Tibet… as viewed from China


sha-a-monument-to-chinese-propaganda.jpg While we are geographically closer than most of our friends and family to the events in the streets of Lhasa, we are paradoxically much less informed…

The official Chinese response to the events remains the same and follows from their perspective on Tibet which goes like this:

Tibet was always part of China. The PLA (People’s Liberation Army) liberated Tibet in 1950. Tibet was underdeveloped and people were oppressed by a brutal and undemocratic theocracy led by the Dalai [Lama]. After the rebellion in 1959, the Dalai [Lama] betrayed the country when he fled. Ever since, he and his followers have been conspiring against China in order to split Tibet from China.

I have bracketed ‘Lama’ as the Chinese authorities seldom refer to him as “Dalai Lama” but rather as just ‘Dalai’ removing the honorific buddhist title. Most articles and officials actually use “Dalai clique” to refer to him and his entourage. People calling for an independent Tibet are called the “splittists”. Analysing the wording of the official media is quite interesting and bears all the hallmarks of propaganda: words such as ‘plot’, ‘mastermind’, ‘enemy’, ‘betrayal’, ‘conspiracy’, ‘lie’, ‘deceit’, etc… It is not the writing style typically used by journalists.

The authorities also say that when the Dalai Lama acknowledges that Tibet is part of China, then they will establish contact and accept to talk. But they have never mentioned the moves that the Dalai Lama made in the 2003 when he conceded that it may be in Tibet’s best interest to be part of China. Instead, they insist that he actively promotes Tibet’s independence and that dialogue is impossible; and despite his speeches preaching non-violence, he is in fact constantly “plotting against China” and cannot be trusted. The Dalai Lama is therefore systematically portrayed as the single biggest threat to Tibet’s harmony and stability.

Following from this, the Chinese authorities keep hammering the same message which is relayed by the official media:

The Dalai is the mastermind behind the riots and he is coordinating the attacks against the China and Tibet. The rioters are a small minority which does not reflect the view of the Tibetan people. They are extremely cruel and violent and threaten the harmony in Tibet. The police was very restrained in its approach. The situation is now back to normal.

The coverage has been modest; it did not make the headlines until the last few days. CCTV9, the official English-language Chinese television channel barely mentioned the riots, concentrating instead on the People’s Congress.

sha-muscle-flexing-by-the-chinese-military.jpg Originally Xinhua, the Official Chinese news agency, was mostly quoting officials in Tibet denouncing the acts as organised by the ‘Dalai clique’. The coverage of the event was certainly minimal, probably awaiting an official response from the governement.

China Daily merely reproduced what Xinhua reported. Again, the riots were played down and would not feature on the main page. In fact, until recently, the story could only be seen by doing a search for ‘Tibet’.

As we are told that the situation is returning to normal and that foreign reporters have been expelled from the region, the Chinese reporting seems less timid about the issue. The Premier and President have both expressed their view on the issue. Listening to the Chinese media now, it seems that the small group of violent ‘splittists’ coordinated by the ‘Dalai clique’ have been stopped thanks to the efforts of an exemplary and dedicated police force which seems to have suffered most of the blows… While Tibetan organisations overseas report hundreds of dead, Xinhua claims there were only a handful.

                               It is also worth mentioning that when the Chinese media claim support from the religious leaders, they are in fact talking about the Chinese Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama is one of the three most important Tibetan Buddhist figures. There are currently two Panchen Lamas. The first one is Tibetan, he was chosen following the Buddhist tradition by Tibetan lamas and taken to Beijing by the Chinese authorities when he was 8, making him the youngest political prisoner in the world. Beijing imposed a new Panchen Lama, chosen by the People’s Party; he is the only Panchen Lama that is able to speak openly and whose picture is allowed in temples.

At the press conference, a journalist from AFP just asked the Premier why journalists have been expelled and why the authorities would not allow an independent eye to confirm the official version. The response was simply that they would be allowed later and that authorities would consider organising an official trip for selected foreign media agencies to observe “what happened on the ground” in Lhasa. See http://www.cctv.com/english/20080318/103255.shtml
The China Daily however earlier said that foreigners and journalists had been asked to leave for their own safety.

