15 Minutes with Daniel Ziv

My Interview with Daniel Ziv as he goes to the Busan International Film Festival to premier the theatre version of his documentary feature JALANAN as an official entry in competition..


Indonesia: The Act of Glossing

As an Indonesian born in the 1950s, I found watching the three hour director’s cut of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Act of Killing” (executive producer Werner Herzog) deeply disturbing. Though it revealed nothing factually new per se about the horrors of the 1965 politcal purges, it is the in-your-face quality of delusion of the characters that shocks the most.

Read more


Indonesia Politics: Where's the Party?

Originally published in the Huffington Post

It’s been a busy fortnight in Indonesian politics. The inhabitants of the capital Jakarta just voted in a new governor, Joko Widodo a.k.a. Jokowi, of the PDI-P party with the significant support of the upstart partyGerindra,  defeating the influential incumbent Democrat Fauzi Bowo a.k.a. Foke, who has his political roots in the still powerful Golkar party which in turn has it’s roots in the Suharto’s New Order era. Not only that: the new governor is the (soon to be ex) mayor of the central Javanese city of Solo with little experience in national politics. Most startling of all, his new deputy governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama a.k.a. Ahok, is of Chinese origin – a first in the ethnic tinderbox of modern Indonesian politics.Read more


15 Minutes w Daniel Ziv

My Interview with Daniel Ziv as he goes to the Busan International Film Festival to premier the theatre version of his documentary feature JALANAN as an official entry in competition..


INDONESIA: THE ACT OF GLOSSING

As an Indonesian born in the 1950s, I found watching the three hour director’s cut of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Act of Killing” (executive producer Werner Herzog) deeply disturbing. Though it revealed nothing factually new per se about the horrors of the 1965 politcal purges, it is the in-your-face quality of delusion of the characters that shocks the most.

For Indonesians 1965 is not merely another year in history. It is a number that is as important as 1945, the year that on the 17th of August founding fathers Sukarno and Hatta declared Indonesia independent. By contrast, the 30th of September 1965 is a date of infamy, a night filled with sordid acts of treachery, the trigger that launched a months-long blood bath that took the lives of hundreds of thousands – if not millions - of Indonesians across the archipelago. What happened is yet to be systematically quantified, and in truth is yet to be properly accounted for.

During the subsequent 32 years of General Soeharto’s iron fisted New Order, the “truth” we were force fed was that the burgeoning Indonesian Communist Party, PKI –  at the time the third largest in the world - had masterminded and initiated a coup with the ghastly murder of six top generals on September 30th. A lurid, bloody propaganda-esque film “Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI” (“The Betrayal Movement of the 30th September/PKI”) upholding this version of the events was made by leading cinematographer Arifin C Noer in 1984 on request by Soeharto’s regime. Every year up until 1997 all TV stations were obliged to air the whole film on the 30th of September.

Three decades later, In “The Act of Killing” - which has become a cinematic rebuttal of Arifin’s film - it soon becomes clear to any viewer that the main characters in this multi-tiered, behind the scenes documentary are deranged.

The blatantly murderous bragadicio of the main characters, street thug-turned-local-hero Anwar Congo, his bizarrely theatrical twisted sidekick Herman Koto, and his more sophisticated but no less pshycopathic colleague, Adi, dominate the screen. There is a sickening naiveté to their obsession with the butchery they helped perpetrate during the so-called coup of 1965, and a mind boggling disregard for morality thoroughly mixed with twisted self justification. But there are plenty more equally, if not more, powerfully jaw dropping moments that segue in and out of this cinematic reality saga.

A local newspaper editor in Medan, North Sumatra, where all the action takes place, brags that though he didn’t actually do any killing himself, that just by “blinking my eyelids” he had people killed. He later states it was his job as a journalist to turn people against communists. A neighbor of Congo’s, somehow roped in to act in the film, tells how his Chinese stepfather was taken away and killed – and then he is made to act a victim pleading for mercy. Suddenly, as he breaks down on screen the viewer realizes his acting is not acting. Various high ranking government officials praise the Pemuda Pancasila group (essentially is a paramilitary group of thugs locally know as ‘préman’) with which Anwar Congo is associated, as being an essential extra judicial arm for the Indonesian Government.

