March 2009 sees the fiftieth anniversary of the triumph of the socialist revolution in China’s Tibet province. The decisive rout of the serf-owners revolt in March 1959 drew a line under centuries of feudal backwardness and decades of imperialist manipulation, most notably by Britain. By giving their support to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and their battle to unify all the peoples of China under the common banner of socialism, the Tibetan masses broke with a whole epoch of subservience to slavery and serfdom.
When we consider that this year will also mark the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) itself, we need to account for the apparent delay of nearly ten years in the progress of the Chinese revolution. To understand this, we need to recognise both the depth of the oppression suffered by the Tibetan masses and the strenuous efforts made by foreign powers to preserve this feudal backwardness and turn it to their own advantage.
England herself had seen the back of serfdom proper by the fourteenth century, as early bourgeois development began to undermine the feudal foundations. However twentieth century British imperialism proved more than happy that Tibet should remain steeped in that feudal backwardness from which bourgeois society had long since escaped, hoping thereby to render them easy targets for annexation. So it was that modern, “enlightened” bourgeois democracy embraced as brothers the warlords, serf-owners, tyrant priests and torturers of feudal Tibet.
British imperialism strained every muscle to wrest this province from China and make it part of “British” India, “rescuing” it from the democratic progress being fought for by the Chinese masses. In 1912 Britain tried to make recognition of the new republic, founded in 1911 under the progressive leadership of Sun Yat Sen, conditional upon Tibet’s exclusion from unified Chinese administration, and in 1914 a suitably groomed Tibetan puppet of imperialism was bullied and cajoled into signing off the so-called “McMahon line”, carving off 90,000 square kilometres of south-eastern Tibet to the British Raj.
A key focus of Britain’s meddling was the old Tibetan army. Despite its feudal backwardness – serfs led by aristocrats and priests on the basis of blind obedience – the army had put up some brave resistance when Britain invaded in 1904, until Britain’s superior firepower won the day. In the ensuing years, however, whilst the rest of China was plunged into the struggle against Japanese imperialism and the class struggle against the comprador and warlord forces, the Tibetan army was being systematically corrupted into little more than a fifth column of Britain’s Indian army. The Tibetan army was supplied with British rifles, machine guns and ammunition, it was drilled using English commands, and its soldiers were posted to India for training. The purpose of all this was to break Tibet from China (of which the province had formed an integral part since the thirteenth century) and to convert Tibetan serfs into British cannon fodder.
The real role of this supposedly “Tibetan” army became abundantly clear when the victorious forces of the PLA advanced in the direction of Tibet, taking Qamdo. In his book “Tibet Transformed” (New World Press, 1983) to which this article is indebted for much of its information, Israel Epstein notes that the army “was serving the interests both of Tibetan feudalism and of imperialism.” He continues: “Its arms were British, its radio communications were in the hands of British nationals, who did more than tap keys. One of them, Robert Ford, later wrote that he also provided such ‘advice’ as ‘put some Bren guns in the hills and dynamite the bridges’”. Another such British “adviser”, styling himself the “Foreign Minister of Independent Tibet”, urged the army to make a proper how of resistance, the better to “mobilise world opinion” so that “the Americans will feel that they ought to give immediate and substantial military aid, possibly by air” (Epstein, p.214).
The PLA easily repelled the demoralised serf army in October 1950. However sooner than advance straight away to liberate Lhasa, the patriot army bided its time, remaining in Qamdo until the following summer. Whilst there the PLA fought an even more significant battle than the taking of Qamdo: the struggle to demonstrate in practice how an army of liberated serfs defending the new China differed from an army of oppressed serfs driven to defend the interests of warlords and imperialists.
A revealing eyewitness to this political struggle was no less than the bloodthirsty Robert Ford already referred to – an unlikely enough apologist for the revolution! Ford wrote that the PLA “made it clear that they had no quarrel with the Tibetan religion. Nor with the Tibetan people, who were treated correctly. In spite of the tremendous supply problem the Chinese army did not live off the country… And the soldiers had strict orders to respect both the persons and property of civilians and make friends with them by all possible means” (Epstein, pp. 214-5). He went on to admit that, whereas captured PLA men had earlier faced slaughter at the hands of their captors, the troops of the vanquished Tibetan army were simply lined up, given safe conduct passes and told to go back to Lhasa.
