A Chinese Press Conference on Tibet

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The 13th National Congress of the Communist party of China opened in Beijing on 25 October 1987. During the period of time the congress was in session, televised press conferences were held, attended by both foreign and domestic correspondents. On the night of October 31, the subject of the press conference was the situation in Tibet. As an eyewitness to the demonstration in Lhasa on October 1 and as an observer of the quality of life there, I was impressed by the numerous discrepancies between the official Chinese accounts of the October 1 events and my own.

The media served as a very effective propaganda tool on the issues surrounding the Tibetan demonstrations. The media did not deviate from the official stories released soon after the events, a process made simpler by the fact that all major newspapers and television and radio broadcasts are supervised by representatives of the Chinese government. The chances are slim that the majority of the Chinese population will ever be exposed to any stories other than those officially released. Fueled by what the international press had exposed about the demonstrations, the October 31 press conference could have provided a stimulating opportunity for correspondents' pertinent questions to be answered candidly; however, in this case, it merely furnished an assemblage for officials to reiterate their story.

Two officials answered the questions examined below: the chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Regional Party Committee and the mayor of Lhasa. The questions were short and substantive. The answers were repetitive and evasive, full of obscure facts and figures.

The first set of questions on the October 1 demonstration was, ""How many participated? It occurred suddenly, so what instigated it?"" The chairman began his answer with the assertion that there were two incidents, the first on September 27 and the second on October 1, disregarding the incident of October 6. After close to 60 reporters flew to Lhasa to assess whether the situation was peaceful, it was embarrassment resulting from the October 6 incident that induced the Chinese to revoke their decision and expel those same foreign correspondents from Lhasa on October 8. After the October incident, guards were stationed quite visibly all over the city. We were told to avoid the Barkhor area on October 7, the anniversary of the day the Chinese People's Liberation Army first invaded Tibet in 1950, for fear that violence would erupt again .

In answering the question on the number of participants, the chairman cited the number of people directly involved in both incidents as less than 100. He followed this with an analogy: ""There were bystanders, but very few of them participated. For instance, when a traffic accident happens, there are many bystanders, but that doesn't mean all are victims.""

Far more than 100 participated in the October 1 incident alone. Some participated by throwing rocks, some by breaking up the sidewalk, some by adding fuel to the fires, some by raising their fists and shouting and even one by running into the flames. The Chinese versions of the story plays down the numbers in an effort to lesson the importance and scope of the event.

The chairman's answer to the question ""What instigated it?"", which was repeated many times in this press conference, reveals a key element in the official version of the story. ""It was the result of activities by a small number of separatists under the instigation of the Dalai Lama clique."" He followed this claim by two assertions: ""In 1985 he (the Dalai Lama) sent people to cause bad blood. In 1986 he sent people to engage in assassination."" This last statement in particular echoes a myth that the Chinese have somewhat successfully inculcated through their extensive propaganda concerning China's historic right to claim Tibet. This myth states that the Dalai Lama and his followers were, at the time they ruled Tibet, not just feudal overlords, but cold-hearted murderers as well.

""Tibet today is at its best as far as political, economic and cultural consideration are concerned,"" the chairman stated next. To prove this point he mentioned three special policies of the party and state that had allowed Tibet to make such fine achievements:

From 1952 to 1986 the central government provided financial subsidy to Tibet of more than 10 billion RMB [renminbi]. From 1952 to the present, the total amount of investment in basic construction of Tibet equals 3.4 billion, 30 million RMB [sic]. In 1985 43 projects were constructed in Tibet with the support of the central government. In 1985 the total value of agricultural production and animal husbandry equaled 900,000,900 RMB. This fully proves that the present situation in Tibet is very good.

Logic such as this is not uncommon among Chinese officialdom. One must ask, however, for whom is the situation good, the native Tibetans or the Han Chinese? The chairman mentioned large amounts of money spent within the geographical boundaries of the Tibet Autonomous Region, as if such facts and figures were self-explanatory. Much of the basic construction that he cited amounted to new office space and living quarters for the Han Chinese who had been moved to Tibet. Of the large-scale building projects in very recent years, at least four are tourist hotels, places from which most Tibetans are forbidden. Chinese housing, for the most part, is functional and clean, equipped with modern facilities. Much of the Tibetan housing, on the other hand, is constructed of mud and straw and often lacks basic amenities.

