Tibet: March 2008 Archives

CNN defends itself

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cnn_war_announcement_1991.jpg CNN has decided to issue a statement regarding the criticism it has received online and elsewhere:


CNN has been singled out for criticism for our coverage of events in Tibet through an anti-CNN.com Web site and elsewhere. We have provided comprehensive coverage of all sides of this story, but two specific allegations relate to pro-Tibetan bias. We would like to take this chance to respond to them:

Allegation 1: CNN intentionally cropped an image in order to remove Tibetan protesters throwing stones at Chinese trucks.
CNN refutes all allegations by bloggers that it distorts its coverage of the events in Tibet to portray either side in a more favorable light. We have consistently and repeatedly shown all sides of this story. The one image in question was used wholly appropriately in the specific editorial context and there could be no confusion regarding what it was showing, not least because it was captioned: "Tibetans throw stones at army vehicles on a street in the capital Lhasa." The picture gallery included in Tibet stories includes the image. (See the gallery)
We have also published images showing violence by Tibetans against the Chinese. A March 18 story shows Tibetan youths attacking a Chinese man. (Read the story)
Additionally, we have published video from the Chinese media apparently showing Tibetans attacking Chinese interests in Lhasa. (Watch the video)
Allegation 2: CNN referred to Tibet as a "country."
CNN's policy is to refer to Tibet as "Tibet Autonomous Region of China." In our dozens of stories on the topic to date, we are aware of only two instances where it was incorrectly referenced as a country.
CNN's reputation is based on reporting global news accurately and impartially, while our coverage through the use of words, images or video always reflects a wide range of opinions and points of view on every story.

An excellent opinion piece by Richard Spencer in the Daily Telegraph tells a side of the Tibet unrest that we haven't heard:

Those dependent on what the government has to say saw only soft-focus pictures of smiling folk dancers and peasants improving their lives through money funnelled from Beijing. That many Tibetans resented the Chinese would have seemed at best incomprehensible and at worst racist to an audience brought up on an ideologically correct vision of China's ethnic minorities living in harmony.

He looks at a friendship between a Han Chinese and an ethnic Tibetan that has fallen apart since the protests (or riots -- take your pick) in Lhasa.

Check it out.

UPDATE:

Not that we want to promote Richard Spencer too much, but he has just posted his latest blog entry. It's his persperspective on the accusations of western media bias, and it's a fascinating read:

Sure, it is easy to jump from these errors to "the western media is biased and hates China so why don't you just go and leave us alone". But that, as far as I can see, is pretty much it. Why are we biased? How are we biased? What, specifically, are we saying or not saying about China and Tibet that so offends? What, apart from these pictures, have we got wrong?
danwei_ps_2.jpg Western media bias has come to the fore in recent days with the launch of the Anti-CNN website, which outlines some of the apparent western media bias with regards to the unrest in Tibet. The Chinese mainstream media have picked up on the theme, and have run stories criticizing western outlets for not fact-checking their material.

There is no doubt that the cases cited are abhorrent examples of what journalism should aspire to be. Anytime simple facts are incorrect, or photos mislabelled, it shows carelessness and a lack of attention to the craft. Anybody who labels Nepalese police as Chinese, labels protests in Nepal as protests in Lhasa, or artfully crops photographs to alter the context (all of which happened) should face full criticism of not only the Chinese, but anyone who cares about free speech, fairness, and objectivity.

Mistakes made in the western media were timely, as it nicely coincided with Tuesday night's Danwei Plenary Session. I attended along with fellow Zhongnanhai writer Chris, and we both came away rather impressed with the guests, the audience questions, and the nuanced discussion which followed. There are, however, a couple of things I'd humbly like to add on this general topic, if not on the Plenary itself.

First, there must be tens of thousands of stories, photos, and videos of the unrest in Tibet. Mistakes should never be tolerated, but if, in that avalanche of coverage in this digital era, only a handful of examples of bias have been discovered, I would say that strengthens the argument that the western media generally does a decent job.

Second, an audience member asked a question regarding the use of the word "crackdown", and more specifically why western journalists use this word in relation to Tibet, but not in relation to the semi-recent riots in France. I met up with a few colleagues for hot pot afterwards, and we got into an interesting debate on this word. I generally feel "crackdown" doesn't necessarily come with negative connotations. For example, a Chinese "crackdown" on DVD piracy is generally believed to be a good thing (well, unless you like stocking up at the Lido). The problem, we felt, is that "crackdown" reminds people of the non-event in a big square in Beijing in 1989. To western minds, I would submit, a "crackdown in Tibet" conjures up images of peaceful monks praying for a modicum of freedom and peace while big, burly Chinese military officers come in to crack some skulls. If this is the perceived notion, then journalists should be careful when using the word "crackdown".

Jonathan Watts, the correspondent for the Guardian newspaper (who was filling in for an absent Jaime FlorCruz from CNN), said that he has struggled to use the correct terminology in his stories. Are the Tibetans rioters or protesters? Are the Chinese "cracking down" or "restoring order"? He said that he's used nearly all the terms, and makes a judgement call based on that individual situation. I believe that's as best as can be asked.

Lindsey Hilsum, the China correspondent for Britain's Channel 4 News, said the biggest problem isn't the terminology or bias but rather the lack of access to Tibet. Whether it was a crackdown, riot, protest, or civil disorder, no journalist can label anything properly unless they get access to the region. Unfortunately, that hadn't happened at the time of the plenary (it was reported later that journalists are now trickling into Tibet).

The other two panelists, Raymond Zhou from the China Daily and Steven Lin from Sohu also provided unique insights. Raymond feels that western journalists spend too much time focusing on issues like censorship and democracy. Both feel a free press would be good for China, but must be introduced slowly. They also feel that foreign reporters tend to gravitate towards the negative.

Generally speaking, I don't believe the foreign journalists based in China have been churning out biased coverage. In fact, of all the foreign media, those who have lived and worked in China will most likely provide the most nuances to their coverage - which is why it's surprising the government wouldn't allow them into Tibet. There are a number of western commentators based in the UK, America, and other countries that like to bloviate on China's crimes without having much understanding of the country. I might not like it, perhaps the Chinese don't like it, and maybe Danwei doesn't either, but in a free-speech environment they're entitled to their opinions, too. If China is confident in itself, it must allow these reporters into the region to verify the government's word. If the Chinese authorities can't manage that, then suspicions are raised and fodder is given to its harshest critics.

Finally, slightly off topic, I was a guest on Adler Online, a nationally-syndicated Canadian radio show, at 2 o'clock Tuesday morning (gotta love that time difference) to discuss Tibet. His producer called me for a chat prior to the segment, and her anger at China was vitriolic. She favors a boycott of the Olympic games. I reckon the host of the program, Charles Adler, does too. Following our segment, he took calls from Canadians to get their opinions. 100% of the callers (the phone segment was only 15 minutes in length) favoured a complete Olympic boycott by the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Feelings on the subject of Tibet are obviously running deep. While I tend to consider "moral equivalency" a convenient but often inaccurate crutch when two sides are firmly entrenched, both sides of this dispute nontheless need to look in the mirror, calm down, and begin making efforts to understand the other.

Journalists are caught in the middle, and whether Chinese or foreign, their jobs are under that much more scrutiny on such a polarizing issue.

(Note: You can listen to the interview on the national edition of Adler Online via its flagship station, CJOB in Winnipeg. Go here, click on Mon Mar 24, 1pm. The interview will start following the 5 minute hourly news.)

