On self-immolation

Yesterday the 92nd Tibetan self-immolated in Tibet while calling for freedom since 2009, most in the last year. Think about that for a minute – 92 Tibetans have set themselves on fire while calling for an end to China’s occupation of Tibet.

In Foreign Policy, Michael Biggs has a piece on the differences between suicide bombers and self-immolators. The Chinese government has tried to depict Tibetan self-immolators as terrorists. But Biggs points out that self-immolators aren’t trying to scare people, but send a message about how deeply they hold their beliefs:

Suicide protest does not achieve these ends; its logic is communicative rather than sanguinary. To quote Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta, “Martyrdom is as strong a signal of the strength of a belief as one can get: only those who hold their beliefs very dear can contemplate making the ultimate sacrifice of dying for a cause.” Choosing a painful means of death — burning, most obviously — amplifies that signal still more. The communication, moreover, can be directed toward various audiences. Sometimes it is a disinterested and faraway public, and the self-immolator hopes to attract the public’s attention and win its sympathy. At other times the self-immolator addresses his or her own group, hoping to enhance the group’s commitment to the cause.

Biggs sees this as a phenomenon which will continue, even in the face of more repression in Tibet:

So far, the recent wave of Tibetan immolations has not yielded any tangible political success. Repression has only increased in the Tibetan areas of China, and expressions of sympathy from the majority Han population within China are rare. Western public opinion, which already favored the Tibetan cause, has no means of exercising leverage over China. But it is too soon to assess the consequences of these immolations. Gauging their effect on Tibetans within China is effectively impossible given the degree of repression.

What we can predict is that suicide protest will continue. Its communicative logic is no less potent than the suicide attack’s sanguinary logic — and it is more readily carried out. A suicide bombing requires organization, coordination, and technical skills to prepare explosives. In conflict zones like Afghanistan, the attacker also needs assistance to reach what are often fortified targets. Suicide protest does not require organization. There is no defense against the practice, short of the total suppression of information. Where information about suicide protest can be suppressed completely, there is hardly any reason to perform it. In today’s world, the totalitarian control formerly exercised by the Soviet Union or Maoist China is no longer feasible, at least for a country participating in the global economy. For evidence, look no further than China’s inability to prevent us from reading about — and in some cases even watching — the immolations in Tibet.

Biggs is likely correct, though it’s hard to imagine this tragic epidemic is continued to be met by functional silence by the world’s governments. As long as China’s continued response is one of repression, Tibetans will continue to struggle to throw of the yolk of their occupation. More Tibetans will likely see self-immolation as their only option for impactful political organizing. It’s hard to comprehend the depths of despair felt by Tibetans inside of Tibet, but at the same time, these actions tell you how deep it must be, even if it is a depth beyond comprehension.

Read This

I highly recommend reading this op-ed by Students for a Free Tibet’s executive director Tenzin Dorjee on CNN.com. It’s titled, “My Take: Why the Dalai Lama cannot condemn Tibetan self-immolations,” and it’s in response to a really horrible opinion piece by Stephen Prothero blaming Tibetans for self-immolations. Go give it a read.

China’s Tibet sensitivity

Ajai Shukla has a great column in the Business Standard on the British government’s foreign policy positions on Tibet, China and India. Shukla highlights the incredibly baseless, short-sighted, and weak concessions made by the British government regarding Tibet. The whole column is worth reading, particularly in regards to the opportunities the Indian government has to change the conversation on Tibet, but this observation towards the end about the Chinese government’s sensitivity to Tibet is critical.

China will cheerfully discuss human rights, labour protection legislation, environmental degradation and a raft of issues that could well be fobbed off as “internal affairs”. But say the word “Tibet” and the shutters come down. China’s expansive claim over Arunachal Pradesh is hardly backed by history. But it is designed to keep the discussion off Tibet, an increasingly sensitive issue for Beijing as its thuggish militias fail in stamping out a deep-rooted identity struggle.

The short story is that China has abjectly refused to discuss Tibet in any meaningful way with the world’s governments and the world’s governments have accepted this. The world is getting played and Tibet is suffering as a result.

Pro-authoritarian op-ed in NYT

Yesterday the New York Times ran an op-ed by Jiang Qing and Daniel Bell, Sinologists who offered up a fairly startling defense of the Chinese government’s authoritarian rule. They posit a new systems they call Humane Authority and assert that China may (or may not) be moving in that direction instead of democracy. First, there’s no evidence that this new system of government is one that China is moving towards. The authors just want China to be excused from any critiques of their failure to move towards democracy.

But more important and objectionable is the total lack of understanding of why people would suggest China would benefit by letting their citizenry participate in governance.

