The True Story of Maoist Revolution in Tibet

Oppression Returns--After the Coup in China

Revolutionary Worker #764, July 10, 1994

Two Lines Clash in Tibet

The Maoist revolutionaries fought powerful forces within the Communist Party who wanted to impose a capitalist road on China, including Tibet. In Part 3, we described the program of these "capitalist-roaders"--whose leaders included Deng Xiaoping. They called themselves "communists" and talked of building a "powerful modern socialist state," but they really wanted to stop the revolution after abolishing feudalism. Mao Tsetung considered these forces to be bitter enemies of the revolution--he called them "revisionists," "capitalist roaders" and "phony communists." Mao saw that their imitation of "efficient" capitalist methods would bring class polarization and capitalist exploitation back to China. The result would be that China would once again be penetrated and dominated by foreign investors and exploiters.

The contrast between Mao's revolutionary communist line and the revisionists' capitalist line is very clear on all the issues related to Tibet.

Mao's line called for organizing and relying on the masses of Tibetan people in a continuing revolutionary process. He rejected imposing change on national minority areas before the masses there were able to participate in liberating themselves.

Mao repeatedly criticized the traditional "Han chauvinist" prejudices that considered the Tibetan people "backward" and "barbaric." Mao envisioned a revolution of ideas that would uproot the hateful superstitions of the past and on that basis bring about the flowering of a new liberating Tibetan culture. He argued that the masses needed the new revolutionary ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism to liberate themselves.

And Mao insisted that the revolution had to move beyond anti-feudal land reform to socialism, if the masses of people were to be truly liberated--including People's Communes in the countryside. Mao argued for a self-reliant socialist industrial base in the Tibetan highlands to meet the needs of the people there.

The revisionists had a completely different plan for Tibet: They wanted "efficient" systems for exploiting Tibet's wealth--so the region could quickly contribute to the "modern" China they envisioned. They considered Tibet's people backward--and wanted to bring in lots of workers and technicians from eastern China, while the Tibetans were supposed to be little more than efficient grain producers.

The revisionists complained that the Maoist revolution's "socialist new things" broke up their "united front" with elements of the old feudalist class. The revisionists wanted to offer the old feudal rulers in Tibet a permanent slice of power--to use their feudal organizations and ideology as instruments for stabilizing the new revisionist order.

In short, the revisionist line for Tibet was a plan for a new oppressive, militarized order in which the revisionists exploited Tibet's people in alliance with the old oppressors. This is the program that the revisionists followed after they overthrew Mao's close supporters and seized overall power after Mao's death in 1976.

The Bitter Turning Point: The 1976 Revisionist Coup

The complex class struggles of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution ebbed and flowed from 1966 to 1976. During high tides of mass struggle, innovation swept across the region. When the revolutionaries were forced to retrench, the revisionist forces pushed to overthrow the revolutionary changes.

In October 1976 the revolutionary forces suffered a decisive setback. Two weeks after the death of Mao Tsetung, army forces loyal to the revisionist line arrested key Maoist leaders in Beijing--including Chiang Ching and Chang Chun-chiao. It was a revisionist coup d'état. Over several years of transition, capitalism was more and more openly imposed on the Chinese people. The arch-revisionist Deng Xiaoping emerged as the national leader of the new state-capitalist ruling class.

The historic defeat was deeply felt in Tibet. Many details of the counterrevolution in Tibet are still not known. However, this much is clear: the capitalist-roaders, who still held many key posts in Tibet, put their program into full effect.

Today, the masses of Tibetan peasants are suppressed and exploited by new rich classes closely allied with state functionaries. The revisionists are carrying out a Han chauvinist policy of flooding central Tibet, especially its cities, with Han immigrants. Government troops and police have shot down protesters. Tibet's resources are being thoughtlessly exploited--serving the capitalist god of profit.(See, for example, "Revisionist Clear-Cutting.")

These policies have nothing to do with Maoism. They have everything to do with the restoration of capitalism in China--which has full support from the U.S. imperialists.

