The True Story of Maoist Revolution in Tibet

The Earthly Dreams of the Dalai Lama

Revolutionary Worker #767, August 7, 1994

In the late 1980s the cities of Tibet were repeatedly rocked by sharp anti-government struggles. The rebellions were suppressed by government bullets and mass arrest. These Tibetan rebellions rescued the Dalai Lama from long years of international obscurity. Suddenly in the late 1980s he was lionized by powerful forces throughout the world--and even honored with the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize.

A highly romanticized image of the Dalai Lama is being presented for public consumption: the Dalai Lama is portrayed as a modern saint waging a nonviolent struggle against impossible odds. He is presented as the leader and spiritual center of a "Free Tibet" independence movement--fighting against China's powerful central government headed by Deng Xiaoping.

This image is essentially false.

The truth is that for almost 20 years, the Dalai Lama has pinned his main hopes on making a deal with China's top leader, Deng Xiaoping. He hopes that his exiled aristocracy can be restored to some portion of its previous privilege and power--in exchange for helping to stabilize this region for China's current rulers.

In 1987 the Dalai Lama withdrew previous demands for Tibetan independence and for the withdrawal of Chinese troops from Tibet. In 1994 he even came out in favor of the U.S. renewing "Most Favored Nation" (MFN) trading status for China--shocking many of his U.S. supporters, who were demanding that the U.S. government withhold MFN status to force a change in China's Tibet policy.

In other words, as the oppression and the <%1>resistance of Tibet's people grew through the 1980s the Dalai Lama has more and more openly offered himself to the current Chinese government--using the struggles within Tibet as a bargaining chip in his negotiations.

The Motives of a Deposed God-King

The Dalai Lama offering himself to Deng Xiaoping? Wanting an accommodation with the regime that shot down protesters in Lhasa and Tiananmen and that flooded Tibet's cities with troops and Han immigrants?

Some will find this hard to believe. But the truth is that, since going into exile in 1959, the whole politics of the Dalai Lama's circles have revolved around somehow regaining their privileged status over Tibet's people. This flowed from their basic class nature--as the exiled core of an overthrown feudal ruling class.

Before the revolution, Tibet's monasteries trained an elite of initiated clergy who spent their isolated lives chanting and debating religious dogmas. With its intense mysticism and self-absorbed meditation--Buddhist Lamaism presents its monastic life as a network of spiritual oases cut off from the dirty business of everyday life. Supporters of the Dalai Lama are sometimes impressed by the "peaceful" demeanor of the monks they meet. But, in reality, those monks and their monasteries are never cut off from class society: Tibet's religio-aristocratic culture is inconceivable without its economic foundation in serfdom and slavery.

In a discussion of India, Chairman Avakian describes how seemingly unworldly monastic practices are deeply tied up with the suffering of the basic masses: "Here were all these learned monks and all this knowledge was concentrated in the Buddhist monasteries in ancient India, and yet these monks--not that they necessarily lived extremely lavish lives themselves, some of them were quite ascetic and lived rather simply--nevertheless their whole way of life and more than that all the learning and knowledge that they were privy to and that they were able to take up was based...on a foundation of cruel and extreme exploitation and enslavement of the basic masses of people in that society. And there is also the question, of course, of the content and the worth of such knowledge and `wisdom' that is acquired by monks, scholars and so on, in conditions where they are divorced from the basic masses and in fact enabled to lead their lives of `scholarship' and `devotion' only and precisely because of the exploitation and enslavement of the masses." (Revolution magazine, Fall 1990, p. 36)

In short, Lamaist Buddhism is a network of social institutions that arose on the basis of feudal ownership of land and serfs. And, in turn, Lamaist doctrine justified that exploitation by insisting that the righteous are born to rule and sinners are born to suffer.

The ruling class of old Tibet deeply understands these connections: Their dreams of restoring "religious freedom" and "traditional culture" to Tibet require some form of ownership over Tibet's land and exploitation of its people. In the most fundamental way, this overthrown class and its political programs have nothing to do with liberating Tibet's people.

Once this class nature is grasped, the motivation behind the many twists of the Dalai Lama's political road can be seen.

The Dalai Lama's First Great Disappointment

Once Tibet's ruling class fled into exile, in 1959, they had two hopes: first, that they could carry on their idleness and introspection in exile, and second, that some great power would emerge from somewhere and reinstall them in their previous Tibet.

For ten years during the 1960s, Tibet's exiled feudals thought U.S. imperialism would be their great savior. The Tibetan feudalists headquartered in the Indian town of Dharamsala tried to portray themselves as a Western-style government-in-exile: They adopted a national flag, an anthem, and even a "constitution" which combined the rule of divine lamas with a paper parliament. This charade was similar to the way the CIA's Nicaraguan contras learned to praise "democracy and human rights" during fundraising junkets to Washington, D.C. during the 1980s.

