March Comes in Like a Snowlion

By now, most of you are probably aware of the problems that Tibet and China are currently facing. March 10 was the anniversary of a 1959 Tibetan uprising against the Chinese occupation; a protest was launched in Lhasa, beginning with monks and spreading to the Tibetan population at large, once the people witnessed the religious men being beaten by police. Since then, the violence has escalated on both sides: crowds have demonstrated their anger and frustration by targeting Han Chinese-run businesses, and police have resolved to “crush” the rebellion through military force. Martial law is in effect throughout the Tibetan “Autonomous Region,” the tiny village that was the birthplace of the Dalai Lama-in-exile has been cordoned off by Chinese troops, and strict curfews have been placed on all residents in Lhasa and the surrounding areas. Tourism in the region has been suspended, and the Central Committee in Beijing continues to call for immediate repression of the demonstrations by force. Protests have spread to neighboring provinces, including Gansu to the north, and our own province of Sichuan, which forms a large part of Tibet’s eastern border. The Chinese government has been denying claims of human rights abuses, all the while referring to the Dalai Lama as a “wolf,” a “monster,” and a “terrorist” who refuses to negotiate and insists on Tibet’s complete and total secession from the Chinese state. Meanwhile, from Dharmsala, India, the Dalai Lama has been begging for an end to violence and insisting that he is not asking for secession, merely greater autonomy for the Tibetan people in order to preserve their cultural and religious heritage. He has gone so far as to suggest that he will step down from his position if the violence does not cease, although it is unclear how much bargaining power this will hold with Tibetans themselves, who are now reacting to recent injustices as well as their history of colonization by the Han Chinese. Discussions continue worldwide; with the upcoming 2008 Olympics being held in Beijing. and the emergent identity of China as a potential new economic superpower, the international community is watching closely to see how the Chinese government handles the crisis. The European Union, along with many other political entities, including the United States, is urging China to act with restraint and to allow demonstrations as a gesture of good faith toward a process of democratization. There have even been suggestions of an Olympic boycott if human rights abuses continue. China counters by stating that it has the support of the international community behind it, citing such allies as Sudan and North Korea in full support of its “disciplinary actions.”

What this means for us is this: intense, heavily-armed police presence; increased internet restriction and surveillance; and wild rumors flying around everywhere, with no trustworthy foundational news source. We are not in danger, no matter how crazy the papers may make it look over here. Sichuan is a big province, and the most densely populous. A lot can go on without any of it touching or impacting us directly. We are grateful for your concern, but really, at this point, as long as you’re not Tibetan, Chengdu is a fine place to be.

A fine place, I suppose, if you’re not easily rattled by young men in oversized riot gear holding machine guns. There are paramilitary troops stationed at nearly every large intersection in town, now; at night, cops cars park in the middle of the street, blue and red lights blaring, and force traffic to weave slowly around them. Our university has a substantial Tibetan population within the student body, and many of them are united in a particularly strong ethnic student union, one that states as its goals the maintenance of a social and cultural community, the value and use of the Tibetan language, and the education of its members (and others) in their people’s history as an oppressed minority group. There are paddy wagons and police vans parked all over campus, and cops in riot gear lounge on steps and outside of the dining halls, smoking cigarettes and looking bored; it is unclear whether they are genuinely anticipating demonstrations on campus, or whether the high-visibility police presence is designed simply to scare the shit out of potential protestors, functioning city-wide as a deterrent more than anything else. We spent a sunny afternoon chatting with one of the organizers of the Tibetan student union last fall; he was eloquent, charismatic, knowledgeable, and angry. We wonder where and how he is these days.

The most frustrating (and creepy) aspect to the new aggressive lockdown has been the stemming of the flow of information from the weakened trickle it was into a dried-up desert of Party lines and whiteouts. An increased effort has gone into what the Central Committee chillingly refers to as “harmonizing,” or restricting and censoring the Internet so that it contains no information that could be considered not “harmonious” with the principles and intentions of the Party. It seems like an impossible task from the outside, with the millions upon millions of pages and bits and bytes of data flung back and forth across and through cyberspace every second. But, as Paul Theroux says, if you have enough people, it’s no problem to dig up an entire continent and plant cabbages. Tens of thousands of people are employed by the Chinese government to monitor the Internet; on top of that, China also boasts the most sophisticated communications surveillance technology on the planet (most of which was designed in the United States). What this means is, what they don’t want you to read, you don’t read.

It started with the New York Times. We are both dedicated NYT readers, and their online format makes it easy to stay abreast of many things going on in the world, despite my issues with much of their journalistic style and decision-making. Things like BBC news, the Guardian UK, and some of NPR have been censored for as long as we’ve been here. Like our blogs, we can only hear about them secondhand – links will never reach them. Once the demonstrations started in Tibet, we started noticing a change in the links on the NYTimes site. Some would get stalled out when loading; others would simply turn up white pages or fail to follow the link at all. The government made no secret of this – they have their own version of the Tibet story, which has been trumpeted from every China Daily source since March 15, when the conflict became too big to ignore, and the English-language versions either parrot this, or avoid the topic completely. I sent out a request to my friends in the online community: please paste articles into a Word .doc and send them my way, I asked – or at least copy and paste the text into an email, so I can read about what’s happening in my backyard. And then something even weirder began happening. Emails (not websites, emails) containing pieces of stories about Tibet or China started coming up blank. I mean, my regular email window, with a message, only the entire text of the message is white. Once a whiteout happens, it is impossible to return to the inbox; an error message will come up saying that “the server is busy,” or in some instances, “You are not connected to the Internet.” Those emails get tagged with a bug that crashes our server and sends us offline; we are unable to read emails about Tibet, now, either.

The last strange thing has been the rumors. An obvious consequence of the repression of information is fear; when people are not allowed to know what is happening, they are left to their own imaginations, which are often far more terrifying and brutal than the reality of the situation – just ask any horror filmmaker. Why was Alien so terrifying? Because we couldn’t see the damn thing. So, rumors have begun to fly, the most serious of which was last week, when a story was released about a bus being bombed here in Chengdu, leaving two people dead. The story was quickly retracted, and revised to “not a bomb, a crazy guy with a knife” who “stabbed” a bus. Two people were “injured,” not killed. Now, I have no way of knowing whether a bus exploded or a disgruntled public transportation user went postal on the 73 line. What I do know is that, due to this lack of information, Chengdu is now being seen as a hotbed of potentially threatening situations by the outside world, including the rest of China. Paul and I went to a lecture on legendary Chinese anarchist, political thinker, and novelist Ba Jin last week at a local restaurant and book exchange. After waiting around for an hour or so, we were regretfully informed that, due to recent events, the speaker had decided not “to risk” coming to Chengdu from Beijing, and that there would be a poetry slam, instead. This was after a charming bike ride through newly blossomed fruit trees along the promenades, and the smiles and spits and usual chaos of the downtown streets. If we were left to our senses alone, there would be nothing going on besides the arrival of spring, the softening of the weather, the greening of the scrawny saplings near the river.

People are reacting more to the fear of not-knowing, to the possibilities of pain and change, than they are to the real events, real oppression. Police in the streets are fine; stories of threat are paralyzing. I tried to bring it up with one of my classes, innocently, with curiosity. Teach me. “What can you tell me about what’s going on in Tibet?” I asked. Never mention the three T’s, I’d been told. Tian an’men, Taiwan, Tibet. There was silence. Their faces darkened; I was no longer their hero. They didn’t want to speak at all after that.

So, this is how it stands. We are fine, we are safe. The world, as usual, is collapsing, exploding, devouring itself, and shitting where it eats, all around us. But here in Chengdu, we are not yet directly involved in the protests; as far as we know, no direct actions have been made manifest, no anger congealed into movement. It is an instructive thing, to have information and expression forcefully silenced around you. I am not afraid; rather, I feel a kind of tired numbness, a patience; like we must listen and learn as much as we can while we are here, and save this knowledge for later fights. This is not exactly my struggle, although it is related to ones that I identify with; justice and peace are, still, justice and peace, regardless of for whom. Freedom is freedom is freedom. So, we are little mice, noticing the blossoms, using IP masks to read disallowed news sites, and quietly flying Tibetan prayer flags from our windows. We are safe, but right now, many are not.

“To many Tibetan Buddhists, the snow lion is a symbol of fearless joy, which is a cornerstone of their spiritual practice.” (Breszny, 2007).


~ by knifemaker on March 24, 2008.

4 Responses to “March Comes in Like a Snowlion”

  1. thoughts of love coming your way.
    keep safe.
    see you soon.
    hugs to you both.
    mr. & mrs. patterelli

  2. Come home soon.

  3. I sincerely appreciate how unfortunate it is to have to live with such unnecessary tension. Of course, I admire your courage and positive outlook! Can’t wait to give
    you and Paul big hugs!!!!

  4. […] want to lose the link. Chengu Letters is one of these long stored bookmarks, and this post March Comes in Like a Snowlion is interesting in light of Tibet and China. mentioning ‘Tibet’ as a text string, of […]

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