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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Tibet as 'Hell on Earth'

March 29, 2009

by Elliot Sperling
Far Eastern Economic Review
March 27, 2009

Editor's note: A longer version of this article
will appear in the REVIEW’s April Issue.

The month of March has turned into a field of
contention 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, and this year China has
been forced to take drastic measures to contain
any hint of it. At the same time, China has
staked out a new holiday in order to commemorate
the suppression of that same uprising: March 28
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. In 1981,
when discussions between the Dalai Lama’s
representatives and the Chinese government were
only beginning, no less a figure than Communist
Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang asserted to
the Dalai Lama’s brother, Gyalo Thondup, that
“There should be no more quibbling about past
history, namely the events of 1959. Let us
disregard and forget this.” Subsequently, China
did take 1959 off the table in talks with the
Dalai Lama’s representatives. But now, in the
clearest indication yet that those talks are at a
dead-end—the last round, in November, ended
humiliatingly for the Tibetans—China has brought
1959 back into play on its terms. Hence the
renewed emphasis on marking 1959 as the year of
liberation for Tibet’s brutally oppressed serfs.

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. 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
(technically, a problematic characterization)
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 actually only happened after
Tibet’s annexation to the People’s Republic of China.

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 of
decadent Chinese barbarism is no small irony; and
such assertions can indeed 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 democratic reforms in the 1950s (outside the
present TAR) and continued through the depths of
the Cultural Revolution. When the Dalai Lama’s
first representatives returned to tour Tibet in
1979 cadres in Lhasa, believing their own
propaganda, lectured the city’s residents about
not venting anger at the visiting representatives
of the cruel feudal past. 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.”

It’s hardly likely that most Tibetans, after all
these decades, are ready to buy into the
government-enforced description of their past;
such ham-handed actions may well make many 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.

Elliot Sperling is the director of the Tibetan
Studies program at Indiana University’s
department of Central Eurasia Studies and the
author of "The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics."

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