Self-immolations and Chinese intellectuals


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SINCE February 2009, 92 Tibetans have set themselves on fire, including five overseas in India and Nepal. The death toll has since risen to 97. Earlier this year, as I wrote in an article titled ‘A Flame of Liberty in the Land of Snow and Blood’ in the book Saffron Flames: The Voice of the Tibetans edited by Yang Jianli and Han Lianchao, self-immolation of Tibetans in China had increased by 17 (as of 4 February 2012). Yet since then and within a short period of ten months, the number of self-immolation has increased by 79. It is a shocking event in the history of human civilization.

China is a multi-ethnic country. The members of Han ethnicity, which accounts for 92% of the country’s population, has the responsibility and obligation to know the truth and listen to the aspirations of the Tibetan people. They should also strive to respond and immediately put an end to the Tibetans going through the crisis as also to the self-immolations. But so far, the Chinese government remains stuck in a ‘conspiracy theory’ mindset. First, they blamed the so-called Dalai Clique and anti-China forces for ‘organizing’, ‘manipulating’, and ‘instigating’ Tibetan self-immolations.

Second, the authorities continue to use massive police and military force to disperse people assembled, lay siege to monasteries and arrest monks and award heavy sentence to the so-called co-conspirators (in fact, most of them are relatives of the victims or monks). Finally, large sums of money are given as a reward to those informing them of self-immolations. For instance, the Public Security Bureau of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu Province till recently was offering as much as RMB 200,000 for those reporting on the people behind the self-immolations. The Chinese government has denied any responsibility whatsoever in the self-immolations but added new ‘charges’ on the family members of the victims.


Facing the Tibetan tragedy and the Chinese government’s injustice, the response from Chinese scholars does not reflect the traditional Chinese virtues of ‘benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom.’ On 13 November 2012, The New York Times reporter Andrew Jacobs wrote an article from Beijing: ‘The Chinese intellectuals silent amid wave of Tibetan self-immolations.’ Realizing the role of The New York Times as an opinion leader in global public intellectual fora, Chinese intellectuals whose vocation supposedly is to produce and disseminate wisdom and knowledge, need to ask reflectively and collectively: Why do the Chinese lack compassion, emotional and moral sensitivity towards the suffering of Tibetans?

Renowned Canadian-based historian Tsering Shakya has pointed out: ‘It seems that asking some Chinese intellectuals – be they Communist Party officials, liberal democrats or dissident writers – to think about Tibet in an objective and reasonable manner is like asking an ant to lift an elephant; it is beyond their capabilities and vision. Their perception is impaired by racial prejudice and their imagination clouded by the convictions and certainties of all colonial masters.’

First, of course, we must clarify that the use of the term ‘Chinese intellectuals’ does not deny that there have been individual Chinese scholars who have expressed their opinion and made efforts towards diffusing the situation of the Tibetans. Second, we must understand that the Chinese intellectuals are also suffering and their situation is not unlike what the Tibetans are going through.

In response to Andrew Jacobs’ story, one reader, Lin Bingqian of Shenzhen, wrote a letter to The New York Times in which he said: ‘If the so-called intellectuals are professors of the government-run universities and research institutes, media practitioners in state-owned media organizations, then they were selected by the government and they live under a government control system which means there is no reasonable degree of independence. They themselves constitute part of the government, namely part of the chief culprit responsible for Tibetans’ self-immolations. Therefore, their silence is directly related to the government censorship and is inevitable.’ If we mean ‘those liberal intellectuals who can break through the Golden Shield Project of the Chinese Communist Party and express themselves on Twitter in China, then they and their families are still under the threat of the Beijing government, and those who dare to express their views on Twitter are still facing the danger of being secretly arrested and even executed.’


So, as intellectuals living in the free world, we must be aware of the fact that the Chinese intellectuals and Tibetans are actually victims of the same authoritarian politics and that they are both facing a profound identity crisis. For Tibetans, it raises an important question, which is: whether Tibetans would continue to be Tibetans if there were no Three Jewels of Buddhism (which is Buddha, Dharma and Sangha)? And as for the Chinese intellectuals, whether they can still be ‘intellectuals’ if they do not have the freedom of free and independent thinking and the freedom to pursue truth. Since the two challenges are closely interlinked, it is therefore incumbent upon the Chinese intellectuals to pay close attention to and support the demand of the Tibetan people.

