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A new lease on life

Tibet embraces a course toward prosperity since democratic reform began 60 years ago


By Lu Yan
Sonam Dorjee and his family run a furniture cooperative in Khesum Village in southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. With an annual income of more than 600,000 yuan ($89,300) from the cooperative, he is now living a well-off life.
But such a comfortable life would have been unheard of only 60 years ago when the village, along with all of Tibet, stood under the dark cloud of feudal serfdom. At that time, people like Sonam Dorjee, now 72, were exploited by local administrative officials, nobles and upper-ranking lamas known as the three major estate-holders.
But it all changed in 1959 when the Chinese Central Government dissolved the aristocratic government of Tibet, the feudal theocracy was completely abolished and more than 1 million serfs were liberated.
To mark the freeing of such a large number of serfs from feudal serfdom, March 28 was designated as Serfs’ Emancipation Day in 2009. This year, on March 28, representatives from various ethnic groups and walks of life in Tibet gathered at the Potala Palace square in Lhasa, capital city of the autonomous region, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the historic democratic reform.
Dark days
Before democratic reform in 1959, Khesum was one of six manors belonging to Suokang Wangqing Geli in the Lhoka Prefecture, located at the southern bank of the Yarlung Zangbo River, one of the richest regions in Tibet.
Khesum means three fortunes in the Tibetan language. Some people used to say that it represented the three holy mountains which could be seen from the main manor, but more people agreed that it meant the three benefits manor owners gained from forcing the serfs to work for them: land, labor and goods.
In the village, 302 serfs from 59 households worked for and were exploited by the manor owner. They did farm work, built houses and ran errands for “their owner.” They had to turn over their grain and livestock and pay heavy taxes and usury rates.
This was life for the majority of people all over Tibet; for centuries it was ruled by a feudal theocracy, where serfs, who made up over 90 percent of the population, struggled hopelessly on the very bottom rung of society. Their basic rights were denied by the three major estate-holders, who controlled Tibet’s government and monopolized land, pastures and other means of production.
To survive, serfs had to borrow money from the rich, who used this debt to keep the people even more impoverished. More than 90 percent of Tibetan serfs were in debt, according to a white paper on democratic reform issued by China’s State Council Information Office in March.
“The debts of the grandpa of my grandpa could not be paid off by the father of my father, and the son of my son will not be able to repay even the interest,” went a popular ballad.
Serfs, who were considered property by the rich, were even used as wagers for gambling and mortgages, as well as trade commodities and gifts. Any serf who attempted to flee and was caught would receive a lashing or have his/her feet chopped off. The three major estate-holders could torture or even kill serfs at will.
Sonam Dorjee, who was born a serf, remembers his family of nine always huddled in a small and draughty mud shed which smelled of livestock manure. His family didn’t have enough food or warm clothes, and instead had endless work and debts.
“When the spring plowing or autumn harvest came, our tough times would begin. In spite of a whole day’s hard work, we would still suffer the cruel beatings from serf owners,” he told Xinhua News Agency.
To reinforce their rule, the Tibetan theocracy promoted superstition and opposed any scientific thought. They brainwashed serfs into accepting their fate in the hope of finding happiness in the afterlife or the next life.
“It is safe to say that feudal serfdom was the root of all kinds of wickedness in Tibet,” said Liang Junyan, a researcher at the Institute for History Studies of the China Tibetology Research Center.
End of the tunnel
Throughout human history, slavery and feudal serfdom have existed in most parts of the world, and their abolition has always come to the forefront. In Tibet, it started in the 1950s.
On May 23, 1951, the Agreement of the Central People’s Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet (17-Article Agreement) was signed, officially proclaiming the peaceful liberation of Tibet. This came on the heels of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
The peaceful liberation ended Tibet’s long-lasting chaos, conflict, strangulation and stagnation. With it came new economic and social development. “It enabled local people to be like the people in the rest of the country who were heading toward a bright socialist future,” said Hu Yan, a professor specializing in studies on ethnic groups and religions with the Party School of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee. The CPC Tibet working committee was established along with branches in Lhasa and other areas.
But the old social system was not abolished. It was still a feudal serfdom, a theocracy which was “even darker and more backward than that of the Dark Ages in medieval Europe,” according to An Qiyi, Deputy Director-General of the China Tibetology Research Center.
