Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ryan Pyle Blog: Tibet: Two Misconceptions


When trying to understand the differences in the media coverage of Tibet between Western countries and China, I think it's important that we keep one thing in mind; that is that the average Chinese and average western observer might not have any real idea about what they are talking about at all. Let me explain further.

Obviously the Chinese media is biased. They rarely report anything objectively and they constantly try to spin things to benefit their means. The recent violence in Tibet is no exception. Coverage both on television and in the papers has reached new levels of laugh-ability and is generally a disgrace to the profession in general. Now in saying that, the western coverage has been surprisingly horrid. While the big players have all done well in documenting the events, pictures have been shown in secondary newspapers across Europe and North America of riots and protests of Tibetans in India and Nepal, with captions indicating that they are taking place in Lhasa. Shocking I know. In general the western media has always been sympathetic, to a fault, of Tibet. While it is true that China has taken the territory by force and ran it with little or no recognition for its original inhabitants, fire bombing innocent Chinese business men and shop keepers is not the way out of this mess. But, let me get back to my original point about misconceptions.

The Western Misconception
There has been a rash of blog posting in the last week or so by Chinese bloggers condemning the actions of Tibetan rioters against Chinese people in Tibet. And I must agree, fire bombs being throne in to Chinese stores and incredible levels of violence against innocent Chinese citizens and small business owners are completely unacceptable. Clearly the grievances of the Tibetan people lay with the government which marginalizes them as second class citizens and forces them to repress their religious beliefs; so attacks on ordinary Chinese folks just seems a bit over the top. Which leads me to my first point, Tibetans are violent people and they are hard as nails, so to speak. There is a common misconception in the west that all Tibetan people are buddhist and they are peaceful and would never hurt anyone or anything. And while that is a fairly reliable description of monks and people over 60 years old in Tibet, clearly there are many Tibetans who are not monks and there are many who are young and passionate about their culture. Tibetan people have a strong and proud tradition as hunters, nomads and farmers, and only recently as city dwellers. It has been my experience, traveling in the region for the last seven years, that no matter what the background of tradition, Tibetans can be down right nasty both to each other and to anyone who happens to get in their way.

Violence has been as big a part of Tibetan culture as Buddhism has been over the last thousand years or so, but it is almost never discussed or debated. In fact, in the 10th century, a warlike Tibetan nation was one of the great imperial powers of Asia with their armies stretched deep in to Central Asia, Central India and Western China. More recently Tibet had always been, prior to the 1950s, been a vast lawless frontier where anything went, and there was much tribal warfare within Tibetan clans competing for farming land, live stock and even women. Nomads within Tibet have had, going back to the days of the Silk Road, always been feared for their ruthless banditry, robbing caravans of merchants crossing from Mongolia to Chinese Turkistan who accidently ventured to closely to Tibet's northern frontier.

Buddhism arrived in Tibet in the middle of the 7th century and although it spread slowly over the next few hundred years the religions spread seemed to calm the Tibetan warlike ambition, but large cliques and groups continued their ways of violence. Understanding the Tibetan forms of punishment may help us understand the levels of violence that were once deemed acceptable. In 1929, in his book THE LAND OF THE LAMAS David McDonald witnesses mutilation as a form of punishment for crimes. Men who had committed certain crimes had red hot irons thrust in to their eye sockets, and some had boiling water poured over their eyes; this was a typical punishment for murder or theft from monasteries.

While writers and journalists of our era often have experiences, and myself is included in this group, of the humorous, hospitable and trustworthy Tibetans; this is not the only side of the Tibetan people and like all of us in the west and within China, we all have our nasty sides. Especially when being continuously pressured and belittled.

The Chinese Misconception:
While the first misconception is from outsiders looking in, the second misconception is from Chinese people within China. It is safe to say that the average Chinese person has little or no idea of the history of Tibetan culture and the historically brutal treatment that the Tibetans have received at the hands of the Chinese over the last 60 years. Chinese propaganda and the re-writing of history reigns supreme and many bloggers have only vague ideas of the true history between Tibet and China, and the activities of the Cultural Revolution. While 60 years of intimidation and suppression are still no excuses to take the lives of innocent shop keepers, it can lend value to understanding just how desperate the Tibetans feel, and how serious this problem will become if not dealt with effectively.

Much of the understanding in China about Tibet comes from a "version" history I described above. Most Chinese are taught in schools that Tibetans are culture-less nomads, barbarians who have rapped and pillaged for centuries. This type of thought control allows Chinese to feel superior to their minority peoples and therefore gives them a "moral green light" - so to speak - in running the territories they live in. The comment in my last blog about Tibet is a prime example of this mis-education, whereby the current party secretary in Tibet referred to Tibetan people as children and mentioned that the Communist Party was the Tibetan people's real Buddha. A whole new level of sickness, but in his mind he is completely justified because he has been taught since he was a child that Tibetans are less than human, or at least less than a Han Chinese.

Had Chinese people had un-biased books to read from and a less-slanted post secondary education, they may understand that their government has made some unforgivable mistakes over the last 60 years in Tibet; but my hope is that all of that will be pushed to the past and a new reconciliation will begin. Now is the time, dialog is the only way to end this suppression and the negative media attention it attracts. And while this is my hope, this will most certainly not become reality.

The Chinese government will do what it does best: suppress, suppress, suppress. They will blame the Dali Lama because that's all they really know how to do. Imagine if they preformed an internal investigation into their own policy in Tibet, and then made changes?

It'll never happen, blaming is easier and a clear sign of guilt and ignorance. Economic growth and emerging global power has fueled Chinese Nationalism to ever dangerous levels, arrogance and self-ritiousness is visible throughout all levels of government and society; for too many there is little reason for change. And so minorities continue to suffer.


Ryan Pyle

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Ryan Pyle