Last month saw the 50th anniversary of what Tibetan activists like to call Tibetan National Uprising Day, the day in 1959 when Tibetans in Lhasa revolted against Chinese Communist Party rule.
The rebellion was crushed, the Dalai Lama fled to India and for at least a decade things became a lot worse. Many Tibetans — possibly more than a million — starved to death during Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) Great Leap Forward campaign, temples and monasteries were smashed, sometimes by Tibetan Red Guards, and a large number of people died in the violence.
Chinese officials are noticeably jumpy in this year of anniversaries (it is also 20 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre).
Last month, I was in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, where many Tibetans live. Even foreign tourists who had no clue about the anniversary were stopped in the streets by police officers looking for signs of rebellion. The colorful Tibetan district was cordoned off. Not only was it forbidden to take pictures there, one couldn’t even walk through.
The Chinese press, however, marked the anniversary with effusive articles describing Tibetan joy at being liberated from centuries of feudalism and slavery. If the China Daily, among other publications, is to be believed, “pre-liberation” Tibet was a living hell and Tibetans are now happy and grateful to be citizens of the People’s Republic of China.
Some probably are. Many are not. But if Chinese propaganda paints too dark a picture of Tibet’s past, Westerners who sympathize with the Tibetan cause are also often too sentimental.
The personal charm of the Dalai Lama, combined with the Himalayan air of superior spiritual wisdom, has promoted a caricature of a mystical, wise and peace-loving people crushed by a brutal empire. It was not for nothing, however, that quite a few educated Tibetans actually welcomed the Chinese Communists in 1950. The Buddhist clergy was seen, not without reason, as hidebound and oppressive. Chinese Communism promised modernization.
And that is what China’s government has delivered in the last few decades. Lhasa, a sleepy, rather grubby backwater only 30 years ago, is now a city of huge public squares, shopping centers and high-rise buildings, connected to the rest of China by a high-speed railway line. It is true that Tibetans, sparsely represented in local government, may not have benefited as much as the Han Chinese, whose presence in cities such as Lhasa as soldiers, traders and prostitutes is so overwhelming that people worry about the extinction of Tibetan culture except as an official tourist attraction.
Still, there is no question that Tibetan towns are now more modern — in terms of electrification, education, hospitals and other public facilities — than they were before. This is one of the arguments used not only by Chinese officials, but by almost all Chinese, to justify Tibet’s absorption into China.
This argument has a long history. Western (and Japanese) imperialists used it in the early 20th century to justify their “missions” to “civilize” or “modernize” the natives. Taiwan, under Japanese rule, was in fact more modern than most parts of China. And the British brought modern administration, as well as railways, universities and hospitals, to India.
Outside a fringe of nostalgic chauvinists, however, most Europeans and Japanese are no longer so convinced that modernization is sufficient validation for imperial rule. Modernization should be carried out by self-governing people, not imposed by a foreign force. Tibetans, in other words, should be allowed to modernize themselves.