Last October a Chinese human rights advocate named Xu Zhiyong traveled to Ngaba, one of the main epicenters of the Tibetan self-immolations. His article describing the trip evokes many of the underlying tensions that are playing out in Tibet today: deteriorating Tibetan-Chinese relations, the effects of the Dalai Lama’s prolonged exile, and the fear engendered by living life as a Tibetan in the People’s Republic of China. This thoughtful look at self-immolations has been given an antithesis over the last few weeks, as a slew of criminal charges brought against ordinary Tibetans in Chinese courts and a continued propaganda offensive against the Dalai Lama make up the bulk of the Chinese response. This February 5th China Daily article is emblematic of all that is wrong with the current Chinese approach.
Written by three Chinese journalists who were reporting from northern Amdo, the article shows no evidence of an attempt to understand Tibetan concerns. Instead of trying to find a reasonable explanation for what could drive almost 100 people to light themselves on fire in protest, the authors proceed to use the bulk their article to smear the self-immolators. Tsering Namgyal is described as a “fool,” an “alcoholic,” and an “excessive gambler,” while Sungdue Kyab is quoted calling himself an “idiot.” In one particularly astonishing passage the writers allege that Dolkar Tso, mother of two children, decided to self-immolate because she had been diagnosed with a “common gynecological disease.”
It’s troubling to see China Daily level these kinds of attacks against a group of people who have either passed away or live on in hospitals under close watch from the police. Neither alternative leaves the self-immolators any chance to refute them, nor to give their own side of the story. It should also be noted that some of these claims are contradicted by the testimony of friends, acquaintances, and family members of the deceased, many of whom have been described in highly positive terms by those who knew them well.
These character assassinations already severely strain credulity, but their combined effect is even more offensive. The idea that a handful of ‘instigators’ have somehow driven almost 100 Tibetans to self-immolate is completely unrealistic, and maintaining this fiction requires Chinese news media to depict Tibetans as easily-duped and weak-willed simpletons. The writers gravely confirm that certain individuals had access to outside information, implying that watching a VOA broadcast had more to do with their self-immolations than a lifetime of enduring Communist Party rule. This is a reprise of how Chinese media outlets treated the 2008 Tibetan Uprising, which was described not as the explosive result of Tibetan grievances combined with government provocations, but rather as the work of a few infiltrators convincing the easily-bamboozled Tibetans to start rioting.
When Xu Zhiyong spoke to local Tibetans about the self-immolations he did so with an understanding that there was much they might be unable or unwilling to say to an outsider. The writers of the China Daily article spoke to the family members of several self-immolators, and they pointedly relay the sadness that must result from losing a loved one like that. There’s no indication, however, that the writers have considered the possibility that these family members were aware of the dangers of speaking freely in front of China Daily journalists, and self-censored accordingly. Tsering Kyi, a journalist living in Americawhose nephew self-immolated last month, has provided an example of what family members might say without the fear of reprisals.
The self-immolations have elicited a wide variety of reactions from Tibetans and their supporters, but articles like this show that the Chinese government is still refusing to listen to Tibetans. The requests put forth by many self-immolators have been crystal clear: they have called onChina to allow the return of the Dalai Lama and to honor their human rights obligations, not to slander the Dalai Lama and denigrate the Tibetan people. Mainstream Chinese media outlets continue to publish articles like this, however, because they serve as a means to send a warning to Tibetans. The threat to would-be self-immolators is this: although they cannot prevent the act itself, afterwards officials will insult the self-immolator, punish their family and loved ones, and even go so far as to charge bystanders who photograph the incidents or help protect the bodies with homicide. China is reacting to the self-immolation crisis as if it were merely a superficial problem to be managed, and not a symptom of endemic Tibetan discontentment that needs to be constructively addressed.