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"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."

Warren Smith on "SERF EMANCIPATION DAY"

March 23, 2009

Shadow Tibet
March 20, 2009

People of the Tibetan ethnic group dance to
celebrate the setting of the Serfs Emancipation
Day in Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Tibet
Autonomous Region, Jan. 19, 2009. Xinhua

. This Orwellian commemoration appears to be the
opening gun in Communist China’s new
multi-pronged attack on the resurgence of Tibetan
nationalism. To kick of a discussion on this
critical development in China’s Tibet strategy I
am posting this insightful statement by Dr.
Warren Smith (author of Tibetan Nation and
China’s Tibet? ) a leading analyst of Communist China’s policies in Tibet. JN

"SERF EMANCIPATION DAY" AND CHINA’S NEW OFFENSIVE ON TIBET

Statement submitted to the
Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Roundtable on Tibet, 13 March 2009
Warren W. Smith

The Tibetan revolt that culminated in Lhasa on 10
March 1959 began in eastern Tibet in 1956 in
response to China’s so-called Democratic Reforms
instituted there but not in Central Tibet. The
Lhasa revolt resulted in the flight of the Dalai
Lama on 17 March 1959 and China’s dissolution by
proclamation of the former Tibetan Government on
28 March. On 31 March the Chinese organized a
"spontaneous demonstration" of Tibetans in Lhasa
to condemn the revolt and to support the
"people’s government." Similar rallies
"spontaneously" occurred at several other places
in Tibet at the same time and expressed unanimous
themes of condemnation of the rebels and support
for the PLA. “Patriotic and progressive” Tibetans
parroted CCP slogans emphasizing the class rather
than national nature of the revolt and the
interests of Tibetans in preserving their
“national unity” within China. Also praised were
the forbearance of the people’s government in
tolerating, against the actual wishes of the
people, the upper strata’s opposition to social
reform, and the PLA’s restraint in quelling the revolt.

These rallies were intended to counteract the
popular demonstrations in Lhasa accompanying the
revolt, particularly the organization of a
"People’s Assembly" on 10 March that had declared
Tibet’s independence and a "Women’s March" on the
12th. "Democratic Reforms," by means of which the
Tibetan serfs were supposedly emancipated, were
not initiated until July. Nevertheless, the
Chinese Government has decided to celebrate 28
March, the date that the "Tibetan local
government" was dissolved, as "Serf Emancipation
Day." The fact that 28 March was chosen, rather
than 2 July, the day that the Preparatory
Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region
announced the Democratic Reforms, indicates that
Serf Emancipation Day is intended as
counter-propaganda to the uprising of 2008, as
the 31 March 1959 demonstrations were
counter-propaganda to the uprising of 1959.

Serf Emancipation Day was announced as a
celebration intended to "strengthen Tibetans’
patriotism and expose the Dalai clique." The
Democratic Reform by which the serfs were
supposedly emancipated was said to be "the
people's revolutionary movement, in which the
Party led the one million Tibetan serfs to topple
the dark rule of the serf owner class." The
emancipation of the Tibetan serfs was also
equated with the emancipation of the slaves
during the American Civil War. Other commentaries
hailed the liberation of the Tibetan serfs as “a
milestone in the world history of human rights.”
The event was put into the context of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which
says, “All human beings are born free and equal
in dignity and rights.” By recalling the past and
comparing it with the present Tibetans were
supposed to see “a sharp contrast between the
evil history of old Tibet when the human rights
were trampled on and today when every one is
entitled to equal rights.” The celebration was
preceded by many testimonies by former serfs as
well as other propaganda, including a film on the
suffering of the serfs and an exhibition in
Beijing intended to show "the darkness and
backwardness of old Tibet and the development and
progress of new Tibet in a touching and tremendously convincing display."

