Join our Mailing List

"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

China's Tibet exhibit toes the party line

July 9, 2008

By Barbara Demick,
The Los Angeles Times
July 8, 2008

Viewers study a foot cuff at the "Tibet of China" exhibit, criticized
as propaganda. "See how evil the Dalai Lama is!" said one visitor.
(China Photos, Getty Images)

BEIJING -- The museum visitors file past black-and-white photos from
the early 20th century showing Tibetan children in filthy rags
begging for food on the streets of Lhasa. They click their tongues at
a display case with a wooden cage for imprisoning disobedient serfs
and wooden blocks used for crushing fingers when the cage wasn't
punishment enough.

Then they move into the second room of the exhibit "Tibet of China:
Past and Present," where color photographs show rosy cheeked
children, modern houses and grinning nomads marching with a portrait
of Mao Tse-tung.

The exhibit running through July 25 at Beijing's Cultural Palace of
Nationalities is one of the clearest expressions of the Communist
Party line on Tibet. There is nothing subtle in the selection of 400
photographs and 160 objects on display, and the explanatory material
is unabashed in proclaiming the exhibit's purpose.

"This exhibition displays the backwardness and the darkness of the
old Tibet as well as the development and the progress of the new
Tibet," states a panel at the entrance.

Heavy security greets visitors at the museum, a few blocks west of
Tiananmen Square. Although tickets are free, visitors must show an
identity card or passport, empty pockets of change and leave water
bottles behind. The exhibit has been attracting as many as 1,500
visitors per day, according to the museum. Many of them are children,
although the macabre exhibits are enough to induce nightmares.

Besides the cage and torture instruments, there is a mummified hand
allegedly cut from a serf, and photographs of a punishment cave
filled with scorpions and of a man with his nose cut off.

"See how evil the Dalai Lama is!" a middle-aged woman told a young
boy she was leading by the hand, referring to the exiled Tibetan
spiritual leader.

The Dalai Lama was 15 years old when the Chinese invaded in 1950, but
the exhibit blames him for the ills of pre-Communist Tibet. "Dalai
Lama had all kinds of costly foods and wore silk or satin clothes,
living a luxurious and dissipated life," says one panel.

Revered in the West as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the 73-year-old
Dalai Lama is one of the most reviled figures in Chinese propaganda.
Even as his envoys were in Beijing last week trying to revive stalled
negotiations, the Communist Party head in Tibet, Zhang Qingli,
accused the Dalai Lama of trying to disrupt the upcoming summer
Olympics and "destroying Tibet's stability and political harmony."

Chinese children are taught from kindergarten that the Communist
Party liberated the Tibetans from slavery and that Tibetans are
grateful to the Chinese, except for a few malcontents egged on by the
Dalai Lama. In the aftermath of an anti-Chinese uprising that began
in March, the largest such protest in two decades, the exhibit seemed
designed to corroborate the party stance on Tibet.

"Almost everything in that exhibit is pure propaganda," said John
Powers, a scholar at Australian National University and author of the
2004 book "History as Propaganda: Tibetan Exiles versus the People's
Republic of China." "They've taken bits and pieces of history and
mixed it all up."

Though old Tibet was not as idyllic as some exiles claim, Powers
says, his research shows that there was no widespread use of torture
and that in fact, the Dalai Lama's predecessor had banned the
practice in the late 19th century; he says China's claims are a "red
herring" to deflect attention from its own human rights record. He
also says that Tibetan peasants who worked land owned by monasteries
or aristocrats were serfs rather than slaves, and could leave if they
chose, but that the Chinese have deliberately confused the terms.

"You find these same torture photos throughout Chinese propaganda
literature on Tibet, but their provenance is never very clear. They
make no attempt to establish factuality," said Powers, who recently
toured the exhibit in Beijing.

The portrayals have provoked complaints from Tibetans.

"The exhibition shows you just a small part of Tibetan history. You
can't deny that some parts of Tibetan history were not very nice, but
it wasn't all like that," said a well-known Tibetan poet who goes by
the single name of Woeser. "They're not telling the whole story."

Woeser was most offended by the omission of any mention of the
Cultural Revolution, the reign of terror in the late 1960s and early
1970s in which thousands of Tibetan monasteries and artifacts were
destroyed and countless Tibetans killed.

The exhibition was organized by the United Front Work Department of
the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State
Council Information Office. Captions are in English and Chinese, but
most of the viewers have been Chinese.

During a visit on a weekday afternoon, there were a dozen people, and
those who were questioned expressed no doubt about the accuracy of the message.

"Of course it's true," said Wang Shuai, a 30-year-old office worker
who was visiting the exhibit with colleagues during a lunch break.
"It is history. We learn the same from textbooks."
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank