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Tibetan riots shake Chinese occupation

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Tibetans and their supporters have faced down Chinese police inside the country and disrupted torch-bearing ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics around the world to highlight their cause. Peter Main argues for the right of national self-determination of the Tibetan people

As the Olympic flame was paraded through London, protesters gathered outside a government office in Garze, an ethnic Tibetan region of western China. Police reacted with typical brutality, killing eight and injuring dozens. These deaths must be added to the 19 kill during last month's demonstrations in Tibet and neighbouring provinces of China.

After those protests, the Dalai Lama called for a dialogue with Beijing to achieve "autonomy within China" but demonstrators in the capital Lhasa and around the world demanded a fully independent Tibet. Meanwhile, Beijing insisted that Tibet has been part of China for centuries and that the Tibetans are just one ethnic group among many, whose cultural heritage is protected by autonomous status, while government policy ensured progress and modernisation.

The speed with which a peaceful demonstration by 300 monks grew into a mass movement that could only be suppressed by the mobilisation of the Chinese army, and the fact that demonstrations spread into the neighbouring provinces of China itself prove beyond doubt the continued vitality of the Tibetan national movement. Any democrat, let alone any revolutionary should reject Beijing's arguments.

Tibetan history
Whether or not there were inter-dynastic marriages in the ninth century or Mandarins appointed to the governorship of Tibet in the 18th, is completely beside the point. Nations are modern political phenomena, born out of a combination of internal development and external pressures. In the 20th century, the people of Tibet repeatedly asserted their national identity, beginning with the declaration of independence at the time of the first Chinese Revolution in 1911.

Within months of China's occupation in 1950, clashes took place between the Tibetan population and the occupying forces, developing into a guerrilla conflict that culminated in the uprising of 1959. In 1989, widespread demonstrations and protests confirmed that Beijing's policies, far from resolving the national question, had stoked up nationalist sentiment that continued to express itself in support for the exiled Dalai Lama.

Significantly, Hu Jintao, now China's president, oversaw the brutal suppression of those protests. They turned out to be the immediate precursor to the suppression of the Democracy Movement in China that followed the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989.

Since then, the policy of the Chinese Communist Party has been to try to liquidate the Tibetan national movement by reducing the ethnic Tibetans to a minority in their own country. Large-scale settlement by Han Chinese, many forced from their own homes, was encouraged by economic subsidies.

At the same time, Beijing encouraged capitalist development in Tibet just as in China, providing infrastructural support, such as roads, housing, power supplies and, most recently, a railway connection to Lhasa. Although presented as a benefit to all the people of Tibet, these developments largely passed the ethnic Tibetans by, and served only to consolidate the position of the Han settlers.

No figures for the ethnic composition of Tibet are available, but both the Dalai Lama's government in exile and Beijing suggest a total population of 5.4 million. By comparison, in 1990, there were approximately 2.2 million ethnic Tibetans and they made up 95% of the total population. These figures suggest that, while not yet "an insignificant minority" as the Dalai Lama claims, Tibetans may well have been displaced as the majority community.

Does this invalidate Tibetan demands for independence? How could a minority justifiably claim the right to determine the future political institutions of the country? Is the Dalai Lama, perhaps, simply being realistic when he limits his demand to autonomy within China?

Recognition of the Tibetans' right to national self-determination is the only principle that can provide a consistent basis for answering such questions. That right was violated by the Chinese invasion of 1950 and can only be restored by ending the occupation. To reduce the issue to the status of a headcount would mean to grant Beijing the right to "create facts" on the ground, rather as Israel creates facts by settlement of the occupied territories in Palestine.

Moreover, since Beijing clearly has no intention of withdrawing, the issue will not be resolved by referendum but by political struggle. The outcome of that struggle, including the development of political currents and parties in both the Tibetan and the Han communities, is not determined in advance.

Where next?
Clearly, as in all such cases, there is already a stratum in the Tibetan population, which collaborates with the occupation. Others, such as the followers of the Dalai Lama, oppose the struggle for independence or subordinate it to a principle of pacifism, thereby guaranteeing the continuation of Beijing's dictatorial rule. As recent events have shown, there is also a growing current that rejects all preconditions on the right to national independence.

Equally, there is no reason to assume that all of the Han settlers will always automatically side with Beijing. Many will already have scores of their own to settle with the Communist Party and, in the context of increasing instability in China and the future overthrow of the party dictatorship, may opt either to return to their homeland or make common cause with the ethnic Tibetans in a liberated Tibet.

For these reasons, it is crucial to link principled support for the Tibetan right of self-determination to a political strategy of permanent revolution that can offer Tibetan workers and farmers not only democratic government based on their own organisations, but also the prospect of winning allies within the Han community, which capitalist development will inevitably divide.

Revolutionaries in China, in particular, must follow the example of the Russian Bolsheviks who inscribed support for the right of self-determination of all oppressed nationalities into their party programme.