Wednesday, April 22, 2009

High Peaks Pure Earth reported a Beijing student's account of racism and discrimination against Tibetans in the Chinese capital. Qiaga Tashi Tsering and his girlfriend went to seven or eight different hotels only to be turned away from all of them because "Tibetans can't stay here."

They were turned away because they were Tibetan, because of their race. Are these isolated cases that happen because of personal prejudice (never mind that Tashi Tsering went to at least seven different hotels)? Or is this something more insidious and political and therefore much more hideous? The ugly truth is that the entire Chinese policy seems rooted in a belief that Tibetans are second-class citizens; that Tibetans are to be suspected and distrusted so long as they practice their religion, read and write their language, and hold on to their culture and identity.

Han chauvinism is plain racism. I am reminded of an earlier era in American and Indian history when a black man could not sit in the front of a bus and an Indian could not travel first class on a train alongside Englishmen.

Because people in the west take it for granted that social and political liberalization must follow social liberalization -because we see only the skycrapers of Shanghai and the skyline of Beijing and not the prisons and detention centers of Lhasa and Shigatse- we often fail to realize that in China's occupied territories, the political and social situation is in fact worse and more oppressive now than before.

We suffer from, to use Samantha Power's words, a failure of imagination. We live in a society where a parent can go to jail for slapping a child, where a policeman reads you your Miranda rights before handcuffing you and hauling you off to jail. How to realistically imagine then a society -with skyscrapers and cellphones- where a student can be expelled from school and their future ruined for simply writing "Free Tibet" on a piece of paper and a person can spend years in jail for joining a peaceful demonstration and shouting slogans?

I am reminded very much of Verbal's quote in The Usual Suspects: "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." The Chinese government with its billion-strong market and reserves of American dollars, is well on its way to convincing the world that it is not a colonial power that is forcefully occupying Tibet, East Turkestan and Inner Mongolia.