“Peaceful Liberation” & the Potala Square

On Tuesday morning, 20,000 people gathered in the square in front of the Potala Palace, but not to protest.  They were celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the “Peaceful Liberation” of Tibet that took place when the 17-Point Agreement was signed in May, 1951. The stage was erected weeks in advance, much of Lhasa was under construction during the winter and spring, and government officials arrived on Sunday for one week of ceremonies and celebrations–the details of which were kept under wraps.

One thing was a given, that the Potala would serve as the backdrop.  The Chinese government loves using the Potala Palace as its flagship image for their Tibet propaganda. Completed in the late 1600s, the building sits thirteen stories high atop a hill overlooking Lhasa, holds over 1,000 rooms, exquisite temples, ancient scriptures, and remains of previous Dalai Lamas. No other buildings in the city rival the Potala’s height. It made the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994, and the Chinese government has plastered the image of the palace on everything from tourism brochures to beer and barley wine bottles and cans ever since. Not only is the Potala Palace a representation of incredible architectural feats and traditional Tibetan design, to the Chinese government it represents the backbone of a feudal society whose serfs were “liberated” by Mao and the People’s Republic of China 60 years ago.

In the early 1900s, the city of Lhasa was largely undeveloped.

In 2005, the Chinese government cleared the area in front of the Dalai Lama’s winter residence to make way for the new square and the “Tibet Peaceful Liberation Monument” that lay in the center. May 23, 2006 marked 50 years since the signing of the 17-Point Agreement, and the abstract representation of Mt. Everest was unveiled.  In front of the monument, embedded under the concrete, are water fountains synchronized with lights and music, giving the square a Disney-esque look and feel for the tourists who visit each night in the summer. Except for this year.

The Potala Square as viewed from the Potala Palace, December 2010

Lhasa has been banned to foreign travelers since June, and an article published on Saturday by AFP noted that the government is now restricting the number of Chinese tourists to the region. The fact that the number of domestic Chinese tourists traveling to Tibet is restricted is a sure sign that the situation is dire. Lhasa is cut off from the rest of the world, showing that there is fear of potential unrest, and most likely an increased military and security presence in the city–which is not something the government wants foreigners to view.

A China Daily article recounted what the government wanted people to see–Tuesday’s event, which included a speech by Vice President Xi Jinping, who claimed that “speeding up development holds the key to resolving all issues in Tibet”. The article launched into accounts of government aide to Tibetans, noting that Xi’s delegation brought pressure cookers and solar-powered TV sets to villages in Tibet.  Praise was given for the increased number of cars in towns and cities in Tibet, as well as one man’s opportunity to work in a cement factory ten months out of the year, rather than toil at his previous occupation as a farmer.

What the article omitted were the harsh realities of Tibet’s political and cultural oppression, and the continued economic and societal marginalization of Tibetans, despite the government’s attempt to buy Tibetans’ loyalties. It left out the fact that nomadic communities are being forced off of their land to make way for mining operations that destroy the land and poison the waters that flow downstream to 47% of the world’s population; that nomads are forced to slaughter their animals and move into ghetto-style housing blocks, where rates of depression, alcoholism, and suicide are on the rise; that the grasslands are turning into deserts because there are no nomads grazing their animals, whose traditional practices aerate and fertilize the soil, keeping the grasslands healthy and mitigating the effects of climate change.

Apparently pots and pans and television sets are more important.

Read more:


Celebration marks peaceful liberation (China Daily)

Beijing curbs China tourism to Tibet: travel agents (AFP)


Read more at Students for a Free Tibet’s blog


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