During the 18th Party Congress in Beijing, a total of eleven Tibetans set themselves on fire, bringing the total thus far to an estimated 74 individuals. The self-immolations are undoubtedly an embarrassment to Chinese leaders, who were hoping to keep the spotlight focused on their once-in-a-decade political transition of power.
Hu Jintao did not directly mention the self-immolations in the work report he delivered upon convening the party congress. He said only that China required "intensive education about ethnic unity and progress" as well as further development in ethnic minority regions. "We should consolidate and develop socialist ethnic relations of equality, unity, mutual assistance, and harmony so that all ethnic groups in China will live and develop together in harmony."
High-level Tibetan officials attending the party congress continued to blame the unrest on the Dalai Lama and Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, India. Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) Vice-Governor Lobsang Gyaltsen, who is tasked with ensuring stability, argued that "everyone can see that these incidents are being manipulated by external Tibetan forces. They are calling the self-immolations heroic acts and making the self-immolators out to be heroes." He added that "the external Tibetan forces and the Dalai clique are sacrificing other people's lives to attain their secret political motives." The Vice-Governor emphasized that while the government safeguards religious freedom, monks are required to participate in political and patriotic education sessions. Critics maintain that during these sessions, monks and nuns are forced to denounce the Dalai Lama and pledge loyalty to the Chinese state.
The CTA has repeatedly advised the Tibetan people to refrain from taking "drastic actions" such as self-immolation in protest of Chinese policies. However, Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay recently sent mixed messages by declaring that while he strongly discourages people from taking their own lives, "once a protest takes place, it becomes our sacred duty to support it." Exile leaders feel great sympathy for those prepared to sacrifice themselves to draw international attention to the plight of the Tibetan people. At the same time, they must also avoid giving the impression that they are actively encouraging Tibetan suicides, which the Chinese government could use as a pretext for even further crackdowns.
In addition to the religious restrictions placed upon the monastic community, Tibetan students have grown increasingly concerned over the erosion of bilingual language policies in the region. Thousands of students in Rebkong, Amdo (Qinghai) protested in both October 2010 and March 2012 when authorities proposed changing the language of classroom instruction from Tibetan to Chinese. Another large protest took place on November 9th, when as many as 5,000 secondary school and university students chanted slogans demanding ethnic equality and language freedom. They also called for the Dalai Lama to return from exile. In a neighboring township, 700 young students gathered the previous day to replace the Chinese flags atop their school with the Tibetan independence flag. Furthermore, nearly 1,000 Tibetan college students at the Qinghai Nationalities University held a candlelight vigil on November 9th for those who self-immolated.
Meanwhile, Voice of Tibet reported on November 13th that a group of Tibetan college students and teachers submitted an eight-point petition to high-level Chinese authorities. Among other demands, they called on the government to create an atmosphere free of oppression by protecting and promoting the Tibetan language, expanding the study of Tibet beyond the language itself at the tertiary level, curbing Chinese migration to Tibet, respecting Tibetan Buddhism, and ceasing the practice of "trampling upon Tibetan traditional culture and customs."
Although observers have witnessed paramilitary forces flooding into Rebkong during the past week, it appears that they largely refrained from directly interfering with the protests. Aside from the glaring exception of the final days of the Tian'anmen student movement, both the Chinese Republican and Communist governments have proven far less likely to use force against student protesters than other groups of demonstrators. As China scholar Jeffrey Wasserstrom argues in his book, Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China: The View from Shanghai, students see themselves as an elite social group that possessed the “right and duty to speak out on political issues because in due course the next generation of high officials would come from their ranks.” Their worldview is also shaped by the historical value that Chinese have traditionally placed on education and by the belief that scholarship comprises the most righteous and legitimate road to power and influence in China. Wasserstrom asserts that other members of Chinese society have tended to support and reinforce this elite and privileged role by showing respect and lending succor to student movements. Chinese students have consequently often received a modicum of protection from the government. They have also found it possible to “frame their protest as routine assertions of the political rights and social duties traditionally accorded their class, rather than as attempts to secure a new corporate identity within society or a new role in politics.” However, if ethnic minority students continue to protest in large numbers in a politically sensitive region, it is unclear how the government will ultimately react.
The Chinese government continues to completely reject outside criticism of its policies in Tibet. Che Dalha, the Communist Party secretary in Lhasa, told reporters attending the party congress that his city was the happiest in China. Quoting song lyrics, he stated that "the sky is the bluest, the clouds are the whitest, the water is the cleanest and the people are the happiest." For good measure, he mentioned, "there are [also] harmonious ethnic relations.”
On November 2, United Nations High Commission for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed her grave concerns over the frequency and scope of unrest in ethnographic Tibet. She also raised reports of detentions, disappearances, and torture; police brutality against unarmed protesters; and restrictions on cultural, political, and religious rights. She called upon the Chinese government to grant the media access to the region as well as permit human rights monitors to appraise the current situation there.
However, Vice-Governor Lobsang Gyaltsen quickly denied her request. “We welcome everybody to Tibet, but if people investigate issues like human rights, we don’t think that is appropriate."
Julia Famularo is a research affiliate at the Project 2049 Institute.