Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Hearing Disabilities?

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.)


  1. Greetings to myself,

    I definitely recommend, if you do go to the link to Nicholas D. Kristof's NYT "blog" as given, that no matter how irritated you will surely get with most of the writers for a host of reasons (writers who are by no means all Chinese, although they were the ones who were invited to write...), you really should not miss the words of Wangchuk, comment no. 376.

    Very cool, succinct and pointed. On target. Well written. Pity that Tibetan voices are so few and seldom heard in places like this one. I suggest Wangchuk start his own blog, if he hasn't already, and get to work.

  2. Dear Mr. Myself,

    Thanks for alerting us to no. 376! Too far down for most of us, but someone has to do the job.

    Wangchuk wrote:
    I think even many Chinese scholars would agree that before PRC rule, there is little evidence that Tibet was an integral part of China...

    This reference to Chinese scholarship has reminded me of a press release from February 2007, in which noted Fudan University scholar Prof. Ge Jianxiong 葛剑雄 was reported to have stated (originally in Chinese in the China Review):
    It would be a defiance of history if we claim that since the Tang Dynasty Tibet has always been a part of China - the fact that the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau subsequently became a part of the Chinese dynasties does not substantiate such a claim.

    This translation is not my own, it's from here.

    What Prof. Ge Jianxiong is quoted to have said strikingly contradicts the many statements of the "Tibet always part of China" sort reiterated on YouTube and elsewhere in the past two weeks. And indeed, a recent article (updated 2008-03-29) in the online edition of the China Daily quotes another professor of Fudan University, namely Prof. Wu Jingping, under the heading "Tibet always part of China" (my emphasis):
    From these historical documents of 65 years ago, people can be sure that China undoubtedly possesses the sovereign rights in Tibet.

    He talks of the years shortly before the Chinese invasion in 1950 and bases his conclusion on the reading of an exchange of telegrams between Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang finance minister, in which Winston Churchill's view of Tibet being an independent nation is challenged. How these telegrams are to be seen as conclusive evidence that Tibet was not independent is hard to grasp. I find it quite puzzling, too, that here we have the statements of two Kuomintang members being used to verify the views of communist China. Hail to the Queen!

    Yours ever,

    Arno Nym

  3. Dear Arno,

    Thanks for that. You may or may not have noticed that I mention Prof. Ge's publications on this point in an ancient blog. Here (http://tinyurl.com/2eslp5), actually.

    These days in my experience it's only some Sinologists who continue to think that Tibet was always a part of China. Anyone who has actually looked into the matter knows Tibet was really truly (skipping the Latin legalistic crappy word for that) independent between 1913 and 1949 or 1951 or 1959. Among people who use Tibetan sources this is unanimous, ignoring of course what some of PRC Tibetologists have been made to say for Xinhua or "China's Tibet" magazine.

    Just to say something about that, my breath is simply taken away with astonishment whenever I see some international journalist accepting a Xinhua story as a news source of some validity. This is wrong on just so many levels. For one quite recent bit of enlightenment on this score, I recommend people have a look at the piece entitled "Commentary: Stop fiddling with…just stop. Please. Stop." by Chris O'Brien

    The comments attached to it are, for a change, truly engaging, thoughtful and even moderately funny by turns. That is, if you aren't already suffering from TFS. What's TFS? you may be asking. Although its etiology is unsure, evidently people in Sinology and Beijing-based media posts develop it in an extraordinarily short period of time... I don't believe I've ever been the least bit susceptible, have you?).


  4. Dear Dan,

    Sorry, I was certainly unaware of your previous mentioning of Prof. Ge's statement and am glad that now at last I could read M. Kapstein's letter of 1994 to the New York Times.
    In general I think your blog is the best in the field, not least because absolutely no other scholar of your standing would be prepared to spend so much time in the WWW and make use of it in such a brilliant way as you do. Some of your blogs (including the one you just referred me to) I simply find too long. Reading on the screen is very different from reading on paper, and our eyes have been weakened by decades of reading fragmentary Tibetan texts in badly lit reading rooms.

    Fully-justified paragraphs are generally considered inappropriate on the web, even more so if they appear in narrow columns of the size you apply to your musings, at least this is my understanding. Had Prof. Ge appeared further up in you post I might have read his statement.
    Hope you don't mind my poor attempt at self-justification...

    I eagerly await your next blog, and presumably many more silent readers do as well!



    P.S. Have indeed been suffering from the Tibetan Freedom Syndrom for several years, no fatigue at my end.

  5. Nope. I'm afraid you're the only reader, and an Arno-nym-ous one to boot! And no, I never claimed to be fully justified>?|:> Well, there's that other "anonymous" whoever s/he is. Tibetans in eastern Tibet in particular are not suffering from any fatigue. They just keep on demonstrating. You'll hear about more very soon. Guaranteed.


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