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NOVICK: Why Tibetans Won't Come to the Party

February 21, 2009

Rebecca Novick, huffingtonpost.com

February 18, 2009 |

"Chinese political circles get very worried about anniversaries." So
says Professor Perry Link, an expert on Chinese human rights at the
University of California, Riverside. And this year they have plenty to
worry about with 2009 marking the 30th anniversary of the closure of
Beijing's Democracy Wall and the 20th anniversary of the People's
Liberation Army's brutal suppression of a mass student movement in
Tiananmen Square. And then there is the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan
uprising.

But Beijing has a rather schizophrenic tendency to announce politically
sensitive anniversaries and then to scramble to manage their equally
sensitive consequences. The Chinese government is hailing March 2009 as
the 50th anniversary of "democratic reform" in Tibet, and has tagged
March 28th as the anniversary of "Serf Liberation Day" when the Chinese
army put down a rebellion led by the exploiting class and freed one
million Tibetan serfs from oppression. Xinhua says that this day is an
opportunity for Tibetans to "remind themselves to cherish the good days
they have enjoyed since the democratic reform." But for most Tibetans,
March 2009 is being commemorated as the 50th anniversary of a popular
uprising against China's oppression, the failure of which confirmed
Tibet's status as an occupied nation.

For China's Communist Party -- a time to celebrate their achievements
and re-affirm the wisdom of the political status quo. For Tibetans -- a
time to mourn the loss of their country and to re-affirm their
commitment to resistance. One would be hard pressed to find two more
opposing national perspectives on the same historical events.

On January 25th, a Tibetan blogger posted a comment to a Tibetan-run
Chinese-language website, saying that the Party wants Tibetans "to sing
and dance about 'Serf Liberation Day' and how the great Party liberated
old Tibet and a million serfs from darkness. You can't say anything to
the contrary -- nothing about the families that have been shattered, the
many people who were killed, who were beaten to death for the sake of
upholding the unification of the motherland and the unity of the masses
-- don't mention those."

?A Chinese state media photo of Tibetan villagers dancing to
?"celebrate" the announcement of "Serf Liberation Day" (Xinhua)

The Party wants Tibetans to be happy, or at least to seem to be happy.
If the emancipated serfs and their descendants are walking around gloomy
and dejected, or worse, taking to the streets to protest their
"liberation", it doesn't look good. But this is exactly what is
happening. The International Campaign for Tibet reports that "Tibetan
women are in the streets, with solemn faces, showing sadness rather than
happiness, and to symbolize the non-celebratory mood, they carry around
dry bread and eat that." In addition, the UK-based human rights
organization Free Tibet has reported that this month saw the largest
protest by Tibetans since last spring. It erupted in Lithang County in
the area of Kham on February 15th and built over a period of days,
resulting in dozens of arrests and two unconfirmed deaths. The protests
were apparently sparked by the arrest of a Tibetan man who had publicly
called for Tibetans not to celebrate the traditional holiday of Tibetan
New Year called Losar.

The Tibetan blogosphere is buzzing with sentiments about this popular
movement that's sweeping the region calling on Tibetans to boycott
celebrations of Losar in lieu of a national mourning for the victims of
last year's crackdown of the protests. ICT's Mary Beth Markey describes
it as "an unprecedented and highly significant statement, akin to people
in the United States deciding to forego Thanksgiving." And the Party has
taken notice.

As one Tibetan netizen put it: "Our great Party is not happy because at
a time when it wants you to be happy, you're not happy. And that's a
problem with your thinking...The great Party pays close attention to
happy or not happy, and celebrating or not celebrating the New Year."

It is traditional for Tibetan families not to celebrate the New Year
that follows the death of a relative as part of the funeral rites.
Tibetans declaring this Losar season as a period of mourning for those
who lost their lives in the 2008 uprising amounts to saying that those
who died in the protests were family. "Let's remember our lost brothers
and sisters on March 10th and make this the greatest demonstration of
all times," one blogger urges. Another Tibetan living in exile writes:
"Why should we put on this fake smile on New Year?...We will not
celebrate because we are all Tibetans...We will stand together through
suffering and happiness."

Woeser, a Tibetan writer and blogger who has become the poet laureate of
Tibet's freedom struggle says: "Let us light butter lamps to make
offerings in memory of the dead...in the corners where the video
surveillance cannot reach." A posting in Chinese on a Tibetan website,
under the title Don't Celebrate this New Year reads:

What kind of joys would make me forget those who were killed??I thought
of them again last night--my compatriots?Lying flat in the road?Covered
in white sheets?A single hand suddenly fell out?And dangled before
me?Oh, heaven is so crowded!

For most Tibetans, Losar falls on February 25th. In parts of Eastern
Tibet, however, the Tibetan and Chinese New Years are traditionally
celebrated on the same day--this year, January 26th. When it became
clear that the local Tibetans were not in the party mood, authorities
started handing out firecrackers to encourage them.

According to ICT, an anonymous Tibetan blogger from the area of Amdo in
the North-East wrote: "Thanks to the Party Committee of Xiahe County for
issuing us firecrackers worth 100 Yuan [$14] to resist the public
resentment of boycotting the New Year. I accepted the firecrackers, but
never let my father know it, or he would 'beat me to death', so I threw
them into the toilet. The county officials are busy supervising who else
did not use the firecrackers....Official supervision of whether or not
people use the firecrackers, and the PLA [People's Liberation Army]
round the clock street patrols, is a new scene in Xiahe this year."

One source said that when Party officials turned up on the doorstep of
Kirti Monastery in Amdo Ngaba to try to persuade the monks to join in
the New Year festivities, a number of the monks suddenly decided to go
into meditation retreat. Refusing to observe one's own cultural
traditions doesn't, on the face of it, sound very provocative. But the
response by the authorities shows how seriously China's Communist Party
takes this stuff, and their reaction has helped to elevate Tibet's 'No
New Year' campaign from an expression of personal grief to an act of
civil disobedience.

In a rather desperate move, China's state-run Tibetan television
service, XZTV, declared on February 15th that the government is even
offering discount vouchers to Tibetans for their New Year shopping
needs. The Party can pay for the hats, set the table, crank up the CD
player and put up the streamers, but cadres have discovered a limit to
their power--they can't force Tibetans to have fun.

Rebecca Novick is a writer and the founding producer of The Tibet
Connection radio program. She is currently based in Dharamsala, India.
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