TORONTO - Torontonians have learned to expect their local politicians to sleepwalk from blunder to blunder, but even in this context the photo exhibit now hanging in the rotunda of Toronto City Hall comes as a bizarre shock. Incredible as it seems, official Toronto is playing genial host for four days this week to a propaganda display that unequivocally celebrates contemporary life in Tibet.
While observers of the International Olympic Committee wonder whether China's vile record on civil rights has harmed Beijing in the competition for the 2008 Olympics, and furious Tibetans in Moscow picket the IOC meeting, our local politicians pay tribute to an infamous act of brutal Chinese imperialism -- that moment when (as a caption on the wall of this exhibit falsely claims) "Tibet was liberated peacefully in 1951."
The 28 photographs of Tibet by Yau-sun Tong, a Chinese-born Canadian photographer, show only the charming and the picturesque. His technique is competent, but his camera lies. In his photos, healthy and well-fed Tibetans spend most of their time in vibrantly coloured folk garments, looking happy. The only comment on their situation appears beneath a photo headed "Chicago Bull of Lhas, Tibet." A caption explains, "With background of sincere pilgrims bowing and prostrating to the Jokhang Monastery, a Tibetan boy with his 'Chicago Bull' cap on, reveals the inevitable invasion of Western culture." Otherwise, all is bliss. Mr. Tong shows us a happy little girl straddling a sheep, another standing by a pile of yak dung, a jolly folk singer wearing native garb, etc. One picture has nine children in northern Tibet who are seen, as newspaper captions say, "sharing a joke."
The joke, in this case, is on Toronto.
The exhibit doesn't even hint that Tibet has been the focus of bitter dispute for half a century, ever since it was brutally annexed by the Chinese army. In the spring of 1951, China declared Tibet a "national autonomous region," which turned out to mean it had no autonomy.
A skeptical critic, surveying the photos before reading the fine print, might guess that it looks like something put together by a propaganda department. And so it was. It is organized by the consulate of the People's Republic of China and its friends in the Confederation of Toronto Chinese Canadian Organizations. It has been welcomed into City Hall (where it closes today) by Councillor Mario Silva. He says he sponsored it because the confederation, which he trusts, asked him to. He didn't even know it was about Tibet and even yesterday seemed surprised that anyone might consider it controversial.
The exhibition carries an irony-laden title, "Moments of Truth in Nature & Culture: China's Tibet and Guizhou in the eyes of a Canadian photographer," Guizhou being a province in southwest China. In case you miss the message of the photographs, a wall text says Tibetan culture is being preserved and that, "united with the rest of China, Tibet's tomorrow will be even brighter. The legend of Shangrila, the paradise on Earth, will come true on this vast highland."
The most reliable reports, including those of Amnesty International, say it is now roughly the opposite of a paradise, and getting worse. Last year, according to the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, the authorities tightened their control over temples, banned photographs of the Dalai Lama, ransacked private homes to look for unauthorized altars and Buddhist scriptures, and intensified the "patriotic re-education" campaign against the teachings of the Dalai Lama.
Since 1959, tens of thousands of Tibetans have been imprisoned for political or religious beliefs. More than 1,000 are now in Chinese jails.
Two weeks ago, at "public judgment-pronouncement rallies" in Tibetan towns, the government announced five more death sentences for, among other things, crimes that endangered the security of the state.
Two months ago, the attitude of the Tibet Regional Party Committee was quoted in the official Tibet Daily: "In times of peace we should prepare for danger, from start to finish place the maintenance of stability at the forefront of work in the whole region and thoroughly expose the Dalai's reactionary political nature and religious hypocrisy."
Tibet is the loneliest of nations. Its exiles maintain a powerful sense of identity, based on religion, language and a millennium of tradition. Around the world, they campaign peacefully and pray for independence. In recent years, their cause has acquired, through the Dalai Lama's talents for persuasion, famous supporters and financial backing. Even so, not one country in the world recognizes Tibet's claim to autonomy. China is too powerful to be defied, even though its prosperity depends on the tolerance of consumers in the democracies.
The history of Tibet has been a tragedy of 20th-century imperialism. To hang an exhibit saying precisely the opposite on the wall of an official Canadian building carries blithe ignorance to the point of obscenity.