In a gruesome act of resistance that has played out dozens of times in recent months, six young Tibetans set fire to themselves last week, shouting demands for freedom as they were consumed by flames. On Friday, for the second day in a row, exile groups say thousands of Tibetans took to the streets in the northwestern Chinese province of Qinghai decrying “cultural genocide” and demanding an end to heavy-handed police tactics.
In the nation’s capital, where Chinese Communist Party power brokers are presenting a new generation of leaders, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) made no mention of the anger consuming China’s discontented borderlands during his sprawling address to the nation.
Asked by foreign reporters about the escalating crisis, party congress delegates blamed the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader, or inelegantly dodged the question altogether.
“Can I not answer that?” one asked nervously.
However, while Tibetan rights advocates have long been inured to impassive officials, they are increasingly troubled by the deafening silence among Chinese intellectuals and the liberal online commentariat, a group usually eager to call out injustice despite the perils of bucking China’s authoritarian strictures.
On Twitter, where China’s most voluble critics find refuge from government censors, the topic is often buried by posts about persecuted dissidents, corrupt officials, illegal land grabs or other scandals of the day. Since the self-immolations began in earnest last year, few Chinese academics have attempted to grapple with the subject.
“The apathy is appalling,” said Zhang Boshu, a political philosopher who lost his job at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences three years ago for criticizing the government’s human rights record.
With a mounting toll of 69 self-immolations, at least 56 of them fatal, many Tibetans are asking themselves why their Han Chinese brethren seem unmoved by the suffering — or are at least uninterested in exploring why so many people have embraced such a horrifying means of protest.
The silence, some say, is exposing an uncomfortable gulf between Tibetans and China’s Han majority, despite decades of propaganda that seeks to portray the nation as a harmonious family comprising 56 contented minorities.
“It’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about,” said Wang Lixiong (王力雄), a prominent Tibetologist and social theorist whose writings have drawn the unwelcome attention of public security personnel, including a contingent of police officers who kept him sequestered inside his Beijing apartment last week as the 18th Party Congress got under way.
Wang and others say a subtle undercurrent of antipathy toward Tibetans suffuses the worldview of educated Chinese. That sentiment, they say, has been nurtured by official propaganda that paints Tibetans as rebellious, uncultured and unappreciative of government efforts to raise their standard of living.
One prominent filmmaker, speaking more candidly than usual, but only under the condition of anonymity, said that many Chinese are alternately fascinated and repulsed by Tibetans.
“We Han love their exotic singing and dancing, but we also see them as barbarians seeking to split the nation apart,” he said.
Whether it be antipathy or apathy, many Chinese have been unconsciously swayed by government propaganda that describes the self-immolators as “terrorists” even as unrelenting censorship blocks any public airing of their grievances, which include complaints about restrictions on Tibetan Buddhism and educational policies that, in some areas, favor Mandarin over Tibetan.