China marked 50 years of direct control over Tibet on Saturday, raising the national flag in the regional capital and commemorating a new political holiday honoring what it calls the liberation of slaves from brutal feudal rule.
Testimonials about the misery of life in old Tibet kicked off the short ceremony televised live from in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa to mark the end of the Dalai Lama's rule in Tibet. The Tibetan government-in-exile said on its Web site that the new holiday, crowned "Serfs Liberation Day," is aggravating problems in the region and would be a day of mourning for Tibetans around the world.
"Tibetans consider this observance offensive and provocative," it said.
Hundreds of Tibetans living in Dharmsala, the headquarters of the government-in-exile in northern India, held a street protest against Beijing's rule, carrying Tibetan flags and chanting "Stop 50 years of torture." Some wore bandanas reading "Free Tibet." March 28 marks the date when Beijing ended the 1959 Tibetan uprising, sending the Dalai Lama over the Himalayas into exile and placing Tibet under its direct rule for the first time. In China's official version of events, Tibet in mid-century was a remote medieval backwater where most people lived in servitude to the Buddhist theocracy and nobility until the Communist government stepped in.
"Just as Europe can't return to the medieval era and the United States can't go back to the times before the Civil War, Tibet can never restore the old serf society era," Zhang Qingli, the Communist Party boss of the region, told the crowd of more than 13,000.
The ceremony followed a host of articles in the state-run media and shows on TV extolling Communist reforms and economic development. They have likened the end of the Dalai Lama's rule as akin to late US President Abraham Lincoln's emancipation of slaves.
"Nowadays we have roads, we have televisions and telephones, children go to school and we have savings in the banks, which is all made possible by the Communist Party," 69 year old Tsondre, who said he was born into a serf's family in Lhasa, said at the ceremony. Like many Tibetans, he goes by only one name. Zhang lashed out at the Dalai Lama, vowing a long struggle against his supporters, who the government says want Tibetan independence. China has stepped up its attacks on the Dalai Lama after the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader compared life under Chinese rule to "hell on earth" earlier this month. "Tibet belongs to China, not a few separatists or the international forces against China. Any conspiracy attempting to separate the region from China is doomed to fail," Zhang said. Beijing has in recent years begun enlisting its hand-picked Panchen Lama, a high-ranking Buddhist cleric, in its campaign to vilify the Dalai Lama. On Friday he was quoted as criticizing the former regime without mentioning the Dalai Lama by name. At an international Buddhist conference Saturday in eastern China, he praised the Communist government for protecting religious freedom, indicating the government's intention to make him more of an international spokesman for its Tibetan policies. "This event fully demonstrates that today's China enjoys social harmony, stability and religious freedom, and also shows that China is a nation that safeguards and promotes world peace," he said. Despite Beijing's backing, Gyaltsen Norbu is not widely accepted by Tibetans as the Panchen Lama. Another boy, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, was named as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama in 1995. The boy and his family disappeared soon after and have not been heard from since.
While Chinese rule has brought economic development, higher living standards and infrastructure to the remote Himalayan plateau where people traditionally eked out a living by farming and herding, Tibetans say they have lost religious and cultural freedoms and become marginalized in their homeland.
A year ago Tibetan communities across China erupted in violent protests against Chinese rule, drawing a swift clampdown by paramilitary forces that remains in place.