Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Yes We Can" meets "We Won't Budge"

Chinese President Hu Jintao met with President Obama this week.  I was curious as to what they might have discussed regarding the issue of human rights in China and Tibet, wondering if there'll ever be a press conference even so much as mentioning possible or actual human rights abuses in or by the U.S.  The kind and the degree differ, of course, but abuse is abuse.  Arrest for peaceful assembly, imprisonment without trial, kidnapping, torture, all words associated with abuse of human beings.
Autonomy was promised by the new People's Republic of China to the Dalai Lama and the Tibet government in 1951.  Instead, Tibetans today are prohibited from being schooled in or using their own language, displaying pictures of the Dalai Lama is forbidden, their monasteries have been burned down, their sacred sites destroyed, and their unique culture is systematically being erased. Independent journalists are banned and criticism of Tibet's Chinese rulers is harshly dealt with.[1]  So much for autonomy.

Why aren't Tibetans allowed to study and speak their own language and maintain their own culture?  Being encouraged to cooperate and welcome assimilation with waves of new inhabitants suddenly taking root in your land  is one thing; forcing it through attempts to diminish or eradicate an already long-established identity is quite another.  Kind of like what happened to the American Indian.  The message is the same:  Forget who you were. You are now who we say you are.

Some years ago I joined with a small group of Tibetans speaking out during a visit to Harvard from the former President of China, Chairman Jiang Zemin.  The group had gotten permission to stand on the grounds of a private property to display hand-painted signs calling for the release of Tibetan prisoners of conscience.  The media were everywhere, in anticipation of the motorcade that would pass by, delivering Jiang Zemin to the building in which he was to give a speech.  Minutes before he arrived, a swarm of young Chinese, mostly students holding large, patriotic banners, flags and posters suddenly appeared, positioning themselves directly in front of--and totally obscuring-- the Tibetans on the grassy mound.  In the process, one Tibetan woman was knocked to the ground, her cardboard sign trampled on.  Others were gently elbowed out of the way. In the sky, at that exact moment, a small plane flew overhead trailing a banner that read "Welcome, Jiang Zemin!" 

Someone informed the band of pushy newcomers that this was private property and they had neither requested nor been given permission to use the premises.  They briskly left and assembled, en masse, at another position across the street, at an intersection where another small group of Tibetans and their supporters had been standing.  Four times, a huge Chinese flag was thrust in front of  the Tibetans' signs, making them suddenly invisible, which happened to coincide with when newsmen's cameras pointed in that direction. I happened to be standing on the sidewalk with the Tibetan group.  I tried to engage the young Chinese student standing next to me holding one end of this enormous red flag, in conversation.  She apparently wasn't aware that Tibetans were being imprisoned by China for trying to remain Tibetan.  She attempted to enlighten me as to what she did know.  "The Dalai Lama," she said, "is a wealthy serf owner.  Do you know, he eats the eyeballs of his servants?"

I was completely blown away by this statement, and more so that this young, pretty student believed it with such absolute steadfast conviction.  I was also amazed at the swiftness and precision of the well-organized counter-attack seemingly mounted specifically to keep the voice of the Tibetans from being heard and/or their protest signs from being seen. This experience made a deep impact on me vis-a-vis how the reality of a thing can be hidden and public perceptions manipulated.  But even more than that--it was my first real understanding of what it might mean to have been "brainwashed."

"The Dalai-Lama eats his servants' eyeballs"--said in complete seriousness, accepted as absolute truth, based on what someone had once told her.

Fast forward to today.  Some of those prisoners of conscience are still rotting in Chinese prisons in Tibet, their families forbidden to see them.  More have joined them.  Thousands of arrests, hundreds of detainees and prisoners unaccounted for in 2009. [2].  You won't be able to find out much about them, though, because independent journalists aren't allowed to ask.  So one could say, comparing the then with the now, that things haven't actually improved all that much there, human-rights wise.

China has made its position crystal clear on where it stands vis-a-vis Tibet, the Dalai Lama, Liu Xiaobo, and poets, writers, and journalists who dare to question its behavior. China is not going to budge. When Tibet asked for help way back when, countries that could have helped, turned deaf.  Not  so toward Iraq and Afghanistan, though, where coalitions rushed in to "help" without  being invited.  Democracy to the rescue! I confess to not understanding American government thinking today. For example, Cuba's the enemy, because it's Communist.  But China, which is also Communist, is a business partner, therefore an exception is made.

"Yes we can!" Obama said, over and over and over, before he was elected President, with regard to changing the status quo, righting was he considered wrong.  "We're not budging", China implies, year after year after year, with regard to changing the status quo, continuing a wrong it thinks is a right.  Meanwhile, diplomacy dances while democracy declines.  (Democracy:  government by the people; a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges.  Autonomy:  independence or freedom; a self-governing community.  Words.)

I previously mentioned my astonishment at the remarks of the young Chinese student informing me that the Dalai Lama ate his servants' eyeballs.  Listen to this sidewalk exchange that day 14 years ago between a native of Tibet and an Asian bystander, both speaking in broken English, each attempting to explain to the other his views on the then situation in Tibet, which pretty much hasn't changed, except for the worst.

