Six weeks after Bjork shouted, “Tibet!” at the end of an unapproved song “Declare Independence” at her Shanghai concert, and then sped away on a jetliner, those of us left behind in China are paying the price. Years of progress and an easing of restrictions and red tape imposed by the Ministry of Culture were erased in a night, and have set us back a decade at least. Harry Connick Jr. was the first casualty, as his was the first high profile foreign act after the incident, and he was informed that he would only be allowed to sing the songs on the approved list he submitted when seeking approval. A few years back, that shouldn’t have been too great a problem, because it has always been standard procedure since the days when Wham! broke through the cultural impasse and brought pop music to China in the 1980s, and it was inconceivable to even attempt to sing anything not on the list. Until the Bjork incident, however, there had been a certain laxness, and the list of approved songs had become somewhat of a formality. Not anymore. As Mr. Junior’s band had not really practiced quite a few of the songs on the list that was submitted months before the tour, and they had no approved encores on the list, the concert was purportedly not his best, to say the least, as he had to play most of the songs by himself while the band twiddled their thumbs.
The approval process has also been put back on track, and every formality is now carried out to the letter. It is estimated that at least half of the acts planning to come here during the Olympics will now very likely fail the approval process. Celine Dion may not be my favorite performer, but certainly many of her fans in Beijing were disappointed when she subsequently canceled her Beijing show. Closer to home, our own approval process for our upcoming production of Oliver! very nearly ground to a halt as the Ministry of Culture suddenly demanded passport copies for every man, woman and child in the show, to be submitted in less than a 24 hour period. It is a real testament to the dedication of everyone in the show that we somehow managed to pull it together. The approval process now requires the entire 20 days, no exceptions, so we will likely only get official approval at the eleventh hour, which leaves us unable to sell tickets or do Chinese language publicity until about two weeks before the show.
It shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise to anyone that Bjork supports the grossly misrepresented “Free Tibet Movement” as she has made no secret of her affiliations, but I really do have to question how she arrived at the conclusion that there really is a popularly accepted “Free Tibet Movement” in the first place. The fact is, the majority of Tibetan people simply want better living conditions, whether or not they are part of China, and mostly look at the small minority who do engage in separatist activities as trouble-makers who will likely just make matters worse. I must say it really rankles me when I hear people going on about some latest cause of the day, smug in the sense of their own moral superiority, and outraged that more isn’t done about it, when, in fact, they have no clue what-so-ever about the actual situation. Tibet is a perfect example.
It is a fact that Tibet has been part of China for over 900 years. Throughout much of that time, Tibet served as the “spiritual” capital of China, while the emperor ruled from the earthly capital. Things would likely have continued on that way to present day, if it were not for two influential factors in the early 20th century. First, China’s own identity crisis and the loss of stability as reforms swept the nation, and secondly the British empire, eager for some final days of glory encouraged the ruling oligarchy, into which the Dalai Lama was born, to take advantage of a momentarily weak China and declare independence, promising them British support. Things were very hard for the Tibetan people when power was once again consolidated in China, and they marched on Tibet to bring them back into the fold. The British abandoned them, and no one in the West rose to their aid, as it was generally agreed that China was simply doing what could be expected of it. I find it ironic to the extreme that people will now go on and encourage people in Tibet to declare independence when it is obvious that such notions will only bring harm’s way to those who take them up on that advice. Never mind that it is none of their business in the first place! For those who would hypocritically condemn China for its heavy handed tactics, while turning a blind eye to the atrocities brought about by their own governments worldwide, I say, wake up!! To those who, like myself, are generally suspicious of ALL governments, and are therefor unsurprised when they act to protect their interests, I say, “Be the alternative.” We can only expect to bring about change through dialog and openness, as well as by offering up a better alternative through example. Acts that cause clocks to be turned back, undoing the good progress that has been made are simply shameful. While I understand those who express the sentiment that by bringing an issue to its head, stunts like Bjork’s actually help the cause, I disagree with the approach.
Talk to average Texan you meet overseas, and they will tell you they are from Texas and go to great lengths to point out that they are not from the United States, but from Texas! There has long been a popular notion that Texas should be a free and independent country. Does anyone honestly believe that if Texas were somehow to achieve through referendum a Declaration of Independence that the United States would allow them to seceed? PuhLEASE!!! The US governement would be in there protecting the “freedoms of the America people” faster than you can wave the stars and stripes at them. As long as people were protesting peacefully, they would be able express their right of dissent, but ask any WTO protester about how quickly and easily police can brutally turn upon a mostly peaceful crowd in reaction to a few hotheads. Yes, folks, this does happen in our own countries too, and on a fairly regular basis. Only you won’t be seeing too much coverage of it in the popular media. You actually have to be interested enough to dig.
The situation in Tibet is obviously different, because most people there do not enjoy the standard of living of even the humblest trailer park resident in Texas, and that is precisely what is worst about the Western media coverage of the recent riots. A journalist friend of mine was there when the riots broke out, and he said the problem was worsened by the fact that for two days, the police did nothing. What started off as a race riot - an uprising of people tired of generations of historical suppression by the ruling oligarchy of 200 Tibetan families from which, unsurprisingly, all reincarnations of holy people are born; fed up with the rich foreigners (i.e. Muslims and Han Chinese) raking in profits while the Tibetan people remain poor; and fed up with the Chinese government’s inability to improve their daily lives- led to crowds attacking Muslim butchers, and then turned very ugly. Once the hate began to flow, it was easy for others to fuel it, and by the time the separatists joined in, the crowds were way out of control. To believe that this was started as an organized democracy movement shows an appalling lack of comprehension of what is actually occurring in Tibet. Of course, the people who believe that kind of trite are the same people who believe most of what they read in the popular media, so that somehow doesn’t surprise me.