Dalai Lama in Northern Ireland: Notes on the Situation in Tibet [Updated]

Northern Ireland is a long way from Tibet.  But watching the Dalai Lama cross Derry’s “Peace Bridge” this past Thursday, one could be forgiven for imagining that the two worlds were, in fact, intimately related.

The Dalai Lama clearly has much inspiration to offer to Northern Ireland. However, the movement that he leads is experiencing massive stresses, and his peregrinations in Europe are just as important to him as they are for us.

The Dalai Lama is the head of the Yellow Hat sect, the fourteenth reincarnation of his office, and a “living Buddha.” As a child philosopher-king, he received gifts sent from Franklin D. Roosevelt, but made only desultory pushes for Tibet’s claims to sovereignty.

In 1951, the Chinese Communist Party broke Tibet’s isolation, occupying the plateau. 25% of all Tibetan males were monks, and the Chinese were ardent atheists, but efforts were made by both sides to accomodate the other. The Dalai Lama went so far as to meet with Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing. As Tibetans began to be assimilated into CCP’s matrix of “brotherly nationalities,” the Dalai Lama fled in March 1959, and has since led a government-in-exile based in Dharmsala, India.

Today, Tibetan-majority counties and regions are spread all over western China, an area targetted for heavy infrastructural investment. In Lhasa, the CCP pulls up stones worn smooth by decades of pilgrim prostrations, replaces them with new sidewalks and shopping malls, and expects gratitude. Similarly, the Chinese force nomads into new housing clusters that make surveillance easier. Police stations are built inside of monastic compounds and army soldiers do target practice within earshot of holy sites. Development is abetted by Chinese settlers, a new train from mainland China, and a host of new airports.

Tibetan writers are heavily censored; the most admired are sent to jail. Cultural erosion and “bilingual education” skewed toward Chinese is a particular sticking point. 2% of all men are monks, and they first need to undertake a secular state education. Riots are repressed. There are no discussions about the Dalai Lama’s return. The response by some Tibetans to these trends has been to bathe in gasoline and burn themselves to death in public spaces, more than 100 in the past two years.

The rise of self-immolations by Tibetans indicates that the Dalai Lama’s line for peaceful protest is beginning to erode. These acts, undertaken primarily by young Tibetans, underscore the attractions of more dramatic forms of protest. It is indeed shocking to speak with young Tibetans in China, who in one breath will laud the Dalai Lama, and in the next, talk about the need for gallant armed struggle against the occupiers.

Like the hunger strikers during the Troubles, the youth engaged in such protests have brought attention to underlying problems, but they also open up serious questions: What is the actual effect of the protest on the dominating adversary? How many martyrs does a given struggle need? The protestors simply want the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet, and the Chinese to leave, but these are incoate sentiments not to be confused with actual strategy.

Beijing has predictably responded with an uptick in policing, and harsh punishments for those who would abet the protestors. Beijing’s propaganda tags the Dalai Lama as the source of the self-immolations, asserting that he is directing a Tibetan resistance movement inside of China’s borders with the help of American and Indian intelligence organizations. It is difficult to have a reasonable conversation on these topics in Beijing.

Countries that allow the Dalai Lama to visit are occasionally held up for scorn, particularly when civic leaders meet with “His Holiness.” Mayors in Paris as well as Portland, Oregon, have been the targets in recent years of Chinese campaigns to stop so-called “splittist” activity, which can be defined as anything from meeting with the Dalai Lama to celebrations of non-communist-approved Tibetan culture. Accordingly, during the Derry visit, Martin McGuiness and Peter Robinson were nowhere to be seen, surely mindful of their upcoming trade mission to China.

The Dalai Lama is in Derry to celebrate dialogue, but his own movement is at an impasse. There are few viable paths forward for negotiations with Beijing, and the CCP seems merely to be waiting for the Dalai Lama’s death to step in and create a split in the search for his child successor. Radicalism is increasingly attractive to Tibetan youth.

Amid the complex passions of Northern Ireland’s identity politics, the Dalai Lama rings a bell of clarity and appeals for calm. But there are storm clouds over Tibet.

Originally published as “Dalai Lama struggles to retain influence over troubled Tibet,” The Irish Times (Dublin), April 22, 2012, p. 14.

The Dalai Lama in Toulouse: On Soft Power, Le Pen, and Unfallen Shoes

Back in July, while on a late-night stroll through the 5th Arrdondisment looking for Rue Oberkampf, I chanced upon an announcement of the Dalai Lama’s mid-August trip to Toulouse, France, a city which appears to have become a kind of new Buddhist heartland.

To follow up: The Dalai Lama indeed went to Toulouse, and a short clip from a French television station captures very well the local excitement and the huge crowds (over 10,000 attendees, each paying over 100 Euros) garnered by the visit.

Although his speech is a touch impenetrable, I personally enjoy how the 20-something guy standing in line in his sports gear is there to learn from the Dalai Lama about compassion, a value which I also felt exuding from the somewhat drunk but indisputably kind (pre-Buddhists/sloshed Boddhisattvas?) of French origin who I sat next to while taking in the fireworks and getting an earful of Leonard Bernstein and Sinatra on Bastille Day near the Ecole Militaire.

Now that I mention it, there is a working paper to be written somewhere about the battle for hearts and minds, the soft power struggle, undertaken by the Chinese government and the Tibetan Government in Exile amidst the semi-employed post-collegiate white and French-born segment of Europe.  (I say “white and French-born” because it may be that among African-born Francophones in France, Sino-African relations is the terrain upon which China is judged and found wanting, or exemplary; this may be speculation on my part, but a quick glance at the newsstands in France and the predominance of African affairs there argues for my correctness in this small argumentative vector.  Of course white French readers of the press are also concerned with Africa — as are France’s armed and thoroughly multi-ethnic forces — but that is another debate altogether.)

The Dalai Lama’s visit to Toulouse is also an opportunity to contrast how French politicians handle such a visit, as opposed to their American counterparts.  When the Dalai Lama visits Washington, American Republicans waste no time in smashing the administration for not showing His Holiness more respect.  Tibet policy is one of the great unstated, but unquestionable, areas of extreme left-right agreement in the U.S.

On the other hand, France’s answer to the Tea Party, Marine LePen and her National Front, appear to have no comment on the Dalai Lama’s visit.  There is, though, this video of Le Pen holding forth in a small press conference in Toulouse (which includes complaining of the “Islamicization” of France) in which neither China nor the Dalai Lama comes in for discussion (for more on the Petainist origins of the present permutations of the French right wing, see James Shields’ detailed book from 2007).  However, this Marine Le Pen press release from spring 2008, singles out the main object of attack — following in her father’s footsteps of associating French left with the Cultural Revolution — is not the Chinese government but instead a French communist:

Mardi 08 Avril 2008

Du Tibet à Nanterre : le communisme incompatible avec la démocratie

Communiqué de presse de Marine Le Pen

Si les violences commises par le régime communiste chinois au Tibet ont été largement commentées et condamnées par la classe politique, pas une voix ne s’est élevée pour dénoncer les propos stupéfiants du maire communiste de Nanterre, Patrick Jary.

Réagissant le 7 avril dans les colonnes du Parisien au prochain déménagement du siège du Front national dans la préfecture des Hauts-de-Seine, l’édile communiste affirme “qu’il faut que les gens comprennent qu’il y a des lieux où le FN n’a pas le droit de venir”.

Au Tibet comme à Nanterre, le communisme, fidèle à sa vision totalitaire du monde, démontre une fois encore son caractère antidémocratique et la vision toute particulière qu’il se fait de la liberté …

Le Front National dénonce l’hypocrisie d’une classe politique qui sait être bruyante quand il s’agit de stigmatiser les violations des droits de l’homme à l’étranger mais reste étrangement silencieuse quand certaines libertés fondamentales sont bafouées en France.

So much for France.

A week after his Toulouse sojurn, the Dalai Lama was received at Goethe University in Frankfurt, an institution with an already-dynamic Asian Studies profile, particularly via its Interdisciplinary Center for East Asian Studies.  Video of the visit is available here, via Goethe University.

By way of comment: As I was in China during both of these visits, it very much interests me how routinized (which is to say, ignored) the Dalai Lama’s global work has become in the PRC press.  When a prominent French politician — say, the mayor of Paris — wants to make the Dalai Lama an “honorary citizen,” or an American mayor wants to commemorate Tibetan struggles in the month of March, a stink is raised, but by and large, the CCP lets these kind of appearances pass without comment, partially because they have already spent a great deal of their human rights pushback capital on cases like Ai Weiwei.  It may also be because the Dalai Lama is so apparently indefatigable, and there is little that the CCP can gain from railing against his every move.  It is one of the many instances in China where the “hard line” is in reality rather spotty, and applied only exemplary circumstances sufficient to inspire second thoughts about extending an invitation, second thoughts which are then rather easily pushed aside by the original impulse to broaden the scope of the inquiry and bend the ear towards the man in the crimson and gold robes from Dhramsala.


33 Questions on The History of Modern Tibet

Here on Sinologistical Violoncellist, the subject of Tibet seems to be coming up with greater frequency, as it ought to.  After all, the Dalai Lama remains floating through the universe (and the halls of Congress, Richard Gere in tow) dropping rhetorical bombs on Beijing, and Zhongnanhai makes no bones about shutting off all avenues of dialog with the 14th reincarnation.

And thus, apropos of well, this, allow me to state that people who have not read (or are in the process of reading and attempting to digest) Melvyn Goldstein’s relatively new tome on the Chinese Communist Party’s policies in Tibet from 1951-1955 are really missing out.  I believe this is one of the most essential books that anyone can read, and should read, in order to understand the compromises that are both possible and historically relevant between the Chinese and Tibetan leadership, and the inherent conflict in their positions.

Thus, I bring you a few dozen questions (which, unlike most of the material on this blog, I encourage you to plagiarize and modify as you like):

Discussion Questions [by Adam Cathcart] re: Melvyn Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, Vol. 2: The Calm Before the Storm, 1951-1955 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

CHAPTER ONE – Chinese Perspectives

1. On pages 22-25, Goldstein lays out a set of points which are key to understanding the realistic conditions for CCP’s gradualist policy in Tibet.  I presently believe that the CCP were gradualist because they had to be.  Goldstein, on the other hand, never draws this explicit conclusion.  Why doesn’t Goldstein want to discuss more about the motives of the communist leaders?

2. In describing “United Front” (e.g., propaganda) work of the PLA, Goldstein describes Mao’s “carrot-stick” approach toward Tibet.  What are the carrots, and what are the sticks?  Absent the tens of thousands of troops bearing down on Chamdo, could Mao have gotten the Tibetan government to agree to anything?

CHAPTER TWO – Tibetan Perspectives

3. What is the 1914 Simla Convention and why does Prime Minister Nehru get on the phone about it during his meeting with the Tibetans (p. 45)?  Why isn’t India more supportive of the Tibetans in their hour of need?

4. In their first meeting with the new Chinese ambassador to India, Yuan Zhongxian, in September 1950, the Tibetans state that “there is no need to liberate Tibet from imperialism, because there are no British, American, or Guomindang imperialists in Tibet, and Tibet is ruled by the Dalai Lama (not a foreign power).”  Is this a true statement?  If so, then why does the CCP continue to insist that it is liberating Tibet from foreign imperialism?

CHAPTER FOUR – Dalai Lama to Yadong

5.   In Tibet’s appeal to the UN (pp. 90-91), China is pictured as immense and inherently aggressive.  In what ways is the memo’s ultimate suggestion – the dispatch of a UN fact-finding mission to Tibet – both a non-starter with the Chinese and a horrendously belated request for political recognition from the global community?

CHAPTER FIVE – The United States Intervenes

6. Why does Goldstein find it necessary to discuss China’s intervention in the Korean War in late 1950 (pp. 114-115)?  Is it possible that the connection between the war in Korea and the events in Tibet is actually much, much bigger than Goldstein implies? Or is the Korean War irrelevant to events on the Tibetan plateau at this time?

7. In point one “Against the Embassy Proposal,” the author describes how the goal of U.S. policy in China for the past several decades has been to support the “territorial integrity” of China (p. 116).  The Americans threw hundreds of thousands of troops and hundreds of millions of dollars into the Asian theater of World War II to support that policy and back up China’s right to exist.  Why would the Americans have considered throwing out all of that history and investment of blood and treasure in order to advocate a separation of Tibet from China?  Does the U.S. Executive Branch support China’s territorial integrity today?  Does the Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, as she demands a consulate be set up in 2011 in Lhasa?

8.  What is the major problem with the American statement (p. 117) that “we should encourage….Tibet’s orientation toward the West rather than the East”?

9.  If it were possible to find enough information, the trip that never happened of “experienced explorer-scholar Schuyler Cammonn, University of Pennsylvania” to Tibet to spy out the situation in summer 1949 would be a fascinating and very publishable research paper topic (p. 119).  If anyone is interested in hunting down more information about this thread for a possible guest blog post on Sinologistical Violoncellist, please let me know.

10. In U.S. Ambassador to India Henderson’s secret letter to the Dalai Lama, he recommends that his Holiness go into exile in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka).  Why does Henderson recommend this course of action?  Why is this letter not a part of the Dalai Lama’s autobiography or his manga biography?

11. In the 1950s, is the Indian border city of Kalimpong really, as George Patterson called it, a “nest of spies”?

CHAPTER SIX “The Dalai Lama Returns to Lhasa”

12. At the three-day assembly and debate in Yadong, why are the Tibetan monks, including the abbots of the big three monasteries, nearly unanimous in demanding return the Dalai Lama’s return to Lhasa (p. 138)?  How would you characterize the strategy of the three big monasteries in the eight years (1951-1958) of cooperation with the CCP?

13. Namseling is hardcore, the main advocate of rejecting the agreement, and therefore of the idea of perpetuating the notion of a political and cultural Tibet in exile. Why does Namseling oppose China?  What is his particular view of the global role of the question of sovereignty in “keeping the flame of Tibetan independence alive”?   Does history change at all if Namseling wins this argument?

CHAPTER SEVEN – Initial Contacts and Strategies

1. Zhang Jingwu arrives in Lhasa on 8 August 1951.  Given that Mao had proclaimed the People’s Republic on 1 October 1949 (and with the republic, presumably, the victory of the CCP in civil war), doesn’t Zhang’s arrival in Lhasa seem awfully late?  If so, then what does Tibet’s later timetable for consolidation tell us about China’s sensitiveness about “territorial integrity”?

2. Note the pre-arrival stereotypes of the Han Chinese among Tibetans: many Tibetans thought the Chinese might be “devils” of some kind.  How are the imaginations of some Tibetans calmed, and others enflamed, by the appearance of actual Chinese in Lhasa?

3.  Why were songs especially important in Tibet’s political culture?  Hint: Because there were no newspapers in Lhasa before the Chinese showed up!

4. Who is Shelling, the source on pp. 171-172 for Zhang Jingwu’s appearance in Lhasa?  Hint: he’s my old housemate in Cleveland!  I was fortunate to live with linguistically talented and spiritually adept Tibetan aristocrats, via Dhramsala, when I was studying to become a Sinologistical Violoncellist in Cleveland in the late 1990s.

5. How does Lukhangwa fit into contemporary images of Tibet?  Which “side” in the contemporary context is more truthful?  Does Lukhangwa represent an incorrect approach among Tibetans toward relations with China?  Is there such a thing as Tibetan xenophobia, or would that phrase be politically incorrect?

6.  Would Tibet be better off had Sinified Tibetans like Lobsang Tashi been more assertive (p. 193)?

7. How does the fait accompli of the 17-Point Agreement make the sitsab even more hard-line in dealing with initial Chinese military officials in Tibet (p. 174)?

8. Chinese propagandists made promoted many positive images of Zhang’s first month in Lhasa.  In what ways was Zhang’s behavior toward the monasteries patterned after the Guomindang/Nationalist precendent in Tibet? And why, generally speaking, was there no open Sino-Tibetan disagreement in this period?

9. Why doesn’t Lukhangwa’s threat involving “the three jewels and karmic cause” scare the Chinese (p. 176)? Hint: It’s because the Chinese officials are atheists!

10. Would you attribute the first-ever growth of what we would recognize as “civil society” in Tibet to the Chinese pressure (pp. 177-179)?  Is it fair to say that the arrival of the CCP inaugurates a period of real political participation for Tibet’s non-official aristocrat class and others?  If so, doesn’t this render the CCP as a positive force in Tibet?

11.  What was Mao’s strategy with regards to the Dalai Lama?  Does it seem likely, given the reasonably reliable information on p. 179, that the CCP threat to kill the Dalai Lama – a message delivered via his brother from Qinghai (see also Manga Biography pp. 64-69) – is simply false?

12.  Were the communist leaders sincere in their desire to respect Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism (p. 180 ff.)?  Or was the policy merely a necessary short-term accommodation that preceded their true desire: to wipe out the religion and therefore the basic civilization of Tibet?

13.  In what ways is the CCP directive not to stir up class consciousness or attack landowners (p. 183) fundamentally at odds with concurrent political events in China at the time?  What would scholars like Julia Strauss or the author of Words Kill have to say about CCP policy in Tibet in comparison to that in China proper?

14.  In the early 1950s, the CCP leadership insisted that there be no specific timetable set up for Tibet’s fuller integration into the PRC.  In what ways does this strategy mirror Sun Tzu or Chairman Mao’s tactics as described in their respective texts Art of War and On Protracted War?  Does everything that important require a plan with a calendar? Or are flexible principles themselves sufficient grounds for acting efficiently and effectively?  Did the Tibetans fail in the 1950s because of a dearth of ancient and indiginous military texts and strategies?

15. In what way is Lukhangwa the real father of “the Tibetan Resistance”?  Can we speak of a “Lukhangwa model” of resistance today, or have times, tactics, and perspectives changed radically?  In what ways has his strategy failed the Tibetans, particularly in the impulsive and independent character of the resistance?

16. What do you think of Goldstein’s implicit assertion that Tibet weakened itself by truncating the modernizing influence of British-educated Tibetans from 1914-1933?  In what ways did Tibet’s “anti-imperialism” of the 1910s and 1920s – an outlook and violent activity for which the CCP lauds them still – paradoxically leave Tibet unreformed and thus open to Chinese allegations that they, the Chinese, are modernizing Tibet because the Tibetans are incapable of doing the job themselves?

17.  On pages 192-193, Goldstein describes the minor wave of Tibetan students who went to study in the interior of China at places like People’s University in Beijing.  While Goldstein seems to interpret this change positively (or at the very worst, as an anodyne development), Tibetan exiles have since depicted the associated actions as a form of “abduction” by the Chinese, part of a quasi-genocidal process of forced acculturation.  In the long run, why does this topic of Tibetans studying in China matter at all?  Shouldn’t we just be focused on what the Chinese are doing in Tibet itself?

18.  When it comes to Tibetans who admired Chinese modernization and culture in the early- and mid-1950s, the Dalai Lama needs also to be considered (pp. 200-205).  Didn’t these people understand that China was about to embark upon two massively destructive mass campaigns, known as the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which would be very harmful to Tibetans?  If the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Sinified elites had had better foresight, wouldn’t they have gone into exile in 1951 instead of giving the Chinese Communist Party a chance to demonstrate its moderate nature?  Conversely, what is the historical problem with criticizing the young Dalai Lama and others for pro-China tendencies in the mid-1950s?

19.  Of the partially-Sinified and conciliationist wing of the Tibetan elites, few are more influential in the long run than Ngabo.  Do you consider Ngabo a pragmatic patriot or a sell-out?

20.  When is a scholar going to write a historically accurate rap battle between Ngabo and the culturally conservative obstructionist Lukhangwa, giving each man a verse which pivot around a chorus which starts with “khasey dingsey,” which is the Tibetan phrase for “say what your feel and think?”

Brave, Yet Isolated: Cat Surveys Shigatse, The Old Haunts of the Panchen Lama; photo by Adam Cathcart

Dalai Lama in Long Beach, California

In the orbit of the greater Los Angeles area, Long Beach serves a peculiar, often gritty, and vital function.  A few months ago I experienced enlightenment in Long Beach thanks to two gentlemen who had just gotten out of prison for “just stabbing somebody” and were on their way back from an appointment to remove the white supremacist tattoos which were all over their faces.  Slightly post-drunk on a wobbly train, they explained to me so beatifically their new lives in a halfway house: “We have meetings all the time, like ‘Dealing with Anger’ and ‘Growing Up Male’,” they said.

Since my father was, when he was living, a slightly post-drunk janitor who introduced me to more than a few ex-cons and societally marginal figures, and who himself ended up in a halfway house (in a way he never left, really), I think I was more open to the wisdom that flowed from these two men in Long Beach, even though they had horns inked on their temples.  Maybe it was because they offered me some fried chicken and seemed understanding that I was, strangely, without a phone on the Long Beach rail line.

And thus, today, I was pleased to learn that another dispenser of wisdom of a sort, he of the ex-con hairstyle, and a man who lives in a perpetual state of “halfway” (between India and China, I suppose, or between mortality and sacred revolutionary immortality) arrives today in Long Beach!

In other words, the Dalai Lama has arrived in California, having just been in Tokyo.

Since I have been reading Huanqiu Shibao and the (ever-more attuned to the world!) North Korean Central News Agency for my foreign news these past few days, the story had almost passed me by.

As to the venue for the Dalai Lama’s arrival:

Your Holiness, Long Beach is indeed a place which is in great need of some spiritual uplift.  The scientists and narcissistic TED fellows (but how would anyone know about them, were they not narcissists and hucksters of the modern age?) who momentarily clotted up its byways and convention halls were unable to transform this slow-chewing and rust-clotted industrial aperture of Los Angeles, but perhaps you, dear sir, having gone forehead-to-forehead with Chairman Mao, are up to the task.

And now for some footage of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama in Beijing, circa 1954-55!

Additional reading: JustRecently on Wang Lixiong, Tibet, and the indefatigable WOESER

Archival Scraps — Lhasa, October 2010

A fragment of an unfinished op-ed I wrote in the Tibet Autonomous Region last fall:

As October advances, leaves scatter into Lhasa streets full of pilgrims weaving through the occasional knot of Han Chinese and foreign tourists.  According to today’s Tibet Business Daily [西藏商报] , since the National Day holiday started on October 1, the Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR/西藏自治区 ] welcomed 343,770 tourists, a large influx given the region’s relatively sparse population.  The figure, even if it is inflated (as Tibetan friends will assert), represents a 27.5% increase over last year’s official tourist figures from the same fall peak tourism week.  Hotels are going up all over the city, and by next year, a Shangri-La will redefine Lhasa’s luxury market.

(The kindred hotel, the Shangri-La in Chengdu, fills a segment of the riverine skyline outside of my apartment in Sichuan.  The hotel is downright sumptuous to walk through, inducing a kind of pleasurable guilt, sort of like listening to Debussy.)

What Tibetans think about the influx of tourists is a mixed bag.  Does the fact that tourists spent 1.3 million yuan in Tibet this past week help a bit?  Some will complain that Chinese are doing business illegally in Tibet, failing to register their cars and pay tax.  Today’s Lhasa Evening News [拉萨晚报] reports that eleven people were arrested in the past week for failing to register, and for having such illegal items as fake train tickets to Beijing and business cards.

(One never has such a strong sense of the power of the small-scale printing industry as in Tibet; all the photocopiers are in the hands of Han businesspeople and even Tibetan hotels need to take several hours to make photocopies because they first need a Han to sign off on the action.)

In the Dico’s on the edge of the Barkor (the traditional center of the city) and one of the few fast food restaurants, Chinese tourists talk in exaggerated drama about the relative merits of buying real estate in Hangzhou versus that of Shanghai.  Tibetan beggars walk in and are shooed away by the Tibetan employees clad in their Dico’s uniforms; the Muslim restaurant downstairs, by contrast, lets the beggars in freely, figuring that proximity to holy site should inure everyone to the practice.  At night, the Tibetan policemen retire into big white busses, smoking and playing with their cell phones, while posts throughout the darkening city remain manned by People’s Liberation Army troops, Han Chinese from Sichuan, cradling their machine guns.

Since October 3, the public security presence in Lhasa has been less prevalent in the area around the Jokhang Temple, the traditional Barkhor area where protests against Chinese governance have tended to break out.  An immense police station hides diagonally from the exit to the Johkang (newer and larger police stations are being built directly next to large monasteries, such as at Gyandan about an hour from Lhasa), but recently the PLA opened up a little “tea water and newspaper reading area” under the shade at the edge of the square, and a handful of off-duty PLA enjoy some shopping on a day off.

The contrast with spring 2008 was evident, but the scars of March and April of that year are still relatively fresh.  In March 2008, Lhasa exploded into violence, revealing deep ethnic and cultural rifts between Tibetans and the central government in Beijing.  The riots – and the Dalai Lama’s subsequent tour to Seattle – embarrassed China on the international stage and brought home once again the need for reforms on the plateau.   Since 2008, the CCP has made changes, but along the lines of the following formula: Emphasize economic development, increase the number of domestic tourists, reorganize nomads into villages, heighten the political repression, and glaze everything over with gaudy celebrations of an “ethnic unity” which is inevitably led by the Han majority.

The Chinese Communist Party continues to build in strength and consolidate state power in Tibet.  Education is a kind of battlefield of sorts; but is a new class of pro-Chinese Tibetans emerging to undermine the exile movement?

Perhaps this will all work.  A new railroad to Shigatze.  On the road to India, a huge PLA convoy comes from Chengdu.  Tibet is always useful for a reason other than itself.

The Dalai Lama dons mock horns for German photographers unknown, 2008

Robert Barnett, « Melvyn C. Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet. Volume 2: The Calm before the Storm, 1951-1955. », China perpectives [Online] , 2009/3.

Susette Cooke, « Merging Tibetan Culture into the Chinese Economic Fast Lane », China perpectives [Online] , 50 | november- december 2003 .

Melodious Plateau: Politics and Song at Losar (The Tibetan New Year)

[This is a guest post by Kristiana Henderson of Pacific Lutheran University, based upon research begun in Tibet in October 2010 and continued for the duration of that fall in Chengdu and western Sichuan province, PRC.  Henderson uses some Tibetan characters in the post which, depending on your font sympathies and access, may not display in their entirety -- a fitting enough irony considering the content of the post.

Speaking more globally, people whose scholarly gears turn along musicological lines should not miss next week's conference on Asian Pop Music at Princeton University.  It's a great line up, with lots of papers about Japan.  But without any papers about North Korean hip-hop [a subject about which, to my knowledge, I remain the sole academic to have published anything about] or an appearance from Tokyo-London by the art-music-and-”menstruation machine”-generator-provocateur Sputniko!, the conference may be just as notable for what it is lacking.  And thus back to Tibet, and definitions in reference to absence.  — Adam Cathcart]

བགྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས!  Best wishes for ལོ་སར /Losar/Tibetan New Year.

Holidays connected to a particular ethnicity in China have a way of strengthening definitions of what it means to belong to that identity. Losar, usually sandwiched neatly between Chinese New Year and the Iranian/Kurdish/Zoroastrian New Year, is such a holiday: something uniquely Tibetan (or, at least, Himalayan). For Tibet in particular,  this kind of cultural “spin cycle” of Chinese and indigenous holidays has gone even further into overdrive amidst the dual wash cycles of globalization and an increasingly strong presence of Han Chinese culture in Tibetan popular culture and media.

The metaphor of wash cycles, when applied to Tibet, however, may not contain the desired connotations.  Dare I be more explicit in the connotation of white-washing, or, depending on one’s proclivities, ethnic cleansing?

[Having posed a heart-racing question, the author then proceeds to ignore it. - A.C.]

What interests me much more is how cultures — and all of the facets — that go into sculpting cultural identity, regional differences, complexities in beliefs and values, historiographies, and the interweaving of “healthy” and “not-so-healthy” parts of a culture all get instantly stripped into an easily definable “symbolic” package that can be instantly understood, and, in being instantly understood, become better able to be controlled and “sold” for a target demographic.

Tibetan dress, dialect, music and dancing styles, etc. that are unique to regions and class end up cherry-picked, boiled down into a nice jam that can be easily spread over the bland white bread of mass media. Couple this with China’s heavy hand in ethic minorities’ self-expression, and you have the questions surrounding Tibetan identity in a nutshell.

My own interests began with the policy side of things, looking directly at minority language education policy.  In the midst of this research, I decided to “get in the mood” by finding some decent Tibetan music on QQ music, the Chinese portal, or, now back in the U.S., through YouTube, the perennial time death-trap of the collegian. My discoveries led me into a world of synthesizers mixed with traditional instruments, rap mixed with the soulful, plaintive traditional “warbling,” solo singers and mass performances, and music videos dominated by scenes of spinning prayer wheels, men singing in flower fields, and smiling women either dancing or herding yaks

(Occasionally there were some who tried to get a fresher “Hip Hop” image, but due to the lack of quality in the video itself and the self-consciousness of all the performances, it was too painful to continue watching.  Interesting enough that in some of these incorporate a strange mix of “gangster” and “Abercrombie” images….my take-home message seems to be what I noticed just in my travels and interactions in Tibet: whatever is American sells, not only because it’s “cool,” but because it provides a viable alternative to Chinese mass culture.)

[I would also add that much of the Tibetan exposure to what is regarded as hip-hop on the plateau seems to be strained through South Korean idioms and fashion. -- A.C.]

Regardless, the videos left me with questions.  So, if the Tibetans were completely left to their own devices in creating these music videos, and there were absolutely no political constraints on the images and themes they are and are not allowed to broadcast, would there really be this many effing yaks on my computer screen right now?

Cleaned up for academic purposes, I believe it’s a good question to ask, because the implications behind the question are directly related to who is actually in control of how a culture is projected to a larger audience.

Are the images a result of constraints placed by Beijing? Then I’d call it stereotyping and boxing in of a minority culture for post-colonial styles of mass-commodification. If this was truly done free-willingly by Tibetan artists, then I’d suspect the free market, and if the Invisible Hand wants beat-box while milk some sheep on the Tibetan Plateau.  If the latter is the case, then so be it.

How, then, was Losar 2011 presented?  I’ve seen a variety of performances on YouTube already, some involving kids’ shows, some incredibly campy comedy routines centering on illiteracy, that seem more like a daytime slapstick show out of Taibei than Markham, although I doubt even in Taibei they would have a 2008 Beijing Olympics Gift Bag as a prop…. Some have varying levels of “traditional” Tibetan folk costume and dance routines. Some, including some of the advertisements, are in the Tibetan Language (although “surprisingly” many of these have even the tones and inflections of Chinese than even Lhasa Tibetan). Some of the programming is just done straight-up in Chinese and have a few interesting themes woven in besides (check out this one as well), and it’s interesting just to see the theme for comedy material in terms of language used. Also, let’s look at this gem of a bizarre and possibly paternalistic fashion show. Some shows geared for kids, opening up yet another Pandora’s box regarding how to teach kids “how to be Tibetan.”

Simultaneously, there are quite a few popular music videos (I can only guess this is also the case within the 雪城) circulating now around by famous Tibetan singers. The common theme is extolling the virtues of…Tibetan identity. Judging by the fact that these videos were taken from Chinese television channels and/or Chinese Youtube, I can assume that these 土豆videos weren’t TOO hot for the Harmonious Society to handle. But they could be deemed politically “sensitive” nonetheless.

One I  have been enjoying particularly as of late has been a certain Lobsang’s song known in Chinese as 西藏同胞, or Tibetan Brothers/Compatriots…I find neither word to be entirely right, because 同胞 also has implications with coming from the same womb. Hmmm…but doesn’t that seem to stand in stark contrast with China’s concept of 国家, or nationality, that also implies familial ties? Oh, sure, in the background he doesn’t fly the Snow Lion flag, but rather the PRC-okayed multi-colored flag that nondescriptly symbolizes “The Other Chinese.”

But at the same time, considering how much I’ve seen the word “Honda” flashed across the screen, it seems he’s in love with the fact that his motorbike is Japanese as much as the freedom it gives him to roll with his homies (as one Tibetan rather impishly told me, “You see, I’m Tibetan, not Chinese, so I can like Japan!”).

This begs the question:

Is it just me, an outsider back in U.S. territory on the “other side” of the GFW [Great Firewall], or are the “unity themes” in Tibetan music becoming more and more prevalent? Even more, how have these even been able to get through the Chinese media — are they suddenly pulling a [reform-in-Tibet agenda of] Hu Yaobang again? Let’s couple this with the fact that Tashi Dhondhup, a popular singer from Amdo who was just released a few weeks ago from 15 months of “re-education” through hard labor. Considering that unlike most other protest songs in Tibet, which are generally far less blatantly political, I am frankly rather surprised that a singer whose album titled “Torture without Trace” expounded on the unfairness of the “Chinese occupation,” their colonial extractions of Tibet’s resources, the lack of Tibetan rights, sterilization, and other commonly voiced (but seldom published) concerns, received a sentence for “only” 15 months, and that at the end of it, he was released. On a sidenote, I wish he more extrapolated on his concerns about what was happening in Tibet rather than just sang in generalities, but that’s just the empirical part of me speaking; but considering that he didn’t back up his claims in his songs, it makes China’s imperative for his arrest all the more thought-provoking…

To put this further into perspective, it’s still been less than three years since the Tibetan uprisings. And similarly, let’s remember that while there were hundreds of arrests and surrenders in Lhasa, the Tibetan areas in ethnographic Tibet, there were even more outside of the T.A.R.

It’s well understood by both the Western media, Tibet activist groups, and a U.S. Congressional Report that Sichuan province, particularly southern 青海,Ngawa or 阿坝 prefecture in Amdo, as well as parts of 甘孜, or the Kham regions, were also especially strong hotbeds of protest. [The self-immolation of a monk in the Amdo region last week was reported on by both the New York Times and the China Daily. -- A.C.]  The take-home message here is that there is much to be said about hell-raising in the Tibetan areas outside of the T.A.R., and particularly from where Tashi Dhondhup hails. If anything, China should be more concerned (and probably is) about the greater, “Ethnographic” Tibet that includes Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan, since any Tibet independence movement would not be confined to where Beijing drew the lines on the map. And let’s not forget that these areas that also have many more Han Chinese residing…

To broaden the perspective further: as is commonly known both inside of China as well as worldwide, Liu Xiaobo, another protesting jailbird, won the Nobel Prize this year. Also…the snow is melting, and that means Spring, and historically for China, that means it’s Revolution Season. I recall a Chinese guide I met last August in Xi’an, who, on the way to the terra-cotta warriors introduced us to China by describing China as a chicken because of its shape, in which Beijing is the head, Xi’an the heart, Sichuan the stomach, “and Tibet, Well…” he said smugly. (大汉主义, much?) But in all honesty, considering these current trends in Tibetan music that seem to be kindling the flames of separatism, how much is China actually protecting “its ass?”

What, then, would be more subtle forms of subversion?

Correct me if I am wrong, and I’m especially addressing readers who can understand the Tibetan lyrics firsthand and all of their subtle nuances, but it is absolutely not difficult to find potential subversiveness in Tibetan popular music, albeit this is often done through far more subtle hints. Take Sonam Tashi’s song known in Chinese as 思念 or “Longing,” which, according to the translations posted at the bottom, are focused on the singer’s profound grievances that his Lama has passed on to somewhere he can’t go, and he wishes to follow him, asking to fly with the eagles to this distant place. He also sings of his estranged “brothers and sisters.” Am I reading too much into this, or do these lyrics strike anyone else as “saying it without saying it”?

