“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 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-08/14/c_126868303.htm (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] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-08/14/c_126868303.htm [2] http://www.chinadailyasia.com/nation/2014-08/14/content_15156640.html
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A reflection on the 2014 Tibetan Youth Leadership Program

On Thursday, August 7, 2014, in Recent, by Jigme Taring
Jigme TaringI am humbly taking this opportunity to reflect on my experience with this year’s Tibetan Youth Leadership Program (TYLP) organized by the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT). TYLP as you may know- or if you don’t know- is just one of the many virtuous works ICT provides for the ever-changing Tibetan movement. I can confirm that this specific program, led by ICT’s Tencho Gyatso la and Bhuchung Tsering la, is an extremely enlightening experience for the Tibetan-American youth. The program serves to empower 10 ambitious young Tibetan-American (undergrad/grad) students every year who feel a deep passion for the Tibetan cause and equip them with the necessary knowledge and tools in order to become effective leaders in the Tibetan community. From the 10 participants in this year’s TYLP, we came from nine different states, several different fields of study, and unique stories and backgrounds, which made for a truly diverse and dynamic group. I believe there was a no better host city for this type of event than the nation’s capital, Washington DC. We were housed comfortably in George Washington University’s Thurston Hall for the eventful week. I must also mention that the food, traveling, room and board expenses were all graciously paid for by ICT, making this program incomparable. Some wonder why TYLP is limited to just 10 participants. I’m assuming there are many reasons for this, but I personally felt it provided a more intimate experience for the participants, all of the people we met, places we saw, and so on. In fact, my favorite part of the program was meeting and interacting with the other participants. We all became very close by the end of the week, and I plan to keep in contact with all of them. Being the youngest participant, I found it useful to serve as a sponge at times to soak in all the knowledge and experience from others. Some of the most informative and interesting debates were actually done off the clock, in the dorms. The schedule over the course of the five days was quite intensive and elaborately planned. Throughout the week we visited many influential places such as the U.S. Capitol, U.S. Department of State, Human Rights Watch, and The Office of Tibet, just to mention a few. At the Washington Media Institute, a highly animated instructor by the name of Mr. Amos Gelb taught us how the media plays an integral role in politics. Back at the ICT office, we met with leaders in the Tibetan movement as well as Chinese scholars. From all the invigorating discussions that we had with the notable figures, what I enjoyed most was the way they challenged our way of thinking. They gave us perspectives we would never ponder. I felt that this constant challenge throughout the week immensely motivated us and presented the reality of our Tibetan situation today. A personal highlight from the week was being able to partake in a live radio talk show at the Tibetan service of Radio Free Asia (RFA). Tenzing Rapden Lama la, Dede Dolkar la, and I represented our TYLP group on that morning where we were asked to speak on a variety of topics, ranging from our experience during the week to more controversial topics such as “Rangzen vs. Umaylam”. Although it was a bit nerve-racking, it was a good experience for us to be able to articulate our thoughts on the spot on live radio in our native tongue. You can watch the clip of our live show below.
One important lesson I attained from the week (which I mentioned on the radio show) was a message given by Mr. Lodi Gyari, former Special Envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who shared his thoughts on what he hopes to see in this new generation of Tibetans worldwide. He said we need more professionals. We can be professionals in anything, whether it is a lawyer, painter, politician, doctor, etc. Just being a Tibetan, and a Tibetan professional at that, carries tremendous weight and strengthens the entirety of our global Tibetan community. With our abundance of resources and our access to quality education in exile, I see more and more Tibetan professionals from all departments in the coming years. Another influential lesson I took from the week was the significance of being a “Tibetan-American.” Bhuchung Tsering la explained why we should identify ourselves as Tibetan-Americans and not just merely Tibetan or American, respectively. By being a Tibetan-American we have a substantial amount of opportunities as citizens of the United States, combined with a great deal of responsibility to use our opportunities to help our brothers and sisters in Tibet. So we must embrace and understand what it means to be a Tibetan-American and fully utilize it to our advantage. All in all, considering the quality of the preparation, intensity of the program, and having all the expenses paid for by ICT, there is no other program of this magnitude with these types of benefits. I whole-heartedly encourage any Tibetan-American University students reading this to apply for this unparalleled week. I especially recommend the younger students, 18-20, to apply as I did.

