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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

China Makes a Song and Dance About Tibet's 'Liberation'

March 29, 2009

Rebecca Novick
The Huffington Post
March 25, 2009

There's something very uplifting-sounding about
Serf Liberation Day. Rather like baby seal rescue
day, or treat an underprivileged kid to the
circus day. Doesn't sound like much there to
argue with. But that is just what Tibetans--the
'liberated serfs' and their descendants--are
doing. Back in January, Beijing announced its
plans to observe the first celebration of Serf
Liberation Day on March 28th, marking 50 years of
"democratic reform" in Tibet. But Tibetans simply
haven't gotten into the spirit of the thing.
China might slough this off as ingratitude, but
this itself begs the question -- why would people
resist celebrating (or worse, protest) their own freedom?

To the average Tibetan, however, March 28th 1959
was not a day of liberation, but a day that
marked the beginning of colonial rule when China
dissolved the government in Lhasa. To the average
Chinese, unaware of any controversy, Tibetans
choosing not to celebrate Serf Liberation Day
must seem rather like the South Africans not
celebrating the end of apartheid, or Jews being
churlish about the liberation of the
concentration camps. Most will remain ignorant of
any resistance to the occasion, however. On
state-run television, millions of Chinese will
see Tibetans singing and dancing to celebrate
their emancipation from the shackles of their
past, and they will feel proud of the happiness
and prosperity that their country has brought to the people of Tibet.

Professor of Asian Studies at Australian National
University, John Powers, gave a lecture at
Harvard University a few months ago about his
work on PRC propaganda. "Out of all the things I
talked about that directly contradicted the Party
line, the thing that really upset several Chinese
students was my observation that I've spent about
eight months traveling in minority areas, and
have never seen anyone singing and dancing. They
simply couldn't believe it. It shattered a
stereotype that they've held since they were
children, and they were profoundly shocked to
learn that the minorities really don't spend all day singing and dancing."

Chinese tourism, state media, foreign affairs and
embassy websites are filled with descriptions of
the relationship between Tibetans and their song
and dance, that if the hype is to be believed,
borders on obsession. Tibet is often described as
"an ocean of singing and dancing". The Science
Museums of China website states "Tibetan dance
and song are twins, impossible to be separated
from each other. If they sing, they are sure to
dance, and they dance while singing." China
Odyssey Tours claims, "It is often said that
Tibetans can sing before they can
speak...Tibetans need little excuse to sing or dance."

Tibet Culture Net, as with dozens of other
websites, is clearly operating from the same
basic script. "Tibetan dance and song are
inseparable twins. If Tibetans sing, they are
sure to dance, and they dance while singing." And
Tibet Travel: "Nearly every Tibetan can sing and
dance. People who can talk can sing, and where
there is crowd, there is dance. They sing anytime
for any event and dance at festivals, weddings,
and gatherings as well as in their spare time."

It's amazing that Tibetans manage to get any work
done at all. According to Powers, this is
actually part of the point for Han Chinese, whose
general view is that minorities are "frivolous
people who dance and sing all day while the
advanced and progressive Han work hard and
support them." These social stereotypes were
repeatedly recycled during the opening weeks of
the controversial Qinghai-Lhasa railway, when
Chinese media was filled with images of the
wondrous results of Han labor while Tibetans sang
and danced along the sides of the train tracks.

But no one paints the picture quite like the
folks at Dreams Travel. "As fresh flowers are
never without dewdrops, so the Tibetan people are
never without their songs and dances. They use
song and dance to communicate their emotions, to
express their ideas and wishes, and to convey
their happiness and sadness. That is to say, all
15,000 square kilometers of Ganzi Tibetan
Autonomous Prefecture is a dance stage whose
curtains never close....Even on the grasslands,
the sheep graze to the tune of Tibetan songs, and
in the fields, sweat rolls off the backs of workers as they sing."

Now this is not to say that Tibetans don't enjoy
the occasional song and dance (I am assured by my
Tibetan friends that they sing and dance very
enthusiastically at least three times a year and
I've noted that they will, on occasion, break
into song on a sunny morning) but this kind of
Fiddler On the Roof image reveals the same kind
of shallow and patronizing admiration for
minorities that the Europeans developed for the
Native American Indians with their "noble savage"
mystique. The "Tibetan chic" culture is very
similar, presenting the Tibetan people as earthy,
colorful, lusty, grinning, dancing idiots. This
kind of view is more than revealed at Beijing's
Ethnic Culture Park (formerly called Racist Park
until someone pointed out the questionable
Chinglish) where minorities flit around in exotic
costumes and the Tibetans are, naturally, singing
and dancing. They are notably not practicing
Tibetan Buddhism--something that is actually far
more distinctive to Tibetan culture.

As Tibetan scholar, Tsering Shakya, points out in
his recent essay, Tibet and China: The Past in
the Present, "in an authoritarian regime, the
failure of a client administration leaves
performance as one of the few options available."
Shakya continues "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 colorful costumes and
dancing in unison--will both reinforce the
party's narrative of 1959 and convey the contentment of Tibetans today."