Surreal scene after surreal scene fills the screen of this troubling reality show. Distortion is the norm for these characters, but they are not alone. What this brings home to my peers and me once again is that Indonesians have been glossing the responsibility for 1965 for nearly 50 years. Medan was not the only killing field in Indonesia, far from it. Nor was Pemuda Pancasila the only group of thugs involved

Many reasons are given, and many groups were involved. As the reprisal killings in Indonesia began, the CIA took to feeding the Indonesian military lists of ‘suspects’. The military in turn enlisted thugs and youths from various mass organizations to join a brutal killing spree. In Java members of Islamic youth organizations like Ansor were not shy of wetting their hands with the blood of ‘communist infidels’. In Bali – currently marketed as ‘paradise’ – one witness told of “roads running like red rivers with the blood of victims” spillled by thugs who seldom required any evidence of wrongdoing from the finger pointers.

The night I watched this film, thousands of Balinese living in Sumbawa, an island east of Bali,  were taking refuge from bloody rioting following the death of a Muslim girl who had died in a motorcycle accident with her Hindu boyfriend. A completely unsubstantiated rumour that her boyfriend had raped and then murdered her lit up the town like wildfire. A couple of months earlier a murderous rampage against Balinese migrants and their families broke out in Lampung on the southern tip of Sumatra, triggered by a trivial misunderstanding between a local and a second generation Balinese migrant after a minor traffic accident. More systematically, and more chillingly, the Ahmaddiyah sect has been the perennial target of ‘orthodox’ Mulsim violence for years now. The list goes on.

Soeharto’s years were marked with brutal repression. But every year since the downfall of Soeharto has brought with it a new set of tragic communal violence. So much so that some Indonesians have taken to nostalgia for the “good old days” of the New Order. There have been more and more calls for stricter law enforcement. Ex-vice president Jusuf Kalla arrived in Sumbawa this month and echoed these calls, urging local law enforcers to act firmly. But it is important to note this is the same man who on Oppenheimer’s camera emphasizes the need for thugs like Pemuda Pancasila as they are “able to do what the government cannot do”.

We Indonesians look on in horror and dismay at all these ongoing instances of mass madness, and we point to the substantive causes such as jealousy and ethnic rivalry. But what we don’t care to address publicly is the major contributing factor: we have tacitly come to accept human rights abuses as the implicit political price for unity and the rule of the mob as an ugly but ordinary part of life.

This is the legacy of 1965 and the New Order. Expedience and tyranny of the majority rules. Somehow in our collective subconscious we feel that we can get away with it: if we can’t get our way constitutionally then “just cut ‘em down”. General Soeharto, remained in office unchallenged for 32 years. Many still see him as a hero despite the unfettered corruption and human rights abuses that reigned during his rule. Finally forced from office, he remained unrepentant til his death.

(Ironically, given that thugs did most of his army’s dirty work in 1965, in an official biography Soeharto openly admitted to and justified the ordering of extra judicial killings of troublesome thugs in the 80s.)

Last year an otherwise reasonable cabinet minister who coordinates 'politcal security', Djoko Suyanto,  vehemently denied the Indonesian National Rights Commission declaration that 1965 was in fact a large scale human rights violation. Indonesian human rights advocate, lawyer Todung Mulia Lubis, pointed out to me that the minister in question has old ties to Islamic organizations whose paramilitary youth wings were heavily involved in the killings in East Java: “And now those youth have become influential elders”.

Though it will be impossible to bring all those who wrongfully slaughtered their fellow citizens in 1965 to trial, Indonesians need to acknowledge the wrong that was done in order to be able to move out of this vicious cycle of human rights abuse. If we admit the wrong and are henceforth accountable it would most certainly change our perspective. At the very least if the truth was aired we could start to forgive.



INDONESIAN POLITICS: WHERE’S THE PARTY?

Originally published in the Huffington Post

It’s been a busy fortnight in Indonesian politics. The inhabitants of the capital Jakarta just voted in a new governor, Joko Widodo a.k.a. Jokowi, of the PDI-P party with the significant support of the upstart party Gerindra,  defeating the influential incumbent Democrat Fauzi Bowo a.k.a. Foke, who has his political roots in the still powerful Golkar party which in turn has it’s roots in the Suharto’s New Order era. Not only that: the new governor is the (soon to be ex) mayor of the central Javanese city of Solo with little experience in national politics. Most startling of all, his new deputy governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama a.k.a. Ahok, is of Chinese origin – a first in the ethnic tinderbox of modern Indonesian politics.

For sure the incumbent “Foke”, who is perceived to have achieved precious little during his tenure, basically shot himself in the foot with highly publicized multiple political gaffes. The upset marks something of a sea change in the dynamic of Indonesian democracy. Evidently Indonesian voters are voting according to their assessment of political performance rather than simply following party lines. Political parties now have to be much more careful about their image and what they actually stand for, rather than just the simple dynastic power and money alliances of the past. But political parties per se are obviously not to be discounted yet.

A case in point: shortly after the fast count clearly indicated Jokowi-Ahok victory, retired General Prabowo, a major player in the Gerindra party, boasted that Jokowi and Ahok owed their victory to him. Though everyone knows that Prabowo brought Ahok, a disillusioned Golkar member passed over by his own party, into the race, his bragging rankled the PDI-P rank and file. PDI-P stalwarts are miffed because their iconic leader, Megawati, got so little mileage out of the gubernatorial elections. PDI-P grumbling has in turn has alarmed the Gerindra leadership who are painfully aware that they need PDI-P’s support to achieve the 20% of the seats in parliament required to field a presidential candidate.

Prabowo is controversial at best. He has the dubious honor of being the first person to be denied entry into the United States under the provisions of the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. (There is a dark irony here, after all Prabowo trained in counter terrorism at Fort Benning and Fort Bragg). Though ostensibly cleared by a military court of his human rights abuses during the New Order (though he was discharged from the army – this ex-son-in-law of Suharto was commander of the Kopassus special forces) many still insist he was behind the political ‘disappearances’ and torture of opposition activists in the days leading up to Suharto’s downfall.

Prabowo has been back from self-exile in Jordan for several years now, and has been staging something of a comeback into politics. He has his crosshairs firmly sighted on the Presidency in 2014. Though by some he may be perceived as the man with the guts it takes to clean up the rot and corruption in Indonesian politics, the still warm memory of his cold blooded transgressions are only stirred up by his braggadocio. Forgiving might be a virtue, but forgetting is stupid. And Indonesians are really not that stupid.

The renewed arrogance of this moneyed son of the elite may well have cost him not only the support of PDI-P – so much so that they probably will prefer to announce two-time loser Megawati yet again as their candidate - but possibly his own party’s eligibility to field a candidate at all. Gerindra recently announced the cancellation of their national convention later this month – during which it was supposed to have announced Prabowo’s candidacy.

Meanwhile Gerindra has filed a judicial review of the 2008 Presidential Election Law, which sets the 20% threshhold, on grounds of it being unconstitutional. But it is hard not to speculate that there must be some soul searching going on within party ranks as to whether this wild-card retired general is their ace or liability. His popularity might be on the rise (surveys in September by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting indicate 19.1% would vote for him over Megawati’s 10.1%) but he still needs to get his party to the polls first. Though many Indonesian voters, in an earnest mood for getting the country back on track, may see him as their best bet amongst a field of questionable candidates and therefore are in a forgiving mode, Prabowo needs to remember that he needs the parties to forgive him as well. And as it is hard to forget his past, he probably needs to provide some truly convincing evidence of a change of heart before he gets another invite.


HOME IS WHERE I WANT TO BE

MUDIK - The Annual Indonesian Phenomena at the End of Ramadan

The presence of hundreds of thousands of dedicated Javanese workers – seasonal migrant laborers, skilled workers, right up to professionals – in Bali undoubtedly boosts the economy and keeps things running smoothly on this island of a thousand ceremonies.

