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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 and China: the past in the present

March 23, 2009

By Tsering Shakya
March 21, 2009

The Chinese government proclaimed in January 2009
that for the first time a festival called "Serf
Liberation Day" is to be celebrated in Tibet, in
commemoration of the events of 1959 when Chinese
forces occupied Lhasa and established direct
control over the country following the uprising
of Tibetans against their encroaching rule.

The decision - a response to the widespread
protests that engulfed the Tibetan plateau in
March-April 2008 - was carefully crafted and
presented as if it reflected the heartfelt
sentiments of the Tibetan people. The
announcement of this "liberation day" - 28 March
2009 - was made by the Tibetan members of the
standing committee of the regional National
People's Congress in Lhasa, a body that
represents China's promise of autonomy to
Tibetans but which in fact functions invariably
as a conduit for the iteration of Chinese
Communist Party directives rather than expressing local views.

It is indeed possible that such an initiative may
have come from one group of Tibetans - senior
party apparatchiks on the receiving end of
internal criticism for their failure in 2008 to
guarantee a loyal and docile populace. But this
itself is telling of the nature of the Serf
Liberation Day initiative: for in an
authoritarian regime, the failure of a client
administration leaves performance as one of the
few options available. It is natural then that
authoritarian regimes have a love of public
displays of spectacle, engineered to perfection,
in which the people are required to perform ceremonial displays of contentment.

The phenomenon is most evident in North Korea.
But there as elsewhere, the local logic of such
events may be quite different from the external
message they communicate. When a North Korean
refugee once told me that he had liked taking
part in these performances, I thought he might
have been appreciating their aesthetic merit; in
fact, he said, the reason he liked performing was
because the participants were fed during the
rehearsal and on the day of the performance.

For local Tibetan officials, the intended message
of Serf Liberation Day will be the delivery of
public mass compliance to the leadership in
Beijing. A choreographed spectacle - in which
former "serfs" will tearfully recount the evils
of the past while locals in their hundreds march
past the leaders' podium, dressed in colourful
costumes and dancing in unison - will both
reinforce the party's narrative of 1959 and
convey the contentment of Tibetans today. This
will allow the Tibetan officials to produce the
performances required to retain their posts, and
the local people to fulfill the needs of the
local leaders so that they can be allowed to
maintain their livelihoods. As Joseph Conrad
discerned in his evocation of the native
predicament under European imperialism in Africa
a century ago, the local subject learns to savour
the "exalted trust" of the colonial master.

The way to survive

There are other and more immediate precedents.
China itself experienced a similar situation
under the Japanese occupation, when local
collaborators - such as Wang Jinwei, a official
in the early 1940s now known to most Chinese as a
hanjian ("traitor to the Han") - were forced to
carry out orders to coerce the people on behalf
of their rulers. Today, the party in its dealings
with non-Chinese needs such local intermediaries
to provide a semblance of native acquiescence; it
reportedly holds regular meetings of such
officials where for hours they are alternately
praised and admonished by apparatchiks sent from Beijing for the purpose.

Tibetans do not accuse these people of treachery,
but rather mock them using a slang word that
refers to their need to say different things to
different people: go nyi pa ("two-headed men").
At the same time, the local leaders are sometimes
seen as immensely skilful, because many of them
retained their positions decades longer than any
Chinese counterpart; no other leaders from the
cultural-revolution era were allowed to remain in
power after the ultra-leftists of that time were
purged in 1976. But there are also instrumental
reasons for their survival: the party could not
operate without them in the "nationality" areas.

The routes of culture

This longevity has had its semi-comical
dimensions, particularly in the cultural sphere.
The party, for example, has maintained a roster
of acceptable Tibetan pop stars whose songs are
considered exemplary. But the list has never
changed: the official diva of Tibetan song is
Tseten Dolma, who has since the 1950s been
decreed the most loved of all Tibetan singers.
She appears regularly at every political event
even though many people despise her music. The
reason is plain. What the party finds enchanting
is the symbolism constructed around her life: the
fairytale saga of a poor serf girl who was
liberated by the People's Liberation Army (PLA),
brought to national status through her voice,
seen as a vindication of class struggle and an
authentic sign of native approval for the state.

The difficulty with elaborate performances of
loyalty such as Serf Liberation Day is that local
interpretations are always impossible to control.
As a child growing up in Lhasa, I remember when
the epic Chinese film Nongnu (The Serf [1963],
directed by Li Jun) was first shown in Tibet. The
film depicted the harrowing life of a "serf"
called Jampa whose parents are killed by an evil
landlord and who is used as a human horse for his
master's child until freed from bondage by the
arrival of the PLA. The film, meant to arouse
indignation amongst the people against the
Tibetan elite's class oppression, is still seen
in China as a powerful depiction of the Tibetan social system.

