The Olympic Protest Primer

Written by  //  April 22, 2008  //  China, Geopolitics, Rights & Social justice  //  1 Comment

An Xin (a Canadian ex-pat in Beijing) writes:
So much of what is happening here now feels like a kind of déja vu. Once upon a time there was a people that lived on the edge of a great country. They annexed themselves to the country, only to find that their resources were mismanaged and eventually destroyed. Many of them had to leave their lovely place, and their families, and work for the oppressors. I speak of Newfoundlanders within Canada. Where [were] Bjork and the right-is-might Olympic torch protestors when they were needed to stop destruction of the North Atlantic cod fishery? Where were we looking while Quebec sold Labrador hydro power to the US at 10 times or more profit than was paid to The Rock, and refused to renegotiate the archaic deal? I have to mention I did a short stint at the Dept. of Fisheries in Ottawa and if I had to compare the impotence, ignorance and nepotism of that division’s rank and file with crazed and ruthless Tibetan arsonists…. well, one is inclined to form an unconventional opinion.
Rendering unto CaesarTibet has been a part of China for longer than Wales has been part of Britain. No nation has recognized Tibet as separate from China. The British drew the current boundaries early in the last century after China left the arbitration table. On religious issues, Buddhism reached China before Tibet, and the Qing Dynasty established the Chinese right to nominate the next Dalai. On one occasion, their nominee ran off the nominee from Mongolia. That said, it is a travesty to say people have religious freedom when they are denied access to their ‘living Buddha’. Religious freedom might reach levels that please Tibetan monks if the issue was seen as one of religious freedom and not the installation of a political figurehead, the Dalai Lama. His reception around the world as a virtual head of state doesn’t exactly equate with the Pope … or the Archbishop of Canterbury speaking out on the immorality of the invasion of Iraq, or ethnic minority rights in Britain. And I strongly suspect the Diaspora of Tibetan theocracy and aristocracy are not only interested in religious freedom, regardless of the almost unassailable sincerity of the Dalai Lama.
Pandora’s Box …. China built two highways to Lhasa in the 1950’s, after which social change was inevitable. Economic change also – for many former Tibetan serfs, who worked on the highways, this was the first time they had been paid for their labour. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 80’s brought rapid change to all of China – Tibet was not singled out to suffer the consequences of modernity, or its benefits. There seems to be a persistent nostalgia, and like most nostalgia it is largely forgetful of anything negative.
Seeing is believing…. The transformation of Lhasa and other Tibetan cities into modern places with somewhat cookie-cutter architecture is a constant reminder to the previously isolated Tibetans of the reach of industry and the encroachment of consumer culture. The visibility of our modernity distresses some percent of the population. There are no rules against building in traditional Tibetan style, as I bet there are none preventing the erection of Gothic cathedrals in Europe today. It is just expensive, and has poor use ratios for people. To preserve the look and feel of Tibet would require government policy and legislation. The alpine villages of Austria, which attract a lot of tourists, are maintained because no developers are allowed to build glass and concrete structures in these places. But making Tibet a ‘destination spot’ isn’t actually likely to preserve their sense that the latter half of the 20th century didn’t happen. Ask the French about being over run by British retirees. No doubt wealthy vacationing Westerners bend over backwards to protect quaintness wherever they can still find it, but the preservation of culture is also no easy matter.
Speak no evil…. That brings us to language. There is reluctant consensus in Tibet-watchers here that as well as investing heavily in railways that take mineral resources where they are needed, China might have done more for health care and the education of nomadic groups. To accomplish both of these they would have to educate illiterate adults; could herding nomads into schools be interpreted as ‘cultural genocide’ as well however? Tibetans learn the Chinese common language, putonghua, in middle school. Without it their scholars and their business people are imprisoned in a Tower of Babel; there are no Tibetan universities, and the finer and specialized language of technology and science is not within the Tibetan language rubric. Tibetan and Uygar (Muslim Chinese, largely in Xinjiang province) parents are hard pressed when the choice is presented of schooling their children in putonghua past middle school or not; not to do so invites a career ceiling.
