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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Tibet Issue: an alternative perspective from Chengdu

Having lived in Chengdu for eight months now, I have found it particularly interesting reading the comments of journalists and the general public on Western news sources concerning the recent unrest in Tibet.

By and large, the unrest has been portrayed the way it tends to whenever something related to the “Tibet-China” issue comes up: the narrative is classic Cold War polarization; the characters delivered in stock good guy, bad guy roles. Tibet is the courageous, virtuous, victim: peaceful and Buddhist, religious but in a good, non-fundamentalist Muslim sort of way; quaint of lifestyle but in a charming, Lonely Planet-friendly manner; noble and enlightened, like the Dalai Lama. China, on the other hand, is evil incarnate: Communist and godless, brutal and heavy-handed, they crush the pacifist Tibetans through, as the papers faithfully cite, Mao’s aphorism that “power comes through the barrel of a gun.”

I don’t question that there is some truth to this Western journalistic narrative. I don’t doubt that the Chinese government has killed Tibetans that didn’t deserve to die, and that it hasn’t done this in the past. I’m not apologizing for any excessiveness in its actions, dismissing Tibetans’ grievances, or even taking a particular side. What I wish to share is simply how things are from my end within China at the moment, here in Chengdu, Sichuan province, which shares part of Tibet’s eastern border and is largely Tibetan (some of the unrest has taken place here). Moreover though, I wish to demystify the “Myth of Tibet” which I feel a lot of Westerners follow. I believe a successful democracy requires citizens which look beyond such absurdly one-sided coverage (on either side) and break down this remarkably fallacious, cartoonishly simple view of Tibetans and Chinese that currently pervades popular discourse.

First, here’s how the situation has been this week. Chengdu has been a state of semi-lockdown. People are advised to stay indoors. At least five Chinese have been killed or wounded by Tibetan attackers. One woman was riding her bicycle through a sealed off street and was beaten to death. Another was stabbed whilst riding the bus. Naturally, you don’t hear about the police reaction, but there is genuine concern for safety amongst average citizens. Rumours abound, one of the major ones being that a shipment of explosives entered Chengdu and has gone missing, presumably for Tibetan-led terrorist activities to be carried out by “Lamaists.” Another is that two explosions have gone off, one on a bus and one in a Carrefour, a chain of French supermarkets popular in China.

Chinese people are not stupid. They’re fully aware that their media is controlled by the government, and that they only hear what the government wants them to hear. Many access foreign web sites through Internet anonymizers. They’re educated to believe Tibet belongs to China (I encourage those interested in Sino-Tibetan history over the past few thousand years, prior to British colonialism, to do some self-research), and that China liberated Tibetans from slavery. They are aware that a lot of state funds go into aid and relief programs in Tibet, and don’t appreciate what they see as Tibetans turning their back on national assistance.

Here in Chengdu, we have a Tibetan quarter, much like New York has a Chinatown. There are shops selling all things Tibetan, restaurants serving Tibetan food, and Tibetans, wearing robes, cowboy hats or non-identifying garb. I’ve been there a handful of times: for a meal, to buy gifts, as a daytrip with friends. Every time I’ve been, it’s been quiet and relaxed, with the only really noticeable thing being that people really hassle you for money, either monks who offer to pray for you in exchange for donations, or just Tibetan beggars of a more traditional bent. This is rare in non-Tibetan areas of the city, though there are certainly many non-Tibetans living in dire poverty.

Tibetans have a reputation in Chengdu for being tough, which I imagine has something to do with their toilsome agrarian culture. I would say that the minority of them are robed monks. Most are average people, and many dress in standard Western garb, though cowboy hats are also noticeably popular. They’re physically larger than Hans, and are rumored to often carry knives. (Tibetan replica knives are widely sold in any Tibetan tourist area, and coming from Australia, I must paraphrase Paul Hogan in nothing that indeed, “[those] are knives!”) If anything, they’re viewed somewhat the way African-Americans are viewed by suburban White America: as in somewhat mysterious, dangerous, capable of kicking your butt, and as folks you shouldn’t mess with.