But when it was shown in Lhasa, nobody watched it
with quite those sentiments. Many of the local
audience had watched Li Jun and his crew shooting
the film; they also knew the actors, and had
heard stories that they were just following
instructions and were not allowed to correct many
of the inaccuracies in the film.

This didn't affect the performance of sentiment.
Everyone in Tibet was supposed to watch the film
and cry; in those days if you did not cry, you
risked being accused of harbouring sympathy with
the feudal landlords. So my mother and her
friends would put tiger-balm under their eyes to make them water.

In one famous scene, Jampa is shown being beaten
by monks after hunger had forced him to steal
food left as an offering on a temple shrine.
Lhasa people at the time saw this not so much as
a moment of class oppression but as the karmic
reward due to a sacrilegious thief. The film
became known locally as Jampa Torma Kuma (Jampa,
The Offering Thief): even today hardly any
Tibetan uses the official title when referring to
the film. The risk for China's officials is that
Serf Liberation Day will face a similar fate in
popular memory once the public spectacle is over.

The problem for the Chinese goes deeper, for the
claims embodied in the 1959 anniversary
commemoration require a cultural as well as a
political rearrangement, where local gods are
denigrated and local traditions are branded as
redundant (even when being seen as "exotic").

The homeland effort

The Chinese government has been unable to
establish good governance in Tibet, and to
appoint cadres who are attuned to the people. The
government's primary goal is the "life or death"
fight against "splittism" and "the Dalai clique";
local politicians must repeat the appropriate
slogans and demonstrate their anti-splittist
zeal. But to establish these as the only criteria
needed for survival and promotion is to create an
obstacle to the development of good policy.

For a long period - ever since the
"anti-rightist" campaign in the late 1950s, and
even earlier in eastern Tibet - local Tibetan
officials who could have brought genuine
accommodation between the two peoples have been
edged out of position. This too is a feature that
is typical of colonial administrations, where
legitimacy is created through public endorsement
by local intermediaries and maintained through
mass performances of native compliance. At the
heart of this project is denial of indigenous
agency, though it is typically presented as the
opposite: a local populace's welcome to a foreign model of modernity.

This highlights the fact that a crucial priority
in Chinese political calculations in Tibet is to
convince a "home" audience (rather than the
subject one in the occupied area). The act of
possession - and the ritualised displays of
power, ceremony and state symbolism that grow up
around it - has to be explained and legitimated to key domestic constituencies.

The way this works can be transparent. The
Chinese press, for example, often publishes
articles about exhibitions (abroad as well as in
China) that display the evils of Tibetan life
before the Chinese arrived in the 1950s. The
formula is to quote a Chinese interviewee
attesting to the persuasiveness of the exhibits
(rather than a Tibetan confirming their authenticity).

An official party paper, the China Daily,
reported on a gory exhibition in Beijing of the
Tibetan past hurriedly launched during the height
of the 2008 protests in Tibet by quoting a
Chinese visitor: "I feel in the exhibition the
barbarianism and darkness that permeated old
Tibet, and have a better understanding how the
backward system of mixing politics and religion
thwarted Tibet's development and progress." The
uncertainty and anxiety that underlies the
colonising project is indicated by the need to
have the metropolitan centre persuaded of the merits of its mission.

This need to appease the home audience can have
complications, however. When the protests in
Tibet erupted in March 2008, Chinese state
television repeatedly broadcast footage of
Tibetans lashing out against innocent Chinese
civilians in Lhasa and reported the death of
shop-workers. The same images and the same
reports were broadcast over and over again,
arousing the wrath of Chinese people in China and
around the world against Tibetans.

But the wave of support for the Chinese
government and its crackdown that ensued also
inflamed and licensed ethnic antagonism in China,
further dividing Chinese and Tibetans, and
undoing decades of rhetoric in China about the
unity of nationalities and the harmony of society.

It also helped create tensions between
aggressively nationalist and progressive Chinese
citizens. A group of leading Chinese
intellectuals circulated a petition criticising
Beijing's response to the protest, and the first
point they urged on the government was to desist
from one-sided propaganda. Zhang Boshu of the
Philosophy Institute at the Chinese Academy of
Social Sciences in Beijing wrote that "although
the authorities are not willing to admit it", the
problems in Tibet "were created by the Chinese
Communist Party itself as the ruler of China."

