Tibetan immolation carries incendiary message
By Francesco Sisci, BEIJING – What is greater proof of injustice, of being wronged, and of sitting on the right side of history than sacrificing just your own life for your beliefs without damaging anybody else? And the government, the officials who see people killing themselves, don’t they prove themselves callous, cruel, and wicked?
The 40-some individuals who burned themselves alive in Tibet in recent months are a staggering example of this. The flames sizzling their flesh show that the administration is wrong to stand aloof without addressing their cause.
It is a strong, powerful, human account that makes the Tibet issue a story of people against other people, oppressed against oppressors, and a tale we can relate to because we have all felt oppressed at times.
According to cynical realists, this spin doesn’t address the bigger issues beyond the human drama. There is the political position of Tibet within China, which is hinted at through the flames of suicide; but this can’t be challenged without arousing even bigger problems, which could cause even more deaths.
The issue of the secession of Tibet in any form or shape would in fact cause an immediate, irate reaction from Beijing and many common Chinese folks. Yet as the scorched body count increases, it becomes more difficult to simply put the issue to rest, especially coming from a Western tradition.
The recent book Escape From North Korea by Melanie Kirkpatrick underscores this point by talking about a somewhat related issue: the flight of North Koreans from their country through China. She beautifully retells the harrowing accounts of many fugitives who ran for their lives, risked everything, managed to reach America, and now feel free. She explains to an American public that this is a new Asian underground railroad, just like the one that in the first half of the 19th century helped so many slaves escape their chains in the American South and reach Canada.
The comparison is stark and compelling as the author puts side by side the accounts of those who bolted North Korea and those who fled slavery in Alabama or Georgia. Of course, North Korea now is not like Alabama or Georgia 150 years ago, but the memory of those slaves bring us nearer to the North Koreans’ present plight.
Here, there is an important historical lesson to learn, which is the untold undercurrent of Kirkpatrick’s book. The human suffering of the African-Americans in the South was the main ideological force mobilizing public opinion then and now to support the cause of the Union against the Southern states that were trying to secede.
Historians tell us that the ensuing war had little to do with slavery and more with different models of production – massive industry in the North and extensive agriculture in the South. The fight against slavery was an ideal but not a very practical political goal for many Northern politicians who had contributed to starting the war. When the North was losing battles against the South, President Lincoln tried to enlist Italian revolutionary Garibaldi to lead the Northern troops. Garibaldi asked as a condition the immediate abolishment of slavery, something Lincoln could not grant, as he was still hoping to regain some support in the South.
Every leader in fact is fully aware that real politics is miles away from the ideals moving mean and women to support him. This is true to the extent that overly idealistic politicians sometimes prove bad leaders as they fail to adapt to different circumstances. However, politicians are moved and move people on the basis of ideas and ideals, which relate to human conditions and people’s suffering. Presently real-politick Chinese leaders are very clear about that: their forefathers took power in China because they managed to stir people’s emotions through communist ideals. Yet ideas walk on full or empty stomachs, on real conditions. Here different histories fork apart.
Nineteenth-century slaves were running from slavery – that is, basic uncertainty about one’s life. North Koreans leaving their country may seek freedom, but certainly they need even better living conditions. They want to escape stark poverty, a diet of rice and millet without protein. They want better food, better clothes, and heated houses.
The Tibetans torching themselves are different.
These people may not be free like in America, but certainly they are freer than an old Alabama slave in a cotton field. They may not own fancy houses, but are not starving. They have decent clothes, and decent roofs for shelter. Also, in many ways, they do not want a better life. If it were that, they could cross over to Nepal or India, which is not an impossible route from Tibet.
The ones who killed themselves wanted something different, which is denied by the government. It may be greater religious freedom, as many proclaimed their desire to worship the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled religious leader. It may be Tibet’s independence, as others waved the Tibetan flag before starting the fire. For them the value of their ideas outweighs any material advantage Beijing may give them.
Moreover, evidently Beijing has not managed to make these people feel a sense of being part of the contemporary idea of China. In fact, these Tibetans rebel against Beijing’s orders not to worship the Dalai Lama, or not to want independence.
Shortly after the Chinese takeover of Tibet, Beijing managed to win over many Tibetans by breaking the old feudal society and supporting the poor strata against richer aristocrats. During the Cultural Revolution it was Tibetan Red Guards, former serfs, who attacked the Lamas who belonged to the aristocracy. China, divided by class struggle, found in the unity of class a bond linking (falsely or not, it is a separate issue) different ethnic groups.
However, this legacy has now been lost as it has become clear that no idea of class struggle can give common Tibetans a new sense of identity. They feel not very “Chinese” (zhongguoren), as “China” (zhongguo) de facto belongs to the Han, the ethnicity making up over 95% of China’s population. Thus they can find their roots, their identity in the beliefs and practices of the old Tibetan aristocracy, whom many fought 40 years ago.
This means the suicides are not isolated instances. As their considerable number indicates, many common Tibetans seem to be sympathetic to the cause, and certainly the growing controls in Tibet are pushing more common people to feel for these modern martyrs. It is unclear whether Beijing is actually losing the battle of ideas in Tibet (Beijing offers a better life and modest religious freedom, but vetoes Dalai Lama worship and requests for independence or greater autonomy), but certainly the suicides are a serious setback. Simple prevention and crackdown do not work.
A decade ago, even the Falun Gong, boasting up to 100 million followers, threatened waves of suicides to humiliate the government. In that case, a few attempts in 2001 in Tiananmen Square irked most of the Chinese population, with little or no sympathy for religious suicides. This plus a tough crackdown basically eliminated all the protests in a few months. It is difficult to apply the same strategy to Tibetans, where religious fervor can be embedded in pro-independence sentiments. Plus, Lamaism has far deeper roots than Falun Gong, both in the general population and in the lives of Tibetans who make religion part of their individual identities.
Then, China may have many difficulties finding a quick solution to the wave of suicides. The situation is not desperate for Beijing. Many Han Chinese are converting to Lamaism, making them sympathetic to the plight of the Tibetans who are seeking greater religious freedom; but many Han are also averse to the idea of an independent Tibet that would leave “their” China.
At the same time, many “Chinese” Tibetans are developing different tastes and ambitions than their brethren in India’s Dharamsala, the largest Tibetan community outside of Tibet. These elements are creating new, deeper bonds between Tibetans and Chinese. This plus the development of transportation and telecommunications, ending hundreds of years of physical isolation for Tibet, is integrating the Himalayan region into China to a degree never seen before in Tibetan history. It is difficult for a few suicides to reverse this complicated trend, which is incorporating six million Tibetans to the body of some 1.4 billion Chinese.
But the suicides seem to indicate something else. If the Chinese Tibetans do not find a powerful way to connect their past and their identity to that of the rest of China, if their culture and religion are not strongly preserved within China and don’t truly become part of the national identity, not simply an exotic embellishment, China (not just the country of the Han people) could lose part of its heritage and identity – and be weaker in a world where it will increasingly have a greater say.
Certainly, it is difficult for all countries to confront minority issues. In America, until a few decades ago, the official culture celebrated as a heroic act what amounted to the extermination of the native population of Indians. Britain took centuries to solve the issue of Ireland. But different times have different standards. Then de facto nobody paid too much attention.
Unfortunately for China, Beijing faces old difficult problems with shorter time and less international tolerance. However, it was these new times that allowed China to grow so quickly and thus change the global political landscape. If China were still a very poor populous country, possibly few would notice these suicides. Then the necessity to confront the complex issues behind the wave of protest is the price of China’s fast development. Then a good solution to this could help also its development, vice versa it would hinder it.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be reached at email@example.com