This is the latest article by your correspondent in the Victoria Times Colonist. In it, I take a look at the deep-seated resentment on either side of the divide and what compromises might be made in an effort to find a solution:

China will not let go of Tibet. The region's only chance for full independence is with the overthrow of the Communist party, which is as firmly entrenched as ever.
China is so confident of its hold on the region it will send the Olympic torch through the streets of Lhasa in mere weeks as a reminder of its control. Resorting to violence and the killing of Chinese will reduce the cause's moral authority and only stiffen the resolve of the Chinese.

You can read the full article here.

I find it difficult being on the edge of a knife at times. It is often difficult being a Western journalist who works for a state-run organization here in the Middle Kingdom. That being said, I do love my life here in China. The people are generally friendly and the weather isn't as bad as I thought it would be (save the 'non-blue sky days). But what drew me to China more than anything was the fact that I was just not happy in my native Canada. And why was I unhappy? It wasn't the non-blue sky days or the liberal freedoms that we're entitled to as Canadians. No... it was the hypocracy and unfavorable way in which those who choose to idealize a subject will portray it in the media organs that I worked at.

I love being a Westerner in China. It affords me a lot of opportunities that otherwise wouldn't be available to me. It also gives me a chance to absorb different concepts and theories that aren't my own. Are they right? Not sure. Maybe some. Maybe not. I'm not one to make a definative judgement on the grander scale. I mean, who is (minus your particular diety)? But what I do get peeved at is obvious attempts within the media to skew a concept to their own thinking. I posit this slight snippit from the South China Morning Post article about the situation in Tibet as an example of what I'm trying to convey:

Scholars condemn Beijing over Tibet
Beijing should open up talks with the Dalai Lama, allow UN investigators into Tibet and stop using rhetoric redolent of the Cultural Revolution, mainland intellectuals have said in an open letter.

The article goes on to say the letter was penned by

"30 intellectuals, including writer Wang Lixiong, a respected author on Tibet, dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, novelest Yu Jie, human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and Ding Zilin of the Tian'anmen Mothers group, which represents families of victims of the Tian'anmen Square crackdown.

Ok... well, I understand why these people would be making these statements. And hell, I probably agree with them. But to use this item, and these people who have and obvious axe to grind against the government, as the front left article on page 4 of the in SCMP, which also includes the banner:

Intellectuals say official rhetoric on unrest smacks of Cultural Revolution


Well... I'm no editor...but really?

This whole Tibet issue has become too polarized. We need to take a step back from the situation, especially those of us in the media. I can understand why we Westerners have this prediliction toward wanting to back up this cause. Hey, it's catchy... people dig it... it's the groovy thing to talk about. But when it comes to reporting on it, let's try to get our 'facts' in line. The 'fact' is that we have no 'facts.' And using B-S like this from a group of 'scholars' is just a cheap way to fill a page, and does nothing toward understanding the situation that is unfolding.


By Hugh Jorgen

I'm no angel; my parents will regrettably attest to that. Taking the family car out for a late-night joy ride when I was 12 years old and getting caught by the cops was probably one of the higher profile moments of my childhood that will forever exclude me from owning my own pair of wings. But if I had to describe myself as either a bad boy or a nice guy, I guess I'd have to put a tentative checkmark in the box next to the latter. So I was somewhat heartened to come across this article on a Harvard University study. This is another one of those "human nature" experiments that tests our innate tendencies toward niceness or nastiness, punishment or rewards. In this particular experiment, researcher Howard Nowak focused on human behavior in brinkmanship-style situations. Essentially, his findings indicate that punishment by adversaries may not be as effective as incentives. More interestingly, adversaries who lean toward offering incentives tend to get what they want. In other words, nice guys do finish first.

It's with this tiny bit of scientific enlightenment that I dare to draw a parallel with the current Tibet conflict in an attempt to glimpse the big picture. In this case, the game would be the "Court of Public Opinion" and the players are obviously native Tibetans vs. the Chinese government. In my humble opinion, regardless of what the magnitude of these protests is or the reason behind them, the Chinese government has lost this round. There are plenty of deep-seated, historical reasons for the protests and the debate continues about who the real victims are. But in a wider context, the reasons for the unrest may not be as important right now as the results of it. The reality is that the damage has been done. Those results, and the opinions and sentiments of the international community, stem, in large part, from credibility - and China's central government has been running low on that for a long time.

