Xizang is a microcosm of China's achievements
Published: Mar 27, 2024 08:49 PM
On March 23, 2024, as temperatures warmed up, spring was in full swing in Lhasa, with willow trees sprouting green at the foot of the Potala Palace. Photo: VCG

Palace in Lhasa, Xizang Autonomous Region. Photo: VCG

Editor's Note:

This year marks the 65th anniversary of Serfs' Emancipation Day, a day to commemorate the emancipation of more than 1 million serfs in Xizang in 1959. On March 28, 1959, a democratic reform took place in Xizang. Over the past 65 years, Xizang has undergone tremendous development and change. As a scholar who has visited Xizang four times, Colin Mackerras (Mackerras), a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and world-renowned sinologist, believes that there has been vast positive change in Xizang since 1959. "It is incomparably freer, and the standard of living is higher," he told Global Times (GT) reporter Su Yaxuan.

GT: Since your first visit to Xizang in 1985, what changes have you witnessed in Xizang over the past few decades? What has left the deepest impression on you?

Mackerras: I have traveled to Xizang and other Tibetan autonomous prefectures of China, including those in Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan provinces, quite a few times over many years. The deepest impressions are twofold. First, the standard of living of the people has risen enormously. This has occurred all over the Tibetan autonomous prefectures of China. The housing is better, the people eat better and their clothes are better. Second, I am impressed with the liveliness of traditional culture in their lives. This includes belief in Tibetan Buddhism and a love of traditional folk songs, dances and theater, as well as their own folk songs and dances. Ordinary Tibetan people can perform them in ways that are not common in the West.

GT: On March 28, 1959, the democratic reform in Xizang began, liberating a million serfs. This year marks the 65th anniversary of Serfs' Emancipation Day. How much do you know about this period of history? How do you view the lives of the Xizang people today?

: I do not claim to be an expert in Tibetan history, which is rich and complex. What I do understand is that there has been vast change since 1959 and this change is in a positive direction. First, it is incomparably freer. Second, the standard of living is higher.

When I talk of freedom, I would like to note that the pre-1959 society included a savage system of serfdom in which the poor were, in effect, enslaved by the rich and were regarded as possessions not very different from slaves. They had no rights and no freedom of belief or action. So, I think, combined with the higher living standards, the livelihood of the average Tibetan in all the Tibetan areas is pretty good. I would go further and say that it has never been better than it is now.

GT: There is a viewpoint that Xizang is a microcosm of China's achievements in construction and development, as well as a comprehensive window into Chinese modernization. Do you agree with this? What characteristics of Chinese modernization do you think can be reflected in the development of Xizang?

: I do agree that Xizang is a microcosm of China's achievements in construction and development. I list several phenomena that reflect this progress and development.

Absolute poverty has been eliminated in Xizang, as everywhere else in China. Xizang's GDP has risen from 129 million yuan ($18 million) in 1951 to over 190 billion yuan in 2020, in other words, it has multiplied by nearly 1500 times, and infrastructure and living standards have improved dramatically. The average life expectancy at birth went up from 35.5 years in 1951 to 71.1 years in 2019. This was somewhat lower than China's average of 77.9 years (2020 census), but still an enormous rise. Infant mortality rates fell from 24.5 per 1000 live births in 2007 to 8 per 1000 live births in 2020.

GT: You have conducted extensive research on the preservation of Xizang's traditional culture. Do you believe that Xizang's traditional culture is weakening or being assimilated, as some Western media outlets have claimed? 

Mackerras: During my visits to Tibetan autonomous prefectures, what has impressed me about traditional Tibetan culture is not its weakness but its strength.

I refer to three areas. The first area is Tibetan Buddhism. There are many monasteries, and they are very well served by monks and novices. On one occasion, in a Tibetan autonomous prefecture of Sichuan, I came across examples of boys staying at home in a special room to pursue the life of a monk. Everywhere, one sees signs of vibrant religious practice. I think the claim that it is being stamped out is nonsense.

The second area is traditional performing arts. This includes ache lhamo, a type of classical theatre act that includes dance and music performances. This is still widely loved and performed. There is a modern form played in modern theaters, but the traditional way of performing in a special tent is very much alive and popular.

The third area is the Tibetan language. While it is true that young Tibetans are learning Putonghua, which is the language that best helps them out of poverty, they still speak Tibetan at home and learn it at school. The Tibetan language is still very much part of the public sphere (education system, government and law system) as well as the private (with family and at home). As I said, it is true that the use of Putonghua is spreading. It is definitely not true that the use and knowledge of Tibetan are dying out. There is still Tibetan-language literature, even though many Tibetan writers prefer Chinese as they think (rightly) it will get a larger readership.

GT: Western powers have long fabricated a series of lies about Xizang. You have mentioned that what the West portrays is completely different from what you have seen with your own eyes. How do you view these so-called "accusations"? Why do these Western powers create these lies?

Mackerras: In July 1996, the Dalai Lama claimed in front of the British Houses of Parliament in London that China was practicing "cultural genocide" in Xizang. I believe that is nonsense, outrageous, and unfair. The Chinese state specifically supports and encourages the development of Tibetan culture. As stated above, my personal observation is that Tibetan Buddhism, performing arts, and other arts and language are very much alive and supported. Tibetan cuisine is very much alive, as are Tibetan dress, Tibetan architecture and many aspects of family life.

In almost all places, modernization affects people's thinking, taste, way of living and ideas. If you think of a country like France, thousands of wonderful Catholic cathedrals and churches all over the country come to mind, but the influence of Catholicism has got very much weaker as modernization has progressed. But I predict confidently that Tibetan culture will remain strong and that Tibetans will always be proud of it. Certainly, I don't expect it to ever die out. Any weakening of Tibetan culture is a natural result of modernization, not suppression.

GT: Do you have anything to say to those forces that continue to spread false information about Xizang and use lies to attack China?

Mackerras: The Americans were supporting Tibetan revolts even before the big one in 1959 by the Dalai Lama. They have used him and his supporters to try and bring down the Communist Party of China. They have used illegitimate and unfair schemes, such as the use of social media and accusations of cultural genocide, to weaken China. What is happening? China has grown stronger than ever. Xizang and Tibetan people all over China are better off than ever. This will continue. The Dalai Lama is playing a useless, outrageous, and silly game trying to undermine China. He and his followers are failing and will continue to fail. Certainly, they deserve to fail.