Propaganda and the West: China's struggle to sway international opinion on the "Tibet issue" (TIN) -- Tibet Information Network Special Report 16 July 2001

"I don't think Tibet has any political problems. Those so-called problems have been fabricated by foreign countries like the United States." - Lobsang Dradul (Ch: Luosang Zhandui), a Tibetan economist at the state-run China Tibetology Research Centre (Inside China Today, 24 May 2001)

"Many foreigners do not quite understand Tibet. China has an old saying: 'It is better to see once than hear a hundred times.' I hope they will come to Tibet, see more about Tibet, and change their biased views towards Tibet." - TAR Party executive deputy secretary Ragdi (Xinhua 12 May 2001)

The struggle against an "international anti-China force"

China's concerns over its international image are as high as at any time since the inception of Communist rule. This has been particularly evident in the light of China's imminent entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the heated debate over whether the international Olympic Committee should give the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing and the red carpet treatment accorded to the Dalai Lama by US President George W. Bush at their 23 May meeting in the White House. The "Tibet issue", which continues to receive prominence in the international media, remains one of the main obstacles facing China in its attempts to win international acceptance of its claims of progress in human rights. While many pro-Tibet groups criticise western governments for not directly challenging China on the Tibet issue, the Chinese authorities view any mention of Tibet by foreign governments as "interference" in China's "internal affairs".

China's desire to change foreigners' perceptions of Tibet is fuelled by economic, as well as political, interests. Beijing has recognised that it has had limited success in external propaganda efforts relating to Tibet and over the past few years has made efforts to review and refine them. The authorities believe that in the "struggle for public opinion" on the Tibet issue they are up against an "organised international anti-China force"[1]. They have accused the US and other western countries of trying to westernise and split China and since the Yugoslavia conflict have talked about a "new culture of interventionism". At the same time China feels threatened by the activities of the Dalai Lama abroad; by the Dalai Lama's alleged ties with other "ethnic splittist" and "anti-China" forces such as the Taiwan and Xinjiang independence movements and Falun Gong; and by the activities of Tibet Support groups such as protests during Chinese official visits and campaigns on economic issues. These campaigns have focused, among other things, on the granting of Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) to China by the US, a World Bank resettlement project in a Tibetan area of Qinghai and the Chinese state oil company subsidiary Petrochina's flotation on the New York Stock Exchange.[2]

China's foreign propaganda chief Zhao Qizheng acknowledged in June 2000 that in terms of external propaganda the "enemy is strong and we are weak" and that this position would be "difficult to reverse"[3]. China has also recognised that its official statements on Tibet are often not treated as credible. As a result there has been a call for Tibetologists in China to take up arms on the "battlefield" of propaganda. Cultural delegations are carrying China's political message abroad and foreigners - diplomats, politicians, academics, tourists and journalists - are being invited to visit Tibet to see for themselves the progress Beijing says has been made over the last 50 years, albeit under tightly controlled conditions.


"'Missiles' in the battlefield": Tibetan Studies as a propaganda tool

- "Non-politicised propaganda"

- Politics v academic credibility: conflicting aims

- Internal impact

Exchanges and visits

- Spreading the official word abroad

- "Seeing is believing": official visits to Tibet

- "We are never alone"

- Prison visits

Policy on Propaganda in the 1990s

Conclusion: A strategy of engagement and attack

"'Missiles' in the battlefield": Tibetan Studies as a propaganda tool

"The so-called 'Tibet issue' […] was single-handedly cooked up by the imperialists, who are, together with the Dalai clique, carrying out a 'splittist' plot against us. This has caused an acute and complicated political struggle between separatists and anti-separatists in the field of Tibetology". - Tsering Paljor (Ch: Cering Banjue), head of the scientific research department of the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences

China has been increasing its investment in Tibetology and has made great efforts to publicise the rapid growth of Tibetan Studies in China over the past few years. This partly comes down to national pride: while Tibetan Studies is popular in the West and relatively well established, China views itself as the natural home of Tibetology and wants to be seen as leading the field. However, Beijing also has an overtly political aim in developing China's Tibetan Studies. China sees the development of Tibetan Studies in the West as part of the "international anti-China force" campaign to westernise and split China. This lies at the heart of China's current efforts to develop this area of studies so that it can use its own academics to counter foreign "anti-China" reports and influence international public opinion. The basic criterion by which academic (or journalistic) work is judged is whether it is "anti-China" or "pro-China". The greater part of Western academic (and media) work is perceived as "anti-China" because it does not strictly adhere to the Chinese Communist Party line. Beijing has taken note of the credence given to academic work in the West and sees it as undermining Chinese attempts to legitimise their rule and policies in Tibet and to promote their own view of Tibetan history and development to the outside world.

Tsering Shakya, a Tibetan historian and research fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, believes that China "grossly exaggerates the influence of Tibetan Studies in the West - there is a huge gap between the proliferation of Tibetan Studies and the actual impact that it has on foreign policy." However, although the impact of Tibetan Studies may have been minimal in determining the direction of government-to-government relations with China, which are influenced to a far greater extent by trade and domestic security considerations, China is sensitive to criticism and easily embarrassed by perceived challenges to its credibility (resulting in "loss of face"). Academic works examining the legitimacy of Chinese rule and policy in Tibet - and as a result challenging the official Chinese view - are particularly badly received by the authorities.

On 12 June 2000, a meeting was held with the aim of "exploring how to make better use of Tibetology in external propaganda work". The Director of the Information Office of the State Council Zhao Qizheng gave a long speech at the start of the meeting summarising the current situation in the "struggle" for international opinion over the Tibet issue. He then went on to explain the important role that Tibetology has to play in this struggle and to set out general guidelines for future Tibetology work. Zhao Qizheng, who also holds the post of Director of China's Foreign Propaganda Office, advocated organising Tibetologists and other intellectuals to participate more in western intellectual activities and to promote China's views in the West. He also stressed the desirability of using western intellectuals as propaganda mouthpieces. Practical methods of implementing this strategy were given: there should be an increase in academic output and more translations into foreign languages; Tibetologists and other intellectuals from China should increase their presence in the West through exchanges and conferences; Tibetologists and other intellectuals from outside China should be encouraged to visit China to tour the country or participate in academic conferences.

A former Tibetan official in the TAR government, now in exile, believes that the June 2000 meeting represents a "major step forward" in external propaganda work. He told TIN that the fact that academics were present at the June meeting indicates that they are now perceived to have an important role in the external propaganda effort. He said: "The status of scholars is lower than that of politicians and they would not normally be invited to attend meetings held by a political department as important as the Information Office of the State Council."

The proposed new role for academics in state propaganda efforts was further emphasised earlier this month, following the Fourth Tibet Work Forum which was held in Beijing from 25 to 27 June. The Fourth Forum, a national level meeting to assess and determine China's Tibet policy was attended by all seven members of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee (Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, Zhu Rongji, Hu Jintao, Li Ruihuan, Wei Jianxing, Li Lanqing). Full details of the forum have still to emerge. However, the Tibet Daily quotes the director of the TAR Party propaganda department, Xiao Huaiyuan, as saying on 6 July that, "in accordance with Jiang Zemin's request" - presumably at the Fourth Forum - the TAR's philosophy, social sciences and Tibetology researchers carry a "weighty responsibility" to:

"[S]trengthen theoretical research, particularly research into nationalities, religion, history, culture, sovereignty and human rights in order to carry out a systematic refutation of the reactionary falsehoods of the Dalai clique and the international anti-China forces, struggle against all kinds of reactionaries, corrupt or backward thinking and ideology and create a good social environment for modernisation." (Tibet Daily, 9 July 2001)

"Non-politicised propaganda"

At the Tibetology and external propaganda meeting in June 2000, Zhao Qizheng acknowledged that China needs to adapt its propaganda tone if it is to win international support. He talked about the success of the "non-politicised propaganda of the Dalai Lama", who "portrays himself as a spiritual teacher […] and pretends to be seeking dialogues and autonomy", hoping to win "greater international sympathy and support". Zhao Qizheng argued that while "official" propaganda has failed to bring foreigners around to China's position, academics are in a prime position to do so, due to their "non-governmental position".

