By Tenzin Palkyi and Louisa Greve
The recent wave of self-immolations has marked a radical and tragic turn in Tibet‘s freedom struggle, with 95 Tibetans setting themselves on fire since February 2009, 81 of them confirmed dead. The Tibetan diaspora across more than ten countries marked this year’s International Human Rights Day on December 10th with large rallies calling for immediate international action to address the crisis.
Xu Zhiyong, a prominent Han Chinese lawyer and human rights advocate (left), stepped forward with a commentary in the New York Times (Tibet is Burning) that would be censored in China. Xu’s courageous choice to speak up will only intensify the police harassment he has been experiencing on a regular basis for his pro-democracy activities and his role in many of China’s groundbreaking cases and research, including a report on 2008 protests across the Tibetan plateau.
Xu recounts his failed effort to meet the parents of Nangdrol, a Tibetan self-immolator. He encounters many Tibetans who seem wary of his presence in their neighborhood and are reluctant to give him directions to Nangdrol’s parents’ home. These incidents illustrate the enormous mistrust between Tibetans and Han Chinese. Xu finally makes it to the right village only to learn that Nangdrol’s parents had moved away.
“I am sorry we Han Chinese have been silent as Nangdrol and his fellow Tibetans are dying for freedom,” Xu writes.
Many Tibetans are tremendously encouraged by Xu’s public efforts, at great risk to himself, to pay respect to one of the self-immolators, and to speak out on a sensitive issue that all too many Hans fail even to acknowledge. Very few have dared broach the sensitive subject of Tibetan self-immolations, which the Chinese government characterizes as crimes secretly directed by external anti-China forces.
Against this backdrop, Xu’s voice is extraordinary.
A Tibetan friend praised Xu’s refusal to accept Chinese government’s propaganda on Tibet and his attempts to understand the real situation there. He sets off on a journey to meet and converse with ordinary Tibetans and that process of inquiry he takes upon himself is remarkable.
Even more encouraging is that Xu is not the only Chinese to have tried to foster discussion of Tibetans’ experience. Despite the threats of punishment, and successful divide-and-conquer tactics of Chinese security forces to prevent movements extending solidarity, a trickle of voices have emerged among Han Chinese to speak up on Tibetan issues.
In March 2008, a group of Chinese intellectuals signed a significant public petition condemning the government’s crackdown in Tibet during the mass protests that swept across the plateau. Four years ago, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo and thousands of Charter 08 signatories called for a Chinese Federal Republic “within which all ethnic and religious groups can flourish.”
The authors of Charter 08 came under criticism from ethnic minorities in China, who expressed disappointment that the charter did not go farther in insisting on the specific ethnic rights necessary for cultural survival, and did not contain a stronger endorsement of ethnic nationalities’ self-governance rights. But if Liu Xiaobo had gone as far as he wanted to in Charter 08 regarding rights of Tibetans, the first 303 signatories would have dwindled down to fewer than ten, according to Yu Jie, a prominent Chinese writer and democracy activist.
Although Xu’s words of apology and sympathy for Tibetan self-immolators are powerful, his reference to Tibet as “our shared home” reflects a larger ongoing conversation about the relationship between Tibet and China. Underlying much of the tension between Tibetans and Han Chinese, even among those Han with the goal of a democratic China and even within the diversity of Tibetan viewpoints, is the unresolved issue of defining Tibet’s future as a truly autonomous or independent governing entity.
But Tibetans should not give up on those Chinese who are willing to brave their government’s wrath to think independently about Tibet. Even putting aside the risk of arrest, they have treacherous ground to cover. Chinese willing to think and speak about Tibet are also trying to do so in an environment without freedom of speech or academic freedom and they must keep in mind their audiences. They are not only trying to speak unpleasant truths, but do so in a way that their fellow Chinese audiences can understand and find persuasive.
Earlier this year, Xu called for a new citizens’ movement to deliver China from authoritarian government to fair and just constitutional governance. He was illegally detained multiple times as a result. He is no stranger to being disappeared over his profession as a human rights lawyer.
At this critical juncture in Tibet and China’s history, where citizens who differ in their opinions from the Chinese Communist Party are considered “dangerous elements” and imprisoned, Xu’s efforts to find a shared space between Tibetan and Chinese freedom seekers are significant.
It will take a long-term coordinated effort on the part of both Tibetans and Han Chinese to overcome mistrust. When Chinese rights activists speak out on behalf of Tibetans, they are building a welcome foundation upon which mutual trust can be built.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has called for the 21st century to be a century of dialogue. Xu Zhiyong, despite facing tremendous threats to his own freedom, has taken another bold step in sustaining a dialogue about realizing the “shared dream” of freedom.
It is imperative for Han Chinese and Tibetan activists alike that this conversation continues.
Tenzin Palkyi and Louisa Greve are, respectively, Asia Program Officer and Vice President, Programs – Asia, Middle East & North Africa, and Global, at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. First published in Democracy Digest, December 31, 2012.
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