Tibetan Self-Immolations: The View from China
But lately that pool of protesters has widened, mostly strikingly with Jamphel Yeshi, a twenty-seven-year-old refugee who told friends he had been tortured in China before fleeing to India. Last Monday, as Chinese President Hu Jintao prepared to visit India, he set himself aflame and ran screaming down a street lined with photographers. By day’s end, he had died in a hospital, and the horrific photographs of his protest had appeared around the world.
As A.P.’s Gillian Wong wrote recently in a valuable analysis, it is one of the heaviest waves of
political self-immolations in history, more than a rash of protests during the Vietnam War or pro-democracy demonstrations in South Korea, and surpassed only by more than the hundred students in India who burned themselves in opposition to an affirmative-action proposal in 1990. (Twelve Nobel laureates have urged Hu Jintao to pursue a “meaningful dialogue” on Tibet in light of “the drastic expressions of resentment by the people of Tibet.”)
But the most stunning thing about the Tibetan protests, Wong points out, is not how much impact they’ve had, but how little: “While a single fruit seller in Tunisia who lit himself on fire in December 2010 is credited with igniting the Arab Spring democracy movement, the Tibetan self-immolations have so far failed to prompt the changes the protesters demand: an end to government interference in their religion and a return of the exiled Dalai Lama.”
I’ve begun to wonder how these protests are viewed in the place that may matter more to the prospect of a solution to the Tibet issue: China. The Dalai Lama has long believed that the small but growing share of Han Chinese who are interested in the spiritual side of Tibetan Buddhism could eventually bring pressure to bear to produce a more lenient Chinese policy towards Tibetan areas. When I interviewed him for a Profile in 2010, he told me that it is impossible for Chinese adherents to separate religion from the political dimension. “If you pray, then actually you are involved!” he said.
A review of the discussion on the Chinese Web about the Tibetan self-immolations yields an unscientific but very interesting window into some Chinese views and suggests that there is, perhaps, a shred more sympathy than we might guess, but not yet what the Dalai Lama envisions. The majority of discussion is, not surprisingly, supportive of the official Chinese-government view: “This is all the work of enemy forces,” a commentator wrote on Weibo. More sedate voices pointed to Chinese investment in Tibet and questioned whether protesters have reason to complain with “all this money, support and affirmative action devoted to them,” as one writer put it.
But sprinkled among those are Chinese messages that struck me, some because they are reminders of the power of censorship, and others because they show a flicker of interest and understanding. After Premier Wen Jiabao was asked about the self-immolations during his once-a-year press conference with foreign media, one commentator was suddenly reminded of how much news was being redacted from what most Chinese read about Tibet: “In all honesty, I didn’t even know anything about the Tibetan immolations until this press conference. Is this about them feeling that their religious faith has been insulted or what?” Another person wrote “Why is it that there are so many Tibetan immolations? As a Han [majority ethnicity], I really don’t know how to look this in the face. I’m sorry.” Another commentator complained that online patriots attack anyone who writes positively about Tibetan activists: “I’m a human being, first, and a Chinese national, second. Those self-immolation cases are human beings sacrificing their lives to fight the last fight. Forwarding their information so that more people will pay attention to it is simply a human being’s reaction.” And lastly, this comment from someone calling him/herself the Unangry Young Woman:
How many people have actually listened to the old monk? There can be no truth in an environment in which the right to speak is not fairly distributed. I just found out that many people have a lot of misunderstandings about Tibet, so I say this: Go to Tibet, listen to what Tibetans have to say, find out what it is they really want. For posting this, there is a significant chance that my account will be blocked. But that’s fine with me.
This has been a crucial month for the Internet in China, a test of its ability to survive as China’s most open forum for ideas. Many of these messages were deleted moments after they were posted. But the most revealing fact might be that they ever existed at all.
Photograph by Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times/Getty Images.