Tea Leaf Nation
A New Look for Tibetans, With an Assist From the Chinese State
On a highly censored Internet, even viral wedding photos can be a propaganda tool.
They could have been images of any freshly married Chinese couple shelling out big money for the glamour shots of their dreams. The woman had cascading black hair, the man, a lanky self-confidence with a hipster hairdo to match. The two posed for dozens of photos in front of a helicopter, sipping Starbucks on a trendy avenue, and stepping into an expensive sports car outside a luxury store (as shown above). The bride and groom were Dawa Drolma and Gerong Phuntsok, two young ethnic Tibetans from China’s southwestern Sichuan province. Their bilingual Tibetan-Chinese online photo album – which also showed the two in traditional dress praying before a Tibetan temple, wandering among a herd of goats, and winding their way through a line of prayer flags — seemed remarkably adroit in managing the tensions between consumerism and urbanization, and traditional rural roots.
Perhaps it was that fact that caused the photos to spread like wildfire across the Chinese Internet in early April. As state news agency Xinhua reported on April 15, 80 percent of mobile messaging app WeChat users — meaning around 400 million users — viewed the photos. There’s no evidence those numbers aren’t true, but the story is more complicated than those gaudy statistics. That’s because Tibet is something of an information black hole. After decades of de facto independence, the region was incorporated into China as a semi-autonomous region in 1950. Since then, strict controls on Tibetan culture and religion have perpetuated a tumultuous relationship between Tibetans and government authorities, most of whom are Han, China’s majority ethnic group, and who routinely label dissidents “separatists.” Foreign media is restricted from traveling to the region, and domestic media coverage of Tibet is extremely selective; Tibetan protests, detentions, and beatings are primarily reported only by outside media organizations and pro-Tibet groups, whose websites are blocked in China.
Phuntsok and Drolma’s photo album filled this information void – and did so in a way that Communist Party authorities clearly felt they could countenance. Unlike virality in the United States, which is driven by organic interest as well as the web-savvy maneuverings of powerful private companies with an eye to their bottom lines, online content in China must also pass through the meticulous filtering of state-directed censors. Chinese web users must first carefully weigh the risks of posting online, a fraught decision-making process which leads to widespread, if difficult to quantify, self-censorship. Chinese censors then get to work on what’s left; for example, they delete an estimated 13 percent of all content posted to Weibo, China’s huge Twitter-like microblogging platform. That number is far higher for content originating in Tibet, where more than half of all Weibo posts are removed. (Censorship is more difficult to track on the private message-based WeChat.)
It’s clear that the photos present a narrative of young Tibetans in China — cosmopolitan, bilingual, effortlessly able to balance modern and traditional life with no hint of conflict — that Chinese authorities not only approve of, but are eager to promote. After two days of sharing within the closed networks of WeChat friend circles, the photos received the equivalent of Communist Party blessing when state news agency Xinhua ran an April 9 article about them. By the next day, other news outlets and WeChat public accounts began posting the images. By April 13, the photos enjoyed a nearly ubiqituous presence across the public Chinese web. An April 15 English-language Xinhua article pronounced the couple the “most blessed bride and groom in the entire country.”
But the official boost given to the wedding photos stands in stark contrast to the fate of other user-generated content about Tibet. On the same day the now-famous couple posted their photos online, in their home province of Sichuan a 47-year-old Tibetan nun died after self-immolating to protest Chinese rule. On April 18, less than two weeks later, a Tibetan monk also died after lighting himself on fire, becoming the 139th Tibetan to do so since 2008. Chinese news outlets did not report either incident; Weibo currently blocks searches for the Chinese term for “self-immolation,” citing “relevant laws and policies;” and posts mentioning the term have been censored. Photos of previous self-immolation victims are wiped from the web. Weibo posts such as this one from April 28, which criticizes China’s majority Han for “forcibly constraining the religious beliefs of Tibetans,” are deleted before they have a chance to be shared. Had this content not been suppressed, it’s possible that the national conversation about Tibet over the past two weeks, rather than centering around photogenic lovebirds, would instead have focused on why some Tibetans have become so desperate to have their message heard.
Behind the inviting images of this well-coiffed couple, in other words, lurks the influence of the Chinese state, one equipped to censor non-conforming content before it goes viral, and to burnish and spread the stories that it favors. Phuntsok and Drolma’s pictures are authentic — but they also happen to fit neatly into the Chinese government’s need to broadcast an appealing image of Tibetan-Han bicultural harmony, whatever the reality on the ground.