Rethinking Tibet

· Tibetan Buddhism

Rethinking Tibet


Rethinking Tibet
by Nicholas Yee

This is not an essay that tries to justify or defend China’s human rights violations
in Tibet. This is an essay that tries to present information that most Free Tibet
pamphlets and articles omit, and builds the argument that campaigning to “free” Tibet
is both socially and morally irresponsible.

Fantasy of a Shangri-La

Many Americans are seduced by the fantasy that old Tibet, the Tibet before the
“desecration” by the Chinese government, was something of an earthly paradise – a
Shangri-La untouched by urban evils and modern perversions – and that the people of
Tibet lived in peaceful harmony, free from political and social strife. Certainly,
movies such as “Seven Years in Tibet” and “Kundun” merely reinforce this fantasy.
But this fantasy could not be further from the truth.

Before the Chinese occupation in 1950, Tibet was a feudal theocratic society. Close
to 95% of the population were serfs working for a ruling aristocracy. Instead of
calling them serfs, it is perhaps more accurate to call them slaves. The aristocracy
and monastery masters owned these people, and all the children they gave birth to.
These slaves were forced to perform hard labor, and they could not use the same seats,
vocabulary or eating utensils as their masters. Touching a master’s belongings could
result in a whipping.

Women were cruelly oppressed in traditional Tibet. According to the religious doctrine
of reincarnation, being reborn as a woman was a punishment for sinful behavior in a
past life. The word for “woman” in old Tibet actually meant “inferior birth”. Because
women were associated with evil and sin, they were forbidden to touch certain objects,
such as iron or medicine. While male slaves were not allowed to look at an aristocrats
face, women were forbidden to lift their eyes above the knee of any man.

Tibetan monasteries, in stark contrast to their portrayal by western pop culture, “were
dark fortresses of feudal exploitation–they were armed villages of monks complete with
military warehouses and private armies. Pilgrims came to some shrines to pray for a
better life. But the main activity of monasteries was robbing the surrounding peasants.
The huge idle religious clergy grew little food–feeding them was a big burden on the
people. Monasteries also made up countless religious taxes to rob the people–including
taxes on haircuts, on windows, on doorsteps, taxes on newborn children or calves, taxes
on babies born with double eyelids…and so on” (Revolutionary Worker)

The religious device introduced to sustain this feudalistic oppression was karma. Karma
is the concept that people get what they deserve, a balance of punishment and reward
that can span different lifetimes. Slaves were indoctrinated to believe that their
current lives as slaves were the punishments for past crimes, while their owners were
told to believe that they were being rewarded for past deeds. Under this doctrine, for
a slave to rebel against his master would be tantamount to committing himself to a
worse fate in his next life.

While Americans would like to believe that old Tibet was a Shangri-La, it was really a
culture of sustained exploitation and oppression. This is an important point to make
because Free Tibet activists seem to fantasize about freeing Tibet and transforming it
back to the way it was. But there are many other areas where the Free Tibet pamphlets
and articles seem to be purposefully omitting information, and thereby presenting
misleading arguments.

Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing

One of the central claims of most Free Tibet campaigns is that China committed genocide
in Tibet by killing an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans since 1950, and has also deliberately
tried to wipe out Tibetan culture by killing monks, and destroying over 6,000 monasteries
and other religious artifacts. Usually when this information is presented, it is also
noted that most of this killing and destruction occurred during the 60’s. Sometimes, it
is pointed out that this coincided with the Cultural Revolution in China. But the
significance of the Cultural Revolution in relation to the so-called “genocide” is
never pointed out.

The Cultural Revolution was a fanatical socialist movement across China that rebelled
against the traditional feudalistic nature of Chinese society, the bourgeoisie, the
intellectuals, and capitalism. It was a movement that was propelled by the Chinese youth.
Bands of teenagers would beat their teachers and professors on charges of teaching
out-dated Confucian texts. They would publicly humiliate and torture innocent neighbors
on charges of capitalist crimes or connections to the KMT. They would raid people’s
homes and burn Taoist texts, calligraphy paintings, violins, or western style dresses.
Millions of people in China were imprisoned without trial, sent to labor camps, tortured
or killed. The estimated death toll of the Maoist regime (1949-1975) is estimated to
be around 40 million.

The fact is that while Buddhist monasteries were being destroyed in Tibet, the Red Guard
youths were also destroying Taoist temples, Christian churches, Jewish synagogues as
well as Buddhist monasteries all over China. While Tibetan books and scrolls were being
burned, so were Chinese books and paintings. And while Tibetans were being imprisoned
and killed, the exact same thing was happening to the Chinese themselves. A genocide
is defined as the purposeful killing of a targeted ethnic group. The Red Guard did not
target Tibetans because of their race. They targeted elements of Tibetan culture that
they saw as feudalistic and oppressive. They burned Tibetan scriptures because they
saw them as sustaining the feudalistic exploitation of the peasants. And when 40 million
innocent people died all over China during the Maoist regime, it is extremely misleading
for the Free Tibet activists to claim that China was committing genocide in Tibet.

