A couple of readers of this blog expressed surprise that I hadn't mentioned anything about the current situation in Tibet, given that China was our first port of call. My opinions on the matter are probably not much more informed for having been to China, and so I didn't feel the need to write here on the matter. But for what they are worth, I offer my feelings and thoughts on the matter here for anyone who may be interested.
Chengdu is well known on the tourist trail as a convenient access point to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. It is where many flights leave from, and now there is a When deciding on an itinerary, we had to chose from a wide range of destinations, and Tibet didn't make the cut. I bitterly regret the missed opportunity to go and see for myself what life in Tibet's capital is like, and now I assume it will be quite some time before tourists are given any access to the place.
At the time we visited China, our visa was not sufficient to go to Tibet, but it was a relatively straightforward matter to get the permit to visit Lhasa. But even that permit would not have granted us open access to all of Tibet. Further more specialized permits would have been needed. See this helpful site to get an idea. This kind of restriction, and others like the Great Firewall of China, indicate by themselves that all is not well.
During our stay in Sim's Cozy Guesthouse in Chengdu, I met a very pleasant Frenchman who had just returned from Lhasa. He was very much taken by the spiritual nature of the place, but to my surprise he expressed the notion that 'democracy isn't for everyone', by way of justifying, or at least explaining, the current political system in China, and Tibet. I have encountered this kind of philosophy before, from Chinese and Westerners alike, that the Chinese mind is not suited to democracy (similar arguments are made for Arab countries).
I do accept that every nation must find its own way to wellbeing, and that a Western form of representative democracy cannot be superimposed on any country without due consideration to the history and culture of that country. But I also believe that this reasoning can be taken too far, that it smacks of Orientalism, and that it provides a fig-leaf for authoritarian governments which simply do not want to share decision-making power. The turmoil that has swept Tibet and parts of Sichuan since our time in China demonstrates that in China as everywhere else, there is a natural human impetus to determine one's own future, rather than have it dictated by distant and unrepresentative interests. Irish people can quite naturally relate to this.
The Chinese prime minister betrayed a crass clumsiness when he tried to make the world believe that the Dalai Lama was secretly agitating for complete Tibetan independence and was in fact orchestrating the violence in Tibet. I can only assume that it was a message for internal consumption, because few people who live on the free side of the Great Firewall, and who can read whatever books they like, will see it as anything but blatant propaganda. I hope that reports that Hu Jintao will sit down once more with the Dalai Lama prove to be true. It doesn't matter which side you take, both sides need to talk.
I repeat my opinion that Chinese people are as curious, open and friendly as any you will meet. The people should not be tarred with the same brush as such an unrepresentative government. That said, I am sure that my opinions here will not be shared by many Chinese readers, who are understandably proud of their heritage, and unhappy to hear criticism from outsiders that they will consider ill-informed. But this is the whole point: the ability to inform oneself. Arriving at something approximating truth rests on the ability to freely exchange information and ideas. This blog cannot be accessed from behind the Great Firewall. Books like Wild Swans by Jung Chang or Freedom in Exile by the Dalai Lama cannot be bought there. It is absurd but true to say that those of us who live or move outside of China and who really want to understand China (rather than swallow whole their own local propaganda) stand a better chance of acquiring the full picture than those who who live exclusively within her borders. The constant nagging presence of the Great Firewall while we were in China was a reminder to me that this was not like any other country I have ever visited before. I loved my time in China, and look forward to returning some time soon, but part of me felt lighter when I first surfed the net again from Sydney.
If official China wants to be believed or even understood, then it will have to come to terms with the fact that along with free market values come inextricably linked values of transparency, accountability and freedom of information, movement and expression. Not because it's nicer that way, but because that's the only way the system protects itself from excess, abuse or corruption in the long run. For as long as China tries to pull the blanket over what it is doing in Tibet, it succeeds only in equating itself with neighbouring Burma, in the eyes of anyone with free access to information.