This Saturday, Tibetans have an extra holiday. It’s the first ever “Serf Emancipation Day” in the province to mark the dissolution of the serf system 50 years ago. The new holiday is controversial: It was decreed by the authorities but many Tibetans feel it’s rather provocative. Earlier this month many people in Tibet commemorated the failed uprising of 50 years ago and the deadly riots that erupted in Lhasa last year. But to many Chinese there’s nothing wrong with celebrating what the government calls democratic reform in Tibet.
The Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama attends a ceremony marking the ‘Serf Liberation Day’ in Beijing on Friday
Tibet is largely closed to foreign journalists. So the only way to catch a glimpse of contemporary Tibet is to go to the Cultural Palace of Nationalities in Western Beijing. Its current exhibition is called 50th Anniversary of Democratic Reform in Tibet. The exhibits in the old-style socialist building re-enforce the message that Tibet was liberated by the Chinese and not occupied. The show paints a grim picture of life before Chinese rule.
“Here we can see four slaves who had been blinded by their owners,” says a young Chinese tour guide in a traditional silk dress. She goes on to explain that the 14th Dalai Lama was the biggest slave owner of all.
Visitors see gruesome torture devices and pictures of slaves in shackles. The second hall shows the changes - beaming, jubilant Tibetans after the so-called liberation by the Chinese army. “History makes fair judgements”, reads one display. “Tibet has moved from darkness to light, poverty to affluence, dictatorship to democracy.”
The show is part of a much bigger propaganda campaign. Television talk shows and newspapers have painted a rosy picture of modern Tibet highlighting massive investments into industry and infrastructure and social progress. There’s no room for doubts or shades of grey. Most visitors to the exhibition agree with the government’s policies.
“Today’s Tibet would not exist without the central government," says a visitor. “The economic development was very fast. Without the leadership of the Communist Party all that would have been unthinkable.”
There is little sympathy for any discontent in Tibet or for demands for greater religious and cultural freedoms.
“The changes in Tibet are remarkable,” says a pensioner who came to the show with his wife. “I believe the Tibetans should be more grateful.”
Pictures of the anti-Chinese riots in Lhasa last year are replayed over and over again. Most people have no doubts who was behind the violence - the Dalai Lama and his supporters.
“It’s a small group of hostile elements towards the Chinese government and the Chinese people,” says a young woman who’s visiting the exhibition with colleagues from work.
“The pictures of Chinese being beaten in Lhasa moved her to tears, she says, adding that only if we Chinese all stick together will we be able to create a harmonious society.”
Critics say the exhibition is pure propaganda and presents a distorted and exaggerated picture of life in old Tibet. But from the government’s perspective, the show is a huge success, driving home the message that the Dalai Lama is a separatist who attempts to split the country.
“I hate the Dalai Lama," says a young migrant worker after touring the exhibition. “I also hate some Western countries and some organisations that support him.”
Other visitors stills stare at the television footage from Lhasa last year. "I don’t understand what they want", says a young man about the rioters. "How can they eat our food and still hate us?"