Robert Barnett: China’s ‘Liberation’ of Tibet: Rules of the Game

In the New York Review of Books, Tibet scholar Robert Barnett writes about Vice Premier Xi Jinping’s recent speech in Lhasa to mark the 60th anniversary of PRC’s assumption of sovereignty over :

The footage shows that Xi delivered his speech from a viewing platform erected in a vast new square in front of the Potala Palace, the ’s former residence in Lhasa. Banners above the stage show that the speech was part of the ceremonies marking what China calls “the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Tibet,” a reference to China’s assumption of sovereignty over Tibet in 1951 following its invasion a year earlier. There are frequent shots of the audience in the square, which included, according to the official Chinese media, “more than 20,000 Tibetans of all walks of life.”

But the footage does not support this claim. For one thing, only two monks are shown among the 20,000 people in the audience—one of them is shown repeatedly—suggesting that Tibetans from a “walk of life” that is integral to Tibetan society were not invited. As for women, there are many in the audience, but among the 200 or so senior Chinese and Tibetan officials who are shown seated on the viewing platform, all but five are men.

[…] Some aspects of these events cannot be seen from the television footage alone; one has to be there on the ground. After the ceremony in 2005, we were all allowed out on the streets once the formal events had ended, and so I went to the Post Office, near the exit of the square, and joined a vast crowd of curious Tibetans to watch the participants as they left. But what we saw coming out of the square had not been visible on the television screen: hundreds of armed troops followed by armored personnel carriers, riot control vehicles, water-cannon trucks, barbed-wire laying machines, vehicles with gun turrets and other forms of military hardware.

The military vehicles and the troops were not visible in the footage of the ceremony this year either, but they were surely there again. Perhaps there is an underlying view that all Tibetans are rebels thirsting for a war. If so, it would explain why the head of China’s army had been sent to sit next to on the stage during the ceremony. It would also explain why there were no chairs: presumably they are seen as potential weapons in the hands of imagined Tibetan rioters, more threatening than plastic stools.

Everyone can understand why China is proud of improving Tibetan infrastructure and wants to maintain its rule over Tibet, but it is not clear why its leaders, or even ordinary Chinese, expect forcing Tibetans to stage rituals of mass gratitude to Xi Jinping and the Chinese government not to fuel resentment. In any event, resentment seems to be spreading among Tibetans: last week on August 15 another Tibetan burnt himself to death, others say they have been tortured after staging minor protests, at least three of the 13 Tibetan areas in China remain closed to foreigners, and the state’s officially selected Panchen Lama cannot visit a monastery without a major security operation to prevent unrest.

Watch Xi’s full speech in English here:

Read more about Beijing’s officially-selected Panchen Lama’s trip through Tibetan regions, via Bloomberg.


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