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China: Analysis From Washington -- 'The Dream Of Buddha'

Washington, 9 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Chinese officials in Tibet have managed to convince a visiting Western diplomat that the inmates of Lhasa's notorious Drapchi prison are "happy," the latest example of the way in which authoritarian governments often are able to mislead visitors.

Following a visit to that Tibetan prison on Thursday, Canadian Secretary of State Raymond Chan said that the facility appeared "clean" and "well-ordered" and that the prisoners appeared "happy" -- although he did acknowledge that his impressions might be "superficial" since he had not been allowed to speak to any of the prisoners.

The Canadian diplomat added that Chinese officials had told him that only 45 of the 900 inmates there were being held for charges related to "endangering state security," a locution often employed to describe actions by Tibetans who seek greater autonomy or independence from Beijing.

Reacting to Chan's comments, one longtime student of Tibetan developments noted that "it's very easy for authorities to create a good impression." They can dress up prisoners, paint their cells, and make sure that the visitor does not see torture chambers or execution places.

But Jane Caple of London's widely respected Tibet Information Network added that "it's important to see beneath the surface on such visits," something the Chinese authorities clearly do everything in their power to prevent.

Her organization, which has tracked developments in the Drapchi prison for years, has reported regularly that the Chinese authorities have kept far more Tibetan activists incarcerated there than Chan suggests and that Chinese jailers repeatedly have beaten, tortured, and even killed these inmates.

But the reports of groups like the Tibet Information Network generally attract less attention than do comments by visitors like the Canadian secretary of state.

That pattern reflects both the very different abilities of authoritarian regimes and human rights monitoring groups and the nature of the journalistic enterprise itself. But it is one that authoritarian regimes, like Beijing's, have always counted on to undercut their critics and to advance their own causes.

Authoritarian regimes like China's have far greater opportunities to spread their version of events than do the people living under them or those private human rights groups who monitor developments there. These regimes have enormous propaganda machines, while the human rights groups often must struggle to make themselves heard.

Moreover, many journalists and analysts are inclined to take official reports far more seriously than those from such unofficial sources, not only because the official reports are likely to be more timely but because the unofficial ones are often dismissed as self-interested and therefore suspect.

Consequently, once comments like Chan's enter the public record, many journalists are likely, in the name of a false sense of "balance," to repeat them, even as they also include the statements of those who present evidence that such comments are distorted or untrue.

And that often has the effect of causing some to conclude that the truth must be somewhere in between.

Clearly, the authorities in Bejing are counting on just such an outcome given the obvious care they have taken in organizing visits like the one made by Canada's Chan. And in doing so, they are continuing a longstanding tradition.

In the 1930s and 1940s, for example, the Soviet government carefully stage-managed the visits of selected Westerners to GULAG camps. These visitors, who saw only what the Soviet authorities wanted them to see, often spoke about the "humaneness" of the Soviet prison camp system.

Their testimonies were then cited by Moscow officials and some Western sympathizers as evidence that other reports about Stalinist brutality were not only exaggerated but entirely wrong. And only much later, often after Moscow itself had acknowledged the facts of the case, were many people prepared to recognize what had happened.

Russia's Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn years ago described this process of deceiving Westerners about the true nature of the totalitarian prison system in a classic chapter entitled "The Dream of Buddha."

The events in Lhasa this week show that the Chinese authorities are using the same tactics that Stalin employed more than a half century ago and with possibly as much success.