Credibility is something that takes a long time to earn, and, like trust, can be lost in an instant. But credibility, and having more of it than your adversary, comes in extremely handy in the court of public opinion. It can make the difference in swaying public opinion in your favor. The Dalai Lama, for instance, has for decades built up vast amounts of international credibility. For starters, he does not and never has advocated violence. He is charismatic and inspirational. He is a man of peace and compassion whose message of mutual respect has been embraced by people and governments from around the world. He welcomes other points of view. He does not seek independence for Tibet. He has repeatedly stated he only seeks a degree of autonomy for Tibet. The Dalai Lama meets with world leaders and average people regularly and - more importantly- he speaks to them in words and language they can understand.

By contrast, the Chinese government is afraid of words. It believes words can somehow lead to destabilizing its grip on power, and as such, it expends colossal amounts of energy and resources to control words. The evidence of this fear is endless. Youtube is blocked, website access is squeezed, foreign reporters are barred from Tibet, and international news broadcasts are censored incessantly. But it goes well beyond just suppressing freedom of speech. It relentlessly propagates its own message through state-run media. Whether it's protests in Tibet or the recent snow job during the spring festival, the message is always the same and always one-sided: the government is in control and the government is doing a wonderful job of looking after the welfare of the Chinese people. Several of my younger Chinese friends, who come from various regions of China, tell me younger generations are becoming increasingly disaffected by what they call empty words from their government. For historical reasons, they say, Chinese leaders have always felt compelled to consistently preach morality to the people. The problem is the message has never been updated and it no longer resonates with large segments of the population. One friend recently told me that the inability of the government to speak to and connect with the people is leading to an ever-widening chasm between Chinese leaders and the younger generations. To achieve the same old predictable message in English, state-run media like Xinhua and CCTV consistently roll out a dusty old basket of archaic phrases. Chris Obrien, a former Xinhua editor, has written a great piece on the garbled language that is constantly churned out by state-run agencies.

This political terminology even has a Chinese name: ti fa. "Unswervingly promoting a moderately prosperous society", "deepening trust in an all-round way", "extending bilateral cooperation for win-win results", and "vowing to strengthen strategic ties with country X" are vague, stiff phrases that are rolled out daily on the propaganda conveyor belt. They sound important, but really don't mean anything.

Let's be clear: every government does propaganda. But there is a difference between effectively controlling the message, and floating out the same old crap. In this case, the PR folks in the central government could use a refresher course on getting their message out to the international community in the 21st century. Wagging your finger at a deeply religious man who has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and is looked up to by billions of people and trying to convince the world that he is the nefarious mastermind of a "clique" that was instrumental in promoting unrest in his homeland is absolutely pointless. In fact, it makes you look foolish. And how was this menacing "Dalai clique" conjured up? Has the Dalai Lama, as the central government would have us believe, been parading around a Beverly Hills mall with a bunch of valley girls saying things like "That's sooo whatever"? The bottom line is when you try to feed the world and your own people the same old tired one-sided lines, sooner or later most everyone catches on and changes the channel. Bye bye credibility. So when an inevitable crisis comes along and the foreign media smells blood, who are you going to believe? The Nobel Peace Prize winner or the folks who are unswervingly vowing to suppress other points of view, in an all round way? My guess is the score in this latest round is Dalai Lama 1, Chinese central government 0.

