SF Gate: Friday, March 21, 2008
I hope it all comes crashing down on their heads.
Is that wrong? Is it ill-minded and somehow unfair to wish that the Chinese government's notorious record of human rights abuses and absolutely horrid treatment of Tibet be exposed to the world — and the Chinese people themselves — to the point where it is shamed and humiliated and perhaps even forced by unprecedented international scrutiny to upheave its oppressive ways and improve conditions and even (heaven forfend) honor religious and political freedom within its borders? No, I do not think it is.
Let me admit outright: I am no expert on Chinese-Tibetan relations. I do not know the full histories, the deeper conflicts, the enormous prejudices, the religious oppression that goes back decades and generations.
But I do know something of Tibet, of the Dalai Lama, of his unadorned messages of peace and love. And I know something of Tibetan Buddhism, of China's abduction of the true Panchen Lama, of the brutal oppression and the massacres and the cultural genocide, the forced relocation of Han Chinese into Tibetan holy land, of the Tibetan's peaceful rallies and chanting and nonviolence, all contrasted with images of jackbooted Chinese riot police stomping on the heads of protesters marching in the street.
And I know whom I tend to believe when I read "unconfirmed" reports of soldiers firing on Tibetan protesters, of dead bodies in the streets of Lhasa, of tanks rolling through crowds and hundreds of students arrested, Tibetan monasteries being locked down and Tibet again under martial law, all media cut off, all access denied, as sour and rather vile hardline Communist leader Zhang Qingli steps up to a microphone and calls the Dalai Lama — perhaps the gentlest, kindest human soul on the face of the planet — a "wolf in monk's robes, a devil with a human face but the heart of a beast." Yes, I think I know where the truth lies.
It doesn't take much. Truly, you don't need to see many photos of, say, a black-clad Chinese riot cop raising a huge, four-foot stick over his head with both hands and running straight at a praying, barefoot, red-robed Tibetan monk — a monk who is facing the other way and who is merely walking humbly on a protest march — ready to whale that stick down on the monk's humble head, it does not take many photos like that to wish a deep and profound ill upon the government that promotes such aggression.
You don't even need to be reminded of Tiananmen Square, or of all the ongoing crackdowns on students and dissidents and journalists, the torture and torment of humble Falun Gong practitioners or even the harsh control of Chinese Christians to know that the few images and stories of brutality and oppression that do trickle out are just the tip of a very ugly, bloody iceberg.
So then, this is the profound wish, the hope for this upcoming Olympic Games, held in a country run by an oppressive dictatorship, a country brutally divided between new wealth and extreme poverty, eager to be taken seriously as a new global superpower and also a country never before so open to cameras and reporters from around the globe: May your human rights atrocities be exposed. May your violence against peace-loving Tibetans be shamed. May we honor and respect China's culture and history even as your government's nauseating attacks on peace and intellectual freedom are revealed like the appalling cancer they so very much are.
Is that fair to hope? Sure as hell seems like it.
But here's the catch: It ain't gonna come from the United States. Hell, NBC's Olympic coverage is traditionally so slick and safe and cheesy and jingoistic it borders on nauseating, not to mention how NBC is wholly owned by General Electric and all coverage will be sponsored by companies like Coca-Cola and McDonald's and Johnson & Johnson, companies that largely adore China's cheap labor and most of whom would happily turn a blind eye to a pile of dead Tibetans if it meant a foothold in the exploding Chinese economy.
Put another way: The odds of Bob Costas cutting away from hyping our cute perky Coke-drinking gymnastics team to show a shocking image of a dead monk lying in the street of Lhasa? About one in a billion.
What's more, America's not exactly a saint when it comes to human rights ourselves. Our own president endorses torture. We still have the death penalty. We have had atrocious foreign prisons and sinister Homeland Security and illegal wiretapping and the Patriot Act and a vice president who would gladly shoot a war protester in the face just to buy a gallon of milk.
And it's also worth mentioning that China (along with Japan) owns a simply staggering portion of America's reeling debt, Chinese banks having basically floated the United States over $1 trillion to keep President Bush's nightmare economy afloat. Oh yes, Dubya will be there at the games, cheering and waving a little flag and holding hands with Premier Wen Jiabao and mispronouncing everyone's name. Wonder twin powers, activate!
But the "good" news is, China's leaders already seem to be getting a bit desperate, having been caught off guard by the widespread uprisings and protests happening now across the world. The premier has already accused the Dalai Lama of trying to sour the Olympics by inciting violence, which is a bit like Dick Cheney accusing a butterfly of murder.
But these comments also reveal a curious and telling thing about China's leaders, normally so controlled, so removed from the intense gaze of international media: They don't realize how utterly absurd and offensive they sound to the world audience. Nor do they seem to know the true power of the Internet, of the vagaries of global coverage, of what Olympic-sized media attention could reveal in the coming months. They never had to care. Until now.
Indeed, it will likely very much be up to the foreign press and foreign leaders, or perhaps even the athletes and visiting celebrities themselves, to speak out, to crack the armor further, really get the media's attention. Already some foreign leaders are considering a "mini boycott" of the opening ceremonies, which would be a huge insult to China. It's a start.
Could it all unravel for China's dictatorship? Maybe. The vast majority of Olympics coverage will be hugely positive, upbeat, every outlet in a swoon for the "New China," all glittery and whimsical and shiny and culturally rich, as this extraordinary new superpower puts on its best, most modern face for the world.
But somehow, among all the thousands of reporters and news agencies and bloggers covering the games, a handful might have the nerve to sneak outside the carefully guarded press boxes and Olympic stadiums and find a way to report on the real atrocities, the real abuses, and beam them to the astonished world like never before. Can we hope for that? Let the games begin.