Reason Lost in Angry Voices on Tibet

Never mind the Tibetans, the media war between China and the West has been so furious that editors appear to have forgotten what the protests were all about. Much as western journalists distorted Burma’s uprising last year from a plea to help the poverty-stricken into a single-minded demand for democracy, the Tibetans’ case has been hijacked by a xenophobic Xinhua on the one hand and a Free Tibet-spouting, China-doubting, western press on the other.

Where are the voices of reason?

Those first demonstrators who took to the streets in Lhasa in early March were simply asking for the release of a group of monks who were jailed last year for setting off fireworks to celebrate the Dalai Lama getting a US Congressional Gold Medal. The reasons behind that protest and subsequent demonstrations run much deeper of course – they span economic, religious and cultural grievances as well as being a cry for the right to assert Tibetan identity.

“The Tibetan problem is about religion,” a Chinese academic who has been researching the country’s minorities for decades told Asia Sentinel. “It’s not a question of independence. It’s about the condition of Tibetan’s lives.”

But few journalists have spent serious time looking into the reality of what it means to be a Tibetan in the People’s Republic. For the Chinese side, Xinhua stubbornly maintains that it’s a minority of “terrorists” and trouble-makers, orchestrated from outside China by the so-called “Dalai Lama clique,” that are responsible for the Olympic torch disruptions and the “beating, smashing, looting and arson” in Tibetan regions of China. Beijing, if anything has been generous to a fault in improving Tibetans’ lives and the majority of Tibetans are content with their lot and grateful with it too, the state news agency trumpets.

Meanwhile, the western press, albeit usually a little more balanced and less “hysterical” than mainland rants, report allegations and claims from Tibetan exile groups without question and frequently without sourcing. Of course, with China denying foreigners access to Tibetan areas, overseas journalists say there is not much else they can do.

But out of this angry media mess, even within the mainland, there are a few voices of reason.

In early April, Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo), a weekly magazine published by the Southern Media Group, well known for its controversial investigative journalism, ran an editorial by Cao Xin. In this 1,200-character essay entitled “A Different Kind of Thinking on Tibet”, Cao made the most reasonable arguments yet about the Tibetan question to appear in the mainland press. He suggested that the protests in Tibet demonstrated that many Tibetans still revere the Dalai Lama and that the government should distinguish between those Tibetans who advocate violence and independence and those who do not. For the good of the nation and to support the Olympics, Beijing should seek a dialogue with the latter group. More controversially, Cao suggested that Tibet is a special case and that policies adopted in other autonomous regions are perhaps not appropriate and that “genuine regional autonomy” is the answer.

Human rights activist Xiao Qiang, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and director of the China Internet Project, sees Cao’s editorial as evidence that there is a diversity of opinion on Tibet within China.

“The Tibet issue is not allowed to be publicly discussed in Chinese media, unless it is the Xinhua line,” he told Asia Sentinel. “So the fact that Southern Weekend had an article with a different perspective is something. It is a strong indication that not just ultra-nationalism and the government’s official position are the only Chinese voices.”

At the same time Cao’s editorial was published, Chang Ping, an editor with sister publication Southern Metropolis Weekly, posted an essay on his blog criticizing the lack of free speech within China over the Tibetan question. His post, according to blogger Shen Yuzhe and, separately, media blog Danwei.org, has sparked online fury. Chinese patriots are branding Chang a “Chinese traitor” and – comically – a “running dog” and the Southern Metropolis Daily, “China’s CNN”. The level of venom unleashed against Chang is a measure of just how deep emotions run over the status of Tibet and how nationalism has swamped logic.

While Chinese are well aware that their media is controlled and censored, in the case of Tibet they either believe Xinhua is telling the truth or they think that it’s in the best interests of the nation not to question state media in this situation. Xinhua has employed a variety of methods to hammer home the official line – including the use of cultural revolution speak and repetition of basic facts. The guilt of the “Dalai clique” is always asserted as fact with no proof; the sometimes farcical quoting of foreigners is used to admonish Tibetan protesters; and there is complete denial that Tibetans have any real grievances.

A source at a Chinese anthropology magazine said that they were not allowed to publish articles on research their journalists had undertaken recently in Qinghai province on Tibetans because “it was too sensitive.”

Many of the netizens who rant against western media and Chang are very aware of government censorship – after all they are well versed in the use of proxies to see banned news sites from overseas. The older generation, who remember the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen protests of 1989, are also well aware of the press’s distortion of the truth, and perhaps may be reminded of those times by the language and media tools employed in the Tibetan coverage.

According to a translator from Guangdong province, the Chinese public is either indifferent or in denial. Tibet is a remote area that has little to do with their lives, so perhaps it’s not important to them whether the media is telling the truth or not, he said. Besides, he says, at the end of the day, stability is more important than the truth. “I think communist propaganda is very successful in indoctrinating the average Chinese citizen of the myth that stability is the priority for China, a country where there are 56 officially recognized ethic groups and clashing economic interests between different social strata.

“If the average Chinese is apathetic about politics, I consider it a reaction to the bloody lessons they or their parents or grandparents learned from 1989, the Cultural Revolution and other campaigns.”

Indisputably the mistakes of western media – the mislabeling of photos showing Nepalese police beating protesting monks as Chinese security forces, for example – and its focus on alleged Chinese brutality against Tibetans – have hardened locals’ attitudes and reinforced their patriotic support of state media.

“I think Chinese media is reporting what happened in Tibet in a more truthful way than western media. It is also much less biased and fairer than western media,” said a 30-something marketing executive in Beijing. “I read both Chinese and English news so I know.”

She also explained why she is angry at Tibetans.

“Personally speaking, Tibetan people are rather violent and rude. Some of them… refuse to speak Chinese… and some [Tibetan] vendors… spit on you and curse you for no reason. I have been to Tibet so I know,” she said. “I really believe this protest and the violence were organized from outside China.”

Never mind the Tibetans. It’s the media that gets the final say.