On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Like a bull in a china shop

IT’S a terrible loss of face. For the Chinese government that is preparing for the biggest celebration of the New China, it must surely have felt the protests as an affront to the country.

The protests against China have certainly hurt the mainlanders but it would not be wrong to suggest that Chinese all over the world suspect that the demonstrations are planned to humiliate China.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said whatever the intentions of the demonstrations, the people of China believed that the protesters wanted to inflict the maximum humiliation on China and the Chinese people more than the Chinese government.

He warned yesterday that the recent protests along the Olympic torch relay had angered the Chinese people and would create “consequences” beyond the Games themselves.

Lee said it was a pity that the West could not understand the postings on the Internet from young Chinese, that “these displays of contempt for China and things Chinese” would have its impact well beyond the Games in August.

It doesn’t help that most countries depend on Western news agencies and news network for their coverage of the torch relay, and the sentiment is that the coverage is seemingly anti-China. The interviews have always been with pro-Tibetan protesters and hardly, if any, with pro-China protesters. Likewise the visuals on international news network, especially the CNN and the pro-right Fox News.

It doesn’t help that China seems unable to come up with a sophisticated public relations exercise, relying mostly on its Foreign Ministry spokesperson who has failed to project a refined and mature side of China.

Speaking entirely in Chinese at press briefings, surely Chinese leaders should realise that the rest of the world also want to hear directly from them, not via the translation of the newscaster.

China has its own CCTV station and those who had followed the protests in Tibet would have caught footages of riots, including attacks by Tibetans on Chinese, which have somehow been omitted by the Western media.

And it doesn’t help that the coverage by China on the Dalai Lama has been biased, emphasising too much on physical development without tackling the issues of the disappearing Tibetan culture, with allegations of a cultural genocide.

Neither has China helped its cause when its people resort to racial tones with criticisms that Tibetans are unproductive, aggressive and unappreciative of what China has done for them or high-handed talk of “crushing the rioters”.

One Australian journalist, Michael Backman, writing in The Age, said he received threats for “providing viewpoints that run counter to prevailing wisdom”.

He had highlighted some aspects of the Dalai Lama that most media reports ignore: the fact that in running his government in exile, he has been extraordinarily nepotistic by appointing many relatives to senior positions. He went a step further, accusing the Dalai Lama of being on the CIA payroll.

The murders of Chinese by Tibetans, he argued, were racially based attacks, comparing it to the 1998 riots in Jakarta. He said in Lhasa recently, four Chinese girls were burned alive when a clothing store in which they worked was set alight by Tibetan protesters.

The article, written in conjunction with his visit to Australia last year, was to counterbalance “the huge uncritical media coverage given to the Dalai Lama” at that time, which Backman said “has been excessively favourable and uncritical”.

In an article which the Western media missed – the real Tibet story on April 9 – Backman wrote that “China genuinely believes that Tibet has long been a part of China. The Tibetans genuinely believe the opposite.”

He argued that many rich Western travellers would prefer Tibet to stay stuck in the Middle Ages for their own personal enjoyment, “much in the same way economic sanctions have preserved Burma as the world’s largest living museum”.

He commented that “the vested interests that surround the Tibet issue are many and make it a great deal more complicated than simple slogans such as ‘Free Tibet’ suggests”.

It is not incredulous that Backman has been threatened. The mood, especially in Western countries, is against China and it has been never been easy to go against the flow of public sentiment. It is normal for people to hear what they want to hear and Backman, as a Western journalist, does so at the risk of being unpopular.

But the fact is that China has opened up to the world in recent years. By all purposes, it has embraced the capitalistic system.

For most Asians, the mainlanders have become overly materialistic and the manner some of the rich Chinese flout their wealth has irked many Asians.

With the explosive expansion of the middle class, it would only be a matter of time before the young demand democracy. Communism has to end in China eventually but certainly not the Russian way, as the West would want, which has disintegrated the Soviet Union.

China also cannot run away from the Tibet issue and, at some point, it should offer Tibet autonomy status, at least, as it has done for the predominantly Muslim province of Xinjiang.

As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. In the case of China, the opening ceremony on Aug 8, 2008, at 8 minutes, 8 seconds to 8pm, does not seem too prosperous now.