March 14 will mark the fifth anniversary of the protests across Tibetan-populated regions against suffocating political and religious repression by the Communist Party (CCP) regime. This also coincides with the anniversary, on March 10, of the crushing of the Tibetan revolt of 1959. Up to 200 people lost their lives in the countdown to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, in the most serious upheavals in Tibet since 1989. The protests began peacefully, until repression by the state triggered riots and serious inter-ethnic clashes between Tibetans and Han Chinese, and led many in China to support the subsequent crackdown.
Five years on, and the agony of Tibetans is expressed in a wave of horrific self-immolations. More than 100 ethnic Tibetans have set themselves on fire over the past two years in a shocking new method of protest against Chinese state repression. Of these suicides and attempted suicides, around one-fifth were just 18 years of age of younger.
Carrot and stick
The militarized response of the CCP dictatorship has failed to quell these protests and bring ‘stability’. Religious oppression always and everywhere reinforces the grip of religion rather than reducing it. This has been the experience throughout the Muslim world in the last quarter of a century and there are examples with other faiths. As we socialists warned five years ago, the intensified crackdown on Tibetan Buddhist religious institutions – many of which are now under military rule – and on all expressions of Tibetan ‘separatism’ such as pictures of the Dalai Lama, has further alienated large numbers of Tibetan youth especially.
Like a machine with just one setting, the CCP regime has only one answer to the current spate of political suicides – more repression! Last month a court in Gansu province sentenced three Tibetans to up to 15 years in prison after finding them guilty of “intentional homicide” for allegedly encouraging self-immolations. In Qinghai, over 70 have been arrested in recent weeks on similar charges. A 20-year old artist from Lhasa received two years in a labour camp for possessing digital photographs of two self-immolators.
Beijing’s strategy of adding some ‘carrots’ to the ‘stick’ of repression, by boosting investments into Tibetan regions, has not helped to alleviate the situation. Despite large-scale construction projects, especially into the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), in the past few years, the wealth gap has widened, with most Tibetans trapped at the bottom. Frenzied property speculation has pushed house prices out of reach of the majority in cities such as Lhasa, as in cities across China. A booming economy has mainly benefited the increasing numbers of Han Chinese and excludes Tibetans, especially the young, who more than ever move to other parts of China for work. Jiang Zemin’s famous slogan “grasping with both hands” – using repression and investment – translates into a stranglehold for the oppressed Tibetan masses.
The processes at work in Tibetan-populated regions resemble those across China as the gap between rich and poor reaches explosive levels. Land grabs to feed the urban property bubble are displacing rural communities without providing jobs or a sustainable alternative lifestyle. More than one million Tibetan herders have been resettled, many into urban compounds where they live on a small government grant. “People who live in these houses look at it like a jail,” one young Tibetan told the International Herald Tribune (25 February 2013).
As with the street protests of five years ago, most self-immolations have occurred not inside the TAR, but in nominally ‘autonomous’ Tibetan-populated regions of provinces like Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu. “Today it is in Sichuan’s highlands that the authorities appear to be struggling most to contain simmering discontent among ethnic Tibetans,” reported The Economist. This represents a shift, and for Beijing a new strategic headache. In the past these regions were seen as comparatively ‘stable’, with good relations between ethnic communities including Han and Tibetans. The iron fist of CCP rule, and its ‘zero tolerance’ towards legitimate demands for religious and cultural freedom, have resulted in increased nationalism both among the majority and minority communities.
Riot police were called to quell violent clashes between Han and Tibetan students at a collage in Chengdu in late 2011, caused by Beijing’s educational policies which manifest nationalist and bureaucratic dogmatism. Han students at the school began posting online protests against Tibetan students receiving government subsidies. Among many Han students this perceived ‘favouritism’ caused great resentment. But at the same time Tibetan students feel aggrieved because they must study far from home – and in Mandarin – in order to obtain a university education. It shows incredible rigidity that the Chinese regime insists on Mandarin language teaching in higher education. This ignores the examples from many countries with multilingual education systems. Even Tibetan language classes operating outside the state-controlled education system have been closed by authorities.
