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A Sympathetic Hearing

April 16, 2010

Han Chinese think Tibetans are ingrates who don't appreciate the boon
Beijing has given them. This week's earthquake showed wealthy Han that
Tibetans are not so well off after all.

By Isaac Stone Fish | Newsweek Web Exclusive

Apr 15, 2010

When a 7.1-magnitude earthquake rocked parts of Yushu prefecture in
remote Qinghai province this week, China responded much as it did in
2008, when a 7.9-magnitude temblor hit Sichuan. A relief effort began
immediately: rescue workers and volunteers rushed to the scene,
donations flowed to aid groups, and Premier Wen Jiabao flew to the area
to show his support. But this week's quake struck a different kind of
people than the ones in Sichuan, who are mostly members of the ethnic
Han majority. Inhabitants of Yushu are 97 percent ethnic Tibetans,
thought to be more sympathetic to the Dalai Lama and his claims for
Tibetan autonomy. Although sensitivity about ethnic conflict in China
makes surveying difficult, Tibetans are generally regarded by the
wealthier Han as ungrateful for the ample economic boon that Beijing’s
policies have brought them.

But the earthquake put images of the impoverished Tibetans on every TV
screen and newspaper across China, showing that maybe they didn't have
all that much to be grateful for. The disaster has allowed Chinese
throughout the country to learn a little more about the situation in
Tibetan regions—insight that Han Chinese on the whole lack, partially
because press reports on Tibet still read like Mao-era propaganda. "In
general, Chinese don't have a very healthy, full view of Tibet," but the
quake is helping change this, says blogger and social commentator Yang
Hengjun. If the tragedy destroyed homes, it may also elicit a new
sympathy that never existed before.

For 51 years, since the People's Liberation Army marched into the
Tibetan plateau,

Tibet has been part of the People's Republic of China. And for 51 years,
rancor and distrust have characterized relations between the two
peoples: the Tibetans want self-determination, and the Chinese believe
Tibet, historically, has been a part of the Chinese nation. The most
recent major incident occurred in 2008, during the 49th anniversary of a
failed uprising against Beijing's rule. Tibetans rioted over detained
monks and other issues in both the Tibetan Autonomous Region (what the
outside world calls Tibet) and other neighboring Chinese provinces
populated by ethnic Tibetans like Qinghai.

This week's earthquake—and footage of the devastation—is allowing the
average Chinese to see both the poverty and humanity of a region they're
used to seeing only in political terms. "It's very hard to see real
Tibetans" through the media, says Yang. "On TV, they're dancing all the
time, shaking hands with leaders, celebrating, or shown as
troublemakers. This is an opportunity to realize that Tibetans live and
suffer like we do." In addition, the sensitivity about minority
issues—especially Tibetan ones—in China has choked off civic
opportunities for Tibetan-Chinese connections. The earthquake is
bringing "unprecedented" Chinese-Tibetan grassroots understanding, "and
this could be a very good thing," says Yang.

Online, Han Chinese have responded overwhelmingly and unambiguously.
Twitter—which is blocked in China but accessible to its tech-savvy
Netizens (who, unlike in other countries, are not necessarily more
liberal or tolerant)—and bulletin-board systems have been filled with
support. "Tonight, we are all from Yushu," tweeted Wu Botao, echoing the
call for support during the Sichuan earthquake. One NetEase forum is
filled with pictures of mostly Han Chinese holding up handwritten signs
showing support for the region. One Netizen tweeted, "Let's pray for the
blessings for our compatriots in the Yushu Qinghai disaster zone."
Another posted, "Yushu I believe everything will get better." This is
sympathy, not schadenfreude.

As in Sichuan, the poor construction quality of buildings in Yushu is
becoming a contentious issue. "That 80 percent of the buildings
collapsed gives a lot of empathy into what Tibetans have been facing in
terms of development in the region," says Andrew M. Fischer, senior
lecturer at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague and an expert
on Chinese development strategies in Tibet and western China. As in
other parts of western China, Tibetan areas have been rapidly urbanized
under government plans to develop the west. Unfortunately, corruption
and lack of oversight leads to substandard construction, which in turn
leads to more earthquake deaths when disaster strikes. "Everyone knows
why certain buildings fell and why certain buildings didn't fall," says
Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist and political activist.

The response could also warm Tibetan feelings toward China. Despite the
difficulty of getting supplies into this mountainous and remote area, by
all accounts the relief effort so far has been conducted quickly and
competently. "It's a pretty impressive response, and one that, for its
effectiveness, is bound to be recognized by local communities for what
it is," says Ben Hillman, a Tibet expert from the Australian National
University's China Institute. Ironically, Chinese soldiers stationed in
the prefecture because of rioting in 2008 may have been able to help
with the relief effort (reports are murky and still emerging).

Increased sympathy for Tibetans by Han won't lead any closer to Tibetan
independence. But if Han better understand their fellow citizens, it
could reduce ethnic violence like the kind that rocked the region in
2008, and even foster mutual respect—something that countless broadcasts
of dancing Tibetans unsurprisingly failed to do.

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