Such vehement attacks on the Dalai Lama that appear with seeming regularity in state-media have in large part been sanctioned by the Communist Party for nearly 20 years, since the Party’s Third Tibet Work Forum, held in 1994. The Tibet Work Forums are major policy meetings held on occasion to set the Party’s overall strategy as it relates to Tibet (the most recent forum, the fifth, was convened by the Party’s top echelon in January 2010). At the crucial Third Tibet Work Forum, however, Party leaders abandoned what had been a relatively less hostile approach, and began to publicly condemn the Dalai Lama, and citing him as the root cause of instability in Tibet.
Prior to the Third Work Forum, denigrating the Tibetan spiritual leader was not an explicit goal of Party policy. It follows that without that key decision, or a subsequent one like it, we probably wouldn’t see such articles teeming with utter contempt for the Tibetan spiritual leader and Nobel Peace Laureate. We would see Party leaders better positioned to sincerely engage with the Dalai Lama on the problems in Tibet, rather than shrouding their invitations for his greater involvement with cynicism and spurious claims, which has the effect of actively working against attempts at mutual cooperation.
As long as the Party leadership maintains their course of giving license to public condemnations of the Dalai Lama, they will face the contradicting goals of seeking to diminish the Dalai Lama’s influence, while at the same time seeking to utilize that very stature in order to address issues, such as the Tibetan self-immolations, that the Party itself has proven ill-equipped to face.
Perhaps recent suggestions emanating from within the Party that leaders in China cannot simply ignore the Dalai Lama’s religious significance could pave a way forward, and create the pretense needed for authorities to safely begin to confront the reality of the Dalai Lama’s role in Tibetan society. However, without ending the public condemnations, Party leaders allow themselves few realistic avenues for engaging with the Dalai Lama in order to address what is taking place in Tibet today. The first step Party leaders must take, is to stop denigrating the Dalai Lama.
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.
Is it possible for a Tibetan living in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to maintain their freedom after writing on aspects of Tibetan life in the PRC which challenge the accepted Party version of events? The case of the Tibetan monk known as Gartse Jigme, who recently received a five-year prison term for his writings on the situation in Tibet and the suffering of Tibetan people, is but the latest example that tells us the answer appears to be a clear “no,” but it is still worth revisiting some of the reasons why.
This question is prompted by a recent article from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on Chinese journalist turned historian Yang Jisheng, who is currently in New York to receive a prize for his heroic writing on the Great Famine that resulted from failed agricultural and economic reforms. From 1958-1961 Yang estimates that at least 36 million, including Yang’s own father, lost their lives due to unnatural causes, including starvation and the government’s murder of opponents of the reforms. (An excellent review of his book, ‘Tombstone,’ can be found here.)
The story of Yang Jisheng and how he was able to carry out such a project may not directly tell us much about Tibetans in China today, but it does provide us with another insight into how one is able to navigate the intellectual waters of China with a large degree of success (it should be noted that the Chinese edition of Yang Jisheng’s book, published in Hong Kong, is banned in the mainland.)
The WSJ article posits a few reasons for how Yang Jisheng has been able to write on this topic, including that the Party allows him to continue writing in order to help maintain some semblance of academic freedom in China.
It may also be that we are far enough removed from the time period of the Great Famine (1958-1961) that Party leaders today feel cushioned from such attempts at historical reckoning. In the end, though, the largest contributing factors may be his years as a Party member and senior editor with the state-run news agency, Xinhua, which have surely provided him with countless lessons on the written and unwritten rules regarding intellectual life in China, and the personal connections that can often mean the difference between being sentenced to prison and being allowed to travel abroad to receive an award for one’s writing. That Yang Jisheng is in New York to receive an award for ‘Tombstone’ surely speaks to this point.
With at least 117 Tibetans known to have self-immolated and the widespread security apparatus in place across Tibet, it is difficult to imagine a Tibetan in such a position to safely publish anything that deviates from the Party line. With this in mind it may seem astounding to note that what may be the most significant internal critique of the Party came from a Tibetan. In 1962 the 10th Panchen Lama submitted a 70,000 character report which extensively criticized Chinese policies in Tibet. Because of this internal report, which was never widely circulated, the Panchen Lama spent most of the next 14 years of his life in prison or under house arrest. No other Tibetan can be said to have attained the same level of political stature in Tibet or the People’s Republic of China since.
In the PRC the avenues for reaching (relative) political security run through the Party, and these have clearly been shut off to Tibetans. The systematic alienation of Tibetans from accepted politics may not be more acutely illustrated than by the fact that no Tibetan has ever been appointed to the role of Party Secretary in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
The 10th Panchen Lama’s report, described by Mao as “a poisoned arrow shot at the Party,” threatened the Beijing leadership not just because of the policy failures it exposed, but because it came from within. In retrospect we can see how dangerous this position was in the Maoist era. At the time of its writing the Panchen Lama held the position of vice chairman on the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a position of national stature. However, neither the Panchen Lama’s standing with the CPPCC nor his position as the most senior religious figure remaining in Tibet could protect him from political attacks. Yang Jisheng, too, would surely have faced severe punishment had he published his book only a few decades earlier, telling the WSJ, “I would have been executed if I had this book published 40 years ago.”
