Twofish's Blog

April 10, 2008

Thoughts on the olympic torch – The real reason behind the protests

Filed under: china, tibet — Tags: — twofish @ 1:54 am

I don’t really think that it is much of a public relations disaster.  People who call it such seem to have this notion that there weren’t any protests that maybe the “free Tibet” and “human rights” crowd would suddenly realize the error of their ways and start singing the praises of the Communist Party.

Yeah right.

People are going to end up believing more strongly what they did before. The problem for the “human rights” crowd is that these protests are just going to strengthen the idea that “human rights” means “anti-China.”  But on the other hand, that battle was lost a decade ago when you had major Western NGO come out against China joining WTO.  That destroyed what existed of the overseas Chinese democracy movement, and at this point, it’s pounding rubble.

So why do people really demonstrate, if it actually hurts their cause, as it is doing in this case.

The conspiracy theorist would see all sorts of evil underhanded things happening.  But the reality is more prosaic.  Non-profits tend to be extremely underfunded, and they are always fighting against apathy.  If you have to “do nothing” then people just stay home and watch television, and the movement dissolves.  Whereas if you have a good old-fashion demonstration, you get everyone together “doing something” and that helps keep up morale.  The olympic torch is a convenient focus for all of the groups that have a problem with the Chinese government to get together and have a party.  The danger in these sorts of movements, is apathy and boredom, and most of all, of being totally ignored.  So getting people together to “DO SOMETHING” is something of a team building exercise, the fact that what you are doing might be useless or worse counterproductive to your stated goals isn’t all that important.  What is important is that you have something to do, and if you are lucky, you get noticed by the press, rather than being ignored.  And being ignored is the worst thing that can happen to a non-profit.

Which makes me wonder about these news article, about Tibetan monks once again protesting during a scripted Chinese government tour of Tibet.

It seems like a public relations disaster.  After all, the world thought that the Tibetans were happy under PRC rule, but surprise, surprise, Tibetan monks are complaining about freedom of religion and the Dalai Lama.  It makes you wonder why the Chinese government took foreign journalists to see this, unless they figure out that the first time it happens, it’s big news, the second time it happens, it’s less big, pretty soon you’ll have the Chinese government taking journalists out to see the monasteries with the expectation that there will be protesters, and at that point, it’s not news anymore.

This points out something about freedom of speech.  There is a lot of freedom of speech and a high degree of tolerence for demonstrations in major democracies, because most of the time it really doesn’t matter.  There are thousands of protests with hundreds of people that happen, and these are mostly ignored.  If you have a protest with tens of thousands of people, then it won’t get ignored, but if you can mobilize this amount of support, its in your interest to become part of the system rather than overthrowing or changing it in any fundamental way.



  1. It seems like a public relations disaster, and it is a public relations disaster. I’m just curious how the monks managed to do this? Is the control over the monastery by the government is not as tight as it seems? Are the monks afraid of being punished after the reporters leave? Are the officials from propaganda department idiots, or are the monks too smart?

    Comment by caoshiren — April 10, 2008 @ 2:38 am

  2. Government control in China is much less tight than it seems, and if you get people mad enough, then they don’t care about being punished.

    Comment by twofish — April 10, 2008 @ 12:04 pm

  3. “…unless they figure out that the first time it happens, it’s big news, the second time it happens, it’s less big, pretty soon you’ll have the Chinese government taking journalists out to see the monasteries with the expectation that there will be protesters, and at that point, it’s not news anymore.”
    This is brilliant. Bashing China is kinda entertainment now. That makes no big deal.
    As for the monks’ cry, it is nothing. Journalists got what they want. And focus was moved from military crackdown to human rights, which won’t be no news at all. I doubt that this accidentally happened.

    Comment by lee — April 10, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

  4. Bashing China is always entertainment. The line between news, politics, and entertainment is very blurry. You can see this in the way that movie stars often become talented politicians (and vice versa).

    There is something about China that gets people emotional. What I find interesting is that no one seems to get that angry at Nepal for cracking down on their Tibetan demonstrators, but somehow China is much more emotional.

    Part of being able to function in a democratic environment is knowing when a demonstration is a nuisance or when you have a serious threat. Several hundred thousand people protesting in Lhasa for Tibetan independence is a serious threat. Thirty monks is not, and if you can create a situation in which the latter does not lead to the former, then you have more freedom to protest, which is a good thing for its own sake.

    I’m sure that the monks are really angry at the government, and that the protests were “real”. However, sending another set of reporters into the monasteries after what happened the first time is something that the foreign ministry was something that they didn’t have to do.

    Comment by twofish — April 10, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

  5. I agree with what you said, NGOs certainly did their part. But I still don’t feel that the sharp reaction from the chinese community, especially the oversea chinese community, was resulted by those “anti-tibet” or human-rights NGOs. ppl are pissed more because of the massive anti-china coverage from the main stream western media.

    maybe you are giving NGOs too much credit here.

    Comment by STQ — April 11, 2008 @ 5:55 pm

  6. The mainstream Western media get a lot of their information from NGO’s, and having an effective media strategy is part of any NGO. One thing that is the case is that people that go into journalism school and people who volunteer for NGO’s tend to be the same type of people, bright idealistic young college students out to change the world.

    When something like Tibet happens the tendency is for the press to make a call to an pro-Tibet NGO and a call to the Chinese government. If the NGO has any competency, they will call back with some very idealistic spokesperson that gives them their view of the world. Whereas the Chinese government may not return the call, and you have someone that just repeats the “party line” without much feeling.

    Also NGO’s have the advantage of having clean hands. It’s really impossible run a government without getting your hands a little bloody and a little dirty. Since NGO’s don’t have to worry about actually governing, they can stay pure in a way that a government can’t.

    One thing that is very important is to respect people you disagree with and learn from people who you disagree with. The International Campaign for Tibet is *very* good at dealing with the media. The comparison here isn’t with the Chinese government, but rather with overseas Chinese groups which are much less good at this. Part of the reason is that journalists love victims, since they enjoying seeing themselves as saving victims from oppression.

    The trouble with overseas Chinese groups from this point is that overseas Chinese sometimes can and do play the victim, but overseas Chinese groups don’t want to *permanently* be a victim and the very real desire for Chinese to be strong and powerful rubs most Western journalists the wrong way.

    You can see this in Peter French’s articles in which the desire to live in a strong and powerful country and to communicate with the world as equals is somehow considered abnormal and obviously a product of state propaganda.

    The desire of Western journalists to “help” China also rubs Chinese the wrong way.

    Comment by twofish — April 11, 2008 @ 8:08 pm

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