How The Western Media And The Tibetan Elite Hijacked The Tibet Issue

(New York Times)  Chinese Students in U.S. Fight View of Their Home.  By Shaila Dewan.  April 29, 2008.

When the time came for the smiling Tibetan monk at the front of the University of Southern California lecture hall to answer questions, the Chinese students who packed the audience for the talk last Tuesday had plenty to lob at their guest:

If Tibet was not part of China, why had the Chinese emperor been the one to give the Dalai Lama his title? How did the tenets of Buddhism jibe with the “slavery system” in Tibet before China’s modernization efforts? What about the Dalai Lama’s connection to Hitler?

As the monk tried to rebut the students, they grew more hostile. They brandished photographs and statistics to support their claims. “Stop lying! Stop lying!” one young man said. A plastic bottle of water hit the wall behind the monk, and campus police officers hustled the person who threw it out of the room.

Scenes like this, ranging from civil to aggressive, have played out at colleges across the country over the past month, as Chinese students in the United States have been forced to confront an image of their homeland that they neither recognize nor appreciate. Since the riots last month in Tibet, the disrupted Olympic torch relays and calls to boycott the opening ceremony of the Games in Beijing, Chinese students, traditionally silent on political issues, have begun to lash out at what they perceive as a pervasive anti-Chinese bias.

Last year, there were more than 42,000 students from mainland China studying in the United States, an increase from fewer than 20,000 in 2003, according to the State Department.

Campuses including Cornell, the University of Washington in Seattle and the University of California, Irvine, have seen a wave of counterdemonstrations using tactics that seem jarring in the American academic context. At the University of Washington, students fought to limit the Dalai Lama’s address to nonpolitical topics. At Duke, pro-China students surrounded and drowned out a pro-Tibet vigil; a Chinese freshman who tried to mediate received death threats, and her family was forced into hiding.

And last Saturday, students from as far as Florida and Tennessee traveled to Atlanta to picket CNN after a commentator, Jack Cafferty, referred to the Chinese as “goons and thugs.” (CNN said he was referring to the government, not the people.)

The student anger, stoked through e-mail messages sent to large campus mailing lists, stems not so much from satisfaction with the Chinese government but from shock at the portrayal of its actions, as well as frustration over the West’s long-standing love affair with Tibet — a love these students see as willfully blind.

By and large, they do not acknowledge the cultural and religious crackdown in Tibet, insisting that ordinary Tibetans have prospered under China’s economic development, and that only a small minority are unhappy.

“Before I came here, I’m very liberal,” said Minna Jia, a graduate student in political science at U.S.C. who encouraged fellow students to attend the monk’s lecture. “But after I come here, my professor told me that I’m nationalist.”

“I believe in democracy,” Ms. Jia added, “but I can’t stand for someone to criticize my country using biased ways. You are wearing Chinese clothes and you are using Chinese goods.”

Students interviewed for this article deplored the more extreme expressions of anger, like death threats against the Duke freshman and the tossing of the water bottle, and pointed out that Chinese students had little experience in the art of protest. But, they said, they could also understand them.

“We’ve been smothered for too long time,” said Jasmine Dong, another graduate student who attended the U.S.C. lecture.

By that, Ms. Dong did not mean that Chinese students had been repressed or censored by their own government. She meant that the Western news media had not acknowledged the strides China had made or the voices of overseas Chinese. “We are still neglected or misunderstood as either brainwashed or manipulated by the government,” she said.

No matter what China does, these students say, it cannot win in the arena of world opinion. “When we have a billion people, you said we were destroying the planet./ When we tried limiting our numbers, you said it is human rights abuse,” reads a poem posted on the Internet by “a silent, silent Chinese” and cited by some students as an accurate expression of their feelings. “When we were poor, you thought we were dogs./ When we loan you cash, you blame us for your debts./ When we build our industries, you called us polluters./ When we sell you goods, you blame us for global warming.”

Rather than blend in to the prevailing campus ethos of free debate, the more strident Chinese students seem to replicate the authoritarian framework of their homeland, photographing demonstration participants and sometimes drowning out dissent.

A Tibetan student who declined to be identified for fear of harassment said he decided not to attend a vigil for Tibet on his campus, which he also did not want identified because there are so few Tibetans there. “It’s not that I didn’t want to, I really did want to go — it’s our cause,” he said. “At the same time, I have to consider that my family’s back there, and I’m going back there in May.”