Such propaganda has long been a prominent part of
Chinese policy on Tibet. Some of the most
notorious examples of this type of propaganda are
the famous film, Serf, and the museum exhibit in
Lhasa, "The Wrath of the Serfs." The Serf film,
produced by a PLA film company in the 1960s,
paints a dark picture of suffering serfs before
liberation by the PLA, whom they supposedly
called the "Army of Bodhisattvas." It was shown
all over China and had a significant influence on
Chinese audiences in the formation of their
opinions about Tibet and the Chinese role there.
It was in many cases the only source for many
Chinese in forming their impressions about Tibet.

The "Wrath of the Serfs" museum exhibit was
created in Lhasa in the early 1970s by Chinese
art students. It contained a series of 106
life-like clay sculptures of serfs in all of
their sufferings. The exhibit lasted only until
the reform period began in 1979, but during the
1970’s it was required viewing for all Tibetan
school children. There were smaller museums in
other places, particularly in the former dungeon
of the Potala, the old Lhasa jail and at several
former manor houses in rural areas. All had
examples of torture implements used on the serfs
and photos of serfs and beggars in poor
condition. Another propaganda tactic was the
public recitations of former serfs of their
sufferings. Some former serfs, their stories
suitably elaborated, became semi-professional
performers who were taken around to almost all Tibetan villages and towns.

The popularity of the evils of the serf system
theme for the Chinese is explained by the fact
that it obscures the other issue of Tibet, the
political issue of the legitimacy of Chinese rule
over Tibet. China claims that there is no such
political issue, Tibet having "always" been a
part of China. The popularity of the serf issue
for the Chinese is not only because it obscures
the political issue but because it is one of the
fundamental tenets of Communist liberation
ideology. Marx held that economic conditions
determined political consciousness, or, in other
words, that class issues were predominant over
national issues and proletarian internationalism
would prevail over nationalism.

In the PRC the class theory of nationalism was
taken to the point that a slogan, attributed to
Mao, "the national issue is in essence a class
issue," characterized the most leftist periods of
PRC history and the periods when assimilation of
nationalities was most openly pursued. According
to this ideology the interests of the working
class of any nationality should reside with the
multinational proletariat rather than with its
own exploitative upper class. In Tibet, the serfs
should identify with their liberators, the
Chinese workers represented by the CCP, rather
than with their own aristocracy, feudal
government or religious establishment. The
Chinese Communists seem to have imagined that
this would really happen, that the Tibetan serfs
would support the CCP in overthrowing their own
ruling class. Some former serfs who were elevated
to high positions without power did so. However,
the failure of the “Tibetan masses” to support
the Chinese was obscured with propaganda that
they actually did. Thus, in regard to the
suppression of the revolt and institution of
"Democratic Reforms,” Chinese propaganda claims
that this was all done by the Tibetans themselves
who had "stood on their own feet" and achieved "self-rule."

Where the Chinese Communists miscalculated was in
underestimating the strength and persistence of
Tibetan culture and national identity. The
Communists’ ideology told them that nationalism
was a phenomenon of a former period of history
that would be superseded by the advent of
Socialism. They believed that their nationality
policies, perfected by Lenin and Stalin, would
defuse nationalities’ resistance until they could
be seduced by the attractions of Chinese culture
and the advantages of the socialist system. And
they had a typically Chinese chauvinistic opinion
of Tibetan culture, which they regarded as really
no culture at all. They therefore had little
understanding why any Tibetans would want to
retain or preserve their “barbaric” culture, and
they could imagine no reason for the persistence
of Tibetan national identity or nationalism
except as manipulated by foreign influences.
China miscalculated the ease with which it would
be able to annex and assimilate Tibet. Propaganda
was used both to promote assimilation and to conceal its failures.

In order to justify the ideology that foreign
rule is preferable to self-rule by its own upper
class, the Tibetan "feudal serf system has to be
portrayed in the worst light. Thus, Chinese
propaganda resorts to the most negative
depictions of the "Hell on Earth" that they claim
was old Tibet before "liberation." Chinese
propaganda depicts the sufferings of the "serfs
and slaves" as unrestricted by any rules or
traditions and unrestrained by any religious
morality or human compassion. Chinese depictions
of the absolute evils of old Tibet are so
fantastic as to be preposterous. Certainly they
do no accord with an image of Tibet consistent
with the ideals of Buddhism or with the accounts
of those travelers who reached Tibet before 1950.
Several foreigners undertook heroic and lifelong
attempts to visit Tibet and those who were
successful usually wrote accounts of their
travels. In none of these is Tibet pictured as
the “Hell on Earth” of Chinese propaganda.

