Tensions are high in Tibet on the eve of a compulsory celebration to mark ‘Serf Emancipation Day’ declared by authorities in the Tibet Autonomous Region, and intended to mark an end to Tibetan ‘feudalism’. For Tibetans, March 28 marks the defeat of the 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, the dissolution of the Tibetan government, and 50 years of separation from the Dalai Lama. March is also the one-year anniversary of the start of a wave of overwhelmingly peaceful protests that swept across the plateau and continue today, resulting in a violent crackdown by the Chinese authorities.

In a statement today from Dharamsala, India, the Tibetan government in exile described the declaration of the holiday by the Chinese authorities as “provocative” and said that Tibetans in exile and in Tibet would observe the anniversary as “a day of mourning”. (www.tibet.net.)

Mary Beth Markey, Vice President for International Advocacy for the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “A government extravaganza will not fix the problems resulting from 50 years of Chinese rule in Tibet. The Tibetans have already made clear their frustrations and where their loyalties lie. Compulsory participation in this charade of history is likely to deepen the crisis.”

The regional government of the Tibet Autonomous Region announced in January that March 28 would be designed as “Serf Emancipation Day” in order to “strengthen Tibetans’ patriotism and expose the Dalai clique”. (Xinhua, January 16, 2009.) Karma (Chinese transliteration: Gama), Vice Chair of the TAR People’s Congress Standing Committee, explained at a January 19 press conference that the then Premier Zhou Enlai signed the State Council decree on March 28, 1959, “declaring a disbandment” of the Tibetan government after “the reactionary clique at the upper levels of Tibet led by the Dalai launched an all-round armed rebellion on 10 March 1959, aimed at splitting the motherland.”

In an article for the website Open Democracy, Tibetan historian and scholar Professor Tsering Shakya said: “The commemoration of ‘Serf Liberation Day’ is a classic illustration of the nature of Chinese power over Tibetans. Until local voices are listened to and local memories understood, until issues of perception and language that surround the Tibetan situation are addressed, until a political settlement based on the devolution of power is considered, it is unlikely that any progress will be possible.” (Open Democracy, Tibet and China: the past in the present).

China’s propaganda offensive on Tibet

At a time when media outlets globally are making serious cutbacks due to the economic downturn, Beijing is embarking on a multi-billion dollar media expansion overseas, including the establishment of a 24-hour English language all-news channel modeled after CNN and the opening of more Xinhua offices across the world. A new website to commemorate 50 years of ‘Democratic Reform’ in Tibet has been created (China Tibet News, 50 Years in Tibet: Changed and Unchanged). The wording of ‘50 years in Tibet’ on the website is contradictory as it appears to counter the official position that Tibet has always been a part of China, and that Tibet is not a country but a region of the PRC.

The authorities have devoted substantial resources to promotion of ‘Serf Emancipation Day’ and the Party’s position on Tibet with a symposium today in the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing prior to the anniversary tomorrow. Chinese embassies worldwide have engaged in vigorous propaganda around ‘Serf Emancipation Day,’ with the Chinese ambassador to the European Union, Song Zhe, sending a detailed letter with the ‘facts’ about Tibet’s ‘liberation’ to all members of the European Parliament this week.

In a speech to the Brugge College of Europe yesterday (March 26), Song Zhe reiterated this message when he said: “I believe the overwhelming changes in Tibet in the past 50 years are among the best and most joyful stories in China. Fifty years ago, Tibet was still in medieval theocratic serfdom. 95% of the population were serfs and slaves. They had no freedom or property at all and were called ‘talking animals’ [the Party’s representation of how the Tibetan gentry regarded serfs as being no more than ‘animals that can talk’].”

Beijing justifies its invasion and colonization of Tibet by stating that it wiped out “theocracy, feudalism and slavery” in Tibet. However, the PRC does not allow open discussion of whether Tibet was ‘feudal’ or ‘oppressive’, and Chinese and Tibetan officials in Tibet and China would face serious repercussions should they not concur with the state’s position on issues such as social conditions in Tibet prior to its ‘liberation’.

