Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times is traveling in Xiahe, Gansu. (We can safely assume his trip isn’t within the past week, or otherwise he would’ve been within a few hundred miles of the earthquake’s epicenter.)
The editorial adds little that is new to the discussion. It is a reiteration of monks claiming that they were assaulted while arrested, which correlated with a military presence, is finally translated into a “harsh crackdown”. The editorial ends with this line:
China is emerging as a great power in this century, and it is famously concerned with saving face. But it loses far more face from its own repression of Tibetans than from anything the Dalai Lama has ever done.
Kristof suggests on his blog that many Chinese will be outraged by the editorial, and invites comments. Mine are repeated here.
At the end of the day, I really believe Kristof has missed the point by focusing on what essentially boils down to “police abuse”. Public security forces in China are poorly trained for dealing with dissenters, but it’s not as if American cops are particularly known for their pacifist ways (cue Sean Bell). I believe all Chinese can be united in agreeing with Nicolas Kristof that our police officers should learn to follow the law themselves, and that their use of physical force as punishment is a crime.
That said, Nicolas Kristof is certainly right that many of us are skeptical of “exaggerated” claims coming from Tibetan sources. The credibility of these eyewitnesses has been compromised by the overwhelming amount of falsehoods generated by many of their compatriots. I’m not a follower of Tibetan Buddhism, but I can’t help but conclude that lying is not a sin in their religion.
The Tibetan monks who strikingly interrupted the Lhasa media tour in March, for example, managed to claim in the same breath that they had been denied contact with the outside world since March 11th, while also claiming they saw the bodies of hundreds of dead protesters. Other first-hand reports (including the Dharamasala press releases issued in the evening of 3/14 claiming 100 dead and tanks on the street) have been completely contradicted by Western journalists who have less motivation to lie here. I wouldn’t want to get into a debate about the credibility of the Chinese state press either; there’s plenty of convincing evidence that the Chinese state press also lies or exaggerates as needed. So, let’s just be honest: we need to be skeptical and hear both sides of every story in this case.
Although Nicolas Kristof has basically failed in actually making a point on this matter, let’s focus on what matters: “repression of Tibetans”.
I believe China needs to work out a practical mechanism for allowing public protests. When I say practical… on the one hand, I mean that China needs to actually *grant* permission for protests when the circumstances are right, instead of forcing Chinese people to pretend they’re only going out for a “walk” (see Chengdu, Shanghai, Xiamen); on the other hand, by practical I mean that China needs to keep in mind those who start off “protesting” will sometimes explode into an orgy of mass murder (see Lhasa, 3/14). Without such a practical mechanism, Tibetans are “repressed” the same way all Chinese are “repressed”; unless we have an internet connection, we have no other way of expressing our strong feelings about any subject.
But I have a feeling Kristof is talking about something else other than these basic civil rights. When he speaks of “repression”, he’s really talking about the fact that the Tibetans’ political position is ignored. And to this, I say… so what? In France and Austria, you can be arrested and imprisoned simply for “denying” the Holocaust. In the United States, if you’re implicated in a religious sect that condones polygamy, you might even have your children taken away from you. These Western democracies don’t always have a great deal of tolerance either, do they?
And we Chinese understand that sentiment: many of us, the vast majority of us (of different nationalities), oppose the idea of separatism with all of our hearts. We, the people, simply do not condone it. We love our more perfect union, and we have no interest in seeing it compromised. Most of us believe there is room for political criticism of the Communist Party; most of us support the private practice of religions (including Tibetan Buddhism); most of us believe more should be done to preserve Tibetan culture… but we simply have no interest in being “tolerant” to a separatist movement. And when activists actually storm government institutions, pull down our national flag and replacing it with a snow-lion flag… that’s not a cultural or religious statement, that is a separatist movement, and we encourage our government to eradicate that dangerous movement immediately. Abraham Lincoln sacrificed the lives of millions of Americans in order to preserve a more perfect Union, and if eliminating this political movement allowsus to prevent that sort of chaos and damage, I embrace it.
Keep in mind that in the United States, gay marriage is legal today (apparently), and yet might be illegal tomorrow (if the constitutional amendment passes). Why? Because the constitution exists, because it is a neutral body of text that the American people uses to specify exactly what sort of behavior is acceptable, and what isn’t. We have a constitution in China too; it is imperfectly written, and it is imperfectly implemented… but there’s one clause in it that many of us support: no activities that encourage ethnic conflict, that encourage separatism.
So, that’s pretty much the bottom line. The country we wish to build is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural; the country that we wish to build will respect different political opinions on most issues; the country that we wish to build will have a civil, professional police force; the country that we wish to build will still not tolerate separatist movements or separatist activities.