One venue for the CCP’s self-adulation was the front wall of the Potala Palace, an iconic building in Lhasa that has been home to the Dalai Lamas for centuries. Projectors beamed a loop of congratulatory messages in red onto the broad white walls of the ancient structure, including one reading, “I love China.”
It’s worth taking a moment to consider the significance of the Potala. The UNESCO World Heritage site has stood at the center of Tibetan civilization for some time, and a Tibetan colleague explained its significance like this:
The Potala Palace is a symbol of the Tibetan nation. In the seventh century AD, Emperor Songtsen Gambo built the Potala Palace. In 1645 AD, the Fifth Dalai Lama presided over the expansion of the Potala Palace. Since then, major religious and political ceremonies have been held here. The Potala Palace has become the winter palace of the Dalai Lamas, and it is the political and religious center of Tibet.
The Potala Palace is the holiest holy place in the hearts of all Tibetans! The main building is divided into two parts: the White Palace and the Red Palace. The White Palace is the place where His Holiness the Dalai Lama lives. It is located in the lower part of the Potala Palace. The White Palace is seven floors high. On the seventh floor, there are two sets of Dalai Lama’s winter residence halls. Because the sun shines all day long here, they are called the East and West Sunlight Halls. The Red Palace is located at the top center of the Potala Palace, and it is composed of various Buddhist temples that house stupas for the Dalai Lamas.
Far from being a convenient blank wall for projecting propaganda, the Potala is imbued with multiple meanings for Tibetans: religious, cultural, historical and national. This raises a question: why the Chinese government would commit an act of sacrilege by splashing their propaganda on a symbol of Tibetan religious and national sentiment, and the home of a man they’ve slandered and kept in exile for decades? In a region that has seen massive popular uprisings and a series of more than 150 self-immolation protests, what is the point of antagonizing the local population?
Perhaps there’s an element of obliviousness to it. The CCP has seriously misread popular sentiment in Tibet before, most famously in 1979 when they asked Tibetans to refrain from throwing rocks at the Dalai Lama’s representatives. Instead, astonished Chinese officials found that the delegation was greeted by throngs of Tibetans simply hoping to get close to someone who was close to the Dalai Lama, leading a party leader to complain that all of China’s attempts to inculcate loyalty to the CCP and aversion to the Dalai Lama had been “no more effective than throwing money into the Lhasa River.”
Maybe the CCP holds a simple feeling of entitlement to use Tibet’s national treasures as they see fit, but we shouldn’t discount the possibility that this was an intentional act of domination; essentially, an occupying power asserting its superiority over a captive population. A Tibetan who was born in Tibet and currently lives in the United States named Tenzin Tashi told me about his reaction to seeing it used as a stage for Chinese propaganda:
For every Tibetan, the Potala Palace symbolizes a unique continuation of Tibetan civilizations for last two thousand years. It also epitomizes the persistent endurance of our national existence through multiple tremulous periods in the history. Given its political and spiritual significance, when I saw it in 2003 it brought tears to my eyes. I could not help being awed by its beauty and glory.
Unfortunately, seeing it covered under the sad illumination of Chinese five star red flag on the 100th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party invoked a strong sense of discomfort and pain. I saw it was an intentional act of disrespect and clear sign of how subordinated Tibetans are under Chinese rule.
Just five days after the CCP turned 100, the Dalai Lama reached the age of 86. World leaders sent well wishes to mark the occasion, but all was quiet in Tibet. Chinese authorities have forbidden the celebration of his birthday, and in 2016 nine Tibetans who organized a small picnic in his honor were arrested and given prison sentences of varying lengths; the longest, given to a monk named Drugdra, was 14 years. He is due to be released sometime shortly before the year 2030. A few years before that, Chinese police opened fire on a crowd that had gathered on the side of a mountain to celebrate, seriously injuring two monks.
Even amid all this repression, though, Tibetans have found ways to quietly celebrate the day. In previous years images have emerged of prayer gatherings at Buddhist monasteries, and this year Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya found this short video of a Tibetan in Lhasa walking through the prayer circuit wearing a coat with “86” stitched onto the back:
Celebrating the Dalai Lama's 86th Birthday in Lhasa, circumambulating Jokhang with the blazing number 86 & symbol of jewel displayed on the back. #Tibet #dalailama #Buddhism #China #protest pic.twitter.com/kaRNDo5kMf
— tshakya ཚེང་ཤཀྱ་ (@Lhatseri) July 6, 2021
If the CCP’s Potala display was a vulgar act of domination, there’s something fitting about the Tibetan response: a peaceful act of dedication to one of their own, a man who is beloved around the world and yet can’t be acknowledged in his own homeland. It also points to the reason why the party would go so far to celebrate itself and to prevent celebrations of the Dalai Lama: fear. Fear that they have no legitimacy underlying their rule of Tibet, and a fear that even after seven decades of rule over Tibet, the time, effort, and money they’ve spent trying to forcibly secure the loyalty of the Tibetan people still may as well have been thrown into the Lhasa river.