The Purge of Tibet's Maoist Revolutionaries

When "the sky changed" in revolutionary China, the new revisionist rulers focused on consolidating their rule. They had two immediate needs in Tibet: First, to overthrow and break up the vast revolutionary forces trained and organized under Mao's line. And second, to unleash all available counterrevolutionary forces under their leadership.

There was a widespread purge of Maoist revolutionaries from the party and government. It is likely that many were jailed or killed. Historian A. Tom Grunfeld documents that the number of Tibetan communists had risen dramatically during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) and then dropped sharply after 1976: In 1973 alone, during the GPCR, the Chinese press reported the recruitment of 11,000 new Tibetan members into the Chinese Communist Party and the Communist Youth League. The year after the coup, the CCP reported having only 4,000 Tibetan party members. A decade later, the Communist Party was reporting it had 40,000 members in Tibet--without describing how many were Tibetan and how many were immigrated Han. This suggests that the whole generation of young Tibetan revolutionaries, overwhelmingly from the poor classes, were driven from power. By 1979 a new party leadership was consolidated--including many revisionist figures who had been discredited during revolutionary periods.

The revisionists stretched their hand to the forces among the Tibetans who could help them beat back the revolutionaries--including the remnants of the die-hard feudal-lamaist classes. Starting in 1977, the revisionists issued sweeping pronouncements restoring "rights" to feudal customs and forces--saying that the revolution's condemnation and expropriation of all kinds of oppressors and class enemies had been "unjust." They promised to create great prosperity by distributing collective property.

In April 1977, shortly after the coup, Ngawang Jigme Ngabo stated that the new revisionist government "would welcome the return of the Dalai Lama and his followers who fled to India." Nagabo is a Tibetan feudal-aristocrat who fled Tibet during the Cultural Revolution and later returned to prominence. This public call was followed by secret negotiations where Deng Xiaoping contacted the Dalai Lama's older brother, Gyalo Thondup, to discuss a possible return of significant sections of the old feudal ruling class, including the Dalai Lama himself.

On February 25, 1978 the Panchen Lama, one of old Tibet's greatest exploiters and a "reincarnated Buddha," was released from prison and given a prominent government post. Thirty-four prominent Tibetans from the CIA-backed 1959 revolt were released from prison. From 1977 on, U.S. officials started making regular trips to the region.

The rehabilitation of new and old exploiters set the stage for a sweeping counterrevolution in all aspects of Tibetan life.

The So-called Reforms in Tibet's Countryside

Countless villages and nomadic settlements lie scattered, far from each other, across Tibet's vast rural plateau. The struggles and changes there have been largely ignored by lamaist exiles and the Western media--however, this is the heart of Tibet, where the majority of its people live. Once the revisionists consolidated overall state power for themselves, they quickly turned to reversing the revolution in Tibet's countryside.

The new revisionist rulers abolished socialist farming by stages. First, in 1980 they abolished the People's Communes and abolished any centralized guidance of the smaller, local Production Teams (which involved 20 to 30 households). Soon they abolished the Production Teams altogether.

Reactionaries routinely portray this as "giving the peasants more power over their lives." But, in the most profound way, this broke up peasant organization into isolated family units. It left the masses powerless again--in the face of capitalist market forces and in the struggle against their emboldened class enemies. Solidarity was declared a thing of the past--aspiring families could again get rich by exploiting their poorer neighbors.

Reactionary forces assume the abolition of collective farming was uniformly popular among Tibet's peasants. These claims are contradicted by the information available.

It is revealing, for example, that the revisionists abolished taxes in Tibet's countryside for ten years at the same time that they instituted their counterrevolutionary "reforms." They hoped that the bribery of "tax relief" would neutralize less conscious parts of the peasant population.

Some peasants probably welcomed the division of collective property--embracing the immediate power this gave the males within each family group and the promise that class enemies could retrieve their old wealth and privilege. At the same time, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution had seeded the countryside with class conscious serf-activists, and there was undoubtedly struggle against the restoration.

