Chinese bloggers bayed for bloodshed

Hand-to-hand combat ... a playful Dalai Lama touches fists with US
rocker Dave Matthews at the Seeds of Compassion conference in
Seattle on Friday.

Hand-to-hand combat ... a playful Dalai Lama touches fists with US rocker Dave Matthews at the Seeds of Compassion conference in Seattle on Friday.
Photo: Reuters

Other related coverage

April 14, 2008

Tibetans were caught between a rock and cyberspace, writes John Garnaut.

ZHAO, 25, is thinking about patriotism, bloodshed in Tibet and China's place in the world.

"The Chinese people have never been more united than they have become in the past month, both within China and across the world," he says from his bench beneath the plum blossoms at an elite Beijing university.

To the West, Tibet has become the symbol for a brutal, illegitimate Chinese dictatorship. To many Chinese people, it is merely a vehicle, or a weapon, that the West can use to deny them a successful Olympics - their moment of global validation after 200 years of humiliation.

Zhao has taken leave from work to perfect his French so his nuclear power company can liaise more effectively with its Parisian joint venture partner. He gets his news, he says, by satellite from CNN and the BBC. He's no brainwashed revolutionary or uneducated peasant. He chooses who to listen to, what to say and what to think. And right now, as he and his countrymen feel besieged by the world, he chooses to graft his views to the Chinese Government's propaganda machine.

"Tibet has always been a part of China, and the Chinese Government has given them no small amount of good things," Zhao says.

The Tibetan riots have been the work of "people behind the Dalai Lama" in conspiracy with a small group of "simple" people motivated by self-interest. These people "have taken a little bit of money or want to improve their position in the Dalai Lama clique".

The protests and chaos that have followed the Olympic torch through London, Paris and San Francisco are all the proof Zhao needs that the West can't abide a rising China. If Western journalists are obsessed with the "sinister" blue-tracksuited Chinese torch guards, the Chinese media is besotted with a plucky and pretty Chinese wheelchair athlete, Jin Jing, who defended the torch from a pro-Tibet assailant.

"China has grown up very quickly, it is natural that other countries are jealous," Zhao says.

Each time a Tibet protester disrupts the relay, and each time a world leader vows to boycott the Games opening ceremony, hundreds of millions of people like Zhao edge further from Western aspirations and a little closer to their Government.

It is the great conundrum of human rights advocacy, understood by Australia's most senior diplomats and the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, but lost in the broader political and media clamour to "stand up to China". The conundrum is especially acute for a cause such as Tibet that has almost no support among non-Tibetan Chinese.

In Tibet on March 14, for reasons that remain contested and unclear, peaceful protests by Buddhist monks turned violent. Migrant Chinese shops and vehicles were looted and burnt. A bystander was disembowelled. A family was burnt alive. Within hours, the Chinese language internet was carrying first-hand reports and gruesome photos of the carnage, as Government censors fought to shut them down.

Protests then flared across the wider Tibetan plateau. It was the greatest mass challenge to Chinese rule since the student-led protests that ended with the Tiananmen massacres of 1989. Tens of thousands of paramilitary troops are now on the move, killing a large but unknown number of people. New conflicts continue to flare and south-west China is effectively closed to foreigners.

Whatever the many well-founded grievances of Tibetans, the events of March 14 amounted to racist mob violence of the ugliest kind. That night, while Chinese police sat around waiting for orders, Han Chinese people - who make up the vast majority - vented their outrage on the internet. Much of the language was violent. Some called for Tibetans to be murdered. And they ridiculed the Government for failing to protect its people.

Only then did Beijing crank up its shrill, conspiratorial rhetoric and begin to deploy its allegedly trigger-happy military police.

Tibet's Communist Party chief said that the peace-talking Dalai Lama was "a monster with human face and animal's heart".

Susan Shirk, a former US deputy assistant secretary of state during Clinton's rule, says the pattern of this crisis has unfolded many times before, although perhaps not with such intensity.

"At the beginning of this crisis folks were posting on the internet not just about the violence in Tibet but on the feeble response of the Government," says Professor Shirk, now at the University of California's Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. "That's when the Government acted to protect themselves to stay out in front and encourage this very ugly rhetoric about Tibetans and the Dalai Lama. But this probably started on the internet."

Her analysis subverts the West's oppressive dictatorship paradigm, which assumes the Chinese Government acts in simple opposition to its people. Instead, in a country without opinion polls or free media reporting on "sensitive" issues, the Government responded to its people by reacting to those who were most visible: angry, nationalistic bloggers.

From Beijing's point of view it would be nice to make China's Tibetan minority happy, but appearing strong and placating the most vocal of the Han Chinese is a matter of regime survival.

The Government's response can also be understood in the context of its structure, where the survival of each leader depends on the support of his peers rather than the laws of democratic government. No leader can afford to be portrayed as "soft" by a rival.

The Government's Tibet propaganda did not begin last month. Chinese people have been fed a mixture of distortion and patent lies since the People's Liberation Army cemented its "peaceful liberation" in 1959.

But the present spate of propaganda is particularly intense. The first book, Lies And The Truth, appeared almost instantly in Chinese bookstores and was heavily promoted on national television. It purports to be a scholarly expose of Tibet's pre-liberation savagery, the Dalai Lama's violent duplicity and, most notably, the anti-China mendacity of the Western media.

In some places the book succeeds in exposing the Western media's failings, including instances of photos and TV footage that was seriously wrong. But the book generally attempts to turn isolated cases of sloppy, and perhaps biased, journalism into a pan-Western anti-Chinese conspiracy.

The propaganda machine is working symbiotically with internet bloggers. "The foreign media, like you, have been spreading all the lies," says Sun, 29 and unemployed, who has interrupted his stroll through the plum blossoms of Beijing Foreign Languages University. His words are laden with venom.

The stand-off over Tibet is causing a patriotic wave to surge through China and the wider diaspora. Against the tide, some Tibetan Chinese have posted wrenching internet stories about their private battles with unrelenting racism. Other Chinese have published subtle critiques to bypass the Government censors.

"All these phoney reports have damaged the value of news," wrote Chang Ping, a Chinese news editor, in an opinion piece for the Financial Times Chinese language website. On the surface, he was attacking bogus Western media reporting.

"More deeply it has caused many people to give up their trust in objective justice, and choose nationalism instead," he wrote. "Western people are prejudiced towards Chinese people. Are there Han Chinese who are prejudiced against Tibetans?"

Other Chinese understand their Government is prone to lying to them but many are still not ready to forgive insults to the Chinese in their Olympic moment.