by Bill Weinberg, AlterNet

With the crisis in Tibet, the left in the US finds itself once again at risk of losing precious moral credibility with the American people by apologizing for atrocities. If “Free Tibet” has become an unthinking bandwagon for many, so too has a kneejerk reaction from sectors of the radical left against the Tibetan struggle.

Over the past two months since the March 10 uprising, the Chinese security forces have carried out sweeps and “disappearances,” occupied monasteries and villages, and opened fire on unarmed protesters. When such actions are carried out by US allies such as Israel or Colombia—or in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan—we don’t have to ask ourselves whose side we are on. Like the Palestinians, the Tibetans have been pushed into exile, denied self-government in their homeland, and overwhelmed with settlers sent by the occupying power. We have a greater responsibility of solidarity to the Palestinians, because our government funds their oppression. But the fact that US imperialism is attempting to exploit their struggle does not mean we have no responsibilities to the Tibetans.

Tibet will especially need solidarity from anti-imperialists in the West if it is to avoid becoming a pawn in the Great Game for control of Asia. The US exploits the Tibetan movement for moral leverage against China (which has as its ultimate aims market penetration and military domestication, not Tibetan freedom), but is not going to risk a complete break with Beijing by supporting Tibet to the ultimate consequences. The CIA backed a small Tibetan insurgency in the ’50s—then did nothing as it was brutally crushed. The worst of the repression was in 1956—the same year the Hungarian workers learned a similarly bitter lesson. The Iraqi Kurds would also learn it in the aftermath of Desert Storm.

Today, the National Endowment for Democracy provides funds for Tibetan human-rights groups in exile, and the Dalai Lama has met with Bush and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. It pains us to see the Dalai Lama cozying up to Washington—just as it should pain us to see Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez cozying up to Beijing. However, there are reasons behind such alliances. Bolivia and Venezuela need a non-US market for their hydrocarbons if they are to break free of the US orbit. The Tibetans perceive that they need powerful allies if they are to recover their homeland and right of self-determination. Leftist betrayal of the Tibetan struggle will only entrench whatever illusions the Tibetan exile leadership harbor about US intentions.

The Dalai Lama is not demanding independence for Tibet. He wants autonomy for Tibet within a unified People’s Republic of China. His demand is essentially the same as that of the Zapatistas, who seek local Maya autonomy within Mexico. He calls for coexistence with Han Chinese. Hardliners in the exile community in India—especially in the Tibetan Youth Congress—are rapidly losing patience with such tolerant positions, as Beijing remains intransigent. Again, a betrayal of Tibetan solidarity by progressives in the West will only validate the hardline stance.

We must also realize that the US-China tensions are about imperial rivalry only (and especially the scramble for Africa’s oil)—not ideology. China is not communist in anything other than name. Some of the most savage capitalism on earth prevails in the so-called “People’s Republic.” The lands of peasants are expropriated in sleazy deals for industrial projects and the vulgar mansions of the nouveau riche—leading to a wave of harsh repression against peasant communities over the past few years. Especially in the industrial heartland around Fujian, peasants have taken up farm implements against police in militant protests over the enclosure and pollution of their village lands. The state has struck back with sweeps, “disappearances” and programs of forced sterilization—the same tactics US client states use in Latin America. In “illegal” factories—which do not exist on paper but are encouraged by corrupt authorities—workers don’t even have the minimum social security or wages, and labor in virtual servitude. Shantytowns have sprung up around the industrial cities of the northeast. The fruits of this hyper-exploitation are sold to US consumers at WalMart.

Despite the recent tensions, the Beijing bureaucracy has embraced the methods and ideology of the US “war on terror,” and joined Washington in demonizing the Uighur self-determination struggle in China’s far western Xinjiang province, known to the Muslim Uighurs as East Turkestan. The US added the East Turkestan Islamic Movement to the “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” list in a bid to win China’s connivance with military action against Iraq at the UN in 2002. In March of this year, with the world’s eyes on Tibet, China also put down a wave of Uighur protests in Xinjiang—while the US holds Uighur militants at Guantanamo.

Whatever we thought about Chinese communism, it is long gone. Mao is being de-emphasized in the school textbooks—and he is chiefly celebrated for giving China the nuclear bomb, not for leading a peasants’ revolution. The Beijing bureaucracy may rule in the name of a Chinese Communist Party, but it arguably has more in common with Pinochet’s model than Mao’s. If under Mao, Han chauvinism was linked to an ultra-left ideology, today it is linked to ultra-capitalism. Tibet is turned into a Disney-fied Tibetland for the international tourism trade—even as journalists are barred, and the inhabitants are relocated into government-controlled (and Orwellianly-named) “socialist villages.”

A March 18 AP shot by photographer Ng Han Guan said it all: Wen Jiabao’s giant face spews forth anti-Tibet invective from a screen overlooking a Beijing mall—directly above a McDonald’s golden-arches symbol.

Tibet could explode again during the Beijing Olympics, and progressives in the West will have to determine whose side they are on. It is important that we not be drawn into an ethnic divide-and-conquer strategy. 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.

Indigenous peoples around the world instinctively understand the Tibetan struggle. They see in Tibet their own struggles for recovery of land and autonomy. When Chilean president Michelle Bachelet opposed a measure by her congress in support of Tibet, a solidarity website for Chile’s Mapuche people commented: “The government of Bachelet…know that they have their own Mapcuhe Tibet.” First Nations leaders in Canada have threatened to launch a Tibet-style protest campaign around the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. “We find the Tibetan situation compelling,” said Phil Fontaine, chief of Canada’s Assembly of First Nations.

If we are going to speak up on these and other such struggles in our own hemisphere, tactical considerations as well as moral imperatives demand that we not remain silent now about Tibet—or loan comfort to its oppressors and occupiers.


Bill Weinberg is editor of the online journal World War 4 Report and author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso 2000).

This article first appeared May 14 on AlterNet.


Dalai Lama statement on the current crisis, April 6, 2008

Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy

Tibetan Youth Congress

Uyghur Human Rights Project

AP photo on Wen’s McCommunism

From our daily report:

China arrests Tibetan nuns in Sichuan
WW4 Report, May 22, 2008

US defends detention of Uighurs at Gitmo; China defends detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang
WW4 Report, April 6, 2008

China: repression follows peasant protests over reproductive rights
WW4 Report, May 26, 2007


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, June 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution

  1. Erratum re. Tibetan insurgency
    It has come to our attention that this piece incorrectly places the CIA-backed Tibetan insurgency in the 1950s. In fact, the guerilla movement was launched in response to the 1956 repression, and reached its height in the 1960s. It was dropped by the CIA when the US established ties with the People’s Republic of China in 1974. (See World War 4 Report, July 6, 2008)