In January, in a move little noticed outside Tibet-watching circles, China signaled its confidence in having outmaneuvered the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan government-in-exile on the Tibet issue. Beijing announced plans for an official holiday to commemorate the liberation of Tibetan serfs and the suppression of the Tibetan uprising in 1959 in Lhasa, thereby negating an earlier pledge to relegate the events of that year to a forgotten past.
Equally significantly, it upped the ante in a struggle for the ownership of Tibet’s historical memory. Tibetans claim March 10, the day the 1959 Tibetan uprising erupted in Lhasa, as a national day. That uprising began in Eastern Tibet and spread westward as China moved against the poorly armed and vastly outnumbered Tibetans. When the revolt boiled over in Lhasa and was crushed, the Dalai Lama and approximately 100,000 Tibetans sought refuge in India. Tibet’s traditional government was abolished and China began a campaign to wipe out rebellion and impose the full force of Chinese rule throughout the country.
This year Chinese authorities were forced to take drastic measures in an attempt to contain any hint of commemorations of the failed revolt. At the same time, Beijing has staked out a new holiday in order to impose a celebration of the suppression of that same uprising: March 28, the date on which the Dalai Lama’s government was ordered disbanded in 1959, is henceforth to be “Serfs Emancipation Day.” There is nothing subtle about all this; China is quite determined to dominate the Tibetan historical view, whether or not coercion or even force is necessary.
On one level, the new holiday symbolizes the return of 1959 and the Tibetan uprising. When contacts between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama began again in the late 1970s, the suppression of the revolt in 1959 and the massive deaths and imprisonment that resulted from it had not been forgotten. Films and photos of post-1959 destruction in Tibet were shot by a delegation sent by the Dalai Lama (at China’s invitation) in 1979 and seen throughout the exile community. For China, however, 1959 has always been represented as the culmination of a reactionary armed rising by feudal, upper strata serf owners, ultimately put down with the broad support and assistance of the Tibetan people.
So it was significant when, in 1981, no less a figure than Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang asserted to the Dalai Lama’s brother, Gyalo Thondup, “There should be no more quibbling about past history, namely the events of 1959. Let us disregard and forget this.” And in its dealings with the Dalai Lama’s exile government China operated under the premise that those events were not to be revisited.
But this was neither the case in Tibetan exile society nor among Tibetans in Tibet. The date of the uprising, March 10, was always fraught with danger, since Tibetans inside Tibet very obviously didn’t share the Chinese government’s interpretation of the rebellion. In recent decades every March 10 has brought unambiguous signs that it resonates as a day of nationalistic pride. In some years, as happened in 2008, major demonstrations have broken out on March 10, with homemade versions of the banned flag of independent Tibet on display.
The designation of March 28, 1959, as “Serfs Emancipation Day,” put 1959 unambiguously back on the table for China. The decision to do this now, while obviously intended as a warning to Tibetans who might have thought of demonstrating on March 10, is more importantly another signal that the negotiating process, certainly in substance if not also in form, is dead. As such, it is more significant for understanding China’s stance than, say, the ongoing vitriolic denunciations of the Dalai Lama.
This decision also meshes with other actions. The last round of Tibet-China negotiations in October ended disastrously. While the Tibetan delegates strove to be discreet and keep mum about what happened until a scheduled November meeting of various exile representatives in Dharamsala, the exile government’s base, their Chinese counterparts effectively rubbed their noses in failure. They announced at a press conference that the talks had produced nothing and rejected all that the Tibetans had sought, adding that the Dalai Lama had better recognize the error of his ways.
The discussions were thus where they had been 30 years earlier. China considers the Tibet issue settled, save for questions of the Dalai Lama’s personal circumstances, should he return. With a successful Olympics behind it and a major role in dealing with the global financial crisis ahead, China is no longer coy.
And since the Dalai Lama long ago acquiesced to China’s demands that he accept Tibet as a part of China, and repeatedly articulated that position publicly and privately to world leaders (at China’s insistence, no less), the crucial taint of illegitimacy that had always attached itself to China’s annexation of Tibet has been largely removed. The loss of that card has left the Dalai Lama with little more than palliatives to offer the exile community.
The dialogue process the Dalai Lama has promoted has turned out to have been a one-way street almost from the beginning. He has spoken vaguely of a better future, telling people that the Tibet issue will prevail. And he has also opined that “the entire people of China” support the Tibetan cause, ignoring the popular antipathy to that cause (and to Tibetans) that spread in China in the wake of the spring protests in Tibet. All of this has worked to China’s advantage. Now Beijing is simply biding its time and waiting for the 73-year-old Dalai Lama to pass from the scene.
With “Serf’s Emancipation Day” now fixed on the calendar, a few observations are in order. There’s no doubt that Tibet’s traditional society was hierarchical and backwards, replete with aristocratic estates and a bound peasantry. And there’s no doubt that Tibetans, whether in exile or in Tibet, voice no desire to restore such a society. Many Tibetans will readily admit that the social structure was highly inegalitarian. But it was hardly the cartoonish, cruel “Hell on Earth” that Chinese propaganda has portrayed it to be.
