Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Serfing PRC

I happened to turn on CCTV 9 at lunchtime (helpfully carried by both local English language channels - whatever happened to giving the public a choice?) It was featuring a discussion on the recently proclaimed Serfs Emancipation Day (shouldn't there be an apostrophe in there somewhere?) in Tibet. As usual when covering domestic political issues, CCTV had ensured a "fair and balanced" discussion by inviting two experts who both took the same side of the argument.

China's propaganda machine (of which CCTV is part) has claimed for years that the majority of Tibetans, until they were "liberated" by Chinese troops, were serfs who enjoyed no human rights and were cruelly treated by the Tibetan aristocracy, and that the "splittist" (surely the ugliest word ever coined to substitute for a perfectly good existing word, separatist) Dalai Lama and his evil clique seek to return to this unacceptable state of affairs, an event which can only be prevented by continued Chinese domination over Tibet.

Unfortunately for China, few people in the West buy this argument, and there are in fact several reasons why it is a hard case to sell. No one doubts that Tibet was, until quite recent times, a materially backward and primitive society in which life was harsh for most people. It was a feudal system with a caste structure in place. But the idea that the Dalai Lama - who is very obviously a compassionate and decent man - wants to bring back feudalism is clearly absurd. He has made it very clear that a future free Tibet would be ruled by a democratically elected government, and that any leadership role for himself would be solely in the spiritual sphere.

The second problem with China's argument is that there is little or no independent evidence that the barbarism it describes was commonplace. Accounts by Western observers in Tibet during the few decades before the Chinese invasion give no suggestion that cruelty was in any way institutionalised, even though those same observers - for example André Migot in Tibetan Marches (published 1955) - clearly recognised the savage treatment of the peasants in China at that time by their feudal masters, and in fact applauded the rise of the Chinese Communist Party as a means to overthrow it.

Time is on China's side - the Dalai Lama is now over 70, and the true Panchen Lama has been "disappeared" by Chinese authorities in favour of their fake substitute. But whatever the future holds for Tibet, let's at least tell the truth about the place.

No comments: