John Gittings welcomes two books that articulate China’s internal debates

Few will have heard of Tibet’s Joan of Arc, the young Trinley Chodron, who believed that a bird sent by the Dalai Lama had given her magic powers and led a troop of “warrior-heroes” against the Chinese. Chodron was executed in 1969 during the cultural revolution.

And before reading The Struggle for Tibet I, too, was unaware of the Tibetan monks who, more recently, were ordered to write down that the Dalai Lama “is the biggest obstacle to Tibetan Buddhism”. By adding a barely visible dot to the script, they were able to convert “is” to “is not”. Nor did I know that many educated Tibetans can only communicate in Chinese with Tibetan exiles they meet when travelling abroad, because their grasp of their own language is so poor.

But our ignorance is hardly surprising. We talk a lot about the Tibet we see from the outside, but as Robert Barnett, one of a handful of western scholars who understand the country, tells us in his introduction, the voices of the Tibetan people are only heard in “snatches and fragments”.

After the country was sealed off by China in 1959 following the Lhasa rebellion and flight of the Dalai Lama, it became a “muffled, incoherent place”. The British left has always been diffident about the Tibet issue, unable to shake off the memory of our own imperial designs, and uneasy at the CIA’s role in the 1950s and 60s in the Tibetan resistance (two of the Dalai Lama’s brothers worked with them).

A few years ago New Left Review (NLR) broke through this barrier, publishing a conversation between the Chinese scholar-activist Wang Lixiong and the leading Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya which launched a new debate. The dialogue, with subsequent analyses from both writers, now appears in The Struggle for Tibet, an excellent and informative book from Verso (the publishers founded by NLR).

After the 2008 riots in Lhasa and in China’s Tibetan areas, Wang organised a petition signed by 300 Chinese intellectuals, included here as an appendix, complaining about the ferocious attitude of the tame Tibetan officials who rose to power during the cultural revolution, and urging Beijing to open a dialogue with the Dalai Lama.

Both scholars warn that Tibet’s cultural and national identity has been dangerously eroded, and that China’s rushed economic development only benefits a minority. “What do we see today?” asks Wang. “Temples brim with burning incense and butter lamps, which well-dressed people can afford to light in the thousands at once. Yet they only want the Buddha’s blessings to help with job promotions and increasing their wealth.”

The Tibetan resistance, which spread in 2008, becoming more violent, is about “the right to have a voice”, Shakya says, and Tibet will not remain mute for ever.

There are many voices coming out of China these days, but do we always listen? Our questions are often predictable: will Chinese economic growth continue? Will China overtake the US? Will it rule the world? This focus on the country’s future has led to a de facto collusion with the Chinese government in ignoring its past. According to this script, Mao was a monster, socialism a dead end and the story only begins with the post-Mao economic reforms.

In The End of the Revolution (Verso, £14.99), the leading Chinese critic Wang Hui offers an alternative: an undivided narrative of modern Chinese history which makes better sense.

The socialist reform of agriculture under Mao paved the way for the market reform of agriculture after Mao, he argues, because “Chinese peasants had become relatively more educated, literate, capable at self-organisation and technically able”.

Nor can we simply label China’s economic policies as neo-liberal capitalism: its socialist tradition still imposes constraints. Land has not been privatised and state-owned enterprises still provide large tax revenues.

Perhaps most important, having experienced a century of revolution, “Chinese society retains an acute sensitivity toward the demands of fairness and social equality”. This is the real China which we can still find if we go into the back streets and the villages.

This book, too, is a product of the NLR/Verso effort to articulate the serious and extensive debate going on in China – a debate that is poorly reflected in our media and scholarship.

Wang Hui is often labelled as leader of China’s new left. But while he rejects the term, he has no time either for those Chinese intellectuals who have fallen in love with market forces. Modernisation, he argues, should not be a goal but a starting point. And he illustrates this in a moving tribute to Xiao Liangzhong, an environmental activist who died young while campaigning to defend the Jinsha river in south-west China from destructive tourism and a new dam.

John Gittings’s The Changing Face of China: From Mao to Market is published by Penguin. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds