Appearances are deceptive. Show is not substance.
A couple of weeks ago, some photos of a Tibetan couple went viral on Chinese social media. The story was picked up by Chinese and international media and Tibet support groups. According to Xinhua News, the 31-year-old groom named Gerongpengcuo was from Danba county in Sichuan province. His soon-to-be wife, Dawazhuoma, is from a rural family in neighboring Maerkang county. On the one hand, there is no denying the photos are aesthetically beautiful. On the other, the heavily stylised and photo-shopped images, and the popularity and ease with which these photos were promoted and congratulated, stands in direct contradiction to the current state of affairs for the majority of Tibetans in Tibet.
Tibet has been illegally and brutally occupied by the communist Chinese government for more than six decades. Human rights groups have consistently tried to call the world’s attention to this grim and unrelenting state of affairs and the ongoing torture, imprisonment, murder and discrimination faced by Tibetans vis a vis immigrant Han Chinese in the region. Yet, photos of the beautiful, wealthy Tibetan couple dressed in western, designer clothes and a Lamborghini juxtaposed with images of traditional nomadic life spoke more to Chinese neo-liberal capitalist ideals of happiness and Orientalist ideas of Shangri-la than of genuine freedom and autonomy in occupied Tibet. If these photos had been taken by a European or Chinese photographer am sure the cries of ‘imperialism’ would be heard all over post-colonial, politically correct American campuses.
The fawning BBC report ‘The Wedding Photos that Captivated China’, outrageously downplayed the current situation between Tibet and China as being a ‘tumultuous’ relationship and referred to Chinese attempts to colonise, repress and control Tibetan religion and culture as merely an ‘ongoing crackdown on Tibetan nationalism.’ Stating that:
Xinhua, China’s official state news agency, reported that the photos have been seen by 80 percent of users of messaging app WeChat – which would mean an audience of hundreds of millions. In an interview with the agency, Phuntsok, who works in advertising, speculated about what made the pictures so popular: “Maybe we represented thousands of young people from ethnic minorities, who left their hometowns to pursue a ‘modern life’ but chose to return to tradition after feeling a void in the heart,” he said. “I think we found an echo with other web users. As we fight for our dreams, some of us get lost. So we wanted to say with the photos: stick to your beliefs.”
What is meant by ‘beliefs’ here is not clear. If it means the ‘belief’ that Tibetans should be free to practise their religion, culture and politics without Chinese interference and genuine autonomy then that is clearly welcome. However, it is hard to see how the glamorous photos move forward the genuine plight of ordinary Tibetans. If anything, they make Tibetan lives and choices look unrealistically rosy. Although it is by no means all ‘doom and gloom’ in Tibet, it is doubtful that the majority of Tibetans (or other minorities) in Tibet have the freedom or wealth to make such ‘decisions’. In ‘Don’t Make Yourself at Home‘, the Economist reported that economic and social discrimination against so-called ‘minorities’ in China is rife:
Uighurs and Tibetans are staying on the farm, often because discrimination against them makes it difficult to find work in cities. As ethnic discontent grows, so too does the discrimination, creating a vicious circle…..Even some of the best-educated Uighur and Tibetan migrants struggle to find work. Reza Hasmath of Oxford University found that minority candidates in Beijing, for example, were better educated on average than their Han counterparts, but got worse-paying jobs. A separate study found that CVs of Uighurs and Tibetans, whose ethnicities are clearly identifiable from their names (most Uighurs also look physically very different from Han Chinese), generated far fewer calls for interviews.
According to the Tibetan authorities in exile, among many other injustices, more than 70 percent of Tibetans in Tibet now live below the poverty line with the highest poverty rate in the PRC.
Even more ironic, the ‘Tibetan couple’ photos were released around the same time as a White Paper on Tibet by the Chinese government stating that there was no chance of a ‘rapprochement with the 14th Dalai Lama’. A Paper that the Tibetan exile authorities officially described as ‘frenzied’ and a ‘whitewash’:
‘China’s State Council Information Office (China’s Cabinet) released another frenzied white paper on Tibet that clearly indicates the Chinese government’s nervousness over its grip on occupied Tibet. A Tibetan nun was the latest to self-immolate. The actions of the 137 Tibetans who have self-immolated so far clearly reflect the deepening anguish and resentment of the Tibetan people at the conditions in their homeland.’
One Tibetan scholar I spoke to had this to say about Tibetan reaction to the photos:
This failure to see the retrospectively obvious Chinese propaganda mission of portraying the idea of happy Tibetans with their traditions respected and kept intact in China while embracing the virtues of modernity is simple: After decades of suppression, marginalization and general air of hopeless and sadness, we the Tibetans, just like our morally upright Chinese brothers and sisters, desperately wanted to believe every bit of apparent good news that comes from the Land of Snow.
So, the photos may have been an ‘innocent’ couple seeking to portray a positive image of Tibetans in Tibet. But let’s not be too gullible or naive about them either. As Bethany Allen-Ebrahiman states in ‘A New Look for Tibetans With an Assist from the Chinese State‘:
Behind the inviting images of this well-coiffed couple, in other words, lurks the influence of the Chinese state, one equipped to censor non-conforming content before it goes viral, and to burnish and spread the stories that it favors. Phuntsok and Drolma’s pictures are authentic — but they also happen to fit neatly into the Chinese government’s need to broadcast an appealing image of Tibetan-Han bicultural harmony, whatever the reality on the ground.
People, often through social conditioning, indirectly internalise, collaborate or perpetuate the ideology of their ‘oppressors’. Like a beauty pageant proclaiming to ’empower women’ whose entrance requirements are inherently sexist and patriarchal.
As Buddhist practitioners know very well, appearances can be very deceptive. A far more romantic and moving example of genuine change in China would have been if photos of wrongly imprisoned Tibetan film-maker, Dhondup Wangchen, (who risked his life to make ‘Leaving Fear Behind‘) recently reunited with his courageous wife, Lhamo Tso, had gone viral.
Such photos were kept private though. Yet, it’s an authentic tale of enduring love, ideals and perseverance against all the odds and one genuinely worthy of celebration and aspiration.
Author’s Note: I sent this article for publication on my Huffington Post blog two weeks ago. The Editors took the unusual step of refusing to publish, saying it was of ‘no interest to their readers’.