Tibetan Americans Critical of China's Quake Response

Tibetan Americans Critical of China's Quake Response

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It’s not just the devastation from the Qinghai earthquake that shocked Dechen Tsering.

The Bay Area resident and president of the Tibetan Association of Northern California (TANC) remembered watching the disaster on television. “CNN seemed to forget what even China’s CCTV acknowledged -- that this is a Tibetan area,” said Tsering. The Tibetan community refers to the main city in the area as Kyegundo. The Chinese government calls it Yushu. Both sides realize when a natural disaster hits a politically sensitive area, relief cannot be separated from politics.

The Chinese government is going out of its way to prove to the world that China does not treat its minorities as second-class citizens. “It’s been a very strong rescue effort,” admitted Tsering. But she says the altitude can work against good intentions. “Not just the rescue teams but even the sniffing dogs are getting sick,” says Tsering.

After the unrest and demonstrations during the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, China is acutely aware that all eyes are on its every move in Tibet. The government has announced it does not need external funding for the relief stage of the operation.

It has also published a list of 15 authorized non-profits that are approved to receive donations.
“There was not such a list during the Sichuan earthquake (in 2008),” said Birger Stamperdahl, senior program officer of Give2Asia, which connects donors in the United States with Asia. Stampdahl said Give2Asia has already partnered with eight of those organizations that are “reputable organizations of national scope.”

Stamperdahl said Give2Asia is just focusing on the long-term recovery for the region instead of getting involved in the politics.

Tsering worrried that China will rebuild Kyegundo as “a showcase to the world.”

“Will Tibetan stakeholders have a real say?” she asked. TANC is figuring out its own list of organizations where they are encouraging their members to send donations. These organizations work both with Tibetan and Chinese populations and, Tsering says, have a real track record in Eastern Tibet.

There are already signals that some influential figures in China are pressing Beijing to make some conciliatory moves. Jia Qinghai, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference, called on Chinese embassies abroad to warmly receive all overseas Tibetans who wanted to donate to the quake-hit areas or come back to China for funeral affairs.

But that message of cooperation has yet to percolate to the diaspora. The China Mutual Aid Network (CMAIN) in the Silicon Valley launched an appeal among its members, as soon as they got news of the earthquake.

“We had done the same for the Sichuan earthquake,” said CMAIN volunteer Dan Cao. “The reaction is pretty comparable.” But when asked if the earthquake had brought CMAIN’s members together with the Tibetans in the Bay Area, Cao said, “We don’t really know the Tibetans. They have never got in touch with us.”

“No one from the Chinese community has approached us yet,” said TANC’s Tsering. She said her group is more focused now on mobilizing their own community rather than reaching out to the Chinese. She said community members have heard from relatives who lost their homes and are living in their yards in tents. Without electricity, many are afraid they will stop getting updates as cell phones die out.

Tsering said many of the Tibetans living in Kyegundo were former nomads who had been “forcibly resettled” there by the Chinese government as part of its grasslands preservation policy. “People sold their yaks and settled in a city with few job prospects,” said Tsering. “Now they are completely destitute.”

The larger Chinese diaspora has been less personally affected by this disaster compared to the 2008 Sichuan quake. Sichuan is much more densely populated. As a result, the devastation resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people, compared to just over 2,000 in this month’s quake in Eastern Tibet.

Cindy Yip, who hosts a popular call-in program on Sing Tao radio, hosted shows about the Sichuan earthquake two years ago. This time, she has not done any special segments. “We have promos running all day instead, and have encouraged our listeners to donate money to the Red Cross,” she said. The Sing Tao newspaper, she said, has had extensive coverage. “Of course the Chinese community is upset by the earthquake,” said Yip, but she added that her listeners have been more preoccupied with the assault on a Chinese immigrant and his son in Oakland which eventually resulted in the man’s death.

Tsering said she is still not ruling out cooperation with the Chinese community. Her own organization has set up a Friends of TANC that has a couple of Chinese members. But, she said, the first step has to be understanding on the part of the Chinese that this is a Tibetan area. Survivors from the earthquake sent a letter asking for the Dalai Lama to be allowed to visit the area. “Now that would be the ultimate spiritual blessing for the people who have been injured or died,” said Tsering.