The solution to these recurring dilemmas is to start allowing more access to both sides of the story - and there will always be more than one side of the story. If a thinking person doesn't get more than one side of the story, the reaction will always be one of suspicion about the messenger. Stop looking like you have something to hide. If you look like you have something to hide, you probably do. Take your itchy trigger finger off that censor button. In the case of Tibet, open up a dialogue with the indigenous people to find out what they need beyond a flashy new railway and flush toilets. (Had Serbians done a better job of this earlier, cartographers could put their markers and maps back in their desks). Instead of expending vast amounts of energy on trying to convince the world there is no problem in Tibet, use that energy to preempt the inevitable flare-ups. Stop demonizing their spiritual leader and learn what it will take to the ease this simmering resentment. And while you're at it, start talking with the Dalai Lama. He's not such a bad guy. More importantly, he's got international credibility - and he's nice.

It's important to note that the Harvard study focused on individuals, not countries, ethnic groups or governments, but it is not unreasonable to extrapolate the wider implications of this study. As the study's co-author, David Rand, notes from the results: "In general, the thing that is most, sort of, rational and best for your own self-interest is to be nice." That's the kind of message anyone could believe.

Hugh Jorgen works in Chinese state-run media. Zhongnanhai welcomes submissions at cam@zhongnanhaiblog.com.

For those interested in the detailed control structure within the Tibet Government in Exile, related NGO's, and those who are calling for armed resistance against the Chinese government, you could do worse than reading China Matters (proxy required).

China Matters is a high-level blog which delves deeply into hot political subjects, most recently Benazir Bhutto's return and assassination in Pakistan and the North Korean nuclear issue. The writer behind the blog has turned his attention to the power struggle for the heart of Tibet's resistance in his post titled "Black Days for the Dalai Lama":

The Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) describes itself as the largest Tibetan emigre NGO, with 30,000 members and over 80 chapters.
It's pretty militant.
Its Secretary for Cultural Affairs, Lhakpa Tsering, set himself on fire in Mumbai in November 2006 to protest Hu Jintao's visit--an interesting nugget that the Washington Post's Rama Lakshmi failed to share with her readers when she quoted Tsering's emotional account of a phone call from Lhasa during the current unrest.

He argues the Dalai Lama's "Third Way" may be losing steam. Check it out.

You know something is big news when the headline screams from the Drudge Report:


Ah, I thought to myself. Tibet has finally pushed the Eliot Spitzer $4,300 hoooker off the front page. And Obama and Hillary's cage match. And the Bear Stearns meltdown. Yes, it's a good week if you're a news junkie, if nothing else.

What this means is that the crackdown in Tibet is gathering steam internationally, fulfilling one of China's worst nightmares. It has worked tirelessly to compromise on nearly every sensitive issue to halt talks of a boycott, even agreeing to press Sudan to ease up in Darfur. Nothing has rattled the Olympic plans yet: no country is boycotting, no sponsors have pulled out. Only the odd athlete or politician with an axe to grind made comments about China's human rights situation, but nothing seemed to gain any traction. Even Steven Spielberg's withdrawal didn't seem to have much affect.

The wheels haven't fallen off yet, but they are getting rickety. I would suggest there is a finite amount of time for China to wrap up this Tibet mess in the cleanest and most efficient way possible to avoid any lasting fallout. If it doesn't - or can't - do so, the growing calls among people in other nations will continue getting louder. At some point, foreign governments will have to do something - anything - to show their displeasure.

That's where the Olympic opening ceremony boycott comes in, which Paul referenced below (for the record, I planned to write about this idea before noticing Paul's post).

Pressure is mounting, and politicians are starting to feel it:

A Dutch lawmaker, Joel Voordewind, had already suggested last month that countries "take part in the games but skip the party beforehand."
Even before the Tibetan protests, three-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands called on Rogge to speak out on behalf of all athletes urging China to improve its human rights situation. On Monday, world 50-meter butterfly champion Roland Schoeman of South Africa said the IOC "should stand up and say, 'The way these people (Tibetans) are being treated is not acceptable.'"
Luciano Barra, a longtime Italian Olympic official who was deputy CEO of the 2006 Turin Winter Games, also believes the IOC should prepared to do and say more.
"For a question of credibility, the public opinion will say, 'You are just thinking about the games, not thinking about millions of people and freedom," he said.

