Dispatches from the Empire

Writing an End to History in Tibet

Chinese soliders on patrol in Lhasa, copyright ReutersHistory never really ends, it just gets written off. Yesterday I mentioned the disquiet of the past, how history as a judgemental narrative is always contested, always one step removed from something that might only just resemble the truth. It’s easy to say that we need facts to clear our vision, to help us see what really happened. But more often than not facts are handed out like bribes, and events are carefully framed. Take, for instance, the current happenings in Tibet.

Unlike much turmoil in the world today, and much in the pages of the past, the riots in Lhasa are not generating a great deal of confusion. Motives, by and large, are certain, and the chronology is sound. Monks protesting in support of Tibetan independence were joined by less serene compatriots, who took to the streets rioting, looting and destroying what they could. The Chinese police fought back and then the central government sent in the army, which has effectively locked down the city.

Personnel carriers versus fleeing civilians – the classic mismatch of civil disorder.

I’ve refrained from citing any particular media outlet here because the sense of what’s happening is more important, what you could call the quieter rhetoric of the moment. But, of course, the loud voice is never far way.

The China Daily carried a Xinhua News Agency release at 6:43 this morning that at first appeared the victim of a particularly bad machine translation until I detected a hint of Cultural Revolution about it:

LHASA – Memories of horror were alive again. Rioting that erupted in Lhasa on Friday resembled two previous riots in 1959 and 1989, only in its cruelty and always indisputable links to peace-preaching Dalai Lama.

This is a classic contestation of history and it stands alone as a paranoid reinvention of the recent Tibetan past. Without needing to know too much about the area and its people it takes little to question the motives of the lede writer. Horror? From riots? Sure, people were killed – although it’s hard to judge how many from the various figures being touted – but horror is usually reserved for far greater historical crimes. The destruction of Cambodia, the Holocaust or the rape of Nanking, to bring the point closer to home.

Monk in Tibet, by TommyChui, with Creative Commons licence So overstatement is one way of contesting history, although a particularly clumsy, bald-faced manner of proceeding along that path. Not inappropriately the article carried a headline that might well have jumped out of the 1960s and a somewhat dicey bilingual dictionary: “Dalai coterie’s secessionist attempts doomed to fail”. This is the end of a particular Tibetan narrative, the end of a certain history if you will.

Not much later in the day, the online version of the Shanghai Daily carried another Xinhua release with a much more sanguine lede:

GOVERNMENT agencies and schools will resume normal operations in Lhasa today as the city gradually returns to calm after Friday’s unrest.

Notice that ‘government’the Han Chinese provincial government determined in Beijing has replaced the local appellation ‘Lhasa’. Order has arrived after only a day, and the much vaunted Chinese concern for stability is triumphant.

Around the edges of this narrative leaks Tibet and its people, whether contemptuous of the government or supportive of its stance. There’s no sense that disorder will remain, locked in beneath the surface of Tibetan life, and how that might affect the Han Chinese residents in the area. No room for other local voices raised in anger, until once more they spill out onto the streets.

Mao in Tibet, by Nice Logo, with Creative Commons LicenceSo the old adage that happy people have no history is reversed in dispatches from the Chinese Empire. Xinhua, good government mouthpiece that it is, gives us a new refrain. Happy are the people who write the potted history, for they make a puzzle of the world.

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