But Tibet's pampered and divided exiles were a poor fighting force with little effective support back in Tibet. By the early '70s, the CIA rudely dumped the Tibetan exiles.

U.S. imperialism was never particularly interested in Tibet--except as a platform for pressuring China. The U.S. never intended to install the lamaists as rulers over some future "independent Tibet." Like every other government in the world, the U.S. government officially held that Tibet was historically part of China, and the U.S. government never recognized the Dalai Lama's organization as a legal "government-in-exile."

The real strategic goal of the U.S. policy was to contain the Maoist revolution and eventually to "reopen" the whole of China for U.S. exploitation. Once the U.S. saw openings within the Chinese government itself--it lost interest in the corrupt and isolated Tibetan exile army.

In his 1990 autobiography, the Dalai Lama calls those CIA days of the mid-'60s "a high point in the Tibetan resettlement programme." He complains bitterly about the way his U.S. patrons dumped him.

After that rude double-cross, the Dalai Lama has only had one real hope for restoration: that someday a government would emerge in Beijing that was willing to share power with him and remnants of Tibet's old ruling class.

The Dalai Lama's Hopes for Deng Xiaoping

From the beginning of their exile, Tibet's old ruling class understood that the rightist forces associated with Deng Xiaoping represented a very different line from the revolutionary forces associated with Mao Tsetung. From powerful posts within the Chinese Communist Party, Deng and other capitalist-roaders argued against encouraging revolutionary movements in Tibet--saying that the Chinese Communist Party should share power with Tibet's old ruling class into the foreseeable future and leave much of Tibetan feudalism untouched.

When Deng returned to political prominence in April 1973, the Dalai Lama openly expressed hopes of returning to Lhasa. As Maoists said at that time, Deng stood for "restoring the rites" throughout China. The following year, the Dalai Lama ordered the last of his anti-communist guerrillas to lay down their arms.

The exiled lamaists were thrilled when Deng Xiaoping rose to overall power in China, after the 1976 anti-Maoist coup. Lamaist circles were so pleased by Mao's death and the arrest of his followers that rumors spread that these events had been caused by prayers during the Dalai Lama's 1976 Kalachakra ceremony.

Since 1960, when Maoist revolutionaries started organizing land seizures in Tibet, there had been no contact between Beijing and the exiles in Dharamsala. But in 1977, right after the anti-Maoist coup, Deng Xiaoping himself sent a secret emissary to the Dalai Lama's CIA-agent brother, Gyalo Thondup. Top Chinese officials publicly called for the restoration of feudal Tibetan ways and for a return of Tibetan exiles--including the Dalai Lama himself.

In 1977, when the exiled Tibetan Youth Congress reaffirmed its support for armed action against Chinese government forces, the Dalai Lama's headquarters ordered the group to disband.

The lamaists welcomed the restorationist "reforms" of the late 1970s--when China's new rulers started to overturn the People's Communes in Tibet's countryside. In their eyes, such return to private ownership of land might pave the way toward reconstructing their old feudal superstructure.

Problems with the Deal

Years of negotiations between Beijing and Dharamsala went nowhere. After 1983, Beijing's revisionist rulers apparently decided that they could consolidate their new order in Tibet without accommodating the Dalai Lama and his exiles. The central Chinese government started flooding Tibet's cities with Han workers, technicians and merchants. (Han people are the majority nationality in China.) And they started restoring some Tibetan monasteries --building a network of clergy controlled by the central government, not by the Dalai Lama.

In 1987 the Dalai Lama complained that the Chinese revisionists "attempted to reduce the question of Tibet to a discussion of my own personal status." The exiled lamaists wanted the feudal right to select young children for their monasteries and they wanted limitations on government control of their religious institutions. In a book of interviews, Tibet, China and the World, the Dalai Lama discusses a key obstacle in his discussions with the Chinese government, "They feel that simply reciting some mantras, making rounds of temples, making prostrations, carrying a prayer wheel and rosary are sufficient to practice religion. So superficially there is religious freedom. But the Chinese simply have no idea of the need to have a proper teacher, the need to study in depth and practice seriously in proper settings."

The Dalai Lama was not content with a right of safe return and formal religious freedom for believers--he wanted "proper settings" for restoring the whole monastic way of life.

In effect, the exiled lamaists wanted the new Chinese state-capitalists to share a significant part of power and wealth of Tibetan society with the old feudal ruling class--so that the clergy could reproduce the system of large monasteries that lived off the labor of the Tibetan masses.

