Arriving back in China recently after two weeks in Australia was a little like diving into a murky pond. It wasn’t that I couldn’t access information about the riots in Tibet, it’s just that most was either 100 per cent unverifiable or muddied by emotion. Usually both.
Beijing was full of sullen foreign journalists, angrily typing out stories about being denied entry to Tibetan areas. A couple of photojournalist friends spent 10 days out west trying to get a glimpse of what was happening, but between them their most telling photo is one which shows them standing on the side of a dusty road, bags at their feet, after being removed from yet another Tibet-bound bus.
Meanwhile, the Chinese media, including blogs and bulletin boards, was clogged with vitriol aimed at exposing "the lies and distortions in the Western media". Sites like Anti-CNN.com – which initially sounded like they might have a good point to make – quickly turned sour, with posts usually repeating several oft-heard points: history shows Tibet belongs to China, Western media is trying to sabotage the Olympics and split the motherland, and, Westerners should just stick their heads back in.
"…maybe you should just stay out of Chinese business, since all you do anyway is invade other countries, committ massmurder (sic) and tell the rest of the world what to do and how to live! The Western media lies about the rest of the world to ‘justify’ these incursions! just leave the rest of the world alone and you won’t have these problems!"
A slight diversion from the real issue at hand. Frustrating because of the lack of Tibetan voices in the mix (save for this one). And this was all before the torch relay even started. And stopped. And restarted.
Having access to illegal satellite television, I spent some good couch hours watching news of the torch’s tortured journey across Europe, as told by CNN and the BBC. Being probably the most hated foreign media outlet in China at the moment after the notorious image-cropping incident, CNN has been trying its best to salvage its reputation.
Off the back of images of the torch protests, I watched as three CNN in-studio presenters emphatically pointed out that there were also many people on the streets supporting the torch relay. They followed this up with an awkward conversation about the importance of fair and accurate reporting, a kind of Journalism 101. I had to wonder whether this would be applied to all their news coverage.
The BBC, on the other hand, wasn’t spending time justifying its coverage. As the torch made its way through Paris, the rolling news reports referred to the situation as a "crisis", with images of protester and police skirmishes and footage of the torch disappearing into a safety warehouse. No doubt the protests were deemed more newsworthy than flag-waving supporters. One-sided reporting?
Well, yes, according to many in the Chinese blogosphere, where things have now become even more nasty. Not only have there been calls to harass foreign media outlets and journalists in China, but some netizens are starting "human flesh search engines"; identifying overseas protestors and posting personal details about them, like phone numbers and addresses, online. Blogger Roland Soong translates one Tianya post about a Tibetan protester captured in images trying to snatch the Olympic torch from paralympian (and now national heroine) Jin Jing:
"[in translation]The brain-dead stupid c#@t is named Lobsang Gandan and he resides in Salt Lake City, USA. This bastard was arrested in London for attacking a torch bearer…Here is the detailed information…"
Address, phone number, workplace and a Google map were all posted below. A few hundred angry phone calls later and it seems there is more than one Lobsang Gandan living outside Tibet – the Salt Lake City Lobsang had nothing to do with the Jin Jing incident.
This violent nationalism had many concerned about the world’s ability to make progress on the issue of Tibet. But, for all the slagging and vitriol, others have argued that at least this has put the issue on the map and created room for debate.
Certainly, I’ve had more interesting discussions about Tibet in the last two weeks than in the last two years. Even my local bike repair man had something to say about it all. He told me that the problem in Tibet is related to the East Turkistan liberation front – a group calling for independence in China’s western Xinjiang province. At first it seems a puzzling proposition, given the geographic and ethnic differences between Tibetans and Xinjiang’s Muslim Uighurs. But perhaps my bike repair man had read the reports that aligned monk bombers in Tibet with separatist terrorists in Xinjiang.
Other conversations have turned into interesting experiments in which the forces of social conditioning and respective upbringings have come into play. These conversations usually go like this:
A: Tibet can never be separated from China.
B: But the Tibetans don’t want to be ruled by China.
A: You don’t know that, the Western media tells lies.
B: Some media have made mistakes, but your government wouldn’t let journalists into Tibet. And Chinese media tells lies too.
A: I don’t always agree with my government, and I don’t trust media here either.
B: Well, who do you trust?
A: I don’t know. Who can we trust?
The issue has also become a thorn in the side of some Sino-Australian relationships I know about. Australians in intimate relationships with Chinese have found that their conversations about Tibet often reach a frustrating dead end where neither side has the evidence to prove their case, or the ability to shift beyond the rhetoric they’ve grown up with. Tibet is part of China. Free Tibet. Westerners are all imperialist interventionists. Chinese are all brainwashed. Your government sucks. Your government sucks.
So more recently I’ve found that sticking to small truths can be a good way to move forward in such conversations. Stuck in traffic on a bus the other day, with a TV screen pumping out rolling news from State-run media, my ears pricked up at the mention of Kevin Rudd’s speech at Beijing University. The news praised Rudd’s Chinese, described how he rejected calls for an Olympic boycott, and said that Rudd had agreed that China has sovereignty over Tibet.
This was also the jist of what a Chinese friend told me after he read about Rudd’s appearance in the local newspaper. So I made it a mission to send my friend the full text of Rudd’s speech, highlighting the bit where he mentioned "significant human rights problem in Tibet". We also looked at YouTube footage.
It was a small gesture, but one which opened a doorway in our next conversation. This time, we talked about the need for culturally appropriate development involving consultation, the problem of having an uneven distribution of wealth in regions like Tibet, and we sidelined into talks about China’s boxer rebellion and a discussion about Australia’s treatment of its Indigenous people. Sure, we didn’t get past the "independence" or "no independence" question for Tibet. But against the vomit of opinion and anger of the last month, it seemed like a good start.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.