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  • 11 Apr, 2022
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The Return & the Rise of Self-Immolations: China’s Failed Policies & Propaganda in Tibet


“Someone who was a poster boy of assimilating with the Chinese system took his life in this overtly political protest. This makes Norbu’s self-immolation even more powerful.”

                                               - An Article on the Self-Immolation of Tsewang Norbu for Vice


The year 2022 has been rocked by 3 reported self-immolations by Tibetans inside China Occupied Tibet, signaling a return to the self-immolations as a tool of protest. A man identified by Radio Free Asia as Tsering Samdup, set himself on fire near a monastery in Qinghai, making it the most recent case after the self-immolation by singer Tsewang Norbu and 81-year old Taphun.

As the world grapples with rising geopolitical rivalries and global unrest marred by the Russia-Ukraine crisis and economic recovery in a post-pandemic world, the rise of a revisionist China has been a cause of global concern, especially since 2020. Xi Jinping’s policies aimed at the rejuvenation of the Chinese Dream has led the Communist Party of China (CCP) to walk down a path that is characterized by a special interest in building a ‘homogenous identity’ for the citizens of China based on its atheist outlook and communist principles.

The fact that there is a gap of 3 years between the latest spate of self-immolations and the last one reported before it (it was reported in 2019) exposes the double whammy of Beijing’s policies in Tibet - the rising wave of brutal Sinicization tactics as the root cause of self-immolations and the propaganda and narrative building tools along with surveillance and information blockage tactics that China uses to curb the access to information on Tibet.

Tibetan Angst Against Xi’s Policies

Before he came to power as the President of People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2013, Xi Jinping spoke in Lhasa while marking 60 years of the communist takeover of Tibet. His statement that China “should thoroughly fight against separatist activities by the Dalai clique by firmly relying on all ethnic groups... and completely smash any plot to destroy stability in Tibet and jeopardise national unity" was telling of what was in store for Tibet in the years to come.

Over the years, especially under Xi Jinping, China has undertaken brutal tactics that are aimed at the Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism and building what Beijing claims to be a ‘modern, socialist and culturally advanced Tibet’. The end result of such tactics has been that Tibetans have been at the receiving end of gross human rights violations that are taking Tibetans’ culture, language, identity, traditions and religion.

As these gross human rights violations continue and in fact, keep rising with every day passing, it would not be an understatement to say that Tibetans are hurting. Any sort of free speech or expression is prohibited in Occupied Tibet, Tibetans cannot hold a peaceful protest, you will land in jail for hanging a picture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, you will ‘vanish’ if you share any incriminating post against China or its actions in Tibet and your children will be sent to special Chinese Boarding Schools that will make sure that they learn Chinese language, sing Chinese nationalistic songs and take part in brutal military drills under the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at a tender age of 6. And not to forget, Tibetan nomads are being displaced for illegal mining purposes and the Tibetan Plateau’s precious water tower is being overtaken by Beijing in a hegemonic manner. And lastly, Xi securitizing Tibet by deploying heavy military and bringing into effect new Border Laws, is putting the final nail in the coffin for Tibetans.

As the angst grows at such haranguing, Tibetans are yet again turning to self-immolations as a tool of protest. What is more painful to realize is the fact that China blames His Holiness the Dalai Lama for them in what only reveals his anxiety and desperation to control Tibet. It further reveals the ‘absolute angst’ that the Tibetans feel while maintaining their resilience in the face of such brutal treatment by the Chinese.

But, every human has a breaking point. For Tibetans, it is self-immolation. Xi’s policies have pushed certain Tibetans to such a point that they feel that there is no other option left but self-immolation. Horrifying as it is to imagine, it would certainly be a crime if we blame Tibetans for taking it up. The only blame that should lie is on China and Xi Jinping.

While Beijing harps on the poverty alleviation programs that it has undertaken in Tibet and claims to have ‘liberated’ Tibet, the sudden return and the rise in self-immolations only tells one truth - that Xi’s policies have failed the Tibetans. The only motive of such policies by China is to build a ‘homogenous identity’ amongst its people, even if it comes at the cost of a ‘cultural genocide’ in Tibet.