"Succinct and well written works would be 'missiles' in the battlefield of foreign propaganda and could play an irreplaceable role", Zhao Qizheng said. "Of course, these works must truly have weight and be able to strike the target of the harmful foreign language works of our enemies; their arguments should be clear, with a proper foundation; the material must be accurate and reliable, quoted passages should be referenced, and at the end of the book there should be bibliographies and indexes". He acknowledged that "as a rule, the Western public does not really trust government propaganda", going on to say "generally, our foreign friends listen readily to specialist academics, because of their non-official nature and their authority in academic affairs".

One example of this kind of work is a recently published report by the Human Rights Society of China, a Chinese NGO, accusing the US government of masterminding the Tibetan "separatist" movement (China Daily, 25 May 2001). The report uses western research publications and media reports as sources of information. In addition to reflecting the current stepping up of rhetoric between the US and Beijing, it is also a sign of the heightened significance China now places on using academic reporting to counter popular western perceptions of Tibetan history and the current situation.

Politics v academic credibility: conflicting aims

"Without a foundation of sound theoretical research, our external propaganda on Tibet will be like a lake without a source; it will be difficult to make it penetrating and effective." - Zhao Qizheng speaking at a conference on Tibetology and external propaganda work on 12 June 2000

"It is impossible for any Tibetologist to completely ignore the actual political struggle, carrying out 'pure research' in the capacity of a 'pure scholar'. Therefore, it is a matter of some urgency for the Tibetology circle in our country to establish the position of political study courses within Tibetan Studies, and fully bring into play the role of politics research in safeguarding the sovereignty and honour of the state, unity of the motherland and solidarity of the nationalities." - Tsering Paljor (Ch: Cering Banjue), head of the scientific research department of the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences

There is an inherent contradiction in a system like China's in which academics are told to produce "factual" work of a "high academic standard", but are also given extremely narrow, policy-driven parameters within which to work - everything has to strictly adhere to the Party line.

Zhao Qizheng said that it is crucial to develop, on the basis of thorough research, "theories on nationality, religion, human rights and culture that can be understood and accepted by international society". Among other things, these theories should be used to "explain the correctness of all the policies we are carrying out in Tibet […] clearly explain why Tibet is an indivisible part of China, why Tibet had to implement democratic reform, why the nationality area autonomy currently implemented by Tibet is the most beneficial means of guaranteeing nationality equality and nationality autonomous rights […] and why the Communist Party, which advocates atheism, is able to implement a policy of freedom of religious belief…"

The former TAR government official told TIN that from a Chinese Communist viewpoint there is no contradiction in "factual" and "objective" work being subject to Party interests. According to Marxist ideology the written word is a tool to serve the "masses". There is no place within this ideology for independent voices, which are, according to the ideology, necessarily subjective and no competition for the "collective wisdom" of the Party. The contradiction lies between Western and Communist Chinese perceptions of "objectivity" and "fact". A correct view, according to Communist ideology, is based on the notion of class struggle; while according to western tradition academic credibility is based in part on independence from political institutions - even though individual academics are inevitably influenced by ideology and politics.

