Monday, March 31, 2008

By Request: China and Tibet

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.

8 comments:

Corkonian said...

Hello there,

A few comments:

1.
"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".

As far as I know, this is not the whole truth.

"There is ample fact and we also have plenty of evidence proving that this incident was organized, premeditated, masterminded and incited by the Dalai clique," Wen said in a televised news conference. (source: CNN)

You are mixing the Dalai Lama with the Dalai clique (I think "clique" is not an appropriate wording, BTW). The DL may not be involved with the unrest, but that does not mean that his subordinates and followers were not involved, right? I know the DL is a super celebrity in the west. The title "holiness" can automatically distance him from anything that is considered negative(even though his peaceful holiness was on CIA's payroll for a good while, and has no problem with the Iraq war). I don't buy into this belief, although I don't think he masterminded this particular riot. He is neither holy nor evil, just somewhere in between like most of us.

2.
"The people should not be tarred with the same brush as such an unrepresentative government"

Agree. However, an unrepresentative government does not mean that the government has to be always unrepresentative or unrepresentative on all the issues. The UK government perhaps is very unrepresentative on the issue of Iraq, does this mean the UK government is an "unrepresentative" government? Being representative or not often needs to be examined on a case by case basis. Labeling (e.g. they are imperialists, communists, so ...) is usually the first step of propaganda/brainwashing. (e.g. Saddam is evil, so he must have links with terrorists)

3. "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 live exclusively within her borders."

This is true in your case and I congratulate you on that. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of the people in the west, it is not the case. They have no choice but swallow their own local propaganda (BBC, CNN, RTE?). You need to realize that many people in China (especially in the cities) have access to information that is different from the government lines (the great fire wall is not that great). Moreover, many, many people in China do not give much credit to what the Chinese government says about many issues anyway. In fact, they are practically immune from the so-call propaganda. This is a direct result of many years of living in an environment where information is controlled. Unfortunately, most people in the west have not established this kind of immune system against governmental or non-governmental propaganda, especially in the case where the story is related to a place far far away. (Even now, a considerable amount (50%) of Americans still believe that Saddam had WMD.)

3."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."

Agree.

Their propaganda tactics are pathetic, although they have improved a bit over the years. In the case of Tibet, their clumsiness has also been taken advantage of by the other side (the DL side) to an extent which is not far from propaganda to say the least.


Enjoy your tour of the world!

Brendan Lawlor said...

Corkonian,
You've gone to much effort to comment, and I appreciate that. Let me just address your points one by one briefly.

1. Thanks for the correction - I did make a stretch by equating the DL with the "Dalai clique". But presumably Wen was not suggesting that the DL was blameless - the Chinese government are still refusing to talk to him. I don't believe in sinners and saints either, but I do give more credence to the DL than to the PRC government on the matter of Tibet. I remind readers that the Dalai Lama is not looking for an independent Tibet.

2. In general I always distinguish between a nation's government and its people, even in western democracies. Here I'm merely saying that this view applies even more where this is little or no political link between the two. To use examples of unrepresentative behaviour from nominally representative western governments does not add an iota of support to the statement "an unrepresentative government does not mean that the government has to be always unrepresentative".

3. I cannot agree with you on this at all. In fact I have to say that the logic of your point can be reduced to the following absurdity:
"Those who live in an environment where the information is controlled have a better chance of arriving at the truth". It's odd to hear you say that people in the West "have no choice" but to believe their own propaganda. The issue of choice is crucial. There is a wider selection of information in the West due to the almost non-existent censorship there. You can buy Chomsky in the West, but you can't buy Jung Chang in China. In the West, many choose to believe nationalist, jingoistic claptrap. In China, where is the choice. I agree the GFC is not perfect. If you know what you are looking for, you might find it. But you are extremely unlikely to stumble upon anything that the PRC doesn't want you to.

I really hope that official China does not retreat into its shell in the face of the justifiable criticism of its repression in Tibet, but while keeping all-important face, internalizes some of what is being said to it, and learns that it cannot act tyrannically with impunity.

Thanks again for the comment Corkonian. I hope you keep reading the blog.

Brendan Lawlor said...

Quick follow-up:

I was unfamiliar with the idea that the Dalai Lama had expressed support for the war in Iraq, but I've done a little googling on the matter and here's one article that appears to be what you are referring to.

What he actually says is that sometimes war is justified, and that it's too early to say with regards to the war in Iraq.

There's nothing particularly of note in this. Papal doctrine on war is pretty similar, in that it also recognised 'just wars', though it further distinguishes between just reasons for war, and just ways of waging war.

So it's unfair to say that the DL supports the war in Iraq.

Corkonian said...

Hello there,

Thanks for your thoughts and comments. I would like to clarify some of my points.

"But presumably Wen was not suggesting that the DL was blameless".
Agree. In fact, I think Wen was suggesting that the DL bear certain responsibility. However, this is not the same as saying he, personally, has organized the riot Unfortunately, this is the version that has been reported extensively in the west. The difference may seem subtle, but there is some significant political implication. The door is almost shut if the accusation is directed at the DL personally. This is not the case in fact. The Chinese government has always been using that phrase "clique". Particularly in Chinese politics, you have to read between the lines. Wording is very important.

2. "the Chinese government are still refusing to talk to him"

It is not true or at least it is not the whole truth to say the Chinese government are still (or have been) refusing to talk to the DL. In fact, over the past 20 years or so, there have been over 20 meetings between the two sides(the last one took place last year). Therefore, the "refusal" of the Chinese government to talk to the DL is not an outright one as it is broadcast in the western media.

"I remind readers that the Dalai Lama is not looking for an independent Tibet."
This is the common belief in the west. However, this is a doggy issue. The DL certainly has made it clear that he does not look for independence now, but he has also laid out conditions for his version of "autonomy". (He certainly looked for independence before.) Here comes the problem. For example,

"Without seeking independence for Tibet, the Central Tibetan Administration strives for the creation of a political entity comprising the three traditional provinces of Tibet;"
(the DL's Tibet includes "the unification of the three provinces of Tibet". This is the so-called greater Tibet which accounts for roughly one quarter of China (TAR, Qinghai, parts of Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu).)

"As soon as the above status is agreed upon by the Chinese government, Tibet would not seek separation from, and remain within, the People's Republic of China;"

"Until the time Tibet is transformed into a zone of peace and non-violence, the Chinese government can keep a limited number of armed forces in Tibet for its protection;" (A regional government tells the central government when and how to deploy the national military on its territory?)

"The Chinese government should stop its policy of human rights violations in Tibet and the transfer of Chinese population into Tibetan areas;" (Do people have the freedom to live where ever they want in their country? Is it a violation of human rights if some Chinese are not allowed to live in some part of China?)


"I have to say that the logic of your point can be reduced to the following absurdity:
"Those who live in an environment where the information is controlled have a better chance of arriving at the truth""

You have misinterpreted my statement. I have effectively qualified my account with conditions. It should be understood in the way "Those who live in an environment where the information is controlled COULD have a better chance of arriving at the truth".

My conditions are 1. the information is controlled but cannot be fully controlled. 2. Those people live in the places where the issue the controlled information is related to.

A perhaps inappropriate analogy: If the Irish Times states that people on a pacific island eat snakes for their breakfast. Other newspapers report similar stories. Over time, a considerable amount of people will believe that. (why, because the Irish Times and other newspapers are unbiased on many things, they are regarded as free, independent and balanced, relatively speaking) However, if the Irish Times says that Corkonians have snakes as their breakfast, no matter how many times it is repeated and "confirmed" by other media, you don't believe them because you are Corkonian and you live there.

The same goes for the Chinese in general.

I understand that you find it uncomfortable to hear that some people who live in an environment where the information is controlled COULD have a better chance of arriving at the truth than people in an environment where the information is not controlled (in general). However, if the conditions are met, this could be the case.

In relation to the DL's stance on the Iraq war. I did not say "the Dalai Lama had expressed support for the war in Iraq". What I said is "has no problem with the Iraq war". I just find it incompatible with his "peaceful" holy image. Nevertheless, I can understand. After all, would you argue with your banker? He was dodging on the issue, wasn't he?. In my opinion, he is as much a politician as a religious leader

The issue here is a particular war, the Iraq war, not a general academic discussion about wars (justified and unjustified wars).

"John Paul II stated before the 2003 war that this war would be a defeat for humanity which could not be morally or legally justified.In the weeks and months before the U.S. attacked Iraq, not only the Holy Father, but also one Cardinal and Archbishop after another at the Vatican spoke out against a "preemptive" or "preventive" strike. They declared that the just war theory could not justify such a war. Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran said that such a "war of aggression" is a crime against peace. Archbishop Renato Martino, who used the same words in calling the possible military intervention a "crime against peace that cries out vengeance before God," also criticized the pressure that the most powerful nations exerted on the less powerful ones on the U.N. Security Council to support the war. The Pope spoke out almost every day against war and in support of diplomatic efforts for peace."

"What he(the DL) actually says is that sometimes war is justified, and that it's too early to say with regards to the war in Iraq."

This is not the question. Nobody asks him about whether war sometimes is justified, we all know that. Is THIS war justified? "It's too early to say with regards to the war in Iraq." Apparently, John Paul II, and many may people in this world, didn't (don't) think it was too early.

Corkonian said...

By the way, for your information, the DL has got himself off the CIA payroll now, he had to admit his link to the CIA after relevant documents were declassified in the US. His government-in-exile at the moment receives funding, inter alia, from a "NGO", NED (National Endorsement for Democracy), which itself receives funding from the State Department of the United States. It's not all about religion.

Brendan Lawlor said...

Thanks Corkonian. I've definitely learned something from you. Thanks again for the effort of posting.

In case things go down the wrong track, my criticisms of the Chinese government are not based on religion. I don't follow the Dalai Lama, or any other religious leader. I am very sure that the DL is about more than religion.

With regards to pacific island snake-eaters, your analogy is plausible but doesn't take into account that in Cork, mislead newspaper readers could find other sources, including books and of course the internet to check for themselves. If the shoe was on the other foot, and the pacific islanders (living in an information-controlled regime) were told that all Corkonians had snakes for breakfast, there would be no way for them to find out, though they might be inclined towards disbelief (or would they? Are snakes for breakfast so unbelievable?)

Corkonian said...

Brendan,

Thanks for your appreciation.

I hope you haven't formed the impression that I am a Chinese government apologist or a DL demoniser, although I am often interpretated in this way. I would like to be seen as a kind of information "balancer". There is just too much myth surrounding the DL and the movement he has been leading in the west. The DL and his movement certainly have many valid points in their hands. However, they, with the assistant of some people in the west, have also created a lot of myth, made groundless accusations and even told lies about the DL himself and the Tibet issue in general over the past decades. (So have the other side) These myth, accusations and lies, together with their legitimate points, certainly have won the DL and his movement a superstar status in the west. In other words, the DL has won the PR war against the Chinese government on the international stage. However, his PR victory has also made it much more difficult to reach a compromise between the two sides because of the lack of trust created, effectively harming the casue he has been championing.

I can only wait and see history unfold itself.

By any chance, if you develop interest in the Tibet issue, you may have a look at the works of Prof. Goldstein and Grunfeld, which provide a more balanced interpretation in comparison with the propaganda coming from both sides.

By the way, "your man" is gone. You know what I mean later.

Brendan Lawlor said...

Holy cow. That came more suddenly than I expected.