Successful Practice of Regional Ethnic Autonomy in Tibet
The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China
September 2015, Beijing
I. Old Tibet: Dark and Backward
II. Embarking on the Road to Development and Progress
III. The Political System Suited to China’s Actual Conditions
IV. The People as Masters of the Country
V. Improving People’s Welfare
VI. Protecting and Carrying Forward the Excellent Traditional Culture
VII. Respecting and Protecting Freedom of Religious Belief
VIII. Promoting Ecological Progress
Regional ethnic autonomy is a fundamental political system under socialism with Chinese characteristics – a basic policy through which to solve problems relating to ethnic minorities.
Regional ethnic autonomy in China means, under the unified leadership of the central government, that regional autonomy is exercised and organs of self-government are established for the exercise of the right of autonomy in areas where various ethnic minorities live in compact communities. The establishment of ethnic autonomous areas is determined by local ethnic relations, economic development and other conditions, with reference to historical background. China’s ethnic autonomous areas are divided, according to the population and size of the compact communities in which ethnic minorities live, into autonomous regions, autonomous prefectures, and autonomous counties at three levels equivalent to provinces, cities divided into districts, and counties in the administrative division.
Tibet is an ethnic region mostly inhabited by Tibetans, who account for more than 92 percent of its present 3,175,500 population, which also includes 40 other ethnic groups, including the Han, Mongolian, Hui, Naxi, Nu, Drung, Monba, Lhoba, Deng and Sherpa people. According to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), regional ethnic autonomy has been exercised in Tibet, and Tibet Autonomous Region, under which are the Monba, Lhoba and Naxi ethnic townships, has been founded, protecting by law the political rights of various ethnic groups in Tibet to participate as equals in administering state and local affairs.
Since the democratic reform was carried out in 1959 and regional ethnic autonomy came into practice in 1965, Tibet has established the new socialist system and achieved historic leaps and bounds in its economic and social development. Tibet has taken a road that unites it with all China’s ethnic groups and struggles to develop equally, achieve prosperity, and make progress with them. As part of the Chinese nation, the Tibetan people fulfill the right to participate equally in the management of state affairs; they are thus managers of local social affairs and masters of their own destiny, creating and sharing the material and spiritual wealth of Tibet.
Although it has been only 50 years since the founding of Tibet Autonomous Region, great changes have taken place. Tibet is now in its golden age.
I. Old Tibet: Dark and Backward
Even in the 1950s, Tibet was still a society ruled by feudal serfdom under theocracy. Having existed for several centuries, this wretched system stifled human rights and destroyed human qualities. It was thus the most backward mode of human society under which the people had no democratic, economic, social, or cultural rights, and their basic human rights were not protected. Old Tibet was a far cry from modern civilization.
Under feudal serfdom, serfs suffered cruel political oppression and had no personal freedom or fundamental rights.
Old Tibet implemented laws, as represented by the “16-Article Code” and “13-Article Code,” that oppressed serfs. These laws divided people into three classes and nine ranks, whereby nobles, Living Buddhas and senior officials were born into and thus constituted the upper class, while the broad masses of serfs constituted the lower class. Value accorded to life correspondingly differed. The value of the life of a person of the upper class was measured in gold according to his weight. The value of the lives of butchers, blacksmiths, and others of the lowest rank of the lower class was equivalent to hempen rope. When people of different classes and ranks violated the same criminal law, the criteria in old Tibet for imposing penalties and the means of punishment were quite different. The laws stipulated that the punishment for a servant who injured his master was to have his hands or feet chopped off, but a master who injured a servant was not required to pay compensation. Serf owners and serfs had overtly unequal standing according to law. Serf owners held absolute power over the lives of serfs and slaves, and ensured their rule over the latter through savage punishments, including gouging out eyes, cutting out flesh or tongues, cutting off hands or feet, pulling out tendons, and being put in manacles.
