Dalai Lama in Paris; A Commentary on Elections and Propaganda

Nearly three weeks has passed since the Dalai Lama stopped in the Paris city mayor’s office for a brief ceremony and photo opportunity, but his visit remains worth commenting upon, since the “incident” was widely discussed in China and fed into several important streams of discourse on Sino-French and Sino-Western relations.

Timing of the Visit
First, although the CCP press noted that the Dalai Lama was attempting to maximize his visibility while visiting Paris in early June, quite the opposite was the case.  Coverage of the visit in the print media was buried by stories on the European Union elections.  President Obama, over whom the European press remains in nigh-full swoon, visited Normandy and barely merited front-page treatment!  In Liberation, Obama merited only page 13-14; the Dalai Lama got a short story on page 17; likewise for Le Monde.  And so what transpired, media-wise, is precisely the opposite of what Xinhua claimed would happen: the notion that all European eyes were on the mayor’s office is simply specious.  Of course, without reading French newspapers or watching France 24 (which like everything else is blocked on YouTube), for instance, Chinese observers would have fewer independent means of assessing the context of the Dalai Lama’s visit.

One caveat is necessary, however, to show the shrewdness of the Chinese press: Although the Dalai Lama received a dearth of acclaim due to his being in Paris at the same time as President Obama, it is certainly possible that he or members of his entourage could have had some kind of a secret meeting with American cabinet members accompanying President Obama in Paris and Normandy.  Perhaps it is with this kind of conspiratorial thinking, a bent for which the Chinese Communist Party has such a lovely predilection, that Xinhua was instructing the public.  Even if Xinhua was slinging red herrings, those fish might yet swim within the frigidly swirling Himalayan waters of Tibetan “separatist clique” conspiracy.

Elections Take Precedence Over the Dalai Lama
What exactly displaced the Dalai Lama from page one in Europe?  First, a bit of Tibet fatigue.  After the struggles of the previous spring, the torch debacle, the feud over the Yuanmingyuan antiques at the Saint-Laurent auction, and the reconciliation of Sarkozy and Hu Jintao in early April at the ASEAN summit, the French public really saw no reason to get overly riled up.  Perhaps more correctly, the French saw no need to get China upset over the Tibet issue – let Nancy Pelosi handle that!  “T’emmerde pas avec ca!” they might have said.  If anything, most folks seemed annoyed with the mayor’s publicity stunt.  No one took Delanoe’s caveats seriously that he couldn’t imagine that the Dalai Lama’s visit would put any pressure on his colleagues in the Elysees (Sarkozy) or the Quai d’Orsay (the Foreign Ministry).

Secondly, Obama’s concurrent visit to Europe further overshadowed the Dalai Lama.  The Germans, for instance, were swept up in Obama-mania, and a few were a bit miffed that the President chose not to come to Berlin.  (For my part, I was racing across the old southern East German borderlands in a smoky black Golf chasing the man’s shadow; thank you, Mitfahrgelegenheit!)  Ignoring completely the propagandistic import of the Dalai Lama’s visit, the Suddeutscher Zeitung instead groused about Obama’s highly coordinated media campaign; the predetermined narrative for the trip, emphasizing his grandfather’s all-American anti-Axis credentials, caused even this pro-Obama newspaper to ask: “isn’t it just a bit much?” And of course the French got fixated on the Obama-Sarkozy dynamic, which buried news of the Dalai Lama further.

Thirdly, the EU elections completely pushed the Dalai Lama to the periphery. Allow me a brief  aside on the democratic process — Although turnout for the EU mandate was somewhat low, Europeans (unlike mainland Chinese, by circumstance) remain basically vested in the process of self-governance.  Moreover, unlike Northeast Asians generally,  Europeans are lassoed however uncomfortably into the notion of common regional governance.  And, this, like many regional issues in Northeast Asia, is in large part a Korean problem: how can Inchon promote itself as some center of East Asian community of common governance when North Korea is hanging out hostile 30 km away?

To take this tangeant one step further: Last summer I spent some time in Berlin hanging out with the French National Youth Orchestra after their massive Shostakovich explosion; a few days later I had a chance to see the EU Youth Orchestra in Beijing.  For me, the meaning of those delegations was so clear – the Europeans have their Union, but they continue to work at it, that it is a generational project and on should never assume that it is complete or that the past is wholly settled.  It brought me to the realization of the deep contrasts again between Europe and Asia.  Where are the Japanese youth orchestras in Beijing?  The Asian Union youth orchestra?  Anything (to use a discredited term) resembling pan-Asianism?  For all the hubbub over the allegedly arriving dominance of Chinese over the classical music scene, and for the NY Philharmonic in North Korea, the whole notion of a culturally-driven impetus for Northeast Asian unity is, on its face, ridiculous.

And so, unsuprisingly, the EU elections got very short shrift in foreign affairs publications in China, while instead peripheral but emotional issues like the Dalai Lama took more precedence.  Did most Chinese have any clue at all that Europe was embroiled in a wide political campaign during the Dalai’s visit?

But one might attribute the lack of interest in European elections to Chinese interest in a nother plebescite: that in Iran.  Yet here in Beijing, the Iranian election seems to have been treated in part as a kind of cautionary tale of counter-revolutionary rebellion sparked by unbridled use of communications technologies.  Is it a coincidence the shutdown of all Google communications happened just as the CCP was studying the results and the practices of protesters in Iran?  I would love to read the dispatches from the Chinese embassy in Tehran from the last few weeks; one could wager that the techniques of the protesters have been a major point of emphasis.  And the measured tones of Xinhua’s English-language material on Iran of late are hardly replicated in the Chinese discourse.

One final self-indulgent thought on the EU vote before stepping back in line to slap down the 环球时报.  I happen to have been in Paris the week before the elections, and captured some priceless anti-establishment graffitti; the rightist candidate was tatooed with a couple of swastikas and the note “I sleep with prostitutes in the Bois de Vencinnes [park].”   [Photos forthcoming!]  This kind of distain for authority, a vital piece of a democratic society in my view, is something I have been missing greatly in China, where grafitti mainly exists as obligatory 交拆s and the leaders stay quite shielded from the folk.  What an obvious contrast, but one that deserves noting!  [Meanwhile, American democracy has bailouts and bedsores; Detroit is sapped by corruption; wars bludgeon out our earplugs; I wail over my tax burden.]

Somehow the deep stifling of internet political discourse in China has already deepened my nostalgia for Europe.  In China, political conversations can take place in salons, with friends at home, usually wandered into about 90 minutes after one has destroyed table full of food.  But on the street, with strangers?  Rare indeed.  (Unless they are drunk, juiced up to meet a lone foreigner, and you are eating 羊肉串儿; somehow beer, mutton, and television reports on the Brazilian soccer team create a free speech space.)  So in general I think back with equanimity over the long and open conversations about the EU vote with appropriately relaxing and pierced Green Party mobilizers in Neukoelln, and later with preppy SPD organizers at Hackeseshcer Markt. (New Cologne is an up-and-coming young and somewhat Turkic neighborhood in southeast Berlin, home to a handful of literate and artistic friends; in mobilizing in Berlin’s Mitte, SPD volunteers gave me a very nice pen which quickly ran out of ink while telling me their party’s environmental policies were basically those of the Green Party anyway.  So much for Green-Red “coalitions”…yet the very word sounds with utopian tones in one-party China and unipolar USA).

The point remains: European discourse on elections scotched the Dalai Lama’s splittist plot!  Thank you, Western democracy.  For once, you have saved China from losing face.

Dalai in Paris; The Global Times [环球时报] Hyperventilates
And so, amid these currents in the Western press, one must return to the Dalai Lama and the offending article in the Global Times [hereafter Huanqiu Shibao], the daily and allegedly premier mass publication in China on foreign affairs.  My copies of this fine publication cost 1.2 yuan, papers usually purchased from the wistful and deliberate vendor on the southwest corner of the Guloudajie subway station (鼓楼大街地铁站).  It is my companion, sometimes riding shotgun with 青年参考/”Elite Reference”, on the ride to Chaoyangmen and the office which I share with a few other enterprising scholars on the seventh floor of the PRC Foreign Ministry every summer.  An English version known as the Global Times is now published daily as well.  In fact it is better than the insufferable China Daily but unfortunately, and as others have astutely commented upon at Danwei, it in no way resembles the Chinese version.

“Paris Mayor Insists on Disturbing China: 87% of Huanqiu Shibao Internet Voters are ‘Resolutely Opposed’ to Paris Offering the Dalai Lama ‘Honorary Citizenship’,” Huanqiu Shibao, June 8, 2009, front page.  [“巴黎市长执意冒犯中国: 87%的环球网投票者‘坚决反对’巴黎授达赖 ‘荣誉市民’”,环球时报,6月8日,首页.]

So in spite of everything else going on, the Huanqiu Shibao leads the June 8 edition with Mayor Delanoe and the Dalai Lama.  No photographs are provided (in fact, searching for photos of the visit on Google, Baidu produces only censored blank spaces; such censorship must have frustrated a few nationalistic folks who wanted an image to go along with their denunciation of these two Parisian demons.)  Instead, as if to show how reasonable they could be toward the French, the accompanying cover photo is of two Brazilian airforce members looking forlornly out a cargo plane door for debris of the Air France disaster.

The granting of “honorary citizenship” (always in quotation marks) to the Dalai Lama, the article argues, “casts a shadow over the accord which was recently reached in London” between Hu Jintao and Nicholas Sarkozy on April 1.  Acknowleging that even French media concede that the Dalai Lama is being used for electoral purposes of the mayor, the article notes that “the Dalai Lama is [nevertheless] happy to play his role to weight the scales of the Western political drama.”  Getting to the main point of the opening paragraph, the writers conclude that “the French side realizes that the Dalai Lama comes at the sacrifice of [good] French relations with China, and simultaneously that the Chinese people [民众] cannot in any way accept this.”

The article then goes on to offer as evidence a letter to Mayor Delanoe from an unspecified organization of overseas Chinese in Paris, requesting that he reject the Dalai Lama; this point of view is further buttressed with the first mention of the paper’s own internet poll where 87% of readers resolutely oppose the action.  Interestingly, this juxtaposition of overseas Chinese with presumably China-based internet readers serves to solidify the impression of total unity of all Chinese on the Tibet issue.  For readers inside China, it is a subtle way to pierce the idea that overseas Chinese, those who presumably have greater access to information on the Tibet issue, might have divergent opinions about the Tibet issue.  “Don’t fear, mainland Chinese,” it states implicitly, “your nigh-uniform indigination is shared by [23 of] your overseas colleagues.”  (We see the same discourse at work in the anti-Japan issue, something York U. professor Joshua Fogel has remarked upon intelligently in many forums.)  More on the letter to Delanoe, though not the full text, is available in Chinese on the Yunnan Ribao and on Sina.  As for the poll, its language just so happens to mirror precisely the wording used by Qin Gang of the PRC Foreign Ministry!  Interesting…

Moving into “the inside story” of the Dalai’s visit, the paper does a great courtesy and quotes a line or two from Le Figaro 《费加罗报》about the somewhat-undercover nature of the visit, doing a spot-on translation from the French “en cachette” (stealthily/悄悄的).  Score one up for accuracy and subtlety; these reporters are clearly not mere Philistine hacks.  While the paper’s two full-time reporters in Paris seem to be reading French newspapers, it is more difficult in China.   Wierdly, left-wing Liberation is blocked on the Chinese internet, but not the center-right Figaro.  Perhaps this goes along with Mao’s notion, expressed to Richard Nixon, in 1972, that he preferred dealing with rightists rather than leftists.  Or maybe Liberation’s special section on Tiananmen in 1989 got someone musty.  In any case, the article under examination here goes on to note that, according to Le Figaro, the original ceremony had been planned for a big hall in the Hotel de Ville, but for purposes of lowering the profile, moved to the mayor’s office in the same building.  The Indian website SIFY is then cited as a further source.

After some analysis, the article returns again to the indignation of the Chinese people, now focusing on the youth.  As with the Japan issue, this is an unsubtle way of brandishing the specter of mass youth nationalism at a foreign government.  “Don’t make us unleash these kids again,” it seems to argue to Mr. Sarkozy, “we really want to keep our campuses harmonious.”

Which leads me to an important aside on the Dalai Lama’s timing.  Why, of all days, go to Paris on the very day of the greatest stress for Chinese youth, the day of the Gaokao 高考, or college entrance exam?  One could very seriously make the case that anti-Dalai messages on Chinese BBS were heightened by the accompanying stress, and that the Tibet /France issue made an inviting external target for angst that may in fact have been related most to the exam.  Does anyone work on this notion of transferrance when discussing nationalism among Chinese youth?  Perhaps a connection could be drawn in a more scientific way between the culture of examinations, the stresses produced, and the sometimes brutal culture of the Chinese chat room.  No one to my knowledge has made this connection, but certainly I can imagine more than a few Chinese teenagers taking their academic rage out on that unsuspecting holy man.

To return to the article: no fewer than seven reporters were on the case, two in Paris.  As I argued in a somewhat incoherent post on my Chinese blog, all these reporters were simply unable to get a quote from the Paris mayor or anyone from his office; they were unable to publish a single quote from any French expert or French citizen in Paris or Beijing.  (One Chinese specialist on Tibet, Hu Shili, was quoted).  But several “ordinary Chinese youth” were able to weigh in via this article, thankfully, to remind the Tibetans how much China has invested in them and provide gems like this, from someone identified as “a young 27 year old miss [小姐] working for a Beijing advertising company.” Since her quote is so perfect, I include its entirety below:

“I saw in the media that the Dalai Lama is trying to say that the Chinese government is wiping out [灭绝/miejue] the culture of ethnic Tibetans, but according to my own observations in Tibet, the situation is not at all like this.  A few years ago I went to for a tour in the southern mountain region of Tibet, we were warmly welcomed on the street; I really enjoyed eating Tibetan food, there were lots of tourists from different places.  However, the old Tibetan ladies there didn’t speak any Mandarin.  I believe that this is testimony that Tibetan culture still has a major influence in Tibetan areas.”

(By the way, does the propaganda bureau provide Chinese journalists with checklists for catch-phrases in their articles?  Because that would make the whole process a lot easier, and then they could spend more time with their kids.  Really.)

After another nice quote about the old feudal system in Tibet [NEVER FORGET, THE TIBETANS WERE ALL SLAVES and we are still teaching them how to be civilized] we return to the science of internet polls.  This time, in a twist, the internet poll stems from France, where 65% of Le Figaro readers were opposed to the way the French government was handling the visit.  Again, a friendly anonymous netizen comes to the rescue [网友写道], writing that he or she is very ashamed of the French politicians, and that the French politicians themselves should be ashamed.  Shame!  Another magnificent keyword that we should all say every morning, fifty times, in the mirror, to remind ourselves that, unlike under the weak regime of that warlord Jiang Jieshi and his four big families, China will never again be humiliated, especially not on the internet.

A long quote from Renmin Ribao’s resident France expert, Zheng Yuanyuan郑园园, and thus the chain is complete.  Now, to wit, in case the aforementioned checklist does not in fact exist, I present:

How to Write an Article in 18 Steps About French Attitudes Toward Tibet When One is a 30-something Male Huanqiu Shibao Reporter In Paris:

1. Read #1 essential credible source on the topic (Renmin Ribao)
2. Smoke a cigarette while defecating; clear your mind.
3. Get an internet poll brewing:
[“Do you firmly support, or just support, putting an end to the Dalai Lama’s dastardly plot to break apart China with the help of pro-Japanese remnant Vichy collaborationist hanjian?”]
4. Print, read, then re-read and highlight, statements of Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Qin Gang since February. Consider writing a song using these as lyrics to facilitate rapid memorization.
5. Grab a Nutella crepe from the stand on the corner; slurp a coffee.
6. Go back home, put on a dress, imagine you are a 27-year old girl in Beijing, ask yourself questions about your wonderful vacation to Tibet.
7. Make sure you have audio, not video, of step #6.
8. Check poll; read BBS comments; write first draft. Make sure to include Nietzschean phrases like “unshakeable will” that remind you of being a college student.
9. Contact your team of five co-authors in Beijing.  Read over their interview with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences guy.  Make sure the Renmin Ribao quotes are correct.
10. Browse the Le Figaro website.
11. Clear browser history.
12. Finish second draft.  Double check that all potentially naughty terms such as “honorary citizen,” “Tibet issue,” and “human rights” are kept safely contained within quotation marks.
13. Take a well-deserved break.  Listen to some Carla Bruni or Man Wenjun; call your girlfriend to talk about the real estate market.
14. When the time arrives, stay at home.  Do not call Mayor Delanoe’s office, do not go to Hotel de Ville to take pictures.  Do not discuss the Dalai Lama with French people on the street or Francophone East Asia scholars.  Leave this for the professionals.  Do not attempt to find critical Chinese people in Paris with whom to discuss this issue.  Remember: none of this crap will make it into the article anyway, and what Chinese people think is best represented in the comments to your ingenious polling question.  Seriously, you are really good at this.
15. Check e-mail; read over editors’s comments in Beijing.  Take a deep breath.
16. Find a hard hat, put it on.  Pretend you are a 30-year old construction worker from the earthquake-afflicted zone in Sichuan who likes to say “The Western people who support the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan political system of feudal slavery are a group of true hypocrites.”
17. Gut your favorite paragraphs; send the article to press.  Tell yourself it is a front page story.
18. Remind yourself why you got this job in the first place.  Smoke another cigarette.

“A Paris, le dalai-lama mesure l’efficacite des pressions chinois,” Le Monde, p. 17.

感悟中法关系中的民间政治  之二 “Awakening People Power in Sino-French Relations, Part II,” by Sinomec, Chinese journalist in Paris – A singularly excellent, and widely read essay, on Sino-French relations today and since the 1950s.  — http://blog.ifeng.com/article/2773785.html

法国政府解散巴黎中国学生会事及处理意见, [Views on Handling the French Government’s Disbanding of Chinese Student Organization in Paris], 12-15 December, 1952, Chinese Foreign Ministry Archive Document #110-00184-03.

法国《人道报》记者古达德来华访 (2-1)(抵京后所提要求以及与文化部和总工会有关人员谈话记录), [French L’Humanite reporter Coutarde’s Visit to China; Transcripts of Meetings with Cultural Ministry and Related Work] 27 Sept. 1952-2 December 1952, Chinese Foreign Ministry Archive Document #116-00062-01.

[Huanqiu’s follow-up poll to the analyzed article is, essentially, “Do you believe that Paris and Beijing are still sister cities?”; it can be accessed here {http://world.huanqiu.com/roll/2009-06/481863.html}; more than 800 reader comments were strung up in about two days’ time, but these comments are largely predicatable and hardly edifying.]


  1. One thing is that Huanqiu certainly sells in China, which can’t be said about Renmin Ribao – and whatever triggers emotions sells best. Indeed – gaokao stress can be vented on a completely different topic. And a lot of other stresses which stem from problems within China can be dumped on evil foreign forces, too. But first and foremost, Huanqiu operates within the same confines as all mainstream media in China, and under the same editorial macro-control from the Central Propaganda Department and the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television. One consistent CCP policy is to make the public fear foreign forces – and I think that’s the main purpose of coverage on splittist elements abroad. I’m sometimes wondering though if the public nationalism pushes the CCP, or vice versa. To some extent, wide-spread nationalism is certainly helpful for the CCP to maintain its rule.

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