The Italian scholar and Buddhist, Guiseppi Tucci,
travelled thousands of miles, mostly on foot,
across Tibet during eight visits between 1927 and
1948. During this period almost no Chinese
travelled so extensively in Tibet. Tucci was the
founder of Tibetan academic studies and is
uniquely qualified to comment on what Tibet was
like before the Chinese invasion. He wrote:

On a likely estimate, 30 percent of the landed
property belonged to the state, 40 percent to the
monasteries, and the rest to the nobility.
Usually, the relation between the landlord and
his dependants was fairly humane. Caste did not
exist in Tibet, and in religion all found that
equality which poverty or social customs denied
them. Monastery life was open to all, and even if
the love of all living creatures and the spirit
of sacrifice for the suffering, inculcated by
Buddhism, remained generally theoretical, a
fundamental humanity governed social relations throughout the country.

Chinese depictions of the events of March 1959
are similarly distorted for propaganda purposes.
The Tibetan revolt was not a "revolt of serf
owners," who were against reforms. In Central
Tibet the reform program had been postponed by
Mao in 1957; therefore, the serf-owners had no
reason to revolt at that particular time. The
Tibetan serfs were not demanding "Democratic
Reforms" nor did they rise up in revolt against
the feudal serf system. Democratic Reforms were
also not what the Chinese claimed. The main
principles of democratic reforms were
redistribution of wealth and class divisions
leading to class struggle. Redistribution of
wealth involved the division of feudal estates,
with the serfs acquiring title to the land. Class
divisions and class struggle were intended to
liberate the serfs’ mentality from the class
oppression of the feudal system. However, the
lands the serfs acquired were soon confiscated
again under the rubric of “socialist
transformation” and collectivization. Class
divisions and class struggle were employed to
identify and repress all opponents to Chinese
control. Tibetans were forced to endure intensive
investigative processes to ascertain their
loyalties and opinions and they had to denounce
each other as exploiters or reactionaries or
counter-revolutionaries, which allowed the
Chinese to turn Tibetans against each other and
to indentify those willing to cooperate and those
less than willing. It was this repressive aspect
that was revealed by the CCP’s characterization
of Democratic Reforms as part of the repression
of the revolt and Tibetan resistance.

An aspect of the redistribution of wealth during
Democratic Reforms was that all property now
theoretically belonged to "the people." Tibetans
were told that "the people" were Han and Tibetan
without distinction. Thus Tibetans had to support
the Han in Tibet. Tibetans also had to support
the people in other provinces who were suffering
from famine due to the Great Leap Forward of
1959-61. Grain was exported from Tibet even
though thousands of Tibetans also died of
starvation at this time, as was described by the
Panchen Lama in 1962 in his petition to the
Chinese leaders. One of the most culturally
destructive effects of Democratic Reforms was
also the result of the “redistribution of wealth”
principle. In the three years of Democratic
Reforms almost all temples and monasteries were
closed. Some were closed due to their
participation in or support of the revolt. Many
monks and nuns fled to India, further
depopulating the monasteries. Virtually all of
the remaining monks were forced to secularize
under the "freedom of religion" aspect of
Democratic Reforms, meaning that monks and nuns
whom the Chinese claimed had been forced into a
religious life now had the freedom to leave.