Another factor fueling the zeal of many Chinese demonstrators could be that they, too, intend to return home; the Chinese government is widely believed to be monitoring large e-mail lists.

Universities have often tried to accommodate the anger of their Chinese students. Before the Dalai Lama’s visit to the University of Washington, the campus Chinese Students and Scholars Association wrote to the university president expressing hopes that the visit would focus only on nonpolitical issues and not arouse anti-China sentiments. According to a posting on the group’s Web site, the university president, Mark A. Emmert, told them in a meeting that no political questions would be raised at the Dalai Lama’s speech. A spokesman said the university, which opened an office in Beijing last fall, had prescreened student questions before the Chinese students voiced their concerns.

Some experts say that colleges feel constrained from reining in the more extreme protests through a combination of concerns about cultural sensitivity and a desire to expand their own ties with China.

“I think there tends to be a great deal of self-censorship,” said Peter Gries, director of the Institute for U.S.-China Issues at the University of Oklahoma, “and not just among American China scholars but among the whole web of people who do business with China, including school administrators.”

At the U.S.C. lecture, the Chinese students arrived early to distribute handouts on Tibet and China that contained a jumble of abbreviated history, slogans and maps with little context. A chart showing that infant mortality in Tibet had plummeted since 1951, when the Communist Chinese government asserted control, did not provide any means for comparison with mortality rates in China or other countries.

One photograph showed the Dalai Lama with Heinrich Harrer, author of “Seven Years in Tibet” and a one-time member of the Nazi Party — hence the question about the Dalai Lama’s connection to Hitler, who died when the Dalai Lama was nine. The question about slavery referred to the feudal system in place in Tibet until the mid-20th century. Another photograph purported to show a Tibetan drum that, according to the caption, was covered with “a virgin girl’s skin.”

The students said they were frustrated by a sense that many accounts of the recent riots did not reflect the violence and destruction by the Tibetan protesters, who vandalized shops owned by Han Chinese (the ethnic majority in China). According to official Chinese news sources, 22 died in the rioting.

Much of the anger has the tenor of disillusionment. During the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the Western news media was seen as a source of otherwise elusive truth.

“We thought Western media is very objective,” said Chau Wu, a 28-year-old working on his doctorate in material science, “and what it turned out is that Western media is even more biased than Chinese media. They’re no better, and even more, they’re against us.”

Students argue that China has spent billions on Tibet, building schools, roads and other infrastructure. Asked if the Tibetans wanted such development, they looked blankly incredulous. “They don’t ask that question,” said Lionel Jensen, a China scholar at Notre Dame. “They’ve accepted the basic premise of aggressive modernization.”

That may be, some experts suggest, because the students whose families can afford to send them abroad are the ones who have benefited the most from China’s economic liberalization.

Spring Zheng, 27, another graduate student at U.S.C., dismissed the notion that her patriotism stemmed from the government’s efforts to use the schools to instill national pride, particularly after Tiananmen Square.

Rather, Ms. Zheng said, “We have witnessed with our own eyes about the rapid change of China. China is developing fast, and Chinese people’s lives” are “becoming better and better, fast.”

As the U.S.C. session wound to a close, the organizer, Lisa Leeman, a documentary film instructor, pleaded for a change in tone. “My hope for this event, which I don’t totally see happening here, is for people on both, quote, sides to really hear each other and maybe learn from each other,” Ms. Leeman said. “Are there any genuine questions that don’t stem from a political point of view, that are really not here to be on a soap box?”

At that moment, the bottle hit the wall.

Michael Anti contributed reporting from Cambridge, Mass.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 30, 2008 An article on Tuesday about Chinese students in the United States who have to deal with negative images of their home country misspelled the family name of a doctoral student at the University of Southern California who said the Western news media were biased against China. He is Chau Wu, not Chou Wu.

( group blog)  The Hijacking By The Western Media And The Tibetan Elite.  By Chairman Rabbit.  April 30, 2008.

The occurrence of certain things recently, especially the patriotic manifestations of the overseas Chinese, has made the western/American media (at least among the mainstream ones) slowly and gradually provide more coverage, attention and concern about the China angle and the sentiments of the Chinese people in order to appear more objective.  In my opinion, even without an open acknowledgement or apology, certain people within the western media have realized that their coverage on Tibet (and the Olympic torch relay) was seriously misleading and created negative consequences.  Obviously, their biases still exist because they arose from structural problems.  On one hand, this is a matter of issues and cultures.  On the other hand, it is the consequence of the commercialization of the media -- they need to pay attention to the feelings of their readers and tell them what they want to hear.

