Self-immolating Tibetans

I was delighted to see that longtime commenter Kevin Carrico has translated into English Tsering Woeser’s book Tibet on Fire: Self-Immolations Against Chinese Rule, and a generous sample has been published in the NY Review of Books online. The article helped me understand why these Tibetans light themselves on fire and what they are hoping to achieve. It comes down to politics.

In my interviews with international media on the topic of self-immolation, I have always tried to emphasize one area of frequent misunderstanding: self-immolation is not suicide, and it is not a gesture of despair. Rather, it is sacrifice for a greater cause, and an attempt to press for change, as can be seen in these two peaks in self-immolation. Such an act is not to be judged by the precepts of Buddhism: it can only be judged by its political results. Each and every one of these roaring flames on the Tibetan plateau has been ignited by ethnic oppression. Each is a torch casting light on a land trapped in darkness. These names are a continuation of the protests of 2008 and a continuation of the monks’ decision that March: “We must stand up!”

Tibet is always a tricky topic to blog about because it is so not black and white. It’s important to understand how the majority of Chinese see Tibet and how they wonder why Tibet would recoil from its supposed benefactors. The Han have built schools and roads and hospitals, ended serfdom and raised the standard of living for thousands of Tibetans. Why then do so many Tibetans see the Chinese as oppressors bent on snuffing out their culture, even their language? The reality of life in Tibet is far different from that imagined by so many Chinese people. Maybe the Tibetans really were “liberated,” but many of them ask, “Liberated by whom? Liberated from what?” This fine translation sums up their despair.

After the 2008 protests, a “patriotic education” program, forcing monks to denounce the Dalai Lama openly, was intensified and expanded beyond Lhasa to cover every monastery across Tibet. Outside of the temples, the people of Tibet face regular searches of their residences: images of the Dalai Lama are confiscated from their homes, and there have even been cases of believers being imprisoned simply for having a photograph of His Holiness.

Second, the ecosystem of the Tibetan Plateau is being systematically destroyed. The state has forced thousands to leave behind the sheep, grasslands, and traditions of horseback riding with which they have practiced for millennia to move to the edges of towns, where they remain tied to one place. In their wake, a sea of Han workers has arrived from across the country armed with blueprints, bulldozers, and dynamite. They have immediately gone to work on the empty grasslands and rivers, mining copper, gold, and silver, building dams, and polluting our water supply and that of Asia as a whole….

So how should we feel about Tibet? As I said, it is a very tricky subject, and I have always exercised a good deal of caution while writing about it. I have never advocated that Tibet be made an independent nation and I have criticized articles in the media that I see as biased against Tibet, only offering the point of view of the Free Tibet crowd, while there is more to the story than that. On the other hand, I’ve never congratulated the CCP for generously helping Tibet end serfdom and get on its feet. That, too, is simplistic.

Pieces like this remind me of just how harsh China treats Tibetans, to the point where more than 140 of them have chosen self-immolation since 2008. Like under apartheid, Tibetans are second-class citizens to the Han Chinese, and typically, the CCP responds to unrest only by making the oppression worse, to the point of not even allowing Tibetans to make photocopies, lest they make and distribute copies of anti-government literature. I want to be fair in my blogging about Tibet, but no matter how much I strive to remain unbiased, the stubborn facts remain: Something is terribly wrong, and the Chinese government bears direct blame for treating an entire class of its people as second-class citizens and worse.

Please read the entire excerpt. It is obviously told from the point of view of a supporter of the Dalai Lama, but it sheds important light on the steadily tightening of the screws on the Tibetan people and offers great insights into what is motivating these people to make the ultimate sacrifice for their ideals and setting themselves on fire. Congratulations to Kevin for this fine translation.


Tibetans, second-class citizens?

Yes, I know all about the schools, the hospitals, the highways and the end of serfdom. I know about improvements in the quality of life and all the economic benefits. I know how Chinese people see Tibet and I know that there is some justification for it. But I also know that many, many Tibetans do not see the CCP’s involvement in Tibet to be liberating. Many rage against the interference of the Han Chinese even while they profit from it. (This phenomenon is described in one of the best chapters of the new book Chinese Characters.) Some even go so far as to self-immolate.

But the debate as to how much the Tibetans have benefited thanks to the largesse and munificence of the CCP is largely irrelevant to the discussion of how so many Tibetans are treated as second-class citizens. And the fact that they are is simply undebatable. It is a matter of fact.