While it is significant that China is even taking into consideration the notion of academic quality as distinct from class struggle and the class nature of the author, there appears to have been a failure to recognise that until genuinely independent voices are allowed to be heard, academic work in China will continue to face a lack of credibility in the West. The current attempt to understand and use Western academic concepts of quality and objectivity inevitably results in conflict with the fixed tenets of Marxist ideology, while continued emphasis on using academic work in China as a tool of the Party means that the research will not be accepted as credible according to Western standards. As historian Tsering Shakya (whose book "Dragon in the Land of Snows" was one of the books singled out by Zhao Qizheng as having made "such a deep impression" on the western perspective of the Tibet issue) says: "At present Tibetologists in China are not seen as independent scholars, they are seen as cultural cadres supporting the Chinese Communist Party".

Internal Impact

The focus on academic work as a central part of the state's external propaganda efforts has already had an impact on scholars inside Tibet. It has accorded the Tibetan Studies field higher priority in China and the state has already increased its investment into academic resources and output.

Tibetan academics were already subject to political checks and controls and as such were limited by political considerations in what they could say. However, the new co-ordinated effort to harness Tibetan Studies for propaganda purposes and the clear instruction to make politics a central element of academic research will put academics, their work and their contacts under even closer monitoring and scrutiny. While there may be more funding available for research, the greater the central organisation of Tibetan Studies the less likelihood there is of individual and localised initiatives.

Tibetan Studies is being expanded into regional universities that have received money from the central government to establish departments or institutes. In 2000 the China Institute for Tibetan Studies was established in Chengdu, Sichuan, to be jointly run by Sichuan and Tibet Universities and receiving an annual research grant of 300,000 yuan (US$36,390) from the Chinese Ministry of Education (Xinhua 10 November 2000). Although Tibetan Studies has not really taken off yet outside the major institutes, the regional spread suggests that more ethnic Chinese (Han) academics will become involved in Tibetan Studies.

The main Tibetology centres in China are the China Tibetology Research Centre in Beijing, which comes under the United Front Work department of the Chinese Communist Party, and the TAR Academy of Social Sciences in Lhasa, which is a branch of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a State Council institution. The China Tibetology Research Centre, also known as the China National Centre for Tibetan Studies, has organised the 2001 Beijing Seminar on Tibetan Studies, to be held from 24 to 28 July and attended by Western as well as Chinese and Tibetan academics. The Central Nationalities Institute in Beijing and the Northwest Minority Institute in Lanzhou, Gansu, which is becoming one of the most important centres for Tibetan Studies, both come under the Ministry of Education.

Exchanges and visits

Spreading the official word abroad

One of the key strategies of China's external propaganda campaign is to counter the perceived "internationalisation" of the Tibet issue by the Dalai Lama and the Tibet support movement and to stem its spread to developing countries. The methods that the Dalai Lama has used, according to Zhao Qizheng, include his visits abroad to attend conferences and give spiritual teachings. Zhao says that at the same time as "consolidating his traditional position in Europe and the United States", the Dalai Lama "intensifies his infiltration of the developing countries of South America, Asia and Africa, and by all channels demands that the UN Secretary General and human rights experts pay attention to the 'Tibet issue'". In order to counter this "infiltration", China has intensified its efforts to meet with and influence foreign academics and politicians and to convey its message to the international public. According to Zhao Qizheng, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are a "very important element" in international relations and development and are largely peopled by intellectuals and specialists. However, at present Tibet-related NGOs are seen by China as predominantly pro-Dalai Lama. Therefore, Zhao proposes, China should increase visits and exchanges to engage with this type of work and counter it. He advocates that China should, "by means of appropriate non-governmental organisations, organise well the ranks of the country's Tibetologists, and strengthen participation in the Tibet-related activities of international non-governmental organisations".

The number of cultural delegations sent from China, made up of Tibetan and Chinese artists, dancers and academics, has increased in recent years, as have the number of exhibitions being held abroad to portray the "good life" in Tibet. The delegations have visited Europe, the US and Canada, South America and Africa and are promoted as improving "cultural contacts" between Tibet and other countries. However, they also have a strong political motive. One key responsibility of delegates is to put forward the official view of the progress made in Tibet since "liberation", to promote the official view of religious freedom and human rights and to undermine the influence and reputation of the Dalai Lama.

