On April 14, 2010, a 6.9-magnitude quake struck the predominantly ethnic Tibetan area of Yushu, Qinghai, in southern China. Over 2000 people were killed and over 12,000 were injured, according to “official” reports.
There is rarely agreement between “official” and actual accounts in China, especially when politicized matters involving Tibetans are concerned.
A friend of mine here in China speaks excellent Chinese and keeps a close eye on a number of important things. Today I am sharing some of his work. He writes:
A Chinese blogger combined pictures of pre-quake Yushu with this article by Ai Mo艾墨, “The Stage,” that appeared recently in Hong Kong’s Mingbao newspaper. The full text of that short article, which did not appear on the Mingbao website, is copied below, after my translation. [Some papers in Hong Kong face pressure over the publication of sensitive material and do not keep such material online. I have no direct knowledge of the track record of Mingbao in this regard. – ed]
This story points out the great cultural gulf between Tibetans and Han Chinese and the difficulties of doing culturally and religiously sensitive relief work. Probably because of some ethnic chauvinism and perhaps because some think it will affect the Chinese-ness of Tibet, many Han Chinese find it hard to appreciate the profound cultural differences between the Han Chinese and the Tibetans. Well, many Chinese Buddhists understand, but the mainstream media doesn’t reflect their views much and the Chinese government strives to prevent the thousands of Chinese Buddhists who want to study in Tibetan monasteries from doing so.
By Ai Mo 艾墨 (portions printed in Mingbao, Hong Kong)
A cold evening in Yushu, in the tents, a cadre sent by the province irrigated by high plateau barley wine, rubbed his unwashed dirty hands, and turned towards me, saying sincerely, “Young lady, look now, this natural disaster has been swiftly politicized. Got out of here as soon as you can. Leave this trouble spot.”
When I heard those words, I regretted the decision that I had already made to take a bus early the next day and leave Yushu.
For me, during these four days and three nights in Yushu, this place of cruel death and difficult survival, the word politics has a bit of a foul smell. During the rescue period where saving lives was the top priority, it laid low, it seemed to understand something important, this country plagued by disasters has finally learned that “lives are the most important thing”. However, when the 72 hour golden period for rescuing survivors from the ruins had passed, when the mammoth-scale cremations began, it seemed like something changed, the disaster area had become a stage.
That is something I don’t want to say, but yes, it had become a stage. The difference between the stage and reality is that in reality things happen and appear but on stage there is a director, a leading role, and a supporting role and they are sent on stage as needed. That is what Yushu was like. President Hu and Premier Wen had the top leading roles, given the nature of China, that is not anything to criticize, even the local Tibetans took the sincere tears of Prime Minister Wen and the promise of President Hu that they will have new homes like the words of Living Buddhas.
The official rescue troops had the secondary leading role. “We won’t be able to rescue any more people” the rescue workers knew as the fourth day after the earthquake began. One PAP officer who had done relief work after the Sichuan earthquake said that with the timber and earth construction of Yushu is not as good as the reinforced concrete of Sichuan since when the building collapses, unlike in Sichuan, there are no empty places left in which some people might find a place to breathe. So the miracles of survival are much rarer in Yushu.
On the streets of Yushu there were many officers and soldiers who had nothing to do. One could see many roadside ruins of houses that apparently nobody had sifted through to look for survivors. Although there were many flags and banners proclaiming the outstanding quality of this or that group of rescue troops.
Another journalist doing interviews in Yushu told me that he had the impression that there was a lot of “showing off” going on. That is not to say that the rescue troops were not working hard, they had to struggle hard to do their job given the difficulties of the physiological effects of high altitude, that nobody can criticize them. It was just that the so-called “showing off” was in inverse proportion to the amount of rescue work that they had actually done.
The disaster victims had the third leading role — that is to say the disaster victims who cooperated with interviews had the third leading role.
Many people like to ask, ‘What was the difference between the Sichuan earthquake and the Yushu earthquake?’ Nobody yet knows how to compare the scale of the earthquake. One hundred thousand people died in Sichuan, perhaps not as many as 10,000 died in Yushu. Yet that comparison isn’t meaningful and shouldn’t be made. As a journalist in the Yushu disaster area, I and my colleagues, strongest impression is that in Yushu you don’t see the wailing and pounding on the earth, and even rarely see weeping. If it were not for the sight of many collapsed buildings and the many homeless on the streets, you wouldn’t guess that many people had died here. People who have lost their relatives wear solemn and respectful faces. They read scriptures. They take the corpse to the monastery. They ask the monks and Living Buddhas to help them pass to the next world, and pray that they escape the cycle of suffering and rebirth and enter blissful happiness.
Ninety-seven percent of the population of Yushu is ethnic Tibetan. They believe in Tibetan Buddhism. For them, through the monasteries, life and death connect each of them to the Buddha and their ancestors. Very many journalists from mainland China didn’t find the “story they wanted” — the family of the victims did not display “extreme grief” and those rescued did not “shed grateful tears.” There is no way for you to share their sorrows. Their ideas about life and death are so far beyond your own that you cannot comprehend them. They — really, they don’t understand how to act according to your instructions. In Yushu, there is much thankfulness. A simple old Tibetan mother can shed tears of gratitude and say “Long Live the Communist Party”. But performing to script according to needs is not what they do — they are not “grateful” or “sing praises” in a particular circumstance because that is what the script requires. Take a look at the mainland China TV broadcasts on the disaster, you will see that these Tibetans just don’t act that way.
On the director’s stage, the monks were the only supporting players forced to the margins of the stage. This despite the fact that in real life, these people in red robes have the most important leading role of all, even more important than the role of the rescue troops.
Two days after I left Yushu, I heard from a journalist colleague that monks not from Yushu had already been “admonished to leave” Yushu with the reason given to “ensure the effectiveness of relief operations”. Some had driven several hundred kilometers to Yushu from their monasteries in Ganzi Prefecture in Sichuan Province, others monks hurried from Qinghai, Gansu and many parts of the Tibetan Autonomous Region to help. They don’t understand specialized relief work but they understand the Kampa dialect and they know how to assist the souls of the dead to pass on to the next world. They know how to truly console the people of Yushu who have lost relatives. Even before official help arrived, the monks were making donations in the disaster area. Disaster victims received from the monks noodles, mineral water and even hot porridge. But what does that matter? This is a stage and the supporting role can never become the leading role. At the very least, the audience that watches the stage as it is broadcast will never see this.
On the stage of the Chinese Central TV disaster evening program, there were the names of companies that had given one million, two million, 10 million or 20 million RMB, and individuals who contributed and wanted to do something good. But what truly moved them was the idea of themselves doing good. For the National Day of Mourning, the state organs forbade all entertainment activities, including on stage and online. The Yushu disaster area was far away but they said in chorus, “This evening we are all Yushu people.”
My dears, I really do have to tell you, that is not wounded Yushu. That is only a stage.