Happy Serf Liberation Day
Free Tibet? Not so fast.
By Stephen T. Asma
HOW SHOULD WE celebrate “Serf Liberation Day,” the new holiday
invented by Beijing to mark the 50th anniversary of the takeover of
Tibet? Waving flags? Serving chips and dip? Razing a few Buddhist
temples? Collectivizing property?
China’s latest, clumsy bit of propaganda hopes to counteract the
inevitable commemoration of the exile of the Dalai Lama. The new
Chinese holiday seems even weirder, since no one in the West has used
the word “serf” with a straight face in about 100 years.
According to a January release from the Xinhua News agency, China
seeks to remind “all the Chinese people, including Tibetans, of the
landmark democratic reform initiated 50 years ago.” “Since then,”
according to Pang Boyong, deputy secretary of the 9th Tibet Regional
People’s Congress, “millions of slaves under the feudal serfdom became
masters of their own.”
While China’s doublespeak is frequently acknowledged in the West, the
Tibetan exiles have also delivered a steady stream of half-truths over
the last 50 years. The Dalai Lama and his own propaganda machine have
been effective in setting the parameters of discussion and reflection
in the West. Most Americans know one simple story, when it comes to
this vexed region:
Tibet = mystical, peace-loving, good guys.
China = godless, pugnacious, bad guys.
The reality is more complicated. If the China-Tibet issue is to be
resolved, then misinformation about the takeover—and subsequent
events—needs to be cleared up.
The West confuses the Dalai Lama’s role as a charismatic religious and
political leader with the cause for independence: Isn’t the exiled
leader, we assume, automatically calling for his return to power and
an “occupiers get out” solution?
No, he is not. He has a much more pragmatic position. He wants an
ethnically controlled, autonomous region together with the massive
benefits of being part of China.
Equally confused, Beijing blames “the Dalai Lama’s clique” for the
protests and embarrassments in the lead up to the 2008
Olympics—despite the fact that the Dalai Lama explicitly urged the
pro-Tibetan protesters to demonstrate moderation, peace and a “middle
way.” More than just a diplomatic move, however, the Lama’s moderate
view reflects his belief that Chinese presence in Tibet has been, on
balance, positive for the material development of the region.
If it wasn’t for China, Tibet would have no infrastructure or modern
development to speak of. Roads would still be rudimentary; education
would be largely theological; drinking water and medical facilities
would be closer to the medieval condition they were in during the
It was in the early ’40s, before Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of
China (PRC), when Gen. Chiang Kai-Shek argued that Tibetans were
Chinese—bound by race and blood, differing only culturally from Han,
the country’s majority ethnic group.
People often claim that Chinese policies killed off the traditional
Tibetan way of life, but this is incorrect. Modernization killed off
those traditional ways, just like modernization kills off every
traditional culture. And no one wanted development more than the
Tibetan Lamas of the 20th century.
The current Dalai Lama’s immediate predecessor, the Bodhisattva
Warrior Thubten Gyatso (1876-1933), could never break the stranglehold
of the elite monasteries that built self-serving alliances with elite
noble families and local warlords.
When the current Dalai Lama, who was born in 1935, was first brought
to the capital of Lhasa as a boy, the local Amdo monasteries and
warlords had to be paid substantial fees before they would allow him
to leave his hometown. Temporal power and religion were longstanding
partners in Tibet.
In the ’50s, Tibet and the Dalai Lama enjoyed peace and prosperity
under the Seventeen-Point Agreement incorporating Tibet—as a minority
region—under the flag of the PRC. The Dalai Lama even spent a year in
Beijing, learning Mandarin, and writing poems about the greatness of
But in the late ’50s, as part of the increasing communization and
collectivization on the mainland (culminating in Mao’s Great Leap
Forward), Tibetan landlords began seeing their property confiscated
and redistributed to workers. This caused increasing class struggle.
In outlying regions, like Amdo and Kham, rebel movements emerged.
Western Cold War philosophy exacerbated tensions. The CIA, seeing
Buddhism as a useful, if underdeveloped, tool in fighting Asian
communism, encouraged the Dalai Lama to resist Chinese influence.
