A Little Understanding, Please

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My colleague Lin Yang, who has traveled extensively in Tibet, offers her thoughts on the recent unrest:

I vaguely remember the last serious demonstrations in Tibet in 1989. I overheard bits and pieces from my parents’ hushed conversations. It was a time before the Internet and one could pretend the protests were not happening. But when riots broke out in Lhasa earlier this month, there was no getting away from it. And thanks in part to the information age, the physical violence in Tibet unexpectedly but quickly escalated to a war against western media.

CNN was the chief target of the Chinese ire, but hardly any western press escaped the torrent of rage. Their anger even spilled over to the New York Times and Washington Post, which Chinese consider, or used to consider, beacons of journalism. Staff at the papers’ Beijing offices have been busy answering anonymous, angry phone calls and enduring a torrent of insults. As the Xinhua News Agency puts it, western press has “intentionally played tricks on photos and TV footage to mislead the audience” and the “biased reports by western press is the result of infiltration by political force.”

A website (www.anti-cnn.com) was established to “gather, sort through, and publish evidence of the EVILS of mainstream western media.” Similar comments can be found on any online bulletin board discussing the incident. “The time has passed when the western countries could try covering the sky with the lies of a few filthy mouthpieces,” wrote one anonymous commentator. The revolutionary fever and provocative slogans are most familiar to people who have lived through the Cultural Revolution and they still work pretty well—the campaign attracted thousands of supporters in only a couple of days.

Is this how the majority of people in China feel? When I tentatively raised the topic with a long-time friend, who is well-educated and mild in manner, I was immediately cut short by a righteous lecture. “What do you have to complain about hostile phone calls?” he said. “Those shameless western mouthpieces deserved it! And It’s only for the best that CNN and BBC are blacked out so your lot could not pollute those weak-minded Chinese with your lies!”

This post is supposed to be about the riots in Tibet, and so far I have scarcely mentioned the Tibetans. In fact, there are surprisingly few Tibetan voices being heard. What perspectives do Tibetan websites and blogs have on the riots and the “western bias.” Perhaps someone could set up a website translating Tibetan Internet comments—it would be certainly be a novelty since so many others are translating TV news screen shots from English, German and French.

Unlike CNN, which needs official approval to travel to even a few areas of Tibet, I have taken advantage of my Chinese identity and wandered across a considerable bit of the Tibetan region. I was lucky to be able to see Tibet as a real place with a people who experience sorrow and joy similar to ours, but built an equally long history with lifestyles and beliefs that are alien to the Han Chinese.

The Lhasa I saw could be any small town in the interior of China, with Tibetan style dwellings on one side and night markets, Sichuan restaurants, and karaoke bars on the other. I was oblivious to the national flag raising ceremony that dutifully took place at the top of Potala Palace on a national holiday, and the patriotic slogans posted at sacred monasteries hardly captured my attention.

But there is something eerie in the familiarity. I witnessed no horror and repression, but I also have a hard time recalling examples of appreciation between the cultures. I saw cultural superiority, patronization, obnoxiousness, and segregation, but I did not see nearly enough respect, patience, interest, and will to communicate and understand. This probably goes both ways, and help turn demonstrations into riots fueled by frustration and hatred. Even now, when families of the victims–Tibetan and Chinese–are grieving, we still have too much bickering to do and too little time to listen.

I don’t believe violence is the answer to any unsolved problems, nor do I think arguing about the history of the past hundreds of years would eventually lead to a perfect solution. Is there anything we can do to avoid a repetition of the tragedy? And by tragedy I mean people losing their lives to violence and hate crimes, instead of vicious attacks by the “imperialist powers and Dalai Clique.” For those who have been busy waging a war of words, perhaps it’s time to take a break and start to get to know the Tibetans, who actually have a lot more to offer than being the violent monsters or grateful citizens of the harmonious society on television.