Yadong/亚东, as well as his protégé Gunga/根呷, two other extremely popular Kham singers well regarded by both Chinese and Tibetans (despite the fact that some of his most popular songs, because of their Dalai Lama-related “innuendo,” have also been blacklisted), also wrote of his Lama-lessness. Essentially, the DL’s there, but still kept on the DL.

I should point out: Sonam also has a great motorcycle-based song about Tibetan identity (wonderful jogging music), and Gunga also has a song called 家乡, or Phayul (Homeland), that also extrapolates on a generic sense of Tibetan identity that seems meant more for “rallying the troops” and encouraging Pan-Tibetan pride than subscribing to the Chinese versions of nationality — I recommend just reading between the lines and seeing what they’re not saying about their identity that Hu Jintao would find 完全正确….or absolutely correct, as he said regarding ethnic minority policy back in September 2009.

Perhaps these are just my oversimplifications, but it seems that if you only change a few words around and make it sound like it was just your local guru who kicked the bucket, you can publish your music in China while your own interpretive community gets the last laugh. It’s interesting to note that they all have very popular songs sung in Chinese (think: 卓玛, 彩虹下的心愿, or 姑娘我爱你, or other rather mainstream, classic hits well known even to young Han Chinese), but these tend to be much more romantic, simple, and generic, the Tibetan themes more nicely “packaged” for enjoyment for a greater interest. It’s an easily commodifiable way to present being Tibetan. The songs in their Tibetan language extrapolate on many more religious and political themes, such as the aforementioned 思念¸which, frankly, I’m surprised to see even offered on my QQ playlist (and, frankly, if you’re on QQ music, you’ve won the seal of approval). Download commencing….now.

And again, mostly these political come in the form of rallying for “unity.” Ohhh! How nice! Says 和谐-obsessed Beijing, see? I knew we had something in common!

Suuuure we did, China, suuure we did, responds the rebellious side of Tibetan music.

I’m thinking especially about some of the songs by Sherten/谢旦, who on one hand won the 2009 Tibetan Music Artist of the Year award and has his songs available for download on QQ Music, but on the other, has published songs, the possession of which are considered “illegal” because of their “sensitive topics.” It’s not that he is stigmatized in the PRC, or at least not officially — but word on the street is that the Chinese were randomly stopping to check Tibetans’ cell phones to see if they were carrying his song about “Unity” that calls for Tibetans to put aside their regional differences and see themselves as part of a Pride movement in Pan-Tibetanism. And in this way, all those Chinese-defined borders of 自治区/ 所谓 “Autonomous Regions” would even more lose legitimacy as Tibetans are reminded of the traditional borders of their homeland that imply statehood. The PRC is walking a very thin line, indeed: on one hand, they are “giving the people what they want” by allowing for the natural supply and demand of the market for Tibetan popular music. Academically stated, allowing people to listen to what they want keeps them happy; if they are happy, in theory, they’re less likely to cause riots. But on the other hand, if the songs that make people happy subvert state authority in a nation that has historically had very major issues with handling political discourse, then the line has to be drawn somewhere.

In short: Sherten and Yadong good, but some of their songs bad. Again, we see China pulling a Hu Yaobang and not being straight with their policy on Tibet, because in the end, the Han Chinese may be more willing to chuck this popular culture out as either sentimental drivel or separatist nonsense (IF they are able to get the translations from Tibetan!!), and Tibetans will of course want to embrace the songs of all their compatriots, whether they sing of the women they love, the lamas they miss, or their pan-Tibetan identity on Japanese wheels. Tashi Dhondhup is free, and the 西藏问题continues.


For anyone reading this who knows Tibetan, would it be possible to:

A.     Tell me where this performance by Sherten was held…? Was it in China, India, or elsewhere…?

B.     Confirm for me this case about cell phone “confiscations” related to the Sherten song?

C.     Tell me, what is Gunga singing in Tibetan in 家乡/ཕ་ཡུལ?

Any and all help, comments, or research materials on the above themes would be greatly appreciated.

– Kristiana Henderson, Tacoma, Washington, March 10, 2011

No Silence for the Unsubjugated: Woeser in the Parisian Press

Han ideograms of self-praise tattoo the walls of the echo chamber of the PRC; millions of yuan are tilted downward as if out of dump trucks, rushing into the cultural bureaucracy which promotes an official and commodified version of Tibetan culture.  China is engaged in a great and perpetual project of unification, of 融合 [rong he].   Within that deafening and totalizing discourse of the People’s Republic of China, itself mixed in with no small amount of orientalism diffused in the form of cheap novels and exotic travel magazines, Tibetan writers who attack subjects at variance with the master narrative are, not surprisingly, marginalized.

The Chinese state is itself completely maladroit at self-administering a counterbalance, although small efforts are occasionally made.  A big-budget film about the 1950 liberation of Kangba (western Sichuan/eastern Tibet, which tellingly is administratively shorn from the Tibetan Autonomous Region) includes an oblique apology to Tibetans for the neglect caused by the 1957 anti-rightist movement.  Another small step forward: Melvyn Goldstein (the Rinpoche of Case Western Reserve University, of whose wisdom I partook in Cleveland in the 1990s, living with his Tibetan colleague, a former member of the government in exile and Chinese political prisoner) is allowed to collaborate with colleagues from Lhasa on a ground-breaking and must-read newly-published history of the most significant episode of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet.

But mostly, Tibetans are supposed to keep their mouths shut, or rather, fixed in a rictus while dancing, preferably to a pentatonic tune.

Woeser, the foremost modern Tibetan writer in the PRC, works to a different tune.  Her blog is a tremendous compendium of sources and discussion of Tibet’s past, present, and future, and, more importantly, it is wed to a tremendously productive drive in the realm of publishing.  You know, books! long arcs of data collection, synthesis, revision upon revision, reams of paper, daily experiments in form and expression…  Her new book of Cultural Revolution testimonies is a case in point.  And fortunately, she continues to produce (though under difficult circumstances) and her work has found an ever-wider audience in the West, particularly in Germany (this remarkable book on the Tibetan Aufstand of March 2008) and France/Canada.

And so to my task: a translation of a mainstream Parisian political magazine (roughly the equivalent of Newsweek, but mercifully bereft of Jonathan Alter and the other usual suspects and professional Beltway bloviators) and its profile of Woeser.  The tone is, like many pieces of French journalism which have a quasi-hagiographical function, a bit breathy, but it is nevertheless of interest to me and hopefully of use to you.  Given this blog’s consistent but not fully voluminous attention since mid-2009 to the (rather important) Sino-French dynamics of the Tibet issue, at the very least, it fits.

Ursula Gauthier, “La voix des sans parole: Depuis les emutes de Lhassa (2008) et d’Urumuqi (2009), Pekin a reussi a faire taire les insoumis.  Sauf une Tibetaine et un Ouigour, qui vivent et bloguent dans la capitale [The Voice of Those Without Words: After the Demonstrations in Lhasa (2008) and Urumuqi (2009), Beijing Succeeds in Silencing the Unsubjugated, Except for a Tibetan and a Uighur Who Live and Blog in the Capital],”] Le nouvel observateur, No. 2407-2408 (23 Dec.- 5 Jan.): 51.  Translated by Adam Cathcart.

For all the Tibetans, she is the voice of resistance to the red empire.  Her blog, “Invisible Tibet,” constantly under attack, blocked many times and now hosted abroad, has become the platform for an inventory of the daily violence inflicted on her compatriots.  For her courage, in 2007 Woeser received a Norwegian prize for freedom of expression, and in 2010 an American prize for courage in journalism.  Nevertheless, she does not take on an exalted air.  With her silk scarf, her ethnic jewelry and her fragile grace, she retains the look of a melancholic poetess of 20, broken between two identities.

On the one side, one quarter of her blood is Han: her grandfather was a member of the Kuomintang, her father was a high-ranking communist in the army, she had an exclusively Chinese and atheist education, a “naive belief in the generosity of the Party” extending into the very Chinese characters in which she writes.  On the other side: her “Tibetan soul,” her Buddhist faith and infinite respect in how she, like all of her compatriots, views the Dalai Lama.

It is such an allusion which was found in one of her books in 2003 which deprived her of her post at a literary magazine in Lhasa.  She moved to Beijing and married the writer Wang Lixiong, who is passionate about Tibet and Xinjiang.  These two succeed in putting the condition of China’s ethnic minorities “on the radar of writers” in pro-democratic circles, to render more powerful their interest in the question.  The violations of cultural and religious rights of the non-Han, their brutality, are the subjects of debate in her treatises.

