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China's version of Tibet's story

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James Reynolds | 11:15 UK time, Saturday, 28 March 2009

Here in Beijing, unless you happen to be locked away in a safe, you'll know what day it is. The Chinese government recently designated 28 March as Serfs' Emancipation Day - the day on which the Dalai Lama's rule in Tibet was officially dissolved in 1959. China has decided that this new holiday will celebrated every year from now on in Tibet.

This holiday is part of a major effort by China to advertise this country's narrative of events in Tibet - a storyline which differs dramatically from how Tibet is seen in the West. In China's view, Tibet was liberated when the Dalai Lama fled in 1959 - downtrodden serfs were freed from medieval bondage, and Tibetans now enjoy unprecedented freedom and prosperity under the care of the Chinese Communist Party.


In recent days, Chinese TV stations have broadcast in peak time a series of special programmes about Tibet. One Chinese blogger, He Caitou, writes that cinemas are running a trailer about life in Tibet - and how good it is. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has been particularly keen to convey China's position. (At a recent briefing, a BBC colleague asked a tough, specific question about Tibet. The spokesman gave a six-minute reply which didn't answer the question. My colleague was then handed two DVDs explaining China's view on Tibet.)

On the eve of Serfs' Emancipation Day, China's most senior leaders all trooped to a museum in Beijing to visit an exhibition entitled "50th Anniversary of Democratic Reforms in Tibet". (Their presence was deemed so serious that the museum was closed down for the day.)

Serfs' Liberation Day itself began with official celebrations in the Tibetan capital Lhasa. It's important to stress that the BBC is unable to travel independently to Lhasa to report on this event - or on any other aspect of Tibetan life. China currently prevents foreigners from visiting the region. The Chinese Foreign Ministry occasionally organises carefully supervised tours for selected members of the foreign media - but the BBC, along with many other major news organisations, has not been selected for some time. Therefore, we're unable to gather first-hand testimony from people in Tibet.


This afternoon a colleague and I went along to the Tibet exhibition in Beijing. We shuffled through the exhibits along with hundreds of others (attendance may have been helped by the fact that entry was free). A collection of senior colonels from the People's Armed Police diligently followed a guide with a loudspeaker.

The exhibition begins with a display of life in Tibet before Communist rule - "a feudal serfdom under the despotic theocratic rule of officials, lamas and nobles" according to the guidebook. One exhibit shows serfs living in a pigsty while their masters dine in luxury in a nearby palace.

The exhibition goes on to argue that life dramatically improved for Tibetans after the Dalai Lama (sometimes referred to as just "Dalai") fled into exile in 1959. "Millions of serfs and slaves in the region were thus no longer chattel for trade and barter, but masters of their own fate and of the nation."

Further exhibits show off the joys of modern Tibet - a high-speed rail-link with Beijing, hospitals, crates of beer, smiling ex-serfs tilling the fields.

One section focuses on the Tibetan protests of March 2008 under the title "The Restoration Fantasy of the Dalai Clique" - together with extracts of Western media reports in order to illustrate what China describes as "Distorted Coverage".

A quick look at the guestbook on the way out makes it clear that China's narrative is pretty popular with its own people ...

"No foreign force can stop the progress of Tibet."
"Only the great Communist Party of China can liberate millions of serfs."
"Any force which tries to split Tibet is doomed to failure."


It's clear that China has already won over the overwhelming majority of its own population. But for China, a new holiday, a museum exhibition, and a series of tv programmes may not be enough to win over the West.

The Communist Party's biggest obstacle in this regard is the Dalai Lama. How do you go up against a charismatic, world-famous English-speaking monk who preaches peace and calls for freedom in Tibet ?

If you were the Communist Party, you'd want a Dalai Lama of your own. That's exactly what the Party is trying out. It has its own alternative to the Dalai Lama - another English-speaking Tibetan monk who also preaches peace, but who insists that there is already freedom in Tibet.

This monk is 19-year-old Gyaltsen Norbu. In 1995, he was chosen by the Communist Party as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, second only to the Dalai Lama in the hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism. (The boy chosen by the Dalai Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, was taken into custody by the Chinese authorities. He has not been seen in public since.)

Earlier today, Gyaltsen Norbu delivered a speech in English at
the opening ceremony of the Second World Buddhist Forum held in eastern China.

On Monday he wrote an editorial on freedom in Tibet for the main Communist Party newspaper, the People's Daily.

A speech in English and a newspaper editorial in the same week come after years in which Gyaltsen Norbu was rarely seen in public. It looks like the Chinese Communist Party is keen to introduce this 19-year-old monk to the world as its rival and alternative to the 73-year-old Dalai Lama.


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