Agam's Gecko
Monday, June 23, 2008
Staged event
A member of the People's Liberation Army Special Forces' "Sacred Flame Protection Unit" walks by the stage set-up on June 20, 2008.
Photo: Kyodo News / Takanori Sekine

he torch of harmonious brotherhood has moved on, and it remains to be seen how much of the heavy weight of repression will be lifted from Lhasa's population. With the shrill political statements made by top officials speaking at the harmonious event on Saturday, I don't expect much.

Communist Party officials are constantly fending off criticism of their policies by falling back on the "don't politicize the Olympics" line. Yet Zhang Qingli, Communist Party Chief in Tibet, foamed at the closing ceremony about "totally smashing the Dalai Clique." Why didn't he rail against "politicization of the Olympics" instead?

The CCP itself has politicized the Olympics ever since they were awarded the games. The event is less about international sportsmanship than it is about showing off China's "greatness." And since the Party's "people's war" was launched in response to Tibetans expressing their aspirations (in at least 95% of the cases, peacefully), national and regional Party leaders have blamed anything and everything that happens inside Tibet on the Dalai Lama, their words dutifully carried worldwide by their various mouthpiece media organisations.

But Chinese leaders aren't really speaking to the international community when they make these accusations. They aren't even really speaking to the one they accuse. They likely understand that such words will carry little weight on the outside. They're speaking to the Tibetans within their borders, ensuring that they understand crystal clearly -- everything you do will be blamed on him, and the blame will be thrown in the strongest, most undiplomatic language. Any conducive atmosphere for dialogue will be kept firmly at bay. Then we'll blame him for the bad atmosphere too.

Canada's Geoffrey York was one of the very few newspaper journalists to have been invited for the tightly scripted and controlled media tour of Lhasa last weekend. He writes that not a single newspaper from the US or Britain received invitations, which were heavily skewed toward video crews (it's harder to sneak around the late-night streets of Lhasa discretely with a video crew in tow). Out of 29 organisations invited, the US had one (NBC television) and the UK had one (BBC television). About half the number came from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

The skittish authorities wanted mainly video pictures to go out to the world; of triumphant torch-runners and happy, dancing Tibetan costumes. Since the foreigners weren't allowed to cover the run, that left the dancing costumes.
A small group of foreign journalists, invited to attend the relay, were not permitted to see any of the nine-kilometre run except the beginning and end. They had to pass through a barbed-wire checkpoint and other security checks before they were permitted to the opening ceremony.

At the end of the relay, the Olympic flame was greeted by a carefully choreographed display of ethnic dancing and rhythmic flag-waving from thousands of school children and other hand-picked spectators.
York is the only one I've seen so far to have offered a glimpse of the "rituals" of a Communist China official press tour. As he says, it's not the ideal way to gather news.

Occupation troops
Thousands of "People's Armed Police" forces descended on Lhasa in the weeks prior to the harmonious event, and were easily spotted by visiting journalists as they were trucked around the holy city. June 20, 2008.
Photo: Kyodo News / Takanori Sekine
The journalist's day is filled with "weirdly irrelevant" events which read as a standard package tourist's full-day city tour -- except that it runs from 7:30 am until 10:30 pm (with a 6:15 wake-up call!), complete with a loud tour-leader with a megaphone constantly barking at the group to move faster and, "Get on the bus!" When can one find time to do one's job?
We were lodged in a government hotel, far from the historic centre of Lhasa, to make it even harder for us to have any independent contact with monks or other malcontents.

At the allocated time for dinner on Friday, I managed to slip away from the hotel and hail a taxi to the old town, where I was able to see the massive security presence, including thousands of paramilitary police in camouflage uniforms, in advance of the Olympic torch relay the next day. There were paramilitary troops and regular police on every corner.
A few of York's fellow reporters made a similar break for it, skipping dinner in order to attempt some reporting. The next day of course, all the dinner-delinquents were reprimanded by government minders for their foolhardy risk, for Lhasa is seriously dangerous. With paramilitary on every streetcorner? They mumble about "intelligence reports" on imminent attacks.
The official minders were a constant source of disinformation. When asked why all the shops near the Olympic torch route were shuttered on Saturday, one minder claimed that Lhasa's shops are always closed on Saturdays.
How precious! They don't even make the effort to to issue believable lies. Lhasa is normally closed on Saturday! Telling a whopper like that for the Motherland, the minder might just as well be slapping his own face. For the Motherland.

The authorities went to great lengths in making sure no journalists could talk with ordinary Tibetans, especially unhappy ones. Many of the news reports noticed the complete lack of monks in public. The very fact of this major event taking place in Lhasa with not a single Buddhist monk to be seen, speaks volumes.
The monks, who led the March protests, were kept far out of sight during the press tour. One journalist found a monk in a back corner of the Sera monastery. He said nothing, but burst quietly into tears.
This simple scene should be pondered for a moment.

Geoffrey York was good enough to be invited, but not quite good enough for Chinese people to read. After he filed his pre-show dispatch on Friday, he checked the Globe and Mail's website. The first few sentences appeared, and the website crashed. China's censors had seen it first.

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