The "Dalai Lama clique". It’s a term that sounds either cool or sinister depending on which side of the fence you’re on.
For the Chinese Government, it’s a convenient label often used to describe those pushing for independence in Tibet. As the protests in Tibet began last week, foreign ministry spokesperson Qin Gang told journalists that since China launched "democratic reform" in Tibet 49 years ago, the region has been on a pathway to "development and prosperity". Qin said that the people of Tibet "share the aspiration for national unity" with the Motherland and that the "clique" is just trying to sabotage all their good work for political motives.
Across the border, the Dalai Lama was sending out a very different message, saying that the "peaceful" protests are a "manifestation of the deep-rooted resentment of the Tibetan people under the present governance."
It’s easy for discussions about Tibet to fall back on the above rhetoric, with people adopting one side or the other. If you’re Chinese, you agree with your government. If you’re Tibetan or a foreigner, you side with the Dalai Lama.
But how can we build a more complex picture which includes the sentiments of those on the ground?
One way is to first do a round-up of Chinese bulliten boards and blogs.
Only a few weeks ago, when singer Bjork very clearly said the words "Tibet, Tibet" after performing her song ‘Declare Independence’ at a concert in Shanghai, Chinese netizens had lots to say. As reported on Danwei, some were scathing, with posts like:
"I don’t understand, why do Western stars give a shit about Tibet. Isn’t Tibet ours?! Mind your own business!"
But others were more considered:
"I don’t think there is any issue, so what if she sang a few lines about Tibet, we don’t need to berate the woman to death. Is our government really that sensitive?"
Turning to the protests, Global Voices Online‘s John Kennedy has been translating blog posts from non-Tibetan residents in Lhasa.
Most of these bloggers echoed the sentiments of the Chinese Government (although, to be fair, it’s quite possible that any anti-Government posts have been censored). But here’s one example:
"I think that most of these people haven’t thought about this, and that most of them have been deceived by the words of certain people who would see the motherland split! But if you just think about it, just who was it that made Tibet the developed place it is today? Who set up the bridge between Tibet and the whole world?"
Another person who apparently works in the travel industry had this to say:
"We’re all on edge here now. The tour company is asking what’s going on. Here in Lhasa they’re telling us to say that the temples are being renovated.
Do they really think the walls are that air-tight?"
There are various other bloggers who have adopted a "citizen journalist" approach – see this post which was translated on the East South West North website and these mobile phone pictures. But what’s more difficult is to find information posted directly by Tibetans inside Tibet or China. It could be that these posts just haven’t come to public attention yet, but it’s also likely that if you’re Tibetan living in Tibet or China, you’re not going to risk posting anything online.
Today I emailed a Tibetan friend and asked if he was alright. His response read, "Thank you very much to write to me at this time. I am physically ok". Read between the lines and the last short sentence says a lot. But it’s only a tiny peek into what’s going on where he is, and it made me think about the difficulty that Tibetans face in speaking to outsiders about their situation.
Obviously travelling in Tibetan areas and speaking with locals is another great way to build a more complex understanding about China and Tibet. But the Chinese Government has made it as hard as possible for outsiders to do this through a series of permits and general surveillance. Once you get there, getting people to talk to you is not always easy.
On a trip to a Tibetan region last year, I spent time with some Tibetan university students. Having discussions about politics was awkward at first. Some were worried, or had been warned by others with good intentions that talking about politics with foreigners could bring about trouble. One student told me that normally they wouldn’t even discuss politics with each other for fear of being overheard.
They all know too well what can happen to Tibetans who are too free with their words. In August last year, a Tibetan man was arrested after he expressed support for the Dalai Lama at a festival in Sichuan. A month later a group of teenage boys was locked up and apparently beaten for allegedly painting graffiti on a wall calling for the return of the Dalai Lama.
But during my visit, the students did in the end yield some information about their lives under Chinese rule. Perhaps most importantly, all the students I spoke to, and other Tibetans I spoke with during a previous visit, saw themselves as being separate from China, and all wanted independence from the Chinese Government.
One student talked about how they get information about "Big D", the name they use for the Dalai Lama. Each week they receive an anonymous email containing a link to a website with news links from outside Tibet and China.
Another told me about a visit to a monastery by the Chinese-elected Panchen Lama. The student told me local officials had made Tibetans go to the monastery against their will, and forced them to welcome a man who Tibetans believe is a stooge replacing the real Panchen Lama who was arrested when he was six years old.
While students agreed that infrastructure has improved in their hometowns, they also told me about the discrimination faced by young Tibetans trying to enter the workforce. According to their experiences, some Chinese employers will refuse to give them work, saying that their standard Mandarin is not good enough, or a similar excuse.
While all the above comments are subjective viewpoints that can’t always be verified with hard evidence, they’re all important snippets of information to add into our understanding of what’s now going on in Tibet. We already know the rhetoric of the Government and the Dalai Lama, it’s time to build on this by listening directly to what locals are saying.
And you better be quick – the screws on the already small flow of information are tightening. The Chinese Government is now blocking foreigners from travelling in Tibetan regions, and in the run-up to the Olympics, these restrictions aren’t likely to be lifted. Also, websites with information about the protest are coming under greater surveillance – many bloggers for their own safety might just stop posting. For those readers who want to hear a local perspective, now is the time to seek it out.
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