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Democratic reform started Xizang's modernization
By:China Daily
update:March 28,2024


Editor's note: March 28 marks the 65th anniversary of Tibet's democratic reform, which liberated more than 1 million people from serfdom and slavery, and started Tibet's modernization process. Li Decheng, deputy director-general of China Tibetology Research Center, shares his views on the significance of the democratic reform with China Daily's Zhu Ping. Excerpts follow:

Q1: Why is the democratic reform in Tibet a bigger milestone in the history of human rights than the abolitionist movement in the United States?

A1: Before the democratic reform, Tibet was a decadent, backward and dark feudal serfdom, far from being any kind of paradise. Under the feudal serfdom, the religious-political administration was led by feudal lords. The social structure consisted of two major classes: the serfs and the serf-owners. The serf-owner class primarily comprised government officials, nobles and the upper clergy, accounting for about 5 percent of the total Tibetan population. They owned all of Tibet's land including pastures, and the majority of livestock.

Serfs, who accounted for 90 percent of the population, and slaves, who comprised 5 percent, had limited or no freedom and were firmly tied to the land, serving their feudal lords for generations. Additionally, they were forced to perform backbreaking labor and shoulder heavy tax burdens. They also suffered due to usury and exploitation by the upper class.

In the feudal serfdom in old Tibet, serfs and slaves led a miserable life. The slave-owners exercised arbitrary powers over them, including the use of the "13-Article Codes" and the"16-Article Codes", which divided people into three classes and nine levels. The life of people who belonged to the highest class had the highest value for their lives, equivalent to gold, while the life of the lowest class had very little value, equivalent to a rope made of grass. This unequal and oppressive class system made old Tibet a treacherous place, not a paradise. It was the darkest, most decadent and backward society, even more brutal than medieval Europe.

That's why the democratic reform in Tibet, which liberated Tibetans, was a more progressive movement than the abolitionist movement in the United States, though the historical and social conditions of the two movements were different.

After the American Revolution, the Southern and Northern states had two different social systems: the South mainly had a feudal system with slave-owners and a plantation economy, while the North had a capitalist economy under a capitalist system. The North required a huge number of workers to fuel the "industrial revolution", while the South bought and sold slaves and used slave labor for agricultural production. That resulting contradiction between the North and the South led to the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, and Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and eventually the victory of the North in 1865, leading to the abolition of slavery.

However, after the abolition of slavery, the freed individuals who became wage laborers were subjected to exploitation and oppression by the Northern bourgeoisie. They did not gain true liberation like the former Tibetan serfs did following the democratic reform. The serfs in Tibet not only got personal freedom and enjoyed equal rights but also received land and livestock, and access to pastures and other means of livelihoods, becoming the masters of their destiny and country.

Post-emancipation US did not guarantee equal rights for the former slaves either, with racial segregation and discriminatory policies remaining a persistent issue in American society. The former slaves in the South, despite being eligible for employment, faced racial discrimination and violence — a situation totally different from Tibet where equal rights were granted to the former serfs and slaves following the democratic reform.

Q2: Why did the democratic reform kickstart the modernization process of Tibet?

A2: In the 1950s, Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme, the then vice-chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said that if the feudal serfdom was retained, the serfs would soon perish, leading to the demise of Tibetan society. Therefore, he concluded, the democratic reform should not only liberate the huge serf population and unleash social productivity but also save Tibetan society.

Without the democratic reform, which granted the serfs and slaves personal freedom and made them masters of their own destiny and country, Tibet would not have entered a stage of benign development or transformed into a socialist society. From this standpoint, the democratic reform in Tibet did lay a solid political and social foundation for Tibet's rejuvenation and socialist modernization.

Tibet's economic development in the past was at a very low-level. Historically, Tibet's economy was undeveloped, lacking in scale and growing at an extremely slow pace. However, after the democratic reform and the liberation of productive forces, the former serfs used their labor and enthusiasm to build contemporary Xizang (the Xizang autonomous region was founded in 1965). Consequently, agriculture, industry and various social undertakings in Xizang experienced rapid development.

In terms of education, under the old Tibetan feudal serfdom, there were hardly any modern schools. However, after the launch of the democratic reform, modern schools were built, and they provided education from the kindergarten and primary to the middle, high school and even the university level. Xizang today provides universal education, with nearly 100 percent enrollment rate for the children of the vast population of farmers and herdsmen. This historical leap was not possible under the old Tibetan feudal serfdom, in which only a few nobles had access to a certain level of education, as there were no modern schools.