The Kashag (cabinet) of old Tibet prescribed that all serfs must stay on the land within the manors of their owners. They were not allowed to leave without permission; fleeing the manor was forbidden. “All serfs have owners and all plots of land are assigned.” Serfs were possessed by the three major estate-holders (local government officials, nobles and upper-ranking lamas in monasteries). They remained serfs from generation to generation, and confined to the land of their owners. All serfs and their livestock able to labor had to till the plots of land assigned to them and provide corvee labor. Once serfs lost their ability to labor, they were deprived of livestock, farm tools and land, and their status was degraded to that of slave. Since serfs were their private property, the three major estate-holders could use them as gambling stakes, mortgages for debt, present them as gifts, or transfer and trade them. All serfs needed permission from their owners to marry, and male and female serfs belonging to different owners had to pay “redemption fees” before such permission was granted. After marriage, serfs were also taxed on their newborn children, which were registered the moment they were born, so sealing their fate as lifelong serfs. Serfs that needed to make a living in other places were required to pay “servitudetax,” and had to produce proof of having paid such tax or they would otherwise be punished as fugitives.
After presiding over the enthronement ceremony of the 14th Dalai Lama in 1940, Wu Zhongxin, chief of the Commission for Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs of the Kuomintang Government, described the rulers’ oppression and the people’s sufferings in old Tibet in his “Report on Tibetan Affairs on a Mission”: “Located in frigid highlands, Tibet has rare agricultural products. The people live a hard life, whereas the Tibetan authorities do their utmost to oppress and exploit them, making the lives of the Tibetans one of hell and misery. The Tibetan authorities regard the people as slaves and beasts of burden and do not pay them as a rule; the people even have to find their own food and horse fodder; meanwhile they endure incessant, copious and complicated corvee labor and never enjoy days of peace. You can thus imagine how harassed they are. The authorities can issue an order to appropriate the people’s property without compensation and bestow such property on lamaseries or meritorious nobles. In short, in Tibet, the people have lost their guarantee of survival and freedom, and their miserable life is beyond description.”
Ruled by feudal serfdom under theocracy, serfs had no means of production, and their right to subsistence was under threat.
In old Tibet, the three major estate-holders and their agents accounted for only five percent of Tibet’s population, but they owned almost all of Tibet’s farmland, pastures, forests, mountains, rivers, and beaches, as well as most of the livestock. About 95 percent of old Tibet’s population was made up of serfs, including “tralpa” as they are known in the Tibetan language (people who tilled plots of land assigned to them and who were obligated to provide corvee labor for serf owners), “duiqoin” (small households with chimneys emitting smoke), and “nangzan” (hereditary household slaves who were deprived of any means of production and personal freedom). They had no means of production and suffered cruel economic exploitation.
The first exploitation serfs suffered was land rent. Serf owners on feudal manors divided the land into two parts: The largest part was kept as manor demesne while smaller lots were rented to serfs under stringent conditions. To use the lots, serfs had to work on the demesne with their own farm implements and provide their own food. Such unpaid labor constituted the rent they paid to serf owners. Most of the grain that serfs harvested from the lots was finally taken away by estate-holders. A “tralpa” could only keep 100-150 kilograms of grain annually, which was not enough to live on; his diet mainly consisted of wild herbs and weeds mixed with a little grain. In addition to the heavy land rent paid in the form of labor, serfs had to pay numerous taxes and fees.
The second exploitation serfs suffered was corvee labor – a broad term covering not only corvee, but taxes and levies, and rents for land and livestock. The former local government of Tibet alone levied more than 200 kinds of taxes. Serfs had to contribute more than 50 percent or sometimes even 70 to 80 percent of their labor, unpaid, to the government and estate-holders. Corvee labor was divided into two kinds: one was that which serfs provided to the estate-holders they were bonded to and their agents; the other was the unpaid work serfs did for the local government of Tibet and its subordinates. The heaviest was transport corvee, because Tibet is large but sparsely populated and transport was inconvenient, necessitating the transport of all kinds of goods by humans or pack animals. Year after year, serfs were made to transport materials over mountains and rivers for the local government. This gave rise to the saying, “The boots have no soles, and the backs of the cattle are hairless.”