Thursday, 24 April 2008

We are fighting for China

I just read a story in China Daily where they quote a German sinologist, Dr. Ingo Nentwig, who did research in Tibet. He says there is no cultural genocide happening in Tibet.

"The Tibetan culture flourishes and prospers in China," including "language, literature, study of oral literature, everyday life and traditional architecture," he said.

Have we framed this issue so badly? Was there a cultural genocide happening in Northern Ireland under British control? Was there genocide under Apartheid? (Hold that thought... there's a PS) Is there genocide in Zimbabwe? Was there genocide in East Germany, or the Soviet Union? Is that really why we want the CCP to improve their human rights record in Tibet and China?

Is this about genocide?

Firstly, on genocide:

1948 United Nations Genocide Convention
Article 2

[G]enocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such;

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

(Poole, S. Unspeak, ABACUS, 2006)

The convention is concerned with preventing genocide, hence the "in whole or in part". In the case of Tibet, (a) and (b) have definitely happened. (c) is arguable. (d) and (e) are rumours at best. That's two out of "any" five. That would meet the international criteria for genocide.

I found an interview in German with Ingo Nentwig. My German is both rusty and rustic, but here's an excerpt:

Was mich in den letzten Wochen sehr bewegt hat, ist die Unverhältnismäßigkeit in der medialen Darstellung. Kein seriöser Mensch bestreitet, dass es in China Menschenrechtsverletzungen gibt. Niemand bestreitet, dass auch die Tibet-Politik Chinas verbesserungswürdig ist, und zwar in großem Maße. Aber wenn ich mir die Lage in Tibet realistisch anschaue, die Mythen der Exiltibeter beiseite schiebe und die Lage mit der Situation in anderen Ländern vergleiche - schauen wir doch einfach nur mal ganz wahllos über die Grenze nach Indien. Ich würde wagen zu sagen, dass Indien jeden Monat in Kaschmir mehr Menschenrechtsverletzungen begeht als China in den letzten zehn Jahren in Tibet. Sie brauchen nur in die Zeitung zu schauen, wie unterschiedlich die Darstellung ist. Das rechtfertigt natürlich nichts von dem, was in China passiert, und ich kritisiere das scharf. Aber die Verhältnismäßigkeit ist in der medialen Darstellung überhaupt nicht mehr gegeben. Da kann ich dann auch die chinesische Regierung verstehen, dass sie sich unfair behandelt fühlt, weil der Westen auf ihr in einem Ausmaß rumhackt, das sie wirklich nicht verdient hat.

In short (correct me if I'm wrong) he says:

Paraquotes: "No serious person would deny there are human rights abuses in China, and that China's Tibet-policy could be better... but one only has to look across the border, to India, and Kashmir specifically, where there were probably more human rights problems in the last month than in Tibet in the last ten years."

(Of course, China Daily didn't report this part of his opinion.)

I don't doubt he's right. But this brings me to the title of my post: clearly Dr. Nentwig didn't intend to support the Chinese government's propaganda about Tibet. He's just as forthcoming in his criticism of the Chinese government, as his criticism of our media-influenced views of Tibet. This seems to me a normal sequence of events in the Western polemics. We over-react, get all hot-headed about some issue, jump to conclusions, get all biased, and then, after a few weeks, we calm down and the liberal press starts bringing out comment pieces and in-depth analyses where we start talking to ourselves, discussing where we went wrong and why and generally compromising on some middle ground between left and right.

This is a discourse the "west" has with itself. It isn't perfect, and we usually end up getting it wrong again, but we do it anyway and eventually we reach a position of self-critical awareness. (We still get it wrong though, but we talk about it, is my point.) We don't just keep on insisting we are always right forever.

Unfortunately China (I mean the goons and thugs in the government, of course) know this and pounce on this. I don't doubt they're scouring the web for pro-China Westerners as we speak. (So to speak.) This week they've come up with Dr. Nentwig, who, because he's a decent fellow, felt culturally compelled to do an interview with China Daily, but ended up being abused by them to offer legitimacy to their cause.

Last week it was Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail in Canada, who woke up to find himself a hero in China. In that case the China Daily simply manufactured what they needed.

In Dr. Nentwig's case, he just handed it to them. Well-meaning, I'm sure, but missing the point by a lightyear.

The point, you might ask, is what exactly? It is this: why are the Tibetans so angry?

Here's how China Daily ends his interview:

Nentwig criticized some Western media for only reporting the voices of the former ruling class, namely, representatives of the old theocracy, the clerical and feudal aristocrats, who lost their power and can "no longer exploit the people at will," while ignoring the voices of the ordinary Tibetan people who "have a totally different story to tell."

Absolutely. Couldn't have said it better myself. I think we should go into Tibet right now and ask the ordinary Tibetans what story they want to tell. I'm packing my bags right now. Oh, right. Damn. Can't get into Tibet. Forgot about that.

PS. According to the Genocide Convention I'd say there was a genocide in South Africa.


  1. Dr. Ingo NentwigApril 25, 2008 8:29 am

    This is me, Ingo Nentwig, just reading your blogg. I don't feel abused, even if they (Xinhua, China Daily) only publish a part of my opinion. This is my contribution to de-escalation of the whole discussion, which should be held with responsible Chinese authorities (and I have done that for years). Anyway, thank you for your comments! Want read more about my work and opinions, have a look here, it's in English:

  2. Thank you, Dr. Nentwig. I'm conflicted: as an opponent of the Chinese system of government, I feel we need to sustain pressure on them to acknowledge their mistakes and possibly bring about incremental change over a long period of time.

