Friday, March 21, 2008

Don't Worry, Everything's Not Fine

Last night I was already asleep when XM woke me to see the special CCTV program on the violence in Tibet.

I had first read reports on H-NET a week before. These reports--blurbs from locals, monks and foreigners--gave the appearance of having squeezed through cracks in the Chinese security blockade, worn and torn from their long journey. They spoke of a hundred of dead, thousands protesting, riots at this and that temple. A jumble of unconfirmed, denied, renegade facts; it was as if the reporting agency had first caught witnesses in flight, and then purposely maintained the rawness of the reports as proud proof of their verity in the face of toned-down Chinese media reports. Seeing the state that the statements arrived in, I stereotypically assumed news in China would feature images of the Potala Palace encircled by dancing minorities carrying flags of the Five Friendlies with the train line in the background (antelopes in tow). Message to the world: "Everything's OK".

My eyes were bleary with sleep and myopia, so the imagery on the TV screen was hazy. There were flames, storefront gates being kicked, axed, and ripped off slowly but surely. Crying, and blood as a civilian was beat in the back of the head. Office furniture and goods being thrown energetically into the street. A middle school caught fire. A man angrily described while wiping tears on his sleeve how his sister wouldn't jump out the window, and burnt to death while he and his wife survived the leap.

I was stunned by the images, the deadpan narration. I was stunned in a 9-11 way, in a what-were-you-doing-when-President-Kennedy-was-assassinated way. This was not propaganda, at least not the obvious kind, the kind that tries to distract you from the truth. It was a real report--a special report, even--to explain what had happened in Lhasa during the past 7 days. And it came straight from CCTV.

After I overcame the haze of sleepiness, the report took on an the creepiness of an Edgar Allen Poe piece. I gradually, then acutely, became aware of a sound that by the end of the report was both enthralling and unbearable: the sound of raucous Tibetans hooting in a most shrill way. It was a continuous din, with random highs and lows, and in no way resembled the semi-organized rally cries reported at the temples. In retrospect, it seems closest to Native American whooping and chanting, but higher-pitched, and completely free-form. It was this eerie din that chilled and compelled me to write about this incident. If YouTube were not shut down (I suspect the Net Nanny no-no'ed some fresh "Free Tibet" propaganda from the opposing camp), I would try and find it there. I expect I will never hear anything like it again, heaven forbid I ever do if in Tibet. [I am now imagining myself surrounded by the omnipresent noise, running as fast as I can while sucking in each thin breath of air, and being chased by rabid zang'ao.]

When the screen went black at the end of the report, and we returned to our regularly scheduled programming, I too returned to sleep. Drifting off, I thought to myself, perhaps the Chinese government has turned a new leaf--heck, a new tree--and decided to take the brave position of opening up before the Olympics instead of shutting down. Today I have come to consider that the report was not entirely open: far few deaths have been reported here than abroad, I didn't see any information on the teargas and shots fired on temple protesters, and the reporting focused on atrocities committed against Han people--but still, I can't shake off the feeling that something has stirred in Chinese reporting. The real test: whether I can access my blog tomorrow.

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