Observations from the Yak-Tents of Pala

Two prominent Tibet experts, Professors Melvyn C. Goldstein and Cynthia M. Beall, provided valuable firsthand observations on the current life of Tibet's nomadic peoples in their 1990 book, Nomads of Western Tibet. Goldstein and Beall spent 16 months between 1986 and 1988 living in Pala, an extremely remote tent-encampment of 300 Tibetan yak-herders. This study does not describe the farming communities of Tibet, where the Maoist revolution sank its deepest roots, and these authors are deeply sympathetic to old Tibetan feudalism. Still, it is useful when Beall and Goldstein, despite their hostility to revolution, document the return of oppression in Tibet's remote countryside and signs of continuing class struggle.

Goldstein and Beall report that even in remote Pala, nomads had a history of participating in Tibet's class struggles. In 1959 the herders waged an armed struggle against Bo Argon, a local supporter of the Dalai Lama, because the nomads did not want to join the counterrevolutionary revolt that was organized out of Lhasa. Goldstein and Beall also document how the overwhelming majority of Pala nomads, eager to struggle against local officals, joined the Gyenlo, one of Tibet's two main Red Guard groups during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The cultural revolution stirred complex struggles, even among the herders of this most remote region.

Goldstein and Beall then document how the 1976 coup represented a fundamental "change of sky" for Tibet: "The end of the cultural revolution in China proper in 1976 and the destruction of the `Gang of Four' brought a new group of leaders to the fore in the Chinese Communist Party whose views changed the fate of the Pala nomads. Holding an entirely different economic and cultural philosophy from Mao and the Gang of Four, they viewed the `Cultural Revolution' as a catastrophe for China and terminated communes, implementing a more market-oriented rural economic system called the `responsibility' system. Responsibility for production was shifted from the commune to the household."

The coup installed a revisionist government over this region of Lagyab Lhojang (named after the old feudal estate that once owned all the people and animals there). "The full impact of these changes reached Pala in 1981.... [O]vernight, all the commune's animals were divided equally among its members. Every nomad--infants one week old, teenagers, adults, the elderly--received the same share of 37 animals: five yak, 25 sheep, and 7 goats. Each household regained complete responsibility over its livestock, managing them according to their own plans and decisions. Pastureland was allocated at the same time to small groups of three to six households living in the same home-base encampments."

Wealth, Poverty, Wage Labor and Malnutrition Return

However, the dividing of wealth was only a first step toward restoring a system of rich and poor in Tibet's countryside. Goldstein and Beall give examples from the grasslands: "Another striking consequence of China's post-1981 reform policy is the rapidity and extent to which economic and social differentiation has reemerged in Pala. Although all Pala's nomads in the old society were subjects of the Panchen Lama, tremendous class differences existed among the subjects. Rich families had huge herds and lived in relative luxury alongside a substantial stratum of herdless laborers, poor nomads, servants and beggars. Implementation of the commune in 1970 removed these disparities since all private ownership of the means of production ended at this time.... The dissolution of the commune in 1981 maintained a rough equality since all nomads in Pala received an equal number of livestock. However, in the ensuing seven years, some herds have increased while others have declined dramatically. Once again there are both very wealthy and very poor nomads. One household actually has no livestock at all.

"While no households had less than 37 animals per person in 1981, 38 percent had less than 30 in 1988. At the high end of the continuum, the proportion of Pala households with more than 50 animals per person increased from 12 percent in 1981 to 25 percent in 1988. Ten percent of the households had more than 90 animals per person versus none in 1981. As a result of this process of economic differentiation, the richer 16 percent of the population in 1988 owned 33 percent of the animals while the poorer 33 percent of the population owned only 17 percent of the animals. The past seven years of family-based `responsibility' system has resulted in an increasing concentration of animals in the hands of a minority of newly wealthy households, and the emergence once again of a stratum of poor households with no or few animals. These new poor subsist by working for rich nomads, several of whom now, as in the old society, regularly employ herders, milkers, and servants for long stretches of time."