So when Lebaran, the Indonesian term for Idul Fitri holidays at the end of Ramadan, looms close the island braces itself for a mass exodus of a large portion of the workforce. Construction and production come screeching to a halt. For the majority who cannot afford air travel (even if there were enough flights),  the main artery from Denpasar to the harbour at Gilimanuk becomes an asphalt gauntlet for the brave and desperate.

Once they get to Gilimanuk long lines await – the line of backed up cars and buses reaches 5-6 kilometers back. It can take up to ten long hours before cars even get to the ticket booth, let alone get on one of the 30 ferries that will log 450 trips across the straits daily  between them that have been provided this year.

Last year more than two hundred thousand passengers went across to Java. At the time this story is being filed around ninety thousand passengers have already left. These figures are conservative. And once they get to Java and head for their respective homes the trials are still not over. So far several hundred motorists have lost their lives during this annual exodus which Indonesians call “Mudik” or “heading back upstream”.

While the port authorities and the police have done their best to provide assistance to the scores of thousands of motorcyclists by erecting canopies, installing fans, putting in rows of portable toilets and other facilities, it is still a test of the travelers’ patience, particularly young children and infants, many of whom ride cramped with their parents on small motorscooters for hundreds and hundreds of kilometers. Even before getting on the ferry there are extensive checks on each individual vehicle run by squads of police and finance companies try to check every vehicles plates against a computerized list. Teams of contracted spotters ring through number plates to a temporary nerve center where it gets checked. When asked, one of the spotters admitted that some might get away, then added with a grin: “But not many..”

And of course with numbers like this there are bound to be some mishaps: at one point  an announcement come over the port’s PA system with an appeal from a distraught mother on the other side in Ketapang for help in locating her child who had managed to get left behind in Bali at the last moment. But despite the chaos, for most the rare opportunity to meet up with loved ones is too valuable to forgo.

A typical case is “N” who is travelling to Jember with her one year old daughter and her husband and a pile of luggage – tote bags, plastic bags, you name it -  on their 125cc automatic scooter. She and her husband work in Sanur, 6 days a week through the year. They take one holiday a year during Lebaran, 2 days plus of which are taken up with the road trip there and back. In all they will be lucky to spend 8 days with their family before making their way back: “But that’s just the way it is, Mas” she said with a smile.

see photo essay


Adat - Handling the Double Edged Sword

originally published in the Jakarta Post's supplement, Bali Daily as part of a 'conversation' between Made Wijaya, Diana Darling, and myself under the title of "I Love Bali - Handling the DOuble Edged Sword of Adat"

Adat is a double edged sword. On the one hand if it is used in the service of the well being of members of the community it provides structure and strength; on the other hand if it becomes an ideal which dictates that it be served mindlessly, it becomes a tool for the wily to manipulate to their own benefit.

Let’s get it straight: Adat is a social convention, a community contract. Adat is no more sacred than constitutional law in a democratic process. It’s not the sacred utterance of a prophet, for example.

Yet adat has been used as an excuse to avoid adhering to a range of things from human rights to environmental responsibility. And worse, there have been many documented cases where adat was the premise for violence. Anyone who has lived closely enough to Balinese society know this. To put it into context: with few exceptions, outside of the traditional dictates of adat, the sense of civic responsibility in Bali now is at an all-time low. Community money is corrupted. Ceremonies regularly disrupt and reroute major traffic arteries “because they can”. People dump garbage wherever they want. One Desa Adat near Denpasar has even allowed part of their Pura Dalem’s land in the mangrove to be used for an illegal dump. Another Pura Dalem in Mengwi appears to be using garbage for landfill. In Ubud the community garbage trucks having been dumping the trash in an illegal site in a ravine in Pejeng. Forests and rivers are desecrated. People behave selfishly.

