By Tenzing Sonam
In the early days of the Russian Revolution, starry-eyed Western sympathisers made a beeline for Moscow to report on the glories of the ‘Soviet paradise’. Lenin memorably referred to them as ‘useful idiots’, and exploited their naiveté to channel communist propaganda to the West. One such ‘idiot’, the American journalist Lincoln Steffens, went on a guided tour of the Soviet Union in 1919, seeing enough to gushingly pronounce: “I have been over into the future, and it works.” We know what happened to that future.
After Western intellectuals became disenchanted with the excesses of Stalin, a new generation of leftist idealists turned to Mao and the Chinese Revolution for ideological succour. Like Lenin, Mao understood that he could turn their blind enthusiasm to his advantage, and used them to propagate stories that were wildly at odds with reality. Edgar Snow’s account of Mao’s heroics during the Long March has now been proven to be fiction. Tibet, too, suffered grotesque distortions of fact at the hands of China’s handpicked Western acolytes. Roma and Stuart Gelder’s Timely Rain came out in the early 1960s, when Tibet was reeling from its first-ever famine, a result of misguided communist policies. Han Suyin’s optimistically titled Lhasa: An open city was written in 1975, at a time when Tibet was as closed to the outside world as North Korea is today. These writings have long been discredited, even as the horrific human cost of Mao’s ‘socialist’ experiments has been exposed and the Communist Party of China has become capitalist in all but name.
And then we have the recent writings of N Ram, the editor of the massively influential Indian newspaper The Hindu, whose unashamedly one-sided reporting of China’s rule in Tibet has about it the same ring of fervent admiration and suspended disbelief. In his eagerness to extol the virtues of Chinese policies in Tibet, Ram eerily echoes Steffens. After a week’s guided tour of Tibet as an official guest of China earlier this summer, Ram confidently proclaimed: “A quarter century from now, possibly earlier, Tibet will reach the status of a developed society.” He then went on to try and prove this contention in two long opinion pieces in The Hindu, and a detailed article in the paper’s sister publication, Frontline, all of which came out this past July. Aside from his tour, Ram’s only sources for such rosy prognostication were a litany of official Chinese statistics, the accuracy of which are debatable at best: “[Tibet’s] economy … grew by no less than 13.2 percent”, “GDP climbed to a level of 29 billion yuan”, “foodgrain production touching 920,000 tonnes”, “school enrolment covers 96.5 percent of children”, “unprecedented 1.5 billion yuan package of environment protection measures”, and on and on. The only Tibetan Ram seemed to have interviewed just happens to be the vice-chairman of the government in Tibet.
Is Ram really as naïve as he appears? Driving through Tibet, he breezily observed: “A surprise is how easily you can connect to the outside world: the GPRS on your mobile phone (or PDA) works along much of the Lhasa-Xigaze highway. While browsing the Internet for news of the outside world or answering your email, you can catch a glimpse of how the bulk of Tibetans live.” Obviously he must not have tried to search for ‘Tiananmen’ or ‘Dalai Lama’, or any of the countless other words and phrases that have been deemed subversive by the Chinese authorities, or he would have had first-hand experience of the Great Firewall of China, the most efficient and sophisticated Internet-censorship system in the world. Or, more worryingly, is Ram wilfully trying to deceive his readership?
On the matter of Tibet, Ram is open about his prejudices. He lambastes the Dalai Lama, whose popularity he compares to that of Ayatollah Khomeini. Using language that seems dusted from the Cold War closet, he rails against what he describes as the Dalai Lama’s “alignment with colonial interests and Western powers”, accusing him of being “a consummate politician leading a movement that seeks to take ‘Greater Tibet’ away from the motherland”. One could look at this criticism in the context of China’s vast holding of US Treasury bonds, which literally keeps its economy afloat, and ask who exactly is more aligned with Western powers, the Chinese government or the Dalai Lama. One could also easily point the finger of colonialism at China’s invasion and forcible occupation of Tibet.
Ram claims that “while the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation belongs to the mystical-religious realm and asks a lot from 21st century believers, the Dalai Lama’s approach even to rebirth is decidedly ideological-political.” However, he also says that the Beijing government continues to follow “centuries-old custom and tradition that empower it to recognise and appoint both the Dalai and the Panchen Lama”. The historical accuracy of this statement is debatable, but it also begs the question: Why does an avowedly atheistic Communist Party find it necessary to involve itself in the ‘mystical-religious realm’ in the 21st century?
Ram contends that China’s Constitution “guarantees religious freedom to all citizens and regional autonomy to ethnic minorities in extensive parts of a giant country”. But is it really enough to cite the existence of a law to prove that all is as it should be? Surely a journalist of Ram’s stature is aware of the ongoing repression of religious freedom, not only in Tibet but throughout China. It remains a crime in Tibet to be found in possession of the Dalai Lama’s picture. Amnesty International’s 2006 report on China stated that, in Tibet, “freedom of religion, expression and association continued to be severely restricted and arbitrary arrests and unfair trials continued”.
Nonetheless, Ram trots out the same old mentions of “China’s unprecedented economic growth” and “inclusive and nuanced socio-political and cultural policies” as markers of its “exceptional patience” in dealing with the Tibet issue. This is remarkable praise for a country where, even by its own admission, there is a growing division between rich and poor. Still more beguiling is Ram’s continued faith in the Communist Party of China’s Marxist credentials. “The law,” he writes, “defines national regional autonomy as the basic political system of the Communist Party of China to solve the country’s ethnic issues using Marxism-Leninism.” That the party has now launched a form of ‘Leninist capitalism’ untrammelled by democratic freedoms or trade-union rights is well known. At this point, the only ideology guiding Beijing’s rulers is how to hold on to absolute power at any cost.
By consigning Tibet’s fate so unambiguously to the implied benevolence of its Chinese overlords, Ram forgets that India, too, has a stake in this matter. He dismisses the Dalai Lama’s claim that Tibet had “been a strategic ‘buffer state’ in the heart of Asia guaranteeing the region’s stability” for centuries. Yet, the truth is that, until the People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet in 1950, India and China had never shared a common border. What is Ram’s response to Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Yuxi’s blithe assertion last November that “the whole of the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory”? Surely the editor of The Hindu knows that, had Tibet not been forcibly deprived of its sovereignty, such imperious statements from his Chinese friends would not have been forthcoming? And would any Chinese newspaper publish a defence of India’s sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh in the way The Hindu and Frontline have so wholeheartedly been doing recently, to promote the Chinese line on Tibet? Or does Ram have a different measure for basic democratic freedoms in different countries?
It is widely held that since Ram took over as editor-in-chief of The Hindu in June 2003, his aggressively pro-China sympathies have compromised the objectivity of a newspaper that had once been dubbed one of the world’s ten best newspapers. Today, it is possibly the only respectable newspaper in India that reproduces, verbatim, stories put out by the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, described by the Reporters without Borders organisation as “the world’s biggest propaganda agency”. Journalists working for The Hindu have spoken about recent directives not to write stories about Tibet, the Dalai Lama or Falun Gong that could be perceived as critical of China. This is verifiable from even a cursory study of The Hindu’s reports on these subjects since Ram took control.
The key question here is, why is such an eminently respected journalist risking his personal reputation – not to mention the integrity of his newspaper – by willingly setting himself up as a modern-day ‘useful idiot’ for China? Unlike his fellow travellers of the past, Ram can claim neither the fire of idealism nor the smokescreen of ignorance to justify his unquestioning promotion of the totalitarian Beijing regime and its colonial hold on Tibet.Tenzing Sonam is a Tibetan filmmaker and writer based in New Delhi.