Beijing should learn from the Scottish Referendum

On Monday, September 22, 2014, in General Commentary, by John N
[caption id="attachment_5506" align="aligncenter" width="570"]Scottish voters and sniper Left: Scottish voters line up at a polling station. Right: Snipers on a Lhasa rooftop.[/caption] Following the Scottish independence referendum through state-owned Chinese news outlets, one might have noticed that they struck an apocalyptic tone. Global Times variously referred to it as a “shock,” “a tremor shaking the whole Western system,” a “[fierce] outbreak of secessionism,” “a white knuckle ride,” and a case of a minority “sabotaging” the unity of a country[1][2]. A Yes vote would “wreck the whole UK,” and make Britain a “second-class nation.” These predictions started out looking foolish, but ended up looking even worse on September 19, when the world awoke to find that Scotland had peaceably voted to remain a part of the UK. To begin with, the framing of the issue reflected the peculiar narratives crafted by Beijing. One Global Times headline asked if a minority would decide the UK’s fate[3]. But this referendum concerned Scotland first and foremost, and it should be noted that the Scottish are not the minority in Scotland, but are in fact 84% of the population. It seems quite sensible that the Scottish would determine the fate of Scotland, and it’s hard to see how members of the Chinese Communist Party Standing Committee could argue with that; every single one of them, since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, has been ethnically Chinese. The real question is whether or not the UK should be in control of Scotland, and it’s here that we find Beijing’s real objection. If the Scottish can debate and vote on their union with the UK, why shouldn’t the Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongolians, Hong Kongers, and Taiwanese be allowed to do the same today in regards to the PRC? At times the stories almost seemed to be trying to goad London into overreacting. The Global Times wrote that “liberal practices in the UK might have worked in the past, but now are facing immense uncertainty.” But if we look at the illiberal practices favored by Beijing in responding to perceived threats to their authority- tanks in Tiananmen, missiles aimed at Taiwan, armored personnel carriers driving around Hong Kong, and rule by force in Tibet- and look at the outcomes they’ve fostered, the difference couldn’t be any clearer. On September 18 an astonishing 84.6% voter turnout rendered a democratic decision in which the level of violence never rose above strenuous flag-waving. Contrast this with China, where the Global Times says that “legal, political and moral systems play an effective role” in curbing separatism, but which has been roiled by massive Tibetan protests, harsh crackdowns, and over 130 self-immolations over the last few years. In one revealing news story, one county in Tibet has made so many arrests lately, and anticipates so many more in the future, that they’ve had to enlarge the paramilitary police detention center used to hold Tibetan political prisoners. It seems that the system China is mainly dependent on force and the threat of violence, while in reality the local legal, political, and moral systems actually did result in peaceful outcome for Scotland. China should find inspiration there instead of deriding it, and allow the minorities of the PRC to freely exercise self-determination in deciding their own futures as well.

Warning: The safety of links to Chinese news sites cannot be guaranteed. [1] Global Times:; [2] Global Times:; [3] Ibid
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Dear all, It is good to be back in DC and continue to share with you more in detail some of the activities that we at ICT relentlessly continue to carry out. From publishing reports, to issuing press releases on urgent issues, from meeting government officials and members of Parliament to reaching out to Chinese people of good will. But let me start from the end: my visit to ICT Europe in Amsterdam. It was a weeklong series of meetings, where I had the pleasure to work side by side with a great and very committed team. It is led by a bedrock of the Tibetan movement internationally, my dear Tibetan friend and colleague Tsering Jampa, the Executive Director of ICT Europe, to whose leadership ICT owes a lot. The last day I was there, I had the privilege to have a public meeting and meet personally with dozens of ICT members and donors who for a long time (in many cases a lifetime!) have been supporting Tibetans. It was also a great opportunity for me to present to them how we are working to respond to the formidable challenge posed by China, not only to the preservation of a genuine and free Tibetan culture and identity in Tibet, but to the entire world due to its aggressive policies both internal and international. [caption id="attachment_5495" align="aligncenter" width="583"](Left) ICT Europe staff and a volunteer talk to our members after the meeting. (Right) Public meeting with ICT members in Amsterdam on September 5, 2014. (Left) ICT Europe staff and a volunteer talk to our members after the meeting.
(Right) Public meeting with ICT members in Amsterdam on September 5, 2014.[/caption] In the previous days, we also had a strategy meeting with other ICT European colleagues to prepare our advocacy work in the next weeks and months, based on the thorough documentation that we continue to gather from Tibet every day. As you might know, at the end of July ICT published a dramatic and very important Report "Acts of Significant Evil", that documents how 98 Tibetans have been convicted, detained or disappeared over the last few years, many for allegedly encouraging other Tibetans (usually their relatives, friends or fellow monks) to self-immolate. It might sound impossible to a reasonable person, but as an ICT supporter you know that this is the reality in which Tibetans live in Tibet. Only a senseless government can convict, without any sort of evidence or a fair trial, someone like Lobsang Tsundue, a monk from the Kirti monastery, to 11 years in jail for “intentional homicide,” after his fellow monk Phuntsog self immolated on March 16, 2011. This, and other forms of collective punishment that we have documented in the report, brings us back to the dark times when dictators punished entire communities to intimidate everybody not to challenge the ruling elites. Is this the China with whom our governments want to establish stable partnership? This was an issue that I raised also with Dutch government officials. This notwithstanding, we know that the spirit of Tibetans is still strong and it gives us an even stronger sense of urgency to work hard to push the international community and our governments to raise the issue of Tibet with China, because, simply, this behavior cannot find its place among civilized nations. I concluded my remarks in Amsterdam saying that we know that no government can rule forever without the genuine support of their own people and that even those who seem to be the strongest and most powerful can suddenly collapse or be forced to change. So, let’s keep up our work, we know that we are on the right side of history and that both the Tibetan and the Chinese people deserve a better future, and I look forward to share with you more news next week. Ciao! Matteo

