A very little speech

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

With all the excitement going on these days, staying home and translating the words of dead authors can feel a little irrelevant, if not actually escapist. I'm neither a Qing historian nor a diplomat, so won't stray too far from my comfort zone of language and literature, but I do think there's something to be said about the Chinese responses of rage to the reporting of the foreign media.

  1. The anger of the people: To some extent, this has to be a subconscious train-wreck between several emotions. Anger that the foreign media can spout off whatever they please when they, the regular Chinese people, cannot publicly say what's on their mind. Anger that the Tibetans seem to be demanding privileges of self-determination when, again, the Han majority does not have those privileges, or has them only via the highly dubious proxy of the Chinese government. The people are angry for many reasons (Western hypocrisy, the targeting of non-Tibetans by Tibetan rioters, an unreconstructed imperialist belief in China's right to Tibet), but I suspect that one source of anger which goes unarticulated is bitterness at their own lack of voice. Bitterness which by rights should be directed at their own government, if only that were possible…

  2. The anger of the government: China's leaders are working from a political playbook refined over two thousand years of empire. They know very well that power lies in speech, and in controlling who has the right to speak – restricting speech at home, cutting it off at the border. The fact that the foreign media is speaking with impunity constitutes something very much like a physical attack on government power. The enemy is flying sorties over home territory. Speech is a wartime activity in the sense that one side must dominate the other completely; there's no such thing as a military 'dialogue', if there were it would mean you were losing. The state media will continue to publish carpet-bombing articles in which all things positive are ascribed to the Chinese side, while the DL 'clique' and the Western media are saddled with all things negative. Never mind logical argument or internal consistency; this is merely the equivalent of an artillery cannon protruding from a piece of armor. There are no shortage of reasonable voices within China, but they are carefully removed from the arena of formal public speech.

Not that the 'foreign media' is blameless. But the government here doesn't understand that, at least in principle, one of the major historical uses of a free media is to attack government duplicity. It's in their blood. Western journalism may have strayed far from this principle – these days it takes a truly egregious lie to rouse anyone into action. But egregrious lies are just what the Tibet affair is producing, and the Western media, restored to its youth, is clamping its teeth in and shaking. People here ask, "Why does the West constantly pick on China?" (in the process eliding the difference between 'China' and its government). If the Chinese government were wiser, they'd do what the other governments do, and make their dishonesty just a little more plausible. A falsehood-to-truth ratio of 9:1 is simply not going to cut it. But it's become pretty clear in recent years that a ratio of something like 7:3 creates enough ambiguity that the media's teeth retract, the snarling subsides to an under-the-breath mutter, and the government in question can continue about its business unhindered. The solution: Learn to lie better.

Now back to our regular scheduled programming…


# 1.   

With respect, I think you are 'projecting' some ideas on the Chinese people regarding their reactions.

I'm sure you know that Chinese are inherently a practical people and the concepts of free speech and self-determination is not as big a deal as it is to most Westerners.

What Chinese fear most, historically, is social disharmony, and that is what Taiwan and Tibet represent. And why there is so much indignation that foreigners would seek to back those causes.

tom, April 8, 2008, 12:08p.m.

# 2.   

"while the DL ‘clique’ and the Western media are saddled with all things negative"

Western media and the Chinese government media are in the same boat, as the Chinese media work tirelessly to demonize the Dalai Lama while the western media place all the blame on the Chinese government. It is all negative stuff, so what's the difference?

I agree though the Chinese government needs to learn how to lie better. They should send a delegation to Washington for that matter.

Pffefer, April 8, 2008, 7:19p.m.

# 3.   

I'm almost certainly projecting something or other onto the Chinese people, but I have to disagree with you here. I think the 'practical Chinese' are the vast majority of citizens who couldn't care less about the whole affair, and aren't saying anything at all. There's no chance that disruptions in Tibet, Taiwan or Xinjiang will materially affect the lives of most Chinese, and I think their practicality is shown in their utter lack of interest.

And while 'free speech' as a legal concept is certainly a Western implant, self-determination and the right to speak for oneself are enormously important in China (possibly universal?). Think of Mao's October 10th speech on Tiananmen, or the peasants who come to the capital to find a leader who will speak on their behalf. It's an enormously important issue. Though the gov't has co-opted most of the opportunities for speech, many people are desperate to feel that they have a legitimate voice. This whole misguided Olympic campaign was meant to be China's reassertion of its right to self-determination, though they've botched it horribly. They're so used to speaking without having to take the audience into consideration that they have no idea what to do when their listeners talk back…

"It is all negative stuff, so what's the difference?" The difference is that the Chinese government has a single, clear-cut political goal. The Western media, on the other hand (much as the gov't would like to say otherwise), does not. While things are ugly in Tibet, the Western media will remain on the warpath. But introduce a little ambiguity into the situation, and they will lose cohesion and go chasing after their various concerns. Among those concerns will be the honest desire to uncover the truth.

The idea that the foreign media has a sacred mission to bring down the Chinese government is vanity, put nicely, or plain paranoia. It may be wounding to think that the grand coming-out party hasn't jolted the world out of its pre-occupations, but there it is.

"They should send a delegation to Washington for that matter." That was the implication. :)

Eric, April 8, 2008, 11:23p.m.

# 4.   

"The idea that the foreign media has a sacred mission to bring down the Chinese government is vanity, put nicely, or plain paranoia."

No, it's racism, pure and simple. If you don't believe me, read on the history of the west and the Asian peoples (Chinese , Japanese, etc), conerning immigration and war.

Phillip Woon, April 9, 2008, 12:24a.m.

# 5.   

Lately the NY Times has experimented with publishing translations of certain articles on Chinese environmental issues. It might be dangerous to do the same with the issue at hand, given the help they receive from their Chinese employees, but it would be a step towards a helpful cross-border conversation.

Micah Sittig, April 9, 2008, 5:28a.m.

# 6.   

Western people will never know how Chinese feel about the history that so-called "civilized" British sold opium to China by warship and guns in 1840.

Western people will never know how Chinese feel about the history that so-called "civilized" Western white invaded Beijing and plundered the city, killed Chinese people.