The Dalai Lama acknowledges that Tibet was an extremely poor society prior to 1959, and that there were grave injustices. This is true of most of Asia, including China, and is still true in many areas. As has been the case with all the countries of Asia, there is no doubt that Tibet would have embarked on its own process of modernization, without Chinese rule.

The current 14th Dalai Lama is a reformer who sought to create a better society in Tibet and can be credited with implementing a democratic government in exile. His predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama, also sought to improve social conditions in Tibet. Beijing’s version of pre-1959 events ignores the ways in which the 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas sought reforms – in 1913, for instance, the 13th Dalai Lama declared an amnesty to Tibetans who had run away from their landlords and gave all vacant land to whoever was working it.

Chinese sources describe conditions in Tibet pre-1959 as ‘feudal serfdom’. According to Tibetologist Professor Robert Barnett from Columbia University, “Most Western scholars broadly agree that before 1959, many or most Tibetans were bound by written documents to the land on which they were based and to the lord who owned that land, so some argue that they could be described as ‘serfs’. Some Western scholars have argued that a more appropriate term would be ‘commoner’ or ‘subject’ because of evidence that a large number of Tibetans were able to moderate their obligations to their lords by paying off some of their dues, and so could move from place to place. Tibet also had a functioning legal system to which they could appeal in some cases.”

Barnett adds that some historians argue that in practice Tibetans had more autonomy than appears in the written documentation of the era, and that they could equally well be described simply as peasants with particular kinds of debts and taxation responsibilities, rather than the politically and morally loaded term of ‘serf’. (‘Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China’s 100 Questions, edited by Anne-Marie Blondeau and Katia Buffetrille, University of California Press, 2008).

The Chinese claim of serfdom depends on its linkage to feudalism and oppression. It is taken for granted that these are inseparable from serfdom. Many historians have challenged this linkage. Professor Melvyn Goldstein from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio for example notes that although the system pre-59 was based on serfdom, it was not necessarily feudal, and he refutes any link with extreme abuse.

There is also limited evidence of the systematic savagery described by Chinese writers, at least since the late 19th century. According to Robert Barnett, there was a famous case of mutilation as a punishment in 1924 but officials involved were punished by the 13th Dalai Lama, who had banned all such punishments in 1913.

In an ICT blog published today, Tibetan researcher Tenzin Losel writes: “Tibet was never a ‘Shangri-La’ [pre-1959], nor were other places in the world at that time (or today). We Tibetans would never describe it as such. But at the same time we Tibetans firmly deny the ‘truth’ stated by the Chinese government that ‘old Tibet’ was the darkest, the most backward and the most barbaric society. ‘Serfs’ did exist in the history of Tibet, but not the kind of serfs described by the Chinese government who did not enjoy any rights and who were merely treated as animals that can speak. The reality was more a contract-based relationship between ‘serfs’ and their ‘owners’… So, liberated serfs were confused when they were told [by the Chinese] that they had been ‘liberated’. This was because in addition to their lack of understanding to these new Communist terms, their lives were not as terrible as those enthusiastic Communist cadres who wanted to liberate the whole world described them to be. So during the Cultural Revolution, when the serf-owners, the ‘suppressing classes’ were brought to public denunciation meetings, the so-called liberated serfs took pity on them and did not very actively cooperate with the Communist cadres, who were furious.

“Today, many believe that following the March protests of last year, the shadow of the Cultural Revolution has returned to Tibet. This cannot be denied when Zhang Qingli, the TAR Party boss, is quoted on the news as saying: ‘The Dalai is a wolf in monk’s robes, a devil with a human face but the heart of a beast’. This tells us a great deal about how Tibet is being governed today.” (https://weblog.https://savetibet.org).

ICT report: ‘A Great Mountain Burned by Fire: China’s Crackdown in Tibet’ can be downloaded from ICT’s website »