A further complication in the Chinese
government's effort to ensure the consensus of
the domestic audience is inscribed in the
portrayal of the Tibet unrest as the work of
outside forces - the Dalai Lama, the CIA, CNN,
the west in general or other institutions. This
deflective response - common to besieged
administrations everywhere - allowed the
government to avoid answering questions about its
own policies. But it also insinuates a potent
notion (again, one that echoes many other
comparable situations): a denial of the
"native's" reasoning capacity and in its place an
assumption of his inherently violent character.
The spectators are not asked to consider why the natives are restless.

Again, the Chinese themselves were long the
target of the very same depictions. The Yihetuan
rebellion of 1900 - which can be regarded as the
Chinese people's first uprising against western
imperialism - was portrayed by western powers as
a kind of racial project of cruel, heathen
masses. The reporting of Chinese residents in
Lhasa applauding the government's action and
welcoming the police's armed street-patrols echo
those of the western press with regard to
Europeans in Beijing in 1901: order is restored and life returned to normality.

But order and normality for whom? Today, citizens
of Lhasa live under surveillance. Their houses
are liable to be searched; every text they
produce, every piece of music they record on a CD
or download on a phone can be examined for its
ideological content. Every local cadre has to
attend countless meetings, and to declare loyalty
to the party and the motherland. The central
question is avoided: why are the sons and
daughters of "liberated slaves" rising against
the "liberator"? The only permissible answers are
foreign instigation and an inherent ethnic propensity for violence.

The naturalisation of violence

The discourse of Serf Liberation Day is revealing
of how the Chinese government sees Tibetans. For
in repeatedly using the words "serfs" or "slaves"
(albeit in relation to past oppressions),
official China also reduces Tibetans to the
status of primitives, and authorises outside management of their lives.

Jiang Dasan, a retired PLA pilot who was
stationed in the Qinghai region of eastern Tibet
in the 1950s, wrote a tale on his blog that
illustrates this view. He was witness to an
incident where Chinese army generals, realising
that the initial attempts to win over local
Tibetans through "education" had failed, invite
the Tibetan leaders to witness a bombing display
by their air-force. When Tibetans saw the PLA's
firepower, Jiang writes, "they really believed
the PLA was ‘heaven's army'". A few people
couldn't take it and fainted; some urinated in
their pants; others shouted slogans at the top of
their voice: "Long live the Communist Party! Long
live Chairman Mao!" The incident recalls similar
accounts in western colonial literature where the
natives fall to their knees and submit, awestruck
by the white man's techno-magical power and
reified as emotionally driven simpletons without reflective capacity.

There are many parallels too in China's
presentation of the protests of March-April 2008.
The bloodiest early incident of these protests
occurred on 14 March in Lhasa, when a number of
civilians (official reports say eighteen) were
killed, twelve of them after rioters set off
fires in Chinese shops. It's not clear if the
arsonists had any idea that there were people
hiding in the shops' upper floors or backrooms,
or that they were unable to escape.

The "Lhasa incident" resembled the anti-migrant
urban riots familiar from elsewhere in the world:
a crime of the urban dispossessed that reflects
the failure of the local political process. It is
not comparable to the ethnic cleansing seen in
Bosnia in 1992, where crimes were meticulously
planned, with weapons imported and
hate-propaganda fomented; nor to the religious
pogrom seen in Gujarat in 2002, when Hindu
zealots murdered hundreds of Muslims. But the
Chinese media did handle it in ways reminiscent
of the United States media's coverage of victims
of 11 September 2001: in terms of what Paul
Gilroy (in openDemocracy) called "the imperial
topography, which dictates that deaths are prized
according to where they occur and the characteristics of the bodies involved."

The death of these Chinese shop-workers was
broadcast repeatedly on Chinese national
television news and overseas Chinese-language
stations, with little or no mention of the
Tibetan shop-workers who died in the same fires
(nor, later, of any Tibetans killed or injured by
security forces). This silence is symptomatic:
for as with all struggles by the powerless, the
actual experience and voices of Tibetans inside
China are regarded as unimportant. Where they are
noticed at all, they are regarded as the effects
of other forces (whether these be foreign powers,
natural disasters or ethnic tendencies).

