In Defense of the Western Media in Tibet

At the risk of boring everyone and getting this website swept under the Great Firewall, we’ll add a few short thoughts about Tibet.

As the CCP keeps a lockdown on Tibet, information is scarce and hard to come by, even more than usual. There’s a certain sore spot on China’s part against the Western media for its coverage of Tibet. A China Daily article shortly after the riots last year quotes a Chinese netizen railing against Western media outlets, saying “To tarnish China’s image, the West is doing whatever they can, no mater how mean and vicious.”

On the other hand, the Chinese people aren’t the only ones that can have hurt feelings. That netizen’s words reflect the utter contempt that the Chinese government has for the Western media’s “ignorance and prejudice.”

If the Chinese government’s goal is to offend the Western media, they’ve accomplished their mission. Even ostensibly professional organizations like Time are letting their feelings show. A recent article offers a glimpse into their wounded sense of journalistic self. The overall tone of the article is that of someone both angry and frustrated at the government, on a personal and professional level.

And who can blame them? A journalists’ job is to report things, and the CCP doesn’t make friends with them by not letting them do their job. This is not meant to excuse biased reporting (which certainly exists) but to point out that in some ways the media has no choice. They can either pack up their backs and go home or take their facts from the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala. From a personal standpoint it’s easy to see what they’ll choose.

This leads to another problem: the tendency to only include the official Chinese government statements on Tibet and the official Tibetan government-in-exile statements. There’s no room for middle ground because the middle ground is often difficult for reporters to get to.

Take the following NYT excerpt that quotes Xinhua and Dharamsala in the same breath:

“Last March.…At least 19 people were killed in ethnic rioting in Lhasa, most of them Han civilians, according to Xinhua….In the ensuing crackdown, 220 Tibetans were killed….according to the Tibetan government in exile, which is based in Dharamsala, India.”

The situation now almost forces Western media to get the facts wrong, by forcing them to choose between one set of propaganda and the other. It just so happens that Dharamsala has a better PR campaign and so their propaganda wins out.

The Time article ends with a certain stab at the Chinese government. Written during the pre-Olympic media blackout in Tibet, the article says that only when the government opens Tibet up for reporting will Western media “be able to say — without bias — just what has been going on behind closed doors.”

Next time the Chinese government whines about the unfairness of the Western press, resist the temptation to feel a bit sorry for them and remember who started this mess. No one should blame the Western media for being outraged at the CCP expecting them to play along with their propaganda games.

Advertisements

0 thoughts on “In Defense of the Western Media in Tibet”

  1. Great post, Chris (I have a good friend who is a journalist who thinks so too). As for the GFW, I’m operating under the assumption that what they block is mostly based on Chinese search terms, so as long as we don’t post anything with the wrong 汉字 we should be OK.

    Like

  2. No, it’s not because the Western media lack access, it’s all about ideology. They have taken their stance on the Tibet issue long ago.

    “Last March.…At least 19 people were killed in ethnic rioting in Lhasa, most of them Han civilians, according to Xinhua….In the ensuing crackdown, 220 Tibetans were killed….according to the Tibetan government in exile, which is based in Dharamsala, India.”

    The list provided by the Chinese government has names and occupation of the victims, and date, time and location of the crime. The list provided by Dharamsala has been proven to be fabricated (The Chinese press investigated and found many of the people on Dharamsala’s list either are alive or don’t even exist). Why then, after more than a year, are AP and AFP still using Dharamsala’s claim? It’s not like they didn’t have access of Tibet after last year’s riot. When they were there, they were more interested in interviewing monks who are loyal to Dharamsala other than ordinary Tibetans. If they were interested in investigating Dharamsala’s claim, I bet the Chinese government would have been more than happy to assist.

    “It just so happens that Dharamsala has a better PR campaign and so their propaganda wins out.”

    Why do you think that is? The TGIE hardly has any revenues, who is helping with their PR campain?

