Bhuchung K Tsering
December 12, 2012
On December 10, 2012, China’s official CCTV broadcast a discussion on Tibetan self-immolation on its Dialogue program. It was titled, “Realities in Tibet,” and obviously, the aim was to drive the narrative on the issue in the way the Chinese Government wanted: to place the self-immolation in the context of crime and to justify any action that the Chinese Government takes on individuals they deem to be involved in supporting them. The two experts who were in the panel — Victor Gao Zhikai, a CCTV current affairs commentator, and Liu Huawen from the Institute of International Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Science — made the point that the self-immolators were innocent and victims of people who had “whitewashed their mind” and that these people were committing crimes and need to be punished. There was a reference to the recently promulgated ordinance that made incitement to self-immolations a criminal act. These messages were emphasized by the captions that appeared on the screen, which included “Self-immolation incited by Dalai Lama group” and “Inciting Self-immolation is murder” (interestingly these captions appeared before the experts even made their comments indicating that the message was being coordinated beforehand, no surprise there, though!).
I believe this program was a result of the continued self-immolations by Tibetans and indications of increasing international opinion that the Chinese Government’s policies were the causes. These are indicated by the statements, specifically by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and the United States Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, Maria Otero, (there was a reference to her recent statement although it was attributed by the host to a “Deputy Assistant Secretary of State” instead of her rank as an Under Secretary).
It is not that the Chinese Government has not spoken about the self-immolations. In addition to the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s several remarks, there have been remarks by officials in Lhasa as well as Beijing. CCTV itself did a documentary that was broadcast only on its English channel. But these were all official lines and the Chinese Government realizes that the Chinese people as well as the international community do not place any value to such official utterances. They therefore wanted experts to weigh in on the matter so that their narrative is established through a different channel.
Having watched the broadcast, I feel that beneath this official narrative a different voice was coming out from the discussions, which seems to be just closer to the reality of the situation regarding the Tibetan self-immolations. Even as the experts were vociferously seeking to project the official narrative, they presented the issue as being “complicated” and “complex.” They also made two interesting points: i) In a country as large as China, it is natural and even logical to have some grievances; the Government need to make sure there are channels whereby people can use legitimate and legal means to give expression to their grievances, and ii) the right to defend themselves (who are considered criminals) was a human right that needed to be guaranteed.
These points are relevant to the discussions about Tibetan self-immolations. Whether the self-immolators were led by others (as the Chinese narrative wants people to believe) or they undertook the action on their own freewill, the fact that there must be some reasons behind these is clear. So if there are grievances among the Tibetan people, they need to find a way to channel them and for the Chinese Government to address them. Secondly, as we see China undertaking the misguided policy of intimidation as a way to deal with the self-immolations, the point that those people being accused of wrong doing should have a fair trial and the right to defense is integral to the process.
Therefore, even if the Chinese Government feels that “Western Media Reports Tibet with colored Glasses”(which was one of the captions that came up near the end of the Dialogue program, although the experts did not touch on this issue) I hope they will pay heed to these Chinese experts that they themselves have encouraged to speak.
As an aside, this program also included footage of an interview with and Indian scholar, Prof. M. D Nalapat of Manipal University in Karnataka. I was taken aback to find his superficial response to some of the questions by the host. He could have been more forthright than the Chinese experts about the underlying Tibetan grievances because he knows something about Tibet. I thought the Chinese experts were more thought-provoking than him. To be fair, this interview was pre-recorded and so what was broadcast may not be everything that Prof. Nalapat said.
In any case, I hope China’s CCTV will encourage real discussions on the realities in Tibet. I can only agree with the host who said, “We really need to know what is the reality facing them (Tibetans) to understand the real story.” This will be good for Tibet and good for the People’s Republic of China. After all, if CCTV has “80 million subscribers around the world” they will know the difference between official propaganda and expert views, irrespective of how these are presented.
Also, I want to believe that China’s CCTV discussing the situation in Tibet on World Human Rights Day was not a coincidence!