The desperation that is driving Tibetan self-immolations is a product of the regime’s crackdown. It also reflects frustration among radicalised Tibetans after their Olympic-linked mass protests were isolated and thwarted in 2008. Many activists fighting for self-determination and for an end to Chinese state repression were surprised and disoriented by the refusal of the so-called ‘international community’ to raise its voice in support of Tibetan rights or support calls to boycott the Beijing games despite the widespread sympathy for the Tibetan cause among ordinary people overseas. But as socialists explained at that time, it was predictable that capitalist Western governments and institutions like the UN, which are tied through multi-billion dollar business contracts and trade links into a close economic relationship with the CCP dictatorship, would adopt a low-key approach over the events in Tibet and not allow this to interfere with business.
Whenever the capitalist powers intervene abroad to champion ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’, these slogans are a cover of pure hypocrisy to hide their real aims, which are rooted in capitalism’s chase for markets, resources and profits. The disastrous US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not about ‘democracy’ but about oil, control of a vital region, and projecting US power. The Chinese regime supported the US in these conflicts, for its own great power reasons. The capitalist ‘international community’ has an appalling track record of betraying oppressed nationalities such as the Palestinians, Kurds and Rohingya. The Tibetan struggle ignores these historical lessons at its peril. Similarly, the Arab revolutions, when the masses of Egypt and Tunisia toppled military dictators, and the key role of independent unions and workers’ strikes in these struggles, hold vital lessons for Tibet’s future.
Socialists support the right of the Tibetan people to independence. We fight for full democratic rights in China and internationally, including freedom of religion, while underlining that separation of the state and religion is a vital democratic safeguard. But to win freedom from national oppression, the Tibetan youth especially must see their struggle as linked to the struggle of the working masses across China against the same one-party dictatorship. Working class unity and international solidarity are the key to success in this struggle, rather than false hopes in foreign governments and capitalist institutions.
For the same reasons, the ‘middle way’ strategy put forward by the exile Tibetan leadership and most vocally by the Dalai Lama, of hoped for negotiations and compromise with the CCP, will lead nowhere. Frustration over this abortive strategy has radicalised more and more Tibetan youth but is also one of the factors fuelling the wave of self-immolations. These reveal a feeling of powerlessness flowing from the lack of mass struggle and a viable strategy to take on the Chinese regime.
Similar vain hopes in the willingness or ability of the CCP leaders to negotiate are harboured by sections of the pan democratic leaders in Hong Kong. They falsely believe by practicing ‘moderation’ they can get special terms for Hong Kong, in return for accepting continued dictatorial rule on the Chinese mainland. By so doing they weaken, not strengthen, the struggle for democratic rights in Hong Kong, by turning away from the main force to achieve change – the gigantic but as yet unorganized working class of China. The CCP regime fears the break-up of China and for this reason resists granting political concessions to Tibet, just as it wants to curb Hong Kong’s increasingly radical ‘protest culture’, fearing any precedents that could encourage other regions to challenge Beijing’s control.
As many commentators have said recently, China’s new leaders face the spectre of ‘revolution’ if today’s grievous social contradictions and economic imbalances continue. While it has yet to build independent organisations, it is the working class, the real creator of wealth in society, that is the key to change in China and everywhere else.
It is towards this revolutionary perspective, for a democratic and socialist transformation in China, Tibet, and internationally, that the advanced Tibetan youth should turn their focus. Socialists stand for united working class struggle to win decent jobs, affordable homes and free healthcare. This requires democratic public ownership and planning of the economy. For this struggle to succeed, democratic fighting organisations are needed, students’ unions, women’s organisations and especially workers’ organisations, to elect representatives for the struggle, and decide policies, tactics and methods.
We stand for the immediate withdrawal of paramilitary forces from Tibetan areas, and a working class appeal to end the tragic self-immolations in favour of common struggle against the current system. We defend the right of all national and linguistic groups to use their mother tongue at school and in their interactions with government. We call for a truly free press, not monopolised by business interests or government, free from political censorship and with generous funding for minority language publications and broadcasting. Socialists stand for united struggle by working people of all nationalities against capitalist exploitation, for a genuine and voluntary socialist confederation of states throughout Asia, with the right of nations to self-determination, including to separate if this is their wish.
We warn that on a capitalist basis there can be no genuine national independence, especially for smaller states, only neo-colonial control by bigger powers (for example nominally independent Nepal, which neighbours Tibet, is bossed by both India and China). The struggle for freedom in Tibet can only succeed as a socialist struggle to remake the world!