    The Dalai Lama at a recent press conference denied that he demanded Chinese troops and nontibetan Chinese to leave Tibet. At the CPPCC press conference, Wen jiabao provedied proof that Dalai Lama is lying (http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2009-03/13/content_11005838.htm). But this simple fact is nowhere to be found in the Western news reports afterwards. OMG, the holy man is lying through his teeth, this is not news worthy!!??

    Like

  3. @ asdfdsf
    “The list provided by Dharamsala has been proven to be fabricated (The Chinese press investigated and found many of the people on Dharamsala’s list either are alive or don’t even exist).”

    Come on. The Chinese press is a joke. If you want to talk about ideological alliances, start here. Frankly I think it’s a little ridiculous you would cite the Chinese media’s report on what’s happening in Tibet. Are you totally in the dark as to the relationship between the government and the media in the PRC? That doesn’t mean that the government only tells lies about Tibet, but rather they mix lies and truth indiscriminately such that anything they say is without value.

    Take the premise that journalists, by their very profession, want to get a story. If they come back and say “Well I don’t really know, no one will tell me the truth” how will that work out for them? This is a flaw of the profession and takes an exceptional journalist to really do. If you have the choice between believing an autocratic government with a reputation for human rights abuses, and believing the under-dog (seemingly) harmless Nobel Peace Prize winner, who would you believe?

    As for the link: I can’t find the text of those two things at the moment (at work and co-workers probably won’t appreciate big pictures of the DL popping up on my screen), so I have no idea if what Wen said is true or not. (Maybe this illustrates my point: in my mini-information blackout, I am not willing to trust a news report from the media / Chinese government (which are two parts of the same entity for all intents and purposes).

    Like

  4. “Come on. The Chinese press is a joke. If you want to talk about ideological alliances, start here. Frankly I think it’s a little ridiculous you would cite the Chinese media’s report on what’s happening in Tibet. Are you totally in the dark as to the relationship between the government and the media in the PRC? That doesn’t mean that the government only tells lies about Tibet, but rather they mix lies and truth indiscriminately such that anything they say is without value.”

    I would appreciate it if you can give us an example what and when they lied about what is happening in Tibet. The Chinese press is propaganda, they tell you so up front, so I never take what they tell me at face value, and I appreciate the fact that they tell me they work for the propaganda department. Also, they never claim to be fare and balanced, unlike the Western media.

    Personally I am only interested in the truth and I don’t care who tells it. Since Chinese press is propaganda, I was expecting the Western media to investigate their stories and tell me the whole truth, but I was disappointed in this case (and frankly many others, especially stories about Tibet). They seem to only report “the other half” of the story and I wonder why.

    “If you have the choice between believing an autocratic government with a reputation for human rights abuses, and believing the under-dog (seemingly) harmless Nobel Peace Prize winner, who would you believe? ”

    Exactly! People fall for that, don’t they? That’s why they use the word “Communist” whenever the Chinese government is mentioned and emphasize the DL is a “Nobel Peace Prize winner” in every article regarding Tibet. Get it?

    “As for the link: I can’t find the text of those two things at the moment (at work and co-workers probably won’t appreciate big pictures of the DL popping up on my screen), so I have no idea if what Wen said is true or not. ”

    Just try it, I did a few days ago in Beijing, I am sure the sites are still accessible.

    Like

  5. Regardless, I think lacking access is a big problem. Recently, I wanted to go to Tibet for a trip–and I’m not a journalist mind you, unless this site counts as journalism–and the red tape for foreigners to cut through is amazing. I was told that at the moment (things do change rapidly, and this was before the March 10 anniversary came and went) foreigners could only go to Tibet if they had a full-time “guide” with them. Most locations other than Lhasa are closed to foreigners, and around the time of that anniversary, foreign reporters were reporting being detained and moved out of the area even outside Tibet whenever they neared areas with Tibetan populations.

    Ideology plays a role in it, but I wonder, if there were theoretically a completely neutral Western reporter interested in learning the truth, whatever that truth might be, would he have enough access to actually do so? In the current climate, almost everything I’ve seen points to no.

