To many, the perception of propaganda conjures up the concept of written statements in newspaper and other written forums, and the bland, self-important announcements on government-controlled television. Chinese propaganda, however, embodies many forms, from the obvious in-your-face proclamations of billboards on the main intersections in Lhasa and other major towns in Tibet, to the more obscure, insidious and subtle forms of control and selected information availability.
Found in Translation: The true intent of Chinese environmental policy slips out in translation. It reads: “A better future without blue sky and clear rivers is in our hands”, on a photo of a billboard taken by a tourist in Tibet.
Chinese propaganda ranges also from the ridiculous to the sublime. The aforementioned billboards, distinctly obtrusive due to their extortionate size, in a town otherwise severely limited in commercial advertising, proclaim the heady heights of the Beijing authorities’ benevolent attitude and enlightened ecological policies for all to see and hopefully believe. Yet the hypocrisy is blatant to see for anyone with even a basic knowledge of the real situation of the ecological devastation brought about by the indiscriminate and rampant excesses undertaken by, or with the direct authorisation of, the Beijing authorities. The devastating strip-felling of the Kham forests, and the callous and criminally negligent procedures used in the disposal of radioactive nuclear waste on the water’s edge of Kokonor Lake in Amdo, are undeniable evidence of the true nature of the government’s policies. So the self important, tri-language proclamation set against a background vista of a pristine Tibetan lake, that the waters of Tibet are the nation’s lifeblood, and that it is everybody’s duty to help keep them pure and unsullied, tends to lean a little towards the ludicrous.
As is clear from the documents recently leaked to International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), the Beijing authorities are planning to go on an all-out offensive to influence Western public opinion. Much of the document shows how Beijing works to create anti-American sentiment, and pressures its academics and intellectuals to develop better theories to support the Beijing government’s positions. Academics, scholars and Tibetologists “must support our propaganda” say the document. Moreover “the very act of writing and publishing — is for external propaganda and public opinion.” Yet the document sometimes exhibits a surprising level of candidness. For example, it admits that their propaganda is often “out of tune with the reality in Tibet,” and their intellectual arguments are “inadequate — to carry out our external struggle.” We should watch out against such moves by Beijing spin-doctors.
In a more subtle manner, designed to ensnare the ignorant, is the official version of Tibetan history and religion that the Chinese depict in their various brochures and on official Websites. Another long-standing form of control is the acquisition of information. Carried out by severely restricting which important Tibetan areas are accessible to tourists, but also controlling access within the authorized sites themselves. The obvious example of this is the Potala Palace, where I was told that only roughly 10% of the actual building is open for inspection. Yet in some ways that is a blessing in disguise. A Western traveller to Tibet recently said, “I believe that to witness the complete building in its vulgar pantomime as a museum bordering on mausoleum, staffed by a combination of Chinese plants and heart-wrenching devoted and dedicated monks, would be more than most Tibetan-sensitive visitors could bear.”
One of the most astounding aspects of the Beijing government is the amazingly naive double standards towards foreign tourists, in that they expect their propaganda to be swallowed in its entirety. Official written propaganda purports the overwhelming magnamanity of the Chinese rulers, expounding complete benevolence with incomparable benefits to the Tibetan people, and their reciprocal, unequivocal gratitude. How this is meant to coincide with unmistakable repression of Tibetan beliefs and traditions is plainly something that the authorities expect foreigners, obviously in the throes of overwhelming awe at their surroundings, to be totally oblivious to.
More insidious than these blatant lies which all can see through are the policies inside Tibet. Policies that are aimed at rooting out the very fabric of Tibetanness as proved by the recent decision to take the top two or three students from Tibetan schools to Beijing.
However, Chinese means and methods of propaganda and control do have some success. It is distressingly apparent in the statements of various visiting international government officials, claiming to have witnessed the evidence of the truth of the Chinese claims. One has to wonder however, as to whether they are seeing Tibet through ’coloured’ glasses. In July 2000 China invited N. Ram, the editor of Frontline, a weekly published from Chennai, for a week-long visit to Tibet. His touting of Chinese Communist propaganda was splashed over 36 pages of the September 15 edition. His highly regulated four-day tour through specifically selected areas, and observing only those people that are, or have been forced to be, compliant to the Chinese dictations, is hardly an observation of the country as a whole. Unfortunately also, it seems that the economic interests of the visiting dignitary’s governments have an even greater part to play in the observations of their representatives, than the real success of Chinese propaganda and control. It would be sad if economic success is the guiding principle that sets foreign policies.
Chinese propaganda however, fails in one important sphere — the Tibetan people themselves. Proclamations made by the Chinese government are now received with such scepticism that many Tibetans believe the exact opposite of whatever the Chinese declare, especially if it has any links to the outside world. A case in example was the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by US military forces. It was quite a while before the Tibetans actually believed that it was a true incident, because it had been announced by the Chinese government.
Chinese propaganda would be a truly frightening thing if it achieved the level of success that the government hopes or believes that it does. Fortunately the blind ignorance of the issuing authorities limits its influence, especially in an aware and informed outside world. That it succeeds at all is more the concern, and the distribution of accurate and proven evidence of the reality of the Tibetan situation is going to remain of prime importance to counteract the misinformation that will continue to emerge from Beijing. Additionally, the accessibility of this information to the Chinese people themselves, to allow an informed judgement and individual assessment and response, will prove to be an overwhelming factor in the future of Tibet.