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Self-Immolations and Chinese Intellectuals By Ming Xia
Phayul[Sunday, February 24, 2013 23:36]
By Ming Xia

Translated by Tsering Namgyal

Since February 2009, 104 Tibetans have set themselves on fire. It is a shocking event in the history of human civilisation. China is a multi-ethnic country. The members of Han nationality, which accounts for 92% of the country’s population, has the obligation to know the truth and hear the aspirations of the Tibetan people. They should also strive to respond to and help immediately put an end to the self-immolations.

But so far, the Chinese government is still stuck in a "conspiracy theory" mindset. First, they blamed the “Dalai clique” and “anti-China forces” for “organizing,” “manipulating,” and “instigating” Tibetan self-immolations. Second, the authority has used massive police and military power to disperse people assembled, to lay siege to monasteries and to arrest monks and hand down heavy sentence to the “co-conspirators” (in fact, most of them tend to be relatives of the victims or the monks). Finally, large sums of money are given as a reward to informants. For instance, the Public Security Bureau of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu Province was offering as much as RMB 200,000 to whoever reports “those behind” the self-immolations. The Chinese government has been denying any responsibility whatsoever as to the cause of the self-immolations. Instead, it has been forcibly putting the blame on the deceased and their family members.

In the face of the Tibetan tragedy and the Chinese government’s injustice, the Han Chinese people as a whole has so far failed to live up to the traditional cultural virtues of "benevolence”, “righteousness,” “propriety” and “wisdom". On November 13, 2012, the New York Times reporter Andrew Jacobs from Beijing wrote an article: "The Chinese intellectuals silent amid a wave of Tibetan self-immolations." Given the question raised by the New York Times, considered as an opinion leader amongst the global intellectuals and a newspaper of record, Chinese intellectuals – whose mission supposedly is to produce and disseminate wisdom and knowledge – have to ask reflectively and collectively: Why the Han Chinese lack compassion, emotional and moral sensitivity towards the suffering of Tibetans?

First as intellectuals living in the free world, we must be aware of the fact that the Chinese intellectuals and Tibetans are victims of the same authoritarian rule and that they are both facing a profound identity crisis. It raises a fundamental question for Tibetans, which is whether Tibetans would continue to be Tibetans if there were no Buddhism. And as for the Chinese intellectuals, the question is whether they would still be “intellectuals” if they do not have the right to free and independent thinking and the right to pursue truth. Since the two challenges are closely interlinked, it is therefore incumbent upon the Chinese intellectuals to pay close attention and support the demand of the Tibetan people.

Looking back at the history of the People's Republic of China, we can see that the tragedies faced by the Tibetans often serve as a harbinger of crises for the Han Chinese themselves. In 1962, Panchen Lama’s 70,000-character petition not only exposed the implications of the Communist Party of China’s “leftist policies” in the Tibetan areas and the repression of cultural and religious life, but it also foresaw the catastrophe that Cultural Revolution eventually wrought upon entire China. Hu Jintao’s imposition of “martial law” in Lhasa in March 1989 tested how the Han people and the