China's Failure in Tibet
Image Credit: Wikicommons

China's Failure in Tibet


Since March 2011, a total of 57 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest against Chinese government policies. Members of the monastic community, lay Tibetans, and exile officials alike feel great empathy for those who have died, even as they debate the morality or utility of such acts. They thus find it difficult to outright condemn the self-immolations.

Chinese authorities, however, consider the protests a source of social instability, and the self-immolations themselves a form of terrorism. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei recently stated that "To our knowledge most of the self-immolation cases in the Tibetan-inhabited regions are related to the instigation of the Dalai clique. In order to realize their separatist goals, the Dalai clique has incited some people to self-immolate. This is despicable and should be condemned."

However, the Central Tibetan Administration has repeatedly urged Tibetans to refrain from "drastic actions," fearing that continued self-immolations will result only in further repression. Exile leaders have asked Tibetans to "focus on secular and monastic education to provide the necessary human resources and the capability to strengthen and sustain our movement."

Self-Immolation and Protest as Political Tools

Why are Tibetans increasingly employing self-immolation as a political tool? First, there is growing frustration in Tibet that the Chinese government has not demonstrated sincerity by engaging in serious negotiations with the Dalai Lama. Many fear that the Dalai Lama will be unable to return to Tibet prior to his death, thus denying entire generations of Tibetan Buddhists meaningful contact with their spiritual leader. In fact, many of those who self-immolated called for the Dalai Lama’s return to underscore the significance of this issue. 

Experts suspect that Beijing has spurned serious negotiations because the CCP believes that international support for the Tibetan cause will dramatically decline following the charismatic leader’s death. An article in China’s Global Times noted that “Recent years have seen the marginalization of the Tibet issue in the world. International society attaches more importance to their relations with China. Under such a climate, the ‘Free-Tibet’ movement becomes inopportune." The Chinese appear to believe that time is on their side as their nation grows in power and stature. 

Such a strategy could easily backfire, however, threatening the “harmonious society” that the Chinese leadership strives to create. As Tibetans are left with fewer and fewer options to express their widespread disenchantment with the Chinese government, committing increasingly aggressive acts of political dissent – including demonstrations, self-immolations, rioting, and even acts of sabotage – may yet appear more rational than refusing to act at all. If the Tibetan people come to regard the status quo as intolerable and within the domain of losses, then they may lash out against the regime despite the certainty of harsh government retaliation and repression. 

Second, the self-immolations and protests reflect widespread anger over the lack of fundamental freedoms and human rights in Tibet, as well as official policies that appear to threaten the traditional religious, cultural, and linguistic practices that underpin the Tibetan identity. A wide range of prominent figures – running the gamut from global political leaders to transnational non-governmental organizations, to academics and experts on Tibet – have argued that the Chinese government needs to address the counterproductive policies that cause tensions in the region. 

Despite international calls for the PRC to reevaluate its policies, authorities in Beijing continue to insist that those who committed acts of self-immolation are separatists whose views do not represent mainstream Tibetan opinion. The Global Times argues that the Dalai Lama himself is actively instigating unrest in the region, in order to disrupt economic development, gain publicity for the exile cause, and force Beijing to enter into negotiations with the “separatist government.” His actions are not reflective of “power and influence,” but rather “desperation and fragility.” 

Beijing has hitherto given no indication that it will alter its policies. On the contrary, it appears that the government is retrenching by cracking down on all forms of dissent and increasing its security presence in the region. Jia Qinling, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, recently stated that the CCP would prioritize "greater development in China's ethnic Tibetan regions, as well as more efforts to fight the Dalai Lama clique, in order to ensure the regions' lasting stability."

Beijing has a responsibility to provide Tibetans with the meaningful autonomy and religious freedoms guaranteed under the PRC constitution and international human rights conventions to which China is a party or signatory. As the Dalai Lama noted on the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “There cannot be peace and stability as long as there is oppression and suppression. It is unfair to seek one's own interests at the cost of other people's rights.” Any government purporting to defend fundamental human rights would do well to heed his words.

Now is the time for speaking frankly with Beijing about the consequences of its present policies. As two states with significant historical and current interests in Tibet, India and the United States should lead this effort. The failure to bring peace and greater freedoms to the Himalayan Plateau would mark a tragic conclusion to the peaceful, democratic legacy that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has spent much of his life building.

Julia Famularo is a research affiliate at the Project 2049 Institute and a Georgetown University doctoral candidate in modern East Asian political history. This article included excerpts from her Project 2049 policy monograph, Spinning the Wheel: Policy Implications of the Dalai Lama's Reincarnation.

Be Way
October 31, 2012 at 14:25

Dalai Lama is nothing more than a heartless, selfish and self-centered mortal man, who only care for his own self glory and power.   If he is a man of honor, sincerity or even with a little sense of responsibility, he will not have demand an outrageous claim over 1/4 of China land mass during the negotiation with the Chinese Authority.
With the door of negotiation closed, the sight of peaceful resolution is slowly fading away.    As much as the Chinese are saddened over the self-immolation of a small minority of Tibetans, life still goes on peacefully amidst all the commotions.
If U.S is not ashamed of killing the millions of Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans, Syrians, Vietnamese and etc, why should the Chinese be troubled by less than 100 people that self-immolated themselves of their own doing.

John Chan
October 29, 2012 at 22:40

Are you admitting the USA, the Europe, Australia, Japan and their associates are imperialists? USA and Australia are the worst offenders; they take American and Australian native’s lands with brutality and genocide without apology and citing historical justification.
How about the self-righteous aliens in the North America and Australia set the example of respecting the natives by leaving the land they stole in order to show the world they have more creditability than an elephant.

October 29, 2012 at 15:02

The time for Theocratic rule is over!

Meg Maggio
October 29, 2012 at 11:35

Why won't the Dalai Lama come out with a strong statement against the Self-Immolations? The Tibetans in exile are as much responsible for the Self-Immolations as the Chinese.  If the Dalai Lama said, "STOP", I bet there would be no more self-immolations. This is a failure of leadership on all sides. 

October 29, 2012 at 11:00

China would be offended if you called it Imperialistic but that is essentially what it is. It justifies taking these territories as they were once 'sacred territory' of China. They were  no more than Imperial possessions of an Imperial China. There is no justification for ruling over others, diluting there populations and culture all because your Imperial ancestors did it.

Arthur Borges
October 28, 2012 at 19:30

Funny that India's Ladakh is so quiet: the population is 95%+ Tibetan, living standards are way lower than in China and the Dalai Lama never even mentions them.
Then too the Dalai regularly repeats that "Tibetans are a minority in their own country." Well, um, he's really wrong if he means the Tibet Autonomous Region. On the other hand, he's quite right if thinking of Greater Tibet, which covers about 1/4 of the Chinese Mainland and has a population of 100 million vs. China's total of 4 to 5 million Tibetans. Somehow, I don't see Beijing giving up that much real estate to create a state that will end up becoming an IMF basket case, NATO partner and host to a few chunks of the ballistic missile defense shield.
The only read hardline independence activists belong to the Gelug order the Dalai heads; the other three main orders are way more reasonable (Kagyu, Nigma and Sakya). If I have to characterize those four orders, the Kagyu are the translators; the Nigma, the shamans; the Sakya, the revivalists and the Gelug, the warrior monks.
Yes: warrior monks. Greater Tibet didn't expand to covering a quarter of today's China by building stupas and flogging prayer wheels: they went out and conquered it like any other empire with an army.

Talk ings point
October 28, 2012 at 10:21

I am not a fan of CCP Tibet policies. But China doesn't need to give Tibet autonomy. Why are they so special? I am for remove automous regions. Enact law to treat minority equally. That is it!
as for Dalai Lama, who cares, a fake god. Shameless.

October 27, 2012 at 07:13

I think it is absurd to suggest that India of all countries should lead the effort alongside the US that this article is proposing, given its own record in Kashmir:

Oro Invictus
October 27, 2012 at 03:44

I suspect that, as the PRC's ascension in global matters begins to plateau (irrespective of economic or military matters, given the almost comically poor cultural and diplomatic standings the PRC has with the rest of the world), international calls for respecting Tibetan autonomy will become more prevalent. I'd like to hope that the majority PRC citizenry would stand up for the Tibetans (and the Uyghur people and all minorities in the PRC), but the pervasive belief amongst the Han socio-cultural majority seems to be that the government favours minorities more than them (something which, while it may fuel resentment, the government may be encouraging as a belief as it prevents popular opinion from becoming overly-sympathetic for the minority groups) suggests this will not happen. 
In any case, the Global Times article serves as another emblematic reminder of Beijing's stance towards minority rights, something which I find fascinating as it serves as yet another point of data in support of my analysis that the PRC is mirroring the Byzantine Empire's terminal years. The Byzantines, too, believed they could simply "wait out" events in areas such as Macedonia and Thessaly, something which proved completely false. Even before the Byzantines began stagnating and becoming more isolated due to social and religious shifts in Western Europe, the regions were mired in constant revolt and upset, something which the Emperor and his fellows dismissed as "foreign plots" stirring up "a few saboteurs and indignants". Notably, when the Byzantines plateaued and began stagnating, Phrygia, Messenia, and Thessaly revolted and separated from the Empire in a series of independent movements. The irony is that these regions would likely have remained part of the Empire and profitable had the Empire simply altered its stance towards them, a stance born from greed and a desire to stomp out revolt. 
All that said, the Tibetans have been much more peaceful in their protests than any of the regions I mentioned above, so how that influences events is up to debate; still, politically and economically, there are strong similarities between these historical regions and Constantinople when compared to Tibet (as well as East Turkestan) and Beijing. 

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