When, in March 2008, the events burst forth in Lhasa, Woeser’s blog, the sole source of information not controlled by the Communist Party, received 3 million clicks: “For my Chinese readers who believed like steel that Mao had ‘liberated’ Tibet, 2008 was a shock, an occasion to discover a bit of true history.”  Did a “pro-minorities” stance successfully follow?  “Not to exaggerate,” she says with a nervous smile.  “There is today a certain sympathy for Tibetans.  It is enormous, if one compares it to the Uighurs who do not receive even a shadow of sympathy.  As for the Mongols, no one gives a damn [tout le monde s'en fiche]…”

On Twitter, where she has 12,000 followers, for the most part Han, Woeser maintains a desperate chronicle of the Tibetan intellectuals who have been arrested — some for a sole article in a scholarly journal [revue savante] — tortured and totally condemned to heavy labor.  Like Kunchok Tsephel, an English professor who was condemned in 2009 to fourteen years in prison for “divulging state secrets” on his literary site.  “I have counted at a minimum of 60 or 70 cases, which do not include similar cases which no one has talked about,” she explains soberly.  “The elites are systematically watched.  But [the authorities] say it is not deliberate.”

There is, sadly, no online version of the above article with which you can check my French.  As compensation, please accept a little outro music for the other side of the Earth…

Nobel Prize Awarded to Liu Xiaobo: A Critique of New York Times Coverage

Surely you all have read Edward Wong’s report in the New York Times about the Nobel Prize award to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.  The full text of the article is here; direct quotes from the article are included below in italics and followed by my analysis.

[Ed Wong writes:] 1. BEIJING — Few nations today stand as more of a challenge to the democratic model of governance than China, where an 89-year-old Communist Party has managed to quash political movements while creating a roaring, quasi-market economy and enforcing a veneer of social stability.

This is quite an opening gambit, and its language (specifically its verbs) deserve a bit of attention.  (Sometimes adjectives are worth the attention, such as the growing trope that China has a “voracious” appetite for natural resources.)  Wong writes that the CCP “Quashes political movements” when the operative verb might also be described as “channel.”  Does the CCP only crush, destroy, repress, or does it also understand, shape, reconfigure political pressures?  The mention of the party’s age (it was founded in 1921) further makes Wong’s gambit a bit strange, as over the course of its history the Party has done a fair amount of stimulating, rather than quashing, political movements in its history.  Perhaps this is not the place to enter into some disquisition on how the galvanizing experiences of the Cultural Revolution have made Chinese leaders since Mao adverse to mass movements (other than those which are nationalistic and relatively easily controlled), but, this party is more flexible and widely (if not uncritically) supported than Wong’s heavy-handed prose would have us believe.

As for the phrase “create an economy,” that’s historically impossible: the CCP inherited a sclerotic and dysfunctional economy from the Nationalists in 1949 and have since revived it.  As for the phrase “enforcing a veneer of social stability,” Wong leaves out that social stability is in large part supported by the Chinese masses, but, more importantly, such statements also contain implicit threats to the regime: you could be exposed and overthrown.

In other words, with the opening paragraph, Wong makes plain that his article will also function on the polemical level, and that Liu represents defiance of something immense and consequential.

[Wong writes:] 2. With the United States’ economy flagging and its global influence in decline, some Chinese leaders now appear confident in asserting that freedom of speech, multiparty elections and constitutional rights — what some human rights advocates call universal values — are indigenous to the West, and that is where they should stay.

Here Wong leaves out the complexity of the human rights and democracy debate in China, leaving Wen Jiabao’s recent discussion of democracy as a peripheral concern.  Of course Western leaders and journalistic institutions like the NYT have a difficult choice to make: validate Wen and appear to endorse slow pace of reform, or ignore/refute him (the same as accusing him of insincerity) and undermine his work domestically.  Being the CCP isn’t easy because you rarely get validated from the outside, in some ways paradoxically heightening the need to bluster and puff one’s party up domestically, which the CCP is really very good at and obvious about anyway.

[Wong writes:] 3. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, 54, was a sharp rejoinder to that philosophy. Of course, it was a Norwegian panel that gave him the prize, providing Chinese officials and their supporters with ample ammunition to denounce the move as another attempt by the West to impose its values on China.

Context, context: What Wong is missing is that the Nobel announcement arrives at a moment when the CCP media has been slowly amping up the nationalistic rhetoric (in which the West is seen as overbearing and arrogant, of course).  This comes within a host of issues ranging from the Diaoyu Island dispute (which the Huanqiu Shibao fairly blamed on Douglas MacArthur extending favors to the Japanese in 1952), and the return of the Yuanmingyuan trope (150 year anniversary) and of course the main event: currency pressures.

4. But anticipating the criticism, the judges underscored the support in China for the imprisoned Mr. Liu’s work and his plight, which they said proved that the Chinese were as hungry as anyone for the political freedoms enjoyed in countries like the United States, India and Indonesia.

Virtually no Chinese intellectuals are serious about imitating India!  And they don’t want to be Indonesia.  And they don’t want to be Americans!

Read Daniel Bell and discuss the potency and problems of the Confucian human rights models.  In Wong’s world, these don’t exist: it’s either Chinese totalitarianism (which may as well be Stalinism, true enough as they share common DNA) or Western droit de l’homme.  There is no time to explore middle ground.

5. The Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader who won the prize in 1989, highlighted the grass-roots Chinese push for political reform in a statement praising Mr. Liu, saying that “future generations of Chinese will be able to enjoy the fruits of the efforts that the current Chinese citizens are making towards responsible governance.” Yet the Dalai Lama stands as proof that the struggle for rights in China is a hard one, and that winning the Nobel is no guarantee of achieving even minimal success.

Quote number one comes from Dahramsala or wherever his Holiness is raising funds at the moment.   The Dalai Lama does of course have a right to talk about China’s legal future, and the struggle for individual rights, but Wong’s verdict is just overly didactic.   Obviously, the Dalai Lama has a good and reasonably uncritical friend in the New York Times.  Just as clumsy Global Times front page articles that call the Dalai Lama a “jackal” need to be criticized, the type of hagiographical serial worship that Wong applies to the Dalai Lama need similar rebuke.  Why the first quote and the explication of inspiration?  This belongs at the back of the article, and overly didactic news writing that is actually editorial belongs in the op-ed pages.

6. Nevertheless, the number of signatures on Charter 08, the document that Mr. Liu co-drafted that calls for gradually increasing constitutional rights, shows that at the very least, there is an appetite in this country to openly discuss the kind of values that hard-line Communist Party leaders dismiss as a new brand of Western imperialism.

Which is why Wen Jiabao is doing that.  (Update: China Media Project has a good takedown on Wen Jiabao’s sincerity towards liberalization.) But one has to read the French press to get a full look at Wen.  The analysis of “a new brand of Western imperialism” is right on the mark, however.  And keeping in mind that China needs to remain friends with nearby North Korea, these kind of denunciations have more than just domestic use.

7. The 300 initial signatures on the document snowballed to 10,000 as it spread on the Internet, even as the government tried its best to stamp it out. Certainly many of those who signed it were intellectuals, not exactly representative of most Chinese, but China has a rich history of political reform led by its elites. Chinese lawyers, journalists, scholars, artists, policy advisers — many among them will be heartened by the Nobel Committee’s decision.

Yes, elites have a history of leading Chinese public opinion; and “heartened” is probably true, but again, it really feels that this sentence is op-ed style.  Of course there is no public opinion poll in China…it’s worth noting that the news is widely available in China, not trying to block its diffusion in foreign languages.  As a mere point of fact, the NYT used to be blocked in Chinese internet completely, now it isn’t.

8. The Internet, the vehicle that carried Charter 08 to prominence, simmered with Chinese support for Mr. Liu early Friday night despite extensive government filtering. Liu Xiaobo was the most common topic on Sina.com’s Weibo, a popular microblog forum. Microbloggers burned with enthusiasm for the prize and hurled invective at the government: “Political reform and the Nobel Prize, is this a new start? This day has finally come,” wrote a user named Nan Zhimo. Another user, Hei Zechuan, said, “The first real Chinese Nobel Prize winner has emerged, but he is still in prison right now; what a bittersweet event.”

This is such a tricky journalistic maneuver.  On the one hand, it’s great: “Look, actually Chinese debate on the internet!”  On the other hand, it is specious, because basically you can find whatever you want on the internet.  The same tactic is often used by Global Times to support its own point of view, finding a netizen to quote.  For American/Anglophone readers, the image is given of a China seething (oh, sorry, “simmering”) with support for Liu Xiaobo, when in fact the vast majority of Internet users in China are either unaware of the award or are trashing the West online.  I wish that the New York Times would distinguish itself a bit from Global Times.  Get a quote from Michael Anti or other Chinese tweeters!

Instead we get:

9.But the authorities clung to their habits on Friday night, as police officers showed up at celebratory gatherings in Beijing and Shanghai to haul people off to police stations, according to Twitter feeds.

Now we arrive at something significant, an actual event.  At the very least, couldn’t Wong quote the Twitter feeds which reported on the event?  Does he read Chinese?  (Perhaps he does, like the Reuters reporter Chris Buckley, but his reporting rarely betrays the fact.)  Do we need to rely on NYT fixers to get information about this dastardly chain of events?  It appears so, because the link in the story is not to specific Twitter feeds, but to more NYT articles about Twitter, just what China watchers are needing, surely!  This is vague reporting in the extreme, but fortunately Wong reminds us that “the authorities clung to their [authoritarian] habits.”  Emotion rules over factual clarity, which is a shame, because clarity had a chance of succeeding here.

