BEIJING — Schoolchildren waved flags and paramilitary troops marched in full battle dress at a mass spectacle China staged Tuesday to mark 50 years since establishing Tibet as an ethnic autonomous region firmly under Beijing's control.
The event lauded Tibet's economic successes under Communist Party rule, even as activists criticized its record on human rights.
Top political adviser Yu Zhengsheng stressed Tibet's unity with the rest of China in his address to thousands gathered in front of the stunning Potala Palace in the regional capital of Lhasa, once home to the Dalai Lama and now a museum.
"During the past 50 years the Chinese Communist Party and the Tibetan people have led the transformation from a backward old Tibet to a vibrant socialist new Tibet," Yu told the audience of schoolchildren, soldiers, armed police and party officials applauding and waving flags.
People's living standards have improved, infrastructure has been built across Tibet and its gross domestic product had grown 68 times, Yu said at the ceremony broadcast live on state television.
Yu's speech was followed by a parade of goose-stepping marchers carrying the national emblem of China, along with portraits of past and present leaders, including President Xi Jinping. Dancers and musicians in traditional Tibetan dress also performed, although there was no visible participation by representatives of the Buddhist clergy that forms the backbone of the Himalayan region's traditional culture.
Beijing sent troops to occupy the Himalayan region following the 1949 communist revolution. The government says the region has been part of Chinese territory for centuries, while many Tibetans say it has a long history of independence under a series of Buddhist leaders.
The region's traditional Buddhist ruler, the Dalai Lama, fled in 1959 amid an abortive uprising against Chinese rule, and continues to advocate for a meaningful level of autonomy under Chinese rule.
China established the Tibetan autonomous region in 1965, one of five ethnic regions in the country today. While Tibet is nominally in charge of its own affairs, its top officials are appointed by Beijing and expected to rule with an iron fist. The region incorporates only about half of Tibet's traditional territory, is closed to most foreign media and has been smothered in multiple layers of security ever since deadly anti-government riots in 2008.
Reinforcing the importance of strict control from Beijing, the party's central committee said in a statement that; "Only by sticking to the CPC's (Communist Party's) leadership and the ethnic autonomy system, can Tibetans be their own masters and enjoy a sustainable economic development and long-term stability."
Referring to the Dalai Lama, Yu said activities by him and others to "split China and undermine ethnic unity have been defeated time and time again."
Free Tibet, a London-based rights group, said Beijing was trying to define Tibetan identity according to its priorities, and that Tibetans suffered restrictions on movement, censorship and lived in a system designed to punish opposition to the Beijing government.
"If Tibet's people have a good news story to tell, why doesn't Beijing let them freely tell it or give the world's media the opportunity to freely see it?" the group said.
The 80-year-old Dalai Lama is in Britain this month for speaking engagements and had no immediate comment.
Tuesday's event reflects Xi's taste for organized spectacle, in a throwback to the mass rallies common in the early decades of communist rule. It comes less than a week after a massive military parade in Beijing to mark 70 years since Japan's surrender at the end of World War II.