BEIJING — Far away from the pro-Tibet demonstrations that erupted in capitals around Asia on Tuesday, Meng Shuyun wandered into a spacious exhibition hall here and perused gruesome displays of how bad life was in Tibet before Chinese troops marched in nearly six decades ago.
One display area held medieval-looking torture devices that tour guides patiently explained were used on Tibetan serfs. Elsewhere were huge photos of wretched hovels and emaciated people, and displays of China's liberation of Tibet from "despotic theocratic rule."
"I've gotten a deeper understanding of Tibet issues," said Meng, a retired archivist at the state aviation department, as she finished her tour at the Cultural Palace of Nationalities.
Meng made her way to the exhibition on Tuesday, the 50th anniversary of an uprising in Tibet that prompted a flight into exile by the Dalai Lama, whom Tibetans revere as a God-king. The sensitive anniversary brought multiple evocations of the seemingly unbridgeable chasm that divides any common understanding of the Tibet issue among China and its critics overseas.
As Meng and hundreds like her toured the exhibition hall, the Dalai Lama spoke during a ceremony in Dharamsala, India, the seat of his government in exile, declaring that life for Tibetans in their homeland today is "hell on earth."
"These 50 years have brought untold suffering and destruction to the land and people of Tibet," the Tibetan Buddhist leader told a crowd of crimson-robed monks and followers.
Both China and the Dalai Lama, in their own ways, offered their competing visions of hell, and there was little sign that either side gained converts. Instead, the fallout from the festering issue rippled around Asia and the Pacific.
In Kathmandu, Nepal, dozens of Tibetan separatists clashed with police, while protesters in the Australian capital of Canberra scuffled with security forces outside the Chinese Embassy.
"What we need are political leaders . . . who have got the gumption to reflect that Australian call to the Chinese dictators to give Tibet back its freedom, its peace and its rights," Bob Brown, a leader of the Australia Greens Party, told a rally earlier, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency.
In Seoul, protesters held banners outside the Chinese Embassy saying, "Death Toll Mounting in Tibet." Scores of monks and sympathizers in the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Sapporo and Hiroshima gathered to pray for peace in Tibet.
At China's Foreign Ministry, spokesman Ma Zhaoxu lambasted the Dalai Lama for his remarks, denied knowledge that numerous foreign reporters had been detained or barred from entering ethnic Tibetan areas, and encouraged journalists to go forthwith to the exhibition hall to better their knowledge of history.
"In the past 50 years, Tibet has witnessed ground-shaking changes in the political, economic and cultural fields," Ma said. "People's livelihood has been greatly improved. . . . The millions of serfs have become the new masters."
The world should commend China for its "milestone in the emancipation of slaves," Ma added, joining a chorus of Chinese officials asserting that Beijing broke a feudal system and freed 1 million Tibetans from servitude in the 1950s.
He declined to respond further to the Dalai Lama's charges that China's administration of Tibet has imperiled its culture, demolished monasteries, indiscriminately exploited natural resources and driven much wildlife to extinction.
"I will not comment on Dalai's lies," Ma said.
Tibetan areas of China appeared to remain in tense calm Tuesday, with a heavy presence of militarized police, monasteries under guard, and reports that Internet and text messaging services were being interrupted.
A year after the worst ethnic rioting in nearly two decades, Beijing is worried that new protests may erupt in Tibet, embarrassing it in the face of assertions that its rule is largely benevolent, opposed only by a handful of malcontents influenced by a criminal "Dalai clique."
Firsthand reporting is nearly impossible, however. China has virtually closed off the one-quarter of the country's territory where the nation's 6 million ethnic Tibetans reside, despite regulations that say only the smaller Tibetan Autonomous Region requires permits to enter.
The Foreign Correspondents Club of China exhorted the Foreign Ministry to take action to open Tibetan areas to news coverage. It said reporters from at least six news organizations have been detained, turned back or had their tapes confiscated in the past week as they tried to visit Tibetan areas ahead of the one-year anniversary of the unrest in Tibet.
Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based press advocacy group, said that several popular Tibetan Web sites were shut down prior to the anniversary. Among them was Tibet Culture, which hasn't been operational since March 5, it said.
Back at the exhibition hall, a retired university professor who gave only his surname as Wang said the government had done a good job at presenting its case.
"The exhibition is great," he said. "It's all so clear. It's very obvious that in old Tibet, the serf owners and the top lamas suppressed people cruelly."
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