Echoes of ethnic cleansing …. Racial purity in their quarter is another sticky wicket. The perception is people are taking over. Official figures put the Han population of Tibet at between 6 and 8 % of the population but it may be as high as 27% non-Tibetan in Lhasa (close to the percentage of Canadians who speak a Chinese language home incidentally). Han Chinese tend to stay in the area for short periods, believing the environment to be unhealthy; the low oxygen content produces large hearts and shorter lives. That sort of turnover – six months to two years – if excluded from official figures, might also make the 6 to 8% look inaccurate. A certain class of Han who go to Tibet to make their fortune, including cab drivers, can be heard to describe the Tibetans as dirty, with horrible sex habits (chaotic). It’s hard to find good plumbing when you’re a nomad. Meanwhile some Tibetans are benefiting: the trains barreling in and out of Lhasa – across a long lonely tundra – run an astonishing three times a day and reportedly carry largely Tibetans. What Hans are on board are mysteriously shuffled into cabins with their ‘own kind’ although no such marshalling policy exists on the books. The Tibetan youth don’t much relate to their parents or grandparents either, whichever side of the divide they may fall on. This means however that they either welcome the opportunity to relate to their own generation around the world, or… become easy recruits for resistance organizers, or the Dalai clique as they call it here. Regardless, average Tibetans haven’t been “talking livestock” since 1956 and the current government is helping the riot victims rebuild.
Fragility….Some concerns are not a matter of taste. Tibet has a perilously fragile ecosystem. It won’t withstand the kind of surface mining and general large-scale manipulation of geography and water systems that are features of modernizing China. Nor would it recover easily, what with its lack of precipitation, dessert, small forests and dwindling endangered antelope population, the latter since Donna Karen and others started wearing wool made from their hides – wool so warm and fine that a bird’s egg will hatch if wrapped in it – no other attendance required! So why aren’t the protestors outside DKNY in New York?
Ignorance… Personal contact with Tibetans by my acquaintances seems to indicate that the average Tibetan Joe has made little progress on a grasp of world affairs. If irresponsible American politicians declare support for Tibet or the Dalai Lama, Tibetans mistake that for official US support of their cause… I won’t even speak of the recent US resolution except to say I am happy the people who failed to censure George W. Bush have so much time on their hands while people are being tortured in Guantanamo Bay. Asked who they would like to be attached to instead of China, the innocent Tibetans declare the US or the UK! People who are pro-Chinese government in the matter understand ‘the West’ makes a fundamental error in assuming sophistication here. A lot of China’s problems are self-inflicted as well. If there are only two western journalists permitted in Lhasa these days, what can we expect but the use of dishonestly cropped wire photos of Indian police beating demonstrators – with headlines placing the event in Tibet, where it did not actually happen.
Opportunity and danger….Unrealistic approaches seem in good supply on both sides. Count on what a TV journalist pal here calls ‘the hurt’. Why, we have even heard the criticism that the ahead-of-schedule venues were built too fast (one fifth of mankind, motivated, no unions – go figure). The torch relay ambushes are perceived by ordinary Chinese as orchestrated humiliation of the Chinese people by ‘the West’, and they will not forget it. However, the government’s reaction to it all will set the tone that survives The Games. The intellectuals seem to feel that a change management policy for Tibet was maybe not the best route for the government, but rather just a gradual opening up to the danger/opportunity (the same character in Chinese) of the world at large; do your worst!
Spin… In China Daily meanwhile the propaganda machine is in overdrive. I read the relentless articles on historical claims, on Chinese ex-pats starting blogs and websites to defend their country’s reputation, various criticisms of the Dalai Lama, photographs of him at an all-China delegation in 1954… and even funny stories about the harassment of the torch relay as it made its way to the destination city in other Olympic years (a spin attempt to put the protests into some kind of perspective).
I hope this does not make me sound insensitive. It is hard not to side with this struggling nation, if one has to be crude about a position. I’m just trying to illustrate that the ways the bandwagon is currently framing these issues, will – as my mother used to say – end in tears. Even my landlord wrings his hands and raises the issue with me; he seemed quite cheered to see I had considerable sympathy for the government and the Han people here. The Chinese should note the West has cultivated the fine tradition of ignoring protestors, especially its own. I am glad not to be here to witness the painfully self-conscious and sensitive mainlanders withstand their rights of passage to the international “community”, at least not the highly publicized portion. The weeks it will take the Olympic torch to reach China look like an eternity to the us ex-pat sinophiles.

One Comment on "The Olympic Protest Primer"

  1. An Xin April 22, 2008 at 10:28 am · Reply

    An Xin sends these “Pro-China factoids” to stimulate more discussion.
    1. The central government has established 24/7 television broadcasting and radio stations in Tibet, in Tibetan, to preserve their language through modern technology. I suspect the Dalai Lama’s folks know once Tibet connects with the world the prospect of returning to a remote theocracy will continue to shrink.
    2. Tibetan minerals are used in everything from plastics to electronics. With respect to the delicacy of the ecosystem in Tibet, the mountains in many places do not need to be strip mined to access rich mineral resources; the mountains in many parts are disintegrating slowly but surely, the mineral sand already broken down into its constituents, and otherwise blowing away.

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