Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Internal propaganda

When I was last in Beijing, I noticed the same glowing, digital ads projected inside subway tunnels that appear out of the darkness as you enter and exit some stations in Washington, DC. Michael Zhao has a piece on the phenomenon in Forbes magazine that explains how the human eye "animates" a string images, how a company called Beijing Topflash Media is pushing this stuff, etc. All interesting. But I was most struck at the time by the content of the advertisements.

As further proof that the main target of Beijing's rhetoric on Tibet is not the outside world but the Chinese people, the ads were all for a new production of the People's Daily website devoted exclusively to Tibet, Zhongguo Xizang Wang. They weren't very stylish ads--no animation, at least not any that I remember. But they drove the thing home. Upon returning to the States, I looked for Zhongguo Xizang Wang.

I found it; it is here.

And it is much more sophisticated than any of the clumsy pronouncements China makes to the outside world about the T.A.R. The site has heartwarming stories on Chinese young people volunteering in Tibetan schools, a section on Tibetan culture (dancing, of course), articles on concerns in France that H.H. the Dalai Lama's visit there will strain Sino-French relations, and, last but not least, a book corner that highlights a series of conspiracy / history / drama books that I saw everywhere in Chinese airport bookstores: Xizang Mima ("The Tibet Code").

In comparison, updates on the Chinese Embassy's website in DC come across propagandistic and flat, full of quotes from foreign folks in support of Chinese policy, like the sections in Chinese and Vietnamese museums highlighting gifts from abroad. It is as if the Embassy posts don't receive any real effort, like they were just put there to show someone that they had been put up. Which is the point.

While China would like to change hearts and minds abroad, its purpose in exposing "the Dalai clique" to the world is mostly to seem consistent to home audiences. Boring? Yes, but fiercely the same. Sticking up for the nation in hostile settings. Sticking up by being its same, old, boring self.


jh said...

Thanks for this interesting post, OTR.

It seems those Tibetans that seek independence, or even meaningful autonomy, are indeed staring down a dead end.
Chinese inside and outside of the PRC are firmly in the fold of the party view on Tibet, and the CCP knows that it is its "domestic" audience alone that counts.
Western governments will not challenge China on Tibet beyond symbolic gestures and repeated exhortations on human rights.
And when HHDL has passed away and sped-up sinicization has done the job, the question of the rightfulness of China's presence in Tibet will fade away into history...

At the same time, Tibetan prime minister Samdhong Rinpoche has said:
“As far as we are concerned we are prepared for another 100 years of struggle. The inspiration is there. So we have no worry.”

I wonder whether it is "effective" to have two monks at the helm of Tibet's struggle for self-determination when you have a party machinery like the CCP's resting on millenia of imperial history on the other side?

Old Tales Retold said...

The fact that the Party sees the need for so much internal propaganda shows they are, to some degree, nervous about popular support for their measures--or want to shore up support, just to be sure. Dissidents in China tend to be sympathetic to Tibetans. And young people, though many have reached their political maturity through a series of nationalist protests in favor of repression in Tibet, could swing different ways. They are sympathetic to rebels, for example, as I noted somewhat clumsily in a previous post.

This should all give some hope to people who want a fair resolution.

As to the Tibetan leadership... I agree that it might be better to have more secular, hard-nosed negotiators at the helm.

jh said...


there has been a rather "charming" article by an American-Chinese correspondent living in India on the Tibet issue in the FEER:

And again, reading through the comment section one cannot help but think that there are only uncompromising Chinese nationalists around whenever it comes to the Tibet issue.
OK, I guess Chinese readers of the FEER would be politically interested but does that, seemingly almost without exception, have to mean that they
a) have to repeat the CCP propaganda and
b) be uncompromising in their rejection of the Tibetans' right of a degree of self-determination?

I see this reflected across the comment sections of all major Western news outlets.

During the Olympic torch relay the Chinese embassy in Canberra arranged for 10.000 Chinese students to be bussed in to outnumber the expected pro-Tibet crowd.
And the CCP, as you have mused in your article, is going to some lengths to keep its world-wide Chinese audience firmly behind its anti-anti-China bandwaggon.
If these bloggers who argue ceaselessly pro-CCP in these comment sections are not "paid by the CCP", then where are the others who are more open, or can I say "reasonable"? They simply don't seem to exist...

You wrote "And young people ... could swing different ways."
Well, I can see that the CCP is very successfully trying to prevent this from happening, and that does not give me much hope.
I doubt that an "outreach strategy" to the Chinese will move the Tibet case forward much. It's certainly needed as a counter-balance to the CCP propaganda but from my point of view only more significant political challenges would have such a potential.
I am thinking of a real multi-party democracy in exile, of HHDL becoming an Indian citizen, things like that which turn the status quo (and history) upside down...

Old Tales Retold said...

Yes, big things would have to happen in terms of political structures, not just opinion, to shake things up. Maybe, like you said, changes in the TGIE or something could be the spark.

But then, attitudes can change relatively quickly. In the 1980s lots of young Chinese were very "pro-Western," for better or worse (maybe worse, as that extreme made it all to easy for another extreme to slip in when people were disappointed). Then, with the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade--which I have a hard time imagining was a mistake but was very, very stupid regardless--things shifted into a very inward-looking, wounded mode.

Look at how quickly attitudes have shifted in the U.S. for that matter, from the "America, love it or leave it" attitude after the Iraq War to today's more thoughtful outlook.

An interesting thing to note maybe: people in China aren't as defensive about, say, the rights of migrant workers as they are about Tibet. The government has been good about making Tibet a sort of patriotic, fresh, young, brash issue... but it doesn't have the upper hand on every issue. Can it always on Tibet?

Old Tales Retold said...

P.S. Thanks for that FEER article. I'll read it.

jh said...


this time I'd like to ask you for some technical advice if you don't mind... ;-)

It seems access through my regular ISP (which is not in China) to CDT is blocked.
Access through a different local ISP or VPN works.
I haven't experienced that before with any website and I have no clue what that means or how to fix it...

I had some interesting exchanges on CDT that I would like to continue "privately" outside the CDT comment section.
How can I pass on my email safely to someone in a comment section?
I tried to go through "CDT - Contact us", and since then my access is blocked!!??

Old Tales Retold said...

Hey JH,

I'm sorry but I really don't know the answers to those questions. I can ask around, though. I'm assuming you're not in China now, right?

jh said...

I am not in China now. In fact, I have not been there since 2002.
My father-in-law is 75 now and would be happy to see me, or rather all of us, again. So I am going in July for a few weeks.

As I wrote previously on CDT, I have never liked China (rather the opposite). Why that is so, is probably a good question.
I have always loved India and never can wait to be back there.
Of course, the two countries are vastly different (at least from my point of view). With regard to India it is said that you either love the country or you hate it.
I am not aware of any such saying about China. Certainly, if you're on a guided tour, China will look cleaner, more modern, more sophisticated or even civilized.
But to me, for some strange reason, that is only at the surface. To me India in all its mess embodies a timeless civilization, a civilization of the spirit and not the matter.
Have you watched Michael Wood's BBC series "The Story of India"?
He catches that spirit.

Sorry, I have strayed far from the issue.
If you could indeed find out anything in regards to my technical questions, that would be very much appreciated.
I really wonder who is blocking that access. It makes no sense to me. I've never had any site blocked (except of course trying the Canada Tibet Commitee or sites like that in Tibet).

Old Tales Retold said...

As I've said before, I think you're wrong about the depth of culture, both old and new, that's in China.

While it's true that the country's cities can seem superficial, they are just that--the surface of the country. There's a lot under the surface in the hinterlands and in the quieter parts of the cities that is really worth getting into. And while you are right to often criticize China's money-focused contemporary culture, there are other values there, ones inherited from centuries back and also ones that grew out of the country's experience with socialism.

The kind of self-respect that workers hold for themselves, for example, is really inspiring. Especially compared to the disillusionment of the working class in many countries. And it's not just workers---the middle class may not be sympathetic to Tibetans (as you well know), but they will side with FOREIGN labor groups in criticizing local governments or companies or rich folks that hurt working people.

In some ways, dissent carries a bigger punch when the government takes each and every sign of dissent seriously. And I think the same might be true for local culture--because it has had to sort of keep itself going in spite of the big tides of history or alongside the big tides of history, it kinda clings on in a different way.

jh said...

Thanks for your reply, OTR.

In a sense, I sometimes feel I am up against some wall with China...

Although I have been to China at least half a dozen times in the last 20 years, having spent at least a total of a year and a half there, and although my wife is Chinese, I simply have not managed to come to like this country. After our last family visit there in 2002 I told my wife that I didn't want to go back as I would rather spend my time elsewhere, in particular in India.

My wife is from a poor peasant family in country Henan, so I have spent many weeks in her village as well as in the big cities. And I have travelled the breadth and width of the country from Hangzhou to Shigatse, from Kunming to Wutai Shan.
There have been beautiful places, in particular Emei Shan, Wutai Shan and Tibet, and I surely have always appreciated the spiritual achievements of ancient China, be it Daoism, Chan Buddhism, qi gong or acupuncture.
But, and that is where the problem lies, I hardly found any trace of that in the people whenever I visited.
Sure, China has always had famines and man-made catastrophies like the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward. So people want to make sure that they have material security. One has to accept that.
But where Indians may in many ways come across as "too religious", Chinese for me have always come across "materialistic only".
Of course, this is compounded further by the current political system. I don't mean to blame the people as human beings.

Maybe I was lucky that I had the money that I needed to backpack the world as a youth (on a handful of $ a day), and maybe it is my inclination towards spirituality and a philosophical outlook on life that makes for my particular bias.
We all live in some particular groove and resonate differently, don't we?
As it is, for me to marry a Chinese girl has been a continuous challenge. And the irony is that I was on my way from India to Japan to become a Zen monk when I met her in Luoyang, the place where Buddhism arrived to China from India...

Life is a strange business...

Old Tales Retold said...

When I was living in China for a couple years, I spent a winter in India and Nepal. I remember being struck by how alive things were in South Asia, both in terms of religion and politics. The old Lefty in me was excited to run into a massive Communist rally in Tamil Nadu!

But I've never found China to be barren. All those little fables people tell, the way that history has pushed families back and forth, the pride and sadness over all that went down over the past decades, the little temples back in the hills, friends who stick up for each other, baijiu and laobing...

I suppose what it comes down to is just that different people have different experiences of the same places. Which, of course, is entirely natural!

jh said...

Nice comment, OTR. And to the point (India is so alive, isn't it? I simply love it!).

On the other hand, people "tick" differently, have a different wave length. From my first day in China to the last day that I spent there, I have felt "alien" (on Wutai Shan I was even issued an "Alien travel permit"... ;-). Unfortunately, the same applies to my wife too after almost twenty years of marriage...
I guess there is not much one can do about it. As much as you are not going to become some conservative hawk I will not come to like China. Fair enough.

I have finally decided that I will quit my interest in the Tibet-cum/vs-China issue and return to doing qi gong in the morning and going for a run around the block in afternoon instead.
At least my health will benefit from that whereas, I suppose, Tibet has not benefitted much from my engagement. But so be it.

Take care. I enjoyed your posts...

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