Working in Beijing during the Tibet riots and the preparations for the Olympics gave me a unique perspective. Growing up with Western media and Hollywood, I am used to our embrace of the Dalai Lama. Being in China, I saw the Chinese point of view.
Seeing both sides suggests the need to abandon simplistic political stances in favor of some self-reflection and historical context.
Although we should criticize China's censored media, the Tibet riots revealed some troubling blindness among our own media. While the causes of Tibetan unrest are complex, it is clear that the March riots were started by Tibetan protesters and that they were quite violent. Indeed, they were violent enough to lead the Dalai Lama to threaten resignation if his followers did not stop the violence.
Since "violent Tibetan" does not fit our stereotype, our media fixed the news. While Chinese media showed extensive footage of violence and interviews with Chinese and Tibetan victims, Western media manipulated images and even showed footage from other countries (Nepal and India) in order to paint a picture of ruthless oppression by China's government.
Chinese media exposed the Western media manipulations, forcing the BBC, N-TV and RTL-TV to apologize. Not surprisingly, the American media has yet to acknowledge
its bending of the truth. The point is that while the Chinese know their media is censored and do not trust it, we believe our news is objective and end up being righteous while misinformed.
If we had seen the violence of the Tibet riots, our condemnations may be more nuanced. Quite simply, no government, democratic or not, allows such violence within its own borders. Providing peace and stability, even by force if necessary, is what governments do.
Large and powerful countries tend to have regions that were not always part of the country. In America, we proudly call it Manifest Destiny and never trouble ourselves with how we got much of California and Texas from Mexico, never mind the rest of the country and our sordid history with Native Americans.
On the Chinese flag there are five stars commonly interpreted as representing the five major ethnic groups in China. One of those stars represents Tibetans. China's claim to Tibet spans centuries and it is a claim that the United States and the rest of the world recognizes.
To Chinese people, removing one of those stars is akin to removing one of our states, such as Hawaii. Our history with the native people of Hawaii has been relatively brief and quite brutal and there exists a tenacious independence movement. Still, there is no talk in the mainstream media and among the Hollywood celebrity activist circuit of Hawaiian independence, not to mention Puerto Rican independence or the American Indian movement.
Government repression of these movements also escapes media scrutiny. Before we lecture China, we may want to tend to our own backyard.
Amid cries of "free Tibet" and calls for religious freedom, the question is what does freedom have to do with Tibet? Under the Dalai Lama, was there religious freedom? Was there any freedom? Actually, no.
We would recognize the Dalai Lama's Tibet as a medieval religious theocracy with a small elite class served by a large and oppressed serf population. The Dalai Lama ruled a region with no religious freedom, no political freedom, indeed, no human rights of any kind. The rulers were ruthless. Torture and mutilation were widespread. Poverty and starvation were rampant. It was Shangri-La only in the West's imagination.
Richard Gere, Sharon Stone and other Hollywood devotees may be surprised at their idol's current positions. The Dalai Lama condemns abortion and homosexuality while accepting prostitution. For decades the Dalai Lama secured millions of dollars from the CIA and runs his government in exile like a monarch.
Despite its shortcomings, Chinese rule has provided the Tibetan region with infrastructure and public schooling and provides Tibetans with widespread opportunities and a degree of personal freedom unheard of under the feudal theocracy of the dalai lamas.
China is far from perfect and deserves honest scrutiny and criticism. To expect China not to act like a large and powerful country, however, and to throw stones from our glass house, proves nothing but our own ignorance.
* KEVIN DELUCA is an associate professor of communications at the University of Utah and author of "Image Politics."