North Korea is more accessible to foreign journalists than Tibet is

December 17, 2013

Two Tibetan women look out over the snow in Guoluo Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in China. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

The Tibetan Autonomous Region of China has been largely closed to the outside world since it was wracked by popular protests in 2008. But the extreme degree of its isolation is hinted at by this very revealing fact: There are more foreign journalists in North Korea than there are in Tibet.

That's according to Tibet scholar Carole McGranahan, who is a professor of the University of Colorado at Boulder and who made the point during a recent lecture at Yale University, video of which is embedded below. McGranahan discussed the rising trend of Tibetan self-immolations – a form of political protest against Chinese rule – and the challenge of understanding Tibet's turmoil.

Beijing's near-total isolation of Tibet, though, makes it awfully difficult for the outside world to see or understand what's happening there. Presumably, that's part of the point; Chinese rule in Tibet can be shockingly severe, as can the ongoing efforts to assimilate Tibetan people and culture into the rest of China.

Starting at about 15:00 into the video, McGranahan discusses one of the major challenges facing an anthropologist like herself who wants to study Tibet: simply getting information. She can't go herself unless she sneaks in, which is risky; she can't "call up friends in Tibet" without "putting them at risk," she says; Tibetans living in exile face the same problem. And she can't read journalistic reports because, with the exception of the "very brave" Chinese-Tibetan journalist Woeser, they are almost never allowed to go.

The comparison to North Korea is not an invalid one. The Chinese government, by and large, has not been anywhere near as severe or restrictive as North Korea's since leader Mao Zedong died in 1977. The two countries are just on very different paths, and being a journalist in most of China is much freer than being a journalist in North Korea. But within Tibet, some of China's old, totalitarian-tinged habits can still come through. The irony is that, in recent years, North Korea has been opening itself up to foreign journalists – albeit under extremely tight restrictions – as China has closed them off from Tibet.

The Associated Press even has a tiny bureau in Pyongyang; a deal with the devil, some critics charge, but if nothing else it produces an awful lot of very good photos of life in North Korea. There is nothing close to an analogous foreign media presence in Tibet. Sometimes the best we can do is satellite images, taken from thousands of miles away in space.

"There have been a handful, a very small handful, of journalists who've managed to get in and do some reporting," McGranahan says. "But in general, the line that I like to use is that there are more foreign journalists right now in North Korea than there are in Tibet."

Here's the entire hour-long lecture, well worth watching in full:

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Terri Rupar · December 17, 2013