In the Maoist, socialist period, the social surplus in Tibet's countryside went toward serving the people and supporting the revolution: funding of public works, schools and cultural institutions, and the armed revolutionary forces. As Bob Avakian explains in his book, Phony Communism Is Dead, Long Live Real Communism!: this reflected the line and practice of the revolutionaries in China--who aimed to create a "common abundance" which is more and more shared by the masses of people as a whole.

Now, however, that surplus is consumed by officials and the handful of new rich exploiters, creating an explosion in luxury purchases, while the masses endure malnutrition again.

Goldstein and Beall document that the "newly wealthy" are, in fact, the same "class enemies" who had exploited their neighbors in the old society. This was not accidental. The revisionist "reforms" were designed to restore an exploitative class system in the countryside and to unleash the old class enemies to support the new government. Large sums of money were given by the new revisionist government to the old class enemies--to help them restore their previous privilege. Goldstein and Beall document that one of Pala's old exploiters received thousands of Chinese dollars, "a small fortune in Tibet where, by comparison, the annual salary of a university instructor in Lhasa is about 2,500 to 3,000."

This counterrevolution is not a restoration of the old feudal order. The old aristocrats and monasteries have not been restored at the top of this new class structure. Property is increasingly concentrated in a wealthy stratum of farmers, while profits are often gathered by state-capitalists operating as merchant capital within the local and district governments. Production in Tibet as a whole is being shaped to serve the needs of the larger bureaucratic-capitalist class that now rules China as a whole.

The results of this restoration can be seen in the cities. Wealthy pilgrims have returned to Lhasa, and starving beggars have reappeared too. Journalist Ludmilla Tüting reports seeing Tibetan peasants traveling to Lhasa to sell their children--something common under the old Lamaist rule that had disappeared after the Maoist revolution. Tüting adds that while the poor go hungry, 55,000 tons of yak meat are now being exported from Tibet to Hong Kong every year.

Oppressive Customs Return Under the Dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie

Goldstein and Beall tell a story that illuminates some of the issues of today's class struggle.

A "poor class" nomad who was an activist during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution sold a sheep in the late 1980s without thoroughly milking it. This violated an old feudal superstition that said selling a sheep with full udders would bring a curse on the herds of the whole camp. A nomad who had been a wealthy class enemy in the old society attacked the revolutionary nomad--demanding that the old superstitions be obeyed. The revolutionary said unscientific taboos should be rejected--as they had been under Mao. He said this class enemy was trying to exercise reactionary dictatorship over the poor nomads and over revolutionary ideas. There was a fight.

Later, the new local government officials ruled that it was wrong to uphold the revolutionary standards of the past. They fined both men for fighting and upheld the right of former class enemies to struggle for reactionary taboos.

Though Goldstein and Beall themselves support the restoration, they document such signs of opposition. They report widespread hatred of local officials. And they even brought back a photograph from one nomad camp that refuses to take down their picture of Mao Tsetung!

The stories from Pala are undoubtedly repeated in countless communities scattered across Tibet's countryside--and across the rest of China too--as hundreds of millions of people have been forced back into a web of oppression by the counterrevolution.

Restoring the Rites

In mid-1977 the revisionist party chairman Hua Guofeng called for a revival of feudal customs in Tibet. Feudal rituals were soon restored at Lhasa's main Lingkhor and Barkhor shrines. By the late '80s, the Chinese government said there were over 200 functioning monasteries--with perhaps as many 45,000 monks. At the end of the '80s, Li Peng (the butcher who ordered the Tiananmen Square massacre) was orchestrating the first officially sponsored "search for a reincarnated Buddha."

In 1979 the revisionists announced Article 147 of their new legal system--making it a crime to challenge reactionary religious practices in Tibet. Goldstein and Beall say that in Pala, "the bulk of the traditional cultural system was essentially operational again in 1988"--including severe traditional taboos upon women. Wealthy fathers are refusing to allow their children to marry people from "unclean" strata.

The revisionist opening toward Tibet's Buddhist lamas and aristocrats was a bid for a political alliance within Tibet--to carry out their counterrevolution. The revisionist state-capitalists and the old feudal forces have different class programs on what to restore in the place of socialism. But the revisionists wanted to rally all counterrevolutionary forces under their leadership--especially during the difficult early years of restoration.

