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Tibet serf debate shadows China's "emancipation day"

March 29, 2009

By Emma Graham-Harrison
Reuters
March 27, 2009

KHESUM, China (Reuters) -- Lots of salty yak
butter tea and an end to harsh beatings marked
the start of the 1960s for farmer Kigya, who grew
up shackled to the estate of a local nobleman by
the inherited ties that once bound most Tibetans.

That world vanished overnight when Chinese troops
flooded the Himalayan plateau in 1959 to quell an
uprising, took direct control of government in
Lhasa and rolled out radical changes.

China's Communist leaders say they abolished a
feudal, theocratic system that would have been
familiar to the peasants of mediaeval Europe.
This Saturday they will launch an annual "Serf
Emancipation Day" public holiday in Tibet to mark
the dissolution of the serf system.

But critics say China has exaggerated the cruelty
of traditional Tibetan life to disguise a power
grab, swept away much that was good along with
the bad, and destroyed an indigenous government
that was attempting more sensitive reforms.

By commemorating its "emancipation" of Tibetans,
China may enrage many already angry and
frustrated Tibetans, who do not feel they enjoy
true freedom under Chinese rule, analysts said.
This may spark unrest at a volatile time, they added.

"It will be very provocative," said Tsering
Shakya, a Tibet expert and research chair at the
University of British Columbia. "People will be
cowed into celebrating this holiday so this is a
time when there may be more tension than early March."

This month Tibetans have marked the 50th
anniversary of the flight into exile of the Dalai
Lama, their still widely revered spiritual
leader, and one year since deadly riots shook
Lhasa and triggered waves of protests in ethnic Tibetan areas.

A huge security presence has kept the restive
region largely calm, but there have been sporadic
protests; a monk set himself on fire and a bomb
was lobbed at an unfinished police station.
Experts and activists say the unrest is likely to continue.

SERFS OR NOT?

Even the name of the new holiday is
controversial. Opponents say "serfdom" is too
loaded to describe the Tibetan system, while
China denounces its critics as apologists for a cruel regime.

"The serfs and slaves, making up over 95 percent
of the total population, suffered destitution,
cruel oppression and exploitation and possessed
no means of production or personal freedom
whatsoever," a recent government white paper declared.

Few serious scholars contest that most Tibetans
were bound by birth to estates held by nobles, monasteries or officials.

"The key characteristic of the system was that
individuals did not have the right to opt out.
They could not give back their land to the estate
and live as free peasants," said Melvyn
Goldstein, at Ohio University's Center for Research on Tibet.

But many foreign academics and exiled Tibetans
also say Beijing has rewritten history,
oversimplifying and distorting a complex system,
in part by using transplanted concepts.

"The Chinese trick is to say the words 'serf' and
'feudal' and make us think brutal," said Robbie
Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University.

Obligation to provide labor fell on families or
households, not individuals, so while some worked
for the estate, others were away trading or in
the family's own fields, academics say.

Peasants who ran away often were not brought
back, and although trading of serfs happened, it
was not widespread. Others rented their freedom
on a yearly basis with a "human lease."

Some "serfs" were also wealthy landowners in
their own right, with serf-servants of their own,
making a more complex social picture than is
reflected in Beijing's official line.

Managers could be brutal, and whips were still used in 1959.

"The owners always wanted more and one way of
getting more is doing hard physical punishment
and setting an example for the others, and that
was common," said Dawa Tsering, from the Tibet
Academy of Social Sciences in Lhasa, who studied under Goldstein.

"The extreme was that they may beat you to death."

But many Chinese accounts of cruelty mix details
of extreme and disused punishments from
centuries-old legal codes with actual practice in
the 1950s, like a recent exhibition in Beijing
where an "eye-gouging stone" was placed next to whips.

The last official blinding was in 1934, of a
nobleman convicted of treason. By then, no living
member of the caste who performed mutilations had
ever done it, or even seen it carried out,
Goldstein recounted in his "History of Modern China."

They had to rely on stories of the technique
passed down from their parents and bungled the operation horribly, he wrote.

DISCONTENTED DESCENDANTS

If the nature of Tibet's traditional social
system is disputed, the destitution of many
living on the high, harsh plateau is not.

The modest way in which Kigya, who like many
Tibetans only uses one name, marked improvements
in his life after reforms are testament to that.

"It was not great but it was better. We could eat
rice and noodles and salty butter tea, which we
did not have before," he told journalists
visiting his village of Khesum on a government
sponsored trip. Previously he ate largely roasted barley.

In a village where women still wash clothes in a
trench and farm animals wander down the main
alley, there is a forest of TV aerials and time
to rehearse for a local dance showdown.

The vast majority of Tibetans in the region today
are the descendants of serfs, and life has improved materially for many.

But resentment appears to have risen in tandem
with living standards, and China has unveiled the
new holiday at a time of mourning for the dead of
last year and widespread discontent.

"This holiday is just another 'made in China'
product," said one radical Tibetan, in a scathing
reference to the string of tainted and fake food
and other goods that have streamed out of Chinese
factories in recent years, denting its reputation.

The protests, riots and harsh security response
this time last year appear to be a direct affront
to China's argument that it has brought progress to a backward region.

Beijing says the unrest stems from economic
tensions in a still-developing region, and
meddling by hostile Western powers in alliance
with the Dalai Lama, whom it brands a separatist.

"The West is playing the Tibet card to create
problems for China," said Zhang Yun, at the China Tibetology Research Center.

But juxtaposed with the new holiday, the signs of
widespread discontent raise an awkward question for China.

"These are the second or third generation who are
supposed to be the sons and daughters of
liberated serfs, so why are they rising up?" said
the University of British Columbia's Shakya.

(Additional reporting by Yu Le; Editing by Megan Goldin)

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