China: Han-Tibetan solidarity emerging

Police in Sechuan's Aba county on Dec. 11 detained two Tibetan men—a monk at the local Kirti monastery and his nephew—on charges of "inciting" self-immolations. Four days earlier, the self-immolation of a 17-year-old girl at Rebkong monastery town in Qinghai brought the total number of such cases to 95. Chinese authorities again accused the Dalai Lama of encouraging the practice. (The Hindu, Dec. 11) The following day, the New York Times ran an op-ed, "Tibet is Burning," by prominent human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong, who has defended peasants struggling to keep their lands before China's onslaught of "development."  Xu writes about his journey in October to pay respects to the family of Nangdrol, an 18-year-old self-immolation martyr. Paraphrasing the note left by Nangdrol, Xu calls the current situation in Tibet "scarless torture." He writes about his fellow passengers on his ride in a car packed with locals to Nangdrol's hometown of Barma in northeast Tibet:

"Pardon me, but do you hate the Hans?" I asked them because Nangdrol had used the term "Han devils" in his suicide note. They'd heard about Nangdrol. When I told them I was there to visit Nangdrol's parents to express my sadness, they told me more.

They said they’d been to the site, as hundreds of Tibetans had. People had set up white tents at the intersection where he died. "He is our hero," one said.

It was dark when we arrived in Barma. At a lamppost, one of my fellow passengers asked a man for directions but was waved off. At a crossroads, he asked two men on motorcycles and an argument broke out. A monk came to the window to examine me.

"Sorry," my fellow passenger said, "they scolded me for taking you here." A minivan approached. Two men jumped out of it and upbraided him indignantly. Fear and hostility shrouded the place like night.

"We are Tibetans," he said all of a sudden as we left Barma in silence to spend the night in a nearby town. "We are Buddhists, but we can’t go to Lhasa without a permit." Years ago, you could see many Tibetans on their pilgrimage to Lhasa, but not anymore…

I am sorry we Han Chinese have been silent as Nangdrol and his fellow Tibetans are dying for freedom. We are victims ourselves, living in estrangement, infighting, hatred and destruction. We share this land. It’s our shared home, our shared responsibility, our shared dream — and it will be our shared deliverance.

China Digital Times notes Xu Zhiyong, co-founder of Open Constitution Initiative (Gongmeng) legal advocacy group, was arrested and charged with tax evasion in 2009 before the case was dismissed. His work on behalf of China's besieged peasantry is instructive. As we have observed, one reason China's rulers are so intransigent on Tibet could be the potential for an alliance between the Tibetans and Han Chinese workers and peasants against the Beijing bureaucracy. And, as we have noted, there have been some encouraging (or ominous, depending on your POV) signs of this, at least among China's intelligentsia—in 2008, pro-democracy activists, led by writer Wang Lixiong and dissident Liu Xiaobo, publicly urged the government to open a dialogue with the Dalai Lama.  Wang Lixiong and his wife, the Tibetan writer Woeser, have also spoken out in support of civil rights for the Uighur people in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region

But the peasant unrest (probably perceived as a greater threat by the Beijing bureaucracy than the Tibetan and Uighur ethnic struggles) raises questions about the free-market assumptions of some of the dissidents, at least—notably Liu Xiaobo, who poses "property rights" as central to pro-democracy demands. As we've stated before:

In the '30s and '40s, when the peasants were essentially serfs under an oppressive land-owning class, their demands for land security—which were at the heart of the Chinese Revolution—naturally assumed the vocabulary of nationalization and expropriation. Now that the peasants are essentially serfs under a corrupt one-party state which officially owns all the land, their demands for land security naturally assume the vocabulary of local "ownership rights." Their fundamental demands have not changed. But their aspirations could end up being grotesquely betrayed if free-trade "reform" is successfully proffered as the answer to their grievances.

And the Tibetan movement, alas, has already become a pawn of the West in the Great Game for Central Asia. Perhaps a ripe time to revive the forgotten history of Tibetan Marxism


  1. Xu Zhiyon embraces Tibetan nomenclature in geography wars
    It just occurred to us—Xu Zhiyon refers to Barma only as a “northeast Tibetan town.” In fact, it does not lie within the borders of the Tibet Autonomous Region but, as we have noted, in Sichuan province. Xu stops short of embracing Tibetan separatism (indeed, his call for Han-Tibetan unity seems inimical to separatism), but he has evidently adopted the geographical nomenclature of “Greater Tibet.” Nowhere in his little travelogue does he mention that he was in Sichuan, officially…

    1. Tibetans outside Tibet Autonomous Region
      There are hundreds of all-Tibetan communities outside the Tibet Autonomous Region. In fact, ‘most’ – if ‘most’ is defined as more than 50% – Tibetans in China do not live in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The variation in Tibetan populations is very substantial. For example, how many people know and write about the three hundred thousand plus Tibetans living in Baltistan, Pakistan? 