In theory, all Tibetan subjects were bound, even the aristocrats. The lurid descriptions of pre-1959 Tibet that China is once again trotting out were popularized in the 1970s exhibition and book “Wrath of the Serfs,” a depiction that is so over-the-top as to be laughable. In fact, the scope of the bonds varied. While the obligations of some of the peasants at the bottom were onerous, the system was such that bound peasants could also possess land and even have others bound to them as workers. In other instances, bound subjects could work on their own, away from estates, in exchange for a yearly fee paid to their overlord. Beyond that, the monastic life placed a significant percentage of the population outside the normal bonds of aristocratic estates.
In this hierarchically structured society, the Dalai Lama too had bound subjects, including both peasants and others much higher up the ranks. A common theme of Chinese propaganda has the Dalai Lama scheming to return to Tibet so as to reinstitute the serf system, the assumption being that he would then make himself the major serf lord. This is fantasy. Tibetans, in Tibet and in exile, have no desire to resurrect a social system that disappeared 50 years ago, one which the Dalai Lama himself has described as backward. In the 21st century there is simply no impetus from or benefit to any party in restoring the system. The Dalai Lama has gotten along fine without it over the last five decades. He has also repeatedly made it clear that he simply doesn’t want to govern Tibet after the Tibet issue is resolved.
So while the idea that he wants to restore theocracy is a red herring, one should note that the threat of his return to full power in Tibet is not the tool with which China should threaten Tibetans. Many and quite likely most would accept, if not flat out welcome rule by the Dalai Lama—at least at first. In any event, China has no intention of even entertaining the possibility of his return to Tibet. More than once the Chinese government has stressed that he would be relegated to a ceremonial position and residency in Beijing. But even that possibility has long since disappeared as China awaits his demise, seeing in that the ultimate solution to the Tibet issue.
Lost in most discussions is an understanding that Tibet’s demographic circumstances—a small population in a relatively large land area—served to mitigate the extent of exploitation. The situation was quite the reverse of China’s in the early 20th century, where far too little land for the large population allowed for severe exploitation by landowners. China’s categorization of Tibetan society as feudal obscures the fact that this socially backwards society, lacking the population pressures found elsewhere, simply didn’t break down as it ought to have and continued functioning smoothly into the 20th century. Inegalitarian? Yes. Sometimes harsh? Yes. But “Hell on Earth” for the vast majority of Tibetans? No. Traditional Tibetan society was not without its cruelties (the punishments visited on some political victims were indeed brutal), but seen proportionally, they paled in comparison to what transpired in China in the same period. In modern times, mass flight from Tibet only happened after its annexation to the People’s Republic.
When compared to other traditional social and land-tenure systems, the Tibetan situation does not seem so isolated an example—and certainly not the uniquely hellish one that Chinese polemics and propaganda describes. The zamindar system in pre-independence India (and even in much of post-independence Pakistan) presents a similar example of a traditional society in which people were effectively bound to aristocratic estates. In one sense, Tibet may have actually been more humane, since there did exist mechanisms that allowed for some mobility. Actually, insofar as the serf question is concerned, it’s hard to see why members of the once-vaunted renmin gongshe, the people’s communes, should not be described as living circumscribed lives comparable to that of serfs—except that many serfs also had rights to their own plots and produce on estates. The bottom line is that China is attempting to create a simplistic cartoon of villains and victims.
Tellingly, China often illustrates its “Hell on Earth” thesis with photographs and anecdotes derived from rather biased British imperial accounts of Tibet. That one might use such materials to create a similar narrative depicting traditional China as barbaric is no small irony; and such assertions can certainly be found in literature from the age of imperialism. A further irony is that for Tibetans today there is probably no period that registers in the historical memory as cruelly and as savagely as the one that started with the “democratic reforms” in the 1950s and continued through the depths of the Cultural Revolution.
When the Dalai Lama’s representatives returned to tour Tibet in 1979, cadres in Lhasa, believing their own propaganda, lectured the city’s residents not to vent anger at the representatives of the cruel feudal regime. What actually transpired was caught on film by the delegation and is still striking to watch: Thousands of Tibetans descended on them in the center of Lhasa, recounting amidst tears how awful their lives had become in the intervening 20 years. These scenes stunned China’s leadership and for some, at least, made clear the depths to which Tibetan society had sunk since the era of “feudal serfdom.” There were certainly abuses in pre-1959 Tibet. But no matter how bad they might have been, traditional Tibetan society did not generate anything like the body count that ensued after the Chinese takeover, both in terms of direct resistance and deaths resulting from imprisonment, “democratic reforms” or the Cultural Revolution.
It’s hardly likely that most Tibetans, after all these decades, are ready to buy into the government-enforced description of their past; such a ham-handed propaganda campaign may actually end up making many Tibetans view the past as far rosier than it actually was. It is also unlikely to win over large foreign audiences beyond those who already are, or would like to be, convinced. Most likely, it will simply reinforce a Chinese sense of a mission civilatrice in Tibet. The colonial thinking and arrogance inherent in such missions when entertained by European powers in the past is obvious. And it is precisely the kind of attitude that will likely exacerbate friction in Tibet and, justifiably, lead Tibetans to view China’s presence in their land as of a sort with the colonialism of other nations.
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Originally published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, April 2009