Tibet and the trouble with unassailable national myths

Outside of Young Frankenstein there isn’t really any such thing as a “good time” for rioting, but this might be an especially bad time for China to have a bout of punishing ethnic unrest. It hasn’t really been a banner start to the Olympic year so far, what with the worst storms anyone can remember, the Darfur activists on a tear, the bizarre Uighur terrorism story, and now this. Commentators are already linking this episode to China’s Olympic fortunes (see also the LA Times, Time, Asia Sentinel and Newsweek), and the French foreign minister has already been spotted talking about a partial boycott. Even Wen Jiabao has suggested that the riots were calculated to damage the games.

Things seem to have quietened down in the last couple of days, although that may simply be because reporting has been stifled. Certainly the flow of news has dwindled a bit, and many publications have shifted into context and analysis mode. But we can probably expect bits and pieces of information to dribble out over the next few weeks, as refugees leave Tibet and a few intrepid journalists break the cone of silence that that the Chinese government has dropped over the troubled areas. In the past few days many of our favorite local correspondents have made a run for the Tibet border, but blog posts, such as fromTim Johnson and Richard Spencer (and again here), suggest it’s tricky getting any reporting done.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China has already petitioned the government for better access to the affected areas and circulated a list of incidents in which journalists and camera crews have been detained or hassled by the authorities. It would seem that Olympic pledges of greater openness were tested in the breach and found wanting. This, I suppose, shouldn’t surprise anyone. Old instincts die hard. The Chinese government has also reverted to its common tactic of belittling foreign coverage as intentionally biased. If this happens during the Olympics then, to borrow a line from Gerry Anderson, stand by for action.

Over the past few days, China’s communication strategy with regard to the Tibet riots has become clear. It has consisted roughly of the following:

  • Ban all international access so that Chinese media can monopolize images and on-site reporting
  • Cinch down on the Internet (here too) and international news sources so that messaging to domestic audiences can be tightly controlled
  • Demonize the Dalai Lama as the black hand behind the rioting in throwback, Cultural Revolution language, and drive the point home with images of rioting monks

These three are all true to type. But then it gets more interesting:

For a good overview of the Chinese approach to all of this, see Mark Magnier’s interesting article on China’s PR efforts around the Tibet riots. It includes this damning quote from Chinese blogger and journalist Michael Anti:

“The [Chinese] government is showing more confidence and learning more about spin,” said Michael Anti, a well-known Chinese blogger on a Nieman fellowship this year at Harvard. “They’ve learned more PR tactics from Western people. They see the way the White House and the Pentagon do it.”

In some ways China’s strategy has been effective. They’ve certainly done a good job back-footing the Dalai Lama, who made the mistake of not condemning the violence forcefully and immediately. Domestically it’s been gangbusters as usual. But the Chinese government shouldn’t be too proud of itself yet, because there remains one substantial problem: China has invested so much in its narrative of Tibetan development and growth that it is reluctant take any actions that undermine this story. This prevents them from communicating internationally in a way that foreign audiences will be receptive to, and it stores up serious ethnic problems for the future.

China’s prevailing narrative about Tibet is that China liberated it from feudal brutality and gave it all the wonders of development. The great mass of Tibetan people understands this and is duly grateful. This narrative has been thoroughly sold domestically, but it has never been widely accepted in the West.

While there are elements of truth to China’s version, China’s ability to sell it internationally has always been hampered by the government’s time-honed credibility gap with western audiences. This is exacerbated by the difficulty of getting independent points of view. Reporting from Tibet was heavily controlled even before the riots. Furthermore, International opinion is subject to an effective PR campaign run by Tibetan exile groups and the charismatic Dalai Lama. It’s safe to say that International audiences will never be entirely convinced by a Chinese state narrative that doesn’t even allow for the possibility that there might be genuine discontent in Tibet. China is much better at dictating ideas to a captive audience than at selling them to an open one.

