Tibet and China: A Review of Michael Parenti’s “Friendly Feudalism: The Myth of Tibet”. By: Thomas RigginsRead Now
In 2003 the website “Dissident Voice” carried the above-named article by Michael Parenti which he originally posted on his own web page (no longer active). ["Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth'' by Michael Parenti www.dissidentvoice.org December 27, 2003]
It is an important article that should be brought to the attention of all Midwestern Marx aficionados as it sheds a lot of light on a controversial issue on the left. That issue is, of course, the so-called Chinese takeover of Tibet and the demand for Tibetan independence. The article is still relevant today.
It is also important because the New York Times Magazine published an article on Tibet profiling a reactionary nationalist movement of Tibetans centered in India (“The Restless Children of the Dalai Lama” by Pankaj Mishra, 12-18-05).
I intend to briefly outline the contents of Partenti’s article in a few words (the article with notes runs to 18 pages) with the hope that Midwestern Marx readers will google the original for themselves. I will then make a few comments on the Mishra piece.
Parenti begins by reminding us that the followers of all the great historical religions have engaged in wars and inquisitions-- always justified by “a divine mandate.” Buddhism is no exception. While it may be a little less tyrannical than some others, it has also had its moments. Parenti suggests we judge it by its actions, not what its proponents say about it. He then gives some unsavory examples of the Buddhists acting badly-- all documented in his notes. I should add a great feature of this article is the collection of notes which will give anyone interested in the issues involved a sure starting point for independent research.
After presenting this evidence he turns to the issue of Tibet and the Dalai Lama. There is a widespread belief in the US, and maybe the West in general, that before the Chinese take over in 1959, old traditional Tibet was some sort of peaceable, spiritual kingdom, “a veritable Shangri-La”, ruled by the saintly Dalai Lama-- called by one foolish American actor “the greatest living human.”!
Parenti looks at the real history of Tibet, of how the Mongols set up the Grand Lama and how it was the Chinese Emperor who had to intervene with his army and install “the first Dalai Lama.” Tibet had a feudal order and it was quite all right for the Chinese to intervene in support of the feudal lords and lamas but to do so to help miserable serfs and slaves was another thing entirely.
It seems the Dalai Lamas were frequently murdered by their followers and did not themselves refrain from seizing the property and destroying the holy books of those who did not agree that they should run the show. In all this Tibet showed itself to be a typical tyrannical feudal state of which history gives many examples.
Parenti points out religion is not only noted for violence to attain its ends, but also for supporting economic exploitation. One big monastery alone, in the good old days before 1959, had 25,000 serfs. They lived the same way the Russian serfs did under the Czars, only worse as there was also slavery and much more barbaric forms of punishment.
Economically Tibet was run by about 200 families, and dozens of monasteries, which divided the land between themselves. A small army was maintained “to keep order and catch runaway slaves.”
Another wide spread religious practice should be familiar to readers, namely, that “it was a common practice for peasant children to be sexually mistreated in the monasteries.” Parenti quotes Melvin Goldstein’s A History of Modern Tibet to give an idea of what it was like in pre-Chinese takeover Tibet for the working people (serfs and slaves): “It was an efficient system of economic exploitation that guaranteed to the country’s religious and secular elites a permanent and secure labor force to cultivate their land holdings without burdening them either with any direct day-to-day responsibility for the serf’s subsistence and without the need to compete for labor in a market context.” Mutilation and torture were common. When the Chinese revolution took over Tibet in 1951 no one doubted that Tibet was a part of China-- both the Nationalists on Taiwan as well as the government in Beijing claimed that the region was under Chinese authority. No country recognized Tibet as an independent state.
No matter how much the Lamas and feudalists protested, it was the duty of China to put an end to slavery and serfdom. In fact the Chinese allowed for “self-government under the Dalai Lama” except for foreign relations and military control. Goldstein says China “pursued a policy of moderation.”
However, playing cold war games, the CIA secretly got involved in training Tibetan tribesmen, giving them arms and fomented anti-Chinese attacks. This is what was responsible for the 1959 Chinese military takeover and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India. Feudalism was finally eliminated, secular education was introduced (90 percent of the population was illiterate) and the first hospitals were built.
The NYT Magazine article basically admits the same thing, but adds that “according to Tibetans” 1.2 million people were killed by the Chinese. Parenti’s earlier article also mentioned that figure, but thought it strange as in 1953 the entire population of Tibet was 1,274,000. Other charges such as mass sterilization and deportations “have remained unsupported by any evidence.”
I think Parenti has succeeded in one of his intentions, which was to show that the society led by the Dalai Lama and overthrown in 1959 “was little more than a despotic retrograde theocracy of serfdom and poverty.”
The NYT article is about some of the younger generation of Tibetan exiles that advocate violence, blowing up bridges, targeting Chinese embassies, etc., at a time when the Dalai Lama himself has reaffirmed nonviolence and has distanced himself from notions of Tibet as an independent state. He would like self-rule “genuine autonomy” but as a part of China.
In the new post 9/11 world we live in, the growth of an anti-Chinese ultra-national and violence prone Tibetan resistance, openly admiring the tribal groups associated with and funded by the CIA, is a dangerous and unhealthy development. In order to combat its influence on progressive and liberal groups here, knowledge of the information in Parenti’s article is essential.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association. He is the author of Reading the Classical Texts of Marxism.