Apparently, in Chengdu, Tibetan gangs are considered far more fearsome than Han gangs, who are considered “wimpy” by comparison. I’ve been told the story of a Chinese bar owner who had his arms “cut off” by a Tibetan hit man. Hired killers are apparently disproportionately ethnic minorities, who, if they are not able to slip away uncaught into their local communities, are treated far more leniently (imprisoned) than Hans (executed) out of state fears that Western media will accuse China of genocide against minorities.

I have a friend named Cecelia, an ethnically-Han English major at the Southwest University for Minorities, which was set up by Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping to provide minorities with educational opportunities (though Hans are also allowed to attend.) China possesses laws similar to affirmative action: if you are an ethnic minority and you score the same on your entrance exam as a Han, you are given priority selection. It also has a number of scholarships available specifically for minorities, who, worth mentioning, are exempt from the one child policy. I’ve been to Cecelia’s campus to take part in the weekly dances, where students of various Chinese ethnicities dance Yi and Tibetan style to traditional and popular music (Vengaboys, anybody?). It’s communal, good fun, and from my experience, the other students look up to, in a way, their Tibetan schoolmates. As Cecelia says:

“I like Tibetan culture very much. I think they are very charming, brave and honest.” She acknowledges that they have cultural differences, and that sometimes she finds it difficult to understand their behavior. When I asked her for an example, she told me of being woken at two am one morning by a Tibetan male student shouting his crush’s name and singing very loudly. She has Tibetan friends, one of whose family lives in Lhasa. She asked him about the situation, but he didn’t want to talk about it, simply telling her his family is safe and that the issue is “extremely complex.”

Traveling around Tibetan and other mostly ethnic minority parts of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces, I found Tibetans and minority groups living in coexistence seemingly without tension. Those that weren’t nomadic herders seemed to get by on tourist (largely Han) money, and I don’t think they minded the business. The Han group I was traveling with seemed, more than anything, simply ignorant to Tibetan culture, though certainly not hostile to it. They enjoyed taking their pictures with local Tibetan nomads and in front of historic temples as much as a Middle American family might in front of some “exotic” indigenous site.

At the other end of the spectrum is the aid industry, which often specifically focuses on Tibetan and other minority groups, in China and elsewhere. As a British colleague once commented:

“What about if you’re dirt poor but happen to be born Han? You’re screwed, that’s what.”

I’ve heard several accounts of Tibetan beneficiaries stealing funds from NGOs to buy SUVs or other personal uses, or of them charging egregiously high prices (compared, say, to other minorities) for traditional artisan crafts based on the fact that they were “handcrafted by Tibetans.” My roommate was blatantly cheated twice by his Tibetan tour guide last year.

Am I saying that all Tibetans are immoral and untrustworthy? Of course not. What I’m saying is that they’re not—believe it or not—some semi-Godlike, all virtuous Buddhist victims. They’re just like any other group of people, meaning that they’re equally as capable of being shrewd and opportunistic when faced with a gullible, shallowly-sympathetic parade of rich Westerners looking to support a cause with liberal amounts of disposable income. Of course most Tibetans don’t engage in such activities, but some certainly do, similar to any other people un/fortunate enough to have been struck by the West’s Third World fickle wand of development goodwill/guilt.

Once again, I’ll never apologize for authoritarian brutality, nor am I saying Tibetans’ grievances are not without considerable cause or justification. Far from it. But I won’t condone the killing of innocent Chinese any more than Tibetans, nor will I disacknowledge China’s efforts to assist its ethnic minorities. The Chinese media is not free, and there’s no denying it. But the Western media, which is supposed to be free, and which many Westerners use as moral leverage as an exemplar of democratic rights, has proven just as one-sided and ideologically driven in recent coverage of Tibetan unrest. As a former journalism student who is aware of the media’s profound influence on global events, I find the editorials’ knee-jerk opinionating and citizens’ unstudied, predictable reactionary bluster particularly revolting. In the spirit of independent inquiry and opinion forming, I encourage those observing the events to read more history and first-hand perspectives before taking such quick-to-voice stands.

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