As Tibetans Burn Themselves to Protest Chinese Rule, Communists in Beijing Stress Happiness in Tibet

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Action Press / ZUMA PRESS

Hundreds of monks and Tibetan exiles hold a vigil in Dharamsala, India, Oct. 26, 2012.

On Nov. 9, thousands of Tibetan students gathered in the historic monastery town of Rebkong to protest Chinese rule over the restive Tibetan plateau, where nearly 70 Tibetans have lighted themselves on fire since March 2011 in gruesome displays of desperation. Two days before, five Tibetans had self-immolated in three different parts of the high plateau, among them three teenage monks and one young mother from Rebkong (known as Tongren in Chinese). Two other Tibetans burned themselves in Rebkong this week, according to overseas Tibetan groups.

Separately, in Xining, the provincial capital of China’s western Qinghai province, where many Tibetans live, hundreds of Tibetan students joined together on the evening of Nov. 9 for a candlelight vigil to honor the protesters who, as flames engulfed their bodies, invariably shouted for an end to Chinese repression and the return of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader who fled into exile in India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule more than five decades ago.

(PHOTOS: Tibetans Protest Hu Jintao in India)

The same day, on the edge of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Communist Party delegates gathered to discuss the situation in Tibet. The afternoon meeting was part of the 18th Party Congress, a once-in-five-years communist leadership confab that began on Nov. 8, a day after the record five self-immolations took place. (A sixth fiery protest occurred on the Thursday the Party Congress first convened.) The site of the Tibetan-delegation meeting was a room in the Great Hall of the People, adorned with brightly hued murals of Tibetans happily harvesting barley, frolicking in green fields under a rainbow and even sitting astride a horse while wearing a People’s Liberation Army uniform. The room was signposted in misspelled English as the “Tiebet Room.”

In filed a line of men in dark suits, some of Tibetan ethnicity but many others from China’s Han ethnic majority. (A Tibetan has never filled the top Communist Party leadership post in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.) A handful of women in traditional Tibetan dress, resplendent with coral and turquoise jewelry and geometrically patterned long skirts, sat down and proceeded to utter not a single word for the entire 90-minute session. Instead, they occupied their time taking pictures of one another, slowly writing notes while the senior cadres droned on or, in the case of one elderly female delegate, nodding off when the flood of socialist verbiage became too soporific to resist. Two broad-shouldered Tibetans wore the cowboy hats associated with the Khampas, the eastern Tibetans who most fiercely resisted the People’s Liberation Army troops when the Chinese marched in and declared Tibetan regions part of the new People’s Republic. Chinese television crews crowded around them, and sure enough the Tibetan delegates showed up on state television that evening as examples of the ethnically harmonious spirit of the communist brotherhood.

The meeting began with an extensive paean to the keynote work report that China’s outgoing leader Hu Jintao had given the day before at the 18th Party Congress, a 100-minute treatise in which he outlined the accomplishments of his decade in power. We were regaled with just how perfectly Hu’s concept of “scientific development” suited the needs of Tibet. (Scientific development appears to be a theory in which a scientific and pragmatic approach to governance will lead to a sustainable and harmonious society, hardly the most groundbreaking of political ideologies.) Delegates at the Tibet meeting referred to one another as “comrade.” Not a word of Tibetan was spoken, only Mandarin, the Chinese dialect that is referred to in mainland China as “the common language.”

(MORE: As Tibetans Mark ‘National Uprising Day,’ Tensions Simmer on the High Plateau)

Those of us in the foreign press corps, who were watching the proceedings from a roped-off area, received our history lesson. “The last 10 years was the period when the people in Tibet have gained the most benefits,” we were told by Padma Choling, the chairman of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The accomplishments of the communist government in Tibet were examined in voluminous detail. Airports have been built, schooling made free. Complimentary medical checks are being offered for monks and nuns, who can now watch the state-run news on televisions powered by new power lines. Kilometers upon kilometers of new roads have unfurled across the Tibetan moonscape.

The government has built greenhouses, shower facilities and garbage dumps for thousands of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries or nunneries with more than 20 clerics. Government health officials have given crucial information to nuns about how women’s bodies work. All Tibetan farmers and herders will be gifted “safe new houses” by 2013, according to Padma Choling. The urban unemployment rate is only 2.69% in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, reported a Han official in charge of the local Organization Department.

Tibetan capital Lhasa, we were instructed, has been voted the happiest city in China four times in a five-year period. “Happiness is dynamic, happiness needs to be experienced,” said Che Dalha, the Communist Party secretary for Lhasa. “Today’s Lhasa is just like what they sing in the song: The sky in Lhasa is the most blue/ The clouds in Lhasa are the most white/ The water in Lhasa is the clearest/ The air in Lhasa is the freshest/ The sunshine in Lhasa is the brightest/ And the people in Lhasa are the happiest.”

