THE PRESS IN TIBET
LOOKING BEYOND STEREOTYPES
This opinion piece was originally published in the Los Angeles Times on August 23, 1999. They gave it the title "End the Fairy-Tale Reporting of Tibet." It was reprinted by the Boston Globe, Tokyo's Daily Yomiuri, and the Hong Kong Standard. Selections deleted by the L.A. Times (and subsequent reprints) are shown in red.
The L.A. Times story "Migrants Diluting Tibet Cities" (Aug 3) is part of a sea-change in international Tibet coverage, and it's way overdue. In the past, the situation in Tibet has been grossly oversimplified. Journalists presented it as a tale of good guys (Tibetans) and bad guys (Chinese) clearly delineated, a story with fairy-tale appeal but little basis in reality. As a result, U.S. foreign policy has been handicapped by a voting and vocal public that has never heard the whole story.
To be fair, reporting has been hobbled by Chinese restrictions on foreign journalists wanting to visit Tibet. In the past, only a very few reporters were allowed in, invariably accompanied by officials who followed their every move, preventing them from speaking to ordinary Tibetans. News stories therefore had to be concocted from the hearsay of tourists, many of whom are admirers of the Dalai Lama, and from reports published by the Tibet Information Network, which is strongly anti-Beijing.
Weighing in for the Chinese side are nauseating, unbelievable stories put forth by Xinhua and other State news organs stories about former serfs making it big in New China and thanking the Communist Party for their liberation. Articles are heavy in misleading and false statistics, and riddled with English malapropisms. "Ex-Serf Strike a Rich Today" says a headline in the March, 1999 issue of the magazine China's Tibet. Small wonder that journalists are hard put to unearth nuggets of truth from the avalanche of clumsy, politically-motivated rhetoric. It is far easier to dismiss Chinese publications out of hand.
The result has been that the foreign press has tended to act like a mouthpiece of the Tibetan government-in-exile, an organization whose overriding concern is, understandably, regain of their lost nation. As recently as March 10, the Times told us "The Chinese are trying to annihilate the Tibetan people as a race. Under the Chinese, there are starvation, torture, forced labor and mass murder." The source for this information was a woman who left Tibet four decades ago as a nine-year-old girl.
Such uncritical acceptance of flawed and biased information has been routine in American newspapers. Journalists have read the poorly-researched work of other journalists, written more of the same, and built up a demand for China-bashing stories. Such reporting sells newspapers by staying in the public's comfort zone, shielding us from moral ambiguity; but it is mighty poor journalism.
As president of an NGO that brings foreign aid into Tibet, I have seen how Tibetans are hurt by the information blackout. When I try to raise money for repair of Buddhist monasteries, potential donors cite widely reported figures of four thousand, five thousand, or six thousand (take your pick) monasteries razed by the Chinese, and are reluctant to believe there is anything left to repair. When I solicit donations on behalf of schools in Tibet, people object erroneously that schools do not teach Tibetan language and are therefore instruments of the Chinese policy of cultural annihilation. When I ran an art conservation program that rescued some rare and endangered Tibetan murals, some felt that because the Chinese government allowed this project, there must be something wrong with it, and advised one of my volunteer workers not to participate. The American public has been conditioned to believe that the Chinese are utterly opposed to any sort of Tibetan cultural or economic advancement. Accurate reporting would show that this is simply not the case.
At last, the era of Tibet-as-fairy-tale seems to be ending. In the past few years, the myth of Paradise Lost has been undermined if not exploded by a spate of new books by Tibetans and others critically examining their old society and the Dalai Lama's once unassailable Dharamsala government. Now reporters like Henry Chu of the Los Angeles Times and John Pomfret of the Washington Post are getting into Tibet and staying there long enough to dig deeply. The result is a balanced picture of a complex and evolving region.
The Tibet issue is a thorn in the side of fragile Sino-American relations, which are pivotal to peace and security in the world at large. These are not small stakes. Let's hope that this new era of objective journalism in Tibet leads to a breakthrough in the deadlock between the Dalai Lama and Beijing. I believe that Tibetans, Chinese, and Americans will all benefit from it.
Here are some reactions from readers:
IN THE LOS ANGELES TIMES:
The commentary about Tibet makes an important point ("End the Fairy-Tale Reporting of Tibet," Aug. 23). It seems that the hard-core non-Tibetan "free Tibet" folks, who will accept nothing short of complete autonomy for Tibet, live their own comfortable lives while expecting Tibetans to keep their lives on hold until a revolution against China is mounted and won. Life is too short for such a rigid and unrealistic stance, which actually tends to deprive Tibetans (both inside and outside of Tibet) of their freedom to pursue happiness. The Dalai Lama is now advocating a "middle way," self-government for Tibetans within the People's Republic of China. This is not in any way selling out; it's just seeking a workable solution to a difficult situation--the same sort of workable solution that is now fomenting peace in Northern Ireland and Palestine.
Although I could not agree more with Pamela Logan's call for open journalism in Tibet, I did find her overall tone rather Pollyannaish. One specific point in which she errs concerns the teaching of Tibetan language. Yes, it is taught in the primary and middle schools and in Tibet University and the teacher training schools--as a language--but the primary language of instruction from first grade in township schools and third grade in rural schools is Mandarin--not Tibetan. This is based on firsthand, unbiased observations and discussions with school and university administrators.
EDWARD J. KORMONDY
ON THE TIBET SUPPORT GROUP LISTSERVE:
As a Tibetan first and as someone who considers himself a journalist, I am all for objective reporting of the situation inside Tibet. I think the Tibetan issue is capable of standing on its own feet without the additional embellishment or exaggerations. But Pamela's piece goes beyond that and discredits the Tibetan struggle as a whole by accusing it of misleading world opinion. I wonder what the motives behind the writing of the article were. Obviously, Beijing will be pleased with the article's point of view. I am all for fair reporting, including on how NGOs bend backwards to gain access into Tibet.
Neil Steedman writes
As a journalist for 34 years and a Tibet Supporter for 11 years, I am a little (but only a little!) surprised that Pamela Logan's comment piece should have triggered such over-reactions from some contributors about it to TSG-L. (Bhuchung-la's above was one of the more considered contributions.)
Relax guys. Pamela wasn't overly critical, she did outline the reporting limitations for journalists writing about Tibet and did outline the ludicrous Chinese State propaganda "reporting". She didn't specifically "discredit the Tibetan struggle as a whole by accusing it of misleading world opinion" either - this was directed at journalists, not the Tibetan struggle.
We really don't have to (as another contributor has done) instantly categorise others into "friends or enemies" just because they make a comment about Tibet or Tibetans that we don't like or agree with.
I have seen this happen several times before, particularly about people (Tibetans and non-Tibetans) who are working on projects within Tibet. These almost inevitably require some level of working with the Chinese authorities, or at least obtaining their approval or authorisation. The way some TSG members react to this you would believe that they think that no gompa rebuilding, schools, medical facilities, work skills, etc. etc. should be assisted in Tibet by "outsiders" until Tibet is completely free of Chinese control. (Or perhaps some of them do think that - in which case I would like to see them say so explicitly.) A non-violent struggle doesn't just mean not attacking and killing your "enemies". It includes not "killing" your friends.
SENT TO THE BOSTON GLOBE:
As a Chinese-American currently living in Taiwan who has written numerous articles exposing Americans' simplistic perception of the PRC/ROC face-off in the Taiwan Straits, I would like to express my heartfelt appreciation for Ms. Pamela Logan's courageous, Politically Incorrect contribution to Americans' understanding of Tibet. If fellow Americans could be persuaded to let go of our grossly prejudicial Manichean "Good vs. Evil" mindset and permit themselves to think what is currently unthinkable, they would find that Tibet bears scant resemblance to what opportunistic politicians like Frank Wolf and Dalai Lama propaganda flaks like Robert Thurman would like them to believe.
(Mr.) Bevin Chu
IN THE KHAM AID FOUNDATION GUEST BOOK:
Name: Elaine Novak
Date: Tuesday, August 31, 1999 at 22:28:01
Dear Pam, I did not understand your article on "Seeking facts on China, Tibet."You stated that the media coverage of Tibet had "little basis in reality" but you never mentioned what that reality was. You stated that accurate reporting would show that it is not the case that the Chinese are opposed to any sort of Tibetan cultural or economic advancement but you gave no examples. Lastly, you alluded to "the Dalai Lama's once-unassailable government" but gave no information as to why this government should now come under attack. You listed no Tibetan authors or book titles. What do you see as "objective journalism in Tibet?" What is the "truth" that the American people don't know?
Name: Jeff H.
Location: New York City, NY USA
Date: Sunday, August 29, 1999 at 15:01:10
Dear Pam: I read your article in the Boston Globe (August 26th) on Tibet with great interest. It is quite a perceptive piece indeed. The issues of China, Tibet and now Taiwan, although legitimate in most debates, are becoming increasingly a tool in partisan politics in the US. This is being done at the great cost of keeping the general public from appreciating the true nature of those issues and keeping the public policy from being formulated and implemented on the basis of the true merits of those issues at hand. This will come back to haunt us. Unfortunately, what the US media, for its part, is doing in addressing the imbalance in their reporting on those issues will be proven to be too little, too late.
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