How the Tibetan government in exile embraced “post-truth” and fake news

Communists, fake news and Chinese spies: the authoritarian’s propaganda playbook of the Dalai Lama runs out of steam…

The Tibetan government in exile appears to have embraced a simple yet effective tactic when dealing with critics who question its ineffectiveness, alleged suppression of even minor opposition or seeming tolerance of corruption within its ranks: simply accusing them of being spies in the pay of China has to date proved an effective way of forcing those critics to shut up and slink off quietly.

The Central Tibetan Authority (CTA), the government in exile, is responsible for looking after Buddhist communities across India who initially fled their homeland when fleeing from Chinese repression following a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. Ever since their flight, the common CTA mantra has been to “blame China”, whenever things went wrong.

Those in command at the CTA have levelled the “Chinese spies” charge against virtually everyone who has opposed the body, which has faced numerous accusations of vested interests, corruption and ineptitude in its perceived role of taking care of the 95,000 Tibetan exiles under its authority.

They have even taken issue with the Dorje Shugden devotion, a centuries-old tradition of worship, claiming its practitioners are in league with China to undermine the authority of the Dalai Lama, widely recognised as the spiritual leader of the Tibetan exiles, who has spoken forcefully against the practice. His position on the matter has widely been seen as a de facto ban.

By branding all Dorje Shugden practitioners as “Chinese spies”, the CTA sidesteps some important questions, most strikingly how ostracising those who follow the 350-year-old tradition sits with the Tibetan constitution, and with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which embodies the concept of religious freedom. It has also left Shugden groups open to the blandishments of the Chinese, who have not been averse to exploiting the rift.

By accusing any and all opponents of being Chinese spies, the CTA has sought to keep alive concerns that were initially justifiable in the aftermath of the community’s flight from Tibet, when the Chinese threat to its very existence was all too real. By doing so, it has sought to mask its own lack of progress in improving the lot of the exiles in its care. Many of these exiles continue to live in precarious conditions and remain virtually stateless, almost 60 years after their displacement and despite international support from several governments and a large number of non-governmental organisations.

China probably does keep a close watch on CTA activities and on sentiment both within Tibet and in the communities in exile, given that Tibet accounts for just over a quarter of China’s total land mass and it is in the country’s interest to ensure stability in the region. But if all the CTA’s accusations were indeed correct, “Chinese spies” would likely outnumber the rest of the population in the Tibetan exile communities.

Cato’s lesson

Already in the 2nd century BC, the Roman senator Cato the Elder had understood that if one repeats an idea often enough, it can eventually gain a foothold in the public conscious. He was to use this understanding to great effect.

Cato had been worried. He saw Carthage, Rome’s powerful Phoenician rival, as a continuing threat to the Roman Empire. Even after the Roman army had defeated Carthage, located in modern-day Tunisia, in the first and second Punic Wars, the city continued to flourish, something Cato found intolerable. Whether relevant to his speeches before the senate or not, Cato would, for a period, end each one with a phrase very roughly translated as “and by the way, I’d just like to add that Carthage must be destroyed”.

In the end, either convinced by Cato’s repetitiveness or just to get him to shut up, the Roman Senate agreed to send its forces under Scipio Aemilianus to wipe Carthage from the face of the earth. The focus on the “Carthage problem” certainly helped divert attention from problems at home — there was plenty of dissatisfaction to go round among Ancient Rome’s slaves and lower classes, who formed the bulk of the empire’s population. This dissatisfaction flared up less than fifteen years later in a slave revolt which shook Rome to her foundations, and which would be followed by two more rebellions, the last led by the fabled slave Spartacus.

Numerous historians point to the sack of Carthage, when Rome destroyed her last great competitor, as the beginning of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Even so, Cato’s lesson was not lost on future generations. Unscrupulous would-be autocrats soon learned that if they could focus the attention of the ruled on a common enemy, real or imagined, they might be prepared to forgive their rulers a multitude of sins rather than risk being tarred with the “enemy” brush themselves.