In fact, if the Chinese government were so bent on destroying Tibetan culture, then why
have they allocated more than 300 million yuan (40 million USD) to repair major monasteries
in Tibet since 1980? In fact, the Chinese government has also spent 55 million yuan and
large amounts of jewelry, gold and silver to repair the Potola Palace over a period of
five years.

There is another important part of Tibetan history that Free Tibet activists fail to
mention in relation to the monastery destruction and massacre of monks. The Lamaist
Buddhism in Tibet was divided into many sects: the Yellow-Hat Sect, the Red-Hat Sect,
the White-Hat Sect, and the Black-Hat Sect among others. Over the course of history,
each sect vied with the others for power. This struggle for power was not peaceful.
Mutual massacres of entire monasteries were common during the several civil wars that
took place in Tibet. The irony, of course, is that Free Tibet activists denounce China
for destroying monasteries and killing monks, while at the same time they want to revert
Tibet back to the way it was. In fact, one could make the twisted argument that the
Chinese government is actually preserving Tibetan culture by following the status quo.

China’s Illegal Invasion

The other accusation Free Tibet activists often use is that China illegally invaded
Tibet. The historical ties and relationship between China and Tibet are complicated,
and China insists that Tibet has been part of China for at least 700 years. Goldstein
demonstrates the complexity of this relationship by commenting that in the early 20th
century, “Britain and India (and later the United States) dealt directly with Tibet
as if it were an independent state, but at the same time continually acknowledged de
jure Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. Much of the current confusion over Tibet’s previous
political status derives from this double-standard on the part of the concerned Western
nations.” And in fact, the issue of whether China illegally invaded Tibet is not as
clear cut as the Free Tibet activists claim.

Restriction of Religious Freedom

The Free Tibet activists also present other equally misleading information. For example,
they argue that religious freedom was restricted after China occupied Tibet in 1950. What
they don’t tell you is that the Lamaist Buddhism was violently forced on the populace in
the first place. This new religion replaced the shamanistic belief system known as Bon.
The new religion “had to be imposed on the people over the next century and a half by the
ruling class, using violence. King Trosong Detsen decreed: ‘He who shows a finger to a
monk shall have his finger cut off; he who speaks ill of the monks and the king’s Buddhist
policy shall have his lips cut off; he who looks askance at them shall have his eyes put
out…’ ” (Revolutionary Worker).

More importantly, the Free Tibet activists fail to mention that in old Tibet, there was
only one religion you could believe in – Lamaist Buddhism. Belief in other religions,
such as the traditional Bon, was punishable by death. After China occupied Tibet, religious
freedom was actually increased because Tibetans could actually choose what religion to
believe in. Free Tibet activists may have a strange definition of religious freedom, but
to be forced to believe in only one religion was not really a kind of freedom for the
people of old Tibet.

Using Mandarin as the Language of Teaching

Another point that Free Tibet activists raise is that the Chinese government has unfairly
replaced the Tibetan language with Mandarin as the language of teaching in schools. First
of all, there were few Tibetans qualified to teach higher level material and so Mandarin
speaking teachers were used. It was either higher level education in Mandarin or none at
all. The Free Tibet activists seem to have caught the Chinese government in a Catch-22.
The activists can criticize them either way. Maoist revolutionaries did however try to
develop Tibetan-language typewriters so that they could create the necessary conditions
where the Tibetan language could be used more extensively in higher education or government.

Of course, what the Free Tibet activists do not mention is that there was hardly an
education system in Tibet before the Chinese occupied the region. There were only 2
small schools for the children of aristocrats and the illiteracy rate of old Tibet
was close to 97%. The Chinese government has invested over 5 billion yuan to develop
Tibet’s educational system. By the year 2000, there were 956 schools in the region
with 85% of local children of school age enrolled. The illiteracy rate has dropped
by 47 percentage points.

First Recorded Famine

Free Tibet activists also like to make the claim that the first recorded famine in
Tibet occurred under Chinese administration between 1960 and 1962. But the truth of
the matter is that the slaves of old Tibet lived in constant cold and hunger. They
“were often sick from malnutrition. The traditional food of the masses is a mush made
from tea, yak butter, and a barley flour called tsampa. Serfs rarely tasted meat.
Seventy-five percent of the households were forced at times to eat grass. Half of the
people couldn’t afford butter–the main source of protein available” (Revolutionary
Worker). While the slaves were starving however, 4 tons of yak butter were burned daily
as offerings in temples. Most of the population lived in constant famine so it would
not have been recorded because famine was nothing unusual. Besides, the slaves were
illiterate and the aristocracy wouldn’t bother writing down that their slaves were
starving. On the other hand, the Chinese government has allocated many funds for
agricultural projects. And by the year 2000, Tibet has reaped a bumper grain harvest
for 13 years and is now self-sufficient in grain, edible oil and meat.