    Like

  6. I did a post myself last year on this topic: http://tinyurl.com/c528o7
    I think it’s interesting that we claim we want to know the truth, while I’m not entirely sure that “the truth” is something that exists in complex matters like these (ref. my Kurosawa link). What I didn’t mention in that post is that we may also unconsciously look for the confirmation of our own predetermined opinion and will feel inclined to label any side of the story that comes closest to that opinon as “the truth”. Last point I made was that the reference frame of the journalist reporting on the story is a factor that can not be denied either. Journalists from “democratic” countries will tend to see different aspects to a story than a journalist who was born and raised in an “autocratic” country. Their stories will both probably carry bias, yet will probably also carry valid points, which put together may bring us closer to the truth.

    My main accusation in that article focused on what I see as the knowing distortion and / or obscuration of facts by the Chinese official press and a group of people, who should know better (f.i. foreign chinese students, most of whom have never been to Tibet or have no eagerness to go there), closing their eyes to this fact and, oppositely, attacking a press that is certainly not unflawed but in general less hindered by an ideology requiring them to narrow the angle on the story to the official Party perspective.

    As a sideremark: I very much like these “avatars” in this comment sections. Nice touch !

    Like

  7. @asdfdsf

    Probably the most egregious thing the Chinese press lies about in Tibet is the DL’s stance on the issue. He long ago gave up seeking independence and now claims to want “real autonomy” as outlined in the Chinese constitution. Whether it’s sincere or not isn’t the point. The press / government continues to act as if there has been no evolution in the DL’s position to the point that most Chinese people don’t even know what the DL has really said on the matter.

    Other examples include saying that the DL orchestrates unrest in Tibet (there’s not proof of this that I’ve seen). I would add the government claim that there is no widespread dissatisfaction with Chinese rule in Tibetan areas and that it’s just a radical fringe group to the list of lies (though obviously that’s based on personal observations talking with Tibetans / people that work and live in Tibetan areas. I can’t prove it).

    I looked up the Five Point Peace Plan and the DL does say what Wen accuses him of. Do you know where the statement that Wen Jiabao is responding to is? Without that it’s impossible to say if the criticism is valid (i.e., did the DL really lie about what he said? It’s perfectly plausible but not something I would take Wen Jiabao’s word for).

    @ lao lu
    From your blog post:
    “If some in the Western world are constantly on the lookout for a stick to beat China with, then China is offering it time and again on a silver platter to those people, by preventing the media from doing their work.”

    That’s a great way of looking at it.

    Like

  8. “Probably the most egregious thing the Chinese press lies about in Tibet is the DL’s stance on the issue. He long ago gave up seeking independence and now claims to want “real autonomy” as outlined in the Chinese constitution. Whether it’s sincere or not isn’t the point. The press / government continues to act as if there has been no evolution in the DL’s position to the point that most Chinese people don’t even know what the DL has really said on the matter.”

    Oh, the Chinese people know exactly what the DL said, here is the proof.

    http://www.tibet.com/proposal/5point.html (proxy required if you are in China)

    (Point #1, first paragraph)
    “I propose that the whole of Tibet, including the eastern provinces of Kham and Amdo, be transformed into a zone of “Ahimsa”, a Hindi term used to mean a state of peace and non-violence. ”

    (Point #1, third paragraph)
    The establishing of a peace zone in Tibet would require withdrawal of Chinese troops and military installations from the country, which would enable India also to withdraw troops and military installations from the Himalayan regions bordering Tibet. This would be achieved under an international agreement which would satisfy China’s legitimate security needs and build trust among the Tibetan, Indian, Chinese and other peoples of the region. This is in everyone’s best interest, particularly that of China and India, as it would enhance their security, while reducing the economic burden of maintaining high troop concentrations on the disputed Himalayan border. ”

    (Point #2, last paragraph)
    “For the Tibetans to survive as a people, it is imperative that the population transfer is stopped and Chinese settlers return to China. Otherwise, Tibetans will soon be no more than a tourist attraction and relic of a noble past.”

