China has released a documentary accusing the Dalai Lama of orchestrating a wave of self-immolations by Tibetans, in its most elaborate attempt so far to shape international opinion about the protests against Chinese rule.
The documentary, shown globally by state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), features police surveillance footage of the fiery protests. Mostly lone Tibetans are seen ablaze on small town roads before being blasted by security forces with fire extinguishers or covered with blankets.
Tibetans interviewed describe contacting monks living in exile and sending them photographs of would-be protesters — evidence, the documentary says, of collusion. A narrator quotes comments supposedly made by the Dalai Lama in support of the self-immolations together with footage of Tibetans being treated in hospital for severe burns.
All told, the piece, titled The Dalai clique and self-immolation violent incidents, marks the government’s most extensive effort to cast blame on the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader for protests that have touched Tibetans emotionally and presented an image problem for Beijing.
At least 34 Buddhist monks, nuns and Tibetan laypeople have set themselves on fire in the past 14 months in what Tibetans see as an act of sacrifice to highlight China’s repressive policies on religion and culture.
A spokesman for the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, said he had not seen the documentary, but denied that the Dalai Lama or exiled Tibetans have been instigating the protests. Instead, he said, Beijing’s policies are causing the protests.
“When the government stops this oppression inside Tibet, the self-immolations will stop. That’s what we hope and believe will happen. But it’s in their hands,” said the spokesman, Tashi, who like many Tibetans uses one name.
The program also shows how the government plans to use the newly acquired global reach of its state-owned news media. CCTV, the national broadcaster, runs programming in at least half a dozen languages, claiming to reach 219 million households in 156 countries.
Reached by phone, CCTV officials said that the documentary was aired on the network’s English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Russian channels twice earlier this month as well as on CCTV-4, the international Chinese language station.
However, later — possibly because it was becoming apparent that the documentary’s content was drawing scrutiny — one of them said they were not sure where, when or if it aired. A version has been posted on YouTube.
“They want to kind of foist their message, a one-sided message, on the rest of the world,” said David Bandurski, a researcher with the Hong Kong-based China Media Project.
“If they want to be part of the conversation internationally and influence public opinion, they have to see themselves as part of a kind of dialogue, but they’re not really interested in that kind of dialogue,” Bandurski said.
Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan poet and activist, said she saw the documentary on CCTV-4 when it aired at 2:20am on May 7. She found it a disappointing elaboration on the hardline position the government has taken since it poured heavy security into Tibetan areas after a mass uprising against Chinese rule in 2008.
“I am saddened to realize by watching this film that there are no signs of self reflection coming from the authorities, and that they are still continuing with the vicious cycle of ignoring the signals of despair sent out repeatedly by Tibetans,” Woeser said.