The Other Serf Liberation Day and the Appropriation of Chinese Symbolism

As I argued in the comments of an earlier post, the idea that China liberated the Tibetan serfs in 1959 is ahistorical because the standard of living, personal freedom, and political rights of the Tibetan public do not appear to have improved afterwards in the 1960s. In other words, if nothing changed for the better, there’s no way that can be described as a liberation. On the other hand, some aspects of life in Tibet did improve in the 1980s, when the Deng economic reforms were extended to Tibet and relatively liberal political policies were followed. If somebody feels like celebrating a “Serf Liberation Day”, the official government date doesn’t make any sense, but maybe May 29 would instead.

On May 29, 1980, twenty-nine years ago today, Hu Yaobang, who was then the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, gave a speech in Lhasa to 4,500 party members and government officials. Hu harshly criticised the policies that had been followed in Tibet up to that point and offered six points for a new policy, which amounted to implementing autonomy for Tibet, (“You should according to your own characteristics, draft specific decrees, laws and regulations, and rules to protect the special interests of your own nationality.”); flexible economic policies as opposed to rigid socialist measures; respect for and promotion of Tibetan culture; and a dramatic shift in power in the TAR from Chinese cadres to Tibetans (“Today there are 300,000 ethnic Han, including military, in Tibet. How can that ever do?”)

Now, looking at these points, are these a fully satisfactory solution to the Tibet problem? Far from it. Were they fully implemented even back in the 80s? Certainly not. Nevertheless, these ideas were a fairly dramatic step forward at the time and their partial implementation seems to have done people a lot of good. Hu Yaobang’s attitude toward Tibet in 1980 was a lot more healthier than what we hear from the Chinese leadership today. Is that worthy of being commemorated by the pro-Tibet side?

This gets at a larger issue, which I can’t discuss at length just now, of how Tibetans can most effectively relate to and make use of Chinese symbolism and Chinese historical references. One answer might be, not at all: Tibet is Tibet and China is China, and that’s that, so Tibet has no need to deal with Chinese symbols and history. I respect that as a principled position or as an emotional reaction. The problem is, what does it accomplish in terms of politics? The way to influence people is to look at things from their perspective, to think about what they want. This relates to an even deeper problem, which is that it’s difficult or impossible for a group of people, such as the Tibetans en masse, to make binding promises. Their leaders can make promises, but in a democracy, the leaders are going to have to do whatever the voters want, which may or may not be the same thing that they promised earlier. What do the Chinese want from Tibet? Primarily, I suppose, they want not to have the supply of water to their big rivers disrupted, and not to have American or Indian soldiers marching around near Chengdu and Lanzhou. By maintaining complete control over Tibet forever, they think they can keep China safe. If Tibet were independent, they would have no grounds for telling Tibetans which troops can be stationed where on Tibetan soil. It would be nice if there were a middle path by which Tibet promises not to do XYZ and in return can be allowed to govern itself, and everyone’s happy. That would be real autonomy. But, what if a few years down the road, the opportunity presents itself for Tibet to pursue full independence? If that’s what people want, would a promise stop them? I would say it not only wouldn’t, but it shouldn’t. Isn’t self-determination a natural right possessed by Tibetans? Can a country’s leadership promise that away — under duress, even — any more than they can promise away your right to free speech?

So, binding promises are not really on the table as a negotiating tool, and that’s hard to work around. If the plan were to seek full independence for Tibet, then I guess it wouldn’t matter; however, the Dalai Lama’s middle way plan, seeking real autonomy within China, requires successful negotiations with the Chinese. In place of binding promises, the next best thing that can be offered would be for Tibetan leaders and activists to appear to be emotionally committed to remaining within China. What better way to do this than by appropriating Chinese political ideas and historical references that can be made favorable to the Tibetan cause? Posthumously cheering on the reforms of Hu Yaobang seems like a good example. He is popular with the Chinese public, but endorsing him shows no deference to the current government, since Hu Yaobang was purged back in 1987. The fact that he is popular, though, means that he could well be rehabilitated by the government in the near future, and if the idea that “Hu Yaobang was pro-Tibetan” can be established before then, his rehabilitation might become a public relations victory for Tibet.

One thought on “The Other Serf Liberation Day and the Appropriation of Chinese Symbolism

  1. Pingback: A Chinese think tank investigates the roots of the March 2008 violence « Tibet Talk

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