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A comparison between serfdom/slavery abolition in China's Tibet, Russia and US
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By Liang Junyan and Zhang Yun




 China's Tibet

Reason for abolishing serfdom/ slavery

In the 1860s, contradictions between the economic systems in Northern and Southern American States were stark. The north was in great need of a free and willing labor force, while Southern slave owners confined millions of Blacks to the plantations. The North needed a large quantity of industrial materials such as cotton, while the South, under a colonial slavery economy, exported their products to Britain, France and other European countries. The North wanted the South to become a market for its output but the destitute Blacks had no means to buy any of its products. The Northern capitalist class demanded tariffs to protect their own industry, while Southern slave owners, who controlled the federal government, tried to reduce tariffs so as to be able to purchase foreign goods at cheap prices. These contradictions intensified with the development of the American economy, the enlargement of American territory, the progress of the abolition movement, and the strengthening of the black struggle for emancipation.

In the mid-19th century, many European countries were experiencing democratic revolutions. The emancipation of serfs had become a growing trend. Russia faced severe crisis within its borders. At the same time, Russia was confronted with the approaching failure of the Crimean War and the flowing tide of the movement towards serf emancipation. To prevent revolution and to preserve feudal rule, Tsar Alexander II had to carry out a series of reforms. 

Tibetan society was subject to theocratic rule and feudal serfdom before 1959, under a regime even darker than medieval Europe. As leader of the Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism and also head of Tibetan regional government, the 14th Dalai Lama monopolized both political and religious power and was the chief representative of the feudal serf owners. Serf owners, accounting for less than 5 percent of the total population of Tibet, held in their possession the overwhelming part of the means of production, and monopolized the material and cultural resources of Tibet. The serfs and slaves, making up 95 percent of the total population, suffered destitution, cruel oppression and exploitation, and possessed no means of production or personal freedom whatsoever, nor any other basic human rights. Long centuries of theocratic rule and feudal serfdom stifled the vitality of Tibetan society, and brought about its decline and decay. Following the failure of the Dalai Lama faction's uprising in 1959 and their flight to India, Tibet began to carry out democratic reforms aimed at abolishing serfdom. 

Number of serfs/slaves before abolition

Black slaves in the southern States of America numbered 4 million, about 14 percent of the total American population (Before the Civil War in 1861, America had a total population of 31 million). 

In 1811, serfs accounted for 58 percent of the total Russian population. By 1858, the proportion had decreased to 44.5 percent (Russia possessed a population of 67 million in 1851) 

Tibet had about 1 million serfs, accounting for 95 percent of its total population. (Before its peaceful liberation in 1951, Tibet had a population of about 1.14 million.) 

Economic exploitation suffered by serfs/slaves

Blacks in the South were grievously exploited by their owners till their death. They were whipped and shackled, and driven to work for 18 to 19 hours a day on the plantations or workshops. Even the strongest were worn to an early death after toiling onerously for seven to eight years.

In the 17th century, Russian feudalists plundered serfs wantonly. At that time, Russian serfs were divided into three classes: landlord serfs, state-bonded serfs, and royal serfs. The landlord serfs were the most oppressed, providing not only forced labor but also all kinds of agricultural products to their owners. They enjoyed no personal freedom at all. The state-bonded serfs did not belong to any landlord, but they were cruelly exploited by the feudal state, subject to heavy tribute and taxes and various unpaid labors. Royal serfs were attached to the Tsar, responsible for providing its requirements to the Tsar's Court.

Serf-owners in Tibet comprised local officials, aristocrats and high-level monks. They made up barely 5 percent of the total Tibetan population but owned all the farmland, pastures, forests, mountains and rivers, and most of the livestock. "Treba" (sharecroppers) and "dujung" (small households working for lords), who accounted for 90 percent of the total Tibetan population, owned no means of production. They had to rent land from serf owners and work as compulsory laborers. The other 5 percent of the Tibetan population were called "nangsen", generations of whom were household servants for their lords. They were regarded as "talking tools". 

Personal "freedom" of serfs/slaves

Blacks in the southern States were deprived of all political and economic rights, even including the right to build a family. Black slaves became the private property of their owners, and could be transferred or auctioned randomly. Most cities in the South set up special markets to trade Black slaves. After the War of Independence, slaves were not allowed to possess property or read and write. Without permission from their owners, they could not get married or leave their manors. If they wanted to move in groups, they must be accompanied by whites. Slaves could be bought and sold like animals. American Blacks endured the oppression, humiliation and maltreatment of their owners. They were only talking tools.

Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich Romanov promulgated the Law Code of 1649, proclaiming that landlords had the right to pursue without time limit escapees – defined according to the land property register edited in 1626 or the population survey made between 1646 and 1647. All escaped serfs, no matter how long since they had fled, must return and settle on their former landlord's manor together with their family and property. The law also stipulated that landlords had the right to interfere with serfs' family affairs such as property and marriage. Russian landlords could sell their serfs in the same way as selling their cattle or horses. 

Serfs in old Tibet were prohibited from leaving their owners' manors without permission, or escaping their manors. Generation followed generation of serfs. The serf-owners owned serfs as their private property, and could trade and transfer them, present them as gifts, and use them as gambling stakes and mortgages for debt. 

Punishment imposed on serfs/slaves

Colonies in both the North and South of America promulgated laws and regulations against Blacks. Black slaves were not allowed to gather together, nor to possess or carry a gun (whites could carry a gun). Without written permission, Blacks could not leave their owners' manors. Blacks were not allowed to bear witness in cases concerning whites. Runaway Blacks must be returned to their original owners, otherwise they would be subject to the death penalty. If a black slave attacked a white, the black would be punished by 40 lashes whether he was in the right or the wrong. If a slave committed a serious crime, he could be branded or have his ears cut off, castrated, or executed. In comparison, a slave owner committed no offence even if he killed a slave, because according to the prevailing logic no slave-owner would kill a slave "except in self-defense". 

In March 1607, Tsar Vasily IV Shuysky promulgated a code, stipulating that the time-limit for a landlord to hunt his serfs be extended from 5 years to 15 years. Those who took in escaping serfs would be fined, while those who gave refuge to escaping serfs would be prosecuted. The Legal Code of 1649 prescribed that feudal landlords were fully responsible for their serfs in court. On their own manors, landlords had the right to judge, whip, torture, or shackle their serfs. Other than for treason against the tsar, no serfs could prosecute their owners. If a landlord went bankrupt, his serfs had the responsibility to reimburse his debts.

As stipulated in old Tibet's local code, serfs who "infringed upon" the interests of the three estate-holders could "have their eyes gouged out, legs hamstrung, tongues cut out, or hands severed, or be hurled from a cliff, drowned or otherwise killed; such punishments are a warning to others not to follow their example."

Any serf who "voices grievances at the palace, behaving disgracefully, should be arrested and whipped; anyone who disobeys a master shall be arrested; anyone who spies on a master shall be arrested; a commoner who offends an official shall be arrested."

In old Tibet, when people of different classes and ranks violated the same criminal law, the criteria for imposing penalties and the means of punishment were quite different. As stipulated in the Code, a servant who fought and severely injured his master could have his hands or feet chopped off, but a master who injured a servant only need to give the servant medical treatment. A servant who injured a Living Buddha was deemed to have committed a felony and would have his eyes gouged out, a limb amputated, or even be put to death. 

Role of serfs/slaves in serfdom abolition 

During the American Civil War, 250,000 black people fought in battle, while another 250,000 served in other military roles. Altogether, 68,170 black people lost their lives. The escape of 500,000 black slaves led directly to the bankruptcy of American Southern economy, which also diverted about 100,000 people from the slave-owning classes into the military forces. 

Russia witnessed more frequent and more severe serf uprisings in the 19th century. Before the abolition of serfdom, there were 550 serf insurgences in Russia. Experts from the former Soviet Union estimated that there were 993 serf uprisings in the country between 1801 and 1854. 

Serfs firmly supported and actively participated in a series of democratic reform measures implemented by the Communist Party of China in Tibet. 

Process, content and symbolic treaty in serfdom/ slavery abolition

In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, which described vividly and disclosed the miserable life of black slaves, arousing vehement responses in American society and vigorously strengthening the cause of the abolitionist movement. In 1859, abolitionist John Brown led a raid of 21 whites and blacks, bringing matters to a head. In 1861, the American Civil War broke out. President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 caused a profound rupture in the military forces of the Southern states, turning the trend of the war. In January 1865, the US congress passed The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, stipulating the official prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude within the US border and spheres under its jurisdiction. It formally took effect on December 18, 1865. Thenceforth, slavery was abolished in the United States. 

To adapt to the development of capitalism and relax domestic class contradictions, the Tsarist government started to institute various acts restraining or abolishing serfdom from the beginning of the 19th century. In 1803, it promulgated a decree on free-grain serfs, allowing landlords to emancipate serfs on a voluntary and redemption basis. In 1845, it again promulgated a decree on obligated-grain serfs, stipulating that landlords had the right to sign agreements with serfs so that the serfs could obtain plots of land but must fulfill certain obligations for the landlords. In October 1860, Russia planned the draft of a decree to emancipate serfs. On March 3, 1861 (February 19, 1861 according to Julian Calendar), Alexander II approved the Emancipation Manifesto accompanied by the set of legislative acts under the general name Regulations Concerning Serfs Leaving Serf Dependence. The Manifesto announced the bodily freedom of serfs. Meanwhile, it prescribed that all land still belonged to the landlords, but that serfs would be able to buy a small patch of land from the landlords. Also, for convenient management, serfs were organized into the villages or communities to which they had formerly belonged.

