Friday, April 11, 2008

Overheard and Observed in China: Part 2: The Dalai Lama

There is something surreal about opening the morning newspaper at the breakfast table in your hotel each day and reading a polar-opposite, diametrically opposed point of view on an issue that perhaps you haven't given much thought to--at least I hadn't--but that you already know the answer to because it is so universally accepted in the media pool in which you swim.

One topic that jumped off the pages of the China Daily (the national English language newspaper of China) with a clang and a bang for me was the different perspective on the Dalai Lama, who is also on the front page of many Western newspapers, particularly in the wake of protests that accompany the Olympic Torch each step of its trek to Beijing for opening ceremonies. Oh, and that March 14 riot thing in Lhasa, Tibet, which included monks. Maybe. (Not "maybe" on the riot but on whether the monks were monks or soldiers dressed as monks.)

Here are just a few of the juxtapositions:

Western View: Tibet was a free country since a treaty that ended 200 years of fighting was ratified in 821 A.D., but was forcibly seized and annexed by China as part of Mao Zedong's 1950 invasion with the People's Liberation Army that was ratified under coercion in 1951. China View: Yes, Tibet and China separated in 821 A.D., but Tibet became an intrinsic part of China between the 13th and 15th Centuries in response to Mongolian invasions; China was granted formal sovereignty in 1751 to protect Tibet from the Nepalese Gurkha invasions.

Western View: The Independent Tibet movement rectifies historical injustices by returning sovereignty to the Tibetan people. China View: There is no historical validity to a Greater Tibet, administratively, religiously, and especially ethnically--at least 10 other groups have been living on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau for generations, including Han, Hi, Mongolian, Tu, Monba, and Lhoba.

Western View: China wants to suppress religious expression in Tibet. China View: China has shown more than 50 years of restraint and respect on Tibetan culture, particularly in regards to religion. In fact, all of China is prospering and experiencing new freedoms, including speech and religion, to a much greater degree than Tibet, with its theocratic leanings.

Western View: The Dalai Lama is a man of peace and goodwill. China View: The Dalai Lama is a political operator--and sometimes instigator--who was part of theocratic feudal regime that enslaved and impoverished the Tibetan population; nobles and senior monks owned and controlled 90% of the land.

Western View: On March 14, awakening echoes of Tienanmen Square, the Chinese government once again crushed a peaceful demonstration of people who seek freedom. China View: The Tibetan Government in Exile, with the fundraising savvy and organizational skills of the international "Dalai clique" orchestrated a violent riot that resulted in $35 million (U.S.) in damage.

I spoke with one U.S. businessman who has lived in Hong Kong for a number of years and he commented:

Maybe I've lived here too long and have been brainwashed, but I'm no longer convinced that the Chinese government is all wrong on this Tibet issue and, in fact, may do more for the everyday Tibetan people than the separatist movement. For example, the government in exile has no plans on accommodating a multi-ethnic population.

So has he been brainwashed? The obvious answer is, yes, of course he has--and it's tied to the simple notion that the official Chinese media can't be trusted to produce anything more than propaganda. I'm glad that I don't have to worry about that danger in America because I have objective, reliable, and trustworthy news sources like The New York Times to protect me. Okay, cheap shot. But there is a strong resentment in China that they aren't getting a fair trial in the international court of opinion. A Western expatriate made this statement:

The official Chinese media may be clumsy, but at least they are not as hypocritical as the Western media which always claims to be impartial, yet are actually biased on many issues related to China ... and in their own countries!

Well, I'm no expert on Chinese politics, but this exercise has helped me come to one iron-clad conclusion: to fight media bias on the issues near and dear to my heart, I'm going to hire the PR firm the Dalai Lama uses, not the one the Chinese government has on retainer.


  1. You said, "I'm glad that I don't have to worry about that danger in America because I have objective, reliable, and trustworthy news sources like The New York Times to protect me."

    Funny. Still chuckling.

  2. Sarcasm is one of my better attributes.

  3. Mark,

    Thanks for the post. As Paul Harvey said, "And now for the rest of the story ..."

    I have no clue how to sort this all out. I do know that pictures say a thousand words -- but they're usually the wrong words. That's why pictures are so dangerous. And there are some photos floating around that make the Chinese look bad.

    The media have latched on to Tibet like rabid dogs to red meat. Buddhism has attained "most favored religion" status among the beautiful people too. (Probably because you can be spiritual and chic at the same time. Its all about healthy living right? And the lotus position is so cool.)

    This is not to say the Chinese are right, but the Tibetans have got some famous friends.

  4. Did you know that the word for "propaganda" in Chinese is the same word as used for "publicity" and "marketing"? Pretty interesting.
    Of course here propaganda is just called White House press releases...

  5. Thanks for sharing this, Mark. This is my favorite topic du jour. I had been suspicious of the one-sided Tibet coverage in the news lately, and met a Chinese couple over the weekend who expressed seniments much like what you share. Since then I have done some reading and concluded that there are vast shades of grey in the Tibet/China story. The most interesting essay that I read online (by Michael Parenti, if you want to Google it) claimed CIA support, from the 1950's to today, of the Tibetan exiles. Which makes my inner conspiracy-theorist very suspicious... It is true that China is very, very bad at PR, though. At least as it pertains to westerners.

  6. Mortimus -- the mainstream media has long been the guardians of information flow, even in a free country like America. But who has watched the guards?

    I am not totally comfortable with information as presented on the internet -- but it does help my suspicions that the media is lazy and way too agenda driven.

  7. Bob -- my freshman year of college I took Communications 101 and there was a fascinating topic we explored called: God Words v. Devil Words. For example, "persuasion" is a God Word but "manipulation" is a Devil Word. At the end of the day they mean about the same thing. You're hitting it!

  8. Dear Anonymous -- sounds like you had a similar conversation as I had. I did look at the Parenti videos on youtube and don't know what I think. He does acknowledge that the Dalai Lama became an exile at age 6, so he could not have been associated with all the atrocities that marked Tibet during that period. I like conspiracy theories, too, but obviously, it's impossible to sort truth from fiction by their very nature, which is covert.