Tibet's India-based government-in-exile says more than 100 people have died in the recent clashes between protesters and Chinese authorities in and around Tibet. Beijing disputes that claim, saying the numbers are much lower. Chinese officials have sharply criticized international coverage of the riots, calling it biased. Stephanie Ho, VOA correspondent in Beijing, says the situation in Tibet is viewed very differently in the Chinese media.
“The Chinese media have been playing this strictly as a bunch of Tibetan hooligans who have decided to smash windows and loot and pillage and kill Chinese people. So the Chinese public is very unhappy with Western media coverage,” says Ho. “The Voice of America office here has been getting tons of phone calls from people complaining about media coverage outside China, saying they don't understand why everybody else is getting it wrong. The problem is that the information coming out of Lhasa is sketchy, so what we're left with is the Chinese official version of events and rumors and cell phone images. We don't know what the real story is.”
It's hard to know the real story because China has prevented independent coverage by barring foreign correspondents from freely traveling to Tibet and neighboring provinces where the unrest has spread. Moreover, the government in Beijing has begun a propaganda campaign to persuade the public that the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled leader, instigated the violence on March 14 and that China is the victim of separatist, terrorist activity. But Stephanie Ho says the protests have been caused by multiple factors - religious, cultural and economic: “There is a lot of resentment among Tibetans in Tibet with the fact that they're sort of being left behind. The Chinese government has spent lots of money in Tibet trying to build it up, but it has mostly been Han Chinese who have benefited. So Tibetans are resentful. They feel there has not been adequate respect for their religion. The Dalai Lama is the holiest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, and he keeps getting roundly vilified by the Chinese government.”
Contrary to Beijing's characterization, the Dalai Lama is widely viewed as a moderate - a man who shuns violence and who has for years attempted to meet the Chinese halfway. Western governments, including Washington, are urging Chinese officials to meet with the Dalai Lama to reach some modicum of understanding. But many regional observers say the international community has not put sufficient pressure on Beijing for their harsh tactics against the Tibetan protesters.
Indian journalist Jehangir Pocha, editor of the New Delhi-based news magazine Business World, explains that foreign governments like the United States and India are conflicted: “Speaking in entirely humanitarian terms, what you have is a very difficult situation. If you get tough with the Communist Party, you risk endangering the stability of a country of 1.2 billion people. At the same time, you can't wash away the concerns of the indigenous Tibetan people.”
Bhuchung Tsering, vice president of the International Campaign for Tibet, was born in Tibet, grew up in India, and now lives in Washington. He says the Tibetan people were actually forced to launch their recent demonstrations in Lhasa: “The Chinese government's policies have failed to recognize and respect the distinct identity of the Tibetan people and to provide a space to preserve and promote that distinct heritage. Beneath that are many factors, which have led the Tibetan people to feel they are being increasingly marginalized. And the immediate spark from my perspective would be the Chinese government's continued denunciation of the Dalai Lama.”
Jehangir Pocha notes that the Dalai Lama, through his intermediaries, has actually been in talks with the Chinese government for a number of years. But the Tibetan government-in-exile, which is headquartered in Dharmsala in northern India, does not believe Beijing has entered these talks in good faith. Besides that, Mr. Pocha says, the really tough problem goes far beyond the issue of Tibetan autonomy.
“The key issue between Beijing and the Tibetans is the definition of Tibet. The Chinese define Tibet merely as the province they call the Tibetan Autonomous Region, or TAR. The Tibetans define Tibet as the province of TAR plus Tibetan areas of other Chinese provinces such as Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan, and that is really the issue holding up the negotiations. This is not very well understood. And no one seems to have a solution to that issue.”
Bhuchung Tsering observes that contact between the Chinese leadership and representatives of the Dalai Lama was reestablished in 2002, and there have been six rounds of private talks since then, all of them unsatisfactory. So Tibetans are skeptical. Within the Tibetan movement in exile, Bhuchung Tsering says, some people are now calling for a boycott of the 2008 Olympic games, which are scheduled to be held this summer in Beijing.
Some Western critics also argue that their governments may have to resort to such a threat, or at least a boycott of the Olympics' Opening Ceremony, if the behind-the-scenes approach to pressuring Beijing fails. For now, President Bush has said he plans to be in Beijing this summer for the opening ceremony. For International Press Club, I'm Judith Latham.
To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.