Many who have never been to China wonder how it would be like, how it would feel to live in a reportedly ‘authoritarian’ monolithic society where strict control is exercised on all forms of expression and, apparently, fear rules.
Whether the above image of China is the correct one or simply the result of Western propaganda, the US ambassador to China Clark Randit wrote an account of his 2008 visit to the Tibetan capital Lhasa that can only be described as ‘creepy.’
The account of the visit — organized by the Chinese to assuage concerns over alleged heavy-handedness in putting down the Tibetan uprising of 2008 — painted a picture of a government that was totally clumsy and clueless on how to conduct a basic public relations exercise.
The “crude” exercise (as Randit put it,) also showed the might Chinese government afflicted with a split-personality syndrome. On the one hand, the authoritarian government — clearly unused to projecting its soft-side — seemed eager to conform to Western notions of good governance, while on the other, it could hardly mask its natural urge to simply dictate and expect obeyance.
The result was as graceful and convincing as a gorilla expounding the postures of Bharatnatyam.
The account of the visit, if not the product of an overactive American diplomatic imagination, also exposed the Chinese government’s biggest challenge. After having conquered most of the big challenges that stare all governments in the face — security, prosperity, cohesiveness — the Chinese administration seemed to fail at the most elementary task — look the World in the eyes with self-confidence.
Instead, the Chinese administration seemed furtive, almost guilty and always fumbling to make sure nothing uncomplimentary is out on display. Instead of the confident China that can claim its place at the high table with any government in the World, the American account is of one perpetually on the defensive, unsure of how to behave, almost embarrassed.
Worse, the administration comes across as crude, amateurish and disingenuous in its attempts to convince the international community of its good intentions and actions. Perhaps, it was simply the lack of practice — the fact that Chinese government officials do not have to show their “soft side” at all on most of their duties.
Take, for example, the following description of the diplomats’ conducted tour to the Jokhang Temple, the site of an impromptu anti-government demonstration by local monks two days ago. The Chinese government, eager to appear reasonable, agreed to requests by the foreign diplomats for a visit to the temple, but the visit only served to deepen the diplomat’s misgivings rather than douse them.
“Around 01:00 [am] March 29, all delegation members, except [Randit], received calls in their hotel rooms that the start time for the next morning had been moved up from 08:30 to 08:00… As the motorcade departed just prior to 08:00, several delegation members noted the absence of some of the diplomats and requested that the motorcade wait.
“The Government minders, according to those who made it on the bus, were extremely nervous and appeared desperate to complete the visit to Jokhang as rapidly as possible. The diplomats only realized that they were being taken to the Jokhang Temple as they pulled into Barkhor Square.
“Upon arrival, the diplomats noticed a much larger security contingent than at other events on the trip. Officials were “extremely nervous” during the visit, several diplomats later told [Randit.] The [Chinese] officials escorted the group into the temple where they met with a single monk who is a member of the Jokhang’s Democratic Management Committee.
“When the group asked to see the monks involved in the March 27 demonstration in front of foreign journalists, the monk said they and the other monks were all in their dorm “sleeping.” The monk said that his colleagues who had participated in the incident were “young and lacked understanding,” but they would not be punished.
“Several diplomats left the Temple early in disgust and then staged a mini-protest, refusing to get back on the bus while they debated whether to continue with the visit… Australian Political Officer Eleanor Lawson, who had requested that the Jokhang be added to the schedule and later was outspokenly critical of the poor handling of the Temple visit, told [Randit] that Ministry of Foreign Affairs [China] Director General for External Security Affairs Wang Min later pulled her aside and demanded that she ‘stop causing trouble,’” Randit noted in his account of the event, written on March 31, 2008.
In his ‘comments’ on the visit, Randit noted that several events of the trip were “crudely stage managed.”
“[Chinese] Interlocutors’ complete lack of candor regarding the underlying social factors contributing to the riots, while not unexpected, was disturbing nonetheless. Even the “average people” diplomats met with resorted to stock propaganda phrases (e.g., “Dalai Lama clique” and “beating, smashing, looting, burning”) while denying Tibetan society had any problems other than the lingering presence of a few “separatists.”
“One American citizen resident of Lhasa, however, told [me] during the trip that he believes the city’s Tibetan youths are becoming “radicalized.” An increasing number of young Tibetans in Lhasa, he said, become angry when they are addressed in Mandarin Chinese and refuse to speak China’s official language,” the ambassador wound up the account.
It is, of course, not known how much of the fumbling and stumbling by the Chinese is the creation of the American imagination and how much of it is real.
If the account is by and large correct, it gives a unique insight into the mental turmoil that the Chinese administration must be going through — trying to win the international community’s approval by pretending to be like Western societies, while dealing with the fact that the Chinese society and system can clearly not be measured using (or live up to) Western ideas of freedom.