Western people will never know how Chinese feel about the history that so-called "civilized" Western white forced Chinese to sign dozens of unequal protocols that seized Chinese lands and robbed silver.

A hundred years later, the gangsters come back and tell us what we shall do, because they are good men and always right. WTF!!!

What is more important than the dignity of my country?

yan50, April 9, 2008, 8:19a.m.

# 7.   

Why is the dignity of anyone's country important? And don't you think Tibetans and Uighurs might be saying the same thing about China?

If the West is still as racist as it was 100 or even 50 years ago, why are there two Asians on the US Cabinet, not to mention an African-American Secretary of State, and why is there a good chance the US will have an African-American president next year? Where is the evidence of pervasive racism against Asians in the Western media? (For that matter, how is it that the "Western media", which covers dozens of countries and political viewpoints and often criticizes Western governments, would unite in a conspiracy against China? Exactly how is this worse than what gets said about, say, Bush's war in Iraq?) People now are far different from people a hundred years ago, though they're still far from perfect.

J B, April 9, 2008, 12:36p.m.

# 8.   

Eric, Western media might not have a clear-cut political goal (actually mouthpiece like the VOA, RFA etc. which are either part of the US government or funded by the US government do have their political goals, even more clear-cut than those that have been spelled out by Washington on paper), and I don't think the majority of the western media outlets want to bring down the Chinese government (once again, the likes of the VOA and RFA etc.are purposely established to help funnel regime change in "unfriendly countries") , however I do think they have their own agenda. Western media have been given chances to "uncover the truth", they haven't, they couldn't, or they purposely wouldn't, so why should they be given another chance? Those cropped and misused/misleading pictures didn't really tick me off, I kind of expected them from western media, given how ignorant the average westerners are (those "journalists" are no better). What really ticked me off was the black and white, good guy vs. bad guy approach the western media have resorted to, with regard to covering Tibet. No historical info, background etc. between Tibet and China was ever given. All they talk about is China invaded and annexed Tibet in 1951 out of blue. All they talk about is the so-called "oppression", "cultural genocide". After the riots happened in Lhasa, before the facts were not western media hastily concluded that it was a brutal Chinese crackdown, as if it was not enough, they were spoon-fed by the TGIE and rehashed their propaganda and presented it as the truth.

Nobody trusts the Chinese media. Why should anybody take western media seriously for the same reason?

Pffefer, April 9, 2008, 6:24p.m.

# 9.   

J B, I guess their message is: Stick to your own country's problems. Clean up your own mess before pointing fingers at us.

I didn't find this hard to understand.

Pffefer, April 9, 2008, 6:25p.m.

# 10.   

Ah, yan50, the statement that "Western people will never know how Chinese feel about xxx" has been uttered time again, to every criticism, every questioning any "foreigner" has directed toward China. Yes, they may never truly understand, just as the Chinese may never truly understand the trials of other nations and peoples during war and famine, during their fight for freedom and democracy.

The Chinese are not "special" in their suffering; the Chinese situation is not any more "unique" than the situation of other nations with their baggage of history (just look at the mess in the Middle East). It is high time that the Chinese stop seeing themselves as misunderstood victims of Western prejudice. Everybody is a victim of prejudice and it is only by speaking out, by initiating dialogue, by allowing debate between you and your supposed vilifier that one gets a little closer to understanding (if not agreeing) with each other.

A tightly controlled media, a one-sided argument of history in textbooks, minds raised to believe only in China's truth and righteousness breed hostility and ignorance. How can one expect any understanding from the world if one doesn't allow the world the opportunity to anything but staged events and the "official message"?

Yes, there are rampant lies about what's happening in China, but is China's government ready to allow foreign and domestic media free access to both the Chinese and the Tibetans at both ends of the debate, so the media can debate the "truth" (or would that risk exposing the "truth" that the government has worked so hard to build)?

Is the government ready to allow the Chinese people free access to the debates about Tibet in the western media, in academic circles, in books and articles (or would that raise second-thoughts in a society where only one "harmonious" thought is allowed)?

If the answer is "no," there is little we can do but point fingers and fume at each other's ignorance.

Eric, nice piece.

caicai, April 9, 2008, 9:34p.m.

# 11.   

Caicai, are you saying "the rampant lies" from the western media are a result of the Chinese government restricting access to Tibet and others parts of China? Do you honestly believe that had they been given free access to Tibet they would have told a different story about it? I highly doubt it.

I have read enough stuff written by western journalists before the riot on March 14th talking about the plight of the Tibetans. It seemed that they had free access, at the very least they were able to talk to those anti-government Tibetans. They all came out the same. Good good Tibet. Bad bad China.

Pffefer, April 9, 2008, 9:57p.m.

# 12.   

After having a similar discussion with a friend the other night, we concluded that i) both western and Chinese media are biased because of their own 立场 - the Chinese, to safeguard national security (in their typical OTT way), and the western, to pay allegiance to the political leanings and socio-historical structures of their respective news organisations (generating reportage which inevitably end with "...and Tibetans say, no matter how the Chinese...). Thus this means that ii) To what extent should we or anyone argue over how biased one version of the story is, if in the end the different, but same, versions kind-of cancel each other out? Sorry to put something so abstract and vague out here. Only a thought.

alice, April 9, 2008, 10:39p.m.

# 13.   


I am confused. What "socio-historical structures of their respective news organisations" are you talking about? If you are right, then we have to conclude that these various western media outlets or organizations all have the same or similar "socio-historical structures" since they do speak with one voice. What does that mean?

Pffefer, April 9, 2008, 10:51p.m.

