The communist revolution led by Mao Tsetung liberated China in 1949. Before this, Tibet (located in the remote, far western part of China) was ruled by a feudal Buddhist theocracy—headed by the Dalai Lama—that brutally exploited and suppressed the people. Most land suitable for farming was owned by high-ranking lamas (Buddhist clerics) and non-Lamaist aristocracy. Fewer than 700 of these top monks and other secular feudal lords controlled 93 percent of the land and wealth.
Most of the people in Tibet’s rural areas were serfs who were bonded for life to the top monks and secular aristocracy. The feudal owners dictated what crops the serfs could grow, and then took most of the harvested grain while driving the peasants ever deeper into debt. They demanded unpaid forced labor from the serfs and subjected them to onerous taxes, like taxes on newborn children. Girls were often taken from serf families to serve as servants for the aristocrats, and many boys were forced into monasteries to be trained as monks. (Accounts of pre-1949 Tibet can be found, among other works, in A. Tom Grunfeld, The Making of Modern Tibet, M.E. Sharpe, 1996; Anna Louise Strong, Tibetan Interviews, Peking New World Press, 1929; Michael Parenti, “Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth,” July 7, 2003, swans.com)
About five percent of Tibetans were outright slaves (mainly domestic servants) who had no right to grow anything for themselves and who were often worked or beaten to death. The lower-level monks (about a tenth of the population) were also basically slaves, bound to the monasteries and forced to serve the high-ranking lamas.
The feudal lords enforced the social order with their small professional army and armed gangs. Any non-compliance, let alone open resistance, was met with sadistic punishment that included torture and mutilation, such as gouging out of eyes.
The reactionary ideology of Lamaism, the form of Buddhism in Tibet, was key in this whole setup. Central to Lamaism is the belief that humans have a soul that is born and reborn many times (reincarnation), and that a person’s position in the world has been predetermined by what he/she did in a previous life (karma). Being born a woman, for example, was considered punishment for sinful behavior in the past life. Such religious untrue myths and superstitions were used by the rulers to justify extreme oppression and to keep the masses of people resigned to their situation.
Pre-liberation Tibet as a whole was a very isolated, backward place. There were no roads that wheeled vehicles could travel on. Most children died before their first birthday. Over 70% of the people were infected with venereal disease and 20% with smallpox.
Feudal Tibet was no “Shangri-la” where benevolent monk-rulers lived in peaceful harmony with contented masses. It was a nightmarish horror for the great majority of people, and the feudal relations and ideas kept the whole society in an extremely backward state.
Revolution Comes to Tibet
The victory of the revolution led by Mao in 1949 brought a new day to China. The U.S. and other imperialists quickly moved to try to crush this revolution. By 1950, for example, U.S. invasion forces had landed in Korea and were moving toward the Chinese border.
The Maoists aimed to bring Tibet (and other remote regions of China) into the revolutionary process—to transform the oppressive relations there, and to prevent imperialist intrigue and intervention on China’s borders. In 1951, China’s revolutionary state signed a treaty with Tibet’s rulers, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) marched peacefully into Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Under the agreement, there was self-government for Tibet under the Dalai Lama, while the central government controlled military and foreign affairs (like in other national minority autonomous areas) and could promote social reforms. The monastic properties remained intact and the feudal lords continued to dominate the peasants. But usury was abolished, roads and hospitals were built, and a secular school system began to take root. (Felix Greene, A Curtain of Ignorance, Doubleday, 1961; Pradyumna P. Karan, The Changing Face of Tibet: The Impact of Chinese Communist Ideology on the Landscape, Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1976)
In 1956-57, feudal landowners—backed by the CIA—organized armed revolts. This was part of the intensifying imperialist encirclement of and pressures on the People’s Republic of China. In 1959 armed monks and Tibetan soldiers launched a full-scale counter-revolutionary uprising, which had little support among the people and crumbled fairly quickly. The Dalai Lama escaped to India in a CIA covert operation, taking with him enormous wealth that represented the blood of oppressed people. Large sections of the top clergy and feudal aristocracy followed him into exile. (Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison, The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet, U of Kansas Press, 2002; Richard M. Bennett, “Tibet, the ‘great game’ and the CIA,” Asia Times, March 25, 2008)
A new phase of radical and sweeping changes followed. There were mass meetings and mobilizations of peasants, with women taking an active role. Slavery and unpaid serf labor were abolished. Large tracts of land controlled by the feudal owners were distributed to former serfs and landless peasants. Roads, schools, the medical system, and other infrastructure were further built up. There was new freedom to not believe in mind-enslaving religious dogma. (Felix Greene, A Curtain of Ignorance, Doubleday, 1961; Grunfeld, The Makng of Modern Tibet)
Beginning in the mid-1960s, momentous upheavals rocked all of China—the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Revisionist (phony “communist”) forces right within the Communist Party had seized key positions of power and were threatening to bring capitalism back to China. Mao’s answer was a revolution within the revolution—he called on the masses in the hundreds of millions to seize power back from the capitalist-roaders and in the process further revolutionize society.
