Saturday, April 12, 2008

Tibet and China...

Having read so many articles and watched so much television coverage of the Tibet protests, I am still heavily disappointed with the lack of any in-depth analysis on the China/Tibet situation, from either the Western or the Chinese press, or indeed, within the blogosphere (whether in English or in Chinese).

The whole thing is reduced to a mere spectacle, of flag-waving (whether Chinese or Tibetan) and slogan-chanting (whether pro-Tibet or pro-China), and of tussling to get hold of the Olympic torch. Footages of the actual uprising in Tibet back in March were few and far between, thanks to the ill-advised media blackout by the CCP, who still has no clue that a stage-managed tour of the region is the worst way to try to buy PR from sceptical Western journalists. So limited tourist footages of the civil unrest were used within the Western media's narrative of the brutality of Chinese military suppression - even when the footage simply showed the Tibetans' vandalism of Chinese shops rather than actual footage of the military crackdown.

So the deep-rooted problems between Tibet and China gets cheapened into a media farce about who gets hold of the Olympic torch. Media commentary in the West centred on the "face" that China is losing over this whole torch-relay fiasco, as if a Chinese loss of face is all that so many Tibetans struggled so valiantly for so long. Nobody is actually engaged in meaningful debate about solutions to the region - apart from the Dalai Lama, who repeatedly call for dialogue with the CCP, and whose government-in-exile actually disapproves of disruptions to the Olympic Games. But did the Western media, or Western politicians like Nancy Pelosi for that matter, who purports to support Tibet's call for independence, actually try to help engender such a dialogue between the two sides? No, the media is gleefully reporting mere grandstanding gestures like refusals to attend the Olympic opening ceremony by Western leaders, as if that will really help the cause of Tibet. If the pro-Tibetan activists' original plan was to bring the world's attention on their problem, what they have managed to achieve is only the fleeting attention that mere spectacles will engender by a voyeuristic media, rather than the kind of intellectual, engaged, positive (in the true sense of the term), sustained attention by the key stakeholders that will actually help to resolve problems.

Instead, both sides are busy name-calling and talking across each other. I wish all the pro-China supporters will STOP with the economic argument, as it just doesn't wash with the Tibetan people when it's their ethnic identity that is at stake. This is similar to the British telling the Irish eight hundred years ago that the Irish should be happy that they were occupied by the Brits because otherwise Ireland would remain a forever backward country. Also, the bigger question as to whether any of the economic improvements are really benefiting the local Tibetans or merely serving the Chinese interests has never been voiced, much less properly-answered, by hot-headed pro-China jingoists. (In the same way, the British and other Western colonialists who believed their rule "enlightened" the uncouth natives and improved local economies conveniently glosses over the fact that it is the colonies that are supplying the colonial powers with vital natural and human resources - the latter sometimes literally. This was the case of the Irish famine and the African slave trade, is currently the case in the Iraq war, and is, to a muted though no less oppressive extent, the case in Tibet). When rampant, corrupt capitalism is combined with authoritarian rule (or what the CCP called its "capitalism with Chinese characteristics"), not to mention measures that delimits, and thus demeans, the traditional Tibetan way of life, could you blame the Tibetans for wanting independence?

[Tangent: A few years ago on one of my conference trips, I had a really lovely and memorable dinner with a Mainland Chinese female academic and two Singaporean - one ethnically Chinese, the other ethnically Malay - male academics. The dinner was memorable not so much because of the food, which was fabulous, but because of our no-holds-barred debate about world politics during it. The girl was originally from Qing Dao, who is now currently lecturing in Australia, and she is as lovely and open-minded a person as one could have the pleasure to meet. But both the Singaporeans and I were surprised to find that she didn't know anything about June 4th, 1989, who in 2003 was still under the impression that the Tianamen protestors were a bunch of good-for-nothing rioters, despite having lived outside China for a few years and could have accessed un-state-censored materials in the West. On the other hand, it was the first time I heard the Chinese "protect the integrity of the land" argument being put forward so eloquently in English. At the end of the dinner though, I (and the Singaporeans also) was still unconvinced by the argument that "integrity of the land" trumps "self-determination by the people". On a more basic level I just could never understand why people can't simply live and let live, rather than be seduced by grandiose imperialist ambitions that forever seek to impose one's rule over others, and which values territorial supremacy over territorial harmony; on a more detached level I was, and remain, deeply mistrustful of regimes that purport to know better than its own multivariate citizenry what's in their best interest. Once you have a real taste of what it's like being able to have your own say in, if not actually run, your own affairs, you can never go back, no matter how many carrots or sticks the oppressor dangles in front of you to try to make you their good lap dog.]

