China leverages history to reinforce claims on Tibet
By Jim Yardley
New York Times News Service
BEIJING — Not far from National Stadium, the city’s mammoth, just-finished Olympic arena, another construction project is still facing an Olympic deadline.
The building, sheathed in a green construction tent, will house Beijing’s first museum exclusively dedicated to Tibet.
Inside, curators will display antiquities, dynastic records and reproductions to demonstrate China’s dominion over Tibet as far back as the 13th century. Many experts question China’s historical claims, but few clouds of doubt are likely to darken the museum. Even the Dalai Lama is being edited out of the Chinese narrative.
"He will not appear after 1959," said Lian Xiangmin, a Chinese scholar involved in the museum, referring to the year the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader fled to India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. "This is a Tibet museum, and we don’t recognize him as part of Tibet anymore."
History is often interpreted to meet the political objectives of whichever government is doing the interpreting. The historical relationship between Tibet and China is replete with claims, disputes and caveats. But the ruling Communist Party does not hesitate to eliminate any uncertainty and use history as a political tool to validate its hold on Tibet.
Yet if the party’s unflinching line on Tibet’s historic status has effectively quashed any domestic dissenting views, it also has fueled Tibetan resentment. The authorities are now suppressing the largest outbreak of anti-Chinese unrest in Tibet in two decades, a violent uprising that many Tibetans trace, in part, to seething anger over cultural and religious repression.
Buddhist monks who led initially peaceful protests last month outside Lhasa were partly complaining about the "patriotic education" campaigns that required them to denounce the Dalai Lama and submit to history lessons about China’s rightful control over the region. Last week, monks at Drepung monastery outside Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, reportedly held renewed protests against a new round of patriotic education.
Across China, schoolchildren are taught that Tibet is an inalienable part of the country. Tour guides in Lhasa must follow approved versions of history. Dissenting scholars have been marginalized, censored and, in a handful of cases, imprisoned.
"History is linked to legitimacy," said Tashi Rabgey, director of the Contemporary Tibetan Studies Initiative at the University of Virginia. "The problem for Beijing is that their presence on the Tibetan Plateau has never been legitimized. And their attempt to control history is an effort to do that."
Robert Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University, said Tibet scholars inside China often do excellent work. But he said many scholars in China avoid specializing in Tibetan history after the 13th century because of the political overtones — and potential risks.