The Cultural Revolution brought profound changes to Tibet. Agricultural communes were organized, irrigation projects were undertaken, and food production was expanded. “Barefoot doctors”—medical workers trained from among the masses—brought regular health care to many rural areas for the first time. Half the barefoot doctors were women, previously forbidden under Buddhist doctrine to practice medicine. Literacy and basic scientific knowledge were spread among the people, and ideological struggle was waged against feudal customs and values.
There is much distortion spread by various forces about “cultural genocide” in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution. One charge leveled against the Cultural Revolution is that Mao ordered the large-scale desecration and destruction by Han Chinese Red Guards. But the truth of the matter is different. While there was destruction of monasteries and shrines, this was largely carried out by native Tibetan activists and Red Guard youth, not (as often alleged) by “invading” non-Tibetan Red Guards. (Mobo Gao, The Battle for China’s Past, Pluto, 2008) While there were excesses, it is important to understand this in the context of the larger struggle against the past and continuing influence of the reactionary Lamaist superstitions and their symbols, as well as the remaining wealth of the feudal masters in the form of monastic holdings. And there were attempts to rein in some of these kind of excesses by the Maoist forces.
The revolutionary forces were confronted with a complex contradiction. On the one hand there was the right of minority nationalities, like the Tibetans, to their national culture. But in Tibet, this culture was very closely intertwined with the Lamaist religion which was a heavy chain on the people. There is much more to be learned about how the Maoists handled this contradiction, and there is need to further synthesize what was done right and what mistakes were made in order to do better with contradictions like this in future socialist societies. What can be said is that the Maoist forces waged struggle against Han (the majority nationality in China) chauvinism and for equality among the various nationalities and cultures. At the same time, they led the struggle against the “four olds”—the old ideas, customs, culture, and habits of the reactionary feudal society. There was a blossoming of Tibetan culture during the Cultural Revolution: a single Tibetan dialect was promoted; Tibetan typewriters were developed; traditional Tibetan medicine was studied; there was research into Tibetan history. By 1975, half the top leaders in Tibet were native Tibetans.
The standard claim spread from “Free Tibet” organizations is that 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed since 1950, and especially during the Cultural Revolution. Writing in a New York Times Op-ed, Patrick French, former head of the pro-Dalai Lama group Free Tibet Campaign, said that after extensive research, he “found that there was no evidence to support that figure.” And contrary to claims about forced sterilization in Tibet during the Mao years, the actual policy was that there was education about family planning and that birth control was made available on a voluntary basis. There was recognition of the particular situation of minority nationality areas which had suffered much greater infant mortality rates and epidemic diseases than Han areas. Tibet’s population—which had been markedly declining before liberation—seems to have increased during the Mao years. (Han Suyin, Lhasa, The Open City—A Journey to Tibet, Putnam, 1977; China Reconstructs, “Tibet—From Serfdom to Socialism,” March 1976; Peking Review, “Tibet’s Big Leap—No Return to the Old System,” July 4, 1975)
The death of Mao in 1976 brought another big change in China—this time, a giant reactionary leap backward. The revisionists seized power through a coup and restored capitalism to China—even as they continued to call themselves “communist” and claimed that China was still “socialist.” In Tibet, as throughout China, the capitalist rulers have dismantled collective farming and other socialist relations and institutions. Polarization has intensified throughout society—between rich and poor, between urban and rural areas, between men and women, and so on. Semi-feudal agriculture has re-emerged along with capitalism linked to international capital. Development of mining and timber industries has led to devastating ecological consequences. And there has been an uncorking of Han chauvinism, as the capitalist rulers and their government have moved to step up domination of Tibet and other minority areas.