The Tibetan is a "refuge" [he means refugee]; [he has] "no country".  He asks the Asian man if he knows about the burning and destruction of monasteries in Tibet and the killing of monks by the Chinese.  "What monasteries?" the man replies. He has never been to Tibet but he "knows" that that's not true.   As to any murdered monks, that, too, is a disconnect.  "I don't think so," he says, shaking his head.  He hastens to explain that China's presence in Tibet is a good thing, that they "built buildings" there, to which the Tibetan native answers, "We don't need buildings.  We need free--inside; please, we need free inside."  The other man then tells him:  "You want religion?  You want peace?  You have it."   The Tibetan disagrees.  With the Chinese army there, "you can't talk," he says.  "Gun--always gun."  The Tibetans still feel that way today.  What has changed?

It was noisy there that sunny Saturday afternoon in Cambridge, where 5,000 people had gathered to greet President Jiang Zemin, either with cheery welcome or strongly felt protest. There were no arrests and no outbreaks of violence.  I try to imagine such a thing happening today in public protests, where civil discourse among those with whom one's views are not in accord, is becoming rare.  What one mostly hears are shouts and slurs, or sneers and ridicule. Nobody's listening anymore, only screaming and waving fists.   I feel Yeats in the air:

    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

Then and Now:

Well,  there were certainly not 5,000 standing there in the cold yesterday trying to get the  powers- that-be (or anyone else) to listen.  Looks like a mere handful, mostly Tibetans in exile. 

[Note:  This is the second time I've tried embedding this particular video, which has appeared under several different titles).  The first one was taken down from You-Tube and removed.]

 The Summit Today

I watched with great interest today's news conference between President Obama and President Hu Jintao, to see what each would say when the question of human rights came up.  I'd hoped for something a little more specific than Obama's rather tepid "Countries prosper when they respect human rights" [3] response given earlier this week.  It's a funny thing about words, and language, and the diffferent ways they can be interpreted.  Here's a summary of what they said, and what the words said to me:

"Freedom of rights transcends cultures and political systems" . . .  "We can agree to disagree." . . . "China is 'evolving' ... "We'll continue to talk."

Hu Jintao:
"China is always committed to the protection of human rights"  . . . We recognize the universality of human rights, but we must take into account certain circumstances when it comes to human rights."  . . . "China is in a crucial stage of reform, a lot still remains to be done.  We will, however, continue to improve rights in China.". [Notice he makes no mention of the Autonomous Region of Tibet, over which China has complete control.]  "China is willing to engage in dialogue" . . . (and he hastens to remind Obama of "the principle of non-interference in each other's ways.")

So what I heard Obama say was:
China is not yet "evolved" enough to realize that human rights transcend cultures and political systems.
We both know we don't agree on this [the human rights issue].
But we're great business partners and we care about the relationship.
We'll keep talking.

And what I heard Hu Jintao say was:
While we recognize that everybody else thinks human rights are important, you have to understand, we are not really bound by that rule.  Our circumstances are different.  We're trying to become a bigger super power right now, lots of crucial changes in the works, some 'reforms'.  Improvement takes time. But we're always willing to talk.  However, we don't want you lecturing us how to govern our country (though we may sometimes find it necessary to instruct you how to run yours).   [I'm basing that on the intense pressure exerted in the past re: what the U.S,. should or should not do vis-a-vis inviting the Dalai Lama for a visit or honoring Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.]

Remember, too, that the U.S. is in hock up to its eyeballs from huge loans from China.  The interest alone is staggering.  No time to shake the applecart and seem ungrateful.  So, besides discussion of strategic alliances with security in mind, deals were struck to bring 200,000 possible new jobs for U.S. workers and $45 billion in trade deals on exports and it's back to business with Business. 

I wonder if in 14 years from now, the leaders of these two, or any other two countries will still be having press conferences reiterating that "Countries prosper when they respect human rights", again agreeing to disagree on actually ever taking concrete action.  ("We'll talk again next year, have another summit.")   Same words, different players, different decade. 

Like the Chinese bystander in the first video, I, too, have never been to Tibet, and like the young woman telling me about the eyeballs, I, too, have heard stories about Tibet.  Our respective stories, however, don't match.  Mine are based on eyewitness accounts, conversations with former Tibetan prisoners of conscience, reports from emigres forced to flee--all of whom were actually there, plus a good deal of fact-checking on the side.   That's neither here nor there, though.  Everybody has his own opinion about a thing, and acts according to it, regardless of the facts.

Or doesn't.  It's the Doesn't part that haunts me sometimes.  I mean, if you have conviction about a thing, you should stand up for it, right? A kind of 'Put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is' response.  Not pretend like just because it doesn't affect you personally, you needn't get involved.  Except, it kind of does, affect you, as fellow planet dweller, if nothing else.  Faraway horrors:   Now them, maybe at some future point, you.  You never know.  "Peace and justice", lofty sounding words, they've become easy labels, often used as an adjective, as in "those peace and justice people", suggesting the speaker sits on the opposite side of the "we/they" fence. 

Sometimes all you can do about a grave injustice, is try to draw attention to it, show it's still going on, all that horrible crap where you get beaten up and tortured and killed just because somebody--can.  And if you can't be there to add your voice to all the other voices speaking out, you make do with what's at hand:  your pen or your computer keyboard.  Ergo, this posting today. 

So to sum up, at today's big summit between the U.S. and China, on the question about human rights, this particular earthperson (yours truly) heard:

(1) Everybody agrees it's a good thing, human rights;

(2) Some societies haven't evolved sufficiently to actually practice what they preach (or having so evolved, don't always find it expedient to support it unconditionally, in every situation--depends on the 'circumstances'); and

(3) We will be talking about this again and again and again, 'til the cows come home.  But it's good we're talking.

and so it goes ...

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