Chinese tour guide

A Chinese tour guide shows visitors an image of Mao in a Tibetan landscape on display at a new propaganda exhibition in Lhasa this week. Image from the Chinese media,
August 12 (2014).

In a new spin on the Chinese authorities’ attempts to rewrite history, the state media has given prominent coverage to an exhibition this week in Lhasa of gifts offered by Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas to the Chinese government. The exhibition, in Lhasa’s Tibet Museum, aims to position the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama as a part of history instead of as key contemporary figures in Tibetan religion and culture, displaying their gifts as ‘cultural relics’.

The exhibition, geared towards a Chinese audience, opened in Lhasa on Monday (August 11), a time when the city is packed with mainly Chinese tourists. It featured an image of Mao standing in a Tibetan landscape among houses that display red flags, in a disturbing attempt likely to be distressing to Tibetans to assert the Chinese authorities’ ‘ownership’ of Tibet and the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama lineages.

Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “Chinese people are the prime target in the authorities’ latest attempts to demonstrate Beijing’s ‘ownership’ over the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas. Reducing these highly revered figures to museum exhibits must be condemned. This attempt to rewrite history aims to hamper the legitimate aspirations of the Tibetan people to preserve their distinct and unique culture.”

Gong Zhaoqiang, head of the Cultural Palace of Nationalities in Beijing, was cited by the Chinese state media as saying that the items were selected from the palace’s collections and show “Tibetan religious people’s love for the motherland and support for national leaders.”

The Chinese authorities have intensified their efforts to provide ‘cultural’ attractions in Lhasa both to attract the dramatically increasing numbers of tourists to Tibet’s historic and cultural capital, and to enforce a state-scripted narrative that asserts China’s dominance in Tibet.

In August, 2013, a multi-million dollar drama about the story of a Chinese princess marrying a Tibetan king opened in Lhasa in a replica of the former home of the Dalai Lama, the Potala Palace. The Princess Wencheng mega-production, with a cast of nearly 600, was new evidence of China’s drive to increase high-end tourism and assert China’s propaganda messages on Tibet. (ICT report, Multi-million dollar propaganda spectacle opens in a Lhasa under lockdown)

The dramatic increase in tourism since the opening of the railway has been especially acute at Lhasa’s historic cultural sites, such as the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple in the Barkhor area, and the Dalai Lama’s former summer palace, the Norbulingka. These sites also have a deeper significance to the Tibetan people because of their connection to the Dalai Lama and Tibet before the Chinese invasion — the Potala, established by the Fifth Dalai Lama, was the political and religious center of Tibetan theocracy. The Fifth Dalai Lama is referenced in the latest exhibition at Tibet Museum, which opened on August 11 and will run for five days (Xinhua, August 11, 2014). The Tibet Museum in Lhasa was created in 1999, and used to display some significant artefacts from the Dalai Lama’s former home, the Potala Palace.

Dr Clare Harris, an expert on Tibet and its representations, writes in her book ‘The Museum on the Roof of the World’ about the foundation of the Museum: “The Chinese government deployed the famous ‘museum effect’ to deactivate these things as dynamic markers of Tibetan religion and culture and convert them into inert objects of contemplation and consumption. The treasures of the Potala would no longer be seen as the possessions of the Dalai Lama but as the property of the People’s Republic of China.”[1]

[1] Clare Harris, ‘The Museum on the Roof of the World: Art, Politics and the Representation of Tibet’, University of Chicago Press, 2012.