Behind The Headlines
By BUNN NAGARA (The Star)
The Beijing Olympics has become a windfall for China’s critics, despite and not because of what happened.
NO sooner had protests imploded in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in mid-March than Western figures like Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, exploded against Beijing and egged on the world to protest against the Chinese government.
Western mainstream media had also been building sentiment against China, with the BBC even taking senior Olympics officials from abroad to task. Yet the broadcast and print media, from CNN to the Los Angeles Times, refer only vaguely to China’s “(bloody) crackdown”, deemed politically incorrect, against the violent demonstrations presumed to be innocent.
But what actually happened in Tibet and its environs over the past four weeks, as far as these media outlets could tell?
On March 10, hundreds of Tibetans including monks marked the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese authority with protests in Lhasa, resulting in arrests. Four days later more protests followed, including a hunger strike by monks demanding the release of their detained brethren.
Then unconfirmed reports of two monks attempting suicide were broadcast by Radio Free Asia, a US-funded and CIA-originated station broadcasting propaganda to communist countries since the Cold War.
Meanwhile, Tibetan protesters on the streets attacked passers-by deemed to be ethnic (Han) Chinese and destroyed shops and cars. Initially there was little or no response from the police or military. In due course, some fatalities resulted from the violence on both sides.
The authorities acted belatedly, closing three monasteries, manning street checkpoints and imposing a curfew. Then foreign journalists were barred from the hotspots.
Witnesses said protesters resorted to unprovoked violence against unarmed individuals and private property through beatings and arson. In any other country, the government would have responded more swiftly and resolutely than a Beijing anxious about compromising the festive atmosphere of this August’s Olympics.
And therein lies the little-mentioned factor behind the protests. The issue of Tibet has been around for half a century, so why such a fuss now if not to exploit China’s vulnerability in the run-up to the Olympics?
If Chinese officials had initiated the violence, and on a scale inviting worldwide condemnation, then Western complaints would have been in order. That happened with the killings at Tiananmen Square, resulting in Beijing losing its bid for the 2000 Olympics in a 1993 decision.
But Lhasa in March 2008 was not Tiananmen in 1989, or Lhasa in 1959. And this time there was no equivalent of Li Peng, the Chinese premier who reputedly ordered troops to fire on unarmed student protesters in 1989.
This time, the group in Tibet with the most legitimate grievance against the Chinese authorities would be ethnic Chinese, because officials had failed to ensure adequate protection against the violent protests.
Yet the Western or international media have not covered events from their angle, even when the ethnic prejudice they suffer in Tibet can only worsen. Instead, the media focused only on the plight and perspective of ethnic Tibetans, including the perpetrators of the violence.
Result: Tibetan separatists effectively get a free ride in the global media, with their objectives and methods remaining unquestioned. The same goes for the Dalai Lama’s metaphorical claim of China’s “cultural genocide”, even while ordinary Chinese suffer racist violence from Tibetans.
Another newsworthy issue that was neglected is how the Dalai Lama, despite his image as an icon of peace, did practically nothing to help quell the violent protests.
Yet another is how a younger generation of pro-independence Tibetans has (especially since 2005) diverged from the Dalai Lama’s quest for autonomy.
The Western media generally leans towards a barbed demeanour over a still-communist China, however nominal or irrelevant that ideology has become. Such a herd mentality, though unworthy of independent journalism, persists.
So the communist bogy continues to haunt Western consciences that presume many familiar media restrictions are still in force in today’s China. Such presumptions sit oddly with recent developments, like foreign media access to dissidents and to protesting Tibetan monks in recent days, and Xinhua News Agency’s coverage of the protests in mid-March.
Chinese authorities are also presumed to be tough on protesters, but what has been the recent experience of other countries with Tibetan communities?
Indian authorities arrested Tibetan protesters near the Chinese embassy, and even when they were planning a march to the border. India offers refuge to the Dalai Lama and his fellow exiles, but requires them to refrain from political activity.
In Nepal, Tibetans protesting peacefully have repeatedly been rounded up by police and taken away, in ways criticised for using excessive force. And in nominally democratic Bhutan, no protest of any kind against anyone is even allowed.
Fox News recently aired a commentary advocating a boycott of the Olympics, rejecting the need for the Games to help China open up since China was already open for business. That particular bull in the China shop confuses the economic with the political, neglecting the importance of a rising China opening up in various other ways.
Whatever the case concerning China’s rule (recognised by all countries) over Tibet, its 1959 actions may have become an albatross around its neck in place of Olympic medals and garlands. Beijing now can afford neither a bad press nor signs of weakness that could encourage separatists in Xinjiang, and tempt endless opportunistic protests of every stripe.