  2. Han Chinese and Tibetan
    As long as they don’t press for separatism, we can live very peacefully with Tibetans. They can even continue their cultural practices if they do so quietly. Tibetan started this whole vicious cycle by rioting in 2008. As for Dalai Lama, we have already spelled out the terms of his return to Tibet many years ago. Those terms will never change. If Tibetans believe they can get more rights by applying pressure they are mistaken. Agitation and protest will only bring more restrictions.

    1. I don’t speak for the Tibetans…
      But saying “they can even continue their cultural practices” is pretty condescending, and even worse when you add “if they do so quietly.” They want political autonomy, not merely cultural rights. And you need to examine the causes for the 2008 uprising before you say that’s what “started this whole vicious cycle.” If everything was OK in 2008, there wouldn’t have been any uprising. What alternative do you see to “agitation and protest”?

      One of my own country’s great freedom fighters, Frederick Douglass, wrote: “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

  3. Dalai Lama: “I’m a Marxist”!

    It just came to our attention that USA Today's Faith & Reason blog on June 10, 2011 made note of a remarkable bit of reportage by a Minneapolis-born journalist of Tibetan background, Tsering Namgyal, who went to hear the Dalai Lama speak to a group of Chinese students at the University of Minnesota and wrote it up for Religion Dispatches website:

    The Dalai Lama's good humor and his frequent use of Chinese words (Chinese political slogans, communist party titles, names of legendary leaders) sent the students into sporadic fits of giggles. Midway through the conversation, His Holiness, much to their surprise, told them "as far as socio-political beliefs are concerned, I consider myself a Marxist." "But not a Leninist," he clarified.

    During the question and answer session, a student…asked about the contradiction inherent in the Dalai Lama's economic philosophy and Marx's critique of religion. The Tibetan leader answered that Marx was not against religion or religious philosophy per se but against religious institutions that were allied, during Marx's time, with the European ruling class. He also provided an interesting anecdote about his experience with Mao. He said that Mao had felt that the Dalai Lama's mind was very logical, implying that Buddhist education and training help sharpens the mind. He said he met with Mao several times, and that once, during a meeting in Beijing, the Chinese leader called him in and announced: "Your mind is scientific!"—an assessment that was followed by the famous line, "religion is poison."

    But the interesting paradox here is that rather than religion being seen as a poison, it has become one of the most sought-after commodities in China…

    Now, Marxism, purported to be the guiding philosophy of the Chinese Community Party, has been replaced by American style capitalism in China. But the author of Das Kapital must be laughing in his grave for gaining new converts in the West, particularly in the academia, following the global financial crisis.

    Wow. This is remarkable several different ways. First, big kudos to Tsering Namgyal for having the foresight to perserve this quote for posterity and, even more so, for recognizing that China's "Communist Party" has completely embraced capitalism (something that commentators on the left and right alike who inhabit a Cold War time-warp refuse to get). Second, big kudos to the Dalai Lama for recognizing that there is no contradiction between his demands for an autonomous Tibet and the struggle for a classless society! We wish someone had been on hand to ask for his thoughts on the legacy of Bapa Phuntso Wangye—the Tibetan Marxist leader who struggled for an autonomous homeland during Mao's revolution (eventually being purged for his efforts). Bigger kudos still to His Holiness (yes, a rather un-Marxist honorific) for grasping the distinction between Marxism and Leninism—another subtlety invariably lost on the Cold War time-warp crowd. 

    Marx's widely misunderstood phrase "dictatorship of the proletariat" did not imply rule by a "vanguard party"—that was Lenin's innovation, and as Yugoslav dissident Marxist Milovan Djilas later pointed out, the vanguard party showed an almost inevitable tendency to become the ruling "New Class," replicating capitalist power relations under "Communism." An unorthodox Marxism stripped of its authoritarian Leninist baggage is precisley what is needed for the new crisis of capitalism we have been witnessing for the past four years—a crisis now spreading to China, as renewed labor militancy there unequivocally demonstrates. It can be argued that the contemporary Chinese state is precisely the opposite: It has kept Lenin (a ruling single party) but utterly abandoned Marx!

    As we've stated before, we aren't going to weigh in on whether the Maoist system was (as the Maoists hold) authentically socialist or (as the Trotskyists hold) a "deformed workers' state" or (as the unorthodox Marxists and anarchists hold) state-capitalist. The point is that it, whatever it was, is gone. Under Deng Xiaoping it began to transform into an openly state-capitalist system, in the style of Mexico under the PRI, and since his death has become ever more an "American-style" system of unregulated capitalism. If the Dalai Lama would emphasize his Marxism more (and his New Age platitudes less), he would actually become a greater threat to the Beijing bureacracy. A united front of captive nations seeking autonomy, such as the Tibetans and Uighurs, with the disenfranchised Han workers and peasants could actually have the potential to get the Chinese Revolution back on track… 1911, 1949, 2013?

    Stay tuned.