China steps up its overseas publicity efforts to mitigate negative reports on Tibet

By Huang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2014-12-28 20:53:01

As the mainstream foreign opinion regarding Tibet has been largely negative, China has strived to reverse this trend and win over supporters. Over the last few years it has sent Tibetan legislators, experts and cultural representatives abroad to share their views about their home, in addition to making documentary films and staging cultural activities.

A woman worshipping at the Jokhang Temple in central Lhasa. Photo: IC

On December 7, a delegation from the Tibet Autonomous Region, including two deputies to China's National People's Congress (NPC), wrapped up an eight-day visit to North America. Their mission was part of Chinese efforts to share a different point of view about the situation in Tibet from the one that is usually heard abroad and to develop Tibet-related public relations.

It was the ninth overseas trip by Tibetan legislators since 2009, the first of which came one year after the deadly March 14 riot in Lhasa which claimed 19 lives and injured hundreds of civilians and police officers.

The delegation met with lawmakers, politicians, scholars and experts and talked with overseas Tibetans during the trip - which stopped at five cities in Canada and the US - and exchanged their views about Tibet.

A lot of criticism of China's Tibet policies has come from the parliaments and congresses of Western countries.

Currently, more than 20 parliaments in Western countries have established "Tibet question groups" to assist "Tibet independence" forces to enlarge their international influence, according to Tenzin Lhundrup, deputy secretary general of the Tibetan government and a member of the delegation that recently returned from the North America trip.

"These parliaments are the key targets of, as well as barriers to, our communication efforts," Tenzin told the Global Times.

Go out and tell the world

In March 2009, right after the annual legislative meeting came to a close, five NPC deputies from Tibet began an official visit to North America. Since then it has become regular occurrence that Tibetan legislators would go abroad each year, talking with officials, scholars and overseas Tibetans; they now make two trips a year and visit two countries on each trip.

At this point nine trips have been made, including five to Canada and the US, and another four to New Zealand, Australia, Belgium, Italy, the European Parliament, France, Spain, Poland and Latvia.

Wang Pijun, former deputy director of the Tibet Bureau of the State Council Information Office (SCIO) of China, said that the majority of the American people have little knowledge about Tibet.

Tibet has long been described by the Western media as a region ruled over by the Chinese, who profit from its resources but damage its culture and environment.

"What we need to do now is go out and tell the world about Tibet, so as to increase understanding and dismiss confusion," Wang, now the director of the information center of the United Front Work Department of the CPC Central Committee, told China Central Television in 2009.

According to Tenzin, the NPC delegations were invited to Canada and the US for their most recent trip by Senator Victor Oh and Member of Parliament Wai Young, who are the co-chairs of the Canada-China Legislative Association, and Rick Larsen, co-chairman of the US-China Working Group of the US House of Representatives.

During the trip, Lobsang Gyaltsen, the chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region who led the delegation, emphasized Tibet's economic development and the government's environmental and cultural protection policies.

"Tibet is the 'water tower' of China and Asia. The regional government will never sacrifice the ecological environment to obtain economic development," Lobsang said, adding that one third of Tibet's land has been designated as conservation zones.

Together with Lobsang on the trip was Phuntsok, an NPC deputy and director of the standing committee of Ngari (Ali) Prefectural People's Congress, and Zhang Yanqing, mayor of Lhasa and deputy to the People's Congress of Tibet Autonomous Region.

As natives of Tibet, they are not only participants in Tibet's social development but also the beneficiaries, Tenzin said.

'Reports about Tibet are all negative'

These public relations campaigns are important to expand the viewpoints about Tibet heard in the West, nevertheless, the effect of the campaign is limited, according to observers.

As Chinese legislators were finishing their recent trip, the Dalai Lama set off from India's Dharamsala to the Italian capital to attend the World Summit of Nobel Peace laureates, which received much more international media coverage than the legislators' trip.

"I haven't seen any reports in the Canadian media about the delegation's recent visit to Canada," Han Jiangxue (pseudonym), a Chinese reporter who has lived in Canada for more than four years, told the Global Times.

As on previous visits, the people whom the delegates met with were either politicians of Chinese origin or people who are friendly toward China, Han said.

He said that the campaign has failed to make any changes, "From the government to the media, reports about Tibet are all negative."

Two years ago, Canada became the second country, following the US, to establish an Office of International Religious Freedom. The offices claim to promote and protect freedom of religion. "But one of their aims is to interfere in the affairs of Tibet and Xinjiang," Han said, noting that the Canadian office's ambassador Andrew Bennett made a special trip to Washington DC to meet with the Dalai Lama early this year.

Robert Barnett, director of Modern Tibetan Studies at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute (WEAI), Columbia University, told the Global Times in an e-mail that the statements of many official delegates are not always believed, which has led to the effectiveness of these exchanges being limited.

Guo Kefan, a researcher at the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences, agreed, suggesting more non-governmental efforts be involved in overseas publicity campaigns.

"Even if they are telling the truth, some audience members wouldn't think that they are. I'm convinced that we should explore a variety of exchange activities, both governmental and non-governmental," Guo told the Global Times.

The government has also noticed the problem. "Though we have achieved some progress on Tibet-related diplomacy as our national power grows and our promotional methods are improved, the opinion-shaping ability of the Western media is still stronger than ours," Tenzin said.

More convincing alternatives

The government has organized other kinds of campaigns. The annual Tibetan Culture Week, jointly organized by the SCIO, the government of Tibet and local Chinese embassies, has been held in more than 12 countries and regions since 2001.

During the culture week, China sends various representatives of Tibetan culture, including Tibetan artists, Tibetologists, Tibetan medicine practitioners, intangible cultural heritage inheritors and religious figures, to talk with their counterparts in colleges, museums and temples and with local residents.

The culture week held in the Canadian cities of Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto in November also put on photo and traditional painting exhibitions, singing and dancing performances and film screenings.

In addition, the Chinese government has made documentaries about the region to showcase its point of view. Tibet and its vicinity: life and time, a five-part documentary and a 90-minute movie presented by the SCIO, is set to be released soon. The documentary tells the stories of Tibetans living in harmony with animals and nature.

Meanwhile, Tibetologists have been sent on government-organized trips abroad every year since 2001. Such trips have been made to over 25 countries all over the world, including the US, Thailand, Japan, Australia, South Africa, Germany, Brazil and Sweden.

Zhaluo, an expert at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, had led Tibetologists on foreign trips twice, once to the UK, Ireland and Israel in 2013 and once to the US and Canada in 2010.

"We exchanged opinions with a variety of different people: politicians, scholars, reporters, NGO workers, and overseas Tibetans. Our talks were open to anybody, no matter they were friendly or not, as long as they wanted to meet us," Zhaluo told the Global Times.

During the visits, they spoke about the government's achievements and the autonomous system. When asked questions about the government's attitude towards the Dalai Lama and environmental policy, Zhaluo said they answered directly and honestly.

"We are not officials and have few restrictions on our speech. Such non-governmental exchange activities are more convincing," Zhaluo claimed.

In addition, he found that these activities were truly meaningful as many audience members expressed their hopes for further dialogue. "For a long time, the information they received came solely from 'Tibet independence' forces, they desire to hear more from the other side."

He also suggested the officials who go on such exchange trips emancipate their minds and sharpen their speaking skills.

Han Jiangxue asserted that the government should evaluate the necessity of costly foreign trips if they show no effect. "If it's necessary, we should arrange for delegates to make more visits to media outlets and invite more foreign journalists to join them, otherwise, a limited number of reports by a handful of Chinese media outlets hardly stir up attention abroad," Han said.

Guo Kefan advised that the officials be more confident and relax the restrictions placed on overseas tourists that seek to enter Tibet.

Robert Barnett said he welcomes the Tibetans' visits to the US but he hoped that the exchanges could be two-way. "I have not been allowed a visa [to enter China] since 2007. I have never been given any reason for this. I am sure it is the result of a political decision, not because of any security concerns," he said.

Tenzin, however, claimed Tibet has been gradually opening up.

In recent years, Tibet has started to allow more foreigners to visit the region. On September 25 the first China Tibet Tourism and Culture Expo opened in Lhasa, attended by more than 300 guests from home and abroad. A month earlier in August, the city hosted the Fourth Forum on the Development of Tibet, attended by more than 100 domestic and foreign guests.

"Tibet is open. We have been welcoming foreign travelers and journalists to Tibet," Tenzin said, noting that Tibet received 223,200 overseas visits in 2013. "Due to special geological, environmental and climate conditions, Tibet's accommodation and tourism facilities are insufficient. We still have room to improve."

Newspaper headline: Tours of persuasion

Posted in: In-Depth

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