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Why the emancipation of millions of serfs in Tibet a glorious monument to human rights protection in the world
update:August 30,2022
Sun Yong
(Sun Yong, former vice president of the Academy of Social Sciences of the Tibet Autonomous Region and professor at Sichuan Normal University)
On March 28, 1959, millions of serfs in Tibet were liberated under democratic reform. In retrospect, this great historical event is comparable to any process of eradicating slavery in other countries or regions of the world. With regard to its thoroughness and pursuit of utmost humanity, it is rare to find similar events in the course of human civilization.
The thorough and humane emancipation of millions of serfs in Tibet is unlike any other event of its kind in the world
I lived and worked in Tibet for more than 40 years, getting along with colleagues from various ethnic groups, and also received many peer experts from home and abroad. After returning to the mainland, I went back to Tibet every year to conduct research. Thus, I have firsthand experience of the great changes in human rights in Tibet after its democratic reform.
The consensus in the academic field is that the integration of religion and politics in Tibet, which had lasted thousands of years, pushed feudal serfdom to the extreme, with many cruel laws and regulations trampled on human rights, contrary to the trend of world civilization and progress. The feudal serfdom that had survived into modern times was a tumor in the progress of human civilization and the unity of human rights.
The century-old codified laws of Tibetan society strictly divided people into classes and levels. Except for the “three lords” -- officials, nobles and upper monks of temples, who belonged to the serf-owning class, all the others were serfs and slaves. The three lords used statutory law or customary law to set up prisons or private jails. Both local governments and large temples could set up courts and prisons. The lords could also set up private jails on their own estates. Punishment was extremely barbaric and cruel. During the long period of feudal serfdom, vast numbers of Tibetan serfs were politically oppressed, economically exploited, and persecuted for no reason. At that time, Tibet was one of the regions with the most serious human rights issues in the world.
Chinese historians generally believe that Tibet was a serfdom society, a typical feudal system in its early stage, which had much in common with Western Europe in the Middle Ages and the Russian Empire in the 19th century.
Foreigners who visited Tibet in China in the 19th century also noticed the situation, as the British business representative David MacDonald described in detail in his book The Land of the Lama. However, in the eye of the colonists, it was just the miserable fate of the lower class, and no one or any organization condemned it from the perspective of human rights.
After the peaceful liberation in 1951, the Chinese government carried out democratic reform in Tibet in March 1959, abolishing the integrated political and religious system and feudal serfdom in Tibet. A people’s democratic regime was established, granting genuine human rights to Tibetan people. The Tibet Autonomous Region was founded in 1965, allowing the Tibetan people to fully enjoy the rights of ethnic equality, regional ethnic autonomy, and human rights in the big family of the Chinese nation. From then on, Tibet has leaped forward in the social and historical progress, and the old social syestem has been put to an end.
In its complete and humanitarian nature, this great historical event has few parallels in the history of human civilization. During the democratic reform, the government gave different guidance according to classifications, which not only liberated the serfs but also gave landlords and their agents an opportunity for a new life. Among the guidance, the redemption policy implemented was in line with the orientation of social civilization and progress.

The establishment of Serf Emancipation Day reflects Tibet’s progress
The democratic reform in Tibet freed millions of serfs and ended the dark regional system with the most complete form of serfdom and the greatest number of oppressed people. As a result, there exists no serfdom with an area of over 1 million square kilometers and a population of over 1 million.
Democratically reformed Tibet does not only fully embody the principles of equality, non-discrimination and special protection set out in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, as well as other international instruments on the protection of the rights of ethnic minorities. It also demonstrates in practice the contemporary Chinese concept of human rights, showing that human rights are fully guaranteed and developed, as well as fully embodying socialism with Chinese characteristics.
On Jan. 19, 2009, the Standing Committee of People’s Congress of the Tibet Autonomous Region voted to adopt the Decision of the Tibet Autonomous Region People’s Congress on the Establishment of a Day to Commemorate the Million Serfs’ Emancipation in Tibet, which essentially reflects the progress of human civilization and the fact that the main body of Tibetan society, namely the broad masses of people, are actively aware of the significance of social change. This further demonstrates the characteristics of Tibetan people to consistently advance together with the world.
The abolition of slavery is one of the greatest self-emancipation movements in human history
According to historical records, during the Western Middle Ages, serfs in many parts of Europe lived in backward, barbaric conditions of oppression and exploitation, with no personal freedom nor basic human rights, and in extreme poverty.
With the development of social productivity and relations of production, the feudal serfdom became an obvious hindrance to social progress, so the abolitionist movement was launched around the world, which was one of the greatest self-emancipation movements in human history.
On Dec. 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted and promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which all member states were required to disseminate. Its Article 4 states that no one shall be held in slavery or servitude and that all forms of slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited. Title 1 of the United Nations Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, drawn up in 1956, provides that, where institutional practices of slavery alike exist in states parties, “all practical and necessary legislative and other measures shall be taken with a view to achieving progressively and as soon as possible their complete abolition or abandonment.” The United Nations World Conference Against Racism in 2001, declared that slavery was, and remains, a crime against humanity.
On Dec. 23, 2003, UNESCO called for a review of past struggles against slavery and urged countries around the world to include slavery in their textbooks. Meanwhile, France, the United Kingdom and the United States have issued proclamations condemning and reflecting on slavery and servitude that had been practiced in their countries, and apologized for the practice.

History of abolition in different countries has similarities and differences
In the construction of the rule of law in countries around the world, it was in the past 100 years that the content of human rights was gradually clarified. Western interpretation of human rights law, based on the social contract theory, was rooted in its colonial culture, with a double standard.
Chinese experts in legal circles generally believe that “human rights” refers to the right to personal freedom and democratic rights under certain social conditions at a certain stage of social development, and its premise is its survival rights. Although there are interpretation differences between China and other countries, human rights are essentially an issue within the sovereignty of a country. Therefore, human rights cannot take precedence over sovereignty.
In recent years, however, some politicians and people in cultural circles from other countries have ignored these historical facts and described old Tibet, with its cruel history of human rights, as a “Shangri-La,” which obviously manifests their double standards of human rights. As for the West, after years of abolitionist movements, racial discrimination, enslavement of women and children, and deprivation of the human right to live still exist in these countries, with no significant improvement so far.
It has been proven that, throughout world history, there are consistency and a holistic orientation in the abolitionist movements of different countries and regions, in which differences among them are also obvious. Therefore, the democratic reform in Tibet, China, is a great progress of human civilization in protecting human rights.
Translated by ZHANG Zhiling, FAN Jiali, ZHANG Ziyun, YUAN Linshuo

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