Tibet is usually off-limits for foreign journalists as travel permits are seldom granted. So the International Press Center, that ever-helpful arm of MOFA, has been organizing annual trips for the last three years. But the value of the Tibet trip seems to be diminishing rapidly. Many of the 30 or so journalists who traveled there in August came away disappointed by the abysmally low news value and disgusted by the blatant lies of officials.
Previous Tibet trips included press conferences with the party secretary or governor of Tibet, the number one and two officials in the region. But during this trip, all of the officials made available were deputies, including Lhasa vice-mayor Xiao Bai and the deputy chairman of the TAR government, Wu Jilie. They basically had nothing to say except detailed geographical descriptions (“Tibet has no coastline.”).
Remarkable was the loooooooooonng silence of the vice-mayor when he was asked which law prohibits the showing of portraits of the Dalai Lama in public. The embarrassing minutes were finally cut short by one Lhasa waiban official: “This was the answer.” Better prepared was deputy chairman Wu. His reply to the same question deserves promotion to the higher echelons of the propaganda ministry. There is no decree or law forbidding Dalai Lama pictures because nobody wants to see them anyhow, he said. The reason: The vast majority of Tibetans despises the “splittist activities” of the Dalai. The gentleman had some other good news. The PLA seen in Tibet isn’t always the PLA, but soldiers who protect the flora and fauna, he said. Are there any HIV cases in the Autonomous Region? No. Is the population tested for the HIV? No. Political prisoners? Not my business.
The journalists were startled out of their no-news snooze when suddenly, out of nowhere, China’s Panchen Lama made a rare visit to Lhasa and Shigatse. Did any of the helpful officials make this announcement? Of course not. Our correspondents learned of it from CCTV, and no official would comment on it. Wu stonewalled. Had he known, of course, that this was of interest, he would have brought the people from the department concerned. He knew only about economics, he said. Another reporter later pressed the head of Tibet’s waiban about the information blackout. She said visits by the Panchen Lama are “normal,” and if we want access next year, all we have to do is ask.
Meanwhile, the visit to the obligatory medicine factory, this time in Ba Yi in eastern Tibet, was also strange. Neither the director of the enterprise nor her deputies were present. Instead, a friendly secretary had the task of answering questions. When pressed, she finally admitted that her boss was in town – but had other things to do than to meet foreign journalists.
For a taste of religious freedom, journalists were brought to a Buddhist holy ceremony, where the pickpockets were working hard. One reporter’s wallet was taken underneath the unfolding thankha of the Buddha; another reporter standing nearby had a side pants pocket lightened by 10,000 rmb. (An IPC aide also had a pocketbook lifted.) The reporter blames the IPC for his loss because of its insistence on collecting its fee only in cash and only at the end of the trip, meaning all journos were walking around with huge wads of cash for seven days. He asked for a safe but was told none were available.
A side visit to a “real” Tibetan village was a point so low it was a story of its own. After an eight hour drive to a military garrison town, the trip to a DisneyTibet village, where all the party members were above average, would have been insulting if it weren’t so lame. It is a tourist village that actually charges tourists 10 rmb for entrance fee. Not to be repeated under any circumstances other than a love for absurdity, one correspondent reports.
On the logistics side, IPC aides were reported to be friendly and helpful, but the one Chinese translator, though excellent, was over-extended and didn’t speak Tibetan, similar to the problem reporters had on the IPC trip to Xinjiang last year. The pre-trip briefing was not announced until 48-56 hours ahead of time and was held less than three days before the start of the trip, leaving inadequate time to request and coordinate changes in the itinerary. The USD 1,300 price tag (excluding filming fees) was OK but was undercut by a user-unfriendly hotel with no easy Internet access and no elevator and rooms with no air circulation. As for the food, “let’s not talk about it,” one journo said. “After six nights and seven days we NEVER had an authentic Tibetan meal; rather it was dreary Chinese buffet where the local waiban pigged out happily.”