An example was the Tibetan cultural delegation visit to Chile, Argentina, Mexico and Brazil in May. The delegation held and participated in seminars, exhibitions and video showings and gave interviews to the local media. According to Xinhua "the delegation disclosed Dalai Lama's attempt to split Tibet from China" and helped the Latin American people "recognise his [the Dalai Lama's] real nature as a separatist". The same Xinhua report quoted the Brazil-China Friendship Parliamentary group president Haroldo Lima as saying that "there is a so-called Tibetan, who spares no effort in carrying out all kinds of conspiracies internationally to split China. That Tibetan is Dalai Lama, and he is unwelcome here." (Xinhua 6 May 2001)

Tibetan academics attending the Ninth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies held in Leiden from 24 to 30 June 2000 were reportedly given a version of Zhao Qizheng's June 2000 speech before the conference, increasing the pressure on them to display the "correct" political stance at the seminar.

Among the benefits to China of cultural delegation visits is any public approval of official policy from academic or political figures in the West. In October 2000, an official delegation of Tibetologists visited Denmark, Germany, Italy and Spain. The purpose of the tour, according to Kelsang Gyaltsen, deputy president of the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences and head of the delegation, was to "brief the hosts on China's progress on Tibetan Studies and the development of Tibetan culture as well as the autonomous region's achievements in social stability and economic growth" (People's Daily, 10 October 2000). According to the China Daily the delegation was well received. It quoted German legislator Christa Luft as saying "Everything the Chinese government does to propel Tibet forward deserves praise… I do not think we should look at Tibet from behind Western spectacles". Italian professor Silvio Calzolani reportedly welcomed the visiting scholars as those "who are best qualified to speak on the issue of Tibet".

"Seeing is believing": official visits to Tibet

"All foreign friends have their own views on today's Tibet and won't believe the rumours spread by the Dalai Lama and his disciples after their visits… seeing is believing". - Member of the "Chinese Tibetan delegation" attending a Tibetan Studies seminar in Sweden on 6 April (People's Daily, 7 April 2001)

"A tour of Tibet is better than a hundred newspaper articles" - Kelsang Gyaltsen, deputy president of the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences

An increasingly important aspect of China's external propaganda strategy over the last decade has been to encourage carefully controlled visits, rather than keeping Tibet "closed" to outsiders. Criticisms of human rights abuses in Tibet are now usually met with official invitations to visit. Zhao Qizheng said in a speech to journalists on 25 June 2001 that foreigners were welcome to go to Tibet "to inspect local development and the condition of local people on the spot". This apparent openness to scrutiny is part of China's attempt to deflect international criticism and indicates the confidence of the Chinese authorities in being able to convince foreign visitors of the validity of the image of Tibet that is presented.

Control of delegation visits and journalist tours is tight, agendas must be agreed with the Chinese authorities well in advance and groups are always accompanied by minders, both visible and undercover. Confidential and unsupervised contact with ordinary people, as opposed to Tibetans officially introduced to the delegation, is not possible for official delegations visiting Tibet.

Official delegation visits to China and Tibet are viewed by various Western governments as an indication of the success of the human rights dialogue process between the West and China. Western governments, including the UK, have claimed that China's apparent willingness to discuss human rights issues in a relatively open way is a "positive step". However, "dialogue" as opposed to "confrontation" clearly suits Beijing's purposes. This was acknowledged by an article in the official newspaper China Daily in October 1998: "It is not that China's stance or policies on the issue of human rights have changed […] rather that the belated favourable turn in the international atmosphere has created an opportunity for China to elaborate its perspectives."