“Seeing is believing:” barriers to objective understanding of Tibet

On Wednesday, August 27, 2014, in Recent, by Todd Stein
The Dalai Lama is fond of repeating the old Chinese saying, “seek truth from facts.” He often cites Deng Xiaoping’s utterance of the phrase in 1978, which came to characterize his reform era, as essential to finding a solution on Tibet. “Seeing is believing” is a similar aphorism. It was applied to the case of Tibet in a document at a Chinese-run forum. At face value, we should all agree. Having all the facts laid out before our eyes should enable an objective basis on which to find common ground. Yet we are cursed with the seemingly inescapable dynamic of ‘cognitive dissonance,’ wherein people struggle to absorb facts that don’t fit their preconceived mindset. In the case of the Chinese government, we also face a kind of ‘cognitive disappearance.’ Their use of “seeing is believing” is duplicitous. Here is the full paragraph from the aforementioned document:
Participants unanimously agree that what they have actually seen in Tibet differs from what the 14th Dalai (sic) and the Dalai clique have said. The Dalai clique statements on Tibet are distorted and incorrect. Many Western media reports are biased and have led to much misunderstanding. Seeing is believing. Participants express the aspiration to introduce the real Tibet to the world.
The duplicity comes from the fact that while the Chinese government accuses “Western media” of having a biased view of Tibet, at the same time they deliberately prevent Western media from entering Tibet to see for themselves. “Seeing is believing” is a privilege extended to the few lucky enough to get a visa. And the lucky few are often those who the government thinks will accept their portrayal of Tibet. The paragraph above comes from the “2014 Forum on Development of Tibet, China” held in Lhasa on August 12-13. The document, which Chinese media claimed was endorsed by the international participants, is taken straight from the central propaganda department’s talking points on Tibet – “ordinary people in Tibet are satisfied with their well-off lives,” “traditional culture [has] been well preserved,” “Tibetan people enjoy religious freedom.” We do not know if all the participants at this forum were told their names would be associated with a “consensus” document. We do know of one who was not. Bob Parker, former mayor of Christchurch, New Zealand, attended the forum and was asked if he endorsed the statement. “Not at all,” he told the BBC. “I’m aware that the statement was made but I certainly haven’t signed up to it. I think a number of people who were there were a little surprised to hear about that statement.” A skeptical view of Chinese practices is merited. A year ago, an editor the The Australian newspaper, Rowan Callick, discovered that the Chinese had attributed favorable comments on following his government-sponsored trip to Tibet. In response, he wrote,
Apparently I have told millions of readers in China that the people of Tibet are living a “wonderful life”… My glowing words, replicated on several official websites in China, starting with that of the China Daily, came as a surprise to me. For I didn’t utter them.
I think we should give journalists the benefit of the doubt on what they report, through their outlets, from Tibet. They report what they see (highways, shopping malls). It’s hard to report on what they are not allowed to see (Tibetans’ discontent). Many do supplement their stories with the contemporary political context. Those who don’t, I would argue, are not doing their readers a service. One example of the former is the New York Times’ Ed Wong, with “A Trip to Tibet, With My Handlers Nearby.” An example of the latter include The Hindu’s Suhasini Haidar’s blog of her recent trip to the Tibet Autonomous Region. Somewhere in between is the Vancouver Sun’s Chuck Chiang, who visited Lhasa in June 2014. While he notes that he was given a limited perspective and didn’t see enough of religious life in Tibet, the officially sponsored trip left him “cautiously optimistic about Tibet’s future.” I suppose that’s like your ophthamologist saying he is cautiously optimistic about your glaucoma diagnosis after examining only one eye. The Chinese government objects to first-hand reporting that does not match its desired portrayal of Tibet. Likewise, we find some Tibet supporters who criticize observations that may not match their preferred image of Tibet. Take the case of Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based journalist who is on a trip through western Tibet, from Lhasa to Shigatse to Mt. Kailash. He has been tweeting frequently from his trip, and has been subject to criticism on Twitter that his observations are somehow promoting Chinese propaganda. I don’t know Mr. Bishop, but I read his excellent newsletter, Sinocism. The name itself tells us he is no fan of the Chinese government. I have enjoyed the photos and short videos Mr. Bishop has posted, which provide a contemporary view of places few of us will ever see. He has posted images of highways, buildings and other infrastructure. Like everything in Tibet over the last six decades, these were constructed under Chinese rule. Observing does not make him a propagandist. These are just facts. I’m sure Mr. Bishop is smart enough to understand the context. This appears to be a personal journey, not a professional one. Mr. Bishop has responded to the criticism, even citing, accurately, the Dalai Lama’s position: Twitter v Fulfillment of the Dalai Lama’s admonition to “seek truth from facts” demands that we try to find common ground based on objective information. We should not allow ourselves to be confined to pre-conceived notions that fit our personal or political attitudes. Of course the Chinese party/state with its propaganda machine is the largest culprit. But even well-meaning Tibet supporters should take some perspective too.

