A step forward? Chinese media report a single Tibetan death

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
LETTER FROM CHINA
By Howard W. French
Published: May 1, 2008
SHANGHAI: A milestone of sorts was reached on Wednesday with the reporting in China’s carefully controlled media of the death of a Tibetan in a clash with Chinese security forces.
Estimates by Tibetan advocacy groups and international human rights groups of the numbers of Tibetan dead have ranged from scores of victims to the hundreds.
Remarkably, though, this was the very first such report of a Tibetan death since the outbreak in early March of demonstrations by Tibetans in their “autonomous region” and in the surrounding provinces where Tibetans live in large numbers.
A rolling thunder of nationalist anger has swept China in recent weeks, as Chinese have seethed over the demonstrations that have greeted the Olympic torch on its circuit around the world.
Given little context for understanding why foreigners should be moved to demonstrate in the first place, Chinese counterprotesters and countless voices in the media and on the Internet have reduced the entire matter to the realms of prejudice and anti-Chinese sentiment.
This effort has been advanced tremendously by the prominent use of a quote by the ever-gruff CNN commentator Jack Cafferty. Speaking about China at the time of the San Francisco leg of the torch relay, Cafferty described the Chinese as “basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years.”
Amid the predictable uproar, Cafferty issued a clarification saying that his comments were aimed at the Chinese government and not the people, but this has made little impression here, particularly among the campaigners for whom the original quote, without that context, was simply too good to let go of.
Many Americans will still be unaware of what Cafferty said, while few Chinese who follow the news could have missed it. Americans are used to sharing jaundiced views of politicians. One of the more venerable expressions in the political culture, after all, is “throw the bums out,” meaning to vote despised politicians out of office. Chinese, of course, have no such option.
The heavy amplification of Cafferty’s words here and the belated admission of a Tibetan death, albeit a single death ascribed to a gunfight, however, share more than a purely coincidental association. They form part of a much larger phenomenon acknowledged by Chinese journalists who work within the system: an information war being waged to channel opinion and nationalist sentiment in this country.
Earlier this month, an editor from a Beijing newspaper told The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, of a notice circulated by the Chinese Communist Party calling for an “unprecedented, ferocious media war against the biased Western press.”
Another editor, who confirmed the directive, said in an interview this week: The Cafferty incident “is being used to demonize the Western media, reducing their credibility here. It’s a good opportunity for the official media and for the Communist Party.”
As “wars” go, this is one that relies on a particular asymmetry that depends upon keeping people here in the dark about all sorts of details. The public asks “why is the West brandishing Tibet to demonstrate against us” because it genuinely has little information about events, whether recent or more distant in that part of their country, save for a carefully pruned and officially sanctioned story line. While the Western media are accused of bias for supposedly giving short shrift to violence committed by rioting Tibetans in Lhasa on March 14, there is no mention in the Chinese media, not even at the level of allegations, of the deaths of numerous Tibetans in the ensuing crackdown. Tibet, meanwhile, has been closed to outsiders, enhancing the asymmetry.
Recent Chinese press accounts have endlessly reminded the public of Beijing’s beneficence in ending “slavery” in Tibet and lifting Tibetans out of dire poverty since then. There has been no mention of the cultural, religious or environmental costs involved or almost anything else as seen from the perspective of Tibetans, many of whom fear forced assimilation and the destruction of their religion.
Tibetans in Lhasa and elsewhere report that their homes have been invaded by security forces searching for images of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. At monasteries and temples all over western China, “re-education campaigns” have begun to force monks and others to recite the official line on Tibet, that the province has essentially always been part of China, and to renounce the Dalai Lama as a villainous “splittist.”
The re-education drive is uncomfortably reminiscent of fumie, a practice in Japan’s 16th century campaign against Christians, in which those who were suspected as believers were forced to trample on images of Jesus.
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