As monasteries were depopulated and closed they
were systematically looted by Chinese state
agencies. The most valuable artifacts were
identified by art experts and metallurgists in
advance. Then, the relics of each monastery were
removed and trucked to China. The most valuable
articles were taken first and then all articles
of metal were taken to China where they were
melted down. Many of the most precious and
valuable Tibetan sculptures and paintings
disappeared, only some of which ultimately
reappeared on the international art market. All
of this was justified according to the principle
of redistribution of wealth to all of the people.
The wealth of Tibet belonged not just to the
Tibetan people, for whom it was the expression of
their national culture, but to all the Chinese
people, of whom Tibetans were claimed to be a
part. The Chinese Communist Party claimed that it
represented the people; therefore, it felt
justified in confiscating the wealth of Tibet for
its own purposes. Under the rubric of Democratic
Reforms, Tibet’s national wealth was looted for
the benefit of the Chinese state and Tibet’s
culture was irreparably damaged. The magnitude of
this disaster for Tibetan culture was increased
because of the fact that almost all Tibetan
artistic and cultural expression was devoted to
Buddhist art; Tibetan cultural wealth and wisdom
was devoted to Buddhist scholasticism, all of which was destroyed.

Far from being the emancipation of the Tibetan
serfs, Democratic Reforms were the means by which
the Chinese enforced their control over Tibet,
identified and repressed any opponents and
significantly destroyed the symbols of Tibetan
culture and national identity. Now China insists
that Tibetans must celebrate the day that their
self-constituted government was dissolved as the
day of their emancipation, and it will use all
its coercive powers to make them do so.

China’s declaration and celebration of a "Serf
Emancipation Day" is, like many aspects of
Chinese policy in Tibet, intended for propaganda
purposes, both to “educate” Tibetans and to
propagandize the outside world. The class theme
of China’s justifications for its rule over Tibet
has become the most fundamental of its arguments.
It is China’s denial of Tibetan
self-determination that the class argument is
employed to obscure. If Tibet before “liberation”
can be depicted as an orgy of suffering, then
perhaps Chinese rule can be justified. However,
in order to achieve this, the evils of old Tibet
have to be exaggerated to the point of absurdity.
No society could have been as awful as Tibet is
portrayed by the Chinese. And no one but the
Chinese, few if any of whom had any knowledge of
Tibet before 1950, describes it in this way. The
Chinese motive in denigrating Tibetan society in
such terms is obviously to justify the
“liberation” of Tibet and the imposition of
Chinese rule over a non-Chinese people. This is
China's favorite argument because it obscures the
real issue and it is founded upon real
inequalities in old Tibetan society. If China can
confine the argument to the question of what old
Tibet was really like then China thinks it can win the debate about Tibet.

China’s Current Policy and New Diplomatic Offensive

China’s current policy on Tibet, as invariably
expressed by its officials and spokespersons, is
that Tibet is not an issue of “human rights,
ethnicity or religion,” but rather a fundamental
issue of China’s sovereignty over Tibet. What
this means is that China does not believe that
the Dalai Lama has really given up independence.
The Dalai Lama’s Middle Path policy, by accepting
Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, assumes that
other issues of Tibetan autonomy, like human
rights, ethnicity and religion, can then be
discussed. However, the Chinese maintain that the
Dalai Lama really wants independence or
“semi-independence” or “independence in
disguise.” His proposal for “genuine autonomy”
and a “greater Tibetan autonomous region” are the
means by which he denies Chinese sovereignty over
Tibet and intends to eventually seek Tibetan
independence under the principle of national
self-determination. China says that Tibetans
already have autonomy based upon their ethnicity
and they have human rights and freedom of
religion; therefore, these are not subjects for
discussion. These issues have already been
resolved by Tibet’s “liberation” and “democratic reforms.”

What the Dalai Lama really wants, then, is the
restoration of the feudal serf system and his own
rule. What China does not want is any real
autonomy in Tibet, under the Dalai Lama or not,
because autonomy would allow for the survival of
Tibetan culture and national identity upon which
Tibetan separatism is based. China’s experience
has been that whenever it has allowed even
minimal autonomy it has led to a revival of
Tibetan separatism. China believes that its
retrenchment policy in 1957 led to the 1959
revolt and its liberalization during the 1980s
led to the riots of 1987-89. In contrast to
foreign critics who wonder why China does not
realize that autonomy is in China’s best
interest, and that only autonomy can create real
stability in Tibet, China knows that autonomy is
not in its best interest. China knows that
autonomy only creates instability and therefore
cannot be allowed. China cannot allow the
existence of a separate national entity within
its national territory. The solution to the Tibet
issue is not autonomy but the traditional Chinese
solution of repression of Tibetan national
identity and economic development accompanied by colonization.

