In March 2008 Tibet exploded. A peaceful demonstration in Lhasa, the capital city, was attacked by the police and army, and thousands of people fought back. For the next two months there were hundreds of solidarity protests, marches and riots over a huge area.
Most of the protests happened outside Tibet province, in areas that have a majority Tibetan population but are directly ruled by China. Most Tibetans live in these areas (sometimes called “historic” Tibet), but it was assumed that they largely accepted Chinese rule, unlike the population of Tibet province.
It was a very wrong assumption. 2008 was the biggest and most widespread outpouring of nationalist feeling since the late 1950s, when Chinese rule was finally consolidated. It proved that 40 years of Chinese occupation had, if anything, reinforced nationalism.
The Tibetan struggle is little understood in the West, and this short book is a very readable introduction to the subject. The first half is an exchange between the two authors, first printed in New Left Review in 2002.
Wang Lixiong, a critical Chinese intellectual, argues a history that challenges the standard Chinese account, while asserting that it was mainly Tibetans who were responsible for the attacks on culture and religion during the “Cultural Revolution”.
Tsering Shakya, a left wing Tibetan intellectual, whose book The Dragon in the Land of Snows is the best history of 20th century Tibet, is scathing in his reply. He accuses Wang of seeing Tibetan peasants as people incapable of thinking for themselves, and argues that standard Chinese views of Tibet have much in common with Western condescension towards colonised peoples.
Later articles show Wang’s changing perspectives as he becomes more sympathetic to Buddhism, and he accepts the justice of some of Shakya’s criticisms. It’s a cultural view of Tibetan rights, rather than a political one, but it’s still a direct challenge to the dominant Chinese view.
The book ends with three shorter pieces on March 2008 and after, stressing the degree to which the protests have changed the debate. Wang argues that Chinese repression is stoking separatism by making any expression of nationalism illegal. Shakya’s two pieces explain how the protests could spread so widely and he shows how the Chinese government has no useful answer to the crisis.
Both authors make sweeping assertions and there is much here that socialists won’t necessarily agree with, but overall the book is a very useful antidote to those on the left who view the Tibetan struggle as reactionary. This argument sees China as “modernising” Tibet, and any resistance to this shows the hand of US imperialism. Both authors show how the explosion grew out of changes in Tibetan society and is ultimately the product of heavy-handed colonialism.
Shakya catches this in a polemical question. If Tibet was liberated “why are the sons and daughters of the ‘liberated slaves’ rising against their ‘liberators’?” 2008 was meant to be China’s year of triumph with the Olympics, but it will be equally remembered for the most widespread protest movement since 1989.
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