Tibetans are setting themselves on fire in record numbers to protest Beijing’s heavy hand. But the brutal cycle of violence is only increasing.
- By Kevin CarricoKevin Carrico is a lecturer in Chinese studies at Macquarie University, the translator of Tibet on Fire, and the author of The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today.
On the morning of May 19, 22-year-old Tibetan monk Jamyang Losal set himself alight in Qinghai province’s Tsojang Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Losal, who died at the scene, was the 150th Tibetan to set himself on fire in protest against Chinese policy on the Tibetan Plateau since 2009. He had previously been detained for 10 days for posting a photo of the Dalai Lama on the heavily monitored messaging service WeChat. After this fiery act of protest, he was taken away again for the last time by police, who refused to return his body to his family.
Ever since 1989 and the Tiananmen Square protests, the Chinese state has explicitly prioritized “stability above all else” (wending yadao yiqie). The goal of this policy is an authoritarian feedback cycle combining political and cultural controls from the top with rapid economic growth from below that theoretically produces bottom-up support for the party-state. This stability drive targets any potential source of political, cultural, legal, or spiritual opposition and paints its foes, particularly in Tibet, as “cultic.” But this drive for stability has become a cult itself, one backed by the state: a totalitarian form of belief that refuses all counterevidence or opposition and that must be embraced regardless of consequences. This cult is locking people in Tibet, both Han Chinese and Tibetan, into a downward spiral of anger and pain.
Since 2009, hundreds of Tibetans have taken the same drastic step as Jamyang Losal: Sonam Tso, a mother who set herself alight in Ngaba, a Tibetan area of Sichuan province, in 2016, leaving behind five children; Sungdue Kyab, a 17-year-old who survived his self-immolation in Labrang in Gansu province in 2012, only to be held indefinitely at an undisclosed location since; and Tapey, a Kirti monk who was the first to douse his monk’s robes in gasoline and set them alight in 2009. Looking back at the images smuggled out of Tibet showing Tapey walking down a street in Ngaba with his robes engulfed in flames, one cannot help but ask: Why is this happening? And where is this taking China and Tibet?
Self-immolations have been effective tools of public protests in the past: Consider the famously powerful image of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc burning himself to death in Vietnam. But in China, where self-immolations have now been ongoing for eight full years, they barely make a ripple. There is a common Chinese perception that Tibetans are “simple” and “primitive” people, who in their worship of a “feudal slave owner” — known elsewhere as the Dalai Lama — fail to recognize just how much they have benefited from Chinese largesse. Consequently, there is an assumption that immolators must have somehow been tricked by external cult forces manipulating their “primitive” and “irrational” minds.
That assumption is reinforced by the primary Chinese public memory of self-immolation, the alleged Falun Gong supporters who set themselves on fire in protest in Tiananmen Square in 2001. Those scenes were gratuitously and repeatedly broadcast on state television, reinforcing notions of self-immolation as a cultic act, with vulnerable minds tricked by manipulative elders. Although some Chinese express sympathy and understanding in private, the majority see self-immolations in Tibet as another example of the simple and easily misled mind of the native.
But the reality of self-immolation is far more complicated. Self-immolation is part of a tradition of protest against Chinese rule in Tibet that extends as long as China’s occupation, from uprisings against “social reform” policies throughout eastern Tibet in the 1950s to large-scale demonstrations against cultural and political controls in the late 1980s to the latest uprising in 2008 that spread across the plateau in the months before the Beijing Olympics.
This last series of protests, however, became the target of an unrelenting state crackdown, followed by the all-encompassing securitization of the Tibetan Plateau in the name of sacred stability. Since 2008, the People’s Armed Police, China’s paramilitary enforcers, have roamed the streets of Tibetan areas on foot and in armored vehicles in a dramatic show of force, backed up by video cameras that watch every movement in real time and record all events for further review. Checkpoints monitor and control the flow of people from one place to another, targeting ethnic Tibetans for particular scrutiny in their own homeland. International journalists and researchers, meanwhile, are blocked from entering Tibetan areas to monitor and report on these developments.