The revisionists created a government-controlled clergy in Tibet--to support the spread of conservative religious beliefs and to create a tourist attraction for Westerners. Monasteries are used to restore the traditional fatalist, anti-struggle beliefs in karma--while they are tightly supervised by police and officials to prevent them from emerging as centers of suppressed separatist movements. In some Tibetan monasteries, tourists are offered rentable monk robes so they can pose among monks performing paid rituals for the cameras.

The revisionists, of course, claim that they are reversing an "injustice": they said that the class struggle the Maoists had led around the power of the lamaist clergy had been an unjust suppression of "Tibetan culture." Such revisionist self-justification is drenched in hypocrisy. While the revisionists flirt with the clergy, they are also the ones whose policies and ideas represent the most intense and open Han chauvinism (anti-Tibetan prejudices). Almost all visitors to Tibet today report that the revisionist Han functionaries openly mock the masses of Tibetan people as "barbaric," "lazy" and "backward"-- in ways that had been sharply criticized by Mao.

The revisionist approach to Tibetan culture is reflected in educational policy. Right after the coup, the revisionists shut down Tibet's ten factory-run colleges. The education system was supposed to go "back to standard." According to Grunfeld, new policies in the late 1970s may have caused the closing of many primary schools in rural areas. In 1988 a group of high-level Tibetans complained that 40 percent of the entire education budget of the Tibetan Autonomous Region was being used to finance schools in eastern Han regions where a few elite Tibetan students were trained as Han-ized specialists.

The New Wave of Han Immigrants

Starting in 1983 the revisionists launched a policy that represents a true challenge to the survival of Tibetan culture and rights of the Tibetan people. They started a wave of Han immigration into the Tibetan Autonomous Region. (See also "The False Charges of 'Genocide Under Mao.'")

Even spokesmen for Tibet's nationalist movement acknowledge that, under Mao, there was not an effort at Han settlement in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. In the collection Anguish in Tibet, Jamyang Norbu writes, "But with the death of Mao and the fall of `The Gang of Four,' China's new leaders seem to have gradually put together a scheme not only to fill Tibet with Chinese immigrants but even to make it pay." Pro-lamaist writer John Avedon writes: "The current policy began in January 1983.... By September, the Beijing Review reported calls for wide-spread immigration to Tibet; age and home-leave incentives guaranteed, with bonuses at eight- and 20-year increments for all immigrants."(Utne Reader, March/April 1989) The top revisionist Deng Xiaoping claimed that Tibet needed Han migration because the "region's population of about two million was inadequate to develop its resources." Billboards in some eastern Chinese cities read "MIGRATE TO TIBET."

This immigration has not touched the countryside of the Tibetan plateau, but it has changed the character of most Tibetan cities--making urban Tibetans feel like strangers in their own lands. There is now a Holiday Inn in Tibet--built by the revisionists to accommodate Western tourists with a fascination for Tibetan mysticism.

The influx of Han into Tibet's cities and emergence of many Han as a wealthy stratum of officials and merchants has created a great deal of resentment among Tibetans--giving rise to struggle and a series of justified rebellions since 1987.


"If the rightists stage an anti-Communist coup d'etat in China, I am sure they will know no peace either and their rule will most probably be short-lived, because it will not be tolerated by the revolutionaries who represent the interests of the people making up more than 90 percent of the population."--Mao Tsetung

Beall and Goldstein tell another story about revolutionary resistance in Tibet's remote grasslands. One night a nomad came to their tent. He had been a leading Maoist activist during the cultural revolution. And he wanted these foreign visitors to carry a message for him--to the revolutionary center he thought might still exist in Lhasa's capital.

The revolutionary whispered, "You have to tell Lhasa what is going on here." When Goldstein asked him what he meant, the man repeated himself, "You have to tell what is going on here." After much prodding, he finally said, "You know, the class enemies! They are rising up again."

Such opposition to the capitalist restoration is persistent enough that many in Pala believe the revolution may emerge again from among the people.

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