This argument has served the Chinese government
well, and helped arouse nationalistic sentiments
- on both sides. As the 2008 tensions escalated,
the Chinese community in large part heeded its
government's call to defend the motherland
against the west. As a result, every pro-Tibetan
or human-rights protest tends to be countered by
Chinese counter-protests. There have been
persecution-campaigns too - just as a Chinese
student at Duke University who publicly reached
out to Tibetans on her campus was vilified by her
compatriots and even Chinese state-owned media,
an exile Tibetan student at Harvard who had
spoken on American television in complex terms
about the nuances of the current situation
without demonising the Chinese as oppressors was
viciously attacked by Tibetan nationalists (and
in both cases the attacks extended to the
students' families). These experiences
demonstrate the workings of a mind set where
prejudice, blind nationalism, and an ugly anger
in language transcend differences of political alignment.

The huge imbalance of power, however, means that
the Chinese depiction of Tibetans can more easily
reach and influence citizens' attitudes. The
period since March-April 2008 has seen a
hardening of attitudes against Tibetans, which
draw on long-standing attitudes that view them as
primitive and "ungrateful" natives who are
predisposed to violence. Even many young Chinese
abroad and those who escaped the aftermath of the
4 June 1989 massacre supported their government's
actions and condemned the Tibetan protesters as
"looters" and "hooligans" (the same words used to
depict the Tiananmen protesters).

The idea of the Tibetan being luohou (backward)
is entrenched in the official state discourse on
Tibet; and the perception has penetrated the
Chinese popular image of Tibet. Yet it is notable
how recent an invention this is: it has been
systematised only after the conquest of 1959, as
part of the process of transforming a conquered
people into the uncivilised awaiting the gift of
civilisation from the conqueror (and is a marked
contrast to earlier centuries, when the Chinese
acknowledged their copious learning from the
Tibetans, particularly in matters of philosophy and religion).

A half-century of the Chinese mission
civilisatrice has left Tibetans with what the
social anthropologist Stevan Harrell calls a
"stigmatised identity". This is reflected in the
requirement for Tibetans in China to propitiate
the benevolent ruler in their speeches and
writings; almost every published text opens with
such ritual invocations. People become accustomed
to performing their assigned roles in society;
they internalise the logic that has made these
roles, and the wider unequal relationship that
fixes them, seem natural and necessary.

Many Tibetans have (as Emily Yeh has shown) come
to believe the widely disseminated notion that
they are "naturally" more idle than their Chinese
counterparts; again, a familiar aspect of the
experience of every colonised people. This makes
it all the more shocking to the rulers when
elements of this docile and indolent native
population protest: like a fish speaking back to ichthyologists.

The limits of economics

The Tibetan unrest is a product of the paradox of
modern China, in which the government wants the
people to passively accept its programme of
modernisation and its framing of Tibetan subjects
as grateful natives. Hu Jintao's notion of a
harmonious society is tantamount to a call for
passivity on the part of the citizens. The
radical changes being introduced to Tibet -
including large-scale infrastructural projects -
are accepted as a facet of a modern Tibet but the
people do not acquiesce, as they do not have a
voice in this transformation of their lives.

The main discourse of modern China - albeit with
somewhat less confidence as the severe effects of
the recession are felt - is the
economic-development paradigm, where the core
issues are growth, efficiency, productivity and consumption.

It is true that material well-being is crucial
for any society. But it is not enough. As Vincent
Tucker has written: "without consideration of
culture, which essentially has to do with
people's control over their destinies, their
ability to name the world in a way which reflects
their particular experience, development is
simply a global process of social engineering
whereby the economically and militarily more
powerful control, dominate, and shape the lives of other for their purposes".

This is a precise description of what is
happening in Tibet. For the Tibetans, the
imposition of the economic paradigm has aroused
resistance. The resistance is also about the
right to have a voice in the process, and wider
dignity and recognition. As long as these are
denied, the conditions for people to take to the
streets will remain. The Chinese state, with all
its might, can and will be able to control the
land, but will find underlying resentment harder
to erase. The removal of the Dalai Lama's
pictures and the banning of songs will not remove
the reasons why the people put the photographs there in the first place.

The Chinese government response to protest
favoured by party hardliners is to combine
nationalist fervour, colonial attitudes and brute
force in shifting increasingly towards an agenda
of control and rushed development. This approach,
far from eliminating Tibetan opposition, will
further alienate the Tibetan population.

The commemoration of "Serf Liberation Day" is a
classic illustration of the nature of Chinese
power over Tibetans. Until local voices are
listened to and local memories understood, until
issues of perception and language that surround
the Tibetan situation are addressed, until a
political settlement based on the devolution of
power is considered, it is unlikely that any progress will be possible.

The author is research chair in religion and
contemporary society in Asia at the Institute for
Asian Research, University of British Columbia.
He wrote The Dragon in the "Land of Snows: A
History of Modern Tibet" since 1947 (Columbia University Press, 1999)

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