From Sat May 27 12:20:20 2000
Date: Sat, 27 May 2000 00:27:21 -0500 (CDT)
From: Evan Roberts <>
Subject: tibet: a critique of free tibet activism
Organization:—Before you buy.
Article: 97058
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A critique of ‘free tibet’ activism

By Evan Roberts, 27 May 2000

The people of Tibet and their nonviolent struggle are crucial for all peoples. The Tibetans will not resort to guns or bombs. It is nonviolence in its purest and most essential form.

website of the Milarepa Fund

More than 500,000 pounds—250 tons—of...military gear...were dropped by the CIA to the Tibetan resistance forces from 1957 to 1961.

former CIA agent John Kenneth Knaus, in his book
Orphans of the Cold War

Only deities that are recognized by the [Dalai Lama's] government may be worshipped. Worshipping deities that are not recognized by the government is against the law.

Tibetan exile politician Tashi Angdu

Organizations and individuals throughout the world have called on the US and other governments to pressure the Chinese government to get out of Tibet. And they have promoted the image of pre-1950s Tibet as a land of mystical harmony under the benevolent rule of the god-king known as the Dalai Lama.

There are two problems with this. The smaller problem is the glorification of a bunch of feudal serf-owners and theocrats. The bigger problem is looking to the US government to force China out of Tibet thereby giving cover for Washington's moves towards a military confrontation with China.

The strange affair of Dorje Shugden One peculiar scandal involving the Tibetan government-in-exile headed by the Dalai Lama helps cut through the layers of myth to the underlying reality.

Dorje Shugden is a once-respectable Tibetan Buddhist god. But now the Dalai Lama says anyone who worships him is aiding the Chinese Communist occupiers of Tibet. Those who persist in the worship of Shugden have been driven out of Tibetan exile communities, beaten, their possessions destroyed. Three monks have been killed in this dispute.

Wall posters and newspaper ads egg on the vigilantes. The Tibetan government-in-exile rules that no follower of Shugden may be a government official. The Dalai Lama writes to the abbot of Seramey Monastery, Should anyone continue to believe in the deity Dorje Shugden, make a list with his name, address, birth place...keep the original and send a copy to us.

Yet somehow Tibet's former feudal elite retain their image as pacifist defenders of religious freedom—against ‘godless totalitarianism’ of the Chinese Revolution, of course.

History of the confict

1949—the peasant armies led by the Chinese Communist Party win the civil war. The new government begins consolidating its control over the territory claimed by the former rulers, who have fled to Taiwan.

June 1949—the Indian government, encouraged by the US and Britain, begins supplying weapons, ammunition, and training to the Tibetan army.

June 1950—the Korean War begins.

August 1950—the US government offers to send arms to Tibet.

Fall 1950—the Chinese army crosses the Yangtze river into the territory ruled by the Dalai Lama. Whether these lands were legally part of China or an independent country has been endlessly debated. In any case the Tibetan people, like any other, have the right to self-determination whether or not they were previously conquered by China's emperors.

The Tibetan army was unable to put up an effective fight due to its out-of-date organization and methods. (Most of its soldiers were peasants doing their corvee. What's corvee, you ask? Here's how the American Heritage Dictionary defines it: 1.Labor exacted by a local authority for little or no pay or instead of taxes and used especially in the maintenance of roads. 2. A day of unpaid work required of a vassal by his feudal lord. It's originally a French word, but a number of authors use it in describing Tibet.)

The Tibetan government had no choice but to agree to Chinese troops entering Tibet. In exchange, Mao's government promised to respect local self-government, and, more importantly, not to touch the property and privileges of the hereditary nobility and the religious hierarchy. In essence, the so-called Communist Party of China promised there would be no social revolution in Tibet.

Both sides stood to gain from keeping this agreement—only the Tibetan peasants were left out. But it was inevitable that both sides would break it. The contradiction between Tibet's social structure and the revolutionary upheaval sweeping China could not be smoothed over.

Social structure

As David Patt—an admirer of the old Tibet—admits in his book A Strange Liberation, Unquestionably the political power in the country was held by two major groups: a collection of aristocratic families or clans, and the monastic establishment.... The aristocracy and the monasteries owned huge estates, usually received as patronage from the central government. Many small peasants owned their own plots, but many also worked the land of the great estates, owned by the monasteries and leading families. A taxation system which demanded payment to the local authority, either in grain or free labor, kept such peasant families bound to their estates and deep in debt.

In general, Asian countries did not go through exactly the same stages of social evolution as Europe did. But the similarity of Patt's description to Europe in the Middle Ages is striking.

