China, VOA, and the “Gates of Hell”

On Friday, March 22, 2013, in China, Self-Immolation, by John N


Archived broadcasts are available on VOA's YouTube page.

The anniversary of the February 27, 2009, self-immolation of a monk named Tapey passed almost a month ago, marking four years since the start of the self-immolation protests in Tibet. While Chinese authorities have remained consistently deaf to the pleas of the self-immolators, their strategies for dealing with the protests have changed over time.  Recently a new phase has begun, with lengthy jail sentences handed out to growing numbers of Tibetans and intensified propaganda attacks against the Dalai Lama, foreign governments, international media, and Tibet advocacy organizations.

One particular target of official Chinese ire has been Voice of America (VOA) which, since 1990, has broadcast “accurate, objective, and comprehensive” news into Tibet, according to its mandate. VOA’s Tibetan-language broadcasts are frequently cited by Tibetans as their only alternative to state-controlled media, providing them precious access to their fellow Tibetans and to the global community through news stories that are not covered in China.

A recent China Daily article portrays VOA as a lead cause of the Tibetan self-immolation protests, describing VOA as a “stage” for the “instigators” of the self-immolations, an “evil hand,” and an “unseen killer” of Tibetans. The article accuses VOA of “committing crimes” against the Chinese people in general and the Tibetan people in particular who it describes as “poisoned” by watching or listening to VOA broadcasts.

These are serious charges given that VOA is fully funded by the United States Government, but the evidence brought forth in their support is decidedly unserious. China Daily veers into conspiracy theory territory when it alleges that the 2008 Tibetan uprising was coordinated by VOA by broadcasting secret messages to Tibetan listeners instructing them to “rise up” and “break, smash, rob, and burn” Lhasa. If there were the slightest bit of truth to these charges it would be easy for Beijing to corroborate them by providing evidence; VOA broadcasts are archived online and can be viewed on YouTube. Unremarkably, no substantiation of China Daily’s claims has been given, nor has there been evidence produced to support other official accusations that the self-immolations are being inspired or influenced from outside Tibet. Pema Thrinley, Chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region People’s Congress, recently claimed that Beijing has evidence of the Dalai Lama’s involvement with the self-immolations but also added the caveat that it was “inconvenient” to share it.

Another component of attacks against VOA is that its breaking coverage of the Tibetan self-immolation proves its complicity in the protests themselves – not only a spurious claim but a revealing insight into how news is officially managed in China. The VOA Tibetan service is a professional operation with an obviously greater focus on Tibetan issues than other international news agencies have. It stands to reason that they should frequently be the first to break stories about current events in Tibet.

Actually, if simply reporting on an event first is evidence of having caused it, Xinhua has some explaining to do.  Xinhua congratulated itself for having been the first news organization to announce the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, beating other agencies by some 10 seconds. Is it then appropriate to condemn Xinhua as the instigator and invisible killer behind the Iraq War, or is covering the news the primary function of a news agency? Coverage does not equate to causation.

Song Ying, a researcher from the Beijing Foreign Studies University, is quoted in the China Daily article voicing an argument that seems to reveal the real problem Beijing has with VOA. She cites a broadcast from February 2013 in which “quotes in a VOA report were all directly taken from activists, and didn’t consider the Chinese government’s stance on this matter.”  This gets more to the heart of the matter than the tinfoil hat claims about coded secret messages and arranging self-immolations. The Communist Party still considers propagandizing to be the primary duty of journalists.

But there is another more vulnerable target for official wrath. Now that increasing numbers of Tibetans are able to take pictures on their phones and contact international news organizations through the internet, there will certainly be more challenges to the official party line. Clear and strongly-voiced international criticism of unsubstantiated official attacks against VOA and the Dalai Lama could interject some caution in Beijing when it goes after its own citizens.

3 Responses to “China, VOA, and the “Gates of Hell””

  1. [...] plot. The evidence was never presented, which is unsurprising given that the Chinese government has never substantiated these claims. The only sympathy offered to Tibetan self-immolators by the Chinese media is in the context of [...]

  2. lobsang tengyie says:

    That China would respond harshly to any form of Tibetan protest is hardly surprising. Pragmatists of the younger ruling generation on the national level in China are cringing at having to “stay on the leash” of the older policy makers. It is crucial for Tibetans in Tibet, as they personally feel compelled, to continue the movement that may very well break the back of communist China’s long standing policy in Tibet. HHDL’s public statements in these matters is of the utmost importance and his detailed views would be most welcome on this site.

    Buddhists do not believe in suicide and feel it is a sin to end the natural lifespan prematurely. However, motivation has a great deal to do with the karmic act. I am as yet unclear as to how HH feels regarding this mode of protest. I feel some balance is being struck and I would like to hear his views on the subject.

    I would also urge ICT to make these actions a major focus and keep the movement updated on at least a weekly basis and every time another immolation occurs. While the story is heart-wrenching it is clearly the next springboard in advancing the public consciousness on the plight of the remaining 6 million Tibetans in Tibet.

  3. People rely heavily on the news Media. I am very grateful for China’s efforts at Reform and Opening. There are many organizations (including International Campaign for Tibet) and individuals that provide important information about the Tibetan Autonomous Region and China. Many Chinese and international news organization provide honest reporting and undertake difficult investigation. Voice of America is respected by Tibetan- Chinese that is good news. I am particularly grateful to the New York Times which was able to unravel the financial holding of China’s leadership. It is to the Chinese leadership benefit that they are now focused on helping the poor Chinese.

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