March 2008


While Chengdu is relatively calm, all roads West of here are closed to everything but military traffic. Unrest resides just beyond the blockades, in the areas with large Tibetan populations. With no journalists present, it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on in the Tibetan region. All we have to go on are word-of-mouth reports, as collected by Western journalists and reported in Western papers on-line. The Chinese papers are full of lies and distortions about the situation in Tibet, when they say anything at all. For example, they claim the Dalai Lama is calling for Tibetan independence, which he is not. They also have not reported the numbers of Tibetans killed by the police and military. They blame all the problems on “criminals” and the “Dalai clique” who are orchestrating the protests from India.

We know it’s not just Lhasa that has seen protest actions, but also Gansu and Qinghai Provinces to the North, and in Sichuan Province, where we live, there have been protests and Tibetans shot by police in Aba, Garze, and Luhuo, at least. We know that there have been protests as most recently as this past Tuesday, March 25th, in Garze, Sichuan when at least one monk was killed, and one critically wounded, and there are rumors that there is renewed fighting in Lhasa as of Saturday, March 29th. This is being talked about as perhaps the biggest uprising against Chinese rule since 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet. We have no idea how many Tibetans have been killed and rounded up. The latest figure from the Tibetan government-in-exile is 140 Tibetans killed. The Chinese admit to imprisoning up to 1,000 Tibetans, although the number is likely higher.

When I say Chengdu is calm, I should qualify that. Until yesterday, there have been half a dozen or more riot cops stationed at the front gate of our University every evening, plus an increased police presence on campus and throughout the city. There were also rumors of a bus bombing in Chengdu, which circulated widely and were countered by the police and media. This rumor was enough to cause an author scheduled to speak about Chinese writer and anarchist Ba Jin to cancel her trip here from Beijing.

Yesterday we walked around the Tibetan section of Chengdu, one of the city’s more interesting neighborhoods.. Because we are so close to Tibet, there are many Tibetans living here. People there seemed fairly low key yesterday, although many complain of not being able to call relatives who live further West. The phone lines are blocked. The Chinese like to control information.

There is a large police presence in the neighborhood, and all roads in are closed to vehicle traffic. Marked and unmarked police cars and motorcycles with flashing lights and lots of cops occupy major intersections. There are police cars and SUVs throughout the neighborhood, with their mars lights flashing constantly. Some cop cars are simply parked, with cops just sitting there, blue and red lights flashing. Police SUVs patrol up and down, with cops staring at everyone on the streets and in the shops and little restaurants. Generally you don’t see many police in Chengdu, so this is a pretty heavy presence, no doubt meant to intimidate the local population.

In terms of our personal lives, there have been some developments. Some of our emails are now turning up blank if there is any reference to Tibet, or if there are any links to news stories about it. Internet access to stories is also restricted, so if we try to click on a story, sometimes the page turns up blank and we get booted off line. It’s pretty creepy. If you write us any emails, please refer to Tibet in a coded fashion, such as T_bet.

It’s certainly a strange time to be in China. This police state is being put to the test in the run up to the August Olympics. The torch lighting ceremony in Greece was interrupted by protestors from Reporters Without Borders, who unfurled a banner with the Olympic rings depicted as handcuffs, protesting the lack of journalist access to events in Tibet. Still, the Chinese insist on running the torch over the Himalayas and right through Tibet.

In response to international pressure, China allowed a delegation of reporters to travel to Tibet, but this carefully managed show was interrupted by a large group of monks at one of the monasteries telling the reporters that “Tibet is not free,” and talking about the harsh crackdown by the Chinese. The monks in Tibetan monasteries are forced to recite political propaganda and denounce the Dalai Lama.

We feel safe, although somewhat uncertain about our status. We’ve been very vocal in emails and on our blogs about what is going on, and what things look like from here. Lara just did a radio interview about the situation with a community radio station in Portland. The only thing we are risking is deportation. It’s my guess though that as long as our protests are kept to the world outside China, they’ll tolerate it. Time will tell.

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We are no longer able to see our breath indoors; life here is starting to improve. Thailand now seems like a place which exists in another dimension. We joke about this great dream we had, where we were warm and people were happy. We’re back in China, where the air looks like skim milk and people’s moods are rather dour.

I’m entering my fifth week of teaching college English. I have 120 students broken up into 3 classes of roughly 40 each. I do short presentations, then have the students work in pairs and small groups. My classes have a kind of workshop feel, with students speaking to each other, and me circulating, answering questions, and helping them out. Coming here I didn’t expect to be a college teacher, but I am and I’m really enjoying it. The students are very appreciative and seem to be learning and enjoying themselves.

Of course I can’t really talk to my students about what I want to. In China, we’re told about The Three Ts that can’t be discussed: Taiwan, Tibet, and Tian’enmen. I do talk to them about global warming and climate change. The environment seems ok to address, so far. Even the Communist Party bosses give it lip service. But I wonder if I would get in trouble if I told my students that four million Chinese die every year from urban air pollution. What would happen if I started pointing to the dark side of the Chinese “economic miracle,” to the massive displacement of people from the countryside, forced into the cities to work in factories? What if we discussed the inherent contradiction between ecological health and capitalist growth? Would that get me in trouble, in this ostensibly Communist country?

While so far I’ve been able to talk superficially about global warming, I can’t openly challenge the official version of what’s going on in Tibet right now. At first the Chinese media said nothing about the protests. We heard about them early in the week from someone in the States. Even then, a search on the Web only turned up a short report on the Washington Post site, under Religion. By Friday, when Chinese police attacked a peaceful march by Tibetan monks, and outraged Tibetan civilians reacted forcefully, the Chinese media could no longer ignore what was happening. Getting their information from Chinese TV news and newspapers, my students would be under the impression that the Dalai Lama was orchestrating “sabotage” from Dharamsala, India, and that “criminals” were killing Chinese shop owners and disturbing the “social harmony” which the Chinese government cherishes so much, especially in the run up to the August Olympics. The Tibetans are depicted here as hooligans, trouble-makers, and “splitters.”

If this weren’t China, I’d tell my students to seek out the Tibetan students on campus and talk to them about their perspectives on what’s going on, that they should ask the Tibetans what they’ve heard is happening from their relatives back home. I would encourage them to seek out information from varying sources and make up their own minds about the issue. I’d teach them about State propaganda and the way the media is used to manipulate populations, and how to deconstruct media sources and assertions.

I would ask them if they knew it is illegal to display the Tibetan flag in Tibet. And that it is illegal to display a picture of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Or that according to multiple sources in Tibet, at least 80 people have been killed, some shot down by Chinese police in the streets.

If this weren’t China, I’d expect the Tibetan Student Association to be holding forums on the situation, with updates from friends and family in Lhasa, or Xiahe in Gansu Province. I would expect a rally on campus protesting the crackdown. But, this is China. The Tibetan students on campus are being fairly closely monitored, in all likelihood. In a place like this, you think twice before you even approach a Tibetan student to talk. Who’s watching? This, of course, is the strength of a police state. One starts to police oneself out of fear.

Despite all these constraints, exacerbated and brought more into relief under these conditions, it’s interesting to spend time with these Chinese young people. Although college freshmen, they look and act more like high schoolers. Because of Yao Ming they are all Houston Rocket fans, and all the boys like basketball and the NBA, which is better than their misguided belief that ping pong is a sport, the national sport in fact. They are interested in politics, but also in Madonna.

In a discussion of film, I taught them the word “genre,” and gave them a sheet with my top five picks in eight film categories. They all love Titanic and Forrest Gump, so I felt compelled to clue them in to some more interesting films. In a discussion of responses to show interest and start a conversation, I taught them the words “bummer” and “excellent,” and the phrase “That’s cool.” Three of my students are sitting in because they’ll be going to the U.S. to study in the Fall. At the very least, I hope that I can provide them with some basic preparation to make the most of their experience there.

Although I’m not doing what I wish I could be doing with my classes, it is interesting to teach. It’s a good experience to get in front of groups of people to talk every week, and this is opening up my mind to different things I can do when we return to the US, in terms of teaching, public speaking, and political organizing. A big part of those kinds of activities involves feeling at ease talking in front of people you don’t know. That’s what I’m getting from my experience. And who knows, maybe some students may want to talk about Tibet, global warming and the negative impact of capitalist development, or alternative news sources, after class. Even then though, should I speak my mind?