Looking back at the history of the People’s Republic of China, we can see that the tragedies faced by the Tibetans often serve as a precursor of crises for the Chinese themselves. In 1962, the Panchen Lama’s 70,000-character petition not only exposed the implications of the Communist Party of China’s ‘leftist policies’ in the Tibetan areas and the repression of cultural and religious life, but it also foresaw the catastrophe that the Cultural Revolution eventually wrought upon entire country. Hu Jintao’s imposition of ‘martial law’ in Lhasa in March 1989 tested how the Han people and the international community would respond to the violence, which eventually laid the foundations for the Tiannamen Square massacre.


Now the Communist Party’s repressive ‘cartel’ – which includes the army, armed police, public security, national security and the political and legal system – is conducting drills in Tibetan and Uighur areas. We cannot be so naive as to believe that the Han people would not be victims of self-immolation. We have seen that forced evictions have caused self-immolations in the Mainland. China has also cut off its internet connections and closed off microblogging (Weibo), and has brutally repressed grassroots movements such as those in cities of Shan Wei, Shi Shou, Wu Kan and Shi Fang.

At the same time, if we carefully analyze the demise of the Soviet Union and Eastern European communism, we will understand that ethnic conflicts and nationalism have often served as an important trigger in the collapse of the totalitarian regimes. Considering the huge popularity and international reputation of the Dalai Lama who is considered as an emanation of Buddha of Compassion, and the organizational network of the Tibetans, the hope and the future of China’s own democratic aspirations is also closely dependent on the fate of the Tibetan struggle for freedom.


Yet there is a widespread indifference and even misunderstanding among Chinese scholars when it comes to the Tibetan struggle for freedom. Here we can divide the Chinese intellectuals into three different categories. First, the official scholars, including some Tibetologists of Tibetan ethnicity, who attack and slander fellow Tibetans or the leadership of the Dalai Lama’s exile community. For example, in the spring of this year, the official China Tibet News Network published the article, ‘Seven Questions to the Dalai Lama’, without attribution to a specific author, which placed a series of labels on the Dalai Lama: ‘old Tibet’s biggest feudal serf owners’, ‘traitor’, ‘If not sick, then he is possessed by demon’, among others.

The article also said: ‘The Dalai Lama’s remarks cannot but help make people think of the madness of the Nazis during the World War II.’ It levelled the charge that the Dalai Lama’s ‘Middle Way policy’, and ‘genuine autonomy’ were exactly the same as the policies that had caused the extermination of the Jews. It also charged that what the Dalai Lama had done in old Tibet dwarfed even Hitler’s acts. In this article representing the Chinese government’s standpoint, the self-immolations are depicted as a result of ‘deliberate agitation’ by the Dalai Lama and a ‘negative consequence of his constant encouragement’ of the self-immolation. We all know, Communist China announced Tibet’s ‘liberation’ in 1950, the same year the reign of the 14th Dalai Lama started when he was only 16 year old. The ‘17 Point Agreement’ was signed in 1951 and the 24 year old Dalai Lama escaped in 1959 into exile in India. I fail to understand what the Dalai Lama did in Tibet, which was already under the control of Communist China, that would resemble Hitler’s atrocities.

Moreover, it needs no mention that the Dalai Lama’s ‘Middle Way policy’ clearly advocates and seeks genuine autonomy in Tibet under the framework of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. Also that non-violence has been the consistent policy of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Central Administration in exile. Tibet’s struggle for freedom is essentially a conflict between a people with a strong religious faith and an atheist Communist regime. It shares similarities with the Uighur struggle, the ‘Falun Gong’ movement, and the ‘Christian house churches’ among the Han Chinese inside China. It is not a conflict between Han people and Tibetans.

However, the Communist Party’s propaganda machine and the violent repression has increasingly turned it into an ethnic conflict. As the well-known Han Chinese Tibetologist Wang Lixiong said in 2008, the CPC’s ‘anti-separatist bureaucratic machinery’ has turned the Han Chinese and Tibetan relations into a ‘racial conflict’, thus creating a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy.’


Unfortunately, many Han Chinese scholars indiscriminately accept the official Chinese propaganda and accept many prejudices at face value. For example, some overseas Chinese scholars accept the false theses of ‘evil serfdom’ and ‘slave owners’ and also equate Mao Zedong’s action in Tibet to that of Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves.