These negotiations were not about improving the conditions and rights of the Tibetan people. These negotiations were about restoring the privileged world of the old ruling aristocracy--by demanding a slice of the surplus wealth that the new Chinese government has been extracting from Tibet's laboring people.

It appears that the Chinese government thought that the Dalai Lama was making unacceptably large demands--without offering anything particularly useful in exchange. For a second time, the Dalai Lama's hopes of restoration were dashed.

Using the Struggle of the People to Press for a Deal

As negotiations sank into stalemate, the Dalai Lama desperately changed his tactics: he decided to pressure China's government by manipulating international tensions and by fanning the growing discontent within Tibet's towns.

On September 21, 1987 the Dalai Lama unveiled a "Five Point Peace Plan for Tibet" in a talk to a caucus of the U.S. Congress. Its central idea was that Greater Tibet should become a demilitarized buffer state between China and India. He envisioned a withdrawal of Chinese government troops, military bases, and nuclear facilities from the Tibetan Autonomous Region and most of the nearby provinces of Qinghai and Sechuan. One of his five points demanded that China's Han immigration policy should be abandoned.

This plan resembled proposals the Soviets had been putting forward for carving various "peace zones" in areas dominated by U.S. imperialism. The Dalai Lama pointedly used a Hindi (Indian-language) word Ahimsa to describe his buffer state. The Dalai Lama had been flirting with the Soviet Union and its ally India off and on--now he planned to use his Five Point Plan to pressure the U.S. to pressure China to make a deal.

Within a week after the Dalai Lama's Five Point speech, a major nationalist rebellion was started by monks in Lhasa. The timing of the uprising seemed more than a coincidence. The tensions that had built up during a decade of increasing Han immigration exploded--a police station was stormed. Hundreds were killed by government troops. More disturbances broke out during 1988.

For the Dalai Lama, this outbreak of struggle meant that he finally had a real bargaining chip for his negotiations: he could offer to contain this new nationalist movement, in exchange for a substantial niche within the new revisionist order.

Amid widespread international attention to the Lhasa rebellions, various great powers publicly pressured the Chinese government to resume negotiations with the Dharamsala exiles. According to the historian A. Tom Grunfeld, Nepalese officials believed that the central Chinese government might reach a deal with the Dalai Lama--in order to prove to the rulers of Hong Kong and Taiwan that merger into a unified Chinese state would not necessarily mean ceding all power to Beijing.

Abandoning the Demand for Independence

The Dalai Lama quickly moved to position himself for new negotiations with Beijing: he publicly distanced himself from the violent Lhasa disturbances and urged Tibetans inside and outside Tibet to prepare to accept an accommodation with the Chinese government. And, to the surprise of his own supporters, he publicly abandoned the demands for Tibetan independence and for the withdrawal of Chinese troops--even though such demands had been prominent in the Tibetan protests and in his own Five Point Plan.

Before the European Parliament meeting in Strasbourg, France on June 18, 1988, the Dalai Lama proposed that Tibet remain in "association" with the Beijing government and that central government troops remain in Tibet for an undefined period of time. In this scheme, the central Chinese government would control Tibetan foreign policy and military affairs while the region would have an autonomous economic and cultural life under a secular regional government. This meant that he envisioned the clergy rebuilding their monastery system but not taking over the government. This was the public unveiling of the deal the Dalai Lama had long been hoping to negotiate.

In his book of interviews, the Dalai Lama called on his supporters to accept this accommodation: "Actually we are trying to find some sort of middle way... On many occasions, I have said that the human boundary is always changing. Under certain circumstances, I explained that two nations can be combined under one nation.... So theoretically, we Tibetans who number six million may get more benefit if we join the thousand million Chinese, rather than become an independent country."

Edward Lazar, a prominent pro-lamaist activist, writes in the book The Anguish of Tibet: "The official position of the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Dalai Lama, as restated in the Strasbourg Statement of June 15, 1988, is for accommodation with China. And most writing about Tibet serves to obscure the fact that the goal for Tibet is not defined as independence.... The word itself, `independence,' is avoided in official Tibetan pronouncements and is avoided at meetings. `Independence' is not one of the hundreds of index entries in the Dalai Lama's new autobiography. The idea of independence is so dangerous that it is only referred to as the `I'-word in some Tibet circles."

The Dalai Lama quickly nominated a team of negotiators for new talks scheduled for January 1989 in Geneva. But in the spring of 1989 both Lhasa and Tiananmen Square were rocked by powerful protests that were suppressed by bloody government attack. Tibet was placed under martial law--and the Geneva talks never happened.