Recently, the New York Times published Shaila Dewan's article <Chinese Studenst in U.S. Fight View of Their Home> in the Education section.  This article analyzed the overseas Chinese students with respect to activities, performance, viewpoints and mindsets.

Dewan's article made a more detailed analysis of the psychology and activities of the overseas Chinese students, and it is more objective than the preceding article.  Of course, various prejudices were still present.  For example, it held very stringent requirements for the information that were offered by the students.  When the students provided the infant vital statistics in Tibet after 1951, it said that the students "did not provide any means for comparison with mortality rates in China or other countries." This is stretching it too far.  The students are not making a scholarly report and they are not experts on this issue.  They were more like presenting certain situations that the westerners did not realize in order to balance the information.  It is too stringent to demand that they attain the standards of academic debate in this case.  This is all the more so because the data and facts provided by the Tibet independence side were not scrutinized by the western media using the same rigorous scholarly standards.  If you like, you can say that when the Chinese bring forth such information, it must be political propaganda; absent any rigorous attempt to justify it, it is unconvincing or even erroneous.  Meanwhile, anything offered by the Tibetan independence side will be readily accepted.  This is a double standard that is very unfair.  Behind this phenomenon lie some deeply entrenched prejudices.

The article also said:

Students argue that China has spent billions on Tibet, building schools, roads and other infrastructure. Asked if the Tibetans wanted such development, they looked blankly incredulous. “They don’t ask that question,” said Lionel Jensen, a China scholar at Notre Dame. “They’ve accepted the basic premise of aggressive modernization.”

It is not hard to see that the reporter was skeptical about the views of the students.  I have participated in many forums on Tibet, and I never heard any westerners questioned the Tibet independence supporters or sympathizers: ""Do the majority of Tibetan people need and care most about independence, religion and culture?"  I have never heard anyone asked this kind of question.  Here, most westerners' assumptions are: These lofty political rights, culture and pursuit of values are obviously more important than the quest for basic economics, existence and materials!" Of course, they have never done any public opinion polling in Tibet.  Instead of  being supported by facts, their ideas are propped up by their belief values.  With these beliefs, they will obviously give even more sympathy to the Tibetan independence movement.

Similarly, the reporter doubted the relationship between the Dalai Lama and the Nazis brought up by the students, and claimed that the students "denied that the Chinese government was oppressing Tibetan culture and religion."

Also, the article gave full coverage to the extreme actions of the students while failing to discuss the more rational and warm exchanges coming from the majority of the Chinese students.

Of course, the article also had some good points, such as:

- Although the article still hold onto certain kinds of prejudices, it also included many of the viewpoints of the students, such as the fact-based judgments about the Tibet riots as well as the double standards and hypocrisy harbored by the western world towards China.

- The disillusionment of the overseas Chinese students in the western media (and the western world)

- The Chinese students directly questioned the existing prejudice of the west: All the Chinese people have been simply brainwashed and incapable of independent thinking

- The Chinese students still lack practical experience and artistry in their protests

Finally, the reporter did some analyses of the motivations and value preferences of the Chinese students.  But this did not go further than the previous article China's Loyal Youth in the New York Times.  They basically think that the attitudes of the Chinese youth are derived from (1) they are the beneficiaries of modernization; (2) they received patriotic education (that is, they have been "brain-washed").

The facts on which they base their opinions on are highly problematic.  "That may be, some experts suggest, because the students whose families can afford to send them abroad are the ones who have benefited the most from China’s economic liberalization."  In the United States, the majority of the students are graduate students and researchers who get by through their university scholarships.  They are in the United States because of their academic excellence.  But here the experts are saying that the overseas students come from rich and affluent upper-/middle-class elite families which can afford their children to study in private schools in the United States.

The reporter's theory of "the material benefits of modernization" is actually an analysis of motives.  It included some partial truths, but it also ignored certain other facts such as the patriotic students believing completely in their value system including patriotism.  To reduce their values down to material benefits is a vicious debasement.  This is comparable to Barack Obama's speech about "bitter" and "cling" to characterize how many small-town American believe in religion and worship guns due to economic disenfranchisement.

