- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

BEIJING (AP) - The image is iconic: Smiling Tibetan farmers hoist a giant portrait of China’s communist revolutionary leader Mao Zedong as they walk under a clear blue sky.

The 1959 photo on display in Beijing symbolizes for the Chinese government and many Chinese that its rule over Tibet opened a new era for a poor, isolated land. To many Tibetans, however, it reads as the tragic end of their independence.

Varying observances of several critical anniversaries for Tibet this month have also put on display a deep, emotional chasm between the way many Chinese and Tibetans view their recent shared history.

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This month marks 50 years since the abortive revolt against China that sent the Dalai Lama into exile, and this Saturday is a year since his former capital of Lhasa erupted in an anti-Beijing riot that spread across western China in a mass uprising.

China’s government is celebrating with a full-bore publicity campaign, a large exhibit in Beijing _ where the Mao photo is displayed _ and television documentaries that compare China’s dissolving of the Dalai Lama’s feudal theocracy with Abraham Lincoln’s freeing of the slaves. In one TV program, an etching of Lincoln dissolves into a photo of Mao.

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama said this week from exile in India that life under Chinese rule had become “hell on earth” for Tibetans. The Himalayan region is under a form of martial law as Chinese paramilitary forces set up camps and checkpoints in Lhasa and other Tibetan communities to deter renewed protests.

“Tibetans see their homeland as the exclusive territory of the Tibetan people,” said Tsering Shakya, an expert on modern Tibet at the University of British Columbia. “While China sees the absence of Chinese authority in Tibet as part of their national humiliation.”

The gulf has sometimes reached strange proportions. Earlier this decade, the Dalai Lama called on Tibetans to stop wearing fur, a feature in traditional dress but seen as out-of-step for more modern Buddhists. China responded by placing its announcers on state-run Tibet Television dressed in fur.

Last month, the Dalai Lama suggested Tibetans pass the traditional new year mourning for those who died and were arrested in last year’s turmoil, while Beijing encouraged Tibetans to celebrate.

The battle for allegiances, compounded by Beijing’s heavy-handed security policies, seems to be further alienating Tibetans, leaving the region tense and making a peaceable resolution more remote.

Last year’s riots were the most sustained demonstrations by Tibetans against Chinese rule in decades. The Tibetan government-in-exile says 220 Tibetans died and nearly 7,000 were detained. Beijing says 22 people died in Lhasa, most of them Chinese civilians. While acknowledging deaths elsewhere, it has not provided a tally.

Beijing says last year’s riots were instigated by the Dalai Lama and his associates in exile to thwart a successful Olympic Games in August and to split Tibet from China. That view carries weight with many Chinese who were raised on Beijing’s version of the events in school and in the state media _ and who are increasingly nationalistic, proud of China’s growing economic might and diplomatic stature.

“The rioters were supported by anti-China forces in and out of the country and the motive was to separate Tibet from China,” said Bai Yulin, a retired train operator, as he strolled through the “50th Anniversary of Democratic Reforms in Tibet Exhibition” in central Beijing. “It doesn’t have popular support.”

Many Tibetans, however, view the protests as the unleashing of years of pent-up frustration against Chinese policies _ restrictions on religion, forced denunciations of the Dalai Lama and an inflow of Chinese migrants that has left Tibetans feeling marginalized.

“The Tibetan problem is a combination of nationality, religious and human rights issues, and the piling up of these problems year in and year out finally caused an eruption,” the Tibetan poet Woeser, who lives in Beijing but whose works are banned, wrote in a blog entry.

“It is the outcome of how far removed the Communist Party’s governance of Tibet is from popular sentiment,” said the writer who declined to be interviewed during this sensitive period.

Tibet was at times loosely incorporated into the Chinese empire over the centuries as imperial power waxed and waned. But it was not directly ruled by Beijing until Mao’s army quelled the 1959 revolt. Land-bound serfs and servants were freed. But the Buddhist practices at the core of Tibetan identity were frequently banned and monasteries destroyed.

In the past two decades, Beijing has poured billions of dollars in subsidies and investment into the region annually, helping to raise standards of living.

The narrative of the exhibition in Beijing emphasizes freedom and development. Wax sculptures feature liberated serfs throwing serf ownership documents into a fake bonfire, against a painted backdrop of cheering crowds flying Chinese flags while snowcapped mountain peaks glimmer behind them.

“Before the reform of the serf society, no changes were allowed in Tibet’s social structure, and there was very low productivity,” said Zhang Xiaoming, editor of the government-backed magazine China’s Tibet. “Given the circumstances, only if some external force struck could there be room for development.”

Shakya, the historian, said the serf narrative misses the point for Tibetans. Many of the families who benefited in the first years of Beijing’s rule, farmers and landless peasants, are now the ones upset with Chinese policies.

“The portrayals of Tibet as a dark place is to avoid answering the awkward question: ‘Why are the sons and daughters of the liberated serfs rising against their liberator?’” Shakya said. “The government propaganda, far from winning over the Tibetans, will only alienate them further.”


Associated Press reporter Ashwini Bhatia in Dharmsala, India, contributed to this report.

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