Over the last few weeks we’ve seen a number of official statements about the Tibetan self-immolation crisis issued by the US, EU, UK, and others. Governments and people around the world are calling on China to turn around its failed policies in Tibet, and the few journalists who have made it beyond police barricades have confirmed how dire the situation is at the moment.
In the midst of this torrent of support for Tibet, the Chinese government seems to be trying to push back. China Tibet Online, an online clearinghouse for the Party line on all things Tibet, has been host to a series of articles portraying the Dalai Lama as an evil mastermind. China Daily took the statements from the EU and UK calling for China to respect human rights in Tibet and resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama and swung back at them, saying that the statements were “are simply aimed at the wrong target because it has been Dharamsala that has been inciting such suicidal actions, in a covert but merciless manner that has been proved beyond doubt.” This has been a disappointing turn for those of us who had hoped to see the new Communist Party leadership take a more realistic stance on Tibet.
Coordinated propaganda offensives like this might work in the sealed media environment of the People’s Republic of China, but outside of China’s borders these narratives have failed to gain a foothold. Take for example this article from China Daily, which asserts that Westerners are beginning to blame the Dalai Lama for the self-immolations. Their first quote comes from Stephen Prothero, a contributor to the CNN Belief Blog, and subsequent quotes come from La Libre Belgique and two unnamed Austrian and German newspapers. It’s a paltry offering to begin with compared to what the headline promises, but it gets even worse when you read Prothero’s reaction to the piece. He continues to oppose suicide as a political strategy, but he writes that “it is disconcerting to see one’s words used by Chinese officials to justify the atrocities it has been visiting on Tibet for generations.” He notes that he agrees with the EU statement that China Daily was attempting to refute, and wishes he had criticized the Chinese government more forcefully. “The biggest moral outrage in Tibet today is the behavior of the Chinese government,” Prothero concludes. He probably won’t be quoted by them again.
Another propaganda failure comes courtesy of a China Tibet Online post entitled “Dalai despised by UK netizens.” All 52 million of them, one might ask? Not even close: the article grudgingly admits that the netizens in question are ten members of an obscure British discussion forum. As if that weren’t bad enough, some of the negative responses actually came from people who were disappointed with the Dalai Lama for compromising too greatly with Beijing. CTO unsurprisingly neglects to mention this.
There’s something pretty fishy about the poll, actually. The opening question implies a connection between the Dalai Lama and the increasing number of self-immolations, which is an extremely unusual belief outside of Chinese propaganda outlets. The person who started it referred to the Dalai Lama simply as “Dalai,” which is quite rare among Westerners but a very common formulation in Mandarin Chinese. He or she registered on December 18th and posted the poll on the 23rd, and little more than a week later the article about the poll appeared on China Tibet Online. The only other thing this user has ever posted is an awkward rephrasing of an article about a French photographer who visited Tibet, an article that was itself originally posted just days earlier on CTO. I won’t accuse CTO of manufacturing the news by creating the poll itself and then breathlessly reporting on its own creation, but that’s mostly because ten people disinterestedly chatting on an internet forum doesn’t really fit the definition of ‘news.’ With all this in mind, the headline “Dalai despised by UK netizens” seems even more inaccurate.
Seeing China try (and failing) to move world opinion is amusing at times, but in the context of the self-immolation crisis it feels far more painful. As Tibet continues to burn, Chinese authorities are offering more of the same- demonization of the Dalai Lama, attacks on foreign governments and media, and heightened repression inside Tibet. It’s now a new year, and in a few months the new leaders of the Communist Party will also be given new positions in the Chinese government. We’ll keep hoping they can be induced to take a new tack on Tibet, as well.