China has clearly indicated that it will not
dialogue with the Dalai Lama about Tibetan
autonomy. The March 2008 uprising produced
international pressure on China to dialogue,
which it pretended to do in May and July. This
was sufficient to defuse threats of some
international leaders to boycott the Olympic
opening ceremony. Since then, after another
meeting with the Dalai Lama’s representatives in
November, Chinese officials have scornfully
rejected any dialogue about Tibetan autonomy and
chastised the Tibetans for bringing up the same
issues that had been rejected since the early
1980s. China clearly imagines that it won the
propaganda battle about Tibet that began in March
and it has since begun an unprecedented diplomatic offensive.

This offensive is based upon the belief that
Western countries do not really care about Tibet
and are only exploiting a non-existent issue in
order to denigrate China and prevent its rise to
its rightful status as a great world power. Since
Western countries do not really care about Tibet,
and anyhow they do not really know the “truth”
about Tibet, these countries will not jeopardize
their diplomatic and economic relations with
China for the sake of Tibet. Tibet has always
been an issue of extreme sensitivity for China,
perhaps even more sensitive than Taiwan because
it involves the question of Chinese rule over a
non-Chinese people. However, the uprising of 2008
and the protests against the Olympic torch relay
aroused a strongly nationalistic reaction among
the Chinese government and people. In the past,
China has often imagined that the Tibet issue was
resolved and has reacted with surprise when
Tibetans reveal that they are still not
reconciled to Chinese rule and that they still
revere the Dalai Lama. They were surprised again
in 2008. The difference this time is that China
feels it has the economic and political clout to
mount an offensive of its own to coerce
international acceptance of its position on Tibet.

China has always reacted strongly to the Dalai
Lama’s international travels and world leaders’
meetings with him. However, it has typically made
angry statements about “hurting the feelings of
the Chinese people” but has not allowed any such
incidents to damage its relations with other
countries. This situation began to change in 2007
when several important countries’ leaders,
including those of Austria, Germany, Australia,
Canada and the United States met with him
officially for the first time. In the United
States he was awarded the Congressional Gold
Medal and in Canada he was made an honorary
citizen. China singled out Germany for economic
pressure and demanded that Germany apologize in
order to restore good relations.

France was the next subject of China’s ire after
French President Sarkozy threatened to boycott
the Olympic opening and Paris was the site of one
of the worst protests against the Olympic torch.
Sarkozy declined to meet with the Dalai Lama in
August when the Dalai Lama was in France, but he
did so in November at a meeting of Nobel Prize
winners in Poland. Sarkozy perhaps thought a
meeting in another country on the sidelines of a
meeting with a different purpose might not be too
offensive to the Chinese. However, China reacted
in an unprecedented manner, canceling an already
scheduled and important economic summit with European leaders.

China’s cancellation of the European meeting may
in the future be seen to have been the first move
in its new offensive on Tibet. Tibetans and their
Western supporters thought that the 2008 uprising
put them on the offensive. But China’s belief
that it won the subsequent propaganda battle and
that its successful Olympics marked its emergence
onto the world stage as a new economic and
political power apparently convinced the Chinese
leaders that they could take a more aggressive
position on Tibet. China now seems to be willing
to demand that other countries adhere to its
position on Tibet at the risk of damaging their
good relations with China. The financial crisis
in the United States and other capitalist
countries has also seemed to give China the
impression that its own economic and political
system is superior and that it can be more
demanding in its international relations. The
manifestation of this new attitude has been new
demands that its critics cease their complaints about Tibet.