After the peaceful liberation of Tibet, fearing that their interests would be damaged, a small number of high-level leaders in local governments used ethnic and religious issues to scheme and start an insurgency. Wherever they went, they looted and raped, damaged temples and attacked monks, laymen and patriotic progressives. Conditions in Tibet worsened, especially after 1958 with the expansion of their relentless rebellion.
In March 1959, with the support of foreign reactionary forces, they launched a full-scale armed rebellion in an attempt to permanently retain their privileged rule under the feudal system of serfdom.
In the same month, the State Council issued a decree which dissolved the local Tibetan government and designated a preparatory committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region to exercise the duties of local government. In essence, it meant that a people’s democratic government was formed.
As a result of the victory over the feudal rulers under the leadership of the CPC, 1 million serfs were completely freed from the oppressive reign of the three major estate-holders and a magnificent democratic reform movement was launched. The feudal land ownership system and the serfs’ attachment to their owners were eliminated and the serfs were liberated in terms of politics, economics, and intellectual, cultural and ideological matters.
The productive forces were greatly liberated and the Tibetan people began to enjoy all the rights stipulated in the provisions of the Chinese Constitution and laws.
The serfs became masters of their own country and their own destiny, with all the ethnic groups in Tibet making the historic leap from feudal serfdom to the new road of socialist modernization.
Reborn
Since democratic reform, Tibet has experienced transformation in all aspects. Politically, Tibetan people began to enjoy the right to participation in the administration of state and local affairs through the people’s congresses at various levels.
Based on ethnic regional characteristics and the local reality, a number of local laws and regulations were introduced, such as the supplemental provisions of the Marriage Law and regulations on the learning, application and development of the Tibetan language.
Economically, the region entered a fast development period. In 1959, Tibet’s GDP was merely 174 million yuan ($25.9 million), while the figure exceeded 147 billion yuan ($21.9 billion) in 2018, marking more than an 800-time increase.
The old Tibet had little industrial development, but now, based on the premise of strictly protecting the ecology, modern industry flourishes with the region’s unique features. This includes the agricultural and animal product processing industry, the superior mineral industry, the hydroelectric energy industry, the traditional and ethnic minority handicraft industry, and the Tibetan medicine industry.
There are many striking examples of the changes that have occurred over the past 60 years. For instance, there was only one small power station in Tibet exclusively for the use of the upper nobility, but by the end of 2018, the power grid covered 60 counties, as well as 2.72 million people. Local people also shook off the destitute and debt-ridden past and gradually worked their way out of poverty. The aim now is to eliminate absolute poverty by the end of this year.
The principles of political unity, freedom of religious belief and separation of government from religion are all strongly pursued. The Central Government and local governments invested both time and money in maintaining and restoring temples and protecting Tibetan Buddhism classics.
People’s health has improved fundamentally with the upgrading of medical and health facilities and services. Government-subsidized housing projects have ensured that farmers and herdsmen have comfortable accommodations. The modern socialist system entitled people to receive education. In turn, a number of high-caliber personnel have been cultivated who are making contributions to the country’s modernization drive. Tibetan people are working hard toward a prosperous life, which can be seen in the upgrading of consumption and an increasingly diversified consumption structure.
As the country’s crucial eco-barrier, and with ecological conservation lifted to a national strategy, Tibet has received substantial capital and energy to enlarge nature and ecological reserves and restore biodiversity. In 2018 alone, 10.7 billion yuan ($1.59 billion) was invested to protect and build the eco-barrier in Tibet.
Forging ahead
Liang commented that the CPC and the government’s support, along with help from the rest of the country, are the fundamental reasons for the achievements in Tibet over the past six decades.
The diligence of the local people is the driving force behind its success. In addition, regional autonomy for minorities is the institutional guarantee of the transformation, according to An.
The State Council’s white paper pointed out that there is still room for improvement in terms of addressing economic and social problems and imbalanced and insufficient development. In the new era, Tibet will continue to be committed to innovative, coordinated, sustainable, green, open and shared development, so as to build a beautiful Tibet and enhance the happiness of the people, the document said.
(Comments to luyan@bjreview.com)
(Beijing Review)

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