Similarly, many Han Chinese scholars concern themselves with the economic development of Tibet and avoid discussing issues of religious freedom and cultural rights, the core issue of Tibet, which concerns religion and human rights (closely related to the survival of the Tibetan people). Also, many Han Chinese scholars ignore the achievements of the Tibetan community in exile in terms of the democratization and the separation of church and state (see for example the books Democracy in Exile and Democratic Transformation in Exile by Su Jiahong, a Taiwanese scholar educated at the School of International Relations of Fudan University).


Chinese scholars continue to educate people with such untruths as the Dalai Lama’s efforts to restore the old feudal system in exile and return absolute power to the clergy, among others. In the same university where I currently teach, there are professors who rely on the information provided by government cadres to establish themselves as an authority on Tibet, completely ignoring the fact that the party and government cadres, employees of state-owned enterprises, and army officers are the agents of China’s colonial rule in Tibet and that their views are likely to be prejudiced.

The reason that there is still a market for official propaganda and slander is due to the existence of a second type of scholar. Though they do not have an official background, and the vast majority of these scholars also do not want to hurt Tibetan feelings, they nevertheless remain indifferent to the issue of Tibet, thereby becoming the purveyors of misperceptions and unconscious messengers of lies.

Many people do not know the true meaning of Buddhism, and easily dismiss religion as ignorant and backward. Many people do not know who the Dalai Lama is, or about his writings and teachings, and fail to understand why he garners such respect among the Tibetans and the international community, but they readily slander his achievements and reputation. Many people do not even attempt to understand the aspirations of Tibetan self-immolators. They completely ignore the fact that the self-immolators prayed for kindness and restrained themselves from feeling any hatred while they burned themselves, but these scholars were quick to judgement and labelled them as ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’.


There is no doubt that resorting to the act of self-immolation is not a good option. Tibetans today, however, do not have the luxury of choice between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The plight and suffering of the Tibetans means that they can only choose between ‘bad’ and ‘worse’. What is an even worse predicament than self-immolation for Tibetan people is to lose the three jewels of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The Chinese Communist regime’s wanton insult to the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, banning his portrait from being hung in the temples, and expelling monks who consider him as their root guru from their monasteries, the establishing of a ‘Temple Management Authority’ which is directly controlled by the party organization, forming ‘working units’ in the monasteries, and sending millions of copies of the so-called ‘four leaders’ (Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao) to the temples, represent a serious threat to the religious freedom of the Tibetan people.

The purpose of self-immolation is to offer one’s own body to protect the religion and defend the national survival of Tibet. Because they do not understand this concept, we have seen that a number of Han Chinese scholars, who might otherwise hold a deep sympathy for the Tibetans, fail to understand them. This is the third category of Han Chinese intellectuals. Professor Yao Xinyong at Jinan University in Hong Kong has published many papers on China’s ethnic problems. Recently, I read two of his articles – ‘The Communist government and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama really cannot dissuade the Tibetans from self-immolating?’ and ‘Burning the body versus body politic: observation and thoughts on the phenomenon of self-immolation by some Tibetans.’ After reading the articles, I felt there was a need for dialogue and communication with the Han Chinese intellectuals. Professor Yao was clearly aware of the fact that ‘Communist China does not have the authority to immediately prevent Tibetans’ self-immolation’, and disagrees with the government’s ‘strict control’ policy. He also believes that ‘the blind and increased attacks on the Dalai Lama [have] further intensified Tibetan emotions’, all of which has objectively led to a continuation of self-immolations.


However, Professor Yao’s views warrant a debate. First, he argues that self-immolation should be discouraged as life is precious. Second, he believes that self-immolation constitutes extreme behaviour, which violates the Buddhist precepts of no killing and also contradicts the principle of non-violence, leading to ‘ethnic hatred’. Third, he believes that ‘cultural genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ do not exist in Tibet, that Tibetans have not been deprived of the right to live, that the basic right to practise their religious belief continues to exist, and that ‘the traditional Tibetan culture and the Tibetan mountains and rivers are not facing an immediate danger of destruction.’ Fourth, he says that, ‘the hard-hearted’ Dalai Lama has deliberately evaded the responsibility of stopping self-immolations, as the Tibetan leader should have stopped self-immolations by himself resorting to a hunger strike.

First of all, in order to understand the Tibetans’ strong sense of identity crisis, and the threats to the extinction of their culture, we should not judge them according to what the Han Chinese define as ‘ordinary people’. The Tibetans have extremely strong religious beliefs and that is the biggest cultural difference between the Tibetans and the majority of Han Chinese. The Tibetans derive the meaning of existence from their faith; in other words, this is the biggest difference between materialist atheists and spiritual idealists. Therefore, in the important Mahayana Buddhist text Lotus Sutra, there are references to ‘spontaneous burning of the body’, ‘offering of the body to Buddha’, as well as ‘burning of the arm as an offering’ to medicine Buddha.