First Tibetan Uprising

Finally, Free Tibet activists also like to point out that the first Tibetan uprising
occurred under Chinese rule in 1959. The tacit claim is that the Tibetans have been
peaceful all along and have never rebelled. Apart from the known bloody struggles
between the different sects, “revolutionary historians have documented uprisings among
Tibetan serfs in 1908, 1918, 1931, and the 1940s. In one famous uprising, 150 families
of serfs of northern Tibet’s Thridug county rose up in 1918, led by a woman, Hor Lhamo.
They killed the county head, under the slogan: ‘Down with officials! Abolish all ulag
forced labor!’ ” (Revolutionary Worker).

But there is something about the 1959 uprising that is seldom mentioned, and this is
the fact that the CIA encouraged and funded the Lhasa riots. As Goldstein points out,
“by 1956 the U.S. was encouraging the anti-Chinese faction, and in 1957, actually
started to train and arm Tibetan guerrillas.” This is an important historical fact
because the US at that time was worried about Communist expansion, and it could be
argued that the 1959 riots were in fact orchestrated by
the US against China.

Mao’s Gradualist Policies

While oftentimes it appears that the Free Tibet activists only present half of the
information, there are two main issues that are usually left completely untold. The
first deals with Mao’s attitude towards Tibet both before and right after the
occupation in 1950. Mao wanted to peacefully liberate Tibet and offered to allow
Tibet to function as an autonomous region with its politico-economic system intact.
This meant that the Dalai Lama would still be the leader of the region, and Mao
also agreed that no reforms would take place until Tibet was ready for them. When
Tibet missed the deadline that the Chinese government had issued, Mao launched an
attack on Chamdo to force negotiations. Mao held off an attack on Lhasa itself,
and again make the same proposition for peaceful liberation. By this time however,
the Dalai Lama had fled to a small town near the Indian border. The remaining Tibet
government in Lhasa then signed a 17-point agreement with China that recognized
China’s sovereignty over Tibet, but which allowed Tibet to function as an autonomous

Following the occupation, Mao tried to proceed with an ethnically-sensitive policy.
As Goldstein eloquently explains,

“Mao Zedung, contrary to popular belief in the West, pursued a policy of moderation
and patience in Tibet … His strategy placed great emphasis on creating cordial
relations between Han (ethnic Chinese) and Tibetans, and allaying Tibetan fears
and anxieties. The PLA troops, for example, worked hard to differentiate themselves
from previous Chinese regimes �� They were careful to show respect for Tibetan culture
and religion, giving alms, for example, to all 20,000 of the monks in the Lhasa area.
This rhetoric was supported by enforcement of a strict behavioral code that precluded
the PLA from taking anything against the will of the people, and that required them
to pay for everything in silver coins (dayan) rather than paper money. Moreover, the
old feudal and monastic systems were allowed to continue unchanged – between 1951-59
there was absolutely no expropriation of the property of aristocratic and religious

So for the first few years after China occupies Tibet, remarkably little changes.
But the socialist fever burning in the rest of China, and the anti-Chinese faction
in Tibet (encouraged by the CIA) precipitated the 1959 Lhasa riots which allowed the
more right-wing members of the Communist Party to begin drastic reforms in Tibet. The
important thing is that Mao, from the beginning, was actually willing to allow Tibet
to maintain its own culture as well as the Dalai Lama as its leader. It is not the
case that Mao invaded Tibet so that he could wreck havoc on Tibetan culture and
massacre its people as some Free Tibet activists would like to believe.

Dalai Lama as Legitimate Leader of a Country

The other issue that is seldom addressed is the legitimacy of the Dalai Lama as a
leader of a country. First of all, it seems odd for Americans to support the head
of a religious sect as the leader of a country. Whatever happened to separation of
Church and State?

Moreover, the Dalai Lama was the biggest slave owner in Tibet. He had 6,170 field
serfs and 102 house slaves directly under his control. Billed as a non-materialistic
man by the Free Tibet campaigns, not only was he the biggest slave owner, “the first
time he fled to India in 1950, the Dalai Lama’s advisors sent several hundred mule-loads
of gold and silver bars ahead to secure his comfort in exile. After the second time
he fled, in 1959, Peking Review reported that his family left lots of gold and silver
behind, plus 20,331 pieces of jewelry and 14,676 pieces of clothing” (Revolutionary
Worker). And this is made even more salient because 95% of Tibet was starving and
forced to do hard labor so that the Dalai Lama could accumulate this amount of wealth.
Could this possibly be the Tibet that the Free Tibet activists are fantasizing about?

