China may have pulled off a major public relations stunt this week in its campaign to dispel charges of human rights abuses and other injustices against Tibetans—thanks to Beijing's well-oiled propaganda machine.
When Chinese security forces were opening fire on peaceful Tibetan protesters in Sichuan province on Aug.12, Beijing's state media reported that 100 politicians and other representatives from 30 countries met in Tibet's capital Lhasa and adopted a joint statement saying Tibetans enjoyed "a happy life."
The Xinhua news agency said participants from Britain, Japan, New Zealand, India, and other countries had endorsed the Chinese government's policies in Tibet despite claims by human rights groups that controls on Tibetan culture, religion, and language have been tightened amid rampant rights abuses.
The participants, apparently oblivious of the shooting of Tibetan protesters in the Kardze (Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture that left nearly a dozen seriously wounded, reached what the Chinese media called the "Lhasa Consensus" at the end of the government-organized "2014 Forum on the Development of Tibet."
Xinhua called it an unprecedented conference—"the first large-scale international conference themed on the development of Tibet held in Tibet Autonomous Region."
It said that participants also "unanimously" agreed that what they actually saw in Tibet during their stay in the Himalayan region "differs radically" from the statements of Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, which they said were "distorted and incorrect."
The declaration also said that "many Western media reports are biased and have led to much misunderstanding" of Tibet.
Tibet experts and advocacy groups said the joint statement appeared to be part of a well-organized propaganda campaign by the Chinese authorities.
They asked whether the Lhasa Consensus was adopted with the knowledge of the foreign participants, including Britain's opposition Labour Party front-bencher in the House of Lords Lord Davidson, Japan's opposition Democratic Party of Japan member of parliament Kondo Shoichi, and President of the Constitution Committee of the Austrian parliament Peter Wittmann.
"It isn't unusual for the [ruling Chinese Communist] Party to hold exercises of this kind dedicated entirely to producing a single statement of unquestioning praise for its policies in Tibet," Columbia University Tibet scholar Robbie Barnett told RFA.
"This is a legacy of much earlier propaganda traditions in the party which still persist in its handling of Tibet and certain other sensitive issues."
Barnett said it also is not unusual for the Communist Party to find foreign politicians to go along with its narrative, "though usually they are insignificant figures in their own country, and it's hard to know why they agree to take part in these events."
"What is striking here, though, given that the event supposedly reflected foreigners' views, is that the consensus statement went way beyond the brief of the conference—which was to study development—and instead specifically singled out the Dalai Lama and the Western media for attack," he said.
This, Barnett said, suggested an increasing level of confidence among Chinese officials handling Tibet policy.
Foreign participants at the Lhasa forum, who made field trips in the regional capital and Tibet's Nyingtri (in Chinese, Linzhi) county, "appreciated the substantial efforts and considerable achievements" of the Chinese government "in promoting economic and social development, improving people's well-being, preserving the culture and improving the ecology and environment of Tibet," Xinhua reported.
London-based advocacy group Free Tibet director Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren said she was looking forward to strong statements of repudiation by all the international participants.
"[B]ut that does not alter the fact that their participation was ill-advised at best and reprehensible at worst," she said. "Economic development in Tibet is far from what it seems from the window of a car or a plush meeting room in Lhasa.”
Free Tibet said Tibetans were far from "happy" as claimed by the Lhasa Consensus, which had stated that "ordinary people in Tibet are satisfied with their well-off lives, good education, sound medical care, housing and various social securities."
The U.N. Economic, Cultural and Social Rights committee recently issued a report noting that Tibet is the worst area in China for child malnutrition, Free Tibet said.
It said the influx of Han Chinese into Tibet, the use of Chinese labor, and restrictions on freedom of movement for Tibetans have excluded them from most of the benefits of the economic development that has taken place in the resource-rich region.
The group also referred to China's heavy investment in transport infrastructure in Tibet, saying it was designed to help security forces move quickly around the region and make it easier for Tibet's natural resources—including copper, gold and lithium—to be exported.
UN assessments ignored
The Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) said the declaration at the Lhasa forum completely ignored assessments of the region by U.N. representatives, governments, and independent nongovernmental organizations.
"It will do no favors to the credibility of those participating, and it raises serious questions for the political parties and academic institutions that the foreign delegates represent,” said Kai Mueller, Executive Director of ICT-Germany.
The ICT has written to organizations represented by the foreign participants, including Austrian MP Wittman's Social Democrat Party, asking whether they really supported the Lhasa Consensus.
So far, only one participant—Sir Bob Parker, a former mayor of Christchurch, New Zealand's second largest city—has disavowed the Lhasa Consensus, saying he was "not happy to be included in a document that states some very powerful political perspectives.”
"I came here as a New Zealander with a unique opportunity to get into Tibet and see some of these unique communities with my own eyes. There seems to be a good degree of openness and happiness in the communities that I've been to," he told the BBC.
"But I'm not a Tibet expert, I'm not a global politician, I'm just a citizen who had a chance to come to a very special part of the world to see some of these things with my own eyes."
His statement however did not let him off the hook.
“We welcome Sir Bob’s statement repudiating the so-called consensus but as he was enjoying China’s hospitality, peaceful Tibetan protesters were being shot by China’s security forces," Free Tibet's Byrne-Rosengren said.
No Chinese media had reported the bloody Kardze shooting, which received wide coverage in the international press backed by photos, including victims reeling from multiple bullet wounds.
"Sir Bob was naïve and foolish in taking at face value an invitation from the State Council Information Office of China to attend a meeting about the country it occupies and brutally oppresses: such invitations belong in the bin, not on the mantelpiece,” Byrne-Rosengren said.