The New York Times recently carried a report with the headline “Many Chinese intellectuals are silent amid a wave of Tibetan self-immolations.” The report was depressing, and conjured up images of things I had seen when traveling between Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou in the northern part of China’s Sichuan Province.
One of the people we met there was a young Tibetan woman whose job it was to sweep the trails in the Huanglong scenic area. She greeted us in a friendly way, but when asked whether she had heard about young Tibetans setting themselves on fire, she just nodded sadly.
What could have happened on this plateau so far from the bustle of the big city to make devoutly Buddhist Tibetans resort to agonizing self-immolation to make their voices heard?
The New York Times report quotes the views of two Beijing-based Tibet experts, who identify three reasons for Chinese intellectuals’ indifference to Tibetan self-immolations.
The first is that Chinese intellectuals do not like the way in which, as they see it, Tibetan people are ungrateful for all that the Chinese government has done to improve their living standards and are only interested in rebelling.
The next reason is that Chinese intellectuals accept their government’s account that Tibet has been China’s territory since ancient times and that China’s sovereignty is indivisible.
Finally, the experts say, China’s majority Han people have always seen Tibetans as a different ethnic group and have the attitude that “whoever is not of our kind is sure to have a different mind.”
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has since its foundation considered the quest for minority ethnic groups’ liberation as one of its missions, but in light of what the party has done in Tibet and Xinjiang, its actions do not live up to its words.
It is often said that the best way to convince others is to lead by example. The legend about how Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮), a renowned strategist of the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, defeated and captured the rebel leader Meng Huo (孟獲) highlights this.
Newly elected CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) has recently been making high-profile remarks about how the country should advance toward “a great renewal of the Chinese nation.” Adopting more open and enlightened policies toward ethnic minorities, including Tibetans, would be in keeping with traditional Chinese culture and would be a good way to go about reviving the Chinese nation.
Japan ruled Taiwan for 50 years from 1895 to 1945. It helped Taiwan modernize to some extent, but always discriminated against Taiwanese in politics and culture. Considering this historical background, we Taiwanese should be capable of empathizing with the Tibetans in their current situation. We should take the lead among overseas Chinese people voicing concern and support for Tibetans. We are also well placed to soothe the emotional relations between the Han and Tibetan peoples.
At least 92 Tibetans have set themselves on fire so far in the current wave of protests, attracting widespread attention from around the world. The US has urged China to re-examine policies that may threaten Tibet’s culture and religious identity.
The struggle for rights is a long and slow process. Xi’s remark that “to forge iron, one must be strong,” is a worthy reference point for Tibetans. Life is precious. If Tibetans’ self-immolations aim to achieve certain goals, then once those have been reached they should stop. The tragic suffering and deaths should not be allowed to continue.
Yang Shin-nan is professor emeritus of physics at National Taiwan University and a member of the Green-Water Society.
Translated by Julian Clegg