Not at all in an April Fools mood, I was doing a little bouncing about in the blogosphere this morning trying to land outside my accustomed blogspots. In recent days there have been a couple of what can only be described as pro-Chinese patriotic anti-Tibetan anti-press demonstrations (although they had to be called "concerts" since they evidently couldn't get demonstration permits in time) in Toronto and Vancouver. There would clearly seem to be an official plan to promote more of these kinds of events in countries along the Olympic torch route. So I started there, with the stories about the patriotic-nationalistic Chinese demos of present and future. (I assume everyone remembers the patriotic-nationalistic anti-Japanese fury in the PRC a few years back. Keep it in mind. It could help our understanding today.)
As a historically oriented researcher, but one with what will seem to some to be scattered objects of interest, I have to confess I have a rather idealistic picture of what a *full* history would look like if one could only be accomplished. It would in the beginning at least resemble the title of Naipaul's famous book on India: a million mutinies daily, a million surrenders to rules and authorities daily, and a million frustrations daily (on a better day I might add, a million triumphs daily). In short, it would be about what everyone was doing, thinking (I told you I was speaking ideally!) and saying at some particular point in time.
The philosopher of history Wilhelm Dilthey had the idea that the historical moment is the historian's main anchor, and if you were to plant yourself in that moment and look around yourself the pieces of the puzzle would eventually fall together in your mind (and, I want to add, not just go to serve the interests of a particular sub-discipline of history, like psycho-history, social history, economic history or some doctrinaire theoretical approach to the same).
If we could only catch the full extent and texture of the woven fabric that makes up our human world as it plays itself out in space and time. If we could only hear all the voices clearly. What an amazing picture it would be. (And if you think voices can't be woven into pictures you just weren't at the same Mozart concert I was last Friday.)
In the last two weeks I've made it one of my themes to criticize news media both east and west for leaving out of the picture Tibetans as active and thinking agents (people ready to think and act on their own, in concert with their next door neighbors), and to encourage Tibet experts to join the public discourse to help out on that point. Thanks to a potent combination of press restrictions and speech restrictions, the voices of Tibetans inside Tibet are rarely heard out in the world. But due to the same PRC press and speech restrictions, the public in the PRC has never heard Tibetans express their actual thoughts. Periodically the accumulated resentments break out publicly, as they did in a very big way last month, and Tibetans do say what is on their minds for a brief time before getting silenced through arrests, intimidation and 'patriotic [re-]education.' Tibetans know they are risking everything - life, family, livelihood - and of course therefore naturally hesitate several times before speaking out, in that sense resembling just about everyone else in what is still, for some reason that has to do with rhetoric conservation, called the People's Republic.
So you can imagine my dismay when New York Times blogger Nicholas D. Kristof, in a blog entitled "Calling China," invited Chinese to send in their views on the Tibet situation. My immediate reaction, was Oh great, just what is needed right now, still more illusions of insight into the culture of oppression. But I caught myself in the middle of that thought and started thinking overtime.
As much as I want the world to hear what is really on the minds of Tibetans in the TAR and elsewhere in the PRC, and as much as I'm concerned that their concerns not just become political footballs for this or that extraneous cultural-political purpose, I'm also concerned about the Chinese people. What are they thinking? Are they speaking freely in any particular degree? Are we getting an accurate sense of the PRC Chinese street?
And if in fact there is much popular (and not just populist) anger at the foreign media, some of it is justified. I've seen the news reports that confused demonstrations in Lhasa with demonstrations in Nepal and India. I've been to those places. I do know which is which. I noticed right away. But where angry patriots see deliberate distortion by the news media, I see simple ignorance and carelessness. News staff that simply doesn't know the difference and probably didn't care until it was brought to their attention. I've heard about the German press apologies, but did the other guilty news agencies apologize or at least admit some of their news people made mistakes? (Well, have a look here for what I think is at least a reasonable response.)
And of course there does seem to be real popular feeling among Chinese people everywhere (and not just in the PRC) that the foreign press reports have shown a callous disregard for the injuries to person and property, the beatings and burnings to death, of Chinese people in Lhasa. I would just like to ask the Tibet supporters what might seem a provocative question coming as it does from another Tibet supporter. Does it make sense for the short or long term goals of Tibetans to make a billion Chinese angry at you and at them?
When you unfurl your smuggled-in banners in Beijing, it should be only the police, acting under government orders, that pounce on you and drag you away, and not a billion people. Can you let up on the enemy concept and the polarizing rhetoric for a moment? Can you spare an iota of empathy for Chinese shopkeepers that might have burned to death in their own shops? Are you claiming that nothing like that happened?
On that note, I'd like to invite you to leave Tibeto-logic, not logic, behind and go read something else. I'm sending you to a blog called Chinese in Vancouver, a blog entry entitled "The Voices of Han Chinese in Lhasa." If you want to talk about it you can add your comment there, or come back and we'll talk about it here. I'd be especially interested to hear what the Tibet supporters, and of course Tibetans, have to say. The people who are most concerned about the future of Tibetans (as they carry the most admirable of their old traditions into the changed circumstances in which we all are living) will come up with some new thinking about how we ought to best move forward in our efforts to be helpful without inadvertently being harmful, or so I'm hoping. I was thinking that this new thinking ought to come from you, since I'm just sitting here wondering out loud with nothing of use to say and nobody here to listen.
Postscript, April 3: This story just put up on BBC website, with the title "The Challenges of Reporting in China." Worthwhile to read if you are interested in the discussions about international press coverage of the continuing Tibet situation.*
(*The Tibet situation has been and is continuing, and will continue whether the press decides to, or is able to, cover it or not. So don't you Beijing press-people think any amount of TFS can justify your bouts of attention deficiency. Just get over it, guys. It's all in your head. Even the more obvious symptoms.)