Flattering the Head of China's Bloody New Government

These massacres did not stop the Dalai Lama from upholding Deng Xiaoping, the anti-Maoist head of China's current government. In his recent autobiography the Dalai Lama claims to have longstanding admiration for Deng: "Towards the end of 1978, there was a further encouraging development when Deng Xiaoping emerged as paramount authority in Peking. As leader of a more moderate faction, his ascendancy seemed to signal real hope for the future. I had always felt that Deng might one day do great things for his country. When I was in China during 1954-5, I met him a number of times and had been very impressed by him. We never had any long conversations but I heard much about him--particularly that he was a man of great ability and very decisive too. The last time I saw him... he struck me as a powerful man. Now it began to look as if, in addition to these qualities, he was also quite wise."

These words were written in 1990--in the wake of bloody repression, mass arrest and martial law in both Tibet and Beijing.

The Dalai Lama's naked attempts to accommodate to the Beijing government deepened splits within his exile movement. One of the Dalai Lama's main international envoys, Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, talks of "internal critics" who say "the Dalai Lama is trying to sell out Tibet." Some westernized, upper class Tibetans born in exile--grouped around the Tibetan Youth Congress--loudly opposed his approach. They pushed for a policy of trying to break up China--hoping to establish an independent Tibet patterned on pro-Western neocolonial countries.

Internationally, the lamaists are portrayed as true believers in nonviolence. But in his appeals to "internal critics" the Dalai Lama's representative Gyari argues that he has nothing against violence in principle. In Anguish of Tibet he writes, "There have been times when I, too, would have preferred to fight, but we must be realistic. We have had some bad experiences and have been left in the lurch. I don't wish to go into this matter more fully now; it's all in the past. But in our memory, it is still living."

In other words, Gyari reminds his fellow exiles of the CIA's betrayal of the 1960s, saying that the lessons of those "bad experiences" is that the Tibetan exiles must, sooner or later, accommodate to the Chinese revisionist government.

The Dalai Lama defends accommodation with a similar pragmatism. In his Dharamsala interview he says, "In our case, violence is more or less suicidal. It is not at all practical... Even if ten thousand Tibetan youths outside Tibet along with a few hundred thousand youths in Tibet take up arms, it will still be very difficult. The Chinese can easily crush us. Even guerrilla warfare is very difficult.... I think we can develop some sort of compromise which will be mutually beneficial."

Though the Dalai Lama's approach is unpopular among Tibetan exiles--it has been welcomed in Western capitals. After the Tiananmen Massacre, Western powers have been concerned that the Chinese government might suppress the most aggressively pro-Western elements within the new Chinese ruling class. So since 1989, powerful forces in the U.S. ruling class have been looking around for a device to prod the Deng government. They picked up the Dalai Lama and the cause of "human rights in Tibet" as just such a device.

This time, the Western powers do not want the Tibetan exiles as an armed force. Since the death of Mao, U.S.-Chinese relations have been far too friendly for that. Instead, the U.S. wanted the Dalai Lama to play a prominent public role pressuring Beijing to abandon strict centralization in economics and politics.

So that the Dalai Lama could play this role better, the Western powers awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1989--conferring a whole new level of prestige and legitimacy.

When well-meaning people support the so-called "Free Tibet" movement, they have often allowed themselves to become foot soldiers in Washington's fight for the lucrative markets and cheap labor of China. The U.S. rulers still care nothing for Tibet. Once again, they only want to use the "Tibet question" and "human rights" as a device for putting occasional pressure on China's government.

Fashionably Hot, But Not Doing So Hot

These days, the Dalai Lama moves around the planet with the skilled opportunism of a political chameleon: He preaches mysticism to Western New Agers, while he presents himself as a scientific skeptic before audiences of natural scientists. He dresses as an anti-militarist environmentalist when he meets with West European Greens, while he cynically offers himself to the bloody capitalist-roaders of Beijing. He cozies up to conservative religious forces by signing the "Seamless Garment" anti-abortion statement, and then hints that abortions may sometimes be justified to maintain his credibility among liberal Western supporters.

Then in May of 1994, the Dalai Lama allowed himself to be used to reduce pressure on China. He met quietly with President Clinton in Washington, D.C. and then announced at a news conference in Germany that he supported the U.S. extending "most favored nation" status to China. Within days, Clinton himself announced that he was extending MFN to China. The Dalai Lama had cynically helped Clinton and Beijing outmaneuver the anti-MFN forces who were demanding Washington use trade restrictions to pressure China.