    Basically he wants China to give up sovereignty in Tibet, and he wants 1/4 of China’s territory (including areas not traditionally controlled by the DL) too. Some “real autonomy”, eh? Have you been following the Tibet issue at all, Chris? Does the DL think the Chinese people are stupid??? As Premier Wen said, it’s OK to to change course (like he did many times before), but don’t lie about it.

    “Other examples include saying that the DL orchestrates unrest in Tibet (there’s not proof of this that I’ve seen). I would add the government claim that there is no widespread dissatisfaction with Chinese rule in Tibetan areas and that it’s just a radical fringe group to the list of lies (though obviously that’s based on personal observations talking with Tibetans / people that work and live in Tibetan areas. I can’t prove it).”

    You can’t prove it doesn’t mean it’s not true. Maybe the government knows more than you do, they have an intelligent service you know.

    Like

  9. Yup, I already said in my last comment that I read the 5-point proposal. What I am asking is what statement Wen Jiabao is responding to, i.e., where did the DL say he never said these things?

    Since making the 5-point proposal in the 80s the DL has said he wants real autonomy as outlined in the Chinese constitution, not independence (AFAIK he was openly pro-independence from 1959 to the early 80s). Chinese people don’t seem to know that this is his open, publicly stated opinion (in my experience). Everybody seems to think that he a) organizes riots (no proof of this, and there are other more radical Tibetan groups that are more likely to be involved) and b) today, in 2009, he openly supports independence (flatly untrue).

    Note that I’m not making any point one way or the other on how sincere he is, only repeating his current official stance on the subject.

    “You can’t prove it doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

    Again, I have no reason to take the Chinese government’s word for it anymore than I have a reason to take the DL’s word for it. The US government used to claim that everyone in Guantanamo was a terrorist and that they knew that because they had “intelligence.” Look how that turned out.

    Like

  10. Chris,

    The DL said that in Dharamsala on 3/10/09 at his press conference, in response to Yang Jiechi’s remark about him at the NPC conference. This news is on every Chinese websites, but I couldn’t find any English links (why am I not surprised?) on this subject, so here is a link from Taiwan’s Central News Agency (Chinese):
    http://www.dwnews.com/gb/MainNews/Topics/cna_2009_03_10_12_0_24_884.html

    The “5-point” link I provided in my previous comment is from the TGIE’s official website, which means it’s still their official policy. The DL is still the head of that “government”, am I wrong? Then why the hell does he still travel the world and tell clueless Western audiences that what he wants is “real autonomy”? His position has NEVER changed, I guess you are just another those clueless Westerners fooled by him, Chris.

    Like

  11. You seem like you’re trying to paint me as a supporter of the DL — don’t. I’m not a material or moral supporter of Tibetan independence and I don’t idolize the Dalai Lama.

    That they listed a 20+ year old statement from the DL on their website does not make it official policy, especially when public statements since then contradict that. Everyone today – including the government-in-exile – knows it’s totally unrealistic.

    Also, just as a side note, just because the DL is the head of the government-in-exile doesn’t mean he alone decides official policy.

    My original post mentioned that there is indeed a bias in reporting that shouldn’t be excused and I agree with you that the Western media should point out when the Dalai Lama lies.

    Like

  12. asdfdsf is amazing, isn’t he (no sarcasm intended)? On March 10 the fiftieth anniversary, I wrote an American friend of mine who’s a college professor in anthropology expressing my frustration that there were so few people trying to solve the problem, especially in the western media, by showing an interest in the analysis of proposals by both the DL and the Chinese government.

    Yes it’s hard to investigate what’s really going on in Tibet. I have a dear Chinese friend who one year ago told me the exact same thing this blog now states. He’s a PhD candidate in journalism. From the viewpoint of the reporters, they have every reason to feel frustrated.

    Like asdfdsf said, the western media, if they wish, can actually find out a lot of inconsistencies in the claims made by the GIE’s and debunk the DL’s about face.

    But I want to start from another angle in an attempt to solve the Tibet problem – the Chinese public.

