonomy as a state under China, rather than full liberation as a separate nation.
Things are getting desperate, as is shown by the recently announced plan of Samdhong Rinpoche, an elderly monk who currently heads the Tibetan exile parliament. He is planning to step down from his post in order to return to Tibet with a large group of followers and lead some kind of satyagraha or truth insistence campaign based on the non-violent principles of Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaigns in South Africa and India. At this point, however, his plan is only in a hyper-theoretical state.
The growing level of angry desperation and the lack of diplomatic openings can also be seen in the fact that both Tibetan radicals in India and the American scholar of Tibet Melvyn Goldstein (known to be extremely sycophantic to the Chinese government) are calling for immediate terrorist campaigns by Tibetan nationalists against important P.R.C. sites. They see such campaigns as the last chance for the cause of Tibetan independence and perhaps even for Tibetan autonomy and cultural survival.
Short of going to Tibet to practice civil disobedience and/or blow things up, the main thing that you can really do is to show solidarity with economic aid for Tibetan refugees and political support for those dissidents struggling inside Tibet. However it is also extremely important that all activists and radicals who oppose capitalism, authoritarianism, economic imperialism, and environmental destruction become aware of the situation in Tibet. Only with awareness can we ever hope to take advantage of any future opportunities for stronger action in this struggle. For more information on the issue or on how you can become involved, try contacting the following organizations:
Bay Area Friends of Tibet,
2288 Fulton St. #312,
ph. 548-1271, 548-5879;
Tibetan Aid Project,
2910 San Pablo Ave.,
ph. 848- TIBET or 800-33-TIBET;
Milarepa, 2350 Taylor St., S.F.,
474-0866 or 888-MILAREPA.