The nature of the bilateral dialogue process permits China to avoid serious discussion of certain key human rights issues while strengthening its position in the international arena. China is developing a legal structure that, at least superficially, is aimed at meeting international norms and appeasing political and business leaders in developed nations which depend upon the rule of law. However, Beijing has become increasingly sophisticated at appearing to be responsive to international pressure for reform, while failing to take any concrete steps towards this reform. Since the human rights dialogue between China and the West was implemented, there have been no positive improvements in the human rights situation in Tibet as a result and the validity of the process is currently under question. China has demonstrated a consistent lack of responsiveness to Western governments. The lack of new and credible information about political prisoners, conditions in prisons and other human rights issues suggests a lack of commitment to genuine information exchange. Official delegations who visit Tibet on "human rights fact-finding" visits rarely, if ever, uncover information of any significance.

Foreign delegation visits are often used by China to legitimise their current policies in Tibet, as part of the policy of "constructive engagement" with other countries, but also more directly in gaining support, or the appearance of support, from foreign political figures. In several cases members of western delegations have been quoted in the official press as having made statements that accord closely with the official line on Tibet. The English language section of the official China Tibet Information Centre website (set up at the beginning of 2000, in line with a proposal at the ninth meeting on Tibet-related external propaganda in January 2000 to create websites as a propaganda tool) has a section on foreign views of Tibet, including statements from official visitors. In one such statement, the website quotes a Brazilian "human rights state council secretary" on his fourth visit to Lhasa in June 1999 as saying that he was very impressed with changes that had taken place since the "Democratic Reform" in 1959. He said that the Chinese government has done a great deal for social and economic development in Tibet and Tibetans enjoy full freedom of religious belief. On paying visits to farmers in their homes he stated "They are not rich, but they are free from worries. This is really terrific!" In another report, quotes an Italian Parliament member as saying: "Tibet develops apace also because it has good leaders. In Lhasa, I met an executive secretary of the CCP Tibet Autonomous Regional committee. He is hardworking and shrewd" (

"We are never alone"

Other members of official delegations or organised press tours have noted how difficult it is to gauge the real situation on the ground in Tibet when it is not possible to communicate openly and freely with ordinary Tibetans, and some have commented on the restrictions imposed during visits. New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff said that during his recent visit to Tibet it was impossible for him to have conversations with ordinary Tibetans. In a telephone interview with Reuters while he was in Lhasa he said: "We are free to move about. But we are never alone. Never a prospect of having a private conversation" (Reuters, 31 May 2001).

Charlie Bird, reporter for Radio Telefís Éireann (RTE), the Irish national broadcasting organisation, reported on a rather unusual method employed by his Chinese minder to prevent his cameraman from filming a meeting in September 1998 between United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson and the authorities in Lhasa. He said that when the High Commissioner mentioned the Dalai Lama during the meeting, he and the cameraman were told to leave the room, and in an attempt to prevent filming "the cameraman was repeatedly pinched" by a Chinese official (who later apparently apologised). On another occasion, a Chinese official prevented Charlie Bird from continuing with a report to camera in front of the Jokhang temple - the reason being that the reporter referred to Tibet as a "country". "It is not a country, it is a region of the People's Republic of China," his minder told him.

A Chinese press trip for Western journalists backfired in June 1999. The authorities had organised a press tour of Lhasa and Shigatse for journalists to coincide with the first visit to Tibet of the Chinese-appointed 11th Panchen Lama, nine-year old Gyaltsen Norbu, since his enthronement in December 1995. The Chinese authorities aimed to portray the visit of the boy as an indication of religious freedom in Tibet, but the Western reporters all noted the intense security surrounding the boy's visit, and published quotes by Tibetans speaking about their loyalty to the boy they call the "real" Panchen Lama, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, who was chosen by the Dalai Lama. Twelve-year old Gendun Choekyi Nyima has been held at an unknown location by the Chinese authorities since 1995, and no foreign delegations have been allowed access to him despite repeated requests from Western governments and United Nations organisations.

