Chinese news outlets are reporting that local authorities in Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture have begun a series of events marking the 60th anniversary of Kanlho’s establishment. The prefecture was created a few years after the Chinese army annexed the region during the summer of 1949 as it moved through the northern Tibetan region of Amdo. As the festivities commence, however, it seems highly appropriate to ask whether or not the celebration matches the occasion.
Tibetans in Kanlho resisted Communist Party rule from the start, as Beijing wasted little time in attempting to transform the Tibetan culture, economy, and religion. In 1958, five years after the establishment of the prefecture, an armed uprising by Tibetans in Kanlho was crushed by the People’s Liberation Army. Tibetan writer Woeser has described the heavy toll inflicted on Tibetans during this period; she says that locals have come to use “58” as a blanket term for any kind of catastrophe since then. Smaller incidents also seem to have taken place, although they remain difficult to verify. An anonymous Tibetan cadre, speaking to Der Spiegel this week, made references to a 1956 massacre in which “200 innocent women and children” were killed by a Chinese cavalry regiment.
The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution took up much of the next two decades, and offer very little reason to celebrate. The disruption of Labrang monastery, the cultural heart of Kanlho, can be used as an indicator of how Tibetan culture fared during this period. Formerly a sprawling complex with roughly 3,800 monks, by the end of the Cultural Revolution almost all of the buildings in Labrang had been destroyed and the monk population was practically nonexistent. The Great Leap Forward and the Chinese “Democratic Reform” movements were some of the first in an ongoing series of disastrous attempts to uproot Tibetan culture. A contemporary example is the campaign to resettle Tibetan nomads under the “Build a New Socialist Countryside” policy. Human Rights Watch documented extensive human rights violations caused by this policy in a recent report, which concluded by calling on China to halt this massive relocation program. Today, resettlement towns dot the prefecture.
Most recently Kanlho has been the site of more than two dozen self-immolations, ranging from teenage students to a young mother and the elderly grandfather of a reincarnate lama. Despite Kanlho’s relatively small population, only Ngaba prefecture has witnessed more self-immolations. If this is any gauge, authorities in Kanlho have done an especially poor job of responding to Tibetan concerns about their future.
It is therefore unsurprising that some of the first reports from the Kanlho 60th anniversary celebrations reveal more high security and tension than reveling. A Voice of Tibet report describes an atmosphere more suited to military exercises than a festival, and it included this stunning picture of an event which took place last week:
People’s Armed Police in Kanlho are no strangers to arraying themselves around public events, as pictures from a Tibetan New Year celebration confirmed earlier this year. But this one is still striking; both in terms of what it reveals about the mindset of Chinese authorities in the prefecture and in showing the kind of extreme security presence that Tibetans have to endure in their daily lives. Meanwhile, the official Weibo account of the public security department in the prefectural capital of Tsoe posted this picture for the occasion:
The banners call for the creation of a “peaceful Kanlho,” but it’s noteworthy that they’re held by lines of uniformed police instead of merely being posted or hung across the street, as such banners normally are in China.
It may also be noteworthy that they’re written solely in Chinese characters, with no Tibetan translation in evidence. After 60 years it seems that authorities have yet to fully respect equality in propaganda linguistics, as in so many other things in this nominally Tibetan “Autonomous Prefecture.” Perhaps if the Party could overcome issues of equality and fairness they wouldn’t need to have their signs held by police, and the observation of Kanlho’s 60th might be a less stressful occasion for everyone involved.