Buy Stomachs, Win Hearts

By Thubten Samphel

The Chinese government has convinced itself that it has “liberated” Tibet. To drive home this conviction to the rest of the world it has bought advertisements in newspapers from Malawi to India to declare the happy news of Tibet’s serf liberation day. In Tibet, the authorities tried outright bribery so that the “liberated” serfs willingly join in the celebration. How successful the authorities were in this effort is captured by The Economist’s headline on this event: “Damn You, Rejoice.”

Unlike the rest of the world which is going through a period of belt-tightening because of the ongoing financial tsunami, China is awash in cash. Like any nouveau riche, China throws its weight around the world and in the neighbourhood block. In Arunachal Pradesh, China stops a $60 million development project to be financed by the Asian Development Bank. In New Delhi it buys a four-page spread in The Hindustan Times to say that the “serfs” on the other side consider themselves “liberated.” Like America from a different era, China thinks any problem will solve itself by withdrawing or throwing money at it.

The Tibetan people have their distinct viewpoint on the debate on “liberation.” They feel agonizingly enslaved.

What about the Chinese? What do the Chinese people think about their “liberation”? Here too there are two views. Those who are enriched by socialism say they are truly liberated. They say, Marx is great, socialism is great, the Chinese Communist Party is greater because we are rich and we cannot get enough of it in communist China.

What do those at the bottom of the Chinese pile think? There must be as many different viewpoints on this as there are Chinese in the world. More than 1.3 billion at the last count. One particular Chinese has his passionate view on the issue and the way he puts it reflects the enormous capacity of the Chinese people to ‘eat bitterness.’ It is recounted in a remarkable new book, China Road: A Journey Into the Future of A Rising Power by Rob Gifford. This book was published a year before the world was struck down by the financial crisis. Before he left his National Public Radio post in Beijing, Rob Gifford, a veteran reporter, who had studied in China and speaks the language like a native, took to the road, from Shanghai to the very edge of Xingjiang to the border of Kazakhstan. When he entered Xingjiang, Rob Gifford encountered Lao Zhang, a Chinese who ran a noodle restaurant in Xingxingxia. Here’s the encounter as narrated by the author..

“I stand beside the open window and simply ask him how life is. My question opens a floodgate.

“’How is life? How is life? Life is not good. Do you know why? Because the officials have sealed up our well. The well that has given water to Xingxinghai for centuries has been sealed up with concrete.’

“He looks up from his blackened wok, then splashes soy sauce into the stir-fry, which sizzles as he tosses it. “’The officials here are so evil, so incredibly immoral, it almost defies belief.’

“’But why on earth would they want to do that?’” I ask him.

“’Because…’” He pauses again and steps back from the stove., wok in hand, to look at me. “’Because they run the local water company, and they want to force everyone to buy their water.’

“Even when you think you know something of the venality of the Chinese officials, stories like this can still take your breath away. Lao Zhang says he remonstrated with them, but they would not listen. He says they used the classic post-9/11 argument of the government officials in Xingjiang. ‘They said if I kept on protesting, they would arrest me as a terrorist.’

“’So is there nothing you can do about it,’” I ask him finally.

“’Endure. That is all we can do. We can and must endure. That is all we have ever been able to do.’

“I stare at him and slowly shake my head. He has just summed up thousands of years of Chinese history. Endure is all that Old Hundred Names have ever been able to do. For all the progress in the wealthier parts of China, endure is all that hundreds of millions of common people in the poorer countryside and the western regions ever see themselves doing in future.”

Rob Gifford records another opinion. On his way to X’ian, the starting point of any journey from China on the Silk Road in ancient times, the writer boards a bus and is immediately accosted by the ticket collector, who asks him where he is from. The traveller tells him. The ticket collector responds, “’Hong Kong is good, because you guys governed it.’

“One row in front of me, on the other side of the aisle, is a youngish-looking Chinese man with a buzz cut and very shiny shoes. He looks as though he might be an off-duty soldier, and he takes
exception to what the ticket collector has said.

“’So you think Britain should just govern the whole of China, do you?’

“’Sure. They couldn’t do a worse job than this bunch..’”


One thought on “Buy Stomachs, Win Hearts

  1. I am pleased that China finally memorialized the emancipation of the Tibetan serfs and slaves. Many countries do this, because it is natural to take ones good fortune for granted, and to forget where we have come from. I was disapointed that the Dalai Lama responded by claiming that life in China today, was a living hell. I cannot immaging why some make fun of personal liberty, demean folks living in Tibet today, yet accuse China of taking personal liberty away from those who commit criminal acts of violence. I believe the Dalai Lama missed a great opportunity, and I doubt this will improve the case for Free Tibet.

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