Even the arguments used to justify this system only confirm its feudal character:

Even the children of poor families could become monks and hope to climb up through the religious hierarchy.—Yes, just as in medieval Europe the Church was the main route for moving up in the class system. The Dalai Lama began some reforms after 1950.—Yes, just as the French aristocrats gave up some of their privileges, hoping to keep the Revolution from taking them all.

The Tibetan peasants were so religious they were glad to work to support the monasteries.—If they were so glad to support the monasteries, why was it necessary to compel them to work under penalty of law? And pre-1959 Tibetan justice was no pacifist affair. Floggings and whippings were common. Another punishment was gouging out the offenders' eyeballs. The nobility had judicial power over their own peasants. If the peasants were born poor and deprived, it was punishment for their sins in past lives.—I don't intend to debate theology, but this argument could be used to justify any kind of oppression—even the abuses of the Chinese occupation. After all, the Beijing regime could just as easily claim that anyone who suffers at its hands is also being punished by the gods for their own bad karma.

No country is allowed to invade, occupy, annex, and colonize another country just because its social structure does not please it.—Now this is a real point. It could well be applied to the many wars carried out by Washington in order to prevent or reverse anti-capitalist revolutions. And I don't intend to justify the Chinese occupation—it was up to Tibetans to make a revolution in Tibet. Who knows—if the Chinese Communist Party had been led by genuine communists (rather than Stalinists) the tremendous mass uprising that was the Chinese revolution might have inspired an indigenous revolutionary movement in Tibet.

Stalinist ‘revolution?’

Stalinists—including Mao and the current leaders of the Chinese Communist Party—are not motivated by the ideas of Marxism, which they falsely claim to represent. What they really represent is a privileged bureaucratic caste that looks out for its own self-preservation and economic interests. Anyone who thinks the brutality of Mao and his successors is caused by excessive revolutionary idealism is making the mistake of believing what Mao said about himself.

Still, from the beginning the Chinese government and army had a destabilizing effect in Tibet. There were the smaller ways, such as paying workers for road construction instead of pressing them into traditional unpaid serf labor. Or ruling that students in the Chinese-run schools didn't have to do corvee labor for their feudal lords.

But the greatest was the impact of the People's Liberation Army, which started as a peasant guerilla army and in the years immediately after the 1949 victory of the revolution, was still not so far from that origin.

What's more, rebellions were growing among Tibetans and other non-Chinese peoples in regions bordering the Dalai Lama's realm. The Chinese government was carrying out land reform and other social transformations in these neighboring regions, enraging feudal lords and their followers. The rebels were also angered by the Chinese Stalinists' chauvinistic lack of respect for their national and religious traditions.

By 1956, the CIA had agreed—at the request of the Dalai Lama's exiled brothers—to assist these rebels. Knaus says monks constituted more than half of the resistance force—another illustration of the limits of Buddhist pacifism. Refugees from conflicts in the border regions fled to central Tibet, further destabilizing the Dalai Lama's realm.

By 1959, anti-Chinese protests filled the streets of Lhasa, Tibet's capital. The Dalai Lama fled into exile and full-scale armed conflict broke out.

It was only then that Mao's government moved to abolish serfdom and feudal economic relations and to redistribute land to the peasants. This was in part an attempt to convince Tibetans to support the Chinese side of the war, and it had some success.

As Tibetan exile Ama Adse says in A Strange Liberation, The Chinese collected all the beggars in our region....They indoctrinated them, telling them 'You became poor because these monasteries and these noble estate-holders took your property. Otherwise you are a human being just like them.' Some of these poor Tibetans, she says, were really converted by the Chinese ideas.

This process, in which economic relations are overthrown after several years of trying to get along with the local exploiters, is similar to events in postwar Eastern Europe. When the Soviet army occupied Eastern Europe after World War #2, initially governments were set up which included representatives of the local capitalist classes. Several years later—after the capitalists and Stalinists had discovered that, in fact, they could not all just get along—capitalist property was nationalized.

The CIA continued supporting armed groups in Tibet up to 1962, by which time they had been militarily defeated. It hired a public relations firm for the Tibetan government-in-exile and paid the Dalai Lama's court a covert subsidy up to 1974, by which time Washington had begun treating the Chinese regime more like an ally against the Soviet Union—and a weapon against the VietNamese revolution.


I will not go into detail on the accusations by either side of horrific atrocities and human rights violations. I suspect that both the Chinese Stalinists and the Tibetan feudalists are guilty of most of the accusations they make against each other.

