There is considerable disagreement about what exactly happened in Lhasa on March 14th – and why, but I think everyone is agreed on this one fact that the only accredited foreign journalist in Lhasa when the uprising began was James Miles, of the Economist. In an interview with CNN, Miles described the very deliberate manner in which the protesters went about doing what they did. “They marked those businesses that they knew to be Tibetan owned with white traditional scarves. Those businesses were left intact. Almost every single other across a wide swathe of the city, not only in the old Tibetan quarter, but also beyond it in areas dominated by the ethnic Han Chinese. Almost every other business was either burned, looted, destroyed, smashed into, the property therein hauled out into the streets, piled up, burned.” Note the last line …”the property therein hauled out into the streets, piled up, burned.”
What is really interesting is the fact that there was, on the whole, no looting or pilfering. The protesters did not steal from the Chinese stores. They just piled the stuff in the streets and burned them. There were a few exceptions, of course. Someone told me that after a toy store was smashed up, children could be seen running away with toys in their arms.
In an earlier piece, “Was It Violence” on this blog-site, I mentioned, in passing, this intriguing feature of the insurrection – “the piling up on the street and burning” of Chinese products. I received a comment from Dan on April 21st. “I wonder if you see close correspondences between the happenings in March ‘08 and the earlier events of 1987 & ‘89. It seems to me that the idea to destroy Chinese commercial goods (and “not” loot them), burning them in big piles in the streets happened then, too. As I remember, it was said that if people saw other people carrying something away from a shop they would make them throw it on the bonfire… otherwise, they said, ‘Chinese would say it was just about stealing.’”
Dan’s remarks jogged my memory of those past events. I telephoned a couple of Lhasa friends (now in exile) who had participated in the earlier demonstrations. They confirmed the “piling up and burning” of Chinese products.
In such cases of major public insurrection in the US, as in the Watts riots of 1965 or more recently the LA Riots of 1992 (The Rodney King Riots) there was large-scale looting of shops and commercial fronts by rioters. Warren Christopher who headed the commission that investigated the cause of the LA riot reported that there were definite social and economic causes for the uprising, in addition to the immediate trigger cause of the beating of Rodney King by the LA police and the acquittal of the four police officers by a LA court. The report specifically cited such causes as poverty, extremely high unemployment among residents of South Central Los Angeles, which had been hit very hard by the nation-wide recession, a long-standing perception that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) engaged in racial profiling and used excessive force.
If the Tibetan protesters were only venting economic grievances or their resentment of the conduct of Chinese security personnel, I am sure they would not have hesitated to loot the Chinese owned stores. There is a fairly rowdy underclass, what Marxists might call a lumpen element, in Lhasa city whose members have no qualms about such things. Though monks and nuns have usually been the initiators of anti-Chinese demonstrations, Lhasa street people have always managed to run a close second, and furthermore never hesitated about throwing stones or livening up the proceedings in other ways.
I had a friend from Lhasa, a rough diamond, who had seen the inside of most Lhasa jails long before the ‘87 demonstrations. Though he was near illiterate, he was much more astute politically than better educated or privileged Tibetans. His savvy and strength came from the fact that he had no illusions about the Chinese. He was one of the main street protesters in ‘87 and later in jail provided inspiration and amusement to many. He managed to visit India after his release and gave me a thorough education on the nuances of street protests. I introduced him to Orville Schell and David Breashears for the Frontline documentary Red Flag Over Tibet, where, with his face partially wrapped in a towel, my friend spoke about his experiences.
There can be no doubt that the Lhasa protesters were sending a political message through their actions. By not looting but instead burning Chinese products they were simply saying, “we don’t want Chinese products and we don’t want the Chinese in Tibet.” One could perhaps view their action as a variation (albeit an angrier and less Gandhian one) of the burning of English clothes and products by Indian nationalists during the Swadeshi movement.
In spite of the unmistakable political message from Lhasa there were attempts in the western media to interpret the protests largely in economic terms – Tibetan dissatisfaction growing from the absence of economic opportunities because of the large-scale migration of Chinese to Tibet, exacerbated by the new railway. Abraham Lustgarten in his flippantly titled “It’s the Tibetan Economy, Stupid” in the Washington Post (March 20) went so far as to assert that “more than violations of human rights and religious freedom, lack of economic opportunity fueled the riots in Tibet last week”. Of course no consideration of Tibetan nationalism was remotely entertained as a motive for the uprising.
Were there economic motives? I have no doubt there were. And I have no doubt that the motives were broadly as Lustgarten and the others have spelled out. There were in addition motives of human rights violations, denial of religious freedom, suppression of the language, destruction of the culture and on and on. But if, as Lustgarten and some others claim, economic motives were paramount, then why didn’t the protesters just come out and say so? Why didn’t they just shout, “We want better economic opportunities” or just loot the Chinese shops and demonstrate what they wanted in clear materialistic terms.
India’s struggle for independence and many of Gandhi’s programs as the Swadeshi movement, Khadi, the spinning wheel, and even such mass action as the Salt March were expressions of Indian opposition to British economic exploitation of the Indian masses. But none of those, in any way, detracted from the larger message of Indian independence.
Was the American Revolution solely or largely a matter of the resentment of American colonists at what they perceived to be unjust taxes imposed by the British crown? It may have started out so, but by the time of the second Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence, Americans had come to realize that without political independence there was no way to ensure economic justice for America.
Tibetans inside Tibet appear to have come around to that realization since 1987, and indeed aspiring Tibetan Jeffersons and Paines had expressed their ideas in a number of documents (See Elliot Sperling’s “The Rhetoric of Dissent: Tibetan Pamphleteers” 1994). The most important political document of that period, sometimes referred to as The Drepung Manifesto, was authored by a group of Drepung monks and printed in the traditional manner with wooden blocks, as a eleven-page pamphlet. It is as clear a declaration of independence as you can get.
It has always appeared to me condescending, even somewhat racist, in the way western journalists and experts have insisted on interpreting events in Tibet in the most simplistic and one-dimensional of terms, ignoring the way Tibetans have been discussing, developing and defining their own distinct political and national identity through all these years.
We must bear in mind that these ideas were being discussed and expressed in Tibet when the economic situation in Tibet had improved considerably from the period before, in the seventies and early eighties, when people barely had enough to eat. Yet there is a clear understanding that such economic improvements in the lives of the Tibetan people were meaningless without political independence. An excerpt from one pamphlet of that period is unmistakable in its contention:
“[If, under China] Tibet were built up, the livelihood of the Tibetan people improved [so that] their lives surpassed those of human beings as lives of happiness that made the deities of the Divine Realm of the Thirty-Three embarrassed; if we truly had this given to us, even then we Tibetans wouldn’t want it. We absolutely wouldn’t want it.”

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