# 14.   

Pffefer: 1) You cant say that because of one screw-up, all Western media can't be trusted. Again, you're talking about a lot of individual news organizations in many different countries. Also, it is impossible for any news source to be totally reliable- there will always be mistakes and errors. This does not mean that the vast majority of Western media cannot be trusted. Also, I don't see what you're objecting to, specifically- that they didn't emphasize China's version of history? The BBC website usually seems to have a summary next to their article that mentions China's claims. Is this not enough? Personally, I think that regardless of what the CCP or Chinese history books say, to Westerners this is no different from pre-1945 Western imperialism. Westerners do not care how long the Qing or whomever controlled Tibet, all these dynasties were empires much like pre-1945 Western countries and the Tibetans, as a distinct cultural group living in a definable territory, deserve self-determination just like all other countries victimized by imperialism. In that regard I personally do not see what is so objectionable about Westerner's coverage. 2) Even if other countries shouldn't throw stones in glass houses, so to speak, does that mean news organizations should ignore this sort of thing? Western media criticizes Western governments all the time, and not always fairly, so you could say that the Western media has done its part to clean up it's own mess. Furthermore, given that I feel the CCP's policy towards Tibet is in effect imperialist, it seems pretty pointless for me to support China's policies just because the US or other Western countries also do bad things, especially when I go to reasonable lengths (ie, protesting, voting) to change those policies. Not supporting Tibet seems to me to be the equivalent of telling Tibetans that I won't help them because of something someone else who happens to be from my country did, which I opposed and couldn't prevent anyway. Clearly this helps no one, all the more so because so many people in China seem to be utterly unsympathetic to the Tibetans. For whatever reason, the fact remains that Americans seem far more likely to oppose their country's bad policies than Chinese, who seem to just assume that China is good. Before you start talking about cleaning up messes and hypocrisy, exactly what have you done to help anyone who's been hurt by China's policies? (And I don't mean to help Hans, by the way- I do consider issues like Hu Jia, etc. to be China's internal affairs and therefore keep my opinions to myself.) Also, what about people who oppose China's Tibet policy who are from places like Belgium, Italy, Canada, Korea or even Taiwan? Even if the above arguments weren't valid, what would you tell them?

J B, April 9, 2008, 11:28p.m.

# 15.   

In response to Pffefer's post No. 11 in response to CaiCai's post No. 10...

I think what CaiCai meant was to put "rampant lies" in quotes since that's how the government controlled Chinese media often portrays Western reporting on this issue. It's easy to generalize about "Western media" and "Chinese media" ... perhaps easier to generalize about "Chinese media" since most of it is heavily controlled by the Gov't. Media in the West is a mixed bag of a wide range of points of view while most Chinese media presents the opinion of the government, not the Chinese people (including ordinary Tibetans who are Chinese citizens).

Some of the best, most balanced reporting on what happened in Lhasa on the 14th and days before/after was by James Miles of The Economist. Why? Because he happened to be there and is a respected journalist working with a respected organization. He presented a very balanced view of what was going on during those days. I even saw a Chinese commentator on CCTV 9's Dialogue saying how great his reporting was. Hearing that was a bit infuriating. No one else was allowed to provide such coverage. Can the Chinese media do the same thing as Miles in presenting a balanced, objective opinion of the Lhasa events and aftermath? Are they respected? Trusted? No. No. And no. I worked as an editor on an English language Chinese gov't publication for the last year and can say with authority that 90% of what is published there has to conform to the authoritative view of the gov't. The rest are fluff pieces that don't touch on social issues/politics, or business pieces which are relatively party-line free. The Economist, New York Times, Sydney Morning Herald, etc., etc., only conform to their editorial policies of their respective media organizations, the tastes of their readers, and a variety of other factors that shape how news coverage develops (which are too numerous to go into here). Most of the Western media stories in the days after had to present the views of the Tibetan gov't in exile vs the Chinese gov't because that's all most of the reporters could go on because they were not there on the ground in the TAR or were blocked from Tibetan ethnic areas in other provinces. They also reported on being blocked, which is fair to do since China had pledged to allow foreign media access anywhere in China in the (can't remember the exact number) of months before the Olys, access to anyone they wanted to speak to who would speak to them.

The larger point here is that this shouldn't even be a discussion about "Western vs. Chinese" media. If the Chinese media were free to act how media around the world were intended to operate, then this discussion would be moot. Chinese media coverage, if it were free, would present all angles of the story from the average Tibetan in Lhasa to the average Hui in Lhasa to the average Han in Lhasa, as well as more extreme points of view regarding Tibetan self-determination or anti-Han rhetoric, as well as the more nationalistic POV of some Chinese toward Tibet and prejudices about Tibetans (and other minorities). There is a huge vacuum here because the Chinese media can't operate like real media, so foreign journalists step into that gap (bringing along a variety of POVs and professional attitudes toward their journalistic practice, some more activist and others more balanced). That gap is there because China's media can't do it's job. They even kicked journalists from Hong Kong out of the TAR in the days after the 14th. Isn't Hong Kong part of China now?* Kicking out objective media and replacing it with the spin machine of Chinese officialdom creates a perception in most of the rest of the world that there is something to hide, leading to wide speculation about numbers of deaths, numbers of detainees, etc. and various figures from the Tibetan gov't in exile and those released by the Chinese authorities.

*As an aside, sometimes I hear the myth that "Chinese aren't ready for free press" which is one of the biggest lines of bullshit fed to the Chinese people. How to explain that the media in Hong Kong and Taiwan (the latter which is consistently ranked as having the freest media in Asia) function as media should function? Hong Kong hasn't had to give that up. Taiwan, if ever part of a mainland gov't again, will surely not relinquish these freedoms. The mainland will somehow have to catch up, eventually. If that happens, it would be a very good thing.

Si Ma Tian, April 10, 2008, 12:06a.m.

# 16.   

Thanks, Pffefer, for putting those quotation marks around "ramplant lies" because it seems like this is what the Chinese government is accusing the western media of spreading.

And I honestly believe that there will be some different stories out there if there were a free media. There are so many agendas, whether they be institutional or individual, malicious or just, that no one will want to tell the same story; and the media can take on so many forms: a newspaper report, a televised interview, an op-ed piece, a movie, a documentary, a blog, etc that there is bound to be something different out there. One can't scripteverything.

Before doubting free media, why don't you give it chance? If Media, whether it be foreign or domestic, are allowed to freely interview the Chinese and the Tibetans living in Tibet; if the interviewees are not frightened to tell their version of the story and not made to answer by script, I seriously doubt that you won't hear something different. You mentioned the media "at the very least" were able to talk to "anti-government Tibetans." Well, that's the problem. China's media only parades "pro-government Tibetans." Do you expect any properly trained journalist to not look for the other side of the story? And since they have no free access to the area, who are they going to turn to?

