Tibet beyond fear

I did this presentation in Political Anthropology class on October 18th. Based on the readings of that week and my personal experience in Tibetan region, I came up with the idea of this presentation. Have a look, see if you like it…

This is Kirti Monastery, where many monks and nuns set themselves on fire.

When I first arrived in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, in the summer of 2011 the one thing that struck me the most was not the breathtaking landscape or exotic cultural elements. I saw groups of armed police marching on the street. The rules were strange. People were not allowed to pull out cellphones on the main square of the city, because photographing the police is against the law. Sitting on the ground was prohibited, because if a photo of people sitting on the ground were to spread on the internet, the officials would have no control over the narratives, and they fear that people would interpret it as protests. Putting bags on the ground in public was not allowed either, and my tour guide’s explanation was, “What if it’s a bomb?”  Strange place, Tibetans are subject to random identification checks, arrests and surveillance, because of “stability” concerns in the region. The situation in Tibet is a contemporary example of power structure sustained by violence and terror.

Chinese communist government spends a lot of time euphemizing their triumph in “modernizing” and “opening up” Tibet. There are army officials stationed in every Tibetan Buddhist temple, an armed police base in every Tibetan county, and a Handominated local government with the top positions filled by Han Communist Party members [i].  The apparent inconsistency of the constituents and the representation in the government signals heavy political inequality between Tibetan locals and ethnic Han Chinese even without the need to examine of the reality in the region. Yet, in the official mouthpiece of the region’s communist government, Tibet Daily, language is carefully crafted in a pro-communist and pro-government way to show the rest of China how peaceful Tibet is.

In order to further report on changes in the new Tibet and enhance different ethnic groups’ recognition of the great motherland China, Chinese ethnicity, Chinese culture and Chinese Socialist roadmap, …, the Daily will start this special column, New Tibet Old Tibet Discover the Huge Changes, that realistically reflect the groundbreaking accomplishments after the peaceful liberation of Tibet

Here is a paragraph in the paper. In the main article the paper highly praises the economic development made possible by the Party and the People’s Liberation Army. Then, the paper concludes that, with the economic advances, people are now living in a well off Tibet with both religious and economic freedom as opposed to the “old Tibet” that perpetuated feudalism and slavery. In other articles, the paper almost always emphasizes the role of a strong regional government to safeguard social and religious stability and peace, which, in reality, means armed police patrolling the street and arresting Tibetans who act suspiciously.

By examining this public transcript composed of the aforementioned characteristics, we can argue that the use of euphemism of oppression and terror is a product of the forged common culture that is very similar to Michael Taussig’s notion of “colonial hegemony.” The Chinese government’s presence as the governing body in the minority group is justified by a common Chinese identity. A power relation is supported by a “debt-peonage system” in economic sense. Their means to create hegemony is also achieved by accusing the bad subjects of being unnationalistic which is punishable by law. After all these years of “modernizing and opening up” Tibet, the Chinese government managed to create truths based on their narratives and institutionalize a culture of fear.

The culture forged by Chinese government results in two types of reaction from the public in Tibet. When I was in Ngaba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture earlier in 2012, I had a chance to talk to several Tibetan youths who received scholarships from the government to study in a nearby Chinese metropolitan. Choumo, 23, told me that the region had been very peaceful and different from what foreign media portrayed it to be. On the other hand, 54 Tibetans have self-immolated in Tibetan region since early 2009, according to International Campaign for Tibet, a non-profit Tibetan rights group based in the United States. Thirty of those 54 incidents happened at Kirti Monastery in Choume’s prefecture.

Clearly subjects of an assimilation project through education internalize and portray the image of a politically correct and progressive citizens expected by the government. This is very similar to Diana Taylor’s “good” women. Yet, the public performance of protest through self-immolation could be seen as a parallel of “Mothers of the Plaza Mayo” but in a more extreme form. The basic purpose is the same – “only by being visible could they be politically effective” (Taylor, p.99 – 100). Tibetan self-immolators evoked international attention to the human rights situation in the region. Had they stayed quiet and submissive to the hypocritical government, the message of an abused Tibet would be merely visible on an international stage due to close governmental control. After the mass demonstration in 2008, armed police patrol and identification checkpoints enabled the government to keep a headcount of every single Tibetan’s activity, making mass protest almost impossible to happen again. Self-immolation gradually became a new way to protest, as it does not require much coordination between participants, but is highly visible at the same time.

The performance of protest in this case is very symbolic. Resembling the women of Plaza Mayo using the images of Mothers to legitimizing their protest, Tibetan self-immolators borrowed many Tibetan Buddhist elements (Taylor, p.102). Women in Taylor’s text played their maternal role in pursuit of an answer to the whereabouts of their missing children. Self-immolators in Tibet called for religious freedom as Buddhists. Every self-immolator chanted for free Tibet and the return of the exiled spiritual leader, Dalai Lama, while they set themselves on fire. Most of these Tibetans were dressing in monk or nun clothes, and incidents mostly took place in monasteries. In Buddhism, suicide is unacceptable because it only leads to more pain. The message being made here is that their lives are meaningless as they cannot be good Buddhists under the pretentious religious freedom the Chinese government advocates for. The self-immolators’ actions, to an extent, are a mockery of government’s brutal oppression[ii]. Peaceful protests are signs of separatist activities punishable by law. Practicing religion is hindered by the fact that the spiritual leader is in exile and vilified by media. Huge immigration of Han Chinese to Tibet takes over the economy and creates tension between the two ethnicities. The only thing left for marginalized Tibetan Buddhists to do is to commit suicide and send out a message of desperation in response to government’s claim that Tibetans are living happily and freely.

To conclude, the delicate situation in Tibet highlights the oppressing ruling regime’s use of terror and the majority’s fear that even suicidal protests can hardly lead to a slight change. However, the performance of self-immolators provides a valuable case study to understand grassroots movements and their messages in an environment of fear and terror.


[i] Han is the dominant ethnicity in China.

[ii] Thousands of Tibetans died of hunger during occupation; after that, Chinese government started assimilate Tibet into mainstream Chinese society by educating kids Mandarin and Chinese history instead of Tibetan language and history.

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