Faint-hearted praise

Stan Keable examines 'Tibet - Colony or part of China?' Morning Star pamphlet, 20pp. �2.00

“Considerable economic and political autonomy is possible within the context of overall Chinese sovereignty” - this apologia is all that remains of Lenin’s democratic principle of self-determination in the hands of the Communist Party of Britain’s Kenny Coyle.

In the context of Tibet it would, of course, be embarrassing for the ‘official communist’ CPB to elaborate this principle, including, as it does, the right to secession. Unity, for genuine communists, must be voluntary. Our democratic starting point must be upholding the right of the Tibetans to choose - unity or separation. Only then can we legitimately argue for voluntary unity. For the CPB, however, well versed in defending the rights of states and the sanctity of existing borders, this democratic principle is a distant memory.

Understandably then, no mention is made by comrade Coyle of the right of self-determination in this short pamphlet. Instead, it answers the title question by asserting that “Tibet … became part of China seven centuries ago”, implying that the Tibetans must like it or lump it; and - with disarming naivety in the face of China’s present rapid capitalist development: “The idea that China is or could be a colonial or imperialist power is nonsense.” Then, as China’s low-wage capitalism reaches out into Africa, to parts other imperialisms cannot reach, we are offered the argument: “Where are its colonial possessions and when did it carry out a global offensive to conquer or dominate weaker countries militarily or economically to bring them into Beijing’s thrall?”

These quotations are taken from two Morning Stareditorials, March 18 and April 5 2008, which form the first part of the pamphlet. The rest reproduces a series of fiveMorning Star articles by comrade Coyle, from April 2 to April 9, intended to counter “media hysteria” in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics - the coverage of the violence of Tibetan separatists in Lhasa on March 14 (“beating up and stabbing unarmed police and members of the Han Chinese five percent ethnic minority”).

While comrade Coyle effectively counters the excessive claims of reactionary Tibetan nationalism, his faint-hearted defence of China’s bureaucratic regime should fail to convince even loyal CPBers. If the denial of freedom of expression and self-determination can be excused in China by rising “educational, health and living standards” or the economic benefits of projects like the Qinghai-Lhasa railway, would workers in Britain choose to live in the kind of society the CPB is offering? No thanks.

In fact, the CPB does not know what to make of China. Since their Soviet god departed, the comrades clutch at every straw. To retain belief in their lost world of national socialisms, they must, willy-nilly, defend the legitimacy of the Chinese rulers. But repressive, undemocratic, bureaucratic, capitalist China is indefensible. Hence the mealy-mouthed defence, the faint-hearted praise.

In this pamphlet, socialism is mentioned only once, and only to deny it: the armed revolts of the 1950s were triggered by “modernising reforms, not the premature introduction of socialism”. Not finding the question of socialism examined here, I reverted to an earlier CPB pamphlet, China’s line of march, the report of the CPB delegation to China in 2006, which at least confirmed that the CPB does not know how China should be defined: “Is China a socialist society? … Or is China taking the capitalist road, having abandoned socialist objectives? Even on the basis of much study and discussion” - and we are unhelpfully left in the dark about the different opinions expressed in these discussions - “the CPB delegation believes it would be presumptuous to claim to know the definitive and correct answers to such questions after just 10 days in China” (p3). Admittedly, 10 days is not long. But a lifetime in ‘official communist’ politics, on the other hand, evidently numbs the mind.

Comrade Coyle easily disposes of the adoption, by western devotees of the Tibetan separatist cause, of James Hilton’s 1935 fictional Himalayan utopia of Shangri-la, in his Lost horizons. Supposedly, before Mao Zedong’s red army invaded in 1951, “happy, contented peasants, smiling monks” inhabited “a land oozing with mystical eastern wisdom” . Centuries of religious faction fighting, entwined with the Tibetan feudal nobility and Mongol and Manchu invaders, give the lie to the myths of buddhist pacifism and age-old Tibetan independence.

It was the Mongol leader, Altan Khan, who, in 1578, first gave the title ‘Dalai Lama Vajradhara’ to the chief priest of his favoured buddhist sect, the Gelupgas, or Yellow Hats. “From the 9th century AD until the 20th,” says Coyle, “Tibet was neither a functional, united nor independent state.” Only following the 1911 bourgeois revolution in China was Tibet independent, ruled for nearly 40 years by a “repressive feudal theocracy” in which “Lords, whether of the lama or temporal variety, had the power to tax their subjects, torture, blind or mutilate them as a means of punishment, rape them and control their movement.”

Things could only get better, you might think. But, in the 1950s, Mao Zedong - “a master strategist at his best” - cleverly sought to win over “traditional Tibetan leaders”. His strategy was to “postpone political and social reforms and leave the privileges of the traditional rulers intact in return for their recognition of the new political power in China”.

Returning to the present, according to PEN, the world association of writers, “China has the largest number of writers in prison of any country, in absolute terms, and, though the number may seem small relative to the size of the Chinese population, these cases have had an overall chilling effect on other writers in China, where there is widespread censorship and self-censorship.” Furthermore, “those who express separatist views are severely punished” using article 105.2 of the People’s Republic of China criminal law, ‘Incitement of subversion of state power’ (www.internationalpen.org.uk).

In parallel with the Olympic torch relay, PEN International organised a poem relay - translating into many languages the poem ‘June’ by exiled poet Shi Tao, found guilty in 2004 of publicising Communist Party instructions for the media prior to the 15th anniversary of the June 4 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and Beijing massacre.

Communists demand freedom of expression as an essential condition for the achievement of working class unity. Without it, a programme for the liberation of humanity cannot be thrashed out, nor a genuine communist party forged. Karl Marx began his political life campaigning against censorship and never gave up that struggle.

Nowhere does comrade Coyle even attempt to defend state censorship or justify the curtailment of the right of free expression of views. The question is simply ignored. Not an effective way of countering “international attempts to embarrass and put pressure on China in the run-up to the Olympic Games.”