This doesn't mean the two sides are the same. Of course, accounts of atrocities will produce feelings of revulsion from any decent human being. But they are not by themselves the basis of real understanding and analysis.


It's not up to me to say whether or not Tibet should be independent. Nor is it up to the Tibetan government-in-exile. It's up to the Tibetan people.

I won't pretend to know what the majority in Tibet wants. After all, they don't have democratic rights or much political space to express themselves. However, street protests in Lhasa seem to indicate dissatisfaction with their rulers.

In any case, the real allies of anyone in Tibet wanting to fight against national oppression aren't the U.S. government and other imperialist powers. All of these powers are themselves oppressors and colonizers. No, their real allies are workers and peasants throughout the People's Republic of China.

U.S. goals

Why did Washington get involved in Tibet? Here's what John Knaus says: The primary objective has little to do with aiding the Tibetans: It was to impede and harass the Chinese Communists. And U.S. geopolitical interests would be served by forcing Mao to divert his already stretched resources to counter guerrillas in a remote and rebellious area. He was in a position to know. When he was with the CIA, he helped train Tibetans in guerilla warfare at a base in Colorado.

China is, potentially, a tremendous market and source of exploitable labor-power. The world's imperial powers squabbled for decades over who would control it. Imagine their rage when the Chinese declared that they would control their own country—and worse, nationalized capitalist property. For decades, Washington attacked China in every way it felt it could get away with.

Now, of course, all kinds of US businesses are operating in China. They benefit from the regime's repression against workers, including its ban on independent unions. So what's up with the increasing hostility towards China among many in Washington?

All the talk about human rights, prison labor, democracy, Tibet, and so forth is just a smokescreen. If these politicians were against prison labor they could oppose it here—prisons hold a much bigger percentage of the US population than China's.

Trade issues, though, are not a smokescreen. Of course, they want China to buy more stuff from U.S. companies, pay royalties on intellectual property, and so forth.

But there's more to it. The imperialists sense the limits on how far they can go in restoring capitalism in China without the massive application of military force. Perhaps they've learned something from the problems they're having trying to restore capitalism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

War moves

Consider the following:

Of course, the popular reaction in China to the embassy bombing is even more significant than the attack itself. It shows the Chinese people's anti-imperialist consciousness, courtesy of a long history of being kicked around and divided up by Japan and the West. It also shows a lot of anti-capitalist anger directed at businesses operating in China.

So it's in this whole context that the call comes for U.S. government action to free Tibet.

I'm sure the people who make this demand don't intend to clear the road for war. They're not all big fans of the U.S. government, either.

And they say they're just calling for economic sanctions against China. But economic war is . . . war. And it often leads to shooting war, Iraq and Yusoslabvia being just the latest examples.

Different way

Let me suggest that the main enemy is at home. That those living in the U.S. have a duty first of all to oppose the crimes of the U.S. government (which, of course, include arming numerous repressive regimes around the world). That the U.S. is the strongest imperial power in history and therefore the main enemy of humanity. That the nation which oppresses another forges its own chains.

The same applies to those who live in other imperialist countries. For example, how can anyone in the United Kingdom call for China to get out of Tibet while Britain remains in Ireland? Anyone in Canada while the Quebecois and Natives remain oppressed?

Let people in China—including the Tibetan portion—deal with Beijing's crimes. Of course denouncing them from North America, Europe, or Japan is both easy and safe. It's also worse than useless.

Note on sources

Even the most basic facts are disputed when it comes to Tibet. For maximum credibility, I have relied mostly on sources with a viewpoint opposite to my own like Orphans of the Cold War by John Kenneth Knaus, and A Strange Liberation by David Patt. The information on the Dorje Shugden Affair is drawn mostly from transcripts of German and Swiss TV programs found on the Dorje Shugden Society's website at [URL missing].

A useful book is The Snow Lion and the Dragon by Melvyn C. Goldstein. The author maintains a stance of academic neutrality. For those interested in the views of Tibetan freedom activists I recommend. [URL missing]

In no case have I quoted Chinese Stalinist sources. However, those interested can examine or Tibet Transformed by Israel Epstein (New World Press, Beijing).

This article is also available on I also recommend an article at

Two informative books have come to my attention since I wrote the above article. They are: The Dragon in the Land of Snows by Tsering Shakya and History of Modern Tibet 1913-1951: Demise of the Lamaist State by Melvyn Goldstein. I mention them for the information of those wanting to research further, not because I agree with their politics. Of course, no source of information is unbiased.