China has celebrated the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), rallying against the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, while drawing sharp criticism for its human rights record there.
Beijing’s top political adviser Yu Zhengsheng led a massive rally in the Tibetan capital on Tuesday, stressing the official line that the Dalai Lama, who fled China in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule, is a violent separatist.
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“People of all ethnicities are steadfastly engaged in a struggle against separatism, continuously thwarting the Dalai clique and foreign hostile forces’ splittist and sabotage activities,” Yu said in front of Lhasa’s grand Potala Palace, once the home of the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama, who is based in India, has said he is merely seeking greater autonomy for his Himalayan homeland.
Yu also lauded Tibet’s economic successes as “a vibrant socialist” region, adding that its gross domestic product had grown 68 times.
Maya Wang, a Human Rights Watch spokesman, however, said that for Tibetans who have “fled the country” and protested against Beijing, there is “little reason to celebrate the anniversary”.
She said freedom of expression is “severely restricted” in Tibet.
“Tibetans face increasing restrictions on religion and movement, social control and surveillance at the grassroots level, and are subjected to housing and other socioeconomic policies that will irrevocably alter many Tibetans’ way of life without being genuinely consulted in the process,” she said in a statement to Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International, noted that China has not only stepped up its rhetoric against the Dalai Lama, but has also punished government officials who have supported him.
“The Chinese Communist Party, an officially atheistic organisation, has asserted its rights to appoint the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. This would appear to be another blatant violation of Tibetan’s freedom of religion.”
Tibet has been a source of controversy for decades, since Beijing sent troops to occupy the Himalayan region following the 1949 communist revolution.
Beijing said the region has been part of Chinese territory for centuries, while many Tibetans said it has a long history of autonomous rule led by a series of Buddhist leaders.
Free Tibet, a London-based rights group, said Beijing was trying to define Tibetan identity according to its priorities, and that Tibetans suffered restrictions on movement, censorship and lived in a system designed to punish opposition to the Beijing government.
In a statement posted online, the group said the Beijing-controlled autonomous government “is a product of the ongoing propaganda effort” to rewrite Tibetan history.
“The celebrations imposed on the people of Tibet to accompany the TAR’s 50th anniversary may be dressed up in 21st century PR but they belong in the era of Mao.”
This year marks several sensitive anniversaries for the remote region.
Tibet also marked the 80th birthday of the Dalai Lama and the 20th anniversary of the disappearance of a young Tibetan, the Panchen Lama, who was chosen by the Dalai Lama as the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism.
On Sunday, a senior Chinese official said the young man, six years old when he disappeared, was “living a normal life”, and a nationalist tabloid The Global Times accused the Dalai Lama of being a “cheater”, for violating the rules on the appointment of the Panchen Lama.
Tibet remains under heavy security, with visits by foreign media tightly restricted, making an independent assessment of the situation difficult.