All such maneuvers and intrigues have brought the Dalai Lama to unprecedented fame. He is even fashionable in some circles. But, ironically, this international attention is happening at a time when the Dalai Lama's base of support in exile is eroding rapidly.

The Tibetan exile community is losing coherence and the Dalai Lama is losing power over it: Most Tibetan exiles have settled into the countries where they now live. Only the older generation remembers Tibet. Most exiles have no desire to return there. Many openly disdain the old Tibetan ways.

Over time, international relief funds are drying up for the Tibetan exiles. This undercuts the Dalai Lama's political power--which was always dependent on outside money. The Dalai Lama's constant international activities are, at least in part, a constant fundraising effort for his personal apparatus.

At the same time, the chances of negotiating a lamaist restoration in Tibet are as bleak as ever. Class exploitation was restored in Tibet after the 1976 coup--but in a new form combining semi-feudal agriculture with state capitalism. Though some observers claim that the Dalai Lama has some popularity as an anti-government symbol in Tibet, there are no signs that the masses of Tibetan people support the Dalai Lama's political program.

The Dalai Lama's only real hope is that China will start to break apart after the death of Deng--the way the post-Gorbachev Soviet Union did--and that powerful forces in Beijing and Washington will somehow approve his return as a way of maintaining their domination over the more exploitable parts of China. It's a very slim hope.

Time is running out for the Dalai Lama's earthly dreams of "proper settings" in Tibet. And there is no reason to mourn its passing.


A revolutionary recently ran into an old friend. She discovered that her friend--who was usually well-informed and progressive--had been influenced by lamaist charges against the Maoist revolution in China. As they talked about this, the revolutionary made some basic materialist points about the Dalai Lama. She described how the masses of people--serfs, slaves and women--were oppressed in the old Tibetan society. She sketched briefly how the masses of Tibetans had rocked their world during the Maoist revolution between 1950 and 1976. And she challenged him to defend the political program of the Dalai Lama. Her friend got a bewildered look on his face and then blurted out, "Either everything you've just said is wrong, or else I've been caught up in an incredible hoax."

Romanticizing Tibetan lamaism requires a certain disregard for the lives of the people.

Chairman Bob Avakian writes in Revolution magazine: "There's a significant element of chauvinism: treating these Third World peoples and their cultures, traditions and relations as sort of `quaint.' Therefore, with this outlook, it's perfectly alright for the masses of people in these countries to be subjected to these `quaint' forms of oppression and exploitation--such as patriarchal and feudal oppression of women and of the masses more generally--but don't try to impose them on me! That's different--I come from an advanced enlightened society! Such is the chauvinism of this outlook."

The life story of this Dalai Lama is the story of an oppressor--a feudal figurehead and an eager agent of U.S. imperialist interests: He was trained from childhood to be a feudal god-king--a career that was cut short when an earthshaking revolution swept in from the east. Between 1959 and 1976, when Tibet was undergoing radical changes that emancipated the masses of Tibetan people--the Dalai Lama was irreconcilably opposed to this revolutionary process. He and his brothers helped organize a covert CIA war against the Maoist revolution and sent thousands of Tibetan exiles to do forced labor for the Indian Army. But ever since the Maoist revolution was overthrown in 1976, since Tibet's peasants were plunged back into semi-feudal conditions and since a wind of justified struggle has sprung up--now the Dalai Lama preaches a Buddhist "Middle Way" of common cause with Deng Xiaoping and his oppressive government in Peking.

Why should an honest, progressive person support any of that?

The people will gain nothing if a Dalai Lama returns as a local feudal figurehead for Deng's government. They will not be liberated if some of Tibet's westernized exiles succeed in setting up a so-called "independent" Tibet--tied by a thousand neocolonial threads to U.S. corporations and government interests.

True liberation starts with the masses of people and with the struggle against their oppressors. In Tibet today that means the millions of poor peasants scattered throughout the region's vast countryside. Today, their main oppressors are the Chinese capitalist-roaders who have sold China to imperialism and restored exploitation to the countryside.

The key to Tibet's future lies in correctly summing up the lessons of the Mao years. The Maoist revolution in Tibet broke the iron chains of serfdom and the mental chains of kharma. Until it was overthrown, the Maoist revolution brought armed mass organization, socialist cooperation and the beginnings of true liberation to some of the most bitterly oppressed people on earth.

Earlier in this series, a young woman communist argued that Tibet's poor can rise above the great mountains by learning to fly in formation like flocks of wild geese. An unrepentant Maoist nomad crept into the tent of an American anthropology team--asking them to carry out the message that "the class enemies" had retaken his corner of Tibet. It is the dreams and politics of revolutionaries like these that can lead Tibet's people to freedom.

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