According to Frank Holober, planner of the CIA Tibetan Task Force, the
CIA “was hoping that the Dalai Lama would somehow fit into this
international void and sort of be the ‘Pope of the Buddhists,’ if you
will—in effect, broaden the anti-communist aspect of Buddhism
everywhere.” At the time, the Lama was not particularly receptive,
although it is interesting that, in recent years, he has become the de
facto “Pope of Buddhists.”
By 1958, the Chinese were scuffling with two-dozen rebel groups that
were financed, trained and outfitted (albeit badly) by the CIA. The
Chinese were understandably worried that imperialist powers would use
Tibet—just like the Japanese had used Manchuria—so, they quashed the
rebellion in the outlying regions, leading many of the dissidents to
retreat to Lhasa where they fostered anti-Chinese sentiment.
By 1959, the Dalai Lama found himself in political pincers. The rebels
wanted him to sanction their rebellion, and the Chinese wanted him to
hold the line on the Seventeen-Point arrangement. Both the Chinese and
the rebels were afraid that the “middle-way” Lama might adopt the
In March 1959, things came to a head at the Lama’s Summer Palace,
where rebels and Chinese soldiers surrounded the compound in a
standoff. Two or three mortar shells were fired, by whom it is
unclear. The Dalai Lama fled Lhasa, aided by CIA-trained operatives,
and made his way to Dharamsala, India.
After that, things changed radically. When he arrived in Dharamsala,
the Lama repudiated the Seventeen-Point Agreement. The Chinese put
down the rebellion and exerted political control of the region. They
also collectivized property in the inner regions of Tibet, re-educated
(and in some cases executed) landlords, and incorporated Tibet into
the economic scheme of Mao’s Great Leap Forward.
What followed in the ’60s, Westerners often misunderstand as China
targeting the Tibetan people and culture. In fact, China “attacked”
its own people and culture with famine-inducing agricultural policies
and the Cultural Revolution—only, now, Tibetans were considered part
of China and therefore suffered the same miseries as the Hans, Huis,
Manchus, Uyghurs and Zhuangs.
Fast forward to 2008, when the Olympics were protested and Tibetans in
Lhasa rioted, and then to this past March, when we had another round
of baiting and taunting.
March 10 marks the date of the Tibetan uprising of 1959, March 18 is
the date the Dalai Lama fled to India, and March 28 is the date that
China declared victory.
On March 10, this year, the Dalai Lama gave a speech claiming that
Tibetan language, culture and religion were “nearing extinction” and
that the Chinese government had made Tibet into “a hell on earth.”
While Tibetans probably won’t be celebrating Beijing’s new Serf
Liberation Day, it is also clear that Tibet is not “hell on earth.”
Beijing’s current policy is indeed hostile to Tibetan worship of the
Dalai Lama and theocracy generally, but most other aspects of Tibetan
culture, including Buddhism, are now celebrated in the mainland as
tourist attractions for travelers of the Qinghai Railway.
Here, then, is a modest map forward, steering toward somewhere between
“hell” and Shangri-la:
The Dalai Lama should realize that he has no real political leverage
insulting the Chinese, and he might do well to be quiet for a while.
China is a “face culture” and you do not get traction by causing the
Chinese to lose face every time you speak. For their part, the Chinese
should stop demonizing the Dalai Lama in their press. Even if the Lama
is a thorn in their side, the vilifying attacks play badly to the
international community, who see only a likable monk of Gandhi-like
It is unlikely that the Dalai Lama will ever come to power again in
Tibet, as there is too much acrimonious history between Beijing and
But there is something realistic worth pursuing. The two sides could
sit down and negotiate an honorable accord, in the spirit of the
Seventeen-Point Agreement, ensuring greater representation of ethnic
Tibetans in political positions in Lhasa. The real issue worth working
toward is the fair distribution of economic, educational and political
opportunities for both the Tibetan people and the more recent
immigrant Han population.
Stephen T. Asma is a professor of philosophy at Columbia College in
Chicago. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including On
Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears and Why I am a
Buddhist (both forthcoming in 2009); The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling
Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha; and Stuffed
Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural
History Museums. His Web site is at www.stephenasma.com