Peaceful Rioting Strikes Tibet

  • 24 April 2008
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On 10 March, 300 monks demonstrated in Lhasa, Tibet, demanding the release of imprisoned monks. This protest sparked a period of rioting by Tibetans, riots which were violently suppressed by the Chinese state. The riots and their suppression gained widespread publicity in the global media and helped inspire international protests aimed at undermining the Beijing 2008 Olympics along the route of the international Olympic Torch Relay. Global media debate centred on the question of whether Western political leaders should boycott the opening ceremony of the Games as a protest against China's human rights abuses. The Tibetan events even had some resonance in Ireland, when Green Party leader, John Gormley, castigated the Chinese ambassador at the party's conference, provoking a walk-out and a minor diplomatic incident.

Meanwhile, counter-protests took place around the world, primarily composed of Chinese émigrés. In Dublin, for example, over 300 people protested in support of China at the GPO on O'Connell Street. These protests were accompanied by a web-campaign, based around sites like, which depicted China as the victim of “lies and distortion in the Western media” over Tibet. So, who was telling the truth?

On the one hand, it is pretty hard to trust anything that the Chinese government says. The “great firewall of China” which censors much of the Internet in China, is not the sort of thing that somebody with nothing to hide invests in. Those snippets of independent information that manage to escape government control paint a picture of a repressive state which barely countenances the existence of independent political or social organisations at all, never mind national independence movements amongst ethnic minorities. The fact that China is using the Olympic Games for propaganda purposes is also pretty incontestable, since that's the whole point of hosting such events.

On the other hand, you don't have to be Chinese to notice that the intense focus on Tibet in the global media and the debate over how Western governments should signal their disapproval, is hugely hypocritical. Western armies are currently sitting on top of the rubble of Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention propping up repressive regimes in places like Chad. The idea that their leaders are in any position to lecture anybody about the evils of invasion and occupation is absurd.

Secondly, the widespread sympathy for the Tibetan independence movement in the Western media stands in stark contrast to the usual approach tomilitant separatist movements in other parts of the world. However, the movement is hardly a shining beacon of human rights and democracy. It represents the remnants of the old Tibetan feudal aristocracy under whose medieval regime the majority of the population enjoyed semi-slave serf status.

What's more, the nature of the recent Tibetan riots was hardly the sort of thing to inspire human rights defenders.

James Miles of the Economist, the only foreign journalist in Lhasa at the time, described the riots as “primarily an eruption of ethnic hatred”. He “saw crowds hurling chunks of concrete at the numerous small shops run by ethnic Chinese lining the streets of the city's old Tibetan quarter. They threw them too at those Chinese caught on the streets—a boy on a bicycle, taxis (whose drivers are often Chinese) and even a bus.” It was “calculated targeted violence against an ethnic group, or I should say two ethnic groups, primarily ethnic Han Chinese living in Lhasa, but also members of the Muslim Hui minority in Lhasa.”

It is difficult not to conclude that, if it was the Chechens, Basques, Palestinians or any indigenous minority in a Western country, who were rioting in such a manner, the media would treat their actions very differently. The words, ‘terrorist' and ‘ethnic-cleansing' would be liberally applied to the separatists and any violence required to ‘restore order' by the state would be loudly applauded. George Bush would certainly not award their leaders Congressional Gold Medals, to the sound of general support from the media.

Finally, the media's treatment of the protests against the Olympic Torch Relay was highly unusual. These protests included, amongst other things, repeated attempts to physically impede the procession – the torch was extinguished five times in France alone. Typically, when groups of protestors engage in such coordinated campaigns to physically disrupt official ceremonies, press reaction tends towards the hysterical.

For example, when anti-war activists threatened to pull down a fence at Shannon in March 2003, the press treated us to several weeks of scare-mongering about terrorist attacks and army deployments and every respectable figure in the country came forward to denounce the protestors disrespect for law and order.

What we got this time, was a relatively sympathetic, reality-based account of the protests. For example, the Irish Times account of the London protests gave ample space to campaigners' complaints about “heavy-handed police tactics” and the excessive and costly nature of the security arrangements. It's not that any of this was inaccurate, it's just that such things are routine, yet rarely commented on. Here, they were even able to quote Olympics Minister, Tessa Jowell, expressing sympathy for the protestors' concerns and excusing their illegal actions.