May 1, 2009
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Tibet and China: the past in the present

By Tsering Shakya*

China’s official
commemoration of its “liberation” of Tibet in 1959 is underpinned by a
colonial vision that denies Tibetan voice and agency, says Tsering
Shakya.


[openDemocracy.net]

28 – 03 – 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 fulfil 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.

*Tsering Shakya is research chair
in religion and contemporary society in Asia at the Institute for Asian
Research, University of British Columbia. He is the author of The
Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet since 1947
(Columbia University Press, 1999)
.
The above article is reproduced from the openDemocracy.net. The views
expressed here does not reflect those of the Central Tibetan
Administration.

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