“Democracy is also flawed in practice. Political choices come down to the desires and interests of the electorate.”

Yes, that is exactly the point – the electorate chooses! That’s the virtue of the whole system – that it isn’t a monarch or an oligarchy that runs a country, but the people who make choices democratically.

“This leads to two problems. First, the will of the majority may not be moral: it may favor racism, imperialism or fascism.”

This is true. There have been times when democracies chose all of these things. Of course, this is also the exact set of choices that have been consistently made by the Chinese Communist Party and their long-standing Han chauvinism. It’s seen in Tibet, in East Turkestan, and in Southern Mongolia on a daily basis, over a half century after they were violently colonized by China’s imperial army.

“Second, when there is a clash between the short-term interests of the populace and the long-term interests of mankind, as is the case with global warming, the people’s short-term interests become the political priority.”

This is not unique to a democracy – it’s a common thread for all sovereign governments. Global crises like global warming may require fundamental re-evaluations of how governments set their priorities, but that is true regardless of what political system a government has in place. It’s not as if China’s communist system has allowed them to confront global warming significantly more directly than Western democracies.

The rest of the op-ed is just a thinly disguised argument in defense of authoritarianism, particularly the authoritarianism that allows China to maintain its colonial empire. It’s pretty disgraceful to see this sort of crap in the New York Times.

The PRC vs Internet Rumors

This is a good read on the Chinese government’s efforts to crack down on online rumors, particularly those occurring on microblogging platforms. Patrick Meier’s entire piece is worth reading, but the closing captures the challenge the Chinese Communist Party faces in an age of instant communication.

So if Chinese authorities and state media aren’t even equipped (beyond plain old censorship) to respond to national rumors of vis-a-vis an event as important as a coup (can it possibly get more important than that?), then how in the world will they deal with the undercurrent of rumors that continue to fill Chinese microblogs now that these can have 50,000 new targets online? Moreover, “many in China are now so cynical about the level of censorship that they will not believe what comes from the party’s mouthpieces even if it is true. Instead they will give credence to half-truths or fabrications on the web,” which is “corrosive for the party’s authority” (BBC News). This is a serious problem for China’s Communist elite who are obsessed with the task of projecting an image of total unity and stability.

In contrast, speculators on Chinese microblogging platforms don’t need a highly coordinated strategy to spread conspiracies. They are not handicapped by the centralization and collective action problem that Chinese authorities face; after all, it is clearly far easier to spread a rumor than to debunk one. As noted by The Economist, those spreading rumors have “at their disposal armies of zombie followers and fake re-tweets as well as marketing companies, which help draw attention to rumors until they are spread by a respected user with many real followers, such as a celebrity.” But there’s more at stake here than mere rumors. In fact, as noted by The Economist, the core of the problem has less to do with hunting down rumors of yellow dragons than with “the truth that they reflect: a nervous public. In the age of weibo, it may be that the wisps of truth prove more problematic for authorities than the clouds of falsehood.”

To add in one more element, the Chinese Communist Party is fundamentally concerned with its hold on power and maintaining an image of unshakable stability. Every rumor about corruption, about mis-government, about special treatment by elites for elites and the children of elites – let alone rumors of a coup! – undermines the stability that the CCP seeks to maintain. At its most fundamental level, speech is eroding the power base of the Chinese Communist Party. Their hold on power is vastly more tenuous than they want the Chinese public and the global community to believe. As Meier points out, failed attempts by the Chinese Communist Part to effectively stop rumors will only raise the stakes for their censorship, with each failure to instantly control what rumors are circulating further undermining their hold to power. There will be a tipping point, it’s just not clear when it will arrive.

Jamphel Yeshi’s letter explaining his self-immolation

The New York Times has a translated letter from Jamphel Yeshi to the Tibetan people, penned to explain why he was self-immolating. He self-immolated in Delhi while Chinese President Hu Jintao was visiting India. He died from his burns today.

Here is his letter:

Long Live His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is the shining example of world peace. We must strive to ensure return of His Holiness to Tibet. I pray and believe that the Tibetan people in and outside Tibet will be united and sing the Tibetan national anthem in front of the Potala Palace.

My fellow Tibetans, when we think about our future happiness and path, we need loyalty. It is the life-soul of a people. It is the spirit to find truth. It is the guide leading to happiness. My fellow Tibetans, if you want equality and happiness as the rest of the world, you must hold onto this word ‘LOYALTY’ towards your country. Loyalty is the wisdom to know truth from falsehood. You must work hard in all your endeavors, big or small.