I urge you all to read this excellent interview of a leading Tibetan scholar by my former blog buddy Matt Schiavenza. Tibetans are being denied passports because the Party fears they’ll travel to India to hear the teachings of the Dalai Lama. Han Chinese, of course, face no such restrictions. Tibetans are the Untouchables. Matt asks the scholar, Robert Barnett, about other restrictions:

There have been many. These include the Chinese government putting Communist Party cadres in every monastery, requiring every monastery to display pictures of Chairman Mao Zedong, putting troops on every corner of the Tibetan quarter in Lhasa, limiting foreign visitors to guided groups, having to give their names before photocopying, not being allowed to enter Lhasa without a police guarantee if they’re from another Tibetan area, and many more.

The strategy of pouring money into Tibet has failed to bring the Tibetan people to that stage of enlightenment wherein they view the Communist Party as liberators. It will never happen so long as the CCP tries to force its own culture down the Tibetans’ throats. Things have only deteriorated since the riots of the Spring of 2008, and no matter how thrilled the CCP propagandists say the Tibetans are with their liberation (and you gotta check that link), the truth is far darker. The Party can trumpet its generosity and label all protest as the work of the jackal the DL, but the fact remains that many Tibetans do not believe they have been liberated, and instead see the Han as colonizers. Is it that hard to wonder why?

Read the whole piece


Soft Power

I’ve already posted about how much I love this new blog. Go now and read their ominously hilarious post about how China manages to shoot itself in the foot whenever it comes to its neverending quest for soft power. An example is a business conference in the city of Leeds that gave a speaking slot to the king of jackals, the Dalai Lama. China’s leader were not amused. As is so often the case, they resort to threats, a very poor strategy in the quest for soft power around the world. They did the same with Norway after Liu Xiaobao won the Nobel Peace Prize and they still do). Rectified.Name comments:

But today an op-ed appeared in the nationalist rag The Global Times which made it quite clear that anybody who messes with China’s dignity should expect a flaming bag of cat hurled in the general direction of their front door sometime in the very near future:

“They must pay the due price for their arrogance. This is also how China can build its authority in the international arena. China doesn’t need to make a big fuss because of the Dalai or a dissident, but it has many options to make the UK and Norway regret their decision.”

You get the idea.

This is China at its soft power worst, scoring goals in its own net and making it exponentially harder to convince the rest of the world that the country is being run by grown-ups.

Need further proof? Take the case of the new documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, produced by Alison Klayman. It’s gotten some decent buzz at Sundance and other stops on the festival circuit, but that wasn’t sufficient for the Chinese government who apparently want EVERYBODY to go see this movie.

Faced with the possibility of appearing at the same film festival as Klayman’s documentary, a Chinese delegation, including representatives from CCTV, pulled out of a planned appearance rather than validate the promoter’s decision to…I don’t know, show films. Anybody not high from inhaling industrial solvents could have predicted what happened next, because as sure as cows shit hay the festival organizers then called a press conference, chastised the Chinese delegation, and reaped a bonanza of free publicity for their festival, Ai Weiwei, Klayman and her film.

Seriously, if the powers that be really wanted to kill this film they’d have SARFT publicly give the documentary its seal of approval.

“Many options.” That is really scary.

I really would like to write a post praising the CCP for its soft policy efforts. They seem to try so hard, but then they seem to try even harder to offend just about everyone. I see so many glimmers of hope, and then they just switch the lights off. There’s a way to express your dissatisfaction without sounding like a snarling bully. Why do they keep getting soft power all wrong? It’s not just that they fail at establishing soft power, it’s that they create exactly the opposite effect from what they set out to achieve.

For bloggers on China, this is a gift that keeps on giving. Same story over and over again, each time with some added bells and whistles. This is supposed to be a government run by engineers employing scientific methods to solve the country’s myriad problems, and in many ways they’ve done a damn good job. Why can’t they apply this scientific approach to the pursuit of soft power instead of setting the laboratory on fire everytime they try?

Update: Be sure to read this one, too!


Tibet, one big bundle of joy

From today’s Global Times.

The country’s Tibetan-populated regions are in a party mood as the Tibetan New Year, or Losar, falls today, striking a stark contrast with the call by the “Tibetan government in exile” to cancel celebrations.

Decorations decked Lhasa’s main streets, and local people were busy with last-minute preparations for their most important festival of the year.

Yonten, the head of publicity and education with Drepung Monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, told the Global Times that families have cleaned up the buildings, prepared heaps of food and purchased new Tibetan garments as the Tibetan Year of the Water Dragon drew near.

“Markets in the city were crowded Tuesday with shoppers snapping up fruits, beverages and other goods for the holiday. We will get up before sunrise tomorrow morning in brand new clothes,” Yonten said.