10. The rest of the article is solid, and we get a sense of inner-Party debates, all of the discussion of Wu Bangguo vs. Wen Jiabao takes place well “below the fold,” and after the gratuitous Dalai Lama references.  Recognizing that these things are written quickly, I still can’t help but feel that the guts of such an article, the political background, have been sitting on Wong’s harddrive for more than a year, and that the New York Times all to often resorts to using formula in its reporting on China.

With a nod to this takedown of the Huanqiu Shibao/Global Times skewed reportage on the Dalai Lama, I’m presenting:

How to Write About Chinese Dissidents for the New York Times

1. Cogitate on some prose about China’s refusal to reform politically, let it marinate until the next time you need some boilerplate material on a story dealing with the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party.

2. Get a VPN, hire some Chinese fixers fluent in Chinese to read Twitter feeds; don’t actually quote or cite those feeds, but be proud of yourself for adding a veneer of authentic “Chinese dissident reporting” that gives your writing a kind of underground flavor for your fellow Anglophone readers.

3. Don’t call anyone in Hong Kong: let the AP images from the city of faceless people behind placards suggest vast reservoirs of support for his cause, the way that the same crazy guy  in Seoul who burns the same pictures of Kim Jong Il every time North Korea does something suggest vast antipathy toward the DPRK in South Korea.

4. Don’t mention anything about EU politics of human rights or anything specifically European; don’t mention that Angela Merkel and the German press have been advocating for Liu Xiaobo for a while now; American readers won’t understand!  When talking about Wen Jiabao, do not mention that he was in Europe when the Nobel Prize was awarded or mention that it was a slap in the face to him politically as well.  Assume that Wen Jiabao isn’t worth a full feature such as is given to Bob Gates/profile in Newsweek.  Your editors aren’t interested in that kind of stuff, so get thinking about how to write yet another piece about China’s economic takeover of Africa or Afghanistan.

5. Don’t give any background at all about Liu Xiaobo, his writings, his experience of 1989, other than a vague appraisal of Charter 08; assume that he is an infalliable dissident who must have been pronouncing correct verdicts on Chinese politics since the Cultural Revolution.  Dissidents don’t need scrutiny of their views, they need support!  The central problem is the CCP, not what the dissidents would want to see in an alternative system!  In this case, the NYT is just as complicit as the CCP in hamstringing political reform in China: no one seems willing to discuss the actual alternative at length.  What other political parties?  What about the Taiwan model?  Who is influencing whom?  We won’t ever know.  Instead it reads like 1989…

6. Don’t give the CCP any credit whatsoever for expanded literacy in the rhetoric of rights; instead, make sure to emphasize jack-booted thugs.  Remember, your competition is the cro-mag-rightist Washington Times and FOX News, not the French press!  And you’ve got to keep your credibility with the American right wing, who after all is the loudest, Bill O’Reilley and all that.

7.  Acknowledge not the views of Chinese-Americans.  Assume instead that they are all lined up behind Ed Wong in staunch support of censure of the CCP, as if nothing has changed since 1989.  Chinese=Americans are a highly diverse and increasingly powerful and prominent group in all areas of life in the United States.  Does a single group exist that could be quoted on the Liu Xiaobo case?  Does the CCP argument have traction among former democracy activists in the US?  What might this tell us about support for the CCP within China, where as Wong points out, media is more limited?  What does the absence of this quote tell us?

8. All articles about human rights in China must include a quote from his Holiness.  The Dalai Lama is the foremost pure symbol of Chinese deficiencies in human rights, a role he has been steadily filling.  Who better to speak about human rights in China than someone who hasn’t set foot in the PRC since 1959?  Keep in mind that mention of this man will draw in readers and make the stakes plain.  We don’t need to be bothered with Liu Xiaobo’s views on the Tibet question (obviously, all Chinese intellectuals are in bed with the Dalai Lama and long for Tibetan independence, right?)…

9.  When discussing specific Chinese dissidents, don’t’ bother giving Chinese characters for their names or links to online profiles, or the names of the organizations they lead.  It’s important that they stand up as stock figures who can’t be learned about even by readers who are fluent in Chinese!  What matters is that they stand up for democracy!

10.  Don’t describe Chinese media response other than to remind us all that the jack-booted thugs police the internet.  Readers don’t need any clue that the Liu Xiaobo case was discussed in prominenent outlets (in their own jaded way) such as X Z Y, [correction! blame it on the 1:59 a.m. post from a posh Chengdu cafe with 39 yuan-a-cup-java that was closing at 2 a.m.] or that it was easily available within China for 200million English readers, users of Yahoo mail, etc.  If Chinese leaders wanted to quash discussion of this among elites, etc., they weren’t trying very hard. [Update: Word on the street among Chengdu students at Sichuan University is that the heavy filtering of text messaging and the shut down of microblogging platforms and the ubiquitous QQ actually made more people interested in what they were missing.  By the same token, I went to a little salon of Chinese intellectuals/知识分子 last night in Chengdu and the subject of Liu Xiaobo never came up, maybe because we were having too much fun learning Tibetan, playing music, and throat singing with censored poets.]

11. Never, never, never write about the deep damage done to the American model of human rights defense and democracy by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Chinese media cover these conflicts extensively.  Do not at any point mention the demoralization of pro-American sentiments in China and among Chinese intellectuals; the bankruptcy off the American economy is OK to mention (hell, it gets the second paragraph of the piece!) but under no circumstances contextualize the Chinese search for a viable model by discussing the undermining of the American model by the Iraq fiasco.  Ed Wong was in Iraq, for goodness sake!   And what did Liu Xiaobo say about the American model of democracy?  What did he write, apart from Charter08?  Who knows and who cares?  What matters is that he stands up to the CCP in the most generic way possible!

The New York Times: standing up to Chinese Communists since 1949…

Notes from Lhasa

Through some magnificent quirk of fate I am in Lhasa, and it is National Day in the PRC.  On this cool autumn morning, I stood on the long stone steps of the Potala Palace, watching phalanxes of People’s Liberation Army troops pour out in succession — their chests thrust forward, expansive, the sounds of their military songs beating sharply off of the white and red walls of the palace — onto the main square on Beijing Road.  Under the shadow of the Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, they stood in perfect formation near an equally large cluster of middle school students standing under the insistent mountain sun.  Later, a small crowd gathered on the north side of the street to watch this probably made-for-TV spectacle, and trucks arrived to disgorge yet more PLA.

I watched this last event unfold from the Dalai Lama’s former living quarters, leaning over a golden cushion along with two young and almost laconic Han Chinese security officers.  “They haven’t started yet,” said one to the other as we all stared out the Dalai Lama’s window, the shutters open to admit a comfortable breeze and the sounds of canned mainland patriotic pop.  I asked one my students to take a picture, and then moved on, blending in as I could with a line of Tibetan pilgrims from the Amdo region, who alternately spread butter into burning candle bowls or fed little rice crackers to their children who themselves might be reincarnations of one of the greats buried in the vaults of this building of accumulation.

I spend an afternoon at the home of Tashi Tsering.  He says, nearing the end of a two-hour conversation in which so much good praise is levied upon all manner of good works (including Chinese), he says “The soldiers on my roof.  They are there since Olympic Games.  Why?  I do not own a weapon.”  Mainland pop songs play in an endless loop into his window from the Dico’s next door.

History is jumbled.  Tibetans frequently refer to the “peaceful liberation of  Tibet” as if it happened in 1959.  No one seems to miss the British.  Back home, French bureaucrats assert that China stays in Tibet mainly to control the water of South Asia, or report that Tibet Airlines will begin business in 2011, or lay out one of the more in-depth articles you will see on the subject of succession politics surrounding the current Dalai Lama.

China’s wave of foreign investment is skirting India, the Dalai Lama visits friendly territory in Catholic Bavaria, and the intrepid Liberation reporter Philippe Grangereau sends in a report on quiet Dalai Lama worship in Gansu province.

Chengdu feels like a million miles away.

Portland, Tibet, and “Meddling in Internal Affairs”

Just two hours south of my present position lies the city of Portland, Oregon, a utopian and somewhat left-wing city enamored of coffee, bicycles, religious tolerance and sustainable living.   It is, at least as cities go, a bit remarkable.   It is also one of the more friendly places in North America for people who believe that Chinese policy in Tibet is without moral justification.

On March 8, The Oregonian, Portland’s major newsdaily, reported the following:

Officials with the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco slipped through a peaceful ring of Tibetan supporters at Portland City Hall today to meet with city Commissioner Randy Leonard and Mayor Sam Adams.

At issue was a proclamation by Adams last week making this Wednesday, March 10, “Tibet Awareness Day” in Portland…. Leonard said the Chinese delegation asked that the city rescind the proclamation, order a new proclamation in support of China, and deny Tibetans a planned celebration at City Hall on Wednesday. Leonard said no to all three requests; he said he expected the mayor to do the same. (Read more from Leonard here.)