    As a supporter of the Chinese and Tibetan people I agree with your position pleading for a realistic approach without mythologising and demonising.

    But I feel a discussion of the history of Tibet and the form of pre-1950 government in Tibet detracts from what I see as the real issue right here, now in 2008: how can we hear a.) what ordinary Chinese people think, and b.) what ordinary Tibetans (and all other minorities) think.

    I believe that currently we can not hear the voices of 99% of the Chinese people. They are being drowned out by propaganda and defensive nationalism, but they are out there, moderate, willing to talk, discuss, even listen, and we need to engage them.

    I would be very interested to hear what responsible Chinese authorities feel about this, and how far they are willing to go in order to find a solution.

    I have to add: I have a lot of hope. In the last few weeks I have been able to hear more and more moderate Chinese people, on forums and blog comments. Even in my classes (here in Xi'an) I can sense my (adult) students -- however uninformed I might think they are -- are open to discussion and engagement, rather than the blind nationalistic fervour seen at the torch relay and Carrefour protests. The silent majority is the key to any future attempts to promote human rights in China.

  3. I have visited Tibet. Not the tourist version. I went from town to town meeting with the local people, staying in monasteries, with nomads, visiting holy sites, etc. I can say, without fear of contradiction, most Tibetans venerate the Dalai Lama. The first question one is asked is about his health, his activities, his teachings. I'm talking about ethnic Tibetans, not the Han Chinese who now outnumber the ethnic Tibetans.

    The Chinese support 'show' monasteries which as designed to show tourists how well the Chinese are supporting the religion. Most unsupported ones are falling into ruin (in addition to the thousands they destroyed during the Cultural Revolution).

    Genocide? The Tibetan language is taught in few schools. The cost of education in Tibet ensures only the Han and rich Tibetans can send their children to school. ($100 per term is the average cost for one child)

    Many Tibetan children who do get the opportunity to have an education find employment difficult to obtain because the employers, Chinese, prefer to employ Hans.

    There are small secret schools that teach Buddhism and the reading and writing of Tibetan. However even being able to afford a place at these is difficult. Consider a poor family with a herd of yaks. They need all available hands to work the cattle. To send off a boy or girl means finding someone else to do their work and having the resources to pay them, plus school fees for the child.

    The Chinese have been implementing a policy of removing the nomads from their pastures. If they agree to sell their herds, they are promised a house, tv, furniture, and a cash payment to leave the land and settle down. What I saw was mini slums out in the middle of nowhere, no facilities, the tv stopped working after a few months, the furniture quickly fell apart, and the cash payment turned out to be less than half what was promised - and no cattle, no income.

    Should I talk about health care? Almost nonexistent. Few towns have a doctor let alone a hospital. In the pre-chinese Tibet, all high lamas were trained in medicine - it was one of the seven arts that formed the basis of their training. In one large town I saw four men carrying an elderly woman on a stretcher heading to a 'hospital' that had one bed and no medical staff or equipment. Don't have a car accident!

    I could go on but this is making my heart heavy. I'll leave you with this. In Tibetan speak, 21st century, someone who 'likes the Chinese' is a Chinese sympathizer and one to stay away from or at least be very careful what you say in their presence. Sort of sums it up really.

  4. Dr. Ingo NentwigApril 28, 2008 6:28 pm

    Dear Cerebus,
    thank you for your answer. I have to admit, that your approach to China is not mine. I have spent more than five years of my life in China and devoted nearly 30 years of study to that country, but I don't feel that I know better than the Chinese government, neither about what is the best way to handle the specific daily problems nor about which "system of government" is the most suitable for China at the moment. I learned an attitude of humility in China. Political leaders, who face the fact that they are responsible for 40% of all the peasants of this world, who have available only 7% of the area of the world which can be agriculturally used to toil on and have to feed about 22% of the world population, political leaders in this situation first of all have my sympathy. Of course, one can dream of a better society, a better political system, more justice, more freedom and so on. But do you think, you know better what is good for China in the reality in this specific moment? I don't. And: I don't have any problems hearing the voices (and thoughts) of 99% of the Chinese people, neither the Han-Chinese nor the Tibetan, because I'm frequently in China and I frequently do field research in the countryside, and I have many Chinese friends of different nationalities. And I read Chinese forums and blog comments, too (in Chinese). My impression is, their opinions are as manifold as opinions are in Europe, and they all have quite different ideas, sometimes very contradictory, about what should be done or what would be best. They are in fact "willing to talk, dicuss, even listen", but they don't want to be engaged by anyone, - and I would never try to engage anyone for what purpose whatsoever. That is not my duty and it would be completely irresponsible. Human rights include not only political but also social human rights. If you consider this, the Chinese government is the biggest human rights movement in world history, because never before were hundreds of million people freed from extreme poverty in just 20-30 years of time. I have a lot of hope too, but maybe different from yours. The "silent majority" - which is not silent at all - will decide the destiny of their country, and they don't need you and me for that. Please have a look here
    Best wishes,