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

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.
One of hundreds of images from China's state media, Xinhua,
to advertise Tibet's Serf Liberation Day

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.