Footnotes [1] Document can be found at (Warning: links to China-based sites cannot be certified as safe.)

Amateur hour in Tibet

On Monday, August 18, 2014, in Recent, by John N
Earlier this summer something truly rare happened in Tibet: the Chinese government allowed a group of foreign journalists to tour the Tibet Autonomous Region. Actually, they didn't just allow it- they organized the tour, and picked up the tab for the visiting journalists. The result has been some of the only positive press coverage China has gotten in Tibet in years, as in a series of articles by Vancouver Sun columnist Chuck Chiang (see here and here). Chiang's articles attempt to give consideration to both sides of the Tibet question, and he includes some caveats in his assessments: in one article he notes that he has “a limited perspective,” and later writes that he didn't spend enough time in the monasteries to comment on issues of religious freedom. But he doesn't seem to have noticed the most important point: as far as Beijing is concerned his lack of familiarity with Tibet is actually his most attractive quality. His limited perspective isn't a problem, but rather a chief selling point for the people who arranged his trip. Consider the cases of veteran China reporters with years of experience covering Tibetan issues: in the last few years they've been chased out of Tibet, denied entry to Tibet, entered Tibet only through subterfuge, sneaked into Tibet by bypassing police barricades, entered Tibet only through hiding in the back seat of a car (multiple times), and been forcibly expelled from Tibet en masse. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China has consistently found Tibet to be off-limits for foreign journalists, and has repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) requested access to Tibetan areas. In short, there's no lack of qualified and motivated reporters already working in China who would eagerly report from Tibet, given the chance. Instead, Beijing arranged for a group of journalists from Canada to come on a meticulously-planned tour of Tibet as they would like the world to see it: a series of harmonious Potemkin villages, with hand-picked Tibetans and Chinese officials nearby to provide context. Chiang clearly tried his best to keep his reporting balanced, but how much could he do when he's forced to rely on the director-general of the Lhasa “government information office” and staff from the China Tibetology Research Center for quotes? This preference for inexperienced participants can also be observed in the 2014 Lhasa Consensus, a government-organized conference which concluded last week. The conference, which issued a closing statement[1] loudly endorsing all aspects of Chinese rule in Tibet and lavishing unqualified praise on its achievements, was attended by “nearly 100 speakers from 36 countries” according to China Daily. The caveat: China Daily admitted[2] that “most attendants at the forum were in Tibet for the first time.” Also, at least one of the attendees subsequently complained of having been led to believe that the forum was focused on development, not politics, and objected to having been included in the “unanimous” closing statement, which included attacks on the Dalai Lama. With so many knowledgeable Tibetologists and researchers locked out of Tibet today, Chinese authorities instead granted access to (and put words in the mouth of) a select group whose members are mostly new to Tibet. One Lhasa Consensus attendee, a Lord Davidson from the United Kingdom, has already been the subject of controversy for a series of startlingly ignorant comments reported by the Chinese media. One of them, ironically, was a claim that foreign journalists don't cover Tibet in person because of the “high cost” of reporting there, apparently unaware of the way authorities selectively allow and deny access in pursuit of their messaging and propaganda goals. Clearly, if the situation was as rosy as they say there wouldn't be any need to block experts in favor of amateurs. Warning: The safety of links to Chinese news sites cannot be guaranteed. [1] [2]
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