Historically, it hasn’t really mattered to China’s government what International audiences think about Chinese domestic issues. But 2007 was the year in which China discovered the importance of International stakeholders. This began with the product quality crisis that erupted last summer, and it has gained strength over the Olympics in the past few months. The reality is that a global, economically integrated China that has invested hugely in hosting the world’s biggest sporting event is vulnerable to foreign public opinion. That’s why it stung so much when Steven Spielberg (who must be feeling pretty good about this right about now) withdrew from official participation in the Olympics. If it hadn’t stung, you’d have seen a lot less indignant Chinese press coverage about it.

If foreign stakeholders can boycott your products, screw up your outbound investment or trash the most glamorous event you’ve ever hosted, you need to develop some PR game. Unfortunately the mechanisms that have served China’s government so well over the years, a combination of explicit control over domestic media and pervasive state propaganda, don’t translate well to International audiences, and it has yet to learn a new approach. The need to defend the national narrative at all costs means that foreign media have to be kept away from Tibet, lest they reveal the cracks in the edifice. Heaven forbid that those inconsistencies make their way back to domestic audiences and undermine the national myth of Tibetan success and perhaps even government legitimacy. Tibetan integration –or suppression depending on your point of view– is part of Hu Jintao’s personal legacy as former Tibetan party chief and author of the crackdown on the 1989 demonstration. Unfortunately, nothing says, “We have terrible things to hide” to a foreign audience like detained or harassed journalists.

China’s growing international exposure aside, it must be tempting to wave away international concern as interference in China’s internal affairs. Unfortunately, another problem with defending the myth at all costs is that this approach seems calculated to inflame ethnic tensions rather than dispel them. Coverage of the riots suggests that much of the violence was Tibetans taking out their frustrations on Han who simply had the bad luck to be in Lhasa. That’s a shame, and the Chinese authorities are justified in seeking out and punishing those who have committed crimes against people and property. But the job of government is to ameliorate ethnic tensions within the country, not exacerbate them. Xinhua’s heavily spun coverage of the disturbances seems calculated to stoke outrage among the Han majority, and the Internet comment that has been allowed to stand echoes with that outrage, if not universally at least widely. Much of the Han comment reflects common colonial sentiment toward natives: Tibetans are lazy, ungrateful, intractable. Worrying signs for a country that disavows any colonial inclinations and preaches integration.

This is where the “cost” element of maintaining the myth at all costs really becomes clear. If the national narrative leaves no room for entertaining the notion that regular Tibetans might have legitimate grievances, then there is no hope of recourse for Tibetans and no alternative for non-Tibetan Chinese but to see the unrest as pure betrayal and thuggery. It becomes impossible to even acknowledge underlying problems in any constructive way. All that is left is ruthless crackdown and an ever-widening gulf between the two peoples.

Unfortunately, the more the Han majority sees Tibetans as ungrateful, violent dupes in the thrall of a sinister Dalai Lama, the harder any kind of real reconciliation will be. Mutual suspicion, hatred and racism-without-end loom. One wonders what will happen if Dalai Lama dies and there is still unrest in Tibet. Who will they blame then? There is a harder-line coterie of Tibetan exile leaders waiting in the wings, but none of them will fill the role of China’s “Goldstein” as well as the Dalai Lama does.

The best thing China can hope for now is that things stay quiet and the episode fades from view over the next few weeks. But that isn’t a long-term solution. In the end the situation is a tragedy not just because it was violent and ugly, but because it was a wasted opportunity. China could have introduced some transparency, allowed foreign reporters in, and started earning itself greater international credibility at a time when it desperately needs it. China could also have used this as an opportunity to move beyond its propagandistic approach to the problem of Tibetan integration, and to kindle a real national discussion on how to address the concerns of Tibetans in a way that might make integration a reality rather than a propaganda slogan. Done correctly, this need not have looked like succumbing to foreign pressure.

But that’s not how things are done here. That’s a shame, because no matter what wishful thinkers overseas want, Tibet will be a part of China for the foreseeable future. That will lead to continued problems. And as everyone knows, its hard to solve problems if you can’t admit to them.

Horseman of the apocalypse.

Horseman of the apocalypse.

See also:

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