Public opinion is powerful everywhere, but especially in western democracies. If enough people cause enough trouble, raise awareness of the Tibet issue, and swing the pendulum of public opinion in favor of punishing China, governments of these nations will have little choice but to comply. The question is, what can they do to appease domestic rabblerousers without damaging often lucrative trading relationships with China?

I happen to think an opening ceremony boycott might work. Paul mentioned below that China wants everything to go perfectly and that it's serious about its image. It is for this exact reason that, if governments feel strongly enough about the Tibet issue, it must make use of China's weakness on this point. I have been interviewed repeatedly on Canadian radio, and one of the questions I get asked most is: why don't people push China more to improve its human rights record and democratic freedoms? The answer lies in the economics: China is simply too vast of a market, with too much cheap labor, and too many money-making opportunities to be messed with. Western governments turn a blind eye to China's record (as noted recently when the US removed China from it's top 10 worst human rights offenders list), as do western companies. Nobody cares if Chinese people, like Hu Jia, or the Tibetans or Xinjiang people, suffer if there is a buck to be made. It's amazing how fast champions of liberty and human rights start towing the Communist Party line.

I write this somewhat hypocritically. I am in China and I'm enjoying it. I genuinely love the country, its people, and its history, and I highly I doubt I would risk what I'm doing here to stand up for Tibetans or other jailed dissidents. For this, I openly admit my shame. I don't like what's happening in Tibet right now, and I genuinely would like to see the Olympic games go off without a hitch. Even after this violence in Tibet, I am still personally opposed to a full Olympic boycott. This is a big moment in China's recent history, and the whole country is deeply emotionally involved. But, at some point China will have to answer for some of its past sins, just like America is still doing with regards to slavery, and Germany is still doing with regards to the Holocaust. It would be great of China had dealt with this already, leaving critics little to chew on as August 8th nears. But China hasn't admitted it's done anything wrong in Tibet yet (and surely even the die-hard Sinophiles must admit China has committed crimes in Tibet) - worse, it's still moving full-steam ahead with oppression, censorship, and brutality. If one can't use the one moment when China may listen to these concerns - the Olympics - when can one?

At the end of the day, as I mentioned previously, China and Tibet will need to come to a long-term solution to this problem. If China believes that crackdowns and demonizing the Dalai Lama will work, it is dead wrong. It will need to show some compromise on the issues that are important to Tibetans; not just dumping economic aid and development money into the region and expecting graciousness and undying loyalty to the motherland in return. China has shown little interest in treating the Tibetans as equal partners, and honestly listening to their concerns and desires. Perhaps a little soft pressure from foreign countries during China's big moment might help.

(Note: This article assumes that China has committed crimes in Tibet. This is a personal belief based on a number of books and periodicals that I've read on Tibetan history. That being said, this is a sensitive and emotional issue and is open to debate.

Furthermore, this article did not touch on the violence the Tibetans have instigated during this specific period of unrest. I'm aware that many innocent Han Chinese were attacked, and this should never be supported or tolerated, regardless of one's position. I have ignored the minutiae of these specific incidents to focus on the broader question, which is the general discontent among Tibetans living under Chinese rule.)

I was struck by a post on Tim Johnson's excellent China Rises blog. He, like dozens of other foreign correspondents, are doing their best to get inside the Tibetan Autonomous Region and find out, first hand, what's going on.

He describes his experience this way:

We foreign reporters all take precautions. We have to switch vehicles often. Some of us swap out SIM cards in our mobile phones, or just turn them off. That way, authorities cannot triangulate mobile phone signals and figure out our locations.
None of us are doing anything illegal. It's just that it's very easy for officials in the hinterlands to stop us and ask endless questions, creating delays, or simply bar us from entering areas for unspecified security reasons.