I've spoken to some Chinese about the Tibet issue and I have heard different points of views. Why isn't China letting its own domestic media cover these different opinions? If Tibet is such an important national issue, why isn't there a national debate? Do you honestly believe that 1.3 billion Chinese (including all the ethnic minorities) are all in harmonious agreement on this? This isn't just about how western media is "never going to get it right anyway," it's also about China denying its own citizens a voice and a chance to engage in an international debate, to step out of this cocoon the government has encased them in. Are you suggesting that giving domestic media free access will also churn out the same stories? I wouldn't dismiss any person's capacity to speak differently, whether foreign or Chinese. I say let the Chinese be interviewed by domestic and foreign media alike. Let their versions of the story be heard and let them hear the opinions for and against those stories.

There are people who want sensationalism, but there are also people who take journalism very seriously and really feel the constraint the Chinese government puts on media. At least give these people (both foreign and Chinese) a chance.

And Alice, I agree that all reports are biased. It's inevitable because we all have feelings, are conditioned by upbringing, society, institutions, culture, and our interests, whether we know it or not. But that doesn't mean reports "cancel each other out" and the argument is thus futile. It just means we need a lot more reporting to be able to add to the story so it doesn't end up one-dimensional.

caicai, April 10, 2008, 1:08a.m.

# 17.   

Caicai. By "cancel each other out" I meant that we shouldn't simply give one version precedence (in terms of pronouncing truth), over the other. Dialogue is good though, as you say, rather than monologue. I'm just wary of the one British sir or madam (or their international counterpart) read the one or two reports from the Telegraph or the NYT and make their case. And I'm frequently surprised when this (obviously not here) happens.

P.s. Quite impressed by Si Ma Tian's comment no# 15.

alice, April 10, 2008, 1:26a.m.

# 18.   

Ditto Alice- also impressed with Sima Tian's comment. And I fully agree. The thing that gets me is that all criticism of CCP policies gets cast by many Chinese people as criticism of China, and they then respond by saying "but your government does xyz". I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that I criticize as an individual, and only criticize the CCP and its policies. I'm guessing that many reporters and bloggers in China all care about the country very much, and do not wish it ill. This certainly isn't about Chinese culture or people- I think Taiwan (where I live now) is a great place, in some respects better than the US. The main problem here is the CCP; the secondary problem is when Chinese people take offense at even the most politely put criticism of the CCP. What's ironic is that I have yet to hear someone in China say they like the CCP. Hence I'm inclined to agree with Eric.

J B, April 10, 2008, 4:45a.m.

# 19.   

Utter lack of interest ? Wasn't half the point of the article "Chinese responses of rage to the reporting of the foreign media" ?

"There's no chance that disruptions in Tibet, Taiwan or Xinjiang will materially affect the lives of most Chinese, and I think their practicality is shown in their utter lack of interest."

tom, April 10, 2008, 7:33a.m.

# 20.   

I am really worried about the recent anti-China activities. Still, I am talking about the feeling, how Chinese people feel about it. The government have done an excellent job in economy for a long time. If the current Chinese government cannot continue their control, I think China would dropped into chaos immediatelly. Obviously, most Chinese do not want to see it. However, what I can see from the recent activities is that western people want the government go away, with an excuse of "free tibet". How Chinese people feel about it?

Guys, when many many Chinese are still fighting for a higher live starndard, "free press" and "media control" is really much much less important. We do not need judgement and blame. We need western people accept us. We want to be a part of the world. We want to make our people live in a better life (I think material is in a higher priority at this stage).

Fortunately, I had a short chat with our embassador in Britain on Monday. She said, she was confused that we come out with our respect and passion, but what we face is an anti-china wall which extinguish our passion. I totally agree with her. I am really confused whether western counties are in good purpose or bad purpose. I believe the latter one. And as I know, most of my friends believe so.

Guys, ask your Chinese friends' feeling about the recent things. If you dont have any, then...I dont know what to say.

p.s. I dont think "free media" is the key point. Ideology is. And I think it's ridiculous in the time of globalization.

yan50, April 10, 2008, 7:24p.m.

# 21.   

Utter lack of interest ? Wasn't half the point of the article "Chinese responses of rage to the reporting of the foreign media"?

This shouldn't need pointing out, but responses are varied within the country. The original article was about the angry minority, but my guess is the vast majority is uninterested.

She said, she was confused that we come out with our respect and passion, but what we face is an anti-china wall which extinguish our passion. I totally agree with her.

The problem is that 'China' doesn't get to choose what it comes out with. The point of the Olympics is that China has put itself out there, into the world, and now it's the world's turn to respond. The government doesn't get to say what this is about, and it doesn't get to insist that its interpretation is correct. It doesn't work that way: it doesn't work that way for any country in the world. All countries which want to be part of the international community expose themselves in this way, and then the various constituents of the international community make their various opinions known. Those opinions may be fair or unfair, they may be completely unreasonable and hateful, you just have to deal with it. Same as everyone else.

Changing the subject is not a possibility, at least not outside China. Inside China, of course, the subject is already changed – it's all about the foreign media – but outside the country the discussion is still where it started: Tibet. You're right, "free media" is not the key point, neither are the feelings of the Chinese, or who wants to hurt them. The main point is still the Tibetan people – whether they live or die, and who controls their fate.

PS: Thanks, yan50, for disagreeing with the general sentiment here in a way that still leaves the door to conversation open. Discussions like these are pointless if they don't involve Chinese people…

Eric, April 11, 2008, 2:22a.m.

# 22.   

"All countries which want to be part of the international community expose themselves in this way, and then the various constituents of the international community make their various opinions known. Those opinions may be fair or unfair, they may be completely unreasonable and hateful, you just have to deal with it. "

I totally agree. The Chinese government is apparently lack of experience to deal with it.(The embassador admitted it.) Even the embassy, which should be professional in it, dont know what to do. The period that we were out of the international community was too long. However, the Tibetan exile community are really good at it. They have done this for a long time. The result is that our voice, Chinese people's voice cannot be heard by the world.

I believe that the riots which happened just before Olympics is on purpose, and the Tibetan exile community succeed in doing so. They easily destroyed Chinese people's 20 years' hard-working in less than one month. Good strategic move for them. And 1.3 billion Chinese people's heart has been hurt.(Maybe less)

"The main point is still the Tibetan people – whether they live or die, and who controls their fate."