Recent articles in the Chinese press have
suggested that not only must other countries not
criticize China about Tibet but they must revise
their beliefs about the issue. This is very
typical of the Chinese political and cultural
mentality. It reflects a type of thought control
that is a characteristic of Chinese political
history and a specialty of Communist regimes.
China now feels that it is in a position to
demand international conformity to its version of
the reality of Tibet, much like the ideological
conformity the CCP demands of the Chinese people.
The precedent for this new strategy is China’s
coercion of almost all countries in the world to
adhere to its “One China” policy in regard to
Taiwan. China often interprets the “One China”
policy to apply to Tibet and demands statements
from other countries of recognition that Tibet is
an inseparable part of China. China’s recent
propaganda indicates that it will similarly
require conformity to its view on Tibet as a
price for good relations and it will use its
political and economic power to enforce this demand.

A 5 March China Daily article was explicit about
China’s strategy to coerce conformity in regard to Tibet:

Some Westerners long harboring ill intentions
toward China have taken advantage of the Tibet
issue in an attempt to force their misconceptions
upon China. It is known that the Tibet issue is
in essence not an issue of ethnicity, religion or
human rights, but one of several Western
infringements on China’s sovereignty, territorial
integrity and core national interests. Western
nations should recognize that Tibet is an
inalienable part of China and stop interfering if
they want to remain on good terms with China. …

Relations between China and the rest of the world
have experienced a historic transition. China’s
development is now tied to the world’s, while the
rest of the world also needs greater cooperation
with China. It is impossible for any Western
country to not interact with China. However, it
is impossible for the West to cooperate with
China unless it develops an objective and unbiased stance on Tibet.

Another China Daily article on 12 March called on
China to develop its own diplomatic doctrine. The

"China Doctrine" would make clear to the world
that China claims the right to have its own say
in the international community. The world should
be made clear about what are China’s core
interests and bottom lines. The article said that
the world did not yet understand that Tibet was
one of China’s core interests. It quoted Foreign
Minister Yang Jiechi’s statement that China would
make it a core interest that other countries not
interfere in China’s internal affairs by
entertaining the Dalai Lama. At a news conference
summarizing diplomatic achievements in the past
year, Yang’s countenance was said to have
“suddenly stiffened” when he urged the
international community “to not allow the Dalai
Lama to visit their countries” and “to not allow
him to use their territories to separate Tibet
from China.” Refusing visitations by the Dalai
Lama should become one of the “basic norms of
international relations” of any country
cultivating ties with China, Yang said,
“clinching his hand into a fist.” Clearly, China
Daily said, the foreign minister was “erecting a
post” to delineate its bottom line on Tibet, as a
part of its diplomatic doctrine.

China was successful in its campaign to coerce
conformity to the "One China" policy, often from
countries for which this policy had little or no
meaning. Now, it clearly imagines that this is
also the solution to the Tibet issue, an issue
the existence of which it denies except as
invented and exploited by “hostile Western
forces.” China believes that its international
critics have no real interest in Tibet and will
abandon the issue if the alternative is bad
relations with China. The tone of the new White
Paper on Democratic Reforms and much of recent
Chinese propaganda reveals a confidence that
China now has sufficient economic and political
power to coerce international conformity to its
position on Tibet. China perhaps expects that it
will not be too many years before it will have
representatives of Western countries at its
annual celebrations of “Serf Emancipation Day.”

China has gone on the offensive about Tibet.
Western countries previously supportive of Tibet
may be vulnerable to China’s coercion. Much will
depend upon the future “correlation of forces,”
as the Soviets used to say, especially on the
economic front. China has resisted the offensive
mounted by Tibetans and their supporters to
convince it to dialogue with the Dalai Lama.
China has countered with its own offensive, and
supporters of Tibet may have to go on the
defensive to oppose China’s coercive strategy.
China has said clearly and bluntly that it will
not dialogue with the Dalai Lama about Tibetan
autonomy. It has openly revealed its new strategy
on Tibet. Tibet’s supporters, including those in
the United States, may have to contemplate a
shift in their own strategy from the futile
attempt to put pressure on China to dialogue to a
defense against China’s new diplomatic offensive.

10 March 2009

Any opinions expressed in this statement are
those of the author and not of Radio Free Asia.
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