You could be forgiven for thinking Johnson is in the former Soviet Union, North Korea, Myanmar, or some other brutal authoritarian regime. But no, this is the Olympic host; in a country, I might add, which says foreign correspondents can travel and report the news freely.

Like Paul mentioned, not every western person supports full Tibetan autonomy (and by autonomy, I think you know what I mean... just trying to avoid putting too many watchwords together). It's a complicated situation.

The only thing we know for sure, and I know I am stating the incredibly obvious, is this is not good for China in the lead-up to the Olympics. From what I've read so far, the military has used restraint. This is a good move if China is to salvage any respectability when this is all said and done.

Gobi Desert.jpgI've thought to myself in the past that I'd rather eat sand than watch a Chinese government news conference. Well... thanks to today's sandstorm and the end of the NPC session, both have become a disturbing reality.

Beijing's proximity to the Gobi Desert aside, what's really got my dander up today isn't the fact that Premier Wen Jiabao spewed a boatload of nothing for an hour to the foreign media news conference...it was the phraseology that this government has adopted when it comes to the situation with the Tibetans, and in particular with their spiritual leader. The Dalai Lama's supporters have now become a 'clique.'

Unlike many of my fellow Westerners, I have very little interest in the Tibetan independence movement. Call it apathy if you will, or perhaps a lack of understanding, but I've become somewhat jaded by the fact that many a self-righteous wanker has jumped onboard the Tibetan cause because it seems like the cool thing to do. I don't begrudge the Tibetans for doing what they think they need to do. Give'r. But don't start preaching to me about the right to freedom and all this other kind of crap because you watched Richard Gere Richard Gere.jpg on Barbara Walters and thought that he made a lot of sense and you really, really liked him in "Pretty Woman." But what I find more highly condescending is the Chinese government's coining of the 'Dalai clique.' I'm sorry...what??? Spiritual Buddhists who are shooting for their autonomy aren't a bunch of 8th graders sitting around at the mall trying to conjure up theories as to how they're going to get someone to pick them up a 12 pack of Schlitz. Call them rebels, traitors, malcontents or whatever. But don't equate these people - the same people you're claiming to want to help - to a high school 'posse' who want to chill in their 'crib.'

I've seen the Dalai Lama speak in person. I'm not religious by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, if it turns out there is a god, he/she probably has me on the pious version of the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List. However, watching him speak, at the time side by side with the Bishop Desmond Tutu in a stadium in Vancouver, I couldn't help but be impressed with the ease in which he cavorted with his religious counterpart and avoided the temptation someone in his position might have had to politicize his speech, instead talking about how love for one's fellow human being is going to be the key to world peace. Dalai and Desmond.jpg I found what he said simple, yet profound in its simplicity. I left the event (which I was covering for work) with a new found respect for a man I really had little knowledge about. So, when the Chinese government starts throwing around juvenile, school yard language to describe those who have respect for the Dalai Lama, I can't help but be personally offended. If I ever happen to cross paths with the spin doctor who coined this distinction, I would have two words: Grow up.

Tibet.jpg

Not since the crackdown in 1989 has Tibet (er... the Tibetan Autonomous Region) been so unstable. Reports out of Lhasa indicate the city is in lockdown. The Washington Post picks it up from here:

Hundreds of protesters swarmed Tibet's capital Friday, clashing with police and setting fire to shops and cars in a spasm of violence worse than any there in nearly 20 years. Doctors reported dozens of injured streaming into hospitals, and there were unconfirmed reports of several deaths as Lhasa descended into what one witness called "a state of siege."
By nightfall, armored personnel carriers had rolled into the center of the city. "The army is everywhere," said one hotel worker, who added that he was afraid to go outside.

This text and hundreds of filed stories like it are now circulating the globe, along with photos like we've posted here, less than five months ahead of the Olympics - that moment when China was to show itself off as a modern and responsible citizen capable of leading the world.