More than 50 supporters of Tibetan independence gathered outside City Hall Monday, according to Namgyal Gyalnub, who is with the Northwest Tibetan Cultural Association, which organized the rally. She estimates about 450 to 500 people of Tibetan ancestry live in Portland and in Southwest Washington. “We are here to say thank you” to the council, Gyalnub said. And she wanted to send the message to visiting delegates that in the United States, there is freedom of speech and religion.

Fearing a confrontation with Tibetan demonstrators at City Hall, the consulate asked to meet Leonard at the University Club.  Well, reflecting casual Northwest sensibilities, “I said I’m not allowed at the University Club because I wear jeans,” Leonard noted.

Thus they were forced to stalk the city streets in search of the mayor’s office:

Members of the Chinese Consulate - San Francisco in Portland, Oregon, USA, on their way to accost the mayor -- photo courtesy Northwest Tibetan Cultural Association

Video of the confrontation between the Consulate members and the gauntlet of pro-Tibet protestors is here on the local Fox affiliate.  The most comprehensive set of links on the story is on the Northwest Tibetan Cultural Association website (link by clicking the photograph above).  City council member Randy Leonard’s website is today displaying photos of the Tibetan flag raising at City Hall.

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama is ramping up his rhetoric in India.

The big story, however, is that the Global Times in Beijing has picked up on the incident and has thrown it like a dry log on the narrative pyre whereby China is all things reasonable and the United States is all things aggressive.

Here is the heart of the Huanqiu Shibao/Global Times article entitled 美国一城市为“藏独”设纪念日 遭中美民众谴责, or, roughly, “One American City’s Plan to Commemorate ‘Tibetan Independence’ Provokes Condemnation from the Chinese and American People” [ed.: and by "the American people," the headline presumably refers to this person, the author of the above dissenting comment on the Oregonian website!] — rough translation by Adam Cathcart

据美国“俄勒冈直播”网站8日报道,俄勒冈州波特兰市日前不顾中国方面的强烈反对,将3月10日设立为所谓的“西藏自觉日”(Tibet Awareness Day)。波特兰市市政委员兰迪•莱昂纳多还极力声援“藏独”在市政厅举行庆祝活动。According to a March 8 report on the American website , “Oregon Live,” the city of Portland, Oregon has recently decided to establish a so-called “Tibet Awareness Day” on March 10 despite strong opposition from the Chinese side. Not only that, but Portland City Council member  Randy Leonard will strongly support “Tibetan independence” in  the City Hall celebration.

中国学者李伟9日接受《环球时报》记者采访时表示,美国少数政客歪曲他国事务,拿敏感话题进行表演,实际是为自己谋取政治利益。Chinese scholar Li Wei agreed to an interview with “Global Times” on March 9th, emphasizing that a small number of U.S. politicians distort other country’s affairs, taking sensitive topics as opportunities for performances which in reality only serve their own political gain.

报道称,波特兰市市长山姆•亚当斯上周宣布将3月10日设为“西藏自觉日”,并称这样做是呼应“越来越响亮的要求西藏从中国独立的国际呼声”。市政委员莱昂纳多力挺亚当斯,并对外宣称这一切都是自己的功劳,“在同中国打交道时,就是不能放弃言论和宗教自由的原则”。 The [Oregonian] report stated [ed. Obviously the Li Wei quote was spliced in rather quickly above, as “the report” has already been superseded by “the interview”] that Portland Mayor Sam  Adams announced last week that March 10 would be “Tibet Awareness Day” and said doing so would echo the “increasingly loud international voice demanding independence of Tibet from China.”  Council Member Leonard backed Adams, but in dealing with outsiders claimed the credit for himself, stating “in dealing with China, [we] cannot abandon the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”

这些干涉中国内政的做法遭到中方反对。 This interference in China’s internal affairs is resolutely opposed by the Chinese side.

中国驻旧金山总领馆派出7人代表团前去交涉,要求波特兰市政委员会撤销错误决定,取消将在10日举行的庆祝活动并发表支持中国政府的声明。然而,中方的要求遭到拒绝。亚当斯的发言人表示,他们的决定仅是为了唤起人们对西藏的关注。  至于某些藏族人要在市政厅举行集会,他说:“这是栋公共建筑”。  The Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco sent a seven-member delegation to discuss the matter with the opposing side, requesting that the Portland City Council revoke its erroneous decision and abolish the celebratory activities of the 10th, and instead publish a statement supporting the Chinese government. However, China’s demand was rejected. Adams’ spokesman said their decision was meant only to arouse people’s attention to Tibet. As for the idea of Tibetan people (藏族人) holding a rally in City Hall, he said: “This is a public building.”

莱昂纳多更是出言不逊。他声称他本人不同意中方的要求,所以市长也不可能改主意。他还宣布取消原定今年6月对姐妹城市苏州的访问,并表示宁可不和中国做生意也不能“牺牲言论自由”,因为“那样意味着出卖我们城市的原则”。[Council Member] Leonard’s words were even more disrespectful. He claimed that he himself would not agree to China’s demands, so the mayor also would not change his mind. He also announced the cancellation of this year’s scheduled June visit to the sister city of Suzhou, expressing a preference not to do business with China as [it would mean that we would] “sacrifice freedom of speech” and “sell out our city’s principles.”

据波特兰市新闻周报“Williamlette Weekly”报道,消防员出身的莱昂纳多在市政委员会大权独揽,与同性恋市长亚当斯的关系非常好,在亚当斯“性侵害幼童”案件曝光后曾为其大力奔走。在莱昂纳多的极力鼓动下,亚当斯代表波特兰市市政委员会宣布用“西藏自觉日”来纪念“为了宗教和政治自由而丧生的120万西藏人”。而就在中国代表团抵达之前,莱昂纳多还在市政厅前和“藏独”示威者握手并合影。 According to reports by the Portland news magazine “Willamlette Weekly,” Leonard comes to lead the municipal with a family background in firefighting, and had a very good relationship with the gay mayor Adams until the “sexual assault of young children incident” was exposed and he rapidly distanced himself. Under the vigorous agitation of Leonard, Adams declared “Tibet Awareness Day” on behalf of the Portland Municipal Committee in order to commemorate “religious and political freedom of the 1.2 million Tibetans who have lost it.” Moreover, before the Chinese delegation arrived, Leonard stood in front of the city hall and shook hands with the demonstrators for “Tibetan independence,” posing for a joint photo.
中国现代国际关系研究院安全与战略研究所所长李伟9日对《环球时报》记者表示:“美国人总觉得自己是世界警察,肆无忌惮地干涉别国内政。凭借自己的一超地位,美国折腾出不少事情,而国际上很多矛盾的引起和激化背后都有美国因素在起作用。” Li Wei, the director of Security and Strategic Studies at the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations, told a “Global Times” reporter on March 9: “The Americans always feel that they are the world’s policeman, shamelessly interfering the internal affairs of other countries. Relying upon their superior position, the United States continues to toss out a not insignificant number of intrigues, but, on the international stage, one can see the excitement and intensification of contractions at work behind the American actions. “
波特兰市政委员会的做法遭到当地华裔商界以及部分美国民众的谴责。The Portland City Council has encountered condemnation from the local ethnic Chinese business community and from a section of the of the American people.

The Global Times article concludes with the sentence:  有美国网民在“俄勒冈直播”的报道后留言说:“散发着臭气的莱昂纳多和他的同伴,别把拱猪槽的鼻子伸到根本不懂的国际关系上去,还是专心处理波特兰自己的 事情吧,” which is an incomplete translation of this completely random and somewhat insane internet comment:

Stinky Randy and his sidekick the child molester should stick to the business of Portland and keep their porcine public trough grubbing snouts out of international relations they do not understand.

Why this merits inclusion in a for inclusion in a real newspaper article from an outlet that is presumably interesting in getting a modicum of respect on the global stage is beyond me.  And yes, that is how low we have sunk.  Global Times is reduced to quoting some hack, but doesn’t even get the quote right, indicating they are probably even less careful when a 50-cent party quoter is involved.

Further Reading:

- China Digital Times, “China and Tibet Spar at a Film Festival” has commentary and additional links on the New York Times story about the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles sending a delegation in Jan. 2009 to trip up the screening of a film about Tibet in the California desert

- Video and on-site story by Richard Read (the Oregonian) on how China’s “rural boom” is being sped in Anhui by production contracts with Oregon companies Patagonia and Nike.

- Story on Portland architects assisting with “green construction” in China

- Congressman David Wu (D-Oregon), and his March 9, 2010 proposal for a “Global Internet Freedom Caucus” which will be holding hearings on the Google-China issue.

- Sinologistical Violoncellist, analysis of  “Paris Mayor Insists on Disturbing China: 87% of Huanqiu Shibao Internet Voters are ‘Resolutely Opposed’ to Paris Offering the Dalai Lama ‘Honorary Citizenship’,” Huanqiu Shibao, June 8, 2009, front page [“巴黎市长执意冒犯中国: 87%的环球网投票者‘坚决反对’巴黎授达赖 ‘荣誉市民’”,环球时报,6月8日,首页].