Author: Barry Sautman, HKUST
A wave of about 25 self-immolations in Tibetan areas of China has made the Tibet issue prominent again in global media.
Pro-Tibet independence groups say these successful — or horribly disfiguring — attempts at suicide result from ‘Chinese oppression’, and that the self-immolations have led to an increased security presence in Tibet and more repression of Tibetans.
This view is distorted on several counts. The vast majority of self-immolations have taken place around the Kirti monastery in Sichuan, one of many hundreds of monasteries in Tibetan areas. But if ‘Chinese oppression’ were in fact causing the self-immolations, they would be generalised over the Tibetan Plateau, which constitutes one-fourth of China’s territory. Rather, these cases are more likely the result of monks objecting to a ‘patriotic education’ campaign in which the Dalai Lama was denounced in early 2011. The authorities responded by cutting off water and electricity and eventually expelled most monks. Those pushed out have few alternative life opportunities, and once the self-immolations occurred among some monks, others may have sought to prove their dedication.
There is stepped-up security in Tibetan areas at present, but this is not because of the suicide attempts; Chinese leaders have acknowledged they cannot prevent them. Security forces become more visible every year around this time, as the anniversary of a 1959 uprising in Lhasa, Tibet, and meetings of Chinese legislative bodies in Beijing both occur in March. Demonstrations led mainly by monks spike during these times, as does state leaders’ apprehension of the protests.
With the once-a-decade transition of the very top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party scheduled to take place in late 2012, the apprehension is greater than usual. Widespread demonstrations in Tibetan areas in 2008, including a mini-pogrom against Han Chinese in Lhasa, occurred in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. In Urumqi, capital of the neighbouring Uyghur minority region of Xinjiang, a larger anti-Han pogrom occurred in 2009, not long before the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
The Tibetan areas, like the rest of China, have plenty of human rights problems. Economic development benefits urban areas — where Han Chinese tend to congregate — rather than the largely Tibetan countryside. There is also unrestricted migration to Tibetan areas, although the percentage of Tibetans in the population has remained largely stable over the past several decades. In some parts of the Tibetan Plateau, there are also clumsy efforts to force Tibetan monks to disavow the Dalai Lama as a political leader. Most protests in Tibetan areas have focused on these economic and social issues, rather than the political status of Tibet, but separatists have sometimes raised their slogans during these protests, and this has brought on repression.
The point to stress is that there is no repression of Tibetans simply for being Tibetan. Nor does the Chinese government repress religion per se. Instead, Tibetans receive a range of preferential policies, and authorised religions in China receive state support. Where religious organisations pose no political threat, they are regulated by the state and can generally function openly, especially among ethnic minorities. The relation between religious organisations and the state is informed by longstanding Chinese traditions; separatism is another story. Under international law, states may make separatism illegal. The Chinese government, based on China’s history of cycles of territorial unity and disunity, makes use of that right.
The Dalai Lama and other exiled Tibetan leaders have not publicly encouraged the self-immolators, but they have lionised them for their supposed self-sacrifice. It is not clear whether the self-immolations are the work of an organised group or of copy-cats. Nor is it clear how long such actions will continue before the returns they produce from global media diminish. But it is likely that self-immolations will be just as unsuccessful in changing Tibet’s political status as the 1959 armed uprising, US-sponsored guerrilla incursions into Tibet by exiles in the 1960s and 1970s, and the 2008 murders and burnings in Lhasa.
Until now, exiled Tibetan leaders have hoped China would fall apart. Western leaders who perceive China as a strategic rival have so far supported claims of ‘cultural genocide’ and generalised repression in Tibet. They have put the onus of resolving the Tibet issue solely on China. That approach may come to an end — and not only because the Dalai Lama will soon be too old to effectively personify the Tibetan exile cause.
The Chinese state is not about to self-implode as the Soviet Union did two decades ago. In his remaining years the Dalai Lama will thus be able to help resolve the Tibet question only if he accepts China’s longstanding pre-condition for negotiations: that he publicly acknowledge that Tibet is an inalienable part of China.
In the future there may be more state leaders who, like Australia’s new foreign minister, Bob Carr, dissent from the hegemonic view of the Tibet question. He has written that the Dalai Lama has ‘a plan for the dismemberment of China’ and that politicians should not feel beholden to him. It follows that China should not be the sole object of pressures, and that the Tibetan exiles may also be urged to eschew risking Tibetan lives in order to mobilise external support, and to do what is needed to bring about negotiations.