New Museum Offers the Official Line on Tibet
BEIJING — Not far from National Stadium, the city’s mammoth, just-finished Olympic arena, another construction project is still facing an Olympic deadline. The building, sheathed in a green construction tent, will house Beijing’s first museum exclusively dedicated to Tibet.
Inside, curators will display antiquities, dynastic records and reproductions to demonstrate China’s dominion over Tibet as far back as the 13th century. Many experts question China’s historical claims, but few clouds of doubt are likely to darken the museum. Even the Dalai Lama is being edited out of the narrative.
“He will not appear after 1959,” said Lian Xiangmin, a Chinese scholar involved in the museum, referring to the year the Tibetan spiritual leader fled to India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. “This is a Tibet museum, and we don’t recognize him as part of Tibet anymore.”
History is often interpreted to meet the political objectives of whichever government is doing the interpreting. The historical relationship between Tibet and China is replete with claims, disputes and caveats. But the ruling Communist Party does not hesitate to eliminate any uncertainty and use history as a political tool to validate its hold on Tibet.
Yet if the party’s unflinching line on Tibet’s historical status has effectively quashed any domestic dissenting views, it also has fueled Tibetan resentment. The authorities are now suppressing the largest outbreak of anti-Chinese unrest in Tibet in two decades, a violent uprising that many Tibetans trace, in part, to seething anger over cultural and religious repression.
Buddhist monks who led initially peaceful protests last month outside Lhasa were partly complaining about the “patriotic education” campaigns that required them to denounce the Dalai Lama and submit to history lessons about China’s rightful control over the region. Last week, monks at Drepung monastery outside Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, reportedly protested a new round of patriotic education.
Across China, schoolchildren are taught that Tibet is an inalienable part of the country. Tour guides in Lhasa must follow approved versions of history. Dissenting scholars have been marginalized, censored and, in a handful of cases, imprisoned. Questioning official history can expose scholars to accusations of separatism. A Tibetan scholar, Dolma Kyab, has been jailed since 2005 after writing an unapproved history of Tibet.
“History is linked to legitimacy,” said Tashi Rabgey, director of the Contemporary Tibetan Studies Initiative at the University of Virginia. “The problem for Beijing is that their presence on the Tibetan Plateau has never been legitimized. And their attempt to control history is an effort to do that.”
Tibet touches a raw nerve for many Chinese, including those living overseas, because of the legacy of foreign intervention in China during the 19th century and early 20th century. British troops invaded Tibet in 1903 and 1904 as the Qing Dynasty was nearing collapse. Today, many Chinese recall the role of the Central Intelligence Agency in Tibet during the 1950s and interpret Western sympathy for the current protests as another foreign effort to destabilize and divide China.
The Communist Party clearly wants to counter what it regards as international misperceptions about Tibet’s status and has focused on history as an important arena to argue its case. The government has established more than 50 research institutions dedicated to Tibet and, by extension, to supporting the Chinese version of Tibetan history.
In 2000, Zhao Qizheng, then the information minister for the State Council, or China’s cabinet, told scholars at a closed conference on Tibet that their research should be used to sway foreign opinion.
“We should maximize the use of our 50 Tibetology centers and 1,000 Tibetologists to carry out external propaganda work on Tibet,” Mr. Zhao said. His speech was later obtained and publicized by a pro-Tibet advocacy group. He added: “We should enhance our influence on international Tibetologists. By means of cultural exchange, we should enhance our influence on the Western community and its opinion.”
Mr. Lian, the scholar, said the museum was under the auspices of the China Tibetology Research Center in Beijing. He said Chinese scholars, long separated from the outside world, were now sharing their work at international conferences and promoting it on the Internet. He said scholarship, not politics, was the priority of his center.
“As scholars, the truth is what is most valuable to us,” said Mr. Lian, head of research at the Tibetology center. “Everyone can have their own view of matters, but you have to have evidence to support your argument.”
But others are less convinced, especially those censored for dissenting views. Woeser, a Tibetan blogger, lost her editing job at a literary magazine based in Lhasa after writing a 2003 book, “Tibet Notes,” that included a friendly reference to the Dalai Lama. “They wrote to the publisher and said, ‘One of your authors wrote a book with severe political mistakes,’ ” said Ms. Woeser, who, like some Tibetans, uses only one name. “Anything about the reality of Tibet is not allowed to be published.”