Prison visits

In the past ten years, approximately 50 official delegations have travelled to Tibet, and many of them have been allowed access under highly controlled conditions to the Tibet Autonomous Region Prison Number One (Drapchi prison). Official delegations are only allowed access to a carefully prepared "model" part of the prison. A European Union delegation that visited Drapchi on 4 May 1998 gave an account of such a visit in their report. They were briefed outside the inner prison gates before the visit and then shown into cell blocks which they described as "relatively comfortable". There were no prisoners in the cell blocks, although they did meet some prisoners in an education block and carpet workshop. "All those prisoners whom the delegation saw seemed reasonably healthy," their report concluded.

On the same day as the EU delegation visit to Drapchi, a protest broke out during a flag raising ceremony in the prison, following a similar event three days previously. Maltreatment of prisoners during and following the protests resulted in the death of at least nine prisoners, including five nuns. The EU delegates were not aware of any protests at Drapchi during their visit, and in their official report stated that there were "no obvious signs of extra guards or heightened security".

It is rare for an official delegation to turn down an opportunity to visit Drapchi prison, despite increasing evidence that it has not been possible for delegations to ensure the safety of prisoners who speak to them or who carry out protests in order to draw attention to human rights abuses in the prison. In April 1991, prisoners were severely beaten and removed to another prison after attempting to pass a letter to the then US Ambassador to China James Lilley during a visit to Drapchi. In December 1991 Jigme Zangpo, an elderly prisoner, who shouted slogans during a visit by the Swiss Ambassador to China, was subsequently severely beaten and sentenced to a further eight years in prison, where he is serving a total sentence of 28 years. He is due for release in 2011 when he will be 85, and reports from Tibet indicate that his health is poor following years of maltreatment and poor prison conditions.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) visited Drapchi prison in October 1997 and witnessed a solitary protest by a criminal prisoner, Sonam Tsewang, who stood up and said: "Long live the Dalai Lama". Two other prisoners, Trinkar and Wangdu, were also reportedly involved in protests after the delegation left the prison. The delegation were given assurances that all prisoners would be left unharmed after their departure, but TIN received information that at least two of the Tibetans involved in the protests were severely beaten, and all three had their sentences extended by between three and 10 years following the visit.

The authorities aim to portray prisons as institutions that focus on reform and where prisoners have opportunities to study and work to learn new skills, rather than as places of punishment. They claim that prisoners' rights are protected and stress that maltreatment of detainees is not permitted. A Xinhua report on Drapchi published on 21 May described prison life as follows: "While visitors panted due to the lack of oxygen in the prison at 3,672 metres above sea level, prisoners in blue uniforms were playing basketball, shouting and laughing […] A menu on the blackboard in the dining room showed: butter tea and roasted barley flour for breakfast, rice, boiled meat and radish for lunch, steamed bread and cabbage vermicelli soup for supper. In the corridor of the prison, roses planted by the prisoners were blooming […] Eight male prisoners were preparing a chorus, playing guitar and electronic organ." These representations are rarely seen as convincing in the West.

Policy on propaganda in the 1990s

China's efforts to improve its public image and to sway international opinion have developed throughout the 1990s. At the "National Work Conference on External Propaganda", held in Beijing from 19 October to 7 November 1991, the Chinese authorities initiated the establishment of the State Council Foreign Propaganda Office, with the aim of improving China's image abroad. The object was to promote an image of stability and reform in China to deflect human rights and political criticism and promote trade and investment. At this time it was acknowledged that foreigners and overseas Chinese are "different" and that "publicity should not be carried out the same way it is at home" (Xinhua, 2 November 1991).

