Archive for March 24th, 2008


Habitually Bad Tempered (Pain Enough To Make A Shy Bald Buddhist Reflect And Plan A Mass Murder)

According to Xinhua, these men carry no lethal weapons, and sometimes are forced to act in self-defense against Buddhist monks who attack them without provocation.

Judging from the reaction, the last fairly sarcastic entry about the Tibetan crisis was well-received. To be honest, I didn’t really know how else to respond. While my methods of circumnavigating the Great Firewall would’ve allowed me to respond pretty much anyway I wanted, for some reason, it seemed very apropos, given the media clamp-down, the ridiculously bad propaganda and PR, and my own inability to directly express my frustration with that situation.

One thing seems pretty obvious about the situation that I should say straight up front. I have no doubt that there are probably more than a few incidents where ethnic Tibetans, who might otherwise be criminals or thugs, took advantage of the situation to engage in all kinds of melee, vandalism and other crimes. Analogous, perhaps, to the Rodney King riots of LA, even if you bought the full story about the grievances of rioters, it wouldn’t exactly explain why people felt the need to steal stereo equipment, TV’s, car stereos, and so forth. Closer to the truth is that in situations of civil strife, all kinds of bad actors come out of the woodwork to enjoy the havoc and even profit from it.

But the problem here is that by forbidding foreign journalists from Tibetan cities, and putting forward such a ridiculous line for foreign journalists about the “terrorist Dalai clique” secretly manipulating the unrest, it gives us foreigners reason to suspect the absolute worst. Given that this is hardly the first time that China had something to hide, and that it subsequently went to great lengths to keep anyone from finding out, it suggests to outsiders that the Tibetans are being brutally victimized by the Chinese, and black and white hats are assigned accordingly. As a friend of Allison’s pointed out, if you seek to hide something, you should only do it if the truth is far worse than anything your critics can imagine, since otherwise the truth is usually nowhere nearly as bad.

In many other ways, it strikes me that China is shooting itself in the foot over these protests. They seem to have a conception of “saving face” and maintaining one’s international reputation that emphasizes superficial imagery – clean streets, smiling citizens, and conspicuous wealth consumption. As is typical for a police state, the idea that their reputation might be considerably improved by something not 100% under their direct control, like a non-violent protest decrying their treatment of Tibetans, Uyghurs, or practitioners of Falun Dafa, is foreign to them. So rounding up dissidents and, increasingly, the homeless of Beijing, to keep the city looking nice and civilized, makes sense. But in this, they confuse the ends with the means, and think that people will only care about the ends – that being, in this case, President Hu Jintao’s much ballyhooed “harmonious society.” In the west, of course, such protests are non uncommon, and since they are free, interestingly enough, they usually don’t receive much attention and certainly typically don’t accomplish much more than preaching to the converted. But a protest in a police state, being such a rarity and being a cause so easily to identify with the liberalism and democracy of the west, is viewed with sympathy and awe. A westerner cannot help but feel, justifiably, a kind of solidarity with protesters like the Tank Man, and now with the monks being prosecuted. Beijing may be able to engage in enough crackdowns to ensure the peacefulness of the grave throughout China and Tibet, but it’s not like the outside world will be blind to how that was accomplished, and would probably prefer some of the “chaos” that might be invited by tolerance of peaceful assemblies and petitions of grievances.

Instead, China’s government has been able to do nothing more than engage in more preposterous propagandist stuff that virtually no one outside China who has access to a free media will take seriously. Consider this example:

Ethnic Han Chinese were the real victims of the Tibetan riots, the Beijing authorities say, and its security forces will respond severely. This month’s riots were the most intense in 20 years, shaking Lhasa and surrounding areas and leaving Beijing to repair the worst damage to its public image since the tanks rolled in central Beijing in 1989, massacring pro-democracy activists.