The EU changing engines on a moving train

On Thursday, July 17, 2014, in EU Policies, by Joel Hirv
[caption id="attachment_5468" align="alignright" width="300"]New President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker New President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker[/caption] Following the European Parliament (EP) elections at the end of May, the EU entered into an intricate period of transformation. As if changing engines on a moving train, great care was taken not to derail any wagons, or in this case, alienate any MemberStates or political parties, and to keep the European project going. Compared with previous elections in 2009 and 2004, the winning European People’s Party’s (EPP) support decreased significantly due to an alarming rise of Euroskeptic right-wing parties. They were able to secure an overall victory, but the second largest group in the EP – Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – is not lagging too far behind. In any case, a coalition was needed to secure that the EPP candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission (EC) – Jean-Claude Juncker – passes the vote in the European Parliament. For the first time major European political parties had agreed before the elections that for greater transparency they would introduce their candidates for the Presidency of the EC publicly. They would not allow the Member States to appoint a candidate behind closed doors in the European Council. This agreement was followed by an ultimatum by the EP to veto any other candidate apart from the top candidates presented before the elections. The process of nominating the President of the EC has changed greatly over past decades: from a unanimous decision of the Council before the Treaty of Maastricht to Council’s qualified majority decision, which needs to take into account the results of the EP elections and receive an absolute majority in the EP after the Treaty of Lisbon. Such shift from Intergovernmentalism to parliamentarianism has not been to everyone’s tastes. The Prime Ministers of the UK, David Cameron, and Hungary, Viktor Orbán, objected to the nomination of Juncker mostly because of his federalist views. Despite some disgruntled voices, Juncker passed the vote in the EP on 15 July with the backing of a coalition of the EPP, S&D and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). He secured 422 votes, while 250 MEPs voted against him and 47 abstained. Juncker needed an absolute majority of 751, meaning at least 376 votes were required. This coalition also guaranteed the re-election of Martin Schulz (S&D) as the President of the EP. It is not yet clear who will be succeeding Catherine Ashton as the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy because the exact assignment of portfolios in Juncker’s Commission is still pending. Only a few Member States have come forward with their candidates for Commissioners and a consensus on the personae of the High Representative and the President of the European Council was not reached at the special summit of 16 July. The whole Commission is expected to take office in November this year following hearings and a vote of investiture in the European Parliament and the new President of the European Council will be taking over from Herman Van Rompuy in December. The EP’s top positions – Vice-Presidents and Questors, as well as Chairs and Vice-Chairs of Committees and Delegations – were distributed between groups following d’Hondt method as usual, which allowed each of them to take their pick according to their relative size. Nevertheless, those preferences needed to be legitimised by votes either in the Plenary or respective Committees and Delegations, and in some cases pro-European groups joined forces to scupper Euroskeptics from taking the top jobs. Of the signatories of the ICT’s pledge “2014 for Tibet” (www.2014forTibet.eu) Ulrike Lunacek (Greens/European Free Alliance, Austria) was elected a Vice-President of the European Parliament; Michael Cramer (Greens/EFA, Germany) the Chair of the Committee on Transport and Tourism; Yannick Jadot (Greens/EFA, France) a Vice-Chair of the Committee on International Trade; Robert Rochefort (ALDE, France) and Catherine Stihler (S&D, UK) Vice-Chairs of the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection; Jaroslaw Walesa (EPP, Poland) a Vice-Chair of the Committee on Fisheries; and Lidia Joanna Geringer de Oedenberg (S&D, Poland) a Vice-Chair of the Committee on Legal Affairs. Tunne Kelam (EPP, Estonia) and Ulrike Lunacek will also be speaking up for the rights and freedoms of Tibetans in their capacity as Members of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Monica Macovei (EPP, Romania) as a Substitute Member. Karima Delli (Greens/EFA, France) was appointed a Member of the Delegation for relations with India; Stefan Eck (Confederal Group of the European United Left - Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), Germany) a Member and Philipp Lamberts a Substitute Member of the Delegation for relations with the People’s Republic of China; and Yannick Jadot and Thomas Mann (EPP, Germany) Substitute Members of the Delegation for relations with the countries of South Asia.  
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