On May 23, 1951, the Central People's Government and the Local Government of Tibet signed an agreement on the Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, or the 17-Article Agreement. Tibet was peacefully liberated, creating favorable conditions for its democratic reform and social progress. In an attempt to perpetuate the old social system, the upper ruling strata in Tibet publicly abandoned the agreement and staged an armed rebellion on March 10, 1959. They failed and fled to India. On March 28, 1959, Premier Zhou Enlai promulgated a State Council Decree dissolving the local Tibetan government. At the same time, the Central Government implemented a policy of democratic reform. On September 21, 1959, the Preparatory Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region passed the "Decision on Abolishing Feudal Land Ownership System and Implementing Farmers' Land Ownership," stipulating that farmland and other means of production originally occupied by those serf-owners involved in the armed rebellion were to be confiscated and distributed to landless serfs and slaves, and the land and other means of production of serf-owners who had not participated in the rebellion were to be redeemed by the state and then distributed to the serfs and slaves. 

Result of serfdom/ slavery reform 

Slavery was abolished, which cleared a path for the development of US capitalism and strongly promoted the full development of society. 

 Abolition of serfdom was not so comprehensive in Russia. Many remnants of feudalism survived, and did not disappear until 1917 when Russia launched the October Revolution.

Feudal serfdom under the combination of both political and religious powers in old Tibet was completely destroyed. Tibet's 1 million serfs and slaves became their own masters. 

Influence and limitations of serfdom/ slavery reform 

The abolition of slavery signified a victory of the American democratic system. From then on, the American democratic system grew deeper roots and a broader spread.

In spirit, the Emancipation Proclamation and the final liberation of the blacks embedded more deeply into people's minds such capitalist ideology as "democracy, equality and freedom", which later became a significant component of American national spirit and state will. Economically, due to abolition, Blacks could be employed as they chose, thus providing an adequate and cheap labor force for capitalist industry and commerce in the United States.

Additionally, the American Civil War helped transfer the market in raw materials and industrial production from the South to the North. Besides, some open-minded slave owners began to invest in capitalist industry and commerce, strengthening the American capitalist economy.

In a phrase, the American Civil War could be regarded as "the second capitalist revolution" in US history, which further removed obstacles for American economic development. Meanwhile, the upcoming "second industrial revolution" (1870s to the beginning of the 20th century) brought the American economy to its prime. However, slavery reform in US was not so effective as to put an end to anti-Black discrimination and persecution. The fight for complete Black liberation continues till today.

The abolition of serfdom in 1861 provided the labor force, capital, and market required for the development of Russian capitalism, but many aspects of feudalism survived. In fact the reform turned into a large-scale exploitation of the serfs by the landlords. The market value of the land allocated to serfs was 500 million rubles in 1861. By 1905, however, these serfs had paid about 2 billion rubles for the land. Despite the high level of "ransom-money" paid, serfs found their land area smaller and less-productive because landlords had hived off the best land. Overall, of the farming land for serfs, landlords cut out 1/4 in black earth zones and 1/5 in the whole country. After the reform, each serf received only 3.4 desyatina (1 desyatina equals to 1.09 hectare) of land. Because of the limited area of farmland they were not economically independent. They still had to rent land from landlords. The "liberated" serfs were exploited by landlords again under the system of "labor services". The reform measures revealed the true nature of the Tsarist government, arousing extreme dissatisfaction among peasants and leading to a new tide of peasant movements. Between 1861 and 1863, Russia saw over 2,000 peasants' uprisings, which were all suppressed bloodily by the Tsarist troops. 

The vigorous democratic reform carried out on a massive scale overthrew Tibet's feudal theocratic serfdom system and liberated about 1 million serfs and slaves politically, economically and socially, ushering in a new era with the people becoming their own masters and for Tibet's development. This democratic reform was the greatest, most extensive, and most profound social reform in the history of Tibet. It signified not only an epoch-making event in Tibet's social and human rights development, but also a significant advance in the history of human civilization and the world's human rights development. 

Nature of serfdom/ slavery reform

Capitalist reform 

Capitalist reform 

Tibet experienced a historical leap in social system, from serfdom directly into socialism. 

Route to the abolition of serfdom/ slavery 

Through American Civil War 

Through reform from above 

Through democratic reform. 

The authors: Liang Junyan is a doctoral candidate of the Institute of History, China Tibetology Research Center; Zhang Yun is a research professor of the Institute of History, China Tibetology Research Center.

(China.org.cn March 27, 2009)

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