Perhaps it is. But I still think it is just an excuse. Common people are just been using by someone. I guess some of the protestors even dont know where Tibet is. If they are really so kind that care about whether Tibeten live or die, why dont they care more about Iraq people. It seems that Iraq people are really dying.

p.s. I really want to know how western people's real opinion in this thing. So I should thank you. At least you guys are more rational, know more about China than those I met in London.

yan50, April 11, 2008, 8:11a.m.

# 23.   

Who said we don't care about Iraqis? Why is it not possible to care about both? And why should the Tibetans be expected to sacrifice themselves for China's development? And for God's sake, can anyone defend China's position without talking about Iraq? To me this is just an admission that China is wrong, and I have absolutely no interest in arguing over what country is more evil. The assertion that the riots were planned fails to convince me. Riots are usually spontaneous, so far as I'm aware- why is it impossible that some Tibetans were so angry and frustrated that they began rioting?

It should go without saying that dissenting views are welcomed- but that doesn't mean they're not going to get a reaction, especially if the central argument is that other posters are bigoted or ignorant just because they disagree with you, or that some other country does worse things. You can't complain about being dismissed as brainwashed when you consistently refuse to address the central arguments, hold a commenter responsible for the actions or opinions of their government or other countrymen, and instead level insults and talk about non-pertinent situations (ie, Iraq).

J B, April 11, 2008, 11:57a.m.

# 24.   

"Free media isn't the key point."

Information is distributed through the media. Images are made and destroyed through the media. Opinions can be altered by the media. If the media isn't the key point, why has the Chinese government so tightly controlled the media before and after its "opening up"; why does it so carefully orchestrate it to the last detail? The rise to political power is often associated with carefully crafted messages (the Communist Party should understand this all too well). That is why governments that do not accept stepping down from power as an option are so very much reluctant to the idea of a free media.

The mess that we now see is the result/backlash of China's tightly controlled media. It is at times so blatantly staged and monotonous that it could pass as propaganda. There is little credibility, if any. The Chinese media does not consist of various organizations or institutions with various and often counter points of view. It has one point of view: the government's. And you will find very few people in the "West" who take the government's word as final (in fact it is very often the first to invite examination). As a result, even China’s truth is met with suspicion. Western minds are thus left to their own speculations and the Chinese become easy target for misunderstandings and false accusations.

The utter disdain shown towards the West and its media; the blindness towards the complexity of China's issues from the West; this black-and-white division; these single-minded judgments on both sides are due to the lack of a free media, of free exchange and debate in China. If the media functioned freely (allowing people to speak without the fear of retribution), one would hear different views (I have in private) and this would not go overlooked by serious western journalists eager to hear different sides of the story.

It is appalling to see the lack of self-criticism, self-questioning and competing arguments in such a large and complex country as China. It is appalling to see how so many people do not question the official text-book version of things, such as the argument "Tibet has always been a part of China." China itself (long before it was known as "China") is a bloody history of divide and conquer, of territories won and lost. There is no such thing as "always." And when the only argument one can present is the denial of other interpretations, then expect no understanding (from the "West") in return. Expect equal denial. (And sadly, without a free domestic media, anything that deviates from the government's popular message is either quickly silenced or forced underground.)

I have learned to avoid talking about politics or world affairs with my Chinese friends. Whenever I try, I find everything I say quickly being slapped down by something along the lines of "the West doesn't understand." Well, it never will if it isn't allowed the opportunity to. And if foreign movies are censored, paragraphs are deleted from translations of foreign publications, anything "politically sensitive" is blocked online, and the foreign ministry doesn't accept applicants who have received "unapproved" foreign education (and the list goes on), then the Chinese will never understand the West beyond textbook stereotypes, never understand why it remains so "hostile" when the Chinese are trying so hard to be accepted by the international society.

I grew up having to take my school cap off and bowing to Chiang Kai-shek's bronze statue as I entered the school gates. I was taught that the whole of Mongolia was still a part of China. I was taught how evil and bad the "Taiwan separatists" were (just as evil as Communist China!). The KMTs abuse of human rights (kidnappings, executions), its corruption, its twisted version of history were not revealed in the media until after martial law was lifted in 1987. I marveled at my own ignorance: the victorious and glorious KMT that had liberated China from a corrupt monarchy didn’t turn out as righteous as it claimed to be. And when I read Chinese forums and see how vehemently and blindly young Chinese accuse the "West" without suspecting being misled by their own government, I see a glimpse of that ignorance. Have they talked to foreigners before, have they been abroad, have they read history or literature that champion other causes besides those sanctioned by the party, have they had access to publications (the Economist, the Atlantic, Harper’s) other than government-selected bad American TV journalism, have they tried to examine why there is such a negative force against the Chinese government? If I were to translate from English into Chinese in-depth articles on China from respectable news sources and posted them on a website, how long do you think the website could remain up and unblocked?

There will be no real communication without a free media. And without communication we will just continue to see both sides shouting battle cries at a self-fabricated enemy.

Free media is the key point because a media that is controlled by one interest is too easily manipulated to serve that interest. Messages are filtered and altered to feed into an ideology that serves only the ruling interest (e.g. giving the impression that all Western media is out to get China). There are ideologies in the West as well: right, left, liberalism, conservatism, neo-conservatism, and various ambiguities in between. But because there is a striving for freedom of speech and media, seldom does one ideology blanket all the others. Ideologies compete; people judge. I’m afraid the same cannot be said of China.

I am reluctant to drag the case of Taiwan into this argument for it triggers much the same knee-jerking responses as Tibet. But I can say I am grateful for a free media in Taiwan (free to criticize the government, the parties, and each other), and I’m sure the newly elected KMT government, who once so relentlessly controlled the media, is grateful too.

caicai, April 11, 2008, 10:33p.m.

# 25.   

Caicai. Just a few things very briefly: "There are ideologies in the West as well: right, left, liberalism, conservatism, neo-conservatism, and various ambiguities in between." There have been arguments which seem more and more plausible (to me, and others) arguing that ideologies are conflating. Coming from a place I know well, England, I think that the Tories (Conservatives, but Tories sound better) and Labour are really, ideologically, not complete polar opposites any more (it once was in history, after the WW2). For sure, many western ideological parties (I will refer to parties because they embody the ideology) now share idiosyncasies rather than stand for their own unique ideal. Look at Tony Blair's reign, his elevation of Public Relations (learnt from Peter Mandelson, Bill Clinton. Good reference would be Adam Curtis's documentary The Power of Nightmares about Freud's nephew and the invention of PR) above the real ideology that Labour stood for. Look at how parties in the US (I have less knowledge here, but) and the UK now operate in the modern 21st cen. sphere.

Hence, I question how exactly we perceive politics in the west, as well as this "freedom of ideologies" of which you speak. Are people in the west as free as we think? Obviously, it'd be sensible to say that they are "freer" than the people of China.

Secondly, working in the foreign media circle, but within the Chinese assistants ring (as in, for the Guardian, with friends who work for CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC, NBC, ABC, AP, AFP, Reuters 等等) I guess I would be inclined to mention that there ARE Chinese youth and elder out there who will consider things in a multi-faceted and shall we say, intelligent, manner. Certainly I have met enough people disenchanted with the Chinese mono-party mouth organs such as People's Daily and Xinhua, and posts up on websites and blogs, and argue for communication. They exist alongside the Chinese friends you mention (I think so, anyhow).

Furthermore, I don't know if anyone here has already mentioned this (I think they have), but there is simply a "I don't care" attitude, which is also prevalent in this society. 吃饱了,穿好了 is still a primary concern (indeed, for the 80% peasant population a must) and thus if they take a party line on issues such as Tibet (because their brains are whirring to the sound of money) then, well, should we blame or ostracise them?

When Eric wrote to yan50 saying that the participation of the Chinese dimension makes for a better and more open debate (sorry to paraphrase) I see myself completely agreeing. I don't see the point - and I don't have the inclination - to side with either side.

But I think all that you have said is incredibly important (and really insightful). I am very impressed, but at the same time, distressed that you say "the Chinese will never understand the West beyond textbook stereotypes." Are we going to start understanding the Chinese beyond textbook stereotypes? As in, that they are incapable of thinking outside the box, once in a while (but let's hope it's more than once in a while).

Must get back to work but otherwise, so much more to be said!

alice, April 12, 2008, 2:19a.m.

# 26.   

I totally agree with you Alice, that there are Chinese who are dissatisfied with the current government and how things are handled. I've mentioned it more than a few times that I have heard opinion that differs from the official line. The sad thing is that the mainstream media will not be covering these different concerns and voices. The people who think differently can blog and put up posts (and risk the consequences), but this is very different from giving them a place on national TV or a paper with national circulation.

I did say that "the Chinese will never understand the West beyond textbook stereotypes" but I had a big conditional string of "IFs" in front of that (basically, if the government continues with its control of information). I'm not saying people are incapable of thinking outside the box (and I've said in a previous comment that I wouldn't dismiss anyone's capacity to speak differently); the problem is when the box is deliberately glued shut, it would be very hard to think outside of it. I don't think I was suggesting that we can be free of ideology. It was more to illustrate that different voices can argue from different points of views, whether or not they consciously or unconsciously subscribe to a certain ideology. You can have a liberal voice in a conservative party and vice versa. The point is can this be tolerated in China? Can you love China and have sympathy for the Dalai Lama as well? Even if you did, would you dare voice this?

I have witnessed change in my Chinese friends once they are exposed to different education systems (e.g. US), different people from other countries and see how things work differently outside of China (not necessarily better but worthy of comparison). But these people only account for a very small percentage of the population. The circle of Chinese friends we mix and mingle with tend to have similar foreign backgrounds, some degree of foreign education, or at least exposure to foreigners and their culture in a regular manner. They are very different from people we encounter at the store, on the streets.

I sincerely hope the Chinese can participate in debates and discussions. But information needs to be exchanged, or we'll just be accusing each other of the same prejudices. And I wholeheartedly agree with the original post: voices need to be heard. But will the government allow this?

caicai, April 12, 2008, 6:23a.m.

# 27.   

J B,

As of your words on west racism, something important was missing. The racism is not all about the color of skin. It more concerns whether you are behaving different from the majority, or not. For those African-Americans you mentioned, I seriously doubt how much they have inherited from their African ancestors except the physical appearance. The cost of being accepted is the lost of their identities and culture continuity.

Furthermore, given the long history and large population of African Americans in the US, I believe the mutual understanding has been improved over time, though it is certainly not the case for those in Africa.

N J, April 12, 2008, 8:16a.m.

# 28.   

Here's a pretty good article from the New York Times on the attitudes of young Chinese towards this issue. I wish this was one of the articles they translated into Chinese, or that the China Daily had picked this to "introduce" to its readers (hah!).

Eric, April 14, 2008, 6:56a.m.

# 29.   

I haven't contributed so far but I've been reading the contributions and passing this link on to anyone at this end (London, both Brits and Chinese) who wants an open debate. Discussion CAN make a difference!

Nicky, April 17, 2008, 12:14p.m.

# 30.   

I read the article days ago, and have to disagree with the author.

The author finds most young Chinese are supporting the government on the Tibetan issue, and then made a few conclusions that most Chinese do not consider the desires of the Tibetans, are somehow brainwashed by the education and lack life experience necessary to make the judgement. Believe or not, overseas Chinese students, immigrants, and media (including Singapore, HK Chinese media) are standing by the Chinese government and have made louder voice than those within China. While in China mainland, the government is working hard to pull down the enthusiasm and radical reactions (like boycotting Carrefour). But the reaction does not have much to do with Chinese government. Many overseas Chinese lived out of China for years and are often critical to government's policies. The reaction is largely because of lack of respect and misunderstanding.

People do consider the desire of Tibetans (we talk about that), but most do not believe local Tibetans desperately want independence. Most of the Tibetan activists have not been living in Tibet for many decades, and because of their privileged positions in the past (before 1959) and funding from foreign countries since 1950s, they cannot represent the interest of vast majority. By the way, most of charges from TGIE against Chinese or the Government can be easily found false, if you like to do a little research. The false information is essential to draw public attention and to raise funding.

As of the education system, it is also a controversial topic within China which approach is better. I would rather attribute the difference in education to historical conventions than to politics. I still remember when I was in college in China, I could rarely find an individual not too critical to the communist government and the political theories we were taught. You would have to take a lot of sticks, if you believed them.

While our life experience grows, most become more objective and less critical to the government, because we realise the problems we used to criticise in college are so complicated and take time to solve. More or less we become incrementalists. BTW, regardless of age, all Chinese I know have learned about the tragedy in 1989 and it is already widely accepted that because of the international interference and lack of a definite political goal, the movement did not serve its purpose and put off the on-coming political reform.

After doing a lot research and verifying figures from different sources, I believe most of the charges made by pro-Tibetan organisations are untrue. Just for an example, the population decline of 1m is based on an article in an issue of People’s Daily in 1959, which does not exist at all. Many western journalists won’t bother to do the basic research to verify the information because it was from trustable Dalai Lama and consistent with the negative impression about the communist party. Ironically, US Congress and English Parliament have passed a few bills with reference to the above false charge and the like. This further reinforced the negative image about China. The problem with the NYT article is also to presume local Tibetans’ human rights situation is much worse than Han-Chinese.

Given the background of Dalai Lama being given the Nobel peace price in 1989 right after the event at Tiananmen Square and foreign governmental leaders starting to arrange official meeting with him soon after, many interpret the Tibetan issue as a political campaign in an effort to restrain the development of China instead of a human rights or ethnic issue. The motivation behind could be concerns over communism, competition for natural resources, or other national interests.

N J, April 17, 2008, 8:03p.m.

# 31.   

Take a look to this interview http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/asiapcf/03/20/tibet.miles.interview/

James Miles, journalist with The Economist, was in Lhasa during violent protests Economist.

N J, April 19, 2008, 8:08a.m.

# 32.   

Grace Wang is an interesting case for this debate at the moment. Although, I have to say that perhaps one can argue that she is being a bit of a self-promoter. Anyway, I wanted to bring the story of Grace up for this board - albeit now I am going to link to something that is a teeny bit ... sorry.


alice, April 19, 2008, 1:20p.m.

# 33.   

"After doing a lot research and verifying figures from different sources, I believe most of the charges made by pro-Tibetan organisations are untrue." (writes N.J. above, # 30)

It would be interesting to know how you did a "lot of research", N J. Anyone on the ground in Lhasa asking intelligent questions, taking notes and traveling widely outside of Lhasa and trying to visit Tibetans one-on-one -- as one would expect a professional writer or social scientist to do in the name of basic research --would be immediately noted, and such activity cut short, by force if necessary.

This practice is wide-spread in both Tibet and Xinjiang, as it is government policy to forbid such groundwork by anyone not first vetted by the authorities.

The success of this secretive policy is, in fact, the reason that so many of us are blabbering away on this forum: Because only an elite specifically authorized by the Chinese government can speak meaningfully about what s/he has has seen, recorded and analyzed in Tibet. The rest of us can only do our best to interpret the oracle bones thrown to us by the media...

Bruce, April 21, 2008, 4:56a.m.

# 34.   


Thank you for giving me this opportunity to explain that in a little more detail.

It is a good point to argue the Chinese government’s control over mass media and journalists. However, according to James Miles’ (of The Economist, who was the only foreign journalist with an interview permit in Lhasa between 12th and 19th March) interview with CNN (http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/asiapcf/03/20/tibet.miles.interview/ ), it seems foreign journalists no longer need local permits to anywhere except Tibet. Just read the second to last question. It is also worth reading the whole interview to get a more balanced view about what happened in Tibet.

I know there might be other de facto restrictions and I agree that overall media control in China is still tight. China has a long history and culture, even before the communist government, to control media and published literature so as to maintain effective ruling over the country. The policy is more enforced in certain areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang, which does not necessarily mean the situation is worse than other provinces. Many Chinese (including the Government) do suspect western journalists are not interested in giving a balanced view of China. If restrictions are lifted, they will only report negative aspects and encourage hatred and separatism, being blind to all efforts that sacrifice the interests of Hans to help minorities. The suspicion is often strengthened by western journalists themselves through their interviews, e.g. 博客门 (Wang Xiaofeng, the most famous blogger and a Chinese journalist, shutting down his blog to protest an interview article with BBC) and小精子的声明 (another well-known blogger’s statement against her interview article with Time). Given the sensitivity of the area, the policy is very well understood in China.

My research on the Tibetan issue started with Wikipedia article “Tibet”, and went through the extremely long discussion page of it. Finding many topics so controversial, I started reading other related historical articles in Wikipedia, and went to TGIE and other pro-Tibet websites to read Dalai Lama’s statements and speeches (some in Chinese, others in English), their charges against Chinese government, and most important, the references they use to support their charges. My focus was on factual charges like historical status, culture genocide, demographical statistics (based on which they claimed a massive drop of Tibetan population), Dalai Lama’s opinion on independence/autonomy, and why Chinese government refused to start conversations with him.

I have given an example of my research in #30, in which I found statistical data from Chinese government is more consistent with academic papers, UNESCAP’s research and historical Tibetan population before 1950, and in line with Has population trend. In an academic paper (http://www.tibetology.ac.cn/article2/ShowArticle.asp?ArticleID=2764 ) studying Tibetan population, the author found no evidence to support the population drop as claimed by Dalai Lama. If you are in doubt of it, it should not be difficult to find the 10 November, 1959 issue of People’s Daily in libraries on your own. TGIE white papers (http://www.tibet.com/WhitePaper/white8.html ) use the issue as a basis to infer the population drop and massive killings.

It really takes time to discuss all those charges and the supports from CIA and western governments since 1954 to make Tibet an active problem. I have been working on an English blog (http://tibetstudynotes.blogspot.com/ ) to showcase the evidence, using only public available western sources as references. Anyway, as I am in writing-up stage of my PhD studies, the progress will be slow.

P.S. I won’t be able to measure the tension between Hans and Tibetans in TAR by going to Tibet, but I do not think it is viable to measure it by interviewing and studying individual persons given the diversity in background and interference of external forces. We may need a regional poll, but which itself is considered an effort to split China by many.

