Any time China hits the headlines, I get the distinct feeling that our perception of that country is stalled somewhere around the time of Tiananmen Square or thereabouts. The old saying goes that if it bleeds, it leads. With that filter in hand, you’d be hard-pressed to find media coverage that let the Chinese appear for what they are: a flawed country, for sure, but one that’s also richly textured by a lot of the same things we go through in our country.
The most recent ripple is still going around and around. As everyone knows by now, Beijing is the host city to the 2008 Summer Olympics. This means that country’s doors will be forced open to the media, who will boost the global perception of China, sink it, or both.
The latest hiccup is over the heretofore Chinese province of Tibet — how Tibetans want out of the union and Beijing’s handling of this situation. Coverage in The New York Times painted a picture of confusion at first, as if the federal government was unsure of what to do when mobs burned ethnic-Chinese shops in Chone (in Chinese, Zhuoni) county, Kanlho (in Chinese, Gannan) prefecture, part of Gansu Province in the Chinese south.
A map of that area shows a chunk of land that a layperson could call Tibet, and an area around it wherein ethnic-Tibetans mixed with the Han Chinese. This series of incidents happened in the latter. Then, the brouhaha spread to Lhasa, capital of the Tibet region, where monk protests turned violent when law enforcement cordoned off monasteries.
The spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, said from exile through a spokesman that dialogue is the solution, and that he does not support the total independence of the region, but instead a unified administration with general autonomy.
Perhaps counterintuitively to Western eyes, the consensus among the Chinese was unsympathetic to the Tibetans.
Tibet is not a democracy, it should be noted, but a constitutional monarchy in exile. As such, Tibetans don’t consider themselves citizens but subjects, and they support and sustain Buddhist monks and monasteries.
To American ears, the cry for freedom of the Tibetans is instantly reasonable. The relationship between China as empire or People’s Republic and the Tibetan people is, however, a lot less tidy — with Tibet lying in the constant shadow of the Chinese emperor for centuries.
"After the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations, a report in the western media said the government in China wouldn’t survive another 3 years," UVSC Professor Jindong Liang said, "and they were proven wrong. It’s been over 19 years, and the Chinese government is still there, and Chinese society has developed, and we’re a very, very good society.
There are shortcomings like in every country, in every society, there’s the pollution, the overpopulation, some people not happy … but they shouldn’t demonize China. China is just like any other country."
And then the Olympics came to town. After much lobbying, the Chinese delegation was awarded the Olympics and show time is all but here, a short 120 days away. Freedom of the media is a touchy subject. The news media in China is well represented by the successful and highly respected The China Daily. But the small detail of state ownership and communist party editorial control means that the West does not view reported material from this source as entirely credible. And there lies a crucial difference between a journalist in The China Daily and The Chicago Tribune, for example. Both reporters could get a juicy tip about a corrupt official, but one would run with it — perhaps even make a career out of it — while the other would ignore it for fear of retribution by plainclothes police right outside his apartment.
The Olympics puts China under a bright light of scrutiny, and it would make sense and reflect favorably to deal with Tibet nonviolently and to offer, perhaps, a free speech amnesty period. China is growing in power and influence, and its humanity needs to grow along with its economy.