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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Tibet: The Shangri-La that exists only in the West's imagination

September 3, 2008

By Kevin Deluca
Article Last Updated: 09/01/2008 11:33:21 PM MDT

With the Olympics over, I hope the Western sport of bashing China 
over Tibet might stop.

     Working in Beijing during the Tibet riots and the preparations 
for the Olympics gave me a unique perspective. Growing up with 
Western media and Hollywood, I am used to our embrace of the Dalai 
Lama. Being in China, I saw the Chinese point of view.

     Seeing both sides suggests the need to abandon simplistic 
political stances in favor of some self-reflection and historical 
context.

     Although we should criticize China's censored media, the Tibet 
riots revealed some troubling blindness among our own media. While 
the causes of Tibetan unrest are complex, it is clear that the March 
riots were started by Tibetan protesters and that they were quite 
violent. Indeed, they were violent enough to lead the Dalai Lama to 
threaten resignation if his followers did not stop the violence.

     Since "violent Tibetan" does not fit our stereotype, our media 
fixed the news. While Chinese media showed extensive footage of 
violence and interviews with Chinese and Tibetan victims, Western 
media manipulated images and even showed footage from other countries 
(Nepal and India) in order to paint a picture of ruthless oppression 
by China's government.

     Chinese media exposed the Western media manipulations, forcing 
the BBC, N-TV and RTL-TV to apologize. Not surprisingly, the American 
media has yet to acknowledge its bending of the truth. The point is 
that while the Chinese know their media is censored and do not trust 
it, we believe our news is objective and end up being righteous while 
misinformed.

     If we had seen the violence of the Tibet riots, our 
condemnations may be more nuanced. Quite simply, no government, 
democratic or not, allows such violence within its own borders. 
Providing peace and stability, even by force if necessary, is what 
governments do.

     Large and powerful countries tend to have regions that were not 
always part of the country. In America, we proudly call it Manifest 
Destiny and never trouble ourselves with how we got much of 
California and Texas from Mexico, never mind the rest of the country 
and our sordid history with Native Americans.

     On the Chinese flag there are five stars commonly interpreted as 
representing the five major ethnic groups in China. One of those 
stars represents Tibetans. China's claim to Tibet spans centuries and 
it is a claim that the United States and the rest of the world 
recognizes.

     To Chinese people, removing one of those stars is akin to 
removing one of our states, such as Hawaii. Our history with the 
native people of Hawaii has been relatively brief and quite brutal 
and there exists a tenacious independence movement. Still, there is 
no talk in the mainstream media and among the Hollywood celebrity 
activist circuit of Hawaiian independence, not to mention Puerto 
Rican independence or the American Indian movement.

     Government repression of these movements also escapes media 
scrutiny. Before we lecture China, we may want to tend to our own 
backyard.

     Amid cries of "free Tibet" and calls for religious freedom, the 
question is what does freedom have to do with Tibet? Under the Dalai 
Lama, was there religious freedom? Was there any freedom? Actually, no.

     We would recognize the Dalai Lama's Tibet as a medieval 
religious theocracy with a small elite class served by a large and 
oppressed serf population. The Dalai Lama ruled a region with no 
religious freedom, no political freedom, indeed, no human rights of 
any kind. The rulers were ruthless. Torture and mutilation were 
widespread. Poverty and starvation were rampant. It was Shangri-La 
only in the West's imagination.

     Richard Gere, Sharon Stone and other Hollywood devotees may be 
surprised at their idol's current positions. The Dalai Lama condemns 
abortion and homosexuality while accepting prostitution. For decades 
the Dalai Lama secured millions of dollars from the CIA and runs his 
government in exile like a monarch.

     Despite its shortcomings, Chinese rule has provided the Tibetan 
region with infrastructure and public schooling and provides Tibetans 
with widespread opportunities and a degree of personal freedom 
unheard of under the feudal theocracy of the dalai lamas.

     China is far from perfect and deserves honest scrutiny and 
criticism. To expect China not to act like a large and powerful 
country, however, and to throw stones from our glass house, proves 
nothing but our own ignorance.
     ---

     * KEVIN DELUCA is an associate professor of communications at 
the University of Utah and author of "Image Politics."
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