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Red Banners and Demons

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These images show Tibetans prostrating in front of the Potala palace, the former seat of the Dalai Lama and his government. They were taken in June 2008 – after the unrest of March and two months before the beginning of the Beijing Olympic Games in August of the same year. The red banner reads "Everyone protect cultural heritage and share the fruits of its protection"; the slogan below means "The united nationalities welcome the Olympic Games with one heart".

This was a devious arrangement, it seemed to me. Every prostrator paying respect to the Potala and its absent master would at the same time be bowing to these propaganda slogans. In June 2008, Lhasa was full of red banners of this kind. Wherever you turned, they were in your face. However, the Tibetans around me hardly took any notice. This puzzled me because otherwise the tense political situation was the main topic of conversations.

Red banners are used not only for political messages but also for advertising. Was it just that they were so common that nobody noticed them anymore? – Maybe, but the surge of red banners during this time was simply too obvious to overlook. Or was it that Tibetans actively chose to ignore them? – Possible, but not very likely given the fact that people were otherwise extremely heedful of the smallest symbolic gestures. The banners were not a target of cynical comments, nor did people actively look the other way. They seemed to be able to look right through these banners as if the slogans were directed to someone else.

Now, I think that precisely this may have been the case. The banners were not put up by the central or local governments, but the post offices, schools, airlines, travel agencies or, in the case of the banners described above, the Potala Palace Management Office. Private companies and work units, large and small, used red banners to proof their loyalty to the Party State and its Tibet policies. They may have followed vague orders from somewhere above, but more likely, most of them acted preventively — in order to avoid being criticised for not taking a clear stance. If so, however, these banners were not meant to appease political unrest but the potential scrutiny of the Party State. Read in this way, the banners were a symbolic offering to an angry demon, and the prostrators paying respect to the Potala's absent master had no reason to feel offended.

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