|The exhibition paints a dark picture of life in Tibet before Chinese ‘liberation’ [GALLO/GETTY]
Get in trouble with the law in old Tibet and expect to have your eyes gouged out, your tendons snipped, or your ears, feet or hands cut off.
For his birthday, the Dalai Lama, Tibet‘s spiritual leader, would demand a set of human intestines, two human heads, blood and a human skin as gifts.
So says a new exhibition, “Tibet of China: Past and Present”, currently on show in Beijing‘s Cultural Palace of Minorities, a 10-minute walk from Tiananmen Square.
The exhibition pulls few punches with its message – if China had not “peacefully liberated” Tibet in 1959, it would still be a medieval society and the Dalai Lama would still be asking for those heads and skins.
|The displays include examples of alleged
torture instruments [Photo: Dinah Gardner]
The opening of the exhibition is timely, coming in the wake of recent deadly unrest in Tibetan communities against Chinese rule.
Exile groups say the unrest was an outpouring of despair sparked by decades of religious persecution and human rights violations.
China blames the Dalai Lama – who fled to across the Himalayas to India in 1959 – for orchestrating the riots, a charge he firmly denies.
The exhibition makes no mention of the recent riots although one display, added a few days after the show opened, proudly documents China‘s Everest ascent with the Olympic Torch on May 8.
Instead the exhibition sticks rigidly to the official line of China‘s benevolent influence on the Himalayan region, contrasting it with what the exhibition describes as the “savage and dark feudal serfdom” of pre-1959 Tibet.
Captions are in Chinese and polished English, but no Tibetan. Nothing is dated.
One portion of the collection, which deals with post-Liberation Tibet, shows only photos of happy Tibetans – using mobile phones, opening fridges stacked with yak cheese and Lhasa beer, and chomping into water melons.
Before and after posters contrast the “old Tibet” of starving children lying in the gutter, slaves living next to a latrine, peasants stumbling about on foot, with “new Tibet” showing rosy-cheeked children in front of swanky villas, smiley old Tibetan ladies riding a train and a Tibetan family tucking into a feast.
Under the Chinese, Tibetan industry has flourished, the exhibition proudly proclaims, backing its position with photos of an “environmentally-friendly” cement factory, a stack of brightly-coloured Tibetan medicine, a box of Potala-brand incense, and a food mixer, its dials marked in Tibetan script.
|The exhibition makes no reference to recent
unrest in Tibetan communities [EPA]
In an apparent effort to deflect criticism that Chinese rule as crushed Tibetan culture, much of the collection purports to show Chinese efforts at preserving Tibetan identity.
Thousands of books, it says, have been translated into local script, Tibetan singer Tseten Drolma is shown performing on Chinese television while the state-run Tibet Daily newspaper, famous for its fierce editorials lambasting the Dalai Lama, is also published in Tibetan.
A photo of children studying Tibetan script is captioned “ethnic Tibetans make good learners”.
But behind the smiles, there are several glaring omissions.
The exhibition jumps from 1959 to modern-day Tibet, skipping the horrors of the decade-long Cultural Revolution which began in 1966.
Conservative estimates put the number of Tibetans who died from hunger or persecution during this period at 500,000.
An exhibition guide, a young Chinese girl dressed in a traditional Tibetan dress looked uncomfortable when asked whether there was a display on the Cultural Revolution.
“There should be one here, but I don’t know where it is,” she said.
No mention is made of the Dalai Lama after he fled in 1959 nor the region’s recent history of anti-Chinese uprisings – the most serious in 1989 when Lhasa was placed under martial law.
Most Chinese visitors to the exhibition seem unperturbed by these omissions, instead focusing much of their attention on the collection of Tibetan torture implements.
|Tight security surrounds the exhibition
hall [Photo: Dinah Gardner]
One young Chinese visitor in his mid-twenties who would not give his name said he was shocked by the displays showing the barbarity of old Tibet.
“Even though in history many countries had this kind of cruel system, Tibet is different because they still did things like this until 1959,” he said.
He saw no conflict with the idea that Tibet‘s “dark” feudalism went on when the region was supposed to be an inalienable part of China.
“China ruled Tibet a bit like England ruled India,” he said. “They only dealt with the top officials like the Dalai Lama so they didn’t know what was going on.”
The exhibition, which is scheduled to run until late July, has attracted thousands of Chinese visitors every day – from families with infants to students to the elderly.
The 11th Panchen Lama – a Tibetan spiritual leader chosen by Beijing and not recognised by many Tibetans – was given a tour in its first week.
Battalions of young officers from the paramilitary police are regularly shepherded around the show and tight security is in place to ensure the exhibition does not attract the wrong kind of attention.
While the exhibition is free visitors need to bring their passports or identification cards and must pass through a security scanner to gain entrance.
|Displays of happy Tibetans drive home
the message [GALLO/GETTY]
In its first week, Chinese reporters milled about the exhibits pouncing on western visitors hoping to get a pro-Beijing quote. Staff manning a comment book would not allow visitors to look back at previous entries.
“I’m sorry this is a rule,” said one museum worker, who smiled apologetically. “A special rule for this exhibition.”
The collection also includes pieces clearly selected to shore up the argument that Tibet has been an inalienable part of China since the time of the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century.
In addition to official seals and edicts from Beijing to Lhasa, there are also gifts of silverware, paintings and armour exchanged between both sides.
But perhaps the most striking aspect comes in a small display tucked away in the middle of the collection.
“Before the democratic reform in 1959 … the broad masses of serfs and slaves enjoyed no democracy, freedom and human rights while the three estate holders … made use of the court, prisons, army and law to oppress, exploit and enslave the serfs and slaves,” the caption reads.
Change the dates, and you have a fair summary of the allegations Tibetans in exile and some in China of abuse they say they suffer today.