Drivers are inconsiderate on the roads. 99% of Balinese are not interested in helping unfortunate fellow Balinese who are not in their Banjar or Desa Pakraman or even clan. The Pecalang (adat “policemen”, no female pecalang so far) in Ubud chase off beggars from Muntigunung whenever they can. The only group helping this poverty stricken Balinese region is driven by Swiss citizens – not by any wealthy Balinese communities looking to give their less fortunate bretheren a leg up. And let’s not start on universal human rights.

In answer to Diana’s statement that expressing an opinion on adat is like judging another person’s mother, sure. But what would you do if you saw your neighbor’s mother stabbing her child with a knitting needle? Am I, as an Indonesian citizen living in my own country, not allowed to state any opinions on the culture of an island on which I have resided for more than three and a half decades? Should I succumb to a romanticized view?

If I live here and am committed to being here, pay my taxes, penanjung batu etc, I do feel that I am part of the situation. Obviously it is not my place to lead any charge on the establishment of adat if indeed any frontal approach would lead to any positive result. However I feel I certainly should have the right to express my views - that's how it works in the Petri dish of culture - even if no Balinese heeds it.

It’s all well and good not to judge another’s mother, but it so happens that the “other’s mother” spends a lot of time judging ‘us’. In quite a few Desa Pakraman ‘outsiders’ living in their boundaries are subject to very high tithes which really amount to shakedowns. Outsiders are never rarely accepted completely as equals within the community though of course those who have married in are accepted by their families. To be sure it is a two way street with many expats just wanting to “Ibiza-nize” Bali with no sense of context at all. It’s a strange dance.

In truth there are Balinese who are forward looking, caring and engaged in projects focused on bettering the minds and welfare of their brethren. For example the late AA Made Jelantik, the late Ibu Gedong Oka, architect Popo Danes, poet Ketut Yuliarsa to name just a few. But these are largely Bainese who have been well educated and have been exposed to the outside world in deeper ways. It boils down to a higher standard of education and more universal values. And none of their activities were directly supported by adat.

Adat is obviously something which is important - a system by which the community is held together for acitivities for the common good. But it has to adapt and change in this century just as it has throughout the centuries past. Adat was never static: it is a myth to think that Balinese adat has been the same all this time. Its implementation requires more transparency, checks and balances. Yes change has to come from within, but it will come as a result of interaction with new ideas, fresh views. Adat has many things going for it but it must evolve simply because the environment in which it is is no longer - and will never again be - the same.

Rio Helmi, aka I Belog, has been stuck in Bali for decades and doesn’t seem to have any other place to go to.


MISSING IN ACTION: JOURNALISM CAUGHT IN THE NET

(Originally published in the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rio-helmi/missing-in-action-journal_b_1609081.html )

Some time ago, a local online newsletter published an erroneous story regarding a substantial land transaction in my home town involving a famous international entrepreneur. By chance I was privy to the actual details, as the seller is an old friend. Bali being a small island I also happened to know the editor/owner of the newsletter, so I sent a message to him on Twitter with a correction. The answer came back that he had quoted multiple sources online in his newsletter (including a reputable international wire service), all of them  corroborating the misleading story.

When I traced the story back, I came to its first published source, a major Australian newspaper whose story contained ridiculous inconsistencies and hilarious factual absurdities. Once again I messaged my editor friend, telling him that his sources were incorrect, and that he could easily check with the seller, with whom he too was acquainted. His answer to this was that the person had the right to rebuttal.

Apparently the onus is on the subjects of the story to set it straight. The doors of ministry of misinformation are wide open.

To be fair, this particular newsletter mostly gets it right, and a lot of work goes into it. It’s hardly news that ‘check and recheck’ is not the forte of citizen journalism, however well organized. Nor is it news that once a story is google-able enough (10 results is ‘respectable’) it will hit critical mass to become a ‘fact’ of some sort, and can easily go viral. Yet it’s mainly about quantity: as anybody with a device and Internet access knows, about 95% of search results are just straight repeats with little further analysis – regardless of whether they are falsehood or not.

