“I think the authorities have deliberately created a barrier between the two cultures,” said Hu Yong (胡泳), a professor at Peking University’s School of Journalism and Communication.
Hu said such attitudes were reinforced by China’s army of Tibet specialists, nearly all of whom are employed by government-affiliated institutions and who faithfully parrot the party’s official narrative on Tibetan history and politics.
Rigorous censorship has ensured that news about the protests rarely makes it onto the Internet, let alone into the mainstream news media. The Chinese media has only reported on a handful of the self-immolations, and people who transmit news from Tibetan areas face harsh punishment.
The fear can be paralyzing for many Chinese intellectuals.
“No one wants to be accused of being a separatist,” Zhang said.
However, neither fear nor censorship fully explains the silence of Chinese liberals, most of whom are adept at skirting the great firewall and many of whom regularly step across imaginary red lines to lambast the Chinese Communist Party.
Tsering Woeser, a blogger of mixed Tibetan and Han ancestry, said many Chinese see Tibetans as the “other;” she said even friends have been known to cite a well-known Chinese proverb to explain their indifference to Tibetan grievances: “If you are not of my ethnicity, you cannot share my heart.”
Woeser said that even her most open-minded friends are confounded by Tibetans, with their fierce religious devotion, their demands for greater autonomy and their aching for the return of the Dalai Lama, who Beijing regularly dismisses as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Chinese intellectuals, she added, see Tibet as a forbidding, restive land, but also inseparable from China.
“The Han are obsessed with issues of sovereignty,” said Woeser, who is married to Wang, the critic barred from leaving his home. “They want to claim Tibet as part of China, but they are not terribly concerned with the Tibetan people or their culture.”
Even if the self-immolations are confined to a region thousands of kilometers away, Beijing officials were taking no chances as party elders gathered for the once-a-decade change in leadership. During the opening day of the party congress on Thursday last week, several security guards inside the Great Hall of the People held fire extinguishers between their knees as they sat in the back row of the auditorium.
Outside on Tiananmen Square, firefighters stood at attention with fire extinguishers at their feet, even if the vast granite-clad plaza was devoid of anything flammable. A New York Times photographer who snapped pictures of the firefighters was confronted by the police, who forced her to delete the images.
At a session held on Friday by delegates from the Tibet Autonomous Region, Liang Tiangeng (梁田庚), a top party official, dismissed a foreign reporter’s question about whether the government had plans to address the self-immolations. After extolling the happiness of the Tibetan people, he said that even developed and democratic nations were plagued by suicides.