This shows that the west (and the western media) fails to understand the substance of contemporary Chinese nationalism.  On one hand, Chinese nationalism is based upon a sense of pride about a 5,000 year old civilization.  On the other hand, it is also built upon the contemporary history of exploitation (and the sense of victimization) -- the Chinese cannot get over the repeated invasions of Chinese sovereignty and territoriality by foreign nations.

Nevertheless, we note that the western media is providing a fuller picture in their media coverage about China.  We have to continue to watch this patiently.

There is another article in the Los Angeles about the feelings and activities of the American Chinese.  It is worth reading: Chinese Americans feel sting of Olympic protests.

The actions of the overseas Chinese are noteworthy.  They live overseas and they deal with non-Chinese people every day.  They witness western prejudices and their sense of disillusionment is strong.  Under these challenges, their Chinese identity is reinforced daily.  Their actions are very much related to their daily experiences.

During the past month of so, the Christian Science Monitor has done some good reporting on China because they are more objective than the other western media.  I checked with some Americans, and many of them believes that it is one of the top-quality newspapers in the world.  It provides the western angle, and it also pays attention to the Chinese situation and angle.  The articles are more objective than those in other media.  Business newspapers such as Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal are good too.

Next I want to discuss the value system of the westerners and the sympathy for the Tibetan independence movement.  Many westerns (including common folks as well as intellectuals) are easily inflamed by the aura of Tibetan independence with political concepts and slogans such as "rights," "freedom" and "self-determination."

When these regular people who lead excellent materialistic lives sit down in a warm and comfortable room in a developed country to talk about these distant issues that are totally unconnected to their own existence, they can hardly imagine how the ordinary Tibetan (or the majority of the world who are still living in relative poverty) cope with the challenges of life and or what their urgent needs are.  They project their own demands and values onto these people.  Here, I am not saying that people living in abject poverty do not have political demands.  I am saying that they have simpler and more mundane materialistic needs that affect their basic survival and these are often disproportionately undervalued, disregarded or given secondary importance.

A western liberal intellectual may have a great deal of interest in preserving the culture of a pre-industrial society.  But what do the ordinary members of this society think?  Perhaps they want to embrace globalization and pursue a better life while abandoning some of their own culture and customs.  But the intellectual elite might feel that this is cultural genocide and therefore call to oppose globalization and preserve the cultural values.  They even think that the members of this pre-industrial society are too ignorant to realize that these demands represent their best interests.

When Tibet has this Shangri La-like romantic image in the west, it is unavoidably linked to the wave of thinking about anti-modernity, anti-globalization and multi-culturalism.

I personally feel that the Tibet independence movement is led by the elite (including the lamas).  The movement reduces the broad demands of the ordinary Tibet citizens on various issues down to a single issue -- independence (or self-determination), as if the solutions of all the problems are based upon this lone issue.  So if this single problem is solved, then all the other problems will be solved as well.  In practice, self-determination cannot solve those problems.  In fact, it can even worsen the situation.  This is how the elite has hijacked public opinion.  Objectively speaking, we cannot say that the elite represents what the common folks thing.  One has to be careful before making this conclusion (even though certain viewpoints of the elite represent the interests of the common folks).  Only the people can represent themselves.

The movement of the Dalai Lama is a single issue movement, by which all the problems are reduced down to self-determination.  In truth, the Dalai Lama and his exile government have away from China for a long time and they are out of touch with the daily experiences, needs and demands of the Tibetans in China.  One cannot represent others just by self-proclamation because this is not a one-sided decision.  This explains why the Dalai Lama has certain unrealistic political demands in his discussions with the Chinese government.  If he can return to Tibet and communicate with the locals and reflect their demands, then I think that the political idea of the entire movement will be different.

When I attend the forums on the Tibet issue, I have the impression that the Tibetan independence movement people do not want to see Tibet improve (of course, they would never publicly say so).  They want darkness everywhere in Tibet.  The darker things are, the more meaningful their movement is.  If everything is bright in Tibet and the people are prospering, then their movement and even their own existence would lose their meaning.  This prejudice is extremely strong and it guides their views of the issue.

The Chinese government needs to continue to develop Tibet in various ways, so that the Tibetan people can enjoy full prosperity of economy, society and culture.  This will win over the hearts of the people and continue to marginalize the Tibetan independence movement.

Relevant Link: Lhasa Anecdote (3) - The friendly Tibetan people  Sun Bin