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Spin Follies
China never seems to get it right in Tibet

January 24, 2000
Web posted at 9 a.m. Hong Kong time, 8 p.m. EDT

The aftermath of the 17th Karmapa's dramatic escape from Tibet reveals once again how poorly China handles the international p.r. game.

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As the 14-year-old lama arrived in Dharamsala to a warm greeting from the Dalai Lama, Beijing confidently told the world the boy had slipped across the border merely to pick up a hallowed hat and a few musical instruments. The explanation rang hollow. Indeed, as it becomes increasingly clear that the Karmapa isn't going back, China's rhetoric is shifting. Beijing now warns India not to allow the boy to become involved in "political activity."

We've seen this before. Isabel Hilton, a London writer and expert on Tibet, wrote recently in TIME Asia that Beijing reacted similarly in 1959 when the Dalai Lama made his own incredible escape from Chinese--occupied Tibet into northern India. China initially announced that the Dalai Lama had been "kidnapped" by imperialists. When it became evident that Tibet's revered God--King wasn't returning, China's rhetoric turned nasty.

I was in Lhasa in 1987 when China botched another challenge. Tibetan monks were rioting in Lhasa, and large numbers of foreign journalists descended on the city for the first time. It wasn't pretty.

When the reporters arrived, on flights via Chengdu in Sichuan province, Chinese officials initially tried a gentle approach. The media men and women were received graciously, and Chinese cadres agreed to be interviewed.

Then the first reports of the violent clashes -- which left 14 people dead -- started appearing in the world's press. China was stunned. Officials suddenly ordered the foreign journalists out of Tibet. Looking for a pretext, they announced that we had all come illegally. If that were the case, we asked, then why had officials initially received us so warmly?

It was a good question, to which Yu Wuzhen, then director of Tibet's foreign affairs office, had no good answer. "It's secret (neibu)," he said, to derisive howls from the assembled reporters. Still, we had to leave.

I was the first correspondent to leave Lhasa. I flew out the next day, carrying a well-concealed pool report that we had all produced to get the story out amid China's sudden news blackout. It was my 15 minutes of fame. When I arrived at Chengdu's airport, a throng greeted my arrival. The New York Times even quoted me. They referred to me as Ms. Ignatius.

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