Tale of cyber war: China and Tibet

Lobsang Wangyal

Lobsang Wangyal Tibet Sun/Thupten Tenzin

By Lobsang Wangyal

DHARAMSHALA, India, 19 May 2009

Although the one-party state known for absolute control over all domestic media will surely remain unsuccessful in its goal of achieving credibility of its media presence and through it enhancing its global image, China is still reshaping its new media presence and spending hugely on it.

Placing importance on convincing the global audience of China’s views, Beijing is spending an astounding RMB (Chinese yuan) 45 billion (more than 6.5 billion USD) to reach the world audience with views and context they call “the true Chinese voices.”

In order to prove itself a global player and to have that image and outreach, China wants to create a new 24-hour TV news channel modelled on Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language news network, with correspondents around the world. More overseas news bureaus will be opened, publish and broadcast more broadly in English and other languages, with the help of English-speaking Chinese and foreign media specialists.

The media ramp-up drive is aimed to match China’s rising might, and help it to come out of its traditional isolated mode. China feels the Western-dominated international press is biased against it, and wants to provide a countering voice.

As a first step towards that goal, China launched the Global Times — a tabloid and a web version — a month ago. China’s number one daily, the China Daily, had failed to achieve what Beijing hoped due to its too propaganda-oriented content. Global Times is owned by the People’s Daily. It was launched a month earlier than scheduled. The daily tabloid in English has become the second national English newspaper in China.

As the ambitions for the site were high, the newspaper and the site are run by an educated and experienced Chinese team, as well as overseas reporters and professionals.

It can be seen in the new site that Beijing has consulted media professionals. However, for the amount of money spent and the importance placed on the site, Beijing has not gotten the site they envisaged. First, the Global Times does not even have a top-level domain name in .com extension. The domain globaltimes.com is owned by a company providing digital solutions and services in Houston, Texas, in the US. This certainly does not look very professional. It is very unlikely that people will visit a site with a “.cn” extension. The site therefore will not really fulfil Beijing’s quest for Chinese presence on the web.

Secondly, the advisers may have been media professionals, but it seems they may not have been web-savvy experts. The layout of the site is mediocre. The over-done flash animations give the site an amateur look. The marquee (scrolling text) at the left-hand top corner is unpleasant. And the web’s most important tool — the search box — is not to be seen on the site at all.

Thirdly, like all the Chinese government-owned sites, any link is opened in a new window. This is not very user-friendly.

Google and Yahoo both catalogue China’s state-owned Xinhua news agency, China Daily, and the People’s Daily Online, which are not really news sites, but government mouthpieces. News sites that Google watches jumped from 4000 to 25,000 a few months ago. It can be assured that the Global Times will eventually be included in the Google and Yahoo News sites, considering Beijing’s well-known influence over the two internet giants. It’s all controversial how the sources are chosen or approved. It is all too clear that in today’s greedy world, it is not a shame to stamp on ethics with bias and preference. But this gift by Google and Yahoo will be the only edge that the site Global Times will have.

The overall rating for the site Global Times, therefore, stands below five out of ten.

The Tibetan web world

Looking at all the top-level Tibet domains obtained by exile Tibetans, it would seem that Tibetans are web-savvy, and better than China at using the world’s new favourite media tool.

However, the reality tells a different story, at least for “official” websites, compared to the Chinese sites. The domains Tibet.net and Tibet.com are owned by the Tibetan government-in-exile (TGiE), which launched the official site Tibet.net on 1 January 2001. An official online video site, TibetOnline.tv, was launched in 2006. But considering the length of time elapsed, and the resources the exile government employs (though of course not comparable to the huge Chinese investment in media and web), these are not standing at the top position among Tibetan websites. Instead it is a private site, Phayul.com, which does.

This site, owned by young Tibetan entrepreneur and web developer Tenzin Norsang, is the most popular Tibetan site today. Two jubilant editors, Kalsang Rinchen and Phurbu Thinley, are currently writing for the site. The site does have its own hiccups, which will be dealt with further on.

Back to the government website: From the design point of view, Tibet.net wears an insipid look. In its lack of search field, it scores equally low with the Global Times. The Tibetan script on the site is not unicode. This means that nobody apart from Tibetan Computer Resource Centre (TCRC) and the TGiE computers can read the Tibetan content.

Presentable content and language would much improve if professional writers are invited, or at least if the articles are reviewed by native-English-speaking proofreaders. Use of images and their positioning could be improved, and this skill can be learned in a short span of time. In addition, there are thousands of images which could be put to use to illustrate stories, or even in the photo gallery, instead of languishing unseen in the archives of the exile government.

Timeliness is another factor that would make the site vibrant. Staff members of Tibet.net are not allowed to work on government and other holidays. But, what if there are important pieces of information or news to be updated? This limitation leaves Tibet.net untimely and sometimes not even relevant.