But in today’s Chinese culture, it is difficult to understand ‘the unity of life and death’ as well as to comprehend how people in the old days resorted to sacrificing life for justice. The Chinese intellectuals have forgotten the Hungarian national poet Sandor Petofi’s (1823-1849) poem, ‘Life is dear, love is dearer. Both can be given up for freedom.’ And they have also long forgotten the line: ‘Give me liberty, or give me death.’ They do not even understand what Communist Xia Minghan once said: ‘It does not matter if you are beheaded, as long as you are fighting for truth.’


The director and screenwriter of the movie ‘Nanjing! Nanjing!’ have realized and understood all of this. Therefore, it led them to create a tragic hero, Kadokawa, a Japanese soldier trained in a Christian Church school. After he helped the teacher in the movie overcome the difficulties of life, he heard Tang, a dubious figure who worked for the Germans and collaborated with the Japanese, excitedly tell him as he was about to be executed: ‘My wife is pregnant.’ It is not difficult to understand why Kadokawa’s quote in the movie would state: ‘Living is more difficult than death.’ He let the two survivors under his supervision escape, and then shot himself. Realizing that their captor chose to kill himself instead of them, and allow them the opportunity to be reborn, the two survivors did not show any contemplation or reflection on their new-found freedom, or any feelings of gratitude toward their benefactor; instead, they just revel in the ecstasy of life as survivors. This may be the difference between the ‘survival wisdom’ dear to so many Chinese, and the Japanese concept of ‘Bushido’ (or the way of the warrior).


According to the Buddhist view of life, while our body would one day disintegrate and this life will end, consciousness would continue forever. As intellectuals, if one fails to understand the fundamentally spiritual nature of the human pursuit of progress, one cannot possibly comprehend Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am!’ Moreover, we would also fail to understand what Camus said: ‘I revolt, therefore I exist.’ If one examines self-immolation from this higher plane, one understands how much the Dalai Lama suffers because nobody loves his followers more than him and nobody has sacrificed more for his followers and religion than the Dalai Lama. So, as Han intellectuals, we have no qualification or right to either ‘glorify’ or ‘condemn’ the acts of self-immolation, and we have no authority to condemn or judge the Dalai Lama. In the face of continued self-immolation, what we need is the collective courage to pursue, practise and defend what is truth. The biggest crisis the Chinese intellectuals now face is the failure to seek with consciousness, drive and courage the idea of ‘truth, goodness, beauty, and sacredness.’

Clearly, Tibetan issues have become a taboo for scholarly research and discussion. We know that even the world-renowned cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, could get into trouble by stepping into this issue. While attending a White House banquet and sitting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 1997, the cellist reminded the PRC leader that the Chinese policy towards the Dalai Lama and Tibet had room for improvement. This resulted in his being put on the ‘blacklist’ and banned from performing in China for several years.


Evidently, the Tibet issue is an academic minefield. It is not easy to remain rational and objective between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama. I am fortunate to have met with the Dalai Lama numerous times. I have had the opportunity to listen to his many teachings, including at a meeting at his home in Dharamshala. And I have also held two seminars with him at my university. Through my constant close contact with His Holiness, I can tell the readers that the Dalai Lama is an aging man full of compassion, wisdom, innocence and sense of humour. By reading his writings, in the hundreds, I realized that the Dalai Lama is the key to the door of the Tibetan soul. Any attempt to create a rupture in the relationship between the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, and hurling verbal abuse and discrediting the Tibetan spiritual leader will not solve the issue of self-immolation. In order to resolve the issue of self-immolation, the Chinese government must begin by respecting the spiritual teacher and leader of the Tibetan people.


* This article originally appeared in the Hong Kong-based magazine iSunAffairs Weekly, Issue 35, on 13 December 2012. Translated by Tsering Namgyal, a writer and translator currently based in New York.

** I want to thank Kunga Tashi of the Office of Tibet, New York, for identifying the original Chinese version and helping introduce me to Prof. Ming Xia who took time to read the original copy and provided helpful edits. I also acknowledge the help received from Isolda Morillo in clarifying the meaning of some Chinese terms. – The translator


1. As of 15 February 2013, a total of 101 Tibetans within China have self-immolated during the past three years (since February 2009).