Pro-Justice, Not Anti-China

Far Eastern Economic Review/FEER.com

May 11, 2009

During the past year that I’ve reported on Tibetan issues from my base in India, one of the Dalai Lama’s recurring messages has struck a chord in me. It isn’t his well-known calls for peace, nonviolence and compassion. Rather, it’s his constant reminder that “We are not against Chinese people. We still have faith in Chinese people.”

The Dalai Lama repeated that again in March of this year, which marked the 50th anniversary of China’s rule in Tibet and his exile to India. That message has become his mantra as he travels the world and almost desperately tries to meet Chinese people.

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His call has grown more urgent as he tries to defuse surging Chinese nationalism that peaked with the Olympics in Beijing. Official talks with Beijing broke down last autumn so the Dalai Lama’s outreach to Chinese people is the only way to advance the Tibet issue in China.

But I fear that his outreach to Chinese won’t work because reason is too easily obliterated by the flames of nationalism. Too many Chinese people confuse protests against the policies of the Chinese government with being anti-Chinese.

The Dalai Lama’s outreach to Chinese people isn’t lip service. I am Chinese, though born and brought up in the U.S. by immigrant parents. Even though I wear the face of the “enemy,” I have always been treated warmly by Tibetans during the considerable time I have spent in Dharamsala, home to the Dalai Lama and about 12,000 Tibetans. I have waited for a Tibetan to treat me bitterly or with scorn but it has never happened in dozens of interviews I have conducted here.

Many Tibetans can tell I’m Chinese and even call out “Ni hao!” as I walk through the streets of this hill town. Sometimes we converse in Mandarin, not out of any sense of obligation but because Tibetans still have an affinity with Chinese people even if their religion, language and culture have been repressed by the Chinese government.

After a four-hour prayer service in March, the Dalai Lama thanked the people in Tibet, the international community and “Chinese friends.” At a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of Tibet’s failed uprising against Chinese rule, the Dalai Lama shared the stage with 30 Chinese pro-democracy activists. Another group of 30 filmmakers and journalists from Taiwan were also present.

When Han Chinese travel to Dharamsala the Dalai Lama eagerly grants them a coveted private audience if they speak and write Chinese and can somehow convey his message into China.

Why this charm offensive with Chinese people? The Dalai Lama says that Tibetans and Chinese will have to live together in the future, no matter what happens. Communication and exchange is necessary, especially if official negotiations are fruitless.

Since 1994, the Tibetan government-in-exile has printed magazines and newsletters in Chinese. It also launched a Chinese-language website that attempts to convey his point of view within China to those savvy enough to get around Chinese blocks.

However, it is unclear whether the charm offensive is working. Chinese who support Tibet are suppressed in China and branded as traitors on Chinese blogs. When the Olympic torch passed through Canberra last year there were about 10,000 Chinese and some 1,500 pro-Tibet demonstrators.

When the Dalai Lama met with some Chinese in New York who were protesting his visit last year, he said five of the seven wouldn’t listen to him. Fortunately it was a large table or they might have slapped him, he admitted at a press conference last year.

Even overseas Chinese in the U.S., Australia and Europe where there is free media and access to information, waved signs that read “Dalai is a Liar.” I’m not sure what they accuse the Dalai Lama of lying about. He openly advocates autonomy for Tibet under Chinese rule, not separation as China insists.

Is he lying about human-rights violations in Tibet? Why not ask former political prisoners from Tibet who have sought refuge in India? Why not ask thousands of Tibetans who have been arrested since China began its harsh crackdown in Tibet a year ago? And if the list of those arrested is fake, as some claim, why not produce the Tibetan in question to show they are alive and well?

For all of China’s insistence that Tibetans are content and should be happy that they have longer life spans than 50 years ago, the forceful repression in Tibet indicates that something is terribly wrong. The wise thing to do would be to somehow come to the table to discuss how, at the very least, the plight of Tibetans in Tibet could be improved. Measures on improving education and access to jobs for Tibetans are well within China’s reach.

The Tibetans who rioted in Lhasa last year should not have resorted to violence and it is tragic that Chinese people died in the clashes, as the Dalai Lama himself has said. But why not allow an independent investigation into exactly what happened last year in Lhasa?

I know firsthand the effects of Chinese nationalism that can cloud reasoned judgment. Last summer my brother and I were at my parent’s house in Boston when the Olympic torch relay came up. My brother was angry and disgusted by the pro-Tibet protestors. I was taken aback by his response.

We grew up in a progressive part of Boston where activism and questioning of the establishment was de rigueur. U.S. policies were often raked over the coals during dinner table conversations.

But I knew why my brother was so angry. We are Chinese. I believe my brother was mistaking protests against the policies of the Chinese government with some slight against him as a Chinese person.

I didn’t start a heated debate. I simply told him what I knew from reporting in India, where I have lived since 2006. “They shot a 16-year-old Tibetan girl in the head,” I said, referring to Chinese security that shot and killed unarmed and peaceful Tibetan protestors in western China last year. “What’s wrong with protesting?”

I refrained from pointing out to my brother what he already knew: that I lived in China for two years, taught English to about 120 Chinese university students, learned Mandarin and traveled for nearly a month in Tibet in 1998. During that trip many Tibetans I met in Tibet were scared of me until I told them that I was American.

When I mentioned Lhundup Tso, the 16-year-old Tibetan girl whose body was photographed in a pool of blood, my brother’s face contorted. Perhaps his newfound sense of Chinese nationalism was battling with the education—based on reason, fact and analysis—that we both received. Fortunately the latter prevailed. “As long as it’s nonviolent,” he said grudgingly.

I glanced at my mother, who had threatened to disown me when I announced I was going to China after college partly because she feared what Chinese authorities might do to me. She prudently chose to remain silent.

It is easy to confuse protest against Chinese policies in Tibet with being anti-Chinese. But wanting a better way forward in Tibet is not anti-Chinese people or even anti-China. It is, as the Dalai Lama likes to say, pro-justice.

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