Then there is the lack of resources and equipment. During a meeting in 2006, I suggested to the prime minister of the exile government Samdhong Rinpoche and the secretary of the information office who supervises Tibet.net that the Tibet.net editor should have a laptop and a data card (mobile internet) for updating news and information as and when it happens. This would not only help to create a vibrant site, but would also provide a roving editor for the exile government.

I am only hoping that the readers will not start expecting too much from Tibet.net as the central site of an exile/refugee government, considering that the editor has been charged to take on the cyber war without those essential journalism tools: a laptop, data card, digital camera, card reader and memory stick.

Not only should facilities be provided with immediate effect to pitch the site at the front lines, consultation should be sought from every field. One or two staff members should not be expected to do all of the many complex things that make a website effective. A programmer is not necessarily a good designer. A designer may not be a good photographer, and a photographer not necessarily a good writer.

Then there is Tibet.com. In its current form it is not serving any purpose. Also, it confuses people new to Tibetan issues, claiming as it does that it is “The Government of Tibet in Exile.” It should either be closed down, or redirected to Tibet.net, until a new purpose of the site is found.

Security for insecurity

Since computers are now the only front lines of the exile government in this modern networked world, securing the machines becomes most important. The constant cyber-attacks on the computers of the exile government, and their continued vulnerability, has become a matter of cliché. In this age of cyber and information war, a review to secure the network and the internet is long overdue. The educated and informed acts of tough, professional techies alone can secure the computers and the network — wishful thinking, perpetual complaints, and amateur attempts will not do it.

Private Tibetan sites

Phayul.com didn’t take long to shoot up to the top spot among Tibetan sites. Launched in 2001, Phayul.com is the most popular Tibetan site. However, it is not necessarily the best site. Web-wise, the intrusive pop-up ad on the home page is an annoyance. Such a thing is not considered user friendly in the modern world. And the cramped page layout is definitely calling for an overhaul.

When Phayul started there were not many sites owned by Tibetans; today the number of Tibetan sites is burgeoning on the net like Dharamshala’s monsoon, and individual Tibetans are faring well enough in the web world, with quality design and content. There have been some prominent bloggers, who are excellent and productive. Writer and activist Jamyang Norbu’s blog, Shadow Tibet, is no doubt the most visible among Tibetan bloggers. Woeser’s Invisible Tibet is equally popular, with attention coming from an array of international scholars and journalists.

Tashi Tsering, a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, Canada, has an environment-related blog: Tibetan Plateau. A budding writer, Rinchen, presently working at the Gu Chu Sum Association in Mcleod Ganj (and soon to join a university in the US), is writing his own views of Tibetan society at “Renaissance for Tibet”:http://renaissancetibet.blogspot.com/. The most refreshing new face on the net is of a monk whose blog launched a month ago — Karma Lodoe of Dzongsar monastery in Chauntra blogging at: Tibetan English Literature.

Tibetan web inside Tibet

Web sites and bloggers in Tibet remain under the China censorship radar constantly. Many Tibetan journalists and bloggers have been arrested over the years, and websites and blogs shut down. China’s zero tolerance on dissent leads to censorship and suppression of freedom of speech at the level of the most basic human rights. So on this globally-valued issue, central to open and effective communication, on a scale of zero to 10, China can only get 0.


Although it's altogether a different subject, and out of scope to dwell on the topic of unicode in this short piece, to just quickly grasp the idea: Computers basically deal with numbers. When we type letters, computers are reading numbers that are allocated to each letter or character. Each character has a universal coding called Unicode. For example, the first letter of Devanagari (Hindi) ka (ka) is 0915. English letter A is 0041. The unicode chart 0000 to 007f covers a total of 128 basic Latin characters and symbols. The "Tibetan script":http://www.unicode.org/charts/PDF/U0F00.pdf ranges from 0F00 to 0FFF. In that, syllable aum (aum) is 0F00, and the first letter ka (ka) is 0F40. Characters which do not use unicode will not work for most people on the internet. One example of a font that does not use unicode is TCRC Bodyig. Examples of fully Unicode Tibetan fonts are Microsoft Himalaya, Arial Unicode MS, and TCRC YoutsoWeb. (Which strangely is not used by TCRC or CTA). A web page or document written in any one of those, can be read by someone who has any of them, or one of many other Unicode fonts as well. Web pages (or any other document) written in TCRC Bodyig font, can only be read by someone who has that font. TCRC Bodyig will work only on TCRC and TGiE computers. This is because they do have the TCRC Bodyig font on their computers. To be able to be read by the world, the thousands of TCRC Tibetan pages would have to be retyped in a Unicode Tibetan font. If a programmer could write a program to do the conversion (which should be possible) that will save a huge task. But if steps are not taken now, the problem will only grow.

About the author

Lobsang Wangyal is a freelance photojournalist and also edits the Tibet Sun: www.tibetsun.com

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