Tibet and China: The Past in the Present — Tsering Shakya in Open Democracy

In commemoration of the events of 1959, the Chinese government recently announced the creation of “Serf Liberation Day” to celebrates China’s “liberation” of Tibet from the evils of the oppressive Tibet’s former rulers.

In an article published yesterday in Open Democracy, Tsering Shakya, author of The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947, argues that the proposed festival underscores China’s failure to understand the attitudes and resiliency of the Tibetan people. The festival, which is bound to be dismissed or re-interpreted by Tibetans, also highlights the failure of the local Tibetan officials, supported by Beijing, to be viewed as legitimate rulers. The show that will be put on to “commemorate” the “liberation” of Tibet will be just that—a show:

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.

Of course events like “Serf Liberation Day” also fail to obscure the outbreaks of popular protest against Chinese rule in Tibet. Tsering Shakya concludes the article by writing:

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.

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