Can China make real changes in media policies for Tibet?

By Madeline Earp/Asia Research Associate on March 12, 2009 3:59 PM ET

Has the Chinese government learned a public relations lesson from its handling of the unrest in Tibet last year? 

James Fallows noted in The Atlantic that CNN and BBC reports revisiting the often-violent relations between Tibetans and Han Chinese were being broadcast unfiltered on the Chinese mainland. Fallows also linked to an unexpectedly subtle repudiation of the Dalai Lama printed in the China Daily. The state mouthpiece displays a firm grasp of public relations in its article. Indeed, publicity is the core of its argument.

"You are no ordinary publicist. ... That is why your apparent innocence and sensational stories of Tibet's past and present have sold so well--to some audiences," the paper writes, addressing the Dalai Lama. "May we suggest that Your Holiness use a little more evidence when dealing with the press? Your Holiness must know the media are thirsty for sensation. So please do not be shy to be more specific next time around."

Wait a minute. "More evidence" when dealing with the press? That's our line!  

There are also signs that the more neutral term "Dalai group" is being used at least occasionally in place of the absurd-sounding "Dalai clique" as the English translation of choice for the phrase dalai jituan, which describes His Holiness and supporters in official Chinese government discourse. A Google search finds 1,600 references to "Dalai group," almost all of which have appeared since March 2008.

But do changes in media tactics signal a genuine change in media policy? Not so far. Tensions mounted in the weeks prior to Tuesday's anniversary of the failed antigovernment uprising that sparked rioting this time last year.

International reporters--who are legally allowed to interview anyone who consents in China--are still not allowed into the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Police obstructed Agence France-Presse reporters for two consecutive days this week in Tibetan parts of northwestern Qinghai province; The Associated Press was ordered out of a city in a predominantly Tibetan area on Monday.

Several correspondents have blogged about their experiences. The BBC's James Reynolds cut short a visit to the Tibetan plateau after being tipped off that police were on their way, according to his Wednesday post. The same day Malcolm Moore, a Shanghai-based reporter for the British Daily Telegraph, published a Foreign Correspondent's Club of China (FCCC) statement. Journalists with at least six international news organizations have been detained or harassed while reporting on Tibet, according to the FCCC. Public Security Bureau officials detained New York Times reporters Edward Wong and Jonathan Ansfield in Gansu Province on February 27 for 20 hours, the statement says.

If things are bad for the foreigners, conditions for locals are worse. High Peaks Pure Earth, which publishes English translations of Chinese and Tibetan-language blog posts from the region, has seen nearly all of its sources rendered inaccessible in the space of a week. The blog host Tibetan Culture Net replaced its usual content with a notice announcing a one-day maintenance closure on March 5, but a week later the site remains inactive. Another site now shuttered had hosted the blog of the Tibetan TV editor and news producer Jamyang Kyi, according to High Peaks.  Jamyang Kyi, who studied news broadcasting as a visiting scholar at New York's Columbia University in 2006, was arrested in April 2008 for reasons that were not publicized. She was never charged, and the date of her eventual release was not reported. She remains under surveillance, according to Tibetan groups.

CPJ's 2008 prison census records two other Tibetan journalists missing since their arrests last year. The whereabouts of another Tibetan TV journalist arrested in September, Rangjung (many Tibetans use one name), are still unknown. Dhondup Wangchen, a filmmaker, shot a moving documentary exploring life under Tibetan rule in the run-up to the Olympics. While friends in China delivered his footage to an overseas-based film company, Filming for Tibet, the director and his assistant disappeared and were later seen in police custody, according to the film company and Tibetan advocacy groups. The assistant was later released, but not so for Dhondup Wangchen.

The arrests took place just days before last year's rioting erupted, in the kind of high-security environment that is again dominating the region. In this clip from the film, Dhondup Wangchen holds a Chinese newspaper dated March 10, 2008, to the camera. An Olympic athlete waving the Chinese flag is visible in the corner.  

"We are close to finishing our project," he narrates in Tibetan. "Our footage is ready, either tomorrow or the day after, to be taken to China. My aim ... is not to make a famous or a particularly entertaining film. This film is about the plight of the Tibetan people, helpless and frustrated." That final image of the filmmaker earnestly addressing the camera is the last we have seen of him. One year later, his wife and children in Dharamsala, India, have yet to be informed of his location or whether he has been charged.

Releasing a journalist imprisoned for publicizing events in Tibet--that would be a genuine and meaningful public relations move. It's a step Chinese authorities should consider.  


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