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Tibet and China: the past in the present


Saturday 28 March 2009, by Tsering Shakya

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.


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