(PHOTOS: Funeral of an Exiled Tibetan Activist)

The word happy was a mantra during the meeting, perhaps only rivaled in usage by Hu’s concept of scientific development. (Conveniently, scientific development is what helps make Tibetans feel particularly happy.) Nowhere was it mentioned that many Tibetans feel as though they have not profited equally from the region’s economic expansion, as an influx of Han migrants flood the region and snap up some of the best jobs. No cadre at the Great Hall of the People admitted that many of the new roads are designed to truck out Tibet’s bountiful and largely untapped natural resources.

Even as the new greenhouses and showers in monasteries were hailed, no one talked about the culture of fear that exists in Tibetan Buddhist institutions, where spies ferret out anti-Chinese sentiment or catch people illegally worshipping the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese government considers an enemy of the state. Tibetan education in local schools has declined dramatically over the past five years, and monks are being forced to imbibe socialist propaganda because they are also, as Losang Gyaltsen, vice chairman of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, noted, “grassroots citizens” who are part of “Tibetan Buddhism adapted to socialist society.”

The assembled journalists were told by Padma Choling that we were “warmly welcomed to go visit Tibet, to feel the development and changes in Tibet.” Barely stifled giggles erupted in the press gallery. Practically no foreign journalists have been given official permission to visit Tibet since the months following a 2008 eruption of chaos when some Han and even more Tibetans were killed in internecine riots and the violently suppressed Tibetan protests that followed.

(MORE: Tibet’s Next Incarnation)

It wasn’t until the question-and-answer period — in which delegates gamely took a few questions from the foreign media, as well as softball queries from members of the Chinese state press — that the self-immolations even came up. Losang Gyaltsen read his answer from a sheaf of paper, a signal that he was expecting the issue to come up, even if it didn’t merit any mention during the working group’s official meeting.

“We think the reasons for the self-immolation incidents are varied. Some of the cases were caused by personal reasons. But we also see that some of the self-immolation cases were incited and planned by separatist groups abroad. The overseas Tibetan separatist forces hype all these incidents. They call these heroic acts and they consider the people who set themselves on fire heroes. They extremely beautify and incite such extreme behavior. As we all know, in the laws of a lot of countries, instigating and inducing others to commit suicide is a crime itself. In the laws of China, this is criminal behavior … But the overseas Tibetan separatist forces and the Dalai clique sacrifice other people’s lives to reach their ulterior political motives.”

Che Dalha, Communist Party secretary for Lhasa, added his take:

“Lhasa is a city of happiness. We won’t allow anybody to make trouble in it, to set themselves on fire. But indeed, supported by overseas forces and for other reasons, we are facing people who came from other areas and have tried to set themselves on fire in Lhasa. As of last year, everybody who enters Tibet needs to bring their IDs. We moved our checkpoints outside of Lhasa city to prevent people from going to the city to self-immolate … I read in the papers that in the West, in the U.S. and Japan, there are a lot of people who set themselves on fire or commit suicide. There are a lot of people who have fatally shot themselves with a gun, jumped in a river, self-immolated or hanged themselves. Only a few cases have happened in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. So some of the media have ulterior motives. It’s not necessary to spread propaganda.”

The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, based in the Indian hill station of Dharamsala, have said repeatedly that they are not orchestrating the self-immolations, 56 of which have occurred this year. It is true that the bulk of these burning protests have not occurred in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, which is a far smaller entity than the cultural sphere of Tibetan influence across western China. Significant populations of Tibetans live in Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu provinces. The self-immolations have occurred mostly in Sichuan’s Kham foothills but are now increasingly flaring in the high plains of Gansu and Qinghai. Only eight self-immolations have occurred in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Although earlier protests were carried out by monks, nuns and former clerics, recent burnings have proliferated among laypeople — a disturbing sign of radicalization among Tibetans.

Such distinctions and trends, however, weren’t analyzed in the Great Hall of the People’s Tiebet Room. Instead, the language was both stern and hopeful, as in Padma Choling’s words:

“Over the last 10 years, we have always persisted in ‘stability overrides all thought.’ We have put stability as our first task, as the first responsibility of the government. The key point of stability is to improve people’s lives, so we have implemented a series of measures and policies for the people. We can say that currently Tibet is implementing stabilization and is on the way to long-term stability. We are determined, and we have confidence to build Tibet into a better place. In a word, right now the social system in Tibet has achieved a historical leap; economic development has achieved a historical result; social undertakings have achieved historical progress; people’s lives have achieved a historical improvement and all [ethnic] nationalities in Tibet have achieved historical unity.”

After 90 minutes, the media were ushered out of the Tibet-delegation meeting room. Outside, on Tiananmen Square, firefighters in bright orange-red uniforms stood like stern-faced pillars. Each was armed with a fire extinguisher. Near them, a loop of propaganda played on a giant screen, showcasing happy citizens of various ethnicities glorifying the People’s Republic of China.

With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing