Hard News by Russell Brown


Misquote Unquote

I actually laughed out loud when I read the concluding lines of the Star Times' story speculating that National might have been chivvied into bringing forward its tax cut programme:

Key appeared confused when speaking to the Star-Times about what he had already announced on the timing of tax cuts. He disputed he had said 2010 was the earliest tax cuts could take effect. Instead, he told the Star-Times last week: "We said that was the last date, so we obviously have got some flexibility.''

When reminded an August 2007 report in the Dominion Post quoted Key as saying 2010 was the earliest date for tax cuts, he said: She "must have the wrong date''.

For goodness sake. Just say "circumstances change" or something. That's perfectly alright. But please, don’t make a claim to have been misquoted your standard response when it's suggested that you've changed your mind. It's not a very good thing to say to a journalist.

The SST also had the story of Nick Smith's prospective bankruptcy in the face of a huge lawsuit from the timber company Osmose. I've been sued by a corporation -- it was intimidating and I wouldn't envy anyone in that position, especially given that this company seems determined to spend what it takes.

On the other hand, you can read the gist of the matter in this Broadcasting Standards decision on the disastrous Close Up programme at the heart of the case. Smith's conduct in pursuit of a political score seems extraordinary, and it's not the first time he has found himself in such a position. Last month Steven Price noted an angle the SST left out: that its publisher, Fairfax, had, along with TVNZ, chosen to settle in the same action.

I tried through various media to school myself up on the Tibetan issue over the weekend, but I'm no nearer a firm view on what ought to happen. It still rankles when I hear people frame this like it's our game: plucky-little-New-Zealand replaying the 80s: the America's Cup meets the Springbok Tour.

Reader Bob Munro noted CNN's interview with James Miles of the Economist, who had been in Llasa:

What you say you saw corroborates the official version. What exactly did you see?

What I saw was calculated targeted violence against an ethnic group, or I should say two ethnic groups, primarily ethnic Han Chinese living in Lhasa, but also members of the Muslim Hui minority in Lhasa. And the Huis in Lhasa control much of the meat industry in the city. Those two groups were singled out by ethnic Tibetans. They marked those businesses that they knew to be Tibetan owned with white traditional scarves. Those businesses were left intact. Almost every single other across a wide swathe of the city, not only in the old Tibetan quarter, but also beyond it in areas dominated by the ethnic Han Chinese. Almost every other business was either burned, looted, destroyed, smashed into, the property therein hauled out into the streets, piled up, burned. It was an extraordinary outpouring of ethnic violence of a most unpleasant nature to watch, which surprised some Tibetans watching it. So they themselves were taken aback at the extent of what they saw. And it was not just targeted against property either. Of course many ethnic Han Chinese and Huis fled as soon as this broke out. But those who were caught in the early stages of it were themselves targeted. Stones thrown at them. At one point, I saw them throwing stones at a boy of maybe around 10 years old perhaps cycling along the street. I in fact walked out in front of them and said stop. It was a remarkable explosion of simmering ethnic grievances in the city.

Did you see other weapons?

I saw them carrying traditional Tibetan swords, I didn't actually see them getting them out and intimidating people with them. But clearly the purpose of carrying them was to scare people. And speaking later to ethnic Han Chinese, that was one point that they frequently drew attention to. That these people were armed and very intimidating.

Ethnic Tibetans certainly have a grievance. But so, arguably, do native Fijians, and we'd hardly be comfortable with them wreaking ethnically-targeted havoc on Indian businesses in their towns. (Or would the better comparison be with the Israeli-occupied territories? I don't know.)

Miles goes on to surmise that the Chinese security forces, mindful of the Olympics, initially stood off the "unrest", fearing that their intervention would result in bloodshed:

So in effect what they did was sacrifice the livelihoods of many, many ethnic Han Chinese in the city for the sake of letting the rioters vent their anger. And then being able to move in gradually with troops with rifles that they occasionally let off with single shots, apparently warning shots, in order to scare everybody back into their homes and put an end to this.

It clearly hasn't quite worked out that way. But it seems there's a stronger case with respect to China's long-term actions in Tibet than there is to its actions in this particular case.

The other common belief is that Tibet was some earthly paradise before the tanks rolled in in 1959. It was nothing of the kind: it was a feudal theocracy whose elite practiced routine and hideous authoritarian cruelty on its people. Michael Parenti's oft-quoted Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth is instructive:

In 1959, Anna Louise Strong visited an exhibition of torture equipment that had been used by the Tibetan overlords. There were handcuffs of all sizes, including small ones for children, and instruments for cutting off noses and ears, gouging out eyes, breaking off hands, and hamstringing legs. There were hot brands, whips, and special implements for disemboweling. The exhibition presented photographs and testimonies of victims who had been blinded or crippled or suffered amputations for thievery. There was the shepherd whose master owed him a reimbursement in yuan and wheat but refused to pay. So he took one of the master’s cows; for this he had his hands severed. Another herdsman, who opposed having his wife taken from him by his lord, had his hands broken off. There were pictures of Communist activists with noses and upper lips cut off, and a woman who was raped and then had her nose sliced away

Parenti advises:

To welcome the end of the old feudal theocracy in Tibet is not to applaud everything about Chinese rule in that country. This point is seldom understood by today’s Shangri-La believers in the West. The converse is also true: To denounce the Chinese occupation does not mean we have to romanticize the former feudal régime. Tibetans deserve to be perceived as actual people, not perfected spiritualists or innocent political symbols. "To idealize them,” notes Ma Jian, a dissident Chinese traveler to Tibet (now living in Britain), “is to deny them their humanity."

I wonder if what we see there is a cataclysmic failure of imagination on the part of the Chinese leadership. Hu Jintao earned his advancement in the party as the author of a harsh crackdown on the last major uprising, in 1989, when he was the party's chief in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (he apparently hated the place). His earlier, modest moves towards greater cultural freedom don't appear to have won him the same political capital. But forcing state atheism on a people who, within living memory, spent one day in five on religious festivals is effectively the same thing as erasing their cultural identity.

The leadership's ethnic problems aren't confined to the TAR. They extend to the nearby provinces, whose cities are now under lockdown. The response is like something from another century: feeble missives directed at the "Dalai Lama clique"; risible proclamations in the state-owned media of "broad international support" from political pariahs and African client states. There may be a real fear of breakdown and more serious ethnic conflict if Tibet is allowed to get away -- but there doesn't seem to be any sign of imagination in addressing that fear.

Again, I don't know what our response ought to be on the far side of the world, beyond calling for restraint, which is effectively what the West is doing en masse. The denunciation of a "preferential" trade relationship doesn't make much sense given the massive extent to which our economies are already entwined. Nobody's going to be doing without Chinese goods any time soon.

I'm not sure what the impact of an Olympic boycott would be: reading China's human rights record, it's hard to understand how it was awarded the Olympic PR opportunity in the first place -- the long case against a Beijing Olympics seems

stronger to me than one based on this week's headlines. Yet a leadership with less to lose might be more inclined to take retribution on errant provinces. (The Moscow Olympic boycott over Afghanistan certainly didn't moderate the subsequent post-Soviet Russian government's genocidal brutality in Chechnya and elsewhere.)

Anyway, when Michael Laws approaches moral certainty in his column, and rails against "this foreign country, foreign culture and foreign moral code", with its dirty toilets and all, it's probably time for the rest of us to take stock.

PS: Some more ...

A group of Chinese intellectuals has appealed to the Chinese government "to admit that its policy of crushing dissent in Tibet and blaming the ensuing violence on the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was failing." Many young Chinese, on a strictly governed media diet, can't understand why the world is picking on them. They believe the West is glossing over the deaths of ethnic Chinese.

The Times interviewed people in Sichaun province, who were nervous and despairing:

“I believe they can never win their independence, because no big country backs them and they have no army,” said a shop owner, “and I believe we cannot win their hearts.”

This story from a Canadian paper underlines the fact that the problem is not purely territorial. Ethnic Tibetans in China proper feel the same grievances as those in the TAR; grievances that won't be satisfied by political reform in Tibet itself.

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