Ms. Woeser said history was such a politically charged issue inside the Tibet Autonomous Region that even tour guides were scrutinized. In 2003, President Hu Jintao, a former party boss in Tibet, was involved in the creation of the “Support Tibet Tour Guide Plan.” State media reports say the program calls for recruiting 100 tour guides to work in Lhasa from outside Tibet every year until 2013. Most of those chosen are Communist Party members.
At the heart of the historical dispute lies the Western concept of sovereignty. The Communist Party has promoted the concept of China as a diverse but unified nation of 56 ethnic groups. The majority Han constitute nearly 92 percent of the population, but the remaining 8 percent, including Mongols, Hui Muslims, Manchus, Uighur Muslims and Tibetans, are often said to have been assimilated into the motherland over centuries of unbroken history.
Many scholars say that narrative oversimplifies history to support contemporary political and territorial claims. Historians generally agree that the relationship between China and Tibet became fully intermingled during the Yuan Dynasty, from the 1270s to 1368. The dispute is over the nature of the relationship.
The Tibetan government in exile says Buddhist lamas established a “priest-patron” relationship under which they became spiritual advisers to the Yuan rulers without sacrificing Tibetan self-rule or independence — an arrangement replicated in the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, which lasted from 1644 to 1912.
Chinese scholars say this logic is disingenuous. They point to records detailing how Tibet was subject to certain laws of the Yuan and Qing rulers — a paper trail they say proves not just that Tibet is an inalienable part of China but also that Chinese emperors had the authority to select the Dalai Lama.
Elliot Sperling, a leading Tibet specialist at Indiana University, said both sides massage their interpretations. He said Tibet cannot be regarded as truly independent during the Yuan and Qing dynasties, given that records show Tibet as subservient to Chinese rules and policies.
But Dr. Sperling said China’s claim to unbroken control of Tibet was also dubious. During the Ming dynasty, from 1368 to 1644, Tibet had scant connection to Chinese rulers, he said. And describing the Yuan and Qing dynasties as “Chinese” overlooks the fact that each took power after what was at the time viewed as a foreign invasion: Mongols established the Yuan; Manchus invaded and founded the Qing.
“What China doesn’t want to deal with is the fact that the Mongols had an empire,” said Dr. Sperling, director of Tibetan Studies at Indiana University’s department of Central Eurasia Studies. “It wasn’t a Chinese state. It was an empire.”
In this context, some scholars consider Tibet’s past relationship with China more akin to that of a vassal state. China’s government relinquished any remaining control over Tibet after the fall of the Qing in 1912. The current Dalai Lama, and his predecessor, ruled Tibet until 1951, when Mao invaded in what China maintains was a “peaceful liberation” that freed Tibetans from a feudal theocracy.
“We know that Tibetans and some Western scholars say that Tibet was an independent state during this period, but we don’t agree,” said Mr. Lian, the scholar with the research center.
Wang Lixiong, a dissident scholar in Beijing who has challenged some of the Communist Party’s historical claims, said imperial China regarded itself as the center of the world and had little concern about the political status of subservient neighbors like Tibet. But he said modern political needs had made this approach an inconvenient legacy.
“Now we are in a Westernized political situation,” said Mr. Wang, who is married to Ms. Woeser and is now banned from being published in China. “We have this definition of sovereignty, so we fight over every inch of territory.”
Robert Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University, said Tibet scholars inside China often did excellent work. But he said many scholars in China avoided specializing in Tibetan history after the 13th century because of the political overtones — and potential risks. He said one book was banned for including a sentence that questioned the official view that an eighth-century Tibetan king was half Chinese.
Mr. Barnett said that passengers arriving at the Lhasa airport from Nepal sometimes had their bags searched for unapproved books or photographs. “Managing accounts of history there and eradicating any sign that Tibet was separate from China is an official industry,” Mr. Barnett said in an interview conducted by e-mail.
Mr. Lian, the scholar at the Tibetology Institute, said plans were still evolving for the new Tibet museum complex. Officials are aiming for a pre-Olympic grand opening, but he noted that the project had hit delays. “We’re not going to rush it,” he said.
Asked about the importance of history, Mr. Lian paused.
“Why is history important?” he repeated. “By looking into history, we can see the future.”