Bloggers, including lazy ones like myself, are hardly ever held accountable for their facts in the so-called ‘free world’. Facebook users will usually only incur the wrath of the law in this country if they try to exercise their right to freedom of speech on touchy subjects like religion. And practitioners of microblogs (okay okay, Twitter) even less so. Yet unless you are a famous pundit or socialite with a verified account, you will most likely tweet shrink a link to a substantial source to make yourself heard by people besides your significant other. If you are famous, you can be as banal as you like without pasting in any urls. However on the ‘free’ Internet, what constitutes a ‘substantial source’ is a very subjective assessment - Google and Wikipedia, for example, are generally considered substantial.

The public’s insatiable appetite for sensationalism and gossip, which has been around for a few thousand years, combined with today’s citizens’ collective cunning in exploiting the Internet and a proliferation of apps, has given the profession of journalism a hard run for its money. Ironically, never before has journalism had such powerful tools at its disposal, yet never before in its relatively short history has mass media been so compromised. On the one hand it has to compete with a public that is using many of the same tools of dissemination as it does; on the other hand alarmed people with vested interests are applying more and more pressure to ‘embed’ today’s working journalists. Formal accreditation is of course an advantage, but it can come at a hefty political price.

A local case in point was the reporting on a supposed gunfight in which dozens of anti terrorist police officers killed three suspected terrorists cornered in a small hotel in Sanur, Bali earlier this year. No one reporting deemed it necessary to comment on the fact it seemed excessive that 16 well-armed members of an anti terrorist squad had just killed three men armed with, as it turned out after initial reports of multiple guns were corrected, just one pistol between them. The operation was hailed as an anti-terrorism victory, even if it seemed more like an execution. Worse yet, the actual bodies were never seen by journalists, just the bags which were whisked away. Who knows what really went down. But you could always google it.

The delicate dance of political power and ‘private’ sector money pressure on formal mass media organizations is not exclusive to the developing world. The US is no exception, and it’s interesting to note that the blatantly biased media like Fox and Murdoch’s other outfits act as perfect decoys that make remaining media look balanced.

Yet everyone knows that not only are more and more people not reading actual physical newspapers, fewer people are watching broadcast television news. With apps buzzing smartphones every few minutes with customized updates, what percentage of the general population actually reads any background to news stories any more? For example, how many people really bothered to reflect on the anomalies of the case of the supposedly momentarily-gone-rogue Sgt Bales who purportedly slaughtered more than a dozen Afghans? But is it just the Internet that is doing this? Or have there been too many compromises to integrity even at managerial level which have led to this?

The harsh realities of economics has left no one untouched. As I write this, Australia’s media giant Fairfax, established in the 19th century and in the 20th century acquiring such leading publications as Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, is a prime example. The story is familiar: it has recently announced that its papers are going from broadsheet to tabloid by 2013. Fairfax has just laid off some 2000 workers due to the lesser need for print” has also announced that the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (traditionally Melbourne based) will have one newsroom between them, reducing diversity of opinion and news even further. Mining tsar Gina Rinehart, the world’s richest woman, will probably acquire a sizeable share. As former Age editor-in-chief Andrew Jaspan points out, a lot of this is due to managerial failure as a result of having non-professionals running the show. If this is true, then “Gina-fax” could be even more disastrous for Fairfax.

Anxious to retain some economic and political ground after suffering a beating in the ‘real’ virtual world, the media has made some bad calls for the survival of quality journalism in a game in which the interactive medium is unforgiving.

It’s almost as if we would be given to believe that the originally desirable qualities of journalism - unbiased, intelligent, investigative, truly informative – can no longer survive, no longer have a place on this brutal playing field. Yet in reality in today’s world there has never been a greater need for these qualities which, if used wisely, can reveal the truth.


China: The Writing on the Great Wall

(originally posted on the Huffington Post site )

On Wednesday the 22nd of February, Tibetans would have normally celebrated Losar or Tibetan New Year. This year, unlike the years before, Tibetans in exile called for a solemn day of reflection and prayer to acknowledge those who have sacrificed their lives for the Tibetan cause.

The self-immolations of Tibetans under Chinese occupation that have shocked, saddened, and renewed the anger of Tibetan society have sent the Chinese government into an overdrive of denial. Not for an instant has there been a moment of visible remorse, introspection, or any admission of the absurdity of their knee jerk reaction:  “self-immolators are criminals”.  This is of course standard PRC policy, any admission of imperfection being tantamount to weakness.

