West’s Tibet ‘bias’ galls many in China

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

When China seven years ago won the right to hold this summer’s Olympics, the nation erupted in joy, confident it would finally receive the accolades it deserved as an emerging global power after a century of isolation and humiliation.

In recent months, however, China has battled criticism of its food and toy safety, been hit with director Steven Spielberg’s high-profile withdrawal as Olympic advisor over its Darfur policy, weathered athlete complaints about pollution and faced global criticism over its crackdown against the Tibet uprising.

Add it up and some Chinese are feeling under siege. Few nations have spent more effort to showcase their country than China has in organizing what are shaping up to be the most expensive Olympic Games in history. Spending is estimated at $40 billion, including related infrastructure projects such as a new airport terminal, subway system and even sewage systems.

“Chinese have given so much to the Olympics, but we’re criticized so harshly by foreigners,” said Hu Xijin, editor in chief of Global Times.

A growing object of Chinese anger and frustration in recent days has been the Western media. Many Chinese feel that foreign sympathy for Tibetans is biased given that Chinese were killed at the hands of what many here consider a rioting minority.

CNN has become a particular target of anger, even though the cable news network is available only in a few diplomatic compounds and high-end condominiums. A website called, with the slogan “The World’s Leader of Liars,” has sprung up in recent days. A particular focus has been a photo that CNN ran on its website showing green security trucks passing an overturned car. Off to the right, the rock-throwing Tibetan protesters were cropped out.

“Your feeling about this manipulated photo?” the website asks.

The website also criticizes several other U.S., British and German media for running shots of Nepalese police identified as Chinese battling rioters. CNN staff members were forced to leave their Beijing office late last week and retreat to a nearby hotel after they were inundated by complaint calls, including some threatening violence.

In Brussels on Wednesday, the head of the European Parliament questioned whether European leaders should attend the opening ceremony of the August 8-24 Games and invited the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, to brief lawmakers.

Protests by ethnic Tibetans started in Lhasa on March 10, the anniversary of a 1959 uprising against Chinese rule, and spread over a wide area. China says 19 people have been killed by mobs in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet region.The Tibetan government in exile puts the death toll at 140.

President Bush “raised his concerns about the situation in Tibet” during a telephone conversation with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said.

Bush encouraged the Chinese government to conduct a “substantive dialogue with the Dalai Lama’s representatives” and allow journalists and diplomats into Tibet, she said.

In a country with limited political polling, it is hard to tell how much concern over Western bias has been fanned by the Chinese government.

Prominent newspapers that have given play to the bias issue in recent days include the People’s Daily, China Youth Daily, Southern Metropolis Daily, Global Times and the International Herald Leader.

Compounding the perception gap between China and the outside world may be different cultural approaches.

Challenging authority and openly criticizing the leadership are far less accepted in China’s top-down system, which from early childhood places a premium on deference to parents, obedience to teachers and respect for officials. Society has loosened up a great deal in the last two decades, but the government has been slow to change.

There’s also a different view of Tibetan history. Many foreigners see Tibetans rising up in spontaneous frustration after decades of religious and cultural containment. But some Chinese see an ungrateful population on the rampage despite Beijing’s efforts to develop the local economy.

“I’m very worried about splittism,” said Wu Lisheng, 40, a salesman in Beijing. “If we have more trouble, no one will be able to function.”

Many Chinese see Tibet as an inalienable part of their country. Schoolchildren are taught to love the motherland and are steeped in the shame of the Opium Wars. They’re taught to keep the country whole and resist outside pressure.

“There is still a fear of intervention by foreign forces,” said Yuan Weishi, a history professor at Sun Yat-sen University in the southern province of Guangzhou.

The idea that Tibet’s vast area, equivalent to about 14% of China’s territory, might become independent would, for many here, be akin to the U.S. facing the prospect of losing California or Texas. One Chinese blogger jokingly called for the formation of a “Free Vermont” group.

Also at play are differences in a system that has not traditionally worried too much about public opinion. China’s leaders often seem to expect domestic and foreign audiences to take their statements on faith.

Thus, even as Chinese authorities say they have used “maximum restraint” in subduing rioters, most outside observers have been blocked from entering the affected areas of the Tibet Autonomous Region and Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces to see for themselves.

And though officials blame unrest on a well-coordinated plot by the “Dalai clique,” there is little corroboration other than reported confessions from suspects interrogated without access to lawyers.

Also missing is much discussion of China’s carefully controlled coverage.

On Wednesday, for instance, the People’s Daily and the English-language China Daily made no mention of protesters having attempted to disrupt the start of the torch relay in Greece a day earlier.

Nor has there been any meaningful discussion of possible underlying causes for the riots, whether a new Tibet strategy is needed and whether the government crackdown is correctly calibrated.

“The Chinese media have said the police have done a great job and everything is calm, but I’m not sure it’s that easy,” said Zhang Hao, 26, a salesman in Beijing.

“It would be good to know something about [Tibetans’] grievances, hunger, whether they’re desperate -- but that’s not reported because of the Olympics.”

But some analysts note that China is becoming less reflexively nationalistic as more people travel overseas and are exposed to foreign values.

“There’s been significant improvement,” said Xiao Gongqin, a history professor at Shanghai Normal University.

“Outsiders should avoid pressuring China too much or it will return to radicalism,” Xiao said. “China will improve and enjoy more democratic rights, but it needs time.”

Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.