Statue of a 'Feudal Serf’

Statue of a ‘Feudal Serf’ in Prison Outside the ‘Prison Museum’ in Lhasa (Robert Barnett)

At a time of crackdown in Tibet, the Chinese government is attempting to re-cast the politically sensitive 50th anniversary month of the Tibetan Uprising and full Chinese takeover as a holiday for ‘Serfs Emancipation Day’. The state media reported today that a holiday on March 28 to mark the “emancipation of millions of serfs and slaves” in Tibet will be decided on during a meeting of the Tibet Autonomous Region’s legislature which concludes on Monday (January 19).

Mary Beth Markey, Vice President for International Advocacy of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “This effort at rewriting history is provocative and irresponsible, given the tensions between Chinese and Tibetans. Sadly, it reflects an approach the Chinese government has taken in Tibet for the last 50 years, which ignores Tibet’s history, identity and the very real problems Tibetans face living under Chinese rule. It is a mockery of history and will not be taken seriously by the international community.”

On March 10, 2008, the 49th anniversary of Tibetan Uprising Day, more than 100 overwhelmingly peaceful protests against Chinese misrule swept across the Tibetan plateau, to be met by a brutal crackdown which continues today. On this date in 1959, Tibetans had risen up against the Chinese presence in Tibet and in order to defend the young Dalai Lama. The failure of this rebellion resulted in a violent crackdown on expressions of Tibetan nationalism and all forms of dissent, and the flight of the Dalai Lama into exile. Thousands of Tibetans were killed or imprisoned. Two weeks later, on March 28, 1959 the date proposed by the Chinese authorities as a celebratory holiday this year – the Chinese issued a statement signed by the then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai announcing that the uprising had effectively led to the dissolution of the local government. The Chinese government also named Tibetans who they said had initiated the uprising and dismissed them from their government posts. The Dalai Lama crossed the border into India on March 30, 1959.

The proposal for a date in March to be labeled as ‘Emancipation Day’ issued by the Standing Committee of the regional people’s congress is aimed at “reminding all the Chinese people, including Tibetans, of the landmark democratic reform initiated 50 years ago…since then, millions of slaves under the feudal serfdom became masters of their own.” (Pang Boyong, deputy secretary-general of the regional congress standing committee, Xinhua, January 10).

Legqog (Tibetan: Legchog), director of the Standing Committee of the Tibetan Autonomous Regional People’s Congress, said that if endorsed, “Serfs Emancipation Day” would “strengthen Tibetans’ patriotism and expose the Dalai clique”. (Xinhua, Top Tibetan legislator backs establishment of “Serfs Emancipation Day” – January 15).

Mary Beth Markey of ICT said: “The fact that the TAR People’s Congress would be so eager to reject the interests of the Tibetans people in order to serve Beijing’s propaganda goals, shows that Tibetans have no real collective rights and certainly no rights of autonomy, as claimed by Chinese government leaders.”

In the post-Olympics period, the Chinese government has continued to make vigorous representations in the state media of the success of its policies in Tibet, and to claim that in the period before “democratic reforms” began, the Tibetans were subjugated as “serfs”. The Xinhua article today announcing the proposed holiday on March 28 stated that: “Since the reform and opening up, Tibet has realized an all-round and rapid development.”

While it is true that in some areas living standards have increased, wealth has been concentrated primarily in urban areas and resource extraction sites, and the primary beneficiaries are Chinese. The model of economic development that China is pursuing in Tibetan areas, based on resource exploitation and infrastructure construction, is increasing, rather than decreasing, Tibet’s dependence on subsidies from the central government, and despite years of investment, the vast majority of Tibetans are severely disadvantaged both socially and economically. The Chinese government’s economic policies on the plateau have also led to a “second invasion” of Tibet by accelerating the influx of Chinese people, which even some Chinese analysts believe, risks creating the very unrest the Chinese authorities fear in their quest for political ‘stability’. This was certainly a factor in the protests in Lhasa last March. (ICT report, Tracking the Steel Dragon: How China’s economic policies and the railroad are transforming Tibet).

As media outlets internationally suffer from the impact of the global economic crisis, the Chinese government has dramatically stepped up its spending on media in an aggressive drive to improve the country’s image internationally. According to an article in the South China Morning Post, the central government is preparing to spend 45 billion yuan ($6.6 billion) on the overseas expansion of its main media organizations (January 13). A source told the SCMP: “Xinhua has a plan to expand its overseas bureaus from about 100 to 186”, suggesting it would have bases in virtually every country in the world.