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.
“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.
“People kill themselves, they set fire to themselves, they shoot themselves every day,” he said. “I think some media organizations are trying to sensationalize the very few cases of self-immolation that have happened in Tibetan areas because they have ulterior motives.”