Today, however, the ‘Tombstone’ author remains free from prison and even house arrest, and we can look towards an ability to deftly maneuver the Party apparatus as a significant reason for this. In contrast, Tibetans are in no position to make any meaningful use of the political structure that exercises sovereignty over Tibetan areas. This is in no small way a direct result of non-democratic politics, but the Party also fundamentally distrusts Tibetans and treats them as spies for the “Dalai clique” and severely punishes them for even the mildest form of protest. The antagonistic relationship that exists elsewhere in China between the Party and the people takes on new form in Tibetans areas through the pursuit of ‘stability management’ policies, which have led to a widespread security crackdown across all Tibetan areas. The manufactured security threat posed by “splittists” and the “Dalai clique” belies a fundamental insecurity regarding Party’s own standing in Tibet and speaks directly to the failed attempt to incorporate Tibetans into the People’s Republic of China.
So long as the Party locks itself into this uniquely antagonistic relationship with Tibetans there will be no avenue for Tibetans to safely counter Party positions, let alone publish and travel abroad to receive awards for their work.
Rather than directing these questions to Party leaders in China, holding them to account for the conditions in Tibet today that have led to the self-immolations, another line of inquiry is often pursued which seeks to reconcile popular notions about the Dalai Lama and his relationship with the Tibetan people, with his perceived inaction regarding the self-immolations. This is usually articulated as some variant of, “why hasn’t the Dalai Lama condemned the self-immolations?” or simply, “why hasn’t the Dalai Lama put a stop to the self-immolations?” These questions are largely based on the assumption that it is possible for the Dalai Lama to issue a proclamation that would bring an end to the self-immolations – an assumption that on some level accepts that the Dalai Lama is allowing, or even in some way causing, the self-immolations to continue.
This sentiment was again raised in a recent blog-posting on the Council on Foreign Relations website which asked, “why hasn’t [the] Dalai Lama used his moral authority to issue a public statement asking for Tibetans to stop the practice?” The writer asserts that “[i]t is widely believed that self-immolation cases would drop significantly if he makes such a move.”
The Dalai Lama was asked a similar question in a recent interview, in which he in part replied that, “I have always seen myself as a spokesperson of the Tibetans, not their sovereign. These people are responsible and make their decisions independently. Unfortunately, I’m not in the position to offer them a concrete alternative.”
While the Dalai Lama is widely recognized as the most revered spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism, the manifestation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion whose teachings and words carry the highest religious and moral relevance to millions of people, and the national figure for a nation without a state, he is not a dictator, a monarch, or even a Chairman. While it is not always recognized by others, the Dalai Lama has made clear that his position is not absolute and is bound by limitations. This includes not exercising dominion over the Tibetan people.
In addition to these more pragmatic considerations, the Dalai Lama has made clear the ethical dilemma he faces when addressing the self-immolations. Speaking to Reuters last August, he stated, “I will not give encouragement to these acts, these drastic actions, but it is understandable and indeed very, very sad.” As the leader of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama must reconcile not encouraging the self-immolations with knowing that if he “say[s] something negative, then the family members of those people feel very sad. They sacrificed their own life. It is not easy.” It is with this in mind that the Dalai Lama concludes that “the best thing is to remain neutral.” (The Hindu, ‘Meaningful autonomy is the only realistic solution’)
It is deeply cynical to contend that the Dalai Lama has the power to halt the self-immolation protests by issuing a verbal proclamation, yet disavows that ability and allows them to continue, all the while acknowledging how tragic these acts are.
Beijing has not hesitated to indulge in this reasoning, often pointing to the absence of a condemnation by His Holiness as evidence that he is either secretly behind the self-immolation protests, or simply has no regard for human life. (It should not be lost that in raising these points, Beijing never directs their comments to the Dalai Lama himself. Presumably, that would be too close to a direct dialogue with the Tibetan spiritual leader.)
Whether it comes from the leadership in Beijing, a Western journalist, or a casual political observer learning of the self-immolations for the first time, searching for a solution to the self-immolations based on preconceived notions of the Dalai Lama’s authority over Tibetans obfuscates the Chinese government’s responsibility to investigate and address the self-immolation protests. This double-standard that seeks answers from Dalai Lama before the Party is not only due to recognition on some level that the Dalai Lama’s position with the Tibetan people is far greater than that of the Party’s, but because the Dalai Lama is accessible (to those outside of Tibet) and upholds democratic principles, neither of which can be said of the Party. It is the leadership in Beijing who claims to be the sovereign over all Tibetan areas and desperately seeks recognition of its legitimacy. And as things stand, it is to Beijing where the gaze of commentators and world leaders must turn in order to find an answer to the question of how to truly bring an end to the self-immolations.