This article from the IHT inspires me to write about a topic that’s been on my mind in recent months. The article is about the well-known Tibetan-Chinese writer Woeser. The title of the article alone gives you a pretty good idea of what its going to say: “Tibetan writer alleges harassment by Chinese police…” Woeser lives in Beijing, and is the daughter of a Han Chinese People’s Liberation Army general and a Tibetan woman. She also happens to be wife of Wang Lixiong (discussed previously). She has written extensively about Tibetan issues for years, both in print and on her blog.
A more detailed feature on Woeser comes to us from the Washington Post, which has also kindly provided a platform for other Chinese voices: Wang Qianyuan, Yang Jianli. I don’t think it takes too much brain-power to guess the criteria by which the Washington Post selects its Chinese guest editorialists. Of course, I think it’s fair to say these three voices represent probably millions of Chinese voices, so I certainly understand the Western media’s right to feature their stories. My only question is… when will they give print real estate to Chinese voice that can speak for the other hundreds of millions of Chinese that disagree with them fervently?
All of this adds up to one question about the status of political dissidents in China: is the glass half-full, or is the glass completely empty?
Let’s start with the facts about Woeser as we know them:
- for years, she (and her husband) has written extensively about the Beijing government’s failures in Tibet,
- she has written extensively about the history of suffering in Tibet, essentially translating everything from Phayul and the Tibet government-in-exile into Chinese,
- her blog has, since March 14th, been the primary gathering place for all rumors about Tibetan “riots” or “suppression” (depending on your perspective): photos of those allegedly killed by armed suppression, claims that XX monks/nuns have just been killed and arrested are posted on an almost daily basis;
- you can easily follow the chain of rumors from anonymous comments posted at Woeser’s blog -> Radio Free Asia -> Phayul -> Woeser’s blog in numerous cases,
- she rarely posts her own essays on the blog; she instead selectively posts articles that “make her point” for her. Regardless, she has made it clear where her sympathies lie: squarely on the side of the “hundreds of Tibetans killed” by the Chinese military, and squarely on the side of independence for Tibet,
- she has yet to mention the non-Tibetans killed in Lhasa,
- she has reposted every press release from the Dalai Lama and the Tibet government-in-exile over these sensitive months,
- she has never been aware from her computer for more than a few days,
- according to the IHT article (same as above), she has been “questioned” by the police on one occasion,
- according to this article, she has had her ID card and the contents of her purse photographed,
- according to this article, she was kept from leaving her home for 4 days (of the riots themselves),
- she’s been interviewed numerous times by the Western media over the past 2 months, including this new article today.
From this basic set of facts, as well as those from similar stories (like that of Hu Jia), the Western media has generated a glass completely empty interpretation of the state of dissidents in China. (I would have said glass half empty, but that’s really not a fair description of the tone of Western coverage.) Woeser is “in danger of arrest” (aren’t we all?), she’s been “harassed by police”, she’s being “monitored”. Hu Jia was sentenced to prison for publishing a letter “urging a focus on human rights as the Summer Olympics approach”, according to the Washington Post. The conclusion, therefore, is simple: China has made no progress on human rights since 2001 (or 1989, or 1949… or 220 BC for that matter).
And now, my “glass is half full” interpretation. Clearly, the public space for political opinions is still controlled in China. I am sure Woeser’s blog is blocked within China (although that doesn’t keep many mainland Han and Tibetan Chinese from accessing it through proxies), and I’m sure no media source in China would cover her story with a 10-ft pole. And during sensitive periods, the police will monitor her closely to make sure she doesn’t conduct any sort of illegal public protest.
But she is not under arrest; she has not been charged with subverting state power. She still resides comfortably in her home, and is able to maintain regular contact with her leads in Tibet, Dharamasala, and Washington DC. Wang Lixiong continues to travel freely in/out of the country; he was in Europe during the March 14th riots. Their bank account hasn’t been frozen; they continue to work doing something, and get paid from someone. She has spoken with the foreign media repeatedly, and has not been arrested. There’s no indication that Western reporters or visitors are kept from meeting her anywhere in Beijing, including her apartment.
The glass is certainly not full, but it’s certainly a lot more full than it was 5, 10, or 20 years ago… and much more full than the Western media gives it credit for.