Even though Beijing didn't officially announce
Serf Liberation Day until January 2009, as early
as the end of 2008, Chinese officials in Sichuan
province in the Tibetan area of Kham, began
calling meetings with Tibetans over the age of
seventy. According to sources in exile, the
officials offered the elders compensation and
benefits for following a script provided by
Chinese media about how bad things were in Tibet before the Chinese takeover.

China's state mouthpiece Xinhua is on full
offensive, with 73 search results and counting
for Serf Liberation (aka Emancipation) Day since
its announcement in January this year. Eight
articles appeared in one day on March 25th. They
are full of testimonies of "former serfs",
pointed criticism of the Dalai Lama, and quotes
from Chinese scholars backing the government
line. "The emancipation of one million serfs in
Tibet 50 years ago was a progress as remarkable
as the success of the anti-slavery movement in
the United States" says a white paper published
by the Information Office of the State Council.
In a series of 'special reports' on Serf
Liberation Day one article heading reads, Tibet
sees harmonious ties between armed police, local
residents. Tell that to the over 1,000 Tibetans
in the Amdo region of Qinghai province, who
according to the UK-based rights group Free
Tibet, demonstrated outside a police station this March 21st.

Whether or not Tibetans actually feel emancipated
is more or less irrelevant. For Chinese, they
simply have been, so if they're not celebrating
the fact (or protesting the fact) then there must
be something else at work. The only explanation
that they can seem to entertain is that Tibetan
unrest is the work of "foreign agents" or the
Dalai Lama and his 'clique' coupled with,
according to Shakya "an inherent ethnic
propensity for violence." This latter inference
sits in strange counterpoint to the connection
overwhelmingly perceived by the rest of the world
between Tibetans and non-violence and the
overwhelmingly peaceful nature of Tibet's resistance movement.

But again, the question needs to be asked, if
Tibetans are as content as the Chinese government
likes to portray them, why would any external
forces have this kind of influence over their
actions? This insistence that dissent in Tibet is
orchestrated from the outside shows itself in the
interrogation sessions of Tibetans arrested after
protesting Chinese rule. When interviewed, all
ex-political prisoners say that one of the first
questions asked during their interrogation is,
"Who told you to demonstrate?" The answer they
have continued to give for the past 50 years--"No
one told me to. I just did it by myself"--is
still seen as the wrong one. Chinese authorities
seem unable to believe that they could take such
actions on their own initiative.

Powers, who has done extensive research into
Tibetan history, says that cruelty and oppression
in old Tibet certainly existed as it did in other
parts of the world, but that its nature has been
wildly exaggerated to justify China's colonial
policies. "You could go through the newspapers of
any contemporary society and find daily stories
of gang violence, torture, murder, social decay,
etc. and create a picture of a horrible place in
which the people suffer. But that's not how most
people in most societies experience their
countries. Almost all accounts by Tibetans who
lived in old Tibet portray it as a pleasant place
to live, though also backward and poor. Most
travelers from that period corroborated this picture."

Beijing conveniently ignores the fact that China
was similar in its social structures and level of
poverty and backwardness to Tibet, says Powers.
This was also true of other neighboring societies
that have since successfully modernized, such as
Nepal, Ladakh, Sikkim, and Bhutan. "None of them
required Chinese invasion and oppression to
achieve that, and all have become more or less
successful democracies--unlike China."

The debate over whether or not Tibet was a feudal
serfdom remains a lively one among historians and
academics. Part of the problem stems from Tibet's
unique sociopolitical system, that apart from its
obvious shortcomings, included a mutually
beneficial arrangement between the people and the
monasteries of patrimony and spiritual service.

Hong Kong-based lawyer, Paul Harris, in an
article commissioned by the editorial board of
the Hong Kong Law Society magazine, and then
rejected as too sensitive writes, "the fact that
a country is backward cannot justify invading
it." That China relies on this argument to
support its control of Tibet, Harris argues,
actually exposes China's presence there as "a classical colonial occupation."

So what would Tibet look like today if China had
not 'liberated' it? Powers points to China's
"false dichotomy" that offers only two possible
choices--invasion or social stagnation. This
leads to the assumption that "Tibet alone of all
nations in the world would have remained the same
without Chinese invasion and 'help'."

"If China hadn't invaded, Tibet would have become
a member of the UN, would have become part of the
global economy, and would have built roads,
hospitals, schools, just like Nepal and Bhutan,
and this would have happened without the misery
inflicted on Tibetans by China."

Shakya points out that the problem with such
"elaborate performances of loyalty such as Serf
Liberation Day is that local interpretations are
always impossible to control." Even though few in
China will hear about it, the majority of
Tibetans in Tibet will have their own spin on
Serf Liberation Day, which will inevitably buck
the Party line. What it almost certainly will
achieve is even further tension and resentment
among the Tibetan people towards Beijing, while
the average Chinese citizen will continue to
believe that Tibetans are happily singing and dancing across the plateau.

But what seems just as certain is that Tibetans
will continue to find ways to resist their strange liberation.

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

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