Take a look at the photo, too. China’s minorities always wear such bright, colorful costumes.

This is not a post about Tibet per se but about how the Chinese media sugarcoats stories about it to the point of making these stories self-parodying and downright embarrassing. (This old post is my favorite example.)

About Tibet, let me just say I understand the Tibetan and the Chinese points of view. About who is right and wrong, we can leave that for another discussion, as it has been over-discussed already. My sole point here is how the Chinese government portrays Tibet in the media. Do they truly believe anyone fails to see it as rather desperate propaganda?


Tibet – Shangri-La on steroids

Somehow I missed this priceless column in The Global Times (and I thank this blogger for pointing it out).

This extraordinary travelogue tripe article by the former UN ambassador to Bolivia. After gushing over the joys of China liberating the Tibetans from serfdom and the shiny new infrastructure all Tibetans should be grateful for, the author really ramps up the propaganda:

I had a chance to talk to some educators in Tibet. I asked them about the language used in primary education, weary of the alleged loss of the Tibetan language in the formal education system. I was told the kids learn three languages: Tibetan, Chinese and English! I had thought my own children were something of a special case, as they have been learning French, Spanish and Finnish since they started schooling, but I realize these Tibetan kids will be as internationally literate as my children are, with all the same opportunities that will provide them in life.

…Then there was a family of herdsmen; being summer, they were living in their tent (and beside the tent there was a small solar panel for generating electricity enough for hot water, TV, and the lights in the evening), however they told us they already had a fix house in the village, where they would stay during the winter. And best of all: the government is subsidizing 30% of the new housing, which has been built in collaborative efforts by the villagers, and display the characteristics of the traditional Tibetan culture, both in terms of the materials used and the colorful decorations in the main rooms inside.

These houses are very bright, spacious and beautifully decorated. I saw several generations living there together. What I hadn’t realized before is that the life expectancy of a Tibetan used to be a mere 35 years – couldn’t see so many generations there together in the past – whereas now the life expectancy has doubled to 67 years. This is not only an impressive testament of the improvement of the human rights in Tibet during the past 50 years, but it also provides the old folks the opportunity to tell their grandchildren what life was like in the past. They will pass on the best of the Tibetan culture to their grandchildren, and they will also be able to tell how much life has improved since 1959!

Where’s my motion sickness bag?

Check out the very humorous comments to the blog post that led me to this puffiest of puff pieces. I don’t think I’ve ever seen every talking point about Tibet squeezed so neatly (and breathlessly) into a single vessel. It’s fitting that the blogger brings it up in the context of the Ask Alessandro columns; this one is nearly as funny.

For the record: I am not a Free Tibet groupie and I acknowledge the good China has done for Tibet, and the bad. Where I can never stop ragging on The Party is its dopey propaganda efforts to create a perception of modern-day Tibet that is nearly as ridiculous as the Western perceptions based on the James Hilton novel and the sentimental movie that followed it (and which, admittedly, I loved as a teenager; there’s no doubt these works of fiction helped put some serious stars in Americans’ eyes).

I was pretty random in my quote selection from the GT article. Do be sure to read it all.


Why won’t they love and appreciate us?

A NY Times reporter describes his state-run tour of Tibet (and state-run is the only type of tour a foreign journalist is going to get in Tibet):

One warm morning on the campus of Tibet University, a couple of foreign journalists on a government-run tour of Tibet quietly broke away from the group to talk to students standing on a grassy lawn. Security guards dashed in and waved the students away.

….The next day, two tour buses and a police escort shuttled us around. At a village called Gaba, we talked to residents about new homes they had built with subsidies and loans under a government mandate called the “comfortable housing” program, begun in 2006. Gaba was a model village, and clearly not representative. In fact, the visit to Gaba was reminiscent of ones during the Cultural Revolution, when officials brought foreigners to similar model villages to demonstrate the country’s progress.

(The living room décor did not help: In each home, there was the same poster featuring the smiling countenances of Mao, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, the three paramount leaders of China.)

There were occasional reminders of reality. One morning, our minders wrung their hands when cameramen on my bus filmed more than 150 military trucks with ethnic Han soldiers rumbling along a highway to Lhasa.

There’s more. But it’s all business as usual.

What I want to know is who are the two reporters referenced at the very end. I can hazard a guess (but won’t).


Pacifying Tibet

One person’s aid is another’s oppression. Or so it always seems in Tibet, where the CCP is striving, as usual, to create harmony through relatively lavish investment.

They come by new high-altitude trains, four a day, cruising 1,200 miles past snow-capped mountains. And they come by military truck convoy, lumbering across the roof of the world.