For Tibetan Buddhists who hold life sacred, taking one’s own life is normally considered to be a negative action with serious spiritual consequences. Yet these were ordained people, one of them even a reincarnated lama, all normally revered in Tibetan society,  who set themselves on fire. Tibetans of all walks of life are not condemning these acts;  many are seeing the self-immolations as a supreme sacrifice.

The ongoing, brutal rigidity of the Chinese government has manifested in at least three major waves of violence over three generations in the Kirti region: the Long March of the 1930s during which Kirti suffered perhaps more than any other Tibetan region; the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s; and the Patriotic Education in the 1990s. More recently, ever since the troubled lead up to the 2008 Olympics, the PRC has been twisting the thumbscrews ever tighter.

Perhaps the only vague hint of acknowledgment of transgression was Chinese VP Xi Jing’s recent statement during a lunch hosted by US VP Joe Biden, tacked onto his defense of China’s human rights record, that “there is always room for improvement on human rights”. It is difficult to assess what Xi’s comment, made only months before he is expected to take the reins, could actually purport, if anything at all, for future PRC policy in occupied Tibet.

Clearly the man was focused on making his US ‘Valentine’ visit a success in foreign relations partly in order to ensure positive press back home for his future leadership. He understood that something that sounded like a concession to mollify Biden and the US public was the most expedient way to move into the issues which China considers much more pressing: China’s market economy status, anti-dumping sanctions on exports to US, restrictions on Chinese investments in the US, and ongoing sensitivity about US high tech exports to the Chinese mainland.

There is an ocean of difference between the Tibetan ‘acts of self-sacrifice’ and the desperate suicides for example of factory workers in the Han dominant areas in the last weeks. The Tibetan refusal to completely submit to the 62 year old occupation is epic. Yet there was arguably as much buzz on the internet regarding depression suicides at Apple suppliers’ manufacturing plants in China as there has been for this deeply saddening trend of self sacrifice, that over the last 3 years has seen more than 15 people in the region of Kirti die of flames lit by their own hands.

International consumers of one of the most popular brands on the planet are now exposed to an appeal to their conscience. It resonates in a much more concrete, personal manner than a relatively abstract appeal to their humanity regarding a people who they have most likely never met.

The relationship between the international world and China has changed dramatically. In the past China used its potential market and manufacturing edge as a blunt carrot-and-stick approach to getting its own way, ignoring any call for modification on its Tibet policy. Today China’s dependence on foreign raw materials and markets to keep its economy growing should in fact be the very reason for it not to ignore hot political issues.

Let’s be clear: this is not about hoping for the world to suddenly come to its senses and realize that it actually now has the reverse economic leverage to push for human rights improvements in China. Few would entertain the thought of rocking this boat even if the odds for success were pretty good. As an official in the Tibetan government-in-exile said to me over the phone: “It’s election year in various countries. Xi himself has to make sure he enters the stage smoothly. The basic issue will always be economy.”

Within China itself, real-life communism hardly needed capitalism to become corrupt.

But there is another factor that is creating the insecurity that drives the PRC to mask its paranoia with iron-fisted repression. When people feel they have nothing left to lose, it pushes them beyond their habitual inhibitions and fears. As Thomas Friedman so succinctly put it in his essay ‘The Politics of Dignity’ : “Humiliation is the most underestimated force in politics”. As the PRC keeps ratcheting up the pressure, its own insecurity increases as people instead respond ever more boldly. The draconian internet crackdown on the phantom, post Arab Spring, “Jasmine Revolution” can only be seen as a reflection of this.

It really is up to the PRC to save itself by moving beyond blowing off human rights issues with denial or casual trivialization. It needs to read the writing on the wall, and acknowledge that the happiness and freedom of its citizens who live both within and outside that wall are the best security for the future. What’s more, the international community needs to move beyond simply expressing moral outrage, and pro-actively engage with China to help resolve these issues.