By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 24, 2008
BEIJING, March 23 -- To many Chinese, it was a brutal, unprovoked attack against innocent civilians by Tibetan hoodlums bent on breaking China apart. To many Westerners, it was an eruption of anger provoked by harsh crackdowns on peaceful protests against authoritarian Chinese rule.
The two starkly different views of the March 14 riot in Lhasa, Tibet's capital, are being reinforced each day. And a dialogue to cool the passions that sparked the demonstrations, which have spread to other Tibetan areas in western China, "seems less and less likely," said Rebecca MacKinnon, a media studies professor at the University of Hong Kong.
"There are two alternate realities that are not connecting," she said.
When the Olympic torch begins its 130-day, 85,000-mile journey on Monday from Greece's Ancient Olympia to Beijing, this clash of views is likely to be exacerbated as international advocacy groups vow to spotlight several high-profile grievances against Chinese policy in protests planned along the relay route. At least 1,000 police officers are expected to ring the 2,600-year-old Temple of Hera to protect the lighting ceremony, but controversy has already marked the run. A Thai torchbearer announced Sunday that she was pulling out to protest China's actions in Tibet.
China analysts say such protests will probably push China to adopt more hard-line positions to salve its national pride. Protests will not "spark more subtle policy debates in China," MacKinnon said. "The regime will go more and more on the offensive."
"Sovereignty and control is more important to them than international image," a Western academic who looks closely at Chinese politics said on condition of anonymity. The Tibet crackdown is a "sign to other opposition groups that this is what happens if you make problems."
Among many Chinese here and overseas, resentment is building over Western media portrayals of the Lhasa unrest. Although China blocks most of the reports, many people access them by getting around the government's online firewalls.
Rao Jin, 24, the founder of a small technology company in Beijing, said he was so angry about what he sees as foreign journalists' prejudice against China that last week he created a Web site, http://www.anti-cnn.com, to document what he calls mistakes and bias in Western media. He said more than 1,000 people have e-mailed, volunteering to spot errors.
"They said that we should hit back," Rao said. "The untrue reports triggered a lot of anger because it is not what really happened in China."
On Sunday, government-controlled media began running videotaped interviews with foreign tourists who witnessed the March 14 riot in Lhasa. The interviews included descriptions of that day's violence but did not discuss the protests led by monks and nuns that began March 10 and were broken up by police. Several monks and nuns were arrested, and police confined thousands of others to their monasteries.
"Thank you, the West, your fair news media had never stop attacking other countries' sovereignty," wrote one Internet user who posted a seven-minute video, in English, challenging the coverage. The video, titled "Tibet was, is and always will be part of China," attracted almost 1.2 million viewings and more than 72,000 comments in three days, according to a blog monitoring site.
Kang Xiaoguang, a sociology professor at Beijing's Renmin University, said, "Many foreigners understand this event in Tibet as an anti-Communist Party or anti-government event. But Chinese people don't think so. Chinese people regard this event as anti-China."
An Internet user identified as Si Si said in a comment posted on a Chinese site, http://tv.huo360.com, "Several innocent girls were burned by those mad people. We drove away people who hurt the innocent; the U.S. calls it a crackdown. When the U.S. invaded other countries, ordinary people were also killed by soldiers. Isn't this a double standard?"
As international advocacy groups step up their protests against Chinese policies, the government might soon find itself fighting over its image on several fronts.
"I have been telling my students for years that as China becomes a world power, there is going to be a lot more scrutiny and criticism," said Michael Pettis, a professor at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management. "Just as Americans have learned to deal with it, the Chinese are going to have to learn to deal with it. My hope is that after the anger there will be some reflection on the complexity of these issues."
Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.