“Evidence shows that the violent incidents were created by the ‘Tibet independence’ forces and masterminded by the Dalai Lama clique with the vicious intention of undermining the upcoming Olympics and splitting Tibet from the motherland,” thundered an editorial in the People’s Daily yesterday.

The Dalai Lama – who this weekend was in Delhi for a meditation workshop that the actor Richard Gere was due to attend – denies he incited the riots. Last week the Nobel Peace Prize winner suggested he might resign over the unrest, which goes against his professed policy of trying to find a peaceful way of gaining more autonomy for Tibet. He also says he supports the Beijing Games.

Indeed, the Dalai Lama has actually alienated many of the younger generations of Tibetans who do favor outright independence, and urge international boycotts of the Olympics. (Curiously, I’ve yet to hear a peep from all of those pro-Palestinian groups who urge divestment from Israel suggesting the same for China. Interesting, that.) The notion that he secretly is organizing these riots is too ridiculous to merit rational consideration – it’s just as likely that the violent riots were organized by the Chinese government itself to bring ill-repute to Dalai Lama supporters. By which I mean, not that I think that happened either, but that such a suggestion has about as much rational basis as the suggestion that this is all the Dalai Lama’s doing. It has been pointed out, though, that there is some method to the propagandists’ madness. That while it may not be scoring too many points in the court of international opinion, that it may be doing itself well in the eyes of ethnic Han in the mainland. The propaganda here actually showed some moments and incidents where Chinese soldiers appeared to lose control of the situation, which helped fuel the topsy-turvy perception of Chinese soldiers being the victims of thuggish Tibetan monks. As such, even if there were a free press in Shanghai or Beijing, and free polling, support for the Chinese government’s efforts to re-establish control, even by brutal methods, would probably find wide support.

Still, by all appearances, the Chinese government seems to think that its techniques will quell international critics, which is a senseless belief if true, and shows that it has a lot to learn about how PR works in the west. But probably a better example is what the Chinese government mouthpieces have said about Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She’s not one of my favorite people, but this is just silly, even as an attempt at slander:

The official Xinhua New Agency, meanwhile, published a commentary bashing Pelosi, a fierce critic of China who on Friday visited the Dalai Lama at his headquarters in India, where she called China’s crackdown “a challenge to the conscience of the world.”

Xinhua accused Pelosi of ignoring the violence caused by the Tibetan rioters. “‘Human rights police’ like Pelosi are habitually bad tempered and ungenerous when it comes to China, refusing to check their facts and find out the truth of the case,” it said.

“Her views are like so many other politicians and western media. Beneath the double standards lies their intention to serve the interest groups behind them, who want to contain or smear China.”

Yes, because Speaker Pelosi and western politicians sympathetic to Tibetans, presumably also including President Bush, who presented the Dalai Lama with a Congressional Medal of Honor, have nothing better to do with their time than consider ways to deal with their habitually bad temper than by picking on poor old mainland China. Pity the Chinese government, the victim of so much international ill-will and hostility! And then we get the classic Chinese response to criticism of human rights violations, the ever popular Argumentum ad Hominem Tu Quoque. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, if China finds itself criticized for human rights violations, this will be the response: “Well, you violate rights in the US, Iraq, etc., so shut up about Tibet, Darfour, Xinjiang, etc.!” It doesn’t quite successfully refute the charge, but that’s a common sentiment here.

And consider the grave insult dealt to mainland China by well-known international provocateur Björk, who performed in Shanghai shortly after the beginning of the Tibetan crisis. Apparently, just before she performed her song “Declare Independence,” from her new album Volta, she uttered one word which hurt the feelings of all 1.3 billion mainland Chinese. That one word being: “Tibet!”

Not surprisingly, China, which has exercised a controversial rule over Tibet for 58 years, took offense to Björk’s remarks. According to an Associated Press report, the Chinese Ministry of Culture released a statement late last week claiming Björk’s Tibet shout-out “broke Chinese law and hurt Chinese people’s feelings.” The report suggests China– where even a Dirty Three show can result in a riot– intends to “be stricter on foreign performers” following the Björk incident.

