The Earthquake Made China Understand Tibetans

When a 7.1-magnitude earthquake rocked parts of Yushu prefecture in remote Qinghai province this week, China responded much as it did in 2008, when a 7.9-magnitude temblor hit Sichuan. A relief effort began immediately: rescue workers and volunteers rushed to the scene, donations flowed to aid groups, and Premier Wen Jiabao flew to the area to show his support. But this week's quake struck a different kind of people than the ones in Sichuan, who are mostly members of the ethnic Han majority. Inhabitants of Yushu are 97 percent ethnic Tibetans, thought to be more sympathetic to the Dalai Lama and his claims for Tibetan autonomy. Although sensitivity about ethnic conflict in China makes surveying difficult, Tibetans are generally regarded by the wealthier Han as ungrateful for the ample economic boon that Beijing's policies have brought them.

But the earthquake put images of the impoverished Tibetans on every TV screen and newspaper across China, showing that maybe they didn't have all that much to be grateful for. The disaster has allowed Chinese throughout the country to learn a little more about the situation in Tibetan regions—insight that Han Chinese on the whole lack, partially because press reports on Tibet still read like Mao-era propaganda. "In general, Chinese don't have a very healthy, full view of Tibet," but the quake is helping change this, says blogger and social commentator Yang Hengjun. If the tragedy destroyed homes, it may also elicit a new sympathy that never existed before.

For 51 years, since the People's Liberation Army marched into the Tibetan plateau,

Tibet has been part of the People's Republic of China. And for 51 years, rancor and distrust have characterized relations between the two peoples: the Tibetans want self-determination, and the Chinese believe Tibet, historically, has been a part of the Chinese nation. The most recent major incident occurred in 2008, during the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against Beijing's rule. Tibetans rioted over detained monks and other issues in both the Tibetan Autonomous Region (what the outside world calls Tibet) and other neighboring Chinese provinces populated by ethnic Tibetans like Qinghai.

This week's earthquake—and footage of the devastation—is allowing the average Chinese to see both the poverty and humanity of a region they're used to seeing only in political terms. "It's very hard to see real Tibetans" through the media, says Yang. "On TV, they're dancing all the time, shaking hands with leaders, celebrating, or shown as troublemakers. This is an opportunity to realize that Tibetans live and suffer like we do." In addition, the sensitivity about minority issues—especially Tibetan ones—in China has choked off civic opportunities for Tibetan-Chinese connections. The earthquake is bringing "unprecedented" Chinese-Tibetan grassroots understanding, "and this could be a very good thing," says Yang.

Online, Han Chinese have responded overwhelmingly and unambiguously. Twitter—which is blocked in China but accessible to its tech-savvy Netizens (who, unlike in other countries, are not necessarily more liberal or tolerant)—and bulletin-board systems have been filled with support. "Tonight, we are all from Yushu," tweeted Wu Botao, echoing the call for support during the Sichuan earthquake. One NetEase forum is filled with pictures of mostly Han Chinese holding up handwritten signs showing support for the region. One Netizen tweeted, "Let's pray for the blessings for our compatriots in the Yushu Qinghai disaster zone." Another posted, "Yushu I believe everything will get better." This is sympathy, not schadenfreude.

As in Sichuan, the poor construction quality of buildings in Yushu is becoming a contentious issue. "That 80 percent of the buildings collapsed gives a lot of empathy into what Tibetans have been facing in terms of development in the region," says Andrew M. Fischer, senior lecturer at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague and an expert on Chinese development strategies in Tibet and western China. As in other parts of western China, Tibetan areas have been rapidly urbanized under government plans to develop the west. Unfortunately, corruption and lack of oversight leads to substandard construction, which in turn leads to more earthquake deaths when disaster strikes. "Everyone knows why certain buildings fell and why certain buildings didn't fall," says Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist and political activist.

The response could also warm Tibetan feelings toward China. Despite the difficulty of getting supplies into this mountainous and remote area, by all accounts the relief effort so far has been conducted quickly and competently. "It's a pretty impressive response, and one that, for its effectiveness, is bound to be recognized by local communities for what it is," says Ben Hillman, a Tibet expert from the Australian National University's China Institute. Ironically, Chinese soldiers stationed in the prefecture because of rioting in 2008 may have been able to help with the relief effort (reports are murky and still emerging).

Increased sympathy for Tibetans by Han won't lead any closer to Tibetan independence. But if Han better understand their fellow citizens, it could reduce ethnic violence like the kind that rocked the region in 2008, and even foster mutual respect—something that countless broadcasts of dancing Tibetans unsurprisingly failed to do.