"Choose Your Own" Commemoration
Today's guest blogger is Becca Hartman, a Research Associate at the Interfaith Youth Core. Becca originally joined the IFYC as a Public Interest Program Fellow from Northwestern University, where she studied Philosophy and Religion and was active in organizing interfaith educational and collaborative projects, including a Day of Dialogue panel, Day of Interfaith Service, and weekly seminars. Before coming to IFYC, Becca interned with the African Religious Health Assets Programmeat the University of Cape Town to map the impact of Faith-Based Organizations on the public health needs of Sub-Saharan Africa.
This month commemorates the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s trip to India to learn about Mahatma Gandhi's satyagraha movement. Yesterday (March 10th) also marked the 50th anniversary of the attempted Tibetan revolt against Chinese rule in 1959, which led to the Dalai Lama and many Tibetan's departures from Tibet/China to seek refuge in Dharamsala, India.
A half-century of lessons are behind us, and the question remains: what will we be commemorating in another 50 years?
With 1.3 billion people (one fifth of the world's population), the second largest economy in the world (smaller only than the US), and largest holder of U.S. debt at $ 1.7 trillion, it is news to no one that China is only going to increase its status as a major player on the global scene and that the US and China are inevitably invested in one another. The importance of US relations with China was highlighted by Hillary Clinton's travel to China in her first month as Secretary of State. As issues of the economy, human rights, and the environment remain at the forefront of US-China governmental conversations, what do the examples of King and Gandhi have to teach the rest of us about achieving long-term social change?
China, like India and the US, has a rich history of religious diversity and devotion. While the Nation is officially atheist, the religions of Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Christianity are recognized and practiced in China. Like King, Gandhi, and religious leaders throughout nations and histories, it has often been Buddhist monks that have spoken up for human rights and freedom in China, even to their death. A commitment to non-violence is famously shared by King and Gandhi, as well as Buddhism's most public figure, the Dalai Lama.
Faith communities and leaders will continue to be important in nurturing the role of their communities in striving for human rights. Counter to many prevailing perceptions, religious observance in China is on the rise. According to a survey published in a state-run newspaper, 31.4 percent of Chinese adults are religious, which is three times the initial estimate by the government. Over the past twenty year, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been growing more tolerant of religious activity; for example, in 2005 the State Council passed new guidelines expanding legal rights for state-sanctioned groups. Still, according to a Council on Foreign Relations report, "Muslim Uighurs, Buddhist Tibetans, unregistered Christians, and groups that the party brands as cults, such as Falun Gong, are still persecuted and repressed."
What do we need?
We need a new approach to understanding US relations with China on a citizen's level. I write this with the full recognition that I am no expert on China or US foreign policy. But as an average US citizen, interested in peace and the dignity of all people,, I find it best to question any situation that is painted as a clear black and white issue, full of blaming and finger-wagging.
First, we have to recognize that US and Chinese citizens understand events and individuals differently.
In the US, a recent New York Times article printed:
"Last March the largest Tibetan uprising against Communist rule in decades erupted after Chinese security forces suppressed a protest by monks in Lhasa. At least 19 people were killed in ethnic rioting in Lhasa. ... In the ensuing crackdown, 220 Tibetans were killed, nearly 1,300 were injured and nearly 7,000 were detained or imprisoned, according to the Tibetan government in exile, which is based in Dharamsala, India. Some of the worst rioting outside Lhasa took place here in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, where the worlds of the Tibetans, Chinese and Hui Muslims converge."
The article goes on to explain that these uprisings were largely led by Buddhist monks, gaining support among and participation by the general population each day. Together they protested against economic and social grievances, for the freedom of monks detained because of the uprising, and for an autonomous Tibet. Beyond its borders, we were told, protests and violence erupted in regions with significant Tibetan populations, including Gansu, Sichuan and Qinghai provinces.
Contrast that narrative to a story in the China Daily newspaper the next day.
"The '50th Anniversary of Democratic Reforms in Tibet Exhibition' recently opened to the public free of charge at the Cultural Palace of Nationalities... With a large number of photographs, objects, documents, videos and sculptures, the exhibition shows the last 50 years of development, where Tibet has moved from poverty to affluence, dictatorship to democracy and seclusion to opening-up... Speaking of Dalai clique's secessionist activities, many visitors expressed their indignation and voiced their support for the unification of China. The central government has contributed a lot to Tibet's development, but the Dalai clique ... is so inhumane, said another visitor."
When the US government or its citizens and watch groups approach China with a wagging finger (without a gleaming human rights record on our own behalf), and with a very different perception of reality than the people we are supposed to be engaging, it is hard to imagine a productive outcome.
One doesn't need to settle for relativism to understand the complexity of perspectives on challenging issues like truth-claim narratives and national identity. While the Dalai Lama is celebrated in the US and around the world, among many Chinese citizens, he is called a terrorist and perceived as an agitator for secession. We need only try to quantify the disconnect between US perception of the Dalai Lama and US perception of terrorism, and then we can get some insight into the work that has to be done to reach the point of healthy dialogue. The focus cannot be about blaming, but must instead be about common goals.
Second, we need to be aware of the rules by which Chinese citizens operate. Working for human rights in a democratic US looks very different than it does in the People's Republic of China. In the search for civil rights and freedom in the US and India, our heroes King and Gandhi were natives of the land. They understood the narratives and nuances of their homeland and they knew how to 'play the game' to make change. They received various modes of support from global citizens, as well, but the impetus did not stem from without.
Consider the example of the Southern Metropolis Daily, a Chinese newspaper that is at the same time controversial, revealing, and supported by the government. It was this paper's writers and editors that revealed the human rights violations relating to the shourong system of detaining vagrants and other migrants without proper documentation. In this case, they raised awareness of the abusive nature of the jail system, ultimately shutting down the prisons and their terrible practices. Consequently, several of the paper's head staff were held by local officials for their work of revealing the injustice. The double-edged sword of being an insider is knowing the truth and knowing how to work it.
Where to next?
Now is the time to move forward with restrained hope. The youngest generation in China has come of age in the era of technology. And although government sensors are still pervasive across media outlets, the internet is making it more difficult for all information to be completely controlled. As China and the world step away from a successful Olympic games where China's 45 different ethnic groups were highlighted, it is important for the rest of the world to investigate what it really means to be Chinese and what types of experiences and world-views are represented there.
Of course, the US and its citizens should never condone nor defend human rights violations. Yet, if we stop wagging the finger long enough to try to understand the nuances of navigating Chinese society and government, we can actually magnify the positive stories and enhance the possibilities of improved human rights and increased freedoms spurred by Chinese citizens themselves. Perhaps then we will be commemorating something very different in 50 years.
The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.
March 11, 2009; 1:42 PM ET
Religion & Leadership
Religion & Politics
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