Money may have poured into Tibet, and agricultural production may have been good, but journalists are given no earlier figures with which to compare. This is the best it has ever been. From all reports, the Chinese who have been sent into Tibet are the residents who most consistently benefit from the Chinese government's generosity.

The next question, posed by a reporter from the People's Daily, was: ""The Chairman alleged that the occurrences in Tibet had to do with the Dalai Lama. What is his attitude today and has it changed? What will be the policy toward Tibet now?"" The chairman's answer began:

Ever since the Dalai Lama left, the clique has been advocating independence in foreign countries. Within the period after the third plenary of the 11th committee, the Dalai Lama indicated his readiness to relinquish this position so long as the livelihood of the Tibetan people has improved. The recent developments have proved that this is totally false and deceptive. The facts show he has become more rampant. If he is concerned for their livelihood, he should be able to see that great changes have been made. I will refrain from making comparisons between Tibet under the Dalai Lama and what it is now.

The chairman's mention of the third plenary of the 11th committee refers to a landmark session in December 1978 when the committee admitted to the mistakes of some of the party's theories, policies and guiding principles that had been in effect during the Cultural Revolution. Subsequently, in the spring of 1979, the Dalai Lama requested that a fact-finding the situation there. The members of that first fact-finding tour found conditions in Tibet to be appalling. Rather than admitting, as the Chinese had hoped, that the changes promoted by the Chinese government were beneficial to the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama continued his international plea for support, fueled by firm evidence from his aides. As long as this situation continues the Dalai Lama's report directly contradicts the Chinese government's official release about conditions there. The result is that the Chinese accuse the Dalai Lama of breaking his promise and of deception.

Referring to the Dalai Lama's visit to Capitol Hill in September, and the resultant letter from the US to Zhao Ziyang, the chairman stated, ""In the United States, the Dalai Lama and some senators staged a farce of interfering with the internal affairs of China. We dearly welcome the Dalai Lama to come back. With regard to our policy, state leaders have made it clear.""

The chairman's next point was calculated to impress. ""Before 1959 the slaves lived like and horses. Do you think the Tibetan people are ready to lead that kind of life again?"" According to the Chinese history books, most of the population of Tibet before 1959 fit into the category of slaves. Nevertheless, now that they have been ""liberated,"" the majority of Tibetans still inhabit mud shelters which they share with animals. Quite a few Tibetan beggars, both adults and children, were in evidence not only in Lhasa, but also in small towns like Sakya. All were dirty, poor and hungry. The Chinese in Tibet do not live this way. Not once did I see a Chinese person in such dire circumstances.

The chairman ended his monologue in a more threatening tone:

There is a small number of people in foreign countries interfering in matters concerning Tibet which are the internal affairs of China. If the Dalai Lama continues activities of splitting the motherland, the Tibetan people will never allow that. Tibet is open to the outside world. We welcome friends to go. We also welcome the Dalai Lama to go, even for a short visit. We also welcome foreigners. However, if anybody takes advantage of our hospitality by undermining the unity of the motherland, that will never do.

The chairman's mentioning that the Tibetan people would never allow the Dalai Lama to continue his separatist activities must seem especially curious to anyone who has been to Tibet. The Dalai Lama is revered and adored by the majority of Tibetans. The suggestion that the people would ""not allow"" the Dalai Lama to pursue his policies is beyond comprehension, and this very fact deeply disturbs Chinese officials. They handle the problem by giving the impression, through the media, that the Tibetan people agree with the Chinese government and would resent any signs that the Dalai Lama were trying to subvert what they call the ""unity of the motherland.""

The chairman emphasized that Tibet is open and that the Chinese welcomes visits from foreigners. This statement must have been particularly amusing to an audience of foreign correspondents who had been expelled from Tibet as recently as October 8. My own experience also disputes the chairman's claim. I tried to reenter Tibet in late November, less than one month after this statement was broadcast on national T.V. In Chengdu, where I attempted to purchase an airline ticket to Lhasa, I was told that foreigners are not allowed in Tibet ""right now."" I asked when we would be allowed to enter and the airline employee replied, ""Not for a long time."" I then went to Xining in Qinghai Province, formerly the Amdo region of Tibet, where I was able to buy a bus ticket for the four-day rife to Lhasa. The first leg of the journey took us to Golmud, where it was necessary to change buses. Although several of the bus station personnel were impressed by the fact that we had tickets already, and seemed willing to let us go, two of them were uncertain. Finally, one man called the public security bureau to check, and was told to refund our money promptly.

Chinese officials insist that foreigners are welcome; the evidence they give is that scheduled tour groups continue to enter Tibet. These groups have already prepaid for their trips, for which there are binding contracts, and the Chinese officials do not want to lose the lucrative tourist business that increases yearly in Tibet. Furthermore, the China International Travel Service representatives feel they can exercise a certain amount of control over a tour group. A national guide accompanies every group, and, in Tibet, a local guide and one or two bus drives.

The BBC correspondent asked the final question:

If you welcome foreigners to go to Tibet, why at the moment can we not go in? When will we be able to go in? There have been conflicting figures of the number dead. Your spokesmen say six, whereas eye-witnesses say at least 19. Which is the truth? Did the police shoot?

The mayor of Lhasa chose to answer this question. He started by describing the situation:

There were a small number of separatists. There were about 10,000 bystanders. Why was that? There were pilgrims, peddlers and tourists in the square. So it is only natural that those people looked on. Confusion occurred. The police tried to persuade people to leave. The Barkhor is very beautiful and prosperous. There are lots of people there. To maintain normal social public order, the policemen tried to persuade the people to leave. A small number of people rushed into shops and robbed things. Shots were heard, but it had been stipulated by those in command that on one shoot. If the police had been allowed to shoot, not just six would have been killed but lots more.

The mayor's account was the first I had heard about robberies of any kind. Most shops in the immediate vicinity closed very soon after the disruption began the police persuaded people to maintain order by arresting some and interning them in the Public Security Building until it was in flames, at which time they all moved to another building. But for much of the time the police stood off around the edges of the square. Every time a policeman, or no more than one occasion a Chinese person, tried to enter the square, that person was bombarded with stones.

As proof that the police did not shoot, the mayor stated that a command was issued to such effect. This command has apparently absolved the authorities of any responsibility to admit that their policemen shot anyone. The Tibetans, having no other weapons, threw stones at those Chinese police who had already arrested and beaten several monks. There was a great deal of tension on both sides, and it is not hard to believe that of the several hundred policemen on the scene, at least some would react by using what weapons they had available, namely their guns. I distinctly heard gunshots, along with several different other explosive noises, among them the sounds of the exploding tires of the overturned, burning vehicles. Puddles of blood on the ground were quickly covered with paper. These things provide some proof that guns had been fired.

The Chinese officials said that only six were killed because, they claim, the hospital has records of only six bodies. The officials had names, addresses and work units for each of these six victims. According to the mayor, ""We say six based on statistics provided by the hospitals. If people say more than six, I cannot understand that. ""The mayor never did offer an explanation as to how these six were killed.

All around the square that day were injured people too frightened to go to the hospital for treatment. Arriving at the hospital with an injury resulting from the demonstration would immediately implicate a patient. For the same reasons, family members did not want to admit to the death of a loved one for fear of future reprisals directed at other family members.

Some of the confusion over the total number of deaths may stem from the fact that after the first shooting incidents and at least six deaths, a brief period of quiet settled in before a small demonstration erupted again in front of the government office building down the street. More people were killed at this time. The total number of deaths will probably never be known, for more could have died later as a result of injuries received and inadequate medical care.

To wrap up the press conference, the mayor stated, ""Ever since I came to Lhasa, I have realized that there are a number of new agencies abroad that have failed to project an accurate picture. The unrest in Lhasa has been greatly exaggerated. I hope foreign correspondents will truthfully reflect what they see there."" The mayor never addressed the first part of the reporter's question and the press conference was adjourned.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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