Granted, it may have been one word, but it was in a pretty obvious context, in a song urging that people should “not let them do that to [them],” and respond by raising their flags from the highest mountains, making their own currency, etc. Still, the idea that most Chinese even know who Björk is, and really give a flying flip what she thinks of Tibet, suggests either that Xinhua’s grasp on reality is weak, or that the mainland Chinese are seriously way too sensitive.

So, what do I think about Tibet? Well, I think Ayn Rand’s “Global Balkanization” very successfully argues that there is no right to declare independence as such. It’s not enough for a people to think they have a right to their own country merely because they really want one, especially if their own rationale is based in something collectivist, like the desire to oppress a particular minority without external interference, like the Confederacy in the Civil War, or because they themselves have a distinct ethnic identity, like the Basque separatists of Spain.

However, the Tibetans, like the Turkic Uyghurs of the northwest of China, do have more than adequate legitimate grievances against the Chinese government justifying a pursuit of independence, preferably one that could be pursued by non-violence civil disobedience. Any social contract that may have existed between the Tibetans and Beijing was violated almost from the day that the first Chinese soldiers entered the region to “liberate” it in 1950. The trouble with civil disobedience, of course, is that while historically it’s been quite successful against liberal democracies like the US and Britain, it has a troubled record at best against police states like China. If the government you’re struggling against has no conscience, no compulsion against coming in an executing everyone who dissents, civil disobedience may accomplish little more than making it easier for the police or army to round people up for another round of executions resulting in bills for the bullets used for the shootings being sent to the families.

And it also depends on what kind of government the Tibetans want. If they want a strong, western-style secular free-market democracy, with robust constitutional protections for minorities, then they have my blessings. But if they want the chance to reestablish a feudal theocracy with the Dalai Lama on top, then at that point you’re just considering which would be more tyrannical. Then, I’m not taking sides between degrees of bad. But this also implies that Beijing could take actions to make itself worthy of being the legitimate Tibetan government. That is, if Beijing were to do as the Dalai Lama has urged, grant the Tibetans more real autonomy, freedom of speech, of peaceful assembly, and so forth – hell, maybe it could grant these things to all Chinese citizens? – and perhaps some things like no taxation without representation, there would be no need, and no reason, for an independence movement. These should only be considered as last resorts, when it’s obvious that the tyrannical government is incapable or unwilling to change its ways.

My earnest hope for China is that it can take this latter path, given the bloodshed and suffering that would accompany any struggle for independence. China deserves a lot of credit for how much it has reformed since the days of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, when my ability (as a foreigner or as a native) to sit in a western-style coffee shop and type these words for publication on the internet (albeit via a circumnavigation around the Great Firewall) would’ve been unthinkable. This was a place where the government has allowed Santa Claus and Col. Sanders to replace images of Mao, which despite calling itself Communist is increasingly functionally capitalist. And all within a generation. If it is capable of such rapid change, even if only out of the naked self-interest of its leaders wishing to retain power, then perhaps this kind of change is not out of the question. For its part, Taiwan’s people have long said that they would be happy to rejoin the mainland if Beijing were to embrace a constitutional democratic, multi-party system, so this could go a long way to resolving that problem and any other lingering ethnic conflicts by removing the grounds for such conflicts.

I don’t expect this to happen tomorrow, or in a year, or in five. But my hope is that this year’s experiences – and believe me, this crisis is only the beginning, as every group in China with a grievance will come out of the woodwork as the Olympics approaches – will at least give the leadership brass some pause. They can then see that its current system is not sustainable, and that the best way of dealing with dissent is by given dissidents avenues of peaceful expression to blow off their steam. Otherwise, they’ll keep having stuff like this blow up in their faces, and just get indignant about conspiratorial Buddhist monks and bad tempered, ungenerous human rights police, instead of actually solving the problem.