“Post-truth” on the march

Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale and the author of How Propaganda Works, published in 2015, says that authoritarian propaganda is a form of communication in which a leader creates a narrative explaining why the problems afflicting certain groups of people have a simple origin and an even simpler solution[1]. Much of the time, the “problems” are of the would-be autocrat’s own invention, he said, a simple expedient to drag the disaffected into his or her camp.

Oxford Dictionaries flagged “post-truth” as 2016’s international word of the year, a concept it defines as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” It was a nod to the Trump presidential campaign and to Brexit, the UK vote to exit the European Union. Both campaigns owed much of their success to their ability in stoking the fears of certain voters, seeking to identify the “danger” posed by immigrants, people of colour or the “dishonest press”, and to completely ignoring any real-world details that might not fit in with their world view.

One example is U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump’s identification of “inner city carnage” as one of the major problems facing Americans today, a demonstrably false claim but one that served to rally his base. Despite the fact that the U.S. murder rate had been in overall decline for some two decades or more, Trump focused on a handful of cities where there had been a spike in violent crime, attributing it to immigrant gangs, convincing his base that the phenomenon was out of control and that only he could solve the problem.

He also alleged the 2016 election would be rigged by millions of illegal votes marshalled by the perfidious Democrats, despite minimal empirical evidence of voter fraud, which had identified fewer than 10 cases of voter impersonation in the previous election. Among other ludicrous claims, Trump’s boast that his election would ensure people would be allowed to say “Happy Christmas” again belied the fact that the conveying of Christmas wishes had never actually been banned.

Prior to his election, Trump had adopted the tactic of accusing any and all of his critics of being purveyors of “fake new” — at least he would have done had he known the word “purveyors”. Since then, he has ably used the occasional factual error in unfavourable press articles as “proof” that every media critic is out to get him, while giving a pass to friendly press such as Fox News, even on the numerous occasions that their purported news stories have been thoroughly debunked.

Since his election, Trump has attacked friend or foe when the mood takes him. He has a well-known tendency of threatening to visit “fire and fury” on anyone who attempts to hold him to account, and of levelling accusations of “fake news” at any news article that dares to imply he isn’t actually the greatest human being in history. Steve Coll wrote in the New Yorker, “fake news” is credible reporting that he (Trump) doesn’t like.”[2]

Incredibly, the mainstream press has generally failed to hold Trump to account for his numerous lies, like those concerning his tax returns which, during the elections, he promised to release as soon as his audit was over; or regarding the press conference he said he would hold to explain how his wife Melania was awarded a green card, usually reserved for people with “special talents” like nuclear physicists or sporting prodigies. He has rarely been asked to explain, on the record, why he failed to deliver on his promises in either case, or numerous others.

For over a year he has continued to say he was willing, nay anxious, to testify to the Mueller investigation into whether he or the Republican party under whose banner he swept to power in the 2016 U.S. elections colluded with the Russians in order to achieve the electoral victory. In the meantime, on the back of legal advice, he has strenuously resisted providing any such testimony, and referred to the growing body of evidence linking numerous close associates and other Republicans to high level Russian operators as… fake news.

Elsewhere, Philippines autocrat Rodrigo Duterte, famous for his machismo and misogyny, deflects by accusing his critics of being gay, paedophiles or drug addicts. In March, he asked the head of the country’s Commission on Human Rights (CHR) if the latter was a paedophile because he had protested the killing of teenagers in the government’s bloody war on drugs, which has already left thousands dead.[3] In the meantime, his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses all his critics, be they politicians, members of the military or journalists, of plotting a coup to take control of Turkey, and throws them all in jail.

Not the internet

Many analysts have blamed the internet, Facebook and Twitter for facilitating the spread of spurious news stories — such as Infowars’ story that Trump’s presidential opponent, Hillary Clinton, was involved in a paedophile ring headquartered in a Washington pizza parlour, the so-called “Pizzagate” affair, or the so-called Uranium One scandal. The latter was thoroughly debunked by Sam Shephard on Fox News, leading several viewers to call for his resignation because they preferred their pro-Trump, anti-everyone-else stories to pass without question, whether true or not.

