BEIJING — Testimonials about the misery of life in old Tibet kicked off celebrations Friday for the newest holiday on China’s political calendar — an anniversary that marks the communist government’s overturning of the region’s feudal hierarchy.
Beijing is calling the holiday “Serfs Liberation Day” and likens the end of the Dalai Lama’s rule in Tibet 50 years ago to Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves.
“Abolishing old Tibet’s theocratic feudal system is an important milestone in the world’s anti-slavery movement,” senior Communist party leader Jia Qinglin said at a conclave to kick off celebrations in Beijing on Friday, the eve of the anniversary. It “is one of the greatest and most exciting events in human history.”
But the effort to promote the anniversary has injected new tensions into the turbulent relationship between the government and Tibetan minorities and underscored the chasm between the way Chinese and Tibetans view their history.
Celebrations Saturday in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa are being prepared in great secrecy, though they will be nationally televised. “The celebrations are secret. We’re not even sure what they are,” said Chen Xuan, an editor for the website of the government’s Tibet Daily newspaper.
A year ago Tibetan communities erupted in violent protests against Chinese rule, drawing a swift clampdown by paramilitary forces that has remained in place. Security has been tightened in recent weeks because March is often a flash point — a time when Tibetans mourn and rise up in protest over the failed 1959 revolt that sent their revered Dalai Lama into exile.
“The period since March-April 2008 has seen a hardening of attitudes against Tibetans, which draw on long-standing attitudes that view them as primitive and ungrateful natives who are predisposed to violence,” Tsering Shakya, an expert on modern Tibet at the University of British Columbia, wrote in a recent article.
March 28 marks the date when Beijing ended the revolt and placed Tibet under its direct rule for the first time in history. The idea of celebrating it gained momentum among retired Communist cadres after last year’s riots and raucous, anti-China demonstrations that followed the Beijing Olympic torch relay in the West.
In China’s version of events, Tibet in mid-century was a remote medieval backwater, where most of the population lived in servitude to the Buddhist theocracy and nobility — until the communist government stepped in.
Chinese rule has brought economic development, higher living standards and infrastructure to the remote Himalayan plateau where people traditionally eked out a living by farming and herding. But Tibetans say they have lost religious and cultural freedoms and become marginalized in their homeland.
The intensity of this year’s campaign and the effort to win international acceptance for its point of view was a new step for a more confident Chinese leadership.
As part of the effort, five legislators from Tibet went on a 13-day public relations campaign to the U.S. and Canada, drawing mixed reviews from the experts and politicians they met.
“There’s nothing new, but the fact is, sending Tibetan members of the National People’s Congress is an indication that they certainly want to try very hard to change China’s bad image,” said Cheng Li, a China expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington who met with the delegation.
During the kickoff ceremony Friday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, a half-dozen speakers reflected on the improvements in Tibet in the last 50 years and the crucial role of the Communist government.
Special emphasis was given to the serfs and slaves who once served Tibet’s Buddhist monasteries and nobility but who then benefited from land reform and the purging of the traditional elite.
“I began doing adult’s work when I was 10 years old; sometimes I was so tired I couldn’t even get up,” 73-year-old former serf Yixi Luozhui said in Chinese. These days, he said, food is abundant and modern conveniences like cars, televisions and cellphones are common in ordinary Tibetans’ homes.
“The people say the Communist party’s policies are like the sun on a clear day in Lhasa. It’s so good. You are rich even if you don’t want to be rich,” he said.
The Dalai Lama, in exile in India for 50 years but still revered by many Tibetans, was vilified during the meeting by government leaders for inciting separatism.
The Panchen Lama, a high-ranking Buddhist cleric who was enthroned by Beijing and scorned by many Tibetans, did so without naming the Dalai Lama.
“I sincerely thank the party for giving me these bright eyes to allow me to tell right from wrong, to recognize who really loves the Tibetan people and who is willing to take any measures to destroy the peace and stability in Tibet for their own purposes,” he said.