Last Saturday two citizens of the People’s Republic of China walked into public areas with the intent to commit self-harm. One of them, a Chinese petitioner named Ji Zhongxing, set off a bomb in a terminal of Beijing Capital International Airport. The other, a Tibetan monk named Konchok Sonam, doused his robes with gasoline and set himself alight outside of Soktsang monastery in eastern Tibet. Ji survived the blast but lost his left hand; Konchok passed away at the site of his self-immolation. No one else was hurt in either incident. Both seem to have been motivated by a sense of injustice: Ji had spent a decade trying to get compensation after allegedly being paralyzed by a police beating, while Konchok told his friends that “living under Chinese rule in Tibet has brought too much suffering.”
Despite some parallels between these two cases, they have been treated completely differently by Chinese official media. This particular disparity in how Tibetans and Chinese are treated in the PRC has become more and more apparent over the last few years as the Tibetan self-immolations have continued. At its heart, this seems to be a clear example of biases in how the Chinese government treats Tibetans.
First, the media reaction to the two events was drastically different. Beyond a general disapproval of his tactics, Ji’s case has aroused some measure of understanding among Chinese journalists. A China Youth Daily article (as translated by BBC) said: “Ji Zhongxing’s detonation of an explosive device at CapitalAirport was an extremely unwise way to uphold his rights. It is not permitted by law, and he will be severely punished by law. But this bombing has raised many warnings to society. Was Ji Zhongxing disabled by a traffic accident or by a beating? The public awaits the truth.” A Beijing News article said that authorities “cannot ignore the man’s aspirations” in seeking redress for the beating, before hoping that the relevant departments would reexamine his case responsibly. Global Times released an editorial supporting the “relentless pursuit of fairness and justice,” and called for increased reforms so that “vulnerable groups” could have unobstructed channels for expressing their demands. All of these stories described his circumstances and the nature of his grievances.
Chinese media reacted to the self-immolation of Konchok Sonam, on the other hand, with absolute silence. A Panguso search for Chinese news items related to self-immolations or Dzoege (the county in which he died) returned not one story about Konchok. Looking on a broader level, the media and political campaigns unleashed by Chinese authorities against the Tibetan self-immolators have no analogue in the Ji case. A May 2013 documentary about the self-immolations by CCTV, subtitled “Evidence of the Hands behind the Tragedies,” promised to present evidence that Tibetans in exile had somehow manufactured the self-immolations as a terroristic plot. The evidence was never presented, which is unsurprising given that the Chinese government has never substantiated these claims. The only sympathy offered to Tibetan self-immolators by the Chinese media is in the context of their supposedly having been ‘instigated’ into committing the act, which has the effect of shifting the blame from the authorities whose policies the self-immolators protested to the Dalai Lama and various Tibetan advocacy groups. Meanwhile, no such hidden agenda has been alleged thus far in the Ji case, part of an apparent tacit admission that his complaints had some validity.
Chinese media outlets have also engaged in a disingenuous campaign of character assassination against Tibetan self-immolators, alleging that some decided to do it because of personal problems such as alcoholism, inappropriate sexual relations, and poor grades. The actual concerns of the self-immolators, as expressed in the various notes, recordings, and statements given to friends and family, have been completely ignored. While Chinese journalists and citizens begin to discuss the factors that caused Ji to set off a bomb in an airport, an open and realistic discussion of the factors that have caused 120 Tibetans so far to commit self-immolation is still forbidden inside China.
Chinese media outlets have even been more understanding of Chinese bombers who managed to kill others than they have of Tibetan self-immolators. In 2011 a Chinese man named Qian Mingqi successfully detonated multiple bombs at government offices in Jiangxi, killing at least three people. Global Times ran an article the next day quoting a professor from RenminUniversity who said that although the use of violence should never be encouraged, “authorities should learn to open smoother channels for the public to file their complaints before problems turn into confrontations and then violence.” This logical and obvious conclusion has never been applied to the Tibetan self-immolations by mainstream PRC government organs or media outlets. Instead, authorities instituted even higher levels of security in Tibetan regions and launched a wave of arrests and new restrictions.
In these cases the ethnicity of the perpetrator, rather than the dangerousness of their deeds, is a much better indicator of how the government will react. Writing about the Beijing Airport bombing, Caixin’s Luo Jieqi explained that in China “there’s a hand over our throat. Reporters have to race against official restrictions. Sometimes before our voices can be heard, the news has been drowned out. That’s just the way things are. The state’s information mechanisms are closed off. The dark side of a story is often hidden away.” Once Ji detonated the bomb, however, some limited public discussion began to take place. The same can’t be said for Tibetans, whose grievances have been shunted aside and ignored as if they come from a politically untouchable caste in the PRC. On Saturday a Chinese man became a tragic figure whose regrettable act was spurred by real problems that require solutions, while a Tibetan monk joined a group of people dismissed by Beijing as rejects who were duped into self-immolation. Unfortunately, the only solution Beijing has come to based on this narrative calls for a greater struggle, more repression, and a tighter hand over the throat of Tibetans and those who would speak the truth on their behalf.