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    Greater China
     Aug 30, 2012

Olympic glory divides Tibetans
By Saransh Sehgal

DHARAMSALA, India - At the London Olympics, a young woman, Choeyang (also spelt Qieyang) Kyi, 21, made history by becoming the first ethnic Tibetan to participate in the international sports event, winning a bronze medal for China in the women's 20-kilometer racewalk.

Beijing promptly moved to showcase her victory as a success for its policy toward Tibet, ignoring the grim reality that self-immolations by Tibetans crossed the half-century mark in August. Exiled Tibetans in Dharamsala, meanwhile, have mixed feelings - many have applauded her success but disliked her representing China.

This displeasure came mainly from the radical exiles who advocate for Rangzen (independent Tibet); most others have


joined those inside Tibet and the Chinese to hail her success. Social media sites used by Tibetans and Chinese both inside and outside China were flooded with congratulations and remarks on her success, some even calling her a heroine for Tibet.

"As an individual, we wish her well; she must have put in a lot of effort to reach there," Dicki Choyang, the Tibetan government-in-exile's spokesman for information and international relations, told The Associated Press (AP). "But we are sad that she cannot represent a free Tibet. China uses things like this for [its] political gain. The fact that a Tibetan is participating in the Olympics does not take away anything from the dire situation prevailing inside Tibet."

Lobsang Wangyal, another exile and an organizer of the Tibetan Olympics in 2008 - an event created to provide an opportunity for young Tibetans to share the spirit of the Summer Olympic Games that opened on 8.8.8 (August 8, 2008) in Beijing - said: "I am happy to see a Tibetan competing in the London Olympics. Although Choyang Kyi bagged a bronze medal representing China, it has also shined a light for the Tibetans, showing Tibetans' ability and enthusiasm.

"I see nothing wrong with a Tibetan representing any country. There are Tibetans in different countries these days and many have represented their adopted country. Any Tibetan participating in any international activity brings collective goodwill for Tibetans in general and enhance their career potentials," he added.

The scene at the London Olympics was perhaps the first time in modern history where both the flag of the People's Republic of China and the Tibetan snow-lion flag (a symbol of Tibet's freedom banned in China) were seen waving together, jointly honoring the young Tibetan athlete. A crowd of Chinese, Tibetans exiled in London and Westerners witnessed her historic win. An irony was that most Tibetans praised Choeyang Kyi considering her one of their own while she walked in Chinese red, an eternal theme for China.

During a news conference soon after her victory, the young Tibetan athlete was asked questions, most of which she refused to answer to avoid being caught in political entanglements. But in a media statement, Choeyang Kyi (Qieyang Shenjie for the Chinese) said she felt pride after winning in London. "I'm extremely honored to take part as the first representative of the Tibetans at the Olympic Games and to win a medal. My prayers go to my parents and every single one of my supporters." She said she even witnessed the exiled Tibetans in London encouraging her while she raced. "I heard it! Really. I heard a Tibetan cheering me on!" she said.

While her fans boosted her image, Beijing too portrayed her victory to the world as depicting Tibet's prosperity under Chinese rule, which annoyed the exiles. Chinese state-run media highlighted her as a normal Tibetan from a herder's family winning the medal for all Tibetans as a minority group and China as whole. "She grew up herding yaks on a plateau meadow, just like many other women from rural Tibet. Singing and praying accounted for much of her spare time. And it was not until 2008 that she got the chance to watch the Olympic Games on TV for the first time," a Xinhua report said.

Interestingly, on her weblog she said she was sworn in as a member of China's ruling Communist Party in July before going to London to compete. "Will be making a swear-in speech, a bit excited and a bit nervous," she wrote, as reported by AP.

Choeyang Kyi comes from the Amdo region of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, where self-immolations in recent months have been reported after previous cases in the Kirti Monastery in Sichuan province. She was born to a herder's family and started running as a child on the Tibetan Plateau and later was enrolled in a provincial academy to be trained professionally when she was 16. It was not until 2010 that she was given a chance to join China's national team. Her achievement has even prompted demands for more ethnic-minority groups participating in national sports, which over the years have been dominated by the majority Han Chinese.

In Dharamsala, the exile capital of Tibetans in northern India, days after she won a medal for China, there began a debate on whether they were cheering for Tibet or for China.

Tenzin Nyinjey, a young intellectual based in Dharamsala, said: "All of us are proud of her achievement. We love her for being a Tibetan and the achievement she has made, although it would have been great if she was carrying a Tibetan national flag, instead of the Chinese red flag. But let's not forget that Tibet is under the military occupation of China, that's the harsh reality. So she has to make that 'compromise', but in her interviews to the media, she strongly expressed her national pride, of being the first Tibetan to win an Olympic medal."

However, Tseten Zoechbauer, a Rangzen activist living in Vienna, Austria, said Choeyang Kyi was no hero for her. "I respect her as an athlete and I see that she becomes an inspiration for every young Tibetan, that we can make it there ... but she's never a hero of Tibet to me. She is nothing compared to the martyrs and Tibetans who risk their lives in the Tibetan freedom struggle. She could have spoken about the reality of Tibet after winning - that would have been heroic."

Dibyesh Anand, associate professor of international relations at the University of Westminster in England, said: "It is a case of an achievement by an individual Tibetan at a global level, and hence it is normal for Tibetans everywhere to feel proud of [it]. In a way, her success challenges the dominant [Han] Chinese, exile-Tibetan and Western stereotypes of Tibetan people living in Chinese-controlled Tibet. Chinese view Tibetans as weak, requiring paternalistic help; Westerners see them as primarily spiritual, and exiled Tibetans see them as victims. She shows that an individual can surmount all obstacles and all stereotypes to excel.

"The majority of the Tibetans who are celebrating are doing so on the basis of her ethnic identity and despite the flag she has to represent. They realize that the compromise is essential," Anand added.

"In my experience, Tibetans are better [at] grasping this nuance than many Western supporters of free Tibet. Those who moan that she is part of Chinese propaganda ignore that China could not have fixed the outcome of the event and it is only her individual excellence that matters. They ignore that any Tibetan wanting to be an Olympian has no choice but to be under a flag that is not Tibetan, because Tibet has no independent international identity. Unless they prefer Tibetans to give up everything in life and only struggle for freedom all the time, it is to be expected that such situations will arise."

Nevertheless, the Olympic victory was a multifaceted one, particularly for Choeyang Kyi herself, who tried her best to distance herself from political issues and not to say anything that would provoke either community - her own and the one she lobbies for. In all this, she is worthy of the praise exiled Tibetans and Chinese alike have bestowed on her.

Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who currently is pursuing further study in Vienna, Austria. He can be reached at saranshsehgal@gmail.com.

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Tibet's political future lies in 'Middle Way' (Aug 11, '12)

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