"Serf Emancipation Day" exposes political bankruptcy of Chinese rule in Tibet

Saturday, 28 March 2009

“Serf Emancipation Day”, China’s new public holiday in Tibet, will be marked for the first time tomorrow (Saturday 28 March). The new holiday falls on the 50th anniversary of the enforced dissolution by China of an already exisiting Tibetan government and the establishment of direct Chinese rule over Tibet from Beijing. China claims that the date marks the “liberation” of Tibet, the freeing of more than a million so-called “serfs” and “slaves” and 50 years of a “magnificent process of democratic reform”(1).

The Chinese government’s rhetoric of “emancipation” attempts to mask the reality of its worsening record of repression inside Tibet where the widely reported deployment of tens of thousands of additional troops in recent weeks (2) has led to a state of de facto martial law. And far from ushering in 50 years of “democratic reform”, the legacy of Chinese rule in Tibet is decades of failed policies which have failed to win the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people. That lack of legitimacy was demonstrated dramatically last year when Tibetans from every strata of society demonstrated their emphatic rejection of Chinese rule with protests that swept across the Tibetan Plateau and which continue, despite China’s intensifying security stranglehold on the region.

As a report on Free Tibet’s website (reproduced in full below) makes clear, “Serf Emancipation Day” is an important part of a more general propaganda offensive being waged by China and which aims to divert media attention away from the disastrous impact of Chinese rule on Tibet in a month of anniversaries of previous Tibetan uprisings against Chinese rule.

China has flooded its own state media with thousands of articles in recent months, attempting to draw attention to the holiday, and its claims to have implemented democratic reform and economic development in Tibet. Despite such assiduous promotion of the holiday, an unnamed official in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) acknowledged to Radio Free Asia (3) that Tibetans would not observe China’s new holiday in Tibet. Much of the propaganda surrounding China’s so-called “liberation” of Tibet has focused on claims to have raised living standards and wealth of Tibetans. But massive injections of Chinese government subsidies that have doubled the economy of the TAR in five years have only benefited Chinese controlled sectors such as building and infrastructure but have not resulted in an improvement in the education or health of Tibetans. Adult literacy rates in the TAR lag far behind those of all other Chinese provinces.

Director of Free Tibet, Stephanie Brigden, said:

“’Serf Emancipation Day’ is a cynical propaganda stunt which is positively Orwellian in its attempt to mask the desperate nature of life for Tibetans inside Tibet today. After 50 years of direct rule over Tibet, all China has to offer is intensifying repression as a means of controlling Tibetans who continue to resist Chinese rule at every opportunity. Only a regime as morally and politically bankrupt as the Chinese government in Tibet could have come up with so desperate a charade to try and convince anyone otherwise.”


For further information:

Matt Whitticase, External Communications: t +44 (0)20 7324 4605 / +44 (0)7515 788456 or email: matt@freetibet.org

Stephanie Brigden, Director: t +44 (0)20 7324 4605 / +44 (0)7530 528264 or email stephanie@freetibet.org

Notes to Editor:

(1) China’s White Paper is available at: http://www.china.org.cn/government/news/2009-03/02/content_17359029.htm

(2) Free Tibet’s report on China’s recent military build-up in Tibet is available at: http://www.freetibet.org/newsmedia/050309

(3) The Radio Free Asia report is available at:


New public holiday in Tibet signals further enslavement of Tibetan people

On January 28 the Chinese government announced the establishment of “Serf Emancipation Day”, a new public holiday to be marked annually in Tibet on 28 March. The government claims the day is intended to commemorate China’s “peaceful liberation” of Tibet in 1959. The new holiday falls on the 50th anniversary of the enforced dissolution by China of the old Tibetan government and the establishment of direct Chinese rule over Tibet. It has been carefully timed to promote what China claims to be the beneficial effects of its half century rule in Tibet.

But China has also timed the new public holiday for this month to coincide with sensitive anniversaries of two previous Tibetan uprisings against Chinese rule: the Tibetan Uprising of 1959 when more than 80,000 Tibetans were killed by Chinese forces in the ensuing crackdown; and last year’s widespread protests across the Tibetan Plateau, reminding the world of Tibetans’ emphatic and continuing rejection of China’s failed policies inside Tibet almost 50 years later.