So rapid has been the pace of Tibet's development that in the two decades before 2017, Xizang's GDP and social development grew in double digits, consistently ranking the highest in the country.

Additionally, in terms of public health, under the feudal serfdom, the average life expectancy in Tibet was only about 35.5 years. But following the democratic reform and Tibet's transition to a socialist society, the health and living standards of the people have continuously improved. At present, life expectancy in Xizang is as high as 72.19 years.

Q3: Some Western politicians and media claim the democratic reform has undermined religious freedom in Xizang. What's your response to this claim?

A3: This is not reality. Before the democratic reform, the Tibetan people did not have religious freedom. First, in terms of faith, whether to believe in a particular religion or sect should be the voluntary choice of an individual. However, under the feudal serfdom, there was no freedom of choice. Monasteries would force some people to become monks or nuns, with different monasteries having different rules. For instance, in some Tibetan monasteries, it was stipulated that if a family had three sons, at least one, or even two, of them had to become a monk.

Moreover, before the democratic reform, more than 90 percent of the people in the Tibetan monasteries were impoverished monks and nuns. Only a small minority, roughly 3 percent, belonged to the upper echelons of the monasteries who enjoyed certain religious and feudal privileges, and oppressed and exploited the impoverished monks and serfs. There were even prisons in the monasteries, where the "disobedient" monks and serfs were thrown in and treated cruelly. Therefore, the upper echelons of the monasteries, the monastic feudal lords, and the vast impoverished monks and nuns were not equals, which goes against the basic tenet of all religions.

After the democratic reform, Xizang implemented a policy that ensured religious freedom, and allowed the people to choose which religion or sect they wanted to follow. The believers could freely practice their religion and choose where to study the scriptures, and the monks achieved equality. Unlike in the past, the vast number of monks and nuns were equals and could freely study the scripture of their choice and engage in religious activities. They were no longer forced to perform menial tasks.

There has been a change in the management of monasteries, too. In the past, the upper echelons of the monasteries, essentially the feudal lords, controlled the monasteries. After the democratic reform, a democratic management system was introduced, granting the impoverished monks and nuns the right to manage the monasteries. Under the feudal serfdom, there was no religious freedom. Only through democratic reform of the religious system have the Tibetan people achieved true religious freedom.

Q4: How can modernization better protect Tibetan traditional culture?

A4: Chinese modernization represents the comprehensive progress of society, and encompasses not only economic and social advancement but also the development and advancement of culture. This comprehensive modernization model applies to Xizang as well, where economic, political and social development coexists with cultural advancement and ecological civilization construction.

The cultural development in Xizang has indeed accelerated modernization, while the protection of traditional culture has made a significant contribution to cultural development and advancement. Since the peaceful liberation of Tibet in 1951, particularly after the democratic reform in 1959, the Tibetan traditional culture has been better protected and developed. For instance, traditional Tibetan medicine (TTM) has achieved important milestones in protection and development. And the Party and the government have provided substantial support and assistance for the development of Tibet's traditional culture.

For example, in 2019, the government allocated 1 billion yuan ($138.90 million) for building a new campus for the Tibet University of Traditional Tibetan Medicine. The university has trained more than 7,600 specialized talents in TTM, which has played an important role in safeguarding public health, promoting cultural development and even contributed to economic development. For instance, TTM practitioners cover an impressive 94.4 percent of the population in Xizang, indicating TTM's crucial role in maintaining public health.

Indeed, the TTM sector has achieved rapid development, which has helped it to standardize and scale up production. This has not only contributed to the economic and physical health of the people but also helped boost local cultural endeavors and even economic growth.

From this perspective, Tibetan traditional culture has undergone transformative development, providing crucial support for Xizang's modernization. For instance, the Beijing Tibetan Hospital, sponsored by the China Tibetology Research Center, is the only Tibetan hospital in Beijing but plays an important role in promoting TTM and Tibetan culture and helps local people with effective medical service.

Q5: Some Westerners claim that Xizang's development has come at the cost of the environment. Is it true?

A5: Chinese modernization embodies an important principle, that is, of harmonious coexistence of humans and nature. This principle is reflected in the modernization practices in Xizang. Xizang's high-altitude environment is unique — it is known as the "Roof of the World" and is one of the crucial sources of water for the Chinese nation. Therefore, the protection of its environment, water sources, ecological assets and preservation of various species are of utmost importance.