    I read an English article (forgot where, sorry) last year stating that the reason one saw so little coverage of the animosity between Tibetans and Muslims (blocks of Muslim residence and shops were torched to the ground, and the Muslims later retaliated, according to the article) in western media was because they didn’t want to show the ugly side of the Tibetan nationalism. Tell me how that’s professional. And what’s dangerous about this western reporting that tries to expose the “ugly” Chinese but conveniently omits many wrongdoings by the rioters is it leaves a lot of ordinary Chinese a shocking, however incorrectly, impression that westerners care much more about dead Tibetans than Han girls burned alive. One of my students once said she believed if a Tibetan girl and a Han girl were both drowning, westerners would save the former and throw rocks at the latter. True story. The other day when a group of fourth-year students were talking about the difficulties for a Chinese student applying for a US college for a graduate degree, someone said “Just tell them you’re Tibetan and you’d be there in a second.” Both students didn’t have any ill feelings towards ordinary Tibetans, and like many urban Chinese obsessed with the hype about a “mysterious” Tibet (Orientalism is alive and kickin’), they wish one day they could have enough money to travel there.

    One recent article in The Guardian quotes an expert on Tibet by saying failure to appeal to the Chinese public is the biggest blunder of the West’s Tibetan cause. Not only is the West not appealing to ordinary Chinese students like the two I mentioned, the western media is causing a backlash. The NYT accused the young generation of Chinese of being a group of inexperienced, naive, spoiled little emperors unfamiliar with the misery and suffering in China. I surfed on Tianya during last March to May, and many of the people most vocal in their anti-West comments were also the same bloggers that helped expose the illegal brickkiln scandal that shocked the entire country. Many in the Zatan section who were routinely critical of the government joined the chorus of the Gucci and Prada-worshipping, HK celebrity gossip-spreading female bloggers in the Entertainment section in denouncing the western media.

    I wonder how many westerners know how the young generation of Chinese worshipped western media before the whole thing happend last year. Many of them felt, again, however incorrectly in the eyes of westerners, genuinely betrayed. Western media couldn’t lie is what they believed in. But the cropped photos and misleading captions shattered their idolization of a free, unbiased press the West preached to China.

    My PhD cancidate friend didn’t feel betrayed because, well, journalism research was his life so he knew all about it. And I didn’t feel betrayed, because I routinely read the NYT, CNN and London Times so I knew no media was without bias. The problem is, most young Chinese did, with the help of the propaganda machine of course.

    The Chinese government’s image was seriously damanged and whatever it says will be first met with suspicion with dismissal in the West. Everybody knows that. And I agree they had it coming. But I feel sad the reputation of the western media was also decimated in the eyes of the young generation here. The Chinese government isn’t the only one that needs a better PR campaign. Without the support of the Chinese public, it’s a deadend for the Tibetan cause.

    Sadly, in case someone blasts me of being a 50-cent government employee, I need to say my personal belief is the DL is not a sheep in wolf’s clothing and he should come back and the government’s Tibet (also the whole China) policies need an overhaul.

    Of course you can say who cares about those brainwashed robotic drones that are the Chinese public. In that case just pretend I didn’t post this comment.

    Like

  13. @ wooddoo
    I agree with a lot of what you say. I agree that the best way to solve any problems in Tibet are to allow Chinese people to understand what is happening and that there are real problems there. And I do agree that in some ways Chinese peole felt let down by biased reporting in Tibet (reminds me of this: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/07/28/080728fa_fact_osnos).

    I’m somewhat skeptical though that the Western media do or ever did have the power to change what Chinese people thought about Tibet. The government’s Tibet narrative is part of the educational system in the mainland and I don’t think the Western media has any chance of competing with that. Maybe access to a free and unbiased media (or something resembling that) is part of the solution but some of it has to do with education as well.

    As for what you say about Westerners favoring Tibetans, would save a Tibetan first, etc… How much of that is due to a biased media and how much of it is due to the strain of victimhood that runs strong in Chinese culture? I think the ladder definitely has something to do with it.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s