Most insidiously, “the grid” management system (Tibetan: drwa ba, Chinese: wangge), represented as a public interest project to provide access to social services, brings personalized surveillance activities down to the household level. A network of community workers overseeing sections of cities divided into “grids” provide real-time data on their territory, to be analyzed by security officials for the slightest hint of potential unrest: The results have been so pleasing that this model has now been exported to the equally troubled region of Xinjiang.
The obsessive securitization of the Tibetan Plateau, seeing and tracking everything, has created an environment in which collective acts of resistance are now virtually impossible — they are nipped in the bud well before they could ever evolve into large-scale protests. Even lone individual protestors shouting slogans in support of Tibetan independence or the return of the Dalai Lama are disappeared before their message can be heard.
All of this would seem to be a sign of enhanced stability, the state’s goal. Yet it is precisely this “stable” environment that has produced self-immolation as a form of protest. As Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser observes in her recent book Tibet on Fire, self-immolation requires little planning, can be executed on one’s own in an instant, and is thus virtually impossible to stop. At the same time, it conveys an unambiguous message of resistance. It is the most dramatic way of speaking out when everything else is silenced.
While the cult of stability makes any other forms of protest impossible in Tibet, the issues driving protest — religious oppression, the second-rate status of Tibetans, exploitation of the poor — haven’t gone away. The stamping-down of protest in the name of stability has created the string of self-immolations, a final defiance that no security measure can stop. This practice has now taken on deep cultural and religious significance as a form of self-sacrifice for a higher cause. And this development, perceived as yet another threat to stability, has in turn led to ever greater determination by the state to stamp out dissent once and for all through an anti-immolation crackdown.
Local officials are under huge pressure to stop any more self-immolators, but as devotees of the cult of stability, the only recourse they have in their toolbox is further oppression — precisely the original source of protestors’ grievances. Families of self-immolators, even entire villages, are collectively punished for self-immolations: Relatives are detained, the bodies of self-immolators are held by police, and the towns self-immolators come from are denied state funds.
Surveillance is intensified, and those who report acts of self-immolation to the outside world are prosecuted. State-sponsored religious authorities condemn self-immolation as a form of violence in violation of Buddhist teachings — rather than as part of a long and honorable tradition of self-sacrifice. Propaganda has gone into overdrive, either accusing self-immolators of mental instability or accusing the “Dalai clique” of masterminding these protests and paying their enactors. The state accuses manipulative and corrupt monks in exile in India or the supposedly broken minds of the protestors — foreclosing any consideration of the role the government’s own orthodoxies play in the current situation in Tibet.
In reality, the clampdown on protest since 2008 produced self-immolation as the only possible way to make one’s voice heard. In turn, the self-immolations have produced further clampdowns. And in response to this deteriorating situation, we see continued self-immolations. And so, eight years on, we face a grim milestone of 150 burnt bodies with no substantive change in the situation and no end in sight.
There was hope when Xi Jinping first took power in 2012 that there could be changes in Chinese policy toward Tibet. Yet Xi appears to be a true believer in the cult of stability: The crackdown on civil society that has emerged during his reign has only made the already quite restrictive political environment increasingly constricted. While China’s leaders are typically portrayed as pragmatists gradually measuring the costs and benefits of various policies, on matters of stability and Tibet policy they are true believers, drinking the Kool-Aid of failed methods as the ultimate solution.
When we talk about the historical relationship between China and Tibet, or about the present-day effects of Chinese policy in Tibet, there are bound to be differences of opinion. But when people are setting themselves on fire, one after another, there’s no longer any way to dodge the fact that something needs to change. As long as Chinese leaders remain dedicated to the cult of stability, though, it never will.
Photo credit: DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images