N J, April 21, 2008, 1:26p.m.

# 35.   

Dear NJ,

Your polite and well-argued reply (# 34) shows that yes, it is possible to disagree in a civil and transparent manner. Good!

I want to state here that while I have lived in China over 20 years, I have not been to Tibet, do not promote the separatist movement, and have an open-mind re: charges of "cultural genocide" which do not appear to have been fully substantiated over the years.

My viewpoint on Tibet events, including the recent riots, is that it is very hard to get a handle on what has occurred in Tibet since the 1950s, because 1) The China authorities make basic research very difficult, and 2) As a result, a lot of the research being done cites numbers heavily "massaged" by pro- or anti-China propagandists. Independent researchers have no legal means to gather their own macro data.

The way you are doing your research is a case in point of how China has closed the study of Tibet to all but an elite. If you were researching a dead civilization, mining Wikipedia and other information sources on the web would be quite normal; but Tibet is a living culture, and therefore it is unacceptable -- to me -- to draw important conclusions about issues such as "cultural genocide" WITHOUT experiencing the society on the ground.

You state that you "won't be able to measure the tension between Hans and Tibetans in TAR by going to Tibet...". NJ, you CAN and SHOULD go to Tibet, and try to do such research (if only informally) in order to validate some of your earlier "data." You may not be very successful, but that might be a good thing. If you get your head banged for carrying out unpermitted research, even better. Get a taste of the reality you are analyzing, for heaven's sake!

I recommend "Under the Heel of the Dragon: Islam, Racism, Crime and the Uighur in China" by Blaine Kaltman. Kaltman personally interviewed 200+ Uighurs and Han in Urumuqi, Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

I suspect that you, NJ, will find his methodology very problematic: He interviewed in Chinese, which means many Uighurs couldn't be interviewed because their Chinese is so bad; He is a Westerner, and as the interviewer no doubt elicited different answers than a Uighur or Han Chinese might, etc.

His work is not gospel and it would be easy to attack in academic terms. Many of his conclusions seem highly questionable to me.

But I deeply respect Kaltman for doing these interviews, because -- unquestionably -- from the interviews to the publication of his work, his every action was illegal in China.

We need more people like Kaltman to give us a broader, richer picture of how China's ethnic minorities are living.

N J, 1:26, April 21

Bruce, April 21, 2008, 11:49p.m.

# 36.   

Dear Bruce,

I did not mean to put blames on anyone but to simply talk about a phenomenon. The worry or distrust about western journalists in China is itself a complicated topic. One of the causes that contribute to it is lack of confidence due to relatively inferior economical and cultural status. For the same reason, I understand why some ethnic minorities do not recognize themselves as Chinese and consider they have not been treated well by Hans.

China is a developing country in economics, and you should expect its political and administrative systems are also under development. Many problems with China nowadays are deeply rooted in those systems, which really take time to reform or change. Most of Chinese have seen the systems are getting better and benefited from the economic growth. The cost of this is unbalanced development. A large number of people are left behind, including minorities and hundred millions of Hans which do not have language disadvantages. Assuming minorities (who have disadvantages in language and locations) are not particularly treated badly on purpose, highlighting ethnic issues by foreigners out of other equally important issues strengthens ethnic hatred, and encourages separatism which is unfortunately unachievable and thus causing more tensions between ethnic groups and possible political regression. It is generally difficult to tell the motivation behind criticism, as there still exist conflicts of national interest and ideologies, not to mention mutual misunderstanding. In this sense, Chinese government’s propaganda on ethnic harmony seems more constructive.

As of research on sensitive issues, I am not that despairing as what Blaine Kaltman has done in Xinjiang and Phoenix TV did in Tibet right after 14 Mar (http://blog.ifeng.com/article/1340130.html and more) seem not very difficult. I do not know much about the Xinjiang issue, but have heard two different voices from westerners who have visited Tibet. I suspect some of them only visited or reported certain targeted groups, while the others only gave a general picture. It will be interesting to read the book you recommended but I will pay attention to weather the problems reported are due to discriminative policies or something else (religions and culture collisions, which we have to live with ).

The general impression of me and many other Hans is that minorities have many advantages over us due to ethnic policies, which I gained from my Manchu, Korean and Mongol classmates. There are policies I found for Tibetans: Much lower college entry requirements (100 marks for Tibetans in TAR, 200 for Hans in TAR, over 400 for Hans in most other areas); No Tax of any form to Tibetans, but Hans in Tibet have to pay; TAR shares no Tax with the central government; 80% of government officials and the chairman must be Tibetans by law; Billions are invested into TAR each year to pay their compensations and the cost of local manufacturing; given 2.6m population, the amount is more than national GDP per head; Tibetans can carry knifes with them in public areas, but it is illegal for Hans. Free national health services to Tibetans but not to Hans; Free or subsidised farming materials and facilities; No compulsory family planning to Tibetans; and many others.

N J, April 23, 2008, 1:41p.m.

# 37.   

The western media cannot get our own stories straight. The same media that pretends to be so outraged about the war paved the way western governments to start it with poorly written, factually inaccurate articles that didn't even meet the standards of a good high school paper. Just 2 weeks ago the NYT revealed that the Pentagon was planting - literally! - "military analysts - at all the major networks. The story, though it was incredibly relevant and shocking, died on the vine.

Now, if we cannot police ourselves here in the west, how can we possibly get China right?

As for Eric's veiled pro-western comments, please! Do you really think that the Chinese government is the only powerful body that appeals to it's customer's sense of nationalism and ethnocultural pride? Maybe you've been away too long, and aren't familiar with whats on the tube and the printed page here in North America. Thats what the Chinese who are posting here are getting at, and you seem obtusely determined to ignore - CNN, UPI, the Guardian, El Pais, etc are selling "yellow fear" tickets to a market that already existed, they didn't create it.

As long as educated and talented Americans continue to believe that we have cornered the market on morality and journalism, we will continue to be increasingly at odds with more and more of the non-white world. They say the worst crusades are led by those who don't know they are on one...

Jose Maria Trujillo, May 14, 2008, 12:30p.m.

Comments are closed for this entry.