If one were to look closely at the three reported self-immolations in 2022 - a well-known Tibetan singer who had assimilated the Chinese system, a well-educated man, and an 81-year old - it would be safe to say that something harrowing must be happening in Tibet for people like them to undertake such drastic measures to protest. Oh, the fact that they are not allowed to protest is the starting point of the massive problem in Tibet, thus pointing to the root cause - the failure of China and Xi’s policies in Tibet.

Manufacturing Narratives

Controlling the outflow from and inflow of information to China has been one of the top priorities of Beijing under Xi Jinping. In 2020, the US Department of Defense (DoD) submitted a report to the Congress titled ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China’. Identifying Chinese influence and information warfare under it, the report stated that “the CCP seeks to condition domestic, foreign and multilateral political establishments and public opinion to accept Beijing’s narratives”.

Such tactics hold special relevance when it comes to China and its occupation of Tibet. In fact, Tibet can be identified as the origin story of PRC’s influence and information warfare tactics - post Tibet’s invasion by PRC in 1959, Beijing has been doing everything it can to control the narratives around Tibet. And Beijing has undertaken a two-pronged approach to pursue this in the case of self-immolations - attack HH and shift the blame; control information outflow and inflow; and disguise Sinicization plans as development programs.

Firstly, Beijing has attacked the very institution of His Holiness the Dalai Lama by branding him as a ‘splittist’ and ‘separatist’ since his escape from Lhasa in 1959 in a bid to shift and escape the blame for the self-immolations by Tibetans. While he continues to seek dialogue with the Chinese through the ‘Middle Way Approach’, Beijing has continued to tarnish HH’s image - so much so that China identifies His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the key motivator for self-immolations, a man highly revered for his teachings on non-violence and peace across the world. While a case can be made against self-immolations for being ‘violent’, blaming it on either HH or the Tibetans will only lead to the world absolving China and Xi Jinping of their crimes against humanity in Tibet.

Secondly, China has undertaken online influence and information operations aimed at controlling the narratives around self-immolations. This can be evidenced from the fact that it deleted hundreds of posts on Tsewang Norbu, the Tibetan singer who self-immolated recently. Additionally, China has gone ahead and time and again stated that those undertaking self-immolations are ‘mentally ill’ people, especially since 2012 when Xi Jinping was set to overtake as the President of PRC. Simultaneously, China’s heavy surveillance and information blockage tactics in Tibet makes sure that no information about any such happenings and Beijing’s policies comes out in the open.

Curiously, there is also evidence of Beijing undertaking ‘offensive cyber operations’ against pro-Tibet groups and individuals across the world, especially the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and the Tibetan diaspora with the capability to steal their personal information.

Lastly, in the context of Tibet, one has to understand that China’s policies are aimed at what China claims to be the ‘unification of China’ with a ‘homogenous identity’ for its citizens, eventually leading to ‘national rejuvenation’. Every tactic it undertakes to control and manufacture the narratives, not just around Tibet, but also Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc., also focus on highlighting the positives of Beijing’s policies in these regions. From its so-called poverty alleviation programs to tackling climate change to securitisation, the only thing that China is implementing in Tibet is actually its policy of ‘Sinicization’.  One look at the Chinese state-controlled media outlets and state-backed social media handles is enough to reveal this reality to any layman. Their aim, one might ask? Deceive and distract the domestic and foreign audience from the real issues that plague Tibet.

As China under Xi Jinping continues to sell itself as a ‘superpower’, one must not forget the resilience and sacrifice of Tibetans in their peaceful fight against Beijing. A telling tale of this is the title of a 2017 essay by Kevin Carrico for the Foreign Policy magazine - The Cult of Stability Is Killing Tibetans.

(Tenzin Samphel is currently serving as a Consultant with Tibet Rights Collective)