In recent years, Xizang has been especially emphasizing the importance of harmonious coexistence between humanity and nature in its modernization process. It advocates green and sustainable development. The central government, on its part, has made substantial investments in these areas, actively supporting environmental protection. For instance, from 2012 to 2022, the central government cumulatively allocated more than 29 billion yuan in the form of subsidies and rewards for grassland resource protection in Xizang.

Tibetan Buddhism, too, advocates for environmental protection and ecological conservation. For example, it promotes the concept of non-violence and emphasizes the protection of sacred mountains, rivers and lakes, which can support the construction of ecological civilization and prompt believers to participate in the process.

The Tibetan people know full well the importance of animal protection. The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is home to many unique and rare animals such as the Tibetan antelope, wild yak and the Tibetan wild donkey. The Tibetan people treasure these and other animals. Their heightened awareness about and care for the environment and the flora and fauna reflect their strong consciousness, and their belief in the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature.

Q6: Why do we need to have a sense of a Chinese national community to promote modernization in Xizang?

A6: Forging a strong sense of a Chinese national community is important to promote the modernization of Xizang. It reflects the fundamental interests of all ethnic groups. And only by forging a strong sense of Chinese community, safeguarding the territorial integrity of the motherland, and strengthening ethnic solidarity can we protect the interests of all ethnic groups. From this perspective, Xizang should take measures to foster a strong sense of Chinese national community. Only by doing so can we safeguard the unity of the motherland and strengthen ethnic solidarity.

Safeguarding the unity of the motherland and strengthening ethnic solidarity are an important part of the Party's policy for governing Xizang in the new era, demonstrating the extreme importance of fostering a strong sense of Chinese national community.

As the struggle against separatism enters a critical period, hostile overseas forces continue to engage in activities aimed at splitting the country, which not only undermines social stability in Xizang but also is a blatant interference in the nation's internal affairs.

Foreign forces have been trying to use the "Tibet issue" as a pretext to interfere in China's internal affairs, harming Xizang's modernization process. So we need to counter not only separatist activities but also slanderous attacks. There is also a need to safeguard the unity of the motherland and strengthen ethnic solidarity. Only by fostering a strong sense of a Chinese national community can we lay a solid political and social foundation for Xizang's modernization.

Q7: What's your view on Western criticism of boarding schools in Xizang?

A7: In Xizang, where the population is sparse and educational resources are dispersed across a vast expanse of land, people have a strong desire to be educated and are aware of the right to education. The Party and the government attach great importance to the well-being of the Tibetan people and the education cause, with their goal being to create favorable conditions for Tibetan children to receive quality education according to their wish.

The form of boarding school education in Xizang is fundamentally different from colonial-era boarding school education in Western societies. Students in Xizang have the freedom to study at fixed hours and can return home during their free time and holidays. Through this approach, the vast farming and herding communities have gained the right to education and effectively improved the overall literacy race of the entire nation. Over the years, students who have been educated in Xizang have made significant contributions to the development of Xizang and the country as a whole.

Therefore, the criticisms from Western politicians and media, as well as external separatist forces, using the so-called boarding school education rhetoric, are not based on reality. Theirs is an attempt to smear China, but they cannot shake our determination and confidence to keep improving the quality of education in Tibet.

Also, the teaching of the national common language is one of the basic conditions for modern society and modern life. Following some Westerners' logic, we can also say the promotion of the English language worldwide is an example of cultural hegemony by English-speaking countries. However, without common languages of international communication, the international community and people from different language groups across the world would not be able to communicate with each other, leading to isolation, which is not desirable. Similarly, without a common national language in China, each ethnic group could remain isolated, hindering cultural exchanges and the sharing of civilizational achievements, which is also not desirable.

The Tibetan language and script are currently being widely promoted and used. The central government has made extensive efforts to protect the Tibetan language and script. The Tibetan language and script are taught at various levels and types of schools in Xizang, ensuring the children inherit and develop the language and script of their forefathers.

Furthermore, many newspapers and periodicals in the Tibetan script are published in the region. For instance, in our China Tibetology Research Center, our Chinese Tibetan Studies magazine also has a Tibetan script edition. For our researchers, too, we have Tibetan language classes, enabling them to learn the Tibetan language and script. Indeed, the Tibetan language and script are being well promoted and widely used. They are also being inherited and developed by the Tibetan children, contrary to the foreign politicians' claims that the Tibetan language and script face extinction.

The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

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