Today Reuters published an report titled “Tibet serf debate shadows China’s ’emancipation day'”. For years, after failing to refute the academic studies, the western journalists and the exile group started to play some kind of wording games. Please allow me to quote one section from the report below:
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SERFS OR NOT?
Even the name of the new holiday is controversial. Opponents say “serfdom” is too loaded to describe the Tibetan system, while China denounces its critics as apologists for a cruel regime.
“The serfs and slaves, making up over 95 percent of the total population, suffered destitution, cruel oppression and exploitation and possessed no means of production or personal freedom whatsoever,” a recent government white paper declared.
Few serious scholars contest that most Tibetans were bound by birth to estates held by nobles, monasteries or officials.
“The key characteristic of the system was that individuals did not have the right to opt out. They could not give back their land to the estate and live as free peasants,” said Melvyn Goldstein, at Ohio University’s Center for Research on Tibet.
But many foreign academics and exiled Tibetans also say Beijing has rewritten history, oversimplifying and distorting a complex system, in part by using transplanted concepts.
“The Chinese trick is to say the words ‘serf’ and ‘feudal’ and make us think brutal,” said Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University.
Obligation to provide labor fell on families or households, not individuals, so while some worked for the estate, others were away trading or in the family’s own fields, academics say.
Peasants who ran away often were not brought back, and although trading of serfs happened, it was not widespread. Others rented their freedom on a yearly basis with a “human lease.”
Some “serfs” were also wealthy landowners in their own right, with serf-servants of their own, making a more complex social picture than is reflected in Beijing’s official line.
Managers could be brutal, and whips were still used in 1959.
“The owners always wanted more and one way of getting more is doing hard physical punishment and setting an example for the others, and that was common,” said Dawa Tsering, from the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences in Lhasa, who studied under Goldstein.
“The extreme was that they may beat you to death.”
But many Chinese accounts of cruelty mix details of extreme and disused punishments from centuries-old legal codes with actual practice in the 1950s, like a recent exhibition in Beijing where an “eye-gouging stone” was placed next to whips.
The last official blinding was in 1934, of a nobleman convicted of treason. By then, no living member of the caste who performed mutilations had ever done it, or even seen it carried out, Goldstein recounted in his “History of Modern China.”
They had to rely on stories of the technique passed down from their parents and bungled the operation horribly, he wrote.
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So who is Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University? Here is the introduction of him at Columbia University’s website: “Before joining Columbia in 1998, Professor Barnett worked as a journalist and researcher in the United Kingdom, specializing in Tibetan issues for the BBC, the South China Morning Post, VOA, the Guardian, the Independent and other media outlets. From 1987-1998, Dr. Barnett was director of an independent Tibet news and research project in London. He has also worked as a journalist for the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), the BBC, The Observer ( London), The Independent ( London), and other news outlets.” Hmm, I think these experiences well explain his stands.