But Trump, Duterte and others probably learned much about deception, deflection and self-serving propaganda from a past-master at these arts, four times Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. For twenty years, the Mediaset and Fininvest kingpin, who had made much of his fortune by “convincing” politicians to grease the wheels of his many projects, dodged accusations of corruption, conflicts of interests, tax evasion, and mafia associations by simply denying all the evidence and berating his accusers. His supporters lapped it all up, even when his lies were, on occasion, laid bare.

The great British author George Orwell saw it all coming, of course. In his splendid 1984, written almost seventy years ago, “the Party” (for, like Highlander, there can be only one) maintains its control over the “proles” by reducing all opposition to a simple concept — so-called “thoughtcrime”, or ideas which run contrary to the desired orthodoxy. Anyone guilty of gainsaying this orthodoxy is an enemy, and must be destroyed.

In much the same way Berlusconi’s opponents were “communists” and Trump’s promote “fake news”. The CTA has berated its enemies as “Chinese spies” in much the same way, and with much the same aim — to shut down debate.

For example “Chinese spy” accusation were levelled against the following people the CTA regarded as opponents or threats: all Dorje Shugden monks and lay people for opposing the Dalai Lama’s anti-Constitutional religious ban; against Milla Rangzen, the owner and editor of Tibetan magazine, who is critical of Lobsang Sangay[4]; against Lukar Jam, who was a candidate for the post of CTA’s president in most recent past CTA elections[5]; against Sharchock Cookta who was critical of the CTA and was targeted by the headline: “shocking news: MP Sharchock Cookta Chinese spy suspicion in Tibetan Parliament”[6]; against the head of the Karma Kagyu when they wanted to bring the Buddhist leader under CTA’s excessive control [7]; against Dudjom Rinpoche who was head of the Nyingma sect when he was extremely popular in the 1960’s and was regarded as a threat to the political line of the CTA[8]; against Serkong Tritul Rinpoche who is a successful lama — when he visited Taiwan, the CTA accused him to be a Chinese spy, forgetting the Dalai Lama also visited Taiwan; against all Tibetans who are advocating full independence from China (rangzen) in opposition to the Dalai Lama’s ‘Middle Way’ approach, as was expressed by Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche who was the CTA President before Lobsang Sangay…

But the CTA is fast losing the faith of many Tibetans in exile. In recent years, several have left the exile communities in search of a better life elsewhere — an increasing number of them even choosing to return to China-controlled Tibet when possible — and the numbers are accelerating. Commitment to the Tibetan struggle is weakening as exiles begin to focus on their more mundane needs which the CTA has singularly failed to address despite the time, resources and goodwill at its disposal.

Simplistic accusations tend to lose their power over time. Like the boy who cried wolf, authoritarian propagandists may convince a less critical section of society for a period, but eventually even their most staunch enthusiasts begin to waver when they understand they are being toyed with, and that the autocrat whose pretexts they have so devoutly supported never had any intention of working to satisfy their needs. This is as true for the CTA as for other autocrats and their cohorts.

Even so, for the moment, “post-truth” remains in the ascendant. There is a shorter word for the concept, of course: lies.

[1] https://press.princeton.edu/titles/10448.html

[2] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/11/donald-trumps-fake-news-tactics

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/17/gay-or-paedophile-philippines-duterte-attacks-rights-chief-over-drug-war-criticism

[4] https://thetibetstar.com/2018/02/28/president-sangay-launches-attacks-on-mila-rangzen/

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGzZQ7UcDAk

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmYwDq_nOL4

[7] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/tibetan-buddhists-in-shock-at-claims-spiritual-leader-is-a-chinese-spy-2199022.html

[8] https://books.google.com.my/books?id=tcselu34z3EC&pg=PA208&lpg=PA208&dq=Dudjom+Rinpoche+chinese+spy&source=bl&ots=Z_OnjTGjwl&sig=m5cpKR04YiBAr4T4