Cyber Voices on Tibet - A Search For Balance

New America Media, News analysis, Xujun Eberlein Posted: Mar 21, 2008

Editor’s note: While the mainstream media in China is sounding its regular propaganda on Tibet, the Chinese cyberspace is calling for more balanced reporting and providing multiple points of view and objective assessments as well as on the ground reporting. NAM contributor Xujun Eberlein’s book "Apologies Forthcoming" will be published in May.

Getting a clear picture of what is happening in Tibet is no easy task. Bias is evident in both the Chinese and Western media coverage. A number of interested and thoughtful bloggers, however, have managed to paint a plausible picture, from which one does get important on-the-scene observations that help spotlight what's going on.

Independent blogs that are carefully monitoring the media coverage on China and gathering balanced information and views include Danwei (English), Zuola (Chinese), and Zonaeuropa EastSouthWestNorth ( English and Chinese). In covering the Tibet unrest, they point out inaccuracies as they can, and add photos and observations. As yet, the clearest opening for resolving the conflicts seems to lie in reconciling China's historical claims to a framework for Tibetan Autonomy, although it's not clear whether it's too late to reach a compromise for the new generation.

Meanwhile, the authorities are pointing fingers. During a press conference in Beijing on Tuesday, China's Premier Wen Jiabao accused "the Dalai camp" of organizing, plotting and instigating the riots in Lhasa that began on March 10. He said he had "enough evidence to prove" the accusation, however no evidence was given.

On the same day, in Dhåramsala, while pleading "both China and the Tibetans — don't commit violence," the Dalai Lama theorized that "it's possible some Chinese agents are involved there. Sometimes totalitarian regimes are very clever, so it is important to investigate." An implausible theory given how desperately Beijing wants to keep human rights issues out of the news with the upcoming Olympics.

The cyber voices in China are largely "harmonized" – on major Chinese commercial websites one can only hear uniform shouting such as "Resolutely oppose separatism!" Fortunately though, there are a few individual websites and blogs providing multiple points of view and objective assessments; one of them is Zuola.com. This site operates on a principle that "media should not be owned by government; from government comes propaganda. We all know, as common sense, information from CCTV is not all that believable. Treat it similarly with Westerners' quoting of RFA."

While Beijing's blocking of international journalists and blog sites is plain stupid, if not unexpected, it is a bit more surprising that the preponderance of U.S. news reports have not been that insightful either. Mainstream media is quoting unverified or unconfirmed casualty figures and showing inappropriately edited photos. In one case, CNN cropped a photo that originally showed Tibetans throwing stones at a Chinese military vehicle. By cutting the right side where the Tibetan crowd is, the remaining part of photo becomes a scene of the vehicle chasing running people. This biased reporting was also caught by posters on Zuola.com, and it angered Chinese cyber readers, effectively pouring oil on the fire.

The U.S. media noticed that the unrest began on the day of the 49th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, which resulted in the Dalai Lama's exile. There has been little, if any, mention however of the role of the CIA in supporting that uprising.

Given government and media biases, independent bloggers and tourists became more credible resources. An American blogger cyber-named Kadfly whose eyewitness photos are now widely spread on the Internet, gave first-hand accounts from Lhasa on March 14.

"I want to make one thing clear because all of the major news outlets are ignoring a very important fact. Yes, the Chinese government bears a huge amount of blame for this situation. But the protests yesterday were NOT peaceful. The original protests from the past few days may have been, but all of the eyewitnesses in this room agree the protesters yesterday went from attacking Chinese police to attacking innocent people very, very quickly. They appeared to target Muslim and Han Chinese individuals and businesses first but many Tibetans were also caught in the crossfire."

Because of this post, a few commentators insinuated that Kadfly was a Chinese agent, and he took down some of the photos yesterday.

A report by The New York Times' Jim Yardley asserts that "Tibet was effectively independent for decades before communist troops entered in 1950." This view is commonly held by Westerners, while the Western media fails to acknowledge the Chinese view that China has a historical claim of Tibet tracing back to Yuan Dynasty (13-14th century). During the Qing Dynasty, the government of China formally conferred the titles of Tibet's two spiritual and political leaders, the Dalai Lama and the Banchan (Panchen) Lama, one for "Front Tibet" and the other for "Rear Tibet." However, the act of conference is not considered significant from the Tibetan perspective today.

Because of these historical factors, to ask China to let go of Tibet's territorial rights would be as difficult as asking the United States to give up the American West.

On the other hand, the Chinese are not justified in denying their cultural and ideological intrusion of Tibet since 1950, which appears to be the historical reason for the Tibetans' anger today. In the dynasties from Yuan to Qing, Tibet's cultural and religious practice had been largely left alone by the emperors. The Dalai and Banchan Lamas effectively controlled most internal affairs. This changed after the Chinese army marched to Tibet in 1950 and, in the process, built a highway for the first time, through which the Chinese brought in goods, people and Communism without asking the Tibetans. Had the Communist government left Tibet as autonomous as it was during the dynasties, Tibetans might have had less modern but more independent lives.

While the Chinese cultural and political intrusion to Tibet is factual, the issue of Tibet's territorial rights may never be agreed upon by both sides. Unlike the Westerners who hear only one side of view and firmly support Tibet independence, the Dalai Lama knows better. Apparently realizing the infeasibility of requesting jurisdictional independence, the Dalai Lama maintains his high ground and calls for Tibet's autonomy instead.

In fact, Tibet's autonomy, provided its jurisdiction remains within China, may not be as far away as it seems. In the 1980s, a relatively more open-minded leader of post-Mao China, Hu Yaobang, visited Tibet to investigate policy and returned with strong recommendations for change. He subsequently carried out a political reform to allow more religious freedom in Tibet. Unfortunately, this reform was cut short by a series of riots in Lhasa and, in part because of this, Hu Yaobang was purged and the policies reversed.

China is under transition today and political reform is again called for. The current Tibet unrest and the Beijing Olympics may have actually provided an opportunity to China's leaders. When asked by Western reporters, Premier Wen Jiabao mentioned in Tuesday's press conference that his government would consider inviting independent international investigators to Tibet, a welcome gesture. It would be even wiser for Beijing to invite the Dalai Lama to negotiate the terms for Tibet's autonomy.

Yet Beijing is not the only obstacle to the Dalai Lama's mission; he is also facing a dissenting voice within the exile-Tibetans' camp. A Western blogger with unidentified nationality, China Hand, spotted the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph report on Tuesday that quotes Tsewang Rigzin, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, as saying,

"There is a growing frustration within the Tibetan community, especially in the young generation." "I certainly hope the Middle Way approach will be reviewed. As we can see from the protests here and all over the world, the Tibetan people remain committed to achieving independence."

China Hand points out on his blog China Matters that, as the leader of the largest Tibetan emigre NGO, with 30,000 members and over 80 chapters, the TYC’s stated objective is to “restore Tibet's lost independence.” Tsewang Rigzin is working to "marginalize the Dalai Lama and undercut him as the leader of the worldwide Tibetan movement," says China Hand.

Tibet is not unique in presenting a complex set of political, economic, ethnic, cultural and religious challenges. Single-minded solutions do not seem likely to work.


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User Comments


J. Gage on Mar 31, 2008 at 16:57:52 said:

An informative and balanced article -- thank you.


Xujun Eberlein on Mar 24, 2008 at 14:45:33 said:

Corrections: the URL for Danwei's website is www.danwei.org, and the URL for Zuola's blog is www.zuola.com/weblog/.

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