As those anniversaries approached, China launched a major propaganda offensive in an attempt to dilute what it realised would be less than flattering coverage in the international media of the legacy of its rule in Tibet. “Serf Emancipation Day” is a major element of China’s charm offensive, other elements of which include: a recently issued White Paper which trumpets “momentous democratic reform in Tibet”; a torrent of thousands of internet-based articles by official state media parroting the official line on Tibet; and the despatch from Beijing to world capitals of Tibetologists whose brief, according to one of them quoted in the People’s Daily, is to meet “people in the west [who]… basically fail to understand Tibet”.

China’s campaign trumpets the rhetoric of “emancipation” in an attempt to mask the reality of its relentless and worsening repression in Tibet, where the deployment of tens of thousands of additional troops in recent weeks – widely reported in the international media - has led to a state of de facto martial law.

The new holiday was announced by Tibetan members of the National People’s Congress in Tibet in an attempt to convey local approval of the holiday and its message. But Radio Free Asia has reported that it had spoken to an unnamed official in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) who stated that Tibetans were unwilling to observe the 50th anniversary of democratic reform in Tibet. Earlier this year Tibetans even refused to celebrate their traditional New Year festival of Losar as a mark of respect for those killed in China’s violent crackdown last year. If, as was widely reported in the international media, Tibetans are not even celebrating their own festivals because of their continuing rejection of Chinese rule in Tibet, it is inconceivable that they would actually ‘celebrate’ a holiday thrust upon them and which applauds the same Chinese rule that Tibetans so dramatically and emphatically protested against only last year.

But nowhere are China’s distortions more evident that in its central premise for “Serf Emancipation Day”: that before the establishment of direct Chinese rule in 1959 Tibet was a feudal theocracy which has been transformed by China’s “magnificent process of democratic reform”. Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, have admitted freely that Tibet required modernisation before 1959. One only has to consider how the exiled Tibetan community has created a Tibetan government in exile based on fundamental democratic principles to realise how Tibetans may have transformed their country into a modern and democratic state had China not invaded: members of the Tibetan Parliament in exile, including the Prime Minister, are directly elected by the exiled Tibetan community.

But inside Chinese-controlled Tibet all officials in the government of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) are appointed rather than elected, a fact that has allowed China increasingly to push Tibetans out of positions of authority in recent years. No Tibetan has ever been appointed Party Secretary in the TAR and in 2006 Human Rights Watch reported that the proportion of Tibetans on Lhasa’s ruling body was at its lowest point in 40 years, according to information published in the official Lhasa Evening News.

In much of its propaganda surrounding “Serf Emancipation Day” China has claimed that the Dalai Lama is seeking Tibetan independence in order to restore what it claims is the old Tibetan system of feudal serfdom. Nothing could be further from the truth: the Dalai Lama has tirelessly promoted democracy since arriving in exile and, when calling a special meeting of Tibetan exiles last November, stated that it is for the Tibetan people themselves to determine their political future.

In a recent article on the “Open Democracy” website Tibetan historian, Tsering Shakya, argued that China’s creation of “Serf Emancipation Day” as a means of commemorating China’s “liberation” of Tibet is indicative of an instinctively colonial mindset that denies Tibetans a voice and active role in their own society. To mark the day itself, he says, Tibetans will be expected to perform in a carefully choreographed public display of rejection of the feudal past and “mass compliance to the leadership” in Beijing. The Chinese government’s prevailing determination to characterise Tibetans as “serfs” and “slaves” before 1959 is indicative of a more general perception of Tibetans as backward and “ungrateful” natives. Such a view has been promoted relentlessly in recent official reporting on Tibet in China in an attempt to maintain popular support among Chinese citizens for the political status quo in Tibet.

Far from reflecting a “liberation” of Tibetans serfs in 1959, the rhetoric of “Serf Emancipation Day” underlines China’s attempt to further enslave the Tibetan people in its ongoing colonial project in their country.