China’s Burden

CHENGDU – 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 Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward campaign, temples and monasteries were smashed, sometimes by Tibetan Red Guards, during the Cultural Revolution, and a large number of people died in the violence.

Chinese officials are noticeably jumpy in this year of anniversaries (20 years after Tiananmen). This March, I was in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, where many Tibetans live. Even foreign tourists who had no clue about the anniversary were stopped in the streets by policemen 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 the Tibetan past, Westerners who sympathize with the Tibetan cause are often too sentimental.