Answering to the reason for the riots, here is the Premier’s answer:
Essentially, they consider that the Dalai Lama and his followers are trying to exploit the Olympics to follow their own agenda. The Chinese Premier is partly right – when we were in Dharamsala, there were numerous campaigns organised to use the Olympics to highlight the Tibetan issue. The Olympics are a golden opportunity for separatist groups or anyone who has a grievance with China. Thanks in part to the formidable charisma of the Dalai Lama, foreign media have been more focused on the Tibetan issue, but the Falong Gong and the Uyghurs in Xinjiang have also tried to have their voice heard recently.

                               However, where the Premier is wrong is in the belief that problems in Tibet are solely orchestrated by the Tibetan Government in Exile and that discrediting them will be sufficient to solve these problems. Our impression when visiting Dharamsala is that it is the Tibetan youth that seem most angry at China. Several of the young Tibetans I have spoken to were actually critical of the non-violent stance of the Dalai Lama. They want him to call for a boycott of the Olympics and be more outspoken. I had the same impression when visiting Tibet a few years ago, although there and then people would not be willing to talk – this is based on my observations of young Tibetans in the presence of the Chinese.

Some of the foreign journalists at the press conference have asked surprisingly bold questions to the Premier. Tibet has been a mentioned several times. One journalist cleverly used the expression words starting with T (Tibet/Tienanmen/Taiwan) so as not to embarrass the Premier … and to get an answer. One of the other points raised related to the economic downturn following the events in Tienanmen square in 1989, and speculated on the outfall of the current events in Tibet. The Premier of course understood what the journalist meant, the Chinese could only speculate.

This I thought highlighted the dichotomy in the Chinese view: one for the Chinese, one for foreigners. A few years ago, I asked a CNN reporter that I met through common friends whether her work was monitored and how much latitude she was given. She told me that as long as she was writing in English, it was not much of an issue. She obviously avoided subjects that were too controversial so as not to be sent back home but the way she phrased her answer suggested that her Chinese colleagues weren’t given that much freedom.

From discussions with expats, the Party has been fuelling nationalism as a social cement and as a mean to substitute the declining belief in socialism. A dangerous precedent was set a few years ago when Chinese mobs lashed out at anything Japanese in several major Chinese cities after Koizumi – then Prime Minister of Japan – revised the history books in school to downplay the scale of massacres commited by the Japanese troups in China during World War Two. In a police state which rarely tolerates demonstrations, this is suspicious and such violence would not happen – let alone be publicised – if the state was not complicit.

It seems generally that Chinese authorities have been trying to discredit the Western media by pointing out every single mistake that has been made in reporting the issue. They also are also trying to convince people that this is just a vast Western conspiracy; nevermind that Indian, Arabic and even Asian newspapers report just the same as Western media…

One of the side-effects is that a lot of Chinese do not necessarily believe what foreigners report. People use mostly Baidu, the Chinese search engine, partly because it is Chinese; Google is only second choice even though it is vastly superior technically.

It is interesting to read the official Chinese perspective on the issue and compare with what non-Chinese media say:

At the press conference, there were questions asked about political prisoners and concerns about the fact that the judiciary was just an arm of the Party. Chinese officials generally simply evade the question by explaining that if the West believes in the separation of powers, China believes in the division of power, maintaining that in both cases the rule of law still applies.

The Chinese position seems self-defeating. First, there is a growing discrepancy between the various versions that the authorities are giving: controlling information in an open world is a difficult exercise. People who are already suspicious of China’s story are unlikely to be satisfied when access to independent information is denied. Also, a growing number of Chinese now overseas are able to access varied sources of information with divergent views: China has started to open to the World and there is no turning back. Dismissing the Dalai Lama altogether, and believing that he is at the origin of the problem is only going to postpone finding a solution to the problem. The risk then, for the future, is having to deal with a new, more resentful generation of Tibetans, who will be less inclined to follow the pacifist line and possibly take matters into their own hands with militancy. Lastly, playing the nationalist card could well turn against the authorities…