This is apart from the fact that the Dalai Lama has no real experience in managing a
country. But more importantly, historically “only three of the 14 Dalai Lamas actually
ruled. Between 1751 and 1950, there was no adult Dalai Lama on the throne in Tibet 77
percent of the time. The most powerful abbots ruled as ‘regent’ advisors who trained,
manipulated and even assassinated the child-king Dalai Lamas” (Revolutionary Worker).
So in fact, it was the status quo to not have the Dalai Lama rule. Of course, then
there is also the reincarnation issue which I will resist commenting upon. In conclusion
however, the traditional political system of feudal exploitation in Tibet was in no
sense democratic, or even remotely morally defensible.

American Ignorance of Asia

There seems to be a large element of self-deception in the claims used by the Free
Tibet movement. But perhaps the real underlying issue is an ignorance of foreign
affairs. Recent surveys in the US show that the American public is largely unaware
of foreign affairs, particularly when it comes to Asia. One survey found that:

– Nearly a quarter of college-bound students and a third of adults cannot name the
ocean that separates the United States from Asia.
– While Indonesia’s political turmoil has captured headlines this year, only 33% of
adults and 22% of students know that Jakarta is that country’s capital.
– In the polls, 64% of adults and 69% of college bound students could not pick the
percentage of the world’s population that live in Asia (The correct answer is 60%).
– Only half of adults and two-thirds of students know that Vietnam is not an island,
despite U.S. involvement there that included the loss of more than 58,000 servicemen
and women.



In fact, speaking of China’s Human Rights violations, how many Americans know that
the US was voted out of the United Nations Human Rights Commission recently by other
nations? On the other hand, China is still on that Commission. The way that the Free
Tibet campaign presents its claims reveals a lack of historical knowledge. This lack
of knowledge becomes dangerous when mixed with heady idealism, and becomes truly
offensive when accompanied by the tendency to make severe moral judgements. There is
a lingering Red Paranoia in the US, a fear of anything tinged with communism. But as
undemocratic as Americans may think China is, it is a fact that Tibet was far more
undemocratic than China in the early 20th century.

Tibet was in no way a Shangri-La. On the contrary, Tibet was a self-perpetuating
culture of oppression and exploitation. Movies such as “Seven Years in Tibet” are
seductive, but fantasy and reality are two very different things. We cannot make
moral judgements based on our own fantasies, and the reality is that the standard
of living in Tibet has improved dramatically over the past 5 decades. This is not
to say that human rights violations did not occur or do not still occur in Tibet.
And this is not to say that China is pursuing the best plan of action in Tibet. But
this is to say that campaigning to free Tibet seems strange given that it is China
that is helping Tibet to modernize the most. And it seems strange that the people
of a self-proclaimed democracy would support the biggest slave holder of Tibet back
to the throne of a feudal theocracy. In fact, doing so would be both socially and
morally irresponsible.


Goldstein, Melvyn. Tibet, China and the United States: Reflections on the Tibet
Available online at:

Index-China.Com. China, Tibet and the Chinese Nation.
Available online at:

People Daily. Progress in Tibet over Five Decades.
Available online at:

People Daily. Tangible Progress Achieved in Tibet.
Available online at:

Revolutionary Worker. When the Dalai Lamas Ruled: Hell on Earth
Available online at:

Revolutionary Worker. Life under the Dalai Lama in Exile.
Available online at:

Sources used by Revolutionary Worker:

The Anguish of Tibet, ed. Petra Kelly, Gert Bastian and Pat Aeillo, Parallax Press,
Berkeley, 1991. A collection of pro-lamaist essays.

Avedon, John F. “In Exile from the Land of Snows,” in The Anguish of Tibet.
Avedon, an author and Newsweekjournalist, is a prominent apologist for lamaism.

Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile–The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama, Harper Collins,
N.Y., 1990.

Grunfeld, A. Tom, The Making of Modern Tibet, Zed Books, 1987.

Grunfeld, A. Tom, “Tibet: Myths and Realities,” New China, Fall 1975.

Gyaltag, Gyaltsen, “An Historical Overview,” an essay published in The Anguish of
Gyaltsen Gyaltag is a representative of the Dalai Lama in Europe.

Han Suyin; Lhasa, the Open City–A Journey to Tibet, Putnam, 1977.

Hicks, Roger, Hidden Tibet–The Land and Its People, Element Books, Dorset, 1988.

China Reconstructs, “Tibet–From Serfdom to Socialism,” March 1976.

Peking Review, “Tibet’s Big Leap–No Return to the Old System,” July 4, 1975.

Twentieth Century Atlas. Death Tolls.
Available online at:

World Tibet Network News. China Funds Outpace Time in Medieval Tibet.
Available online at:

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