Freedom is the basis of happiness for all living beings. Without freedom, six million Tibetans are like a butter lamp in the wind, without direction. My fellow Tibetans from Three Provinces, it is clear to us all that if we unitedly put our strength together, there will be result. So, don’t be disheartened.

What I want to convey here is the concern of the six million Tibetans. At a time when we are making our final move toward our goal – if you have money, it is the time to spend it; if you are educated it is the time to produce results; if you have control over your life, I think the day has come to sacrifice your life. The fact that Tibetan people are setting themselves on fire in this 21st century is to let the world know about their suffering, and to tell the world about the denial of basic human rights. If you have any empathy, stand up for the Tibetan people.

We demand freedom to practice our religion and culture. We demand freedom to use our language. We demand the same right as other people living elsewhere in the world. People of the world, stand up for Tibet. Tibet belongs to Tibetans. Victory to Tibet!

Statement on Tibetan Self-Immolations

Tenzin Dorjee, Executive Director of Students for a Free Tibet (on whose Board of Directors I serve), released this statement last night following the self-immolation of Jampa Yeshi, a 27 year-old Tibetan refugee in India.

Today’s act of self-immolation by Jamphel Yeshi, a young Tibetan in Delhi, highlights the extreme urgency of the situation inside Tibet. Thirty Tibetans have lit themselves on fire in protest in Tibet over the past two years, 17 since January of this year, and now four Tibetans in exile have also attempted to self-immolate. These acts are a direct response to the decades of violence and repressive policies that Tibetans have endured under China’s occupation, and a cry for action.

The Chinese government has responded to Tibetans’ calls for freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama by locking down Tibet and intensifying its vicious attacks against the Dalai Lama. The few journalists who have
managed to get into Tibet by eluding checkpoints and road blocks have reported towns and cities saturated with Chinese troops; their photos show Tibet looking like a war zone. An unknown number of monks, nuns and lay people have been arrested in recent weeks for taking part in peaceful protests, many of them rounded up from their homes at night.

China’s brutal attempts to crush Tibetans’ nonviolent resistance have only strengthened our resolve to achieve freedom. Tibetans everywhere – in Tibet and in exile – have been galvanized by the events of the past several months, and are doing everything possible to build political momentum for an international diplomatic intervention to save Tibetan lives.

The overwhelming message from Tibet is that change must come now. Thousands upon thousands of people of conscience are standing in solidarity with Tibetans in this hour of crisis, and our collective global outrage must translate into direct pressure on Beijing to withdraw the troops, stop the crackdown and address Tibetan grievances.

Tenzin Dorjee
Executive Director
Students for a Free Tibet

Woeser in Foreign Policy on Tibetan self-immolations

Woeser, probably the most famous Tibetan dissident poet and author, has an article in Foreign Policy on Tibet’s epidemic of self-immolations and the startling silence from the Han Chinese about what is happening in their colony. The piece is an important indictment of the Chinese public’s complicity in what their government is doing in Tibet. Here is a passage from it:

The authorities always say that they “liberated” Tibet, bringing “happiness” to 6 million Tibetans. But why, so many years after the 1959 liberation, are the serfs revolting against their liberators? The authorities have an explanation: The “Dalai clique” is to blame for all this — the protests, the young Tibetans taking to the streets, the violence. Chinese media have turned this lie into public opinion. And the Chinese people, indoctrinated by the one voice with which the Chinese media speaks, don’t understand why Tibetans protest and don’t care to learn.

Tibetans have no voice in China. The Dalai Lama, who has been in exile for 53 years; the Panchen Lama, who has been missing for 17 years; the 27 people who have set fire to themselves over the past three years, a group of people between the ages of 17 to 41, monks and nuns, farmers, herders, students, and the parents of children — the only existence they have in Chinese society is one in which their reputations have been sullied and the truth has been distorted.

How many members of Tibet’s elite have been disappeared by the party apparatus and now sit in some black jail somewhere?

And still the Han Chinese say nothing. Many keep silent because they accept the concept of grand unity, where all minorities need to be shoehorned into fitting under Chinese rule. Some keep silent because they mind their own business, a traditional principle of Confucianism that has devolved into selfishness. And some are silent because they are afraid. In Beijing recently, someone transmitted news of a Tibetan committing self-immolation on Sina’s microblog (China’s Twitter). The police took him to a police station in the middle of the night and warned him not to mention Tibet again.

This silence can be broken. If Han Chinese and Tibetans speak out about what they have seen and what they have heard, the unbridled repression will be restrained, or at the very least, when the gun is being fired, maybe it will miss its target. Silence, not hope, ruins Tibetans.

To avoid being destroyed, our only choice is to destroy this silence.