The protests in Tibet are a PR nightmare. The problem is, since 'capturing' Tibet in the 1950s (I'm being polite), the Chinese government has used only band-aid solutions to calm unrest; read: violent crackdowns. It happened in 1959 and again in 1989, with sporadic disturbances in between. By some estimates, more than 2 million Tibetans have died as a result of the Chinese occupation.

China has made an historical claim to Tibet, one that has been debated ad nauseum. I'm not about to wade into that complex labryth of theories, as it seems somewhat unimportant. I'll explain this later.

What we do know is that Tibet was independent at the time China invaded in 1950. If it was part of China prior, of course, then there would be no need to "invade" in the first place. Following Tibet's "liberation", Mao attempted to bring his "religion is poison" mantra to the people -- and the Tibetans were a particularly tough sell. After wining and dining the Dalai Lama in Beijing, the Tibetans' God King had to flee to Dharamsala in the late 1950s. He hasn't been back since.

Now, I understand why China is in Tibet. I've had Chinese tell me that this is the way of the world: countries need resources, so they invade other, weaker regions to take them. Western countries have been doing that for centuries. And, at the moment, Tibet is now governed as a part of China. China won: it took control of Tibet, it put its military there, it has largely Han-icized Lhasa, and it has built a train which will bring millions more Han Chinese into the region to pacify it.

But here's the thing China needs to understand: this resentment, which boils over into violence from time to time, isn't going away. I mentioned earlier that whatever Tibet's past, it is only marginally important to Tibet's future. That's because Tibetans are not Chinese: they speak Tibetan, have Tibetan culture, share Tibetan traditions, eat Tibetan food. Regardless of whether they were once ruled by China, India, Russia, or independent, they are a distinct ethnic group. More importantly, they are religious, and their highest religious figure, the Dalai Lama, is reviled by their Chinese rulers and banned from their territory.

China wants to pacify the region and make the Tibetans embrace China. They have done this by pouring in economic aid and development and modernizing the region. It is increasingly open to tourism. But what China fails to grasp is these are secondary concerns to a deeply religious people: they want autonomy, they want to pray, they want to see their leader. And this can not be wiped out by tanks or troops or bullets or economic aid.

China will no more get Tibetans to abandon their love of the Dalai Lama than they could get Catholics to abandon the Pope. People will die for their religious beliefs, something China, as a secular country, finds difficult to comprehend. In a money-driven society, they seem to find it hard to fathom how development and modernity can't seem to make people happy, and in this case, pacify them.

This is to say that, almost 60 years following the invasion, there is still unrest in Tibet. China still needs to rule it with a firm hand. A whole generation of Tibetans has died since the invasion, and new generations have grown up still resenting the Chinese for marching onto their land and taking away their autonomy. More generations will follow.

So what can China do?

China has to understand the dynamics at play. Religion and autonomy are important to the Tibetans; so is the Dalai Lama. China needs to engage Tibetans and find some common ground. They need to be treated with respect, and perhaps they will return the gesture.

The Dalai Lama has stated on numerous occasions that he no longer seeks independence for Tibet. Rather, he is looking for a Hong Kong-style autonomy. I think that would be difficult to achieve. Hong Kong is surrounded by an international border, has its own 'central bank', its own currency, its own laws and regulations. I think that, perhaps, it's too late for Tibet to go down that path.

Rather, Tibetans need to be put in charge of their own affairs, political persecution needs to end, and there must be a mechanism to see the return of the Dalai Lama before his death. China needs to understand if it treats Tibetans well, and makes certain concessions on issues of importance to them, there will be no need to burn down Chinese shops and throw stones at police. Tibet will be more prosperous under Chinese rule; of this, I have little doubt. But China will continue to receive a diplomatic black eye - year in and year out - as long as it continues to rule with force.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Tibet category from March 2008.

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