Han Chinese workers, investors, merchants, teachers and soldiers are pouring into remote Tibet. After the violence that ravaged this region in 2008, China’s aim is to make Tibet wealthier — and more Chinese.

Chinese leaders see development, along with an enhanced security presence, as the key to pacifying the Buddhist region. The central government invested $3 billion in the Tibet Autonomous Region last year, a 31 percent increase over 2008. Tibet’s gross domestic product is growing at a 12 percent annual rate, faster than the robust Chinese national average.

The perennial problem, of course, is that a lot of Tibetans feel they get the short end of the stick, with job opportunities and favors going disproportionately to the Han Chinese. The more investment and “progress,” the more disenfranchised many Tibetans seem to feel.

Robert Barnett, a scholar of Tibet at Columbia University, said the goal of maintaining double-digit growth in the region had worsened ethnic tensions.

“Of course, they achieved that, but it was disastrous,” he said. “They had no priority on local human resources, so of course they relied on outside labor, and sucked in large migration into the towns.”

Now, a heavy security presence is needed to keep control of Lhasa. Around the Barkhor, the city’s central market, paramilitary officers in riot gear, all ethnic Han, march counterclockwise around the sacred Jokhang Temple, against the flow of Tibetan pilgrims. Armed men stand on rooftops near the temple.

It’s not quite Lost Horizon.

The article doesn’t overlook the fact that much of the aid and investment is appreciated by many Tibetans. But with the apartheid-like pattern of Han bosses and Tibetan laborers as well as simmering resentment over education (classes are conducted in Mandarin) and CCP indoctrination, not to mention armed Han guards patrolling outside their temples, it’s a safe bet ethnic strife won’t be going away any time soon.


“Patriotic re-education” in Tibet

A once militant Tibetan monk named Norgye stops worrying and learns to love the CCP.

Norgye demonstrated with other monks in 2008 shouting “Tibet is not free!” Now, after some struggle sessions, he admits he was wrong, and says he’s grateful to be taught about the law in China. Classwork completed, lessons learned. He insists he wasn’t tortured or beaten; he simply saw the light.

Norgye spoke of his successful re-education to a group of foreign journalists being led on a government tour of Tibet this week. Is this for real? You decide. (Genuine or not, many of his fellow monks seem less contrite and subdued.)

Then came the journalists’ tour, and the incendiary statements by 30 monks in the Jokhang [a Lhasa temple] who had suddenly burst in on the journalists: “The government is telling lies; it’s all lies,” and, “They killed many people,” the monks said, according to reporting by an Associated Press correspondent on the trip.

Patriotic re-education — hours of classes on the law and Communist thought — was ordered for many monks like Norgye following the March uprising. Monks were told to denounce the Dalai Lama. The authorities emptied rebellious monasteries, and some monks fled to India.

On Tuesday, asked by reporters whether Tibetans have religious freedom, Norgye said, “Yes,” with a quiet voice and bowed head.

The Chinese government forbids all worship of the Dalai Lama, who lives in India. Photos of the Dalai Lama are banned.

Norgye was asked whether there was freedom to worship the Dalai Lama. He replied, “It’s freedom for one person to believe or not to believe.”

Pity the CCP. They try so hard and spend so much money to portray a jolly, peaceful, contented Tibet, and then the serene picture gets smudged by those pesky Tibetan people, all of them no doubt in the service of the jackal and his clique, and probably even the CIA.

Maybe Norgye will be Tibet’s Lei Feng, someone all Tibetans can emulate and learn from as he tells them, head bowed low and his voice a whisper, that Tibet is free, the Chinese government its savior.

Update: Forgot my mandatory disclaimer: I am no Free Tibet bleeding heart and realize how complex the situation there is. I understand that Tibet is a part of China, and that a lot of the 2008 violence was generated by angry monks and other Tibetan demonstrators. I also well understand the West’s dreamy-eyed and utterly false perception of Tibet as a Shangri-La. I always try to see the situation in Tibet from both sides. The CCP has definitely done some wonderful things in Tibet, and nothing hurts it more than its ham-fisted attempts to completely control the perceptions of outsiders and to airbrush away any signs of discontent. They are SO their own worst enemies.


Media bias against China

I do hope everyone who points approvingly to Anticnn and insists the US media are hopelessly biased against China gets to listen to this superb podcast over at Popup Chinese. It touches on many media-related issues, but the first few minutes are devoted to the bias issue.

