Portland-Tibet Update

On March 11, the English-language China Daily contained an editorial upbraiding the city of Portland for its “Tibet Awareness Day.”  Suffice it to say that while China Daily has recently had a makeover, the publication’s content remains as stodgy  as ever: Portland politicians were “celebrat[ing] a handful of fanatics trumpeting Tibet independence while turning a blind eye to either history or the status quo of present-day Tibet.”  And at the outset, Portland’s “Tibet Awareness Day,” the editorial stated, “is rubbing salt into the unhealed wound of the world’s most important bilateral relations.”

While command of verb tenses and grammatical forms are not China Daily’s historical strong suit (as the error in the editorial’s concluding sentence attests), the use of present tense in the opening gambit is somewhat interesting: yes, the editorial implies, the actions of March 10 are continuing to rub salt into the metaphorically enflamed gash of Sino-U.S. relations.  Well, I certainly hope that Portland city leaders have got a copy of Peter Hays Gries’ 2005 book China’s New Nationalism on hand, because we are now in the realm of what the University of Colorado professor terms “the politics of apology.”  It’s the grievance loop!

With reference to the editorial,  I am also certain that its appearance caused much rejoicing amid the upper reaches of the newly-appointed staff at the PRC Consulate in San Francisco, where the path to promotion is now a bit more secure and China Daily is always available in giant handfuls for any takers.

(By way of thinking about how the Consulate operates on the plane of propaganda [a term which needn’t be used pejoratively in the Chinese context], I recall that Falun Gong, an organization that is basically at war with the CCP, seems to have achieved a pleasant modus vivendi with both local San Francisco police and the Chinese Consulate which allows them to leaflet any and everyone going into the Consulate to get a visa.  In some ways their presence, along with the Consulate’s recent anxieties over the Tibet issue, reminds us that the PRC is in fact itself besieged by a number of putatively hostile forces against whom, the official argument goes, stern counter-propaganda must be levied. And thus the ethos of 1949 is replicated, again and again.  Rival Chinese regimes, foreign imperialists, and secret societies inside of China all writhe around like snakes which can only be stilled by the swift prick of the editorialist’s pen.)

Janie Har provides further perspective on the issue in her article entitled “Flap over Portland’s Proclamation in Support of Tibet Goes Global” (The Oregonian, March 12, 2010).  It’s a solid article, and one in which I was quoted, speaking to China’s feeling of being ganged-up on by the West, and the rapidity with which the news (and irrational anti-Portland fervor) spread on the Chinese internet.

By China feeling ganged up on by the West, I mean not so much the long-standing narrative of historical humiliation (thus justifying every and any nationalistic response), but instead the idea that Chinese public opinion on the Tibet issue is already operating at a high level of sensitivity due to, among other things, acts of political theater that reverberated this past summer from Europe.  From Beijing’s perspective, a rash of Parisian mayors, Berlin district councils, and now Portland city politicians were sending up the Tibetan flag and “meddling in China’s internal affairs.”  In other words, China may try for a little more leverage with Washington by saying that things are sensitive in the aftermath of Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama (Obama’s “45 minutes for human rights,” in the apt phrase of Germany’s top news magazine), but in fact the sensitivity is also largely due to the actions of our European friends.

Somehow I don’t think Portland Mayor Sam Adams will be calling Mayor Delanoe in Paris to ask for advice, but it’s worth noting that about seven months after they made him enemy #2 (behind that jackal the Dalai Lama) for a day, the Chinese media happily reported that Mayor Delanoe was hosting a Chinese delegation in Paris’ Hotel de Ville (City Hall) for a big Chinese New Year’s Party.  One can hope that, as Chairman Mao told Nixon, we were simply watching “empty cannon shots of propaganda” from both sides for show, while substantive progress was in fact being made on the fronts that mattered — trade and cultural cooperation foremost.  Of course it never hurts, as in the French case, to send a few gigantic contracts China’s way.

By way of more general reflections, it’s also worth noting that few American cities, to my knowledge, have done more in recent years to cultivate economic and cultural ties to China than has Portland.  The installation “China Design Now” at the Portland Art Museum was a wonderful case in point this past fall.   The really excellent exhibition website contained two images that I thought captured perfectly the promise and pitfalls of working with the PRC, and the utopian and dystopian visions that arise therefrom:

Ma Qingyun's South China Science and Technology University 2008 campus design, from Portland's "China Design Now" installation
from China Urban Collective at Reed College, Portland, via "China Design Now"

Finally, given that a major daily newspaper in Beijing was making rumblings about boycotting Portland NBA game broadcasts, I spoke with some communications folks at the Portland Trail Blazers offices on Friday and will probably be spending some time in the next couple of days tracking down and translating some more commentary in Chinese on the NBA front.  One comment on my earlier post was certainly apropos: basketball is one area where, in China, national pride merges with, and is often sublimated by, the pure pleasures and agonies of being a sports fan.


  1. Honestly Adam, I don’t see this Portland saga all over the Chinese Internet. Other than Huanqiu Shibao, which is your primary source for Chinese opinions (again I have my strong reservations. Relying too much on HS to gauge Chinese public opinion is like relying on TMZ.com, National Inquirer, Washington Times and Fox News for American public opinion), I haven’t seen much of a discussion about Portland at all. Perhaps (and hopefully) the Chinese people have gotten used to this constant pampering of foreign governments at all levels going out of their way to show solidarity with the Tibetan Independence movement. I hope the Chinese government will shrug it off too. As much as I disagree with stuart on most issues, he is absolutely right by saying that there is nothing foreign governments can do to snatch Xizang away from China, instead of getting hung up on these kinds of insignificant, trivial moves the Chinese government should focus on improving livelihood and human rights in Xizang.

    By the way, was there any editorial regarding this coming out of the People’s Daily or even Huanqiu Shibao? I wasn’t surprised that China Daily ran an editorial since its readership consists of mostly foreigners. If the People’s Daily is not making a fuss and the fact that most Chinese print and online media have not showcased the story ( you know Adam, if they wanted to make a point you would have seen the online portals beating the drum for at least three days with emboldened fonts like they did to the arm sales to Taiwan province and Obama meeting the DL), it probably means it is not a huge deal for the Chinese.

    1. Thanks for the perspective, Juchechosunmanse…and I think you’re right about proportionality. Just another piece in the mosaic. In terms of the continuum of things, I think the right parallel is the Palm Springs episode this past January, where the PRC delegation showed up, made their statement along with some smaller items in the Chinese press, and left it at that.

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