By David Bandurski — Tibet is a touchy tinderbox of a subject — not to mention an incredibly complex one — and so we have long avoided mention of the “T” word on our project Website. Sifting through Chinese news coverage, however, is our raison d’être at the China Media Project. And as we’ve gone about minding our daily business in recent days, the headlines have doggedly clamored for our attention:

In People’s Daily: “Treasuring the fruits of democratic reform: celebrating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of millions of Tibetan serfs”
In Guangming Daily: “Treasuring the fruits of democratic reform: celebrating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of millions of Tibetan serfs”
In Economic Daily: “Treasuring the fruits of democratic reform: celebrating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of millions of Tibetan serfs”
At Xinhua Online: “Treasuring the fruits of democratic reform: celebrating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of millions of Tibetan serfs
In Sichuan Daily: “Treasuring the fruits of democratic reform: celebrating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of millions of Tibetan serfs”

. . . and in Zhejiang Daily, People’s Daily Online, Gansu Daily, Beijing Daily, CPPCC Daily, CCTV.com, Qinghai Daily, Science & Technology Daily . . .

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[ABOVE: “Megaphone” by Just Marc, available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

The list goes on and on. The above article, amplified across scores of official newspapers yesterday, even got a steroid injection of pre-publicity on Sunday’s official nightly newscast at China Central Television.

You can’t buy that kind of publicity — unless, of course, you’re an authoritarian government.

We don’t mean to dredge up that old wisdom — Vladimir Lenin’s, wasn’t it? — about how, if you repeat a lie often enough, people will begin to believe it. This isn’t a provocative post about whether the CCP has its facts right or wrong. (For that, we refer you to the latest English-language coverage of protests in Tibet, a rather stark counterpoint to the carnival atmosphere in the official media).

But when we sat down yesterday to sort through a cross-section of Chinese coverage of Tibet in the last few months, it was eye-opening to realize just how much there was. There have been 3,087 articles with the keyword “Tibet” in Chinese newspapers this month according to our database, and 817 of these have had “Tibet” in the headline.

These numbers actually pale in comparison to coverage in March and April last year, when Chinese media heaped scorn on the “Dalai clique” and the “hostile foreign forces” sowing unrest in China after large-scale riots in the region. But last month, even as the CCP was gearing up for the sensitive anniversary of the 1959 uprising, there were half as many articles with “Tibet” in the headline as there have been so far this month — with days yet to go until the 28th, which the CCP has designated “Tibetan Serf Emancipation Day”.

This spring surge in Chinese coverage of Tibet is entirely understandable given the historical significance of this month and what are clearly ongoing political sensitivities in the region.

What struck me, however, as I read through People’s Daily coverage of Tibet yesterday — my database print-out gave me a 183-page tome of coverage in this official paper alone going back to March 1 — was just how insulated and pointless China’s attempt to push its own message seems to have been so far.

There has been a great deal of coverage this year about how China plans to launch its own international media ventures with the (greatly misguided, I think) hope of upping its “share of global public opinion.” Judging from the international response to all of the CCP’s noise on Tibet, it seems they could really use the help. But if these new international outlets play the same game, offering one-sided coverage, they can probably expect the same results.

If you go back just a few weeks, China has spoken volumes about Tibet, the “true situation” in Tibet, the CCP’s cultural contributions to Tibet (gainsaying the “Dalai cliques” supposed slander about the “destruction of Tibetan culture”). It has published supposed personal accounts that testify to progress wrought by the CCP in Tibet. And of course it has peddled the usual propaganda tropes: “Only in the embrace of the socialist national family, upholding the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, cleaving to the socialist system . . . has Tibetan society been able to achieve continued development and the Tibetan people enjoy a prosperous today and an even brighter tomorrow!” (That’s from Sunday’s People’s Daily).

But nothing speaks better to the seeming pointlessness of this public relations effort than the reception given to a flesh-and-blood delegation to the U.S. and Canada recently, which included NPC delegate and “Living Buddha” Shingtsa Tenzinchodrak.

People’s Daily covered the delegation again yesterday, with an article on page 3 that quoted Tenzinchodrak as saying:

“Right now many people in the West have misconceptions about Tibet and basically fail to understand Tibet. I and the other four members of the delegation are all Tibetans, born and raised, and we all come from the grassroots. We are officials, doctors, village cadres, and we understand Tibet and represent the Tibetan people. We have made this journey with the hope of connecting with them face-to-face and having a discussion. I am confident this will help them better understand Tibet.”

Tenzinchodrak was in Toronto, where he hosted a “forum” on Tibet and later, said People’s Daily, gave “exclusive interviews to several major Canadian broadcasters.”

Strangely, though, this official delegation, “Living Buddha” notwithstanding, seems to have gotten no coverage where it counts — zero, zip, ling (零).

The delegation traveled thousands of miles, straight into the milling media hives of North America (Washington, New York and Toronto), with all the propaganda power and determination China’s government could muster. They endured jetlag and bad airline food. And for what?

That’s right. Resounding silence.

A search of the last week for “Tenzinchodrak” in Google News brings up only one small piece from Canada’s National Post , which maintains a sceptical tone about the China delegation and focusses mostly on an October 2007 meeting between the Dalai Lama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The article’s headline refers to Tenzinchodrak as “Beijing’s ‘living Buddha’.”

The rest of the news coverage stays entirely within the family:

* Xinhua News Agency, in English (also in French)
* China Daily
* Radio China International (also in Polish)

The delegation did manage to earn this story from Epoch Times, but it hardly makes the scoreboard — it is about how certain journalists were allegedly ejected from the Toronto forum by Chinese consulate representatives.

Was it necessary for the delegation to travel so far to get such “positive propaganda”?

The delegation fares no better in a Lexis-Nexis database search for coverage over the last week in major U.S. and international media (including broadcast transcripts).

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The articles on the roster are basically: Xinhua, BBC Monitoring Service regurgitation of Xinhua (identified as Xinhua), Xinhua, and China Daily.

Further down there is a brief article from Voice of America, which tags onto Tenzinchodrak’s comments an unflattering “meanwhile” about the ongoing “security clampdown in Tibet”:

A Chinese official has downplayed expectations for further talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama’s envoys on Tibet. Meanwhile, China has launched a security clampdown in Tibet and neighboring regions to prevent protests marking the 50th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule. Tibetan rights groups have reported small protests in Tibet and nearby areas in recent days . . .

The last bit of coverage is an item that appeared in the White House Bulletin on March 17. As it reports the delegation’s activities in the U.S. capital, the item sums up very well both the significance of China’s aggressive public relations campaign on Tibet and its enormous challenges:

A delegation of five Tibetan deputies in China’s National People’s Congress said Tuesday morning that economic and social conditions in the troubled region — wracked by political violence last year — are improving across the board.

The group spoke at the Chinese Embassy, and the event was probably more remarkable for what it represented than for what was said. By bringing the deputies to speak in Washington, the Chinese government is showing a far greater willingness to be active in Washington public relations efforts on a deeply sensitive internal issue.

This engagement may for China mark the beginning of a long, arduous and productive lesson in how to build real international credibility. First, of course, they will need to learn from their mistakes.

[Posted by David Bandurski, March 24, 2009, 12:26pm HK]

FURTHER READING:
Chinese in UK mark reforms in Tibet,” China Daily, March 23, 2009
West ‘lacks information about Tibet’,” China Daily, March 23, 2009