These are really smart China hands talking, and they all agree that the notion among many Chinese (especially the fenqing) of purposeful media bias against China is seriously inflated.They generally agree there is some bias against China, but it occurs mainly over in the US editorial offices where the headlines and photo captions are written, and is not symptomatic of the foreign correspondents living in China.

They also acknowledge there is bias for the Dalai Lama, but not because the editors are anti-China, It’s because there is a strong, irrational bias in America towards Buddhists, just as there is often a strong media bias in favor of Israel, and an even stronger media bias against Arabs and Muslims. Thus, as they say in the podcast, the Tibetan monks get far more sympathy and attention than the Uighurs. But what the fenqing need to get is that this is generally not anti-China bias, but a bias in which Buddhists are gentle, devout souls who are all about peace and love. Editors in the US may also view China as the oppressors and the Tibetans as the oppressed. But this doesn’t mean they are anti-China.

What those pressing this issue furthermore need to get is that everyone feels they are a victim of media bias. The Republicans, the Dems, the left and the right – we all have complaints with media bias. We all feel we are misrepresented. Every company feels that way, too. China just needs to join the club; everyone perceives bias against them. The difference is that most don’t allow themselves to get so manipulated and worked up about it so they think they’re the only ones. Inaccuracy in media is simply a fact of life.

The podcast goes on to explain why this is especially so today, with US newsrooms being drastically shrunk in size and fewer editors doing much more work. Everyone suffers, not just China. And I know (I really do) that you can find this or that example of media bias against China. Yes, it does happen. But usually it happens in the copy room, and often it’s simply a mistake. There may be bias behind these mistakes; that’s probably what led to some Western media falsely describing weapons used in the Tibet protests of 2008 as belonging to the Chinese, when in fact they were being used by the Tibetan demonstrators. This wasn’t an act of intentional bias against China, though. It was a matter of jumping to conclusions based upon a bias that sees the Tibetans as gentle and sweet.

Much of the current media coverage, as discussed in the podcast, is surprisingly pro-China. There is a powerful new meme going through the media, particularly the financial press, about how China proves how effective an authoritarian government can be, and pointing to it as a possible model for the future. (As part of this argument the pundits point to the hopeless political mess in the US; does that make them “anti-US”?) Most economic stories on China are positive, although a lot of critics jumped on the property bubble band wagon, as well as Jim Chano’s predictions of a China collapse. But they also jump on similar stories in regard to Europe, and the US.

This is pack journalism, a bad thing, but certainly something that is in no way exclusive to coverage of China. The media, in a huge pack, went after Obama last week for not getting emotional enough over the Louisiana offshore oil rig catastrophe. Does this mean the media is biased against Obama? Say that to any wingnut and they’ll laugh in your face; in their eyes the media are hopelessly in love with Obama. The truth is they are just being the media – short-sighted, rushed, fact-starved, on impossible deadlines and fighting to get the best headline in the face of shrinking readership. They do it to Obama, they did it to Bush, they do it to Europe and they do it to China.

The notion that there is a monolithic prejudice among the US media against China is a falsehood and a fabrication. What you’re seeing is the standard prejudice and screw-ups that pervade all journalism, unfortunately. Many see the media fawning over China, others see it as needlessly and unfairly critical. Both are right. Because it is not monolithic, and the distribution of prejudice and poor reporting is spread out evenly to everyone and every nation.


New photocopy rules for Tibetans

I know, their lives are better, their roads are better, their schools are better, they get more funding than any other minority and they’re grateful the shackles of serfdom have been lifted. Still, no one can tell me there is not at least a hint of a police-state to life under Tibet’s benefactors.

People in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa will have to register their names if they want to make photocopies. City shopkeepers say the authorities are particularly concerned about material printed in Tibetan.

This appears to be an attempt to prevent ordinary people from printing political pamphlets and other documents. It suggests the security forces still have a tight grip on the city, two years after serious riots.

Individuals wanting to photocopy documents will have to show their ID cards and have the information recorded. Companies will have to register their names and addresses, the number of copies they want and provide the name of the manager in charge of the work. The police say they will carry out checks and punish any shop that does not abide by the new regulation.

Photocopying outlets in Lhasa told the BBC that the rule is primarily aimed at the Tibetan language. One shopkeeper said she would not now make copies of documents in Tibetan without police approval first. Material printed in Chinese does not seem to be too much of a problem.

The authorities say the change is aimed at stopping criminals carrying out illegal activities. But the suspicion is that it is directed at those who might want to print political pamphlets critical of the Chinese government.

Gee, who would have guessed about that last part?

[Deleted the rest of this post sorry; for writing such self-righteous drivel. It happens sometime, especially when I rush a post before I need to go out.]