Detained in Beijing

My friend Brian Conley is in trouble again, grabbed by the Chinese authorities, who didn’t approve of him videotaping protests by pro-Tibet activists. He and his colleague Jeff Rae are apparently being held with a number of other Western citizen journalists who also offended their Chinese hosts by drawing attention to an issue that China would rather not discuss.

China’s sensitivity on the Tibet issue was made clear to me back in 2001, when I was in Guangzhou. The local English language newspaper carried a front page article about the visit of representatives of the Party to Tibet on the occasion of “the anniversary of the peaceful liberation of Tibet.” The same key phrase — “the peaceful liberation of Tibet” — was repeated on the television news, suggesting that this version of events is very much Party orthodoxy. Interestingly, neither the paper or the news specified exactly who Tibet had been (peacefully) liberated from: presumably readers were expected to know or to assume that the Tibetans had been freed from the usual cast of villains — feudal despots, Western imperialists, the CIA etc.

The irony was compounded by the fact that I was staying in an area of Guangzhou that was very much representative of ‘the new China’ — luxury hotels for Chinese guests, ostentatious restaurants and bars, and a dense crop of casinos decorated in the red and gold that appears lurid to Western eyes but signifies wealth and success to Chinese. The whole place was a hymn to state-sanctioned capitalism and the new “It is glorious to be wealthy” philosophy now endorsed by the Party. It could not have existed under Mao. Yet the media were still parroting the same lies from fifty years before.

Many more years will probably pass before China can acknowledge the reality of their “peaceful liberation,” which was neither peaceful nor a liberation. An impartial account of Tibet in the ‘50s probably won’t be too flattering to the US either, who used Tibetan guerillas as strategic pawns — arming and then abandoning them when the political winds changed. A truly impartial account might even acknowledge that our idealized image of Tibet as a kind of Shangri-La populated by serene monks dripping with Buddhist wisdom may also be more a reflection of our own needs than an accurate picture of Tibetan life.

We all have our own stories where Tibet is concerned. China, it appears, is particularly eager to hang onto its. If that means arresting anyone who tries to record a dissenting opinion, so be it.

China has grown more savvy in its handling of dissent over the years, at least where Westerners are concerned. I’m hoping that the Chinese government will recognize that there is nothing to be gained and a great deal to be lost by detaining or maltreating foreign journalists, especially at a time when China has invested a great deal in promoting a positive image to the world. When another friend, Noel Hidalgo, was detained in Beijing recently, the authorities didn’t waste much time before kicking him out. With a little luck, Brian and Jeff and the others who have been detained will also be promptly released.