A year before that, on 9 November 1990, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) Propaganda Committee had already defined as "major task[s]" for Tibetan propagandists the need to "ensure stability by opposing splittism" and "to continue to introduce Tibet to the outside world" (Tibet TV, 12 November 1990). A month later, the first "Regional Forum on External Propaganda Work" opened in Lhasa on 10 December and lasted five days, with the purpose of offsetting foreign accusations of political and humanitarian repression in Tibet. TAR Party deputy secretary Ragdi, speaking at the forum, said that it was necessary to "create an image of socialist new Tibet and publicise it" (Tibet TV, 12 December 1990). The focus of propaganda was to be on the progress that Tibet had made, the prospects for tourism and investment, the benevolence and aid of the central Party committee and the state, "the heroic deeds of Tibetans and Hans [Chinese] in building a new Tibet", and the positive virtues of Hans (Tibet TV, 12 December 1990). This focus has been maintained to the present day. However, in the last few years propaganda has been increasingly concerned with the portrayal of a thriving Tibetan culture and religion.

The Third Forum for Work in Tibet, held in Beijing in July 1994, provided a central mandate for the shift away from positive discrimination in favour of Tibetan language and culture that was already being implemented in the TAR[4]. Chen Kuiyuan, Party Secretary of Tibet from 1992 until October 2000, was notorious among Tibetans for his hardline stance on Tibetan religion and culture and by 1997 his speeches were openly attacking Tibetan culture. However, news of the crackdown on religion and culture during the 1990s was widely publicised in the West and by the end of the 1990s, it was apparent that China was becoming concerned over its external image. China has responded with attempts to refute criticisms and by publicising what it states has been its role in the protection and development of Tibetan culture, including central government investment into protection of cultural relics, renovation of monasteries and other important historical sites, and the development of higher education and Tibetan Studies. The State Council Information Office released a White Paper on the development of Tibetan culture on 22 June 2000, just ten days after its head, Zhao Qizheng, spoke of the need to step up the "struggle for international public opinion" at the conference on Tibetology and external propaganda.

A strategy of engagement and attack

Over the last few years, the volume of China's foreign-language propaganda material on Tibet has been dramatically increased. More broadcasting material, glossy magazines like "China's Tibet" and recently established specialist websites like provide ready-made news stories on economic development and culture that are frequently picked up in the West and that publicise foreign praise of China's policies. China's official foreign language media give Tibet disproportionate coverage when compared with other regions of the PRC. However, as a central strategy in the "struggle for international public opinion" on the Tibet issue, China has seen a need not only to engage with the West and to increase propaganda output, but also to adapt its propaganda for a foreign audience in an attempt to be taken seriously.

International image, not least in legitimising Chinese Communist Party rule and policies in Tibetan areas, is important to China for reasons of national pride and economic development. The picture that China wants to project in order to obtain the foreign expertise and investment it needs to carry out its development plans is one of social stability and economic potential. In its efforts to persuade the world of the validity of such an image, China has tried to find a strategy to counter the vast amount of information published outside its borders that does not accord with the official Party line.

Official Chinese propaganda on Tibet today maintains a focus on development achievements over the last 50 years and the central role played by the Party and state, with renewed emphasis on depictions of a thriving Tibetan culture and religion. This strategy combines regular attacks on "anti-China" activities by foreign governments, media and academics with efforts to promote an image of transparency by inviting visitors to Tibet and attempts to win over foreign academics and journalists to bolster China's credibility. The success of these propaganda tactics will depend on how willing the West is to accept the image of Tibet that China is seeking to promote.

End notes: [1] Zhao Qizheng, Director of the Information Office of the State Council and also Director of the Foreign Propaganda Office, speaking at a conference on Tibetology and external propaganda work on 12 June 2000 [2] For more information on the World Bank project see "TIN News Review: Reports from Tibet 2000", For more information on Petrochina see TIN News Update 23 March 2001 "'Mammoth Transfer of Resources': Tibet railway and gas pipeline" [3] Zhao Qizheng speaking at a conference on Tibetology and external propaganda work on 12 June 2000 [4] For more information about the Third Tibet Work Forum and its policies see "Cutting off the Serpent's Head", published by TIN and Human Rights Watch/Asia in 1996.