Tibet anniversary celebrations conceal a far darker reality

Verna Yu, South China Morning Post | September 15, 2015

Coverage to mark the formation of the region’s government presented a rosy picture of its achievements and painted over the cracks

Marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Tibet autonomous region, the mainland media was abuzz over the past week with articles lauding the “miraculous transformation” of Tibet, thanks to Chinese rule.

Dozens of articles in the state media invariably painted a bleak picture of the “old” Tibet before it was “peacefully liberated” by the Communist Party in 1950.

Comparing then and now, photos of the old Tibet with muddy roads and shabbily clothed people were placed next to those of gleaming paved roads, flyovers and bridges and colourfully-dressed dancers across state media websites.

The Communist Party is portrayed as the liberator who rescued the Tibetan people from the dark age of dire poverty, slavery and backwardness and brought modernity to Tibet.

“In the 1950s, Tibet was still a society ruled by feudal serfdom under a theocracy. Having existed for centuries, this system stifled human rights and destroyed human qualities. Serfs suffered cruel political oppression and had no personal freedom or fundamental rights,” said an English-language Xinhua report last Sunday, citing a Chinese government white paper issued last month.

“Tibet has [made] historic leaps and bounds in its economic and social development,” it said. “The Tibetan people… are [now] masters of their own destiny.”

Other reports boasted about how modernity has transformed Tibet. An article on the China Radio International website said monks were now able to watch television in rural areas and they have access to computers, smart phones and even iPads.

A People’s Daily commentary on Wednesday headlined “Witnessing a miraculous leap forward” said Tibetans used to eat only turnips, potatoes and cabbage, but families were now exploring all kinds of culinary delights.

State media pointed out that under Chinese rule, roads and public squares were built across Tibet, electricity and piped water were laid on and free education was provided.

Official figures cited by China Radio International said illiteracy among young and middle-aged people had been drastically reduced from 95 per cent 50 years ago to 0.6 per cent. Urban residents’ average income in 2014 was 39 times higher than in 1978 and rural residents’ average income was 42 times higher during the same period. Tibetans’ average life expectancy rose from 35.5 years in 1965 to 68.2 years now. Television and internet now reach most households.

The People’s Daily said these facts “strongly proved that the country’s political arrangements and policies towards Tibet are effective and the leadership of the Communist Party which has stabilised Tibet’s situation for 50 years is strong”.

Beijing’s top priority in Tibet for the past several decades has been economic development, but now the emphasis appears to have shifted to anti-separatism and social stability.

In a speech delivered by President Xi Jinping at a conference on Tibet late last month, he stressed the country should firmly take the initiative in the fight against separatism.

Yu Zhengsheng, the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of ethnic and religious issues, said at the anniversary celebration on Tuesday that the key work for Tibet was now national and ethnic unity as well as social stability. Yu pledged to crack down on separatist activities and said it was important for ethnic groups to identify with Chinese nationality and the Communist Party.

Indeed, the government has reasons to be nervous. Despite the state media’s portrayal of a “vibrant socialist new Tibet”, evidence elsewhere is suggesting a much bleaker picture.

A sweeping ongoing security clampdown has been imposed across the Tibetan plateau after hundreds of protests against Chinese rule took place in the area in 2008. Rights groups reported convoys of army vehicles being seen in different parts of Tibet weeks ahead of the anniversary last week.

Since 2009, about 147 Tibetans have self-immolated to protest against what they see as Chinese occupation of their homeland and to call for the return of the Dalai Lama from exile, rights group say.

The most recent incident was a mother of four who set fire to herself on August 27. According to Tibetan writer Woeser, before they took action, many shouted to demand the return of the Dalai Lama, freedom and independence for Tibet, or ethnic and language equality.

Rights groups say the authorities have responded with harsher restrictions on the rights of Tibetans, including imposing “patriotic re-education” that requires forced denunciations of the Dalai Lama.

The Tibetan spiritual leader, still widely revered by ordinary Tibetans, is often portrayed by the state media as a crook.

The Global Times last week compared the Dalai Lama with the mainland qigong “master” Wang Lin who has been arrested for allegedly killing a disciple. A government white paper on Tibet this April accused the Dalai Lama of using violence to pursue his goal of Tibetan independence and alleged he encouraged self-immolations – a charge he denies.

Although Chinese officials now place social stability in Tibet higher than economic development, apart from the old formula of stick and carrot – security crackdowns and economic investment – one cannot see any new alternatives being offered.

Instead, the tough warnings against separatism appear to be signaling harsher restrictions on Tibetans in an atmosphere that is already tense and repressive.

Instead of resorting to more hard-line policy to preempt possible insurgencies, the authorities could perhaps consider listening to the grievances of the Tibetan people and look into the underlying causes of self-immolation protests to understand their frustrations.

Insulting their spiritual leader, forcing a “patriotic education” campaign and requiring monks and nuns to denounce the Dalai Lama and express support for the Chinese Communist Party, on top of portraying Tibetan traditions as backwards and barring discussions on politics and history, appear to be do little to win support for Chinese rule. The current situation is a vicious circle that will only worsen.

Thirty-five years ago, after an inspection trip to Tibet, the late liberal leader Hu Yaobang denounced the “colonial” way of ruling Tibet. He ordered the withdrawal of thousands of Han Chinese cadres from the region and tried to increase Tibetan representation in the government. He apologised to Tibetans for China’s mistakes of past policies and looked into allowing the Dalai Lama to return to China.

Perhaps it’s time to revisit some of his ideas again.


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