Only after negotiations with the Dalai Lama had borne fruit in the May 1951 agreement on measures for the peaceful liberation of Tibet did the PLA advance on Lhasa. Again, the most difficult battle the volunteers of the PLA had to fight was the battle against the reactionary influence of serf-owners, tyrant priests and imperialists. Epstein quotes one such volunteer. “Every item and service bought from the people was paid for. But some aristocrats tried a boycott. They threatened to punish the serfs who sold us things, or did anything for us. Also, they told lies about us, which many at first believed. We made allowances for this. These people had seen nothing but oppressors. They had to convince themselves that we were different through new experience. So we let our actions speak, carrying water for them and helping repair houses which were falling apart. As a result they began to invite us to stay in their homes, and it was only then we did so, paying rent even when they didn’t want to accept it. We were drilled never to transgress their customs and feelings. We never fished in the streams even when hungry. We never entered a temple…” (Epstein, pp. 193-4). Through such instructive encounters with the PLA, repeated thousands of times, the Tibetan masses came to understand who were their friends and who their enemies.
The PLA meanwhile were building roads, to end Tibet’s isolation. “In 1953-54 we were building the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. It was harder than a military campaign. What gave us energy was that we understood that we were laying a road that would protect this country, and link its peoples. How could a better life come to Tibet on the backs of pack-ponies or yaks?” How proud this comrade would be to see the railroad that now connects Lhasa with the rest of the multinational Chinese homeland!
Not all comrades agreed with the temporary compromises which had to be made with the aristocrats and tyrant priests, who still tried to lord it over the people during this transition period, flagrantly breaching many of the terms of the agreement that had been signed by the Dalai Lama. Epstein’s eyewitness account neatly sums up the contradictory character of this period. At a mass meeting in 1955 to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the founding of the PRC – held in front of the Dalai Lama’s Potala Palace, and with the Dalai Lama’s portrait prominently displayed alongside Chairman Mao’s – the reviewing stand was occupied both by comrades representing the central government in Beijing and by continuing stalwarts of the feudal power, attired in gold brocade. “While crimson banners fluttered overhead the old Lhasa police, still unreorganised, loped through the throng, their rifles left behind for the day but their whips slowly swinging.”(Epstein, p.30).
But to those comrades who questioned the slow pace of Tibetan reform, Mao gave a clear reply. Since the feudal forces are unwilling to live up to the agreement they have signed up to, “well then, we can leave it for the time being and wait. The longer we delay, the stronger will be our position and the weaker theirs. Delay will not do us much harm; on the contrary, it may be to our advantage. Let them go on with their insensate atrocities against the people, while we on our part concentrate on good deeds – production, trade, road-building, medical service and united front work (unity with the majority and patient education) so as to win over the masses and bide our time before taking up the question of the full implementation of the Agreement”. (“On the Policies for Our Work in Tibet”, 1952)
A further prediction was completely borne out by events seven years later: “If the reactionaries of Tibet should dare to launch a general rebellion, then the working people there will win liberation all the faster. This is beyond doubt”. (Ibid) And so it proved to be. The abortive coup launched by the Tibetan army in 1959 was a short-lived and ignominious failure, eliciting no popular sympathy and concluding with the Dalai Lama’s flight across the border.
Nor were subsequent efforts by US imperialism to pick up where Britain left off blessed with any greater success. The CIA operative who was later to earn notoriety as the architect of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Richard Bissell, provided training for 170 saboteurs at Fort Hale in Colorado in the late fifties. But as fast as they were parachuted in – keeping well away from PLA garrisons – the faster they vanished into thin air, having found out the hard way where the true sympathies of the Tibetan masses now lay. Only about 10% survived to tell the tale. Other Fort Hale graduates were posted to a base in Nepal with a view to organising remnants of the feudal army. Yet despite lavish CIA funding disbursed by the Dalai Lama’s own brother, nothing was ever achieved beyond a few shallow border incursions. The battle for hearts and minds waged for so long by the PLA had well and truly paid off.
The disgraceful role played by imperialism last year in Lhasa, inciting deadly mob violence against Han, Muslim and Tibetan citizens alike, is sufficient reminder of the secessionist games some would still like to play in the name of “Free Tibet”, unwittingly assisted by those in the West who fall for the propaganda. Yet Tibet is indeed free right now – free from the scourge of poverty, warlordism and imperialist diktat – and plans to stay that way. The vigorous rebuff last year’s provocation received reminds the world yet again that “imperialism lifts up a rock only to drop it on its own feet”.
We are proud to congratulate all the peoples of China and the Communist Party of China on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of free Tibet!