What worries me deeply when I saw scenes of violent protest clashes is how much of it seemed to have stemmed from ethnic distrust, and dare I say, hatred. What started out as disenfranchisement from the oppressive political regime became dangerously entangled with ethnicity, so that ordinary Chinese shopkeepers took the brunt of the Tibetan's frustrations, simply because there is nowhere else to channel their legitimate discontent. The ethnic tensions between the two sides are stirred by extremist activists on the one hand, and the bluntly inept Chinese Communist Party on the other, who thought (like the American and Israeli neo-cons) that brutal military crackdown is the best and only solution to silencing dissent and controlling unrest in one's occupied territories.

These ethnic tensions are further fanned, rather unashamedly, by the Western media, who seem all too happy to mould their portrayal of Tibetan / Chinese tensions in the image of their earlier handiwork regarding the alleged Shia / Sunni factions in Iraq (Why did I say "alleged", you may ask? Isn't it "obvious" that Shias and Sunnis can't get along with each other in Iraq? Well, if you have actually listened to the academics and intellectuals and yes, even political leaders, from both sides - such as during a recent live tele-debate hosted by Channel 4 news' Jon Snow, who was visibly taken aback by how all his hand-picked Iraqi guests openly contradicted his biased questioning - the alleged Shia-Sunni tensions didn't exist until well into the American occupation). Not to mention their gross misrepresentation of basic facts about the March protest riots in Lhasa, which were justly taken to task by the legions of Chinese compatriots within and outside China for being such outrageous slanders. Whether such gross misrepresentation in Western media was intentional, as part of some big conspiracy theory against China, or out of blatant ignorance and sheer journalistic laziness, is open to debate. One can argue that there already exists a culture of laxity in Western reportage of Asian news events - I frequently saw footages of the Hong Kong stock exchange being used to stand in for the Tokyo one on Sky during financial news, and the ordinary Western viewer would not know any different. And in the absence of any real footage of the protests and their aftermath in the CCP-engineered media black-out, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine the typical lazy and ethically-challenged Western mainstream media journalist substituting one footage or image for another, within a presumptive narrative of China vs the West, out of sheer convenience if not premeditated malice. What really demonstrates the bias in Western media was not so much that facts were grossly misrepresented in the first place, but that they continue their critique of the Chinese censorship of news materials without owning up properly to their own gross mishandling of the facts. Even though numerous misrepresentations - some as basic as mistaking Nepal for Lhasa - have been pointed out by Chinese citizens, the Western media try to hang onto their moral highground by studiously ignoring, much less informing their readers/viewers, of reporting mistakes they have made themselves, and concentrate instead on the spectacle that is the Olympic torch relay fiasco.

On the other hand, the Chinese state media's insistence that the protests were the work of a few trouble-makers emboldened by "external anti-China forces", rather conveniently and dangerously glosses over the grave and legitimate greivances that Tibetan people have about how they have found themselves, at best becoming second-class citizens in their own land, at worst being potentially ethnically-cleansed by both physical (state programmes that sterilised Tibetan women against their will) and cultural measures (reducing the currency of the Tibetan language in everyday life). Such convenience in rhetoric however belies a clear and present danger of a pressure-cooker situation that China is actually facing if it continues its bellicose way of not seeking any political solutions with the Tibetan government-in-exile.

The current media spectacle reminds me of the "Battle in Seattle" film I saw at the Dublin International Film Festival recently (yes the one where I recorded Charlize's Q and A talk and which I still have to find a way to upload). Any protest movement is not without its extremist, violent factions (indeed, look at Northern Ireland and the paramilitaries from both the nationalist and the unionist camps); and the media - even when reporting its home-grown protests - always go for the shallowest sensationalist angles regardless of the facts on the ground. The way to respond to these, even from simply the self-serving angle of winning the PR battle, is not through an eye-for-an-eye heavy-handed military tactics, nor jingoistic slogan-chanting about how great your country / your government is. A chilled out and more laissez-faire handling of the whole affair would have taken the oxygen out of the kind of fuss that biased onlookers enjoyed kicking up in, and paved the way for more cool-headed analysis of how to move beyond the current morass.

p.s. Originally my post title is "Tibet, China and Olympics". But of course, the China / Tibet situation really has nothing to do with the Olympics. So as not to follow the misleading footsteps of the shallow mainstream media, I neither titled nor tagged the sacred Games to this post.

[updated: Hmm actually a Western Beijing correspondent concurs with my view above, to a certain degree, though he certainly was letting the media off the hook a lot more than I did here, see:

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At Sun Apr 13, 03:10:00 a.m. IST, Blogger laichungleung said...

If it's any comfort, the Tibetans should know that communist China is quite an equal opportunity authoritarian regime, if you cross them, the punishment is usually swift and severe, no matter you are Han or Tibetan.

I think usually things can be solved by money, like giving them cable and satellite TV. I guess that's not going to work, as these Buddhist monks don't want any change, they are the opposite of change, Obama wouldn't stand a chance there. If they have their way, I suppose they want to live like what they used to live like. And I guess by and large, people tend to romanticize that bygone era, you know, the allure of Eastern mythic Buddhism or whatever that was.

I think it boils down to human rights and more autonomy there, that's the bottom line. Independence is such a pipe dream even Dalai wouldn't want to talk about it.

At Sun Apr 13, 08:17:00 p.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

I think it's rather scant comfort to both Chinese and Tibetans that the CCP regime is indeed such an "equal opportunity authoritarian", but I know where you're coming from - at least the Chinese authorities are not racially-motivated by some crackpot theory of ethnic superiority like Hitler did.

Actually what really struck me about the idiocy of the economic argument is that here you've newly-converted capitalist Chinese trying to use the most materialistic of reasons to persuade a people whose religion is all about denouncing materialism and embracing the spiritual... which is just adding weight to the Tibetans' perception that the Chinese simply don't get their way of life at all, much less celebrate it.

And forgive me for saying this, but I think it's really unhelpful to characterise Tibetans' call for respect for their human rights as simply a refusal to change in light of progress. If anything, the fact that they are vociferously demanding human rights like freedom to dissent, freedom of speech, freedom of thought and religion, etc. should be seen as what true human progress consists of over and above any economic progress. The fact that many mainland Chinese people still retain the scary Cultural Revolution mentality - witness the abuse and complete disregard to individual privacy and freedom of expression by those engaged in the so-called "human flesh search engine", as popularised by Roland Soong on his ESWN blog - suggests to me that the problem is not so much the West mythologising Tibet as a modern-day Shangri-la, but that the vast majority in China has yet to learn what respecting human rights really means (and no, it doesn't involve buying people off with spanking new tech gadgets, or publishing a person's personal details online so that an anonymous angry mob can harass your chosen target without having to go through any troubling due processes of law).

Re: independence, perhaps that's considered too strong a word, and maybe "some autonomy" would be much more acceptable certainly according to mainland Chinese ideology regarding territorial integrity. But in reality, I don't see how having an autonomous state in the region is such a big disadvantage for China. Yes, Tibet's strategically-located in the back door of China, and one feels that China's got to watch its back. But having a cooperative ally is much more preferable to having a mutinous group in your own back yard, and one could predicate such independence on conditions that are favourable to China. I mean, look at Britain and Ireland. There was once an ideology in Britain that says that Ireland must be under British rule to protect Britain's own strategic interest, what with us being right next door and all. Well, we managed to turn ourselves into a republic (after much bloodshed it has to be said), and things have not gone any worse off for the UK. In fact, the Irish government was a key partner to the UK to bring resolutions to Northern Ireland. Indeed, one could say that N.I. must be made part of the Irish Republic if Ireland is to watch ITS own backyard. But the vast majority of sensible Irish people in the South knows that things are much better for the whole island of Ireland to allow N.I. to work out its own political assembly that reflects its own diversity of religious and ethnic groups.

So call me naive, but if peace in Northern Ireland teaches us any lessons, it's that suppression of any groups is NOT a viable long-term strategy, for any group concerned.

Anyway, as usual, I've said too much even in comments. Forgive me my long-windedness.

At Sun Apr 13, 11:08:00 p.m. IST, Blogger laichungleung said...

I am way over my head to talk about Tibet or for that matter anything.

I prefer long winded prose than one or two sentences cute little entries. I suspect either they are very concise or they can't really write at all.

At Mon Apr 14, 03:26:00 a.m. IST, Anonymous augustine said...

Thank you again for such cool-headed and articulated comments on this fiasco.

At Tue Apr 15, 01:42:00 p.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

LCL: I really wish I wouldn't be so long-winded though, as in reality blogging is just a procrastination device when I should have been working to complete my PhD...

Augustine: It's really nice to see you again :) Thanks for your really kind comment, but unfortunately I don't think my scribbling deserves it, and even now I'm still reflecting on the pro's and con's of either side. Just last night the Irish national broadcaster had our own live television debate on the topic, and it's a pity to see, due both to the Chinese media black-out and the Western media bias, vastly conflicting conjectures were made by both sides based on what little facts there were on the ground. (At least the Irish channel included a few mainland Chinese people in the audience, and actually gave the last word to them. I have yet to see any of the British channels doing that as a live show rather than as pre-edited interviews).

Anyway, here I go again, going on and on. Thanks for visiting.

At Wed Apr 16, 11:26:00 p.m. IST, Blogger Alice Poon said...

Thank you so much for such a thoughtful and lucid analysis of the Tibet situation.

Like in a fight among children, all sides must take some blame and no one can plea not guilty. In the Tibet situation, all parties other than those spectators who have not taken sides must shoulder some blame. Chinese youths must understand that hysteria and jingoism will not beget solutions and any meaningful debate must be based on cool-headed logic and conducted in a dignified and civilized manner. The Communist government should know better than to use their "passe" cultural revolution slogans and tactics which will only heighten westerners' mistrust, and to continue with their paranoid control of the local media and domestic debate. Agreeing to a meaningful dialogue with the Dalai Lama may be a sound first step to diffusing the crisis. The western media should be ashamed of deliberately twisting facts and truths and/or flagrant sloppiness. The violent Tibetans should get a grip on their rage and violence against innocent people (which is contrary to their religious belief). A better way to express their grievances may be through a Gandhi style satyagraha campaign, as violence only begets violence.

But will all parties come to their senses eventually? I can only hope they will.

At Fri Apr 18, 05:51:00 a.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Alice: I feel humbled by your visit and by your kind and even-handed comment. I agree especially with your points regarding how "Chinese youths must understand that hysteria and jingoism will not beget solutions" and how "The Communist government should know better than to use their "passe" cultural revolution slogans and tactics... and to continue with their paranoid control of the local media and domestic debate." We might not be able to change how others behave (the lamentable ethics of mainstream media in the West is something which even citizens of Western countries feel powerless against), but we have control over how we ourselves behave. Sinking to the level of violence and extremism gets us nowhere.

In a way though the reactionary response of many Chinese people was understandable when one takes into account the fact that the young Chinese people of today never learnt the true lessons from the Cultural Revolution. That infamous period of modern Chinese history was glossed over in their education, so that the pain suffered by the previous generation from the effects of jingoism and pervasive paranoia was never fully understood, and we're seeing the same prideful ignorance and fear of dissent in the current generation as displayed in those young Red Guards of old.

I wish the Chinese leaders would realise that engendering such ignorance in their young people will be ill-serving China ultimately. Cultivating patriotism is one thing, but cultivating bigotry and stultifying legitimate debate would not help the country to move forward. In a way this is even more serious, and scarier, than the Tibetan situation per se...

Anyway, Alice, thank you so much for visiting! Hope we'll have more opportunities to exchange views in the future :)

At Sat Apr 19, 05:49:00 a.m. IST, Blogger 梁巔巔 said...

支持西藏~~~~~~~~~ 不能獨立)))))))))!!!!!!!!


Hello! Snowdrops! How are you? Miss you ar! ^^

At Sat Apr 19, 06:05:00 p.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Though my viewpoint disagree with yours somewhat when it comes to Tibet (I think it should be up to the Tibetans to decide), it's good to see you again. Thanks for visiting.


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