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Chinese Media Courts the Youngest Hero of the Tibet Quake

May 5, 2010

Amidst the accusations of China's belated response to the devastating earthquake that hit Yushu county in Eastern Tibet in the early hours of April 14, the downplaying in the Chinese media of the key role that Tibetan monks played in the rescue efforts and mourning ceremonies, alongside reports of Chinese rescue workers who seemed more interested in posing for cameras than in saving lives, there is a small story that transcends it all.

There are few outside of China and Tibet who have heard of Tsering Dhondup, a ten-year-old Tibetan boy who saw his home and the homes of all his neighbors completely flattened in the 6.9 quake. Since then, he's been living with his family in a temporary shelter in the local stadium in Jyekundo, the town most affected by the disaster, where 85% of the mud-brick houses like Tsering's were destroyed.

Tsering volunteered to work as a translator for a Chinese medical team that was treating Tibetan survivors. The state-controlled national news channel CCTV, Chinese Central Television, aired a report about him that on April 17, three days after the earthquake.

Wearing a backwards baseball cap and a blue surgical mask, we see the perky-faced Tsering moving around the medical tent with a jaunty confidence, looking perfectly at ease in his new role. He speaks first with an elderly Tibetan woman.

"Where do you hurt?" he asks her in Tibetan, then turns to the Chinese doctor and says that she is experiencing pain in her eyes and chest. He then moves to another bed to translate
for a small child. Through the Chinese nurse, Tsering explains the child's condition and
treatment to the mother, who listens to him with rapt attention.

The Chinese nurse tells the reporter that while the team was setting up, Tsering had come over and asked them if they were cold. "We said that we weren't, and then he started helping us to unpack our supplies. Then he came to help us with translation. He's a really nice kid."

The reporter asks Tsering some questions.

Reporter: It looks like you know all the doctors here.

Tsering: Yes.

Reporter: Do you like them?

Tsering: Yes.

Reporter: Do they like you?

Tsering: Yes.

Reporter: How do you know they like you?

Tsering: Ummm, when I'm hungry they give me instant noodles, and when I'm thirsty they give me mineral water. So I know they must love me.

Reporter: Yes, I like you too. I can see there's a red ribbon in front of your chest. What does it mean?

Tsering: It means that I'm a volunteer.

Reporter: What does being a volunteer mean to you?

Tsering: Well, it's like when the elders are helping people who have problems, we kids
can't do much to help with that. So we pick up bits of garbage on the ground of the stadium, and we collect wood so people can boil water.

(The population of Jyekundo is almost entirely Tibetan, and questions posed to Tibetans there about their Chinese neighbors, such as 'Do they like you?' and 'Are you getting along?' were popular with Chinese journalists operating in the quake zone. The answers--at least the ones that were aired--were always positive.)

After the interview, the reporter pats the boy affectionately on the head. Tsering is then shown handing out bottles of water to Tibetan patients, and performing his tasks as if he's been doing it all for years.

Towards the end of the news segment the reporter asks Tsering to sing something. The boy begins to sing a song that is known and loved by Tibetans everywhere. The words were written by the Sixth Dalai Lama 300 years ago when he was being forcibly taken away from his people to China by Mongol soldiers. He died shortly afterwards, and his reincarnation was discovered in the Tibetan region of Lithang in Kham, the same region where the earthquake hit.

"White crane! Lend me your wings
I will not fly far.
From Lithang, I shall return
".

At this point, the boy bursts into tears, unable to sing any more. The segment abruptly cuts out with the reporter awkwardly trying to comfort him.

There were some notable contrasts in the reporting from Tibetan-language stations such as Qinghai TV and Chinese-language television. Qinghai TV (the Chinese name for the region where the quake hit) carried on the spot reports with journalists interviewing stunned Tibetan survivors among the rubble. The images shown were destroyed houses, collapsed school buildings. There were hardly any rescue teams, soldiers, or medical workers, only stunned survivors sitting among the ruins or monks who had come from other regions to help.

By contrast, CCTV news almost exclusively showed images of soldiers digging in the rubble, planes being loaded with supplies, leaders visiting the survivors, and Chinese journalists interviewing survivors in the tents. In one shot, four determined looking young medical technicians are carrying a gurney. But the shot is framed in such a way that you can't actually see anyone on the gurney.

With fears that the situation in the earthquake affected area might turn political, Chinese state media spared no time in co-opting Tsering's natural appeal to put a positive face on the Chinese/Tibetan relationship. He was a guest of honor at CCTV's earthquake appeal show that raised an impressive 2.175 billion yuan.

On stage, the host asked Tsering why he had cried when he sang the song. He then made the rather peculiar aside that backstage Tsering had asked if he was allowed respond in any way he wanted. The host had assured him that he could. With his head down, the boy answered the question without a trace of his earlier buoyant innocence, as if he'd been coached. "Because people of the whole nation support us," he said stiffly. It seems more likely that the song, so achingly familiar, reminded him of what he and his family had lost, and the horror of what he had gone through.

There are already plenty of skeptics who are questioning how many of the quake survivors will actually benefit from relief funds like those raised at the CCTV event. But expressing such skepticism openly is a risky move. The Associated Press reports that a Tibetan writer, named Tagyal, signed a letter along with a number of Tibetan intellectuals asking for donations for the quake victims and warning people not to trust their donations to the Chinese government. Although AP were unable to independently verify the story, according to a family friend, Tagyal was arrested on April 23rd, the day after the letter was published for "inciting subversion of the state".

The letter reads: "It is best to deliver donations with your own trusted personnel because no one knows for sure if there's any place free of corruption or embezzlement." Concerns over how the Chinese government will distribute relief funds are not unfounded after reports of corrupt officials appropriating funds intended for the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

However the propagandists might like to spin the story, little Tsering Dhondup is the genuine article, and his relationship with the Chinese medics and the reporter on the ground in the quake zone was one of sincere affection and appreciation. It is neither essentially Chinese nor Tibetan, but simply--human. The comments beneath the YouTube link reach beyond the jingoistic and vitriolic messages that so often plague postings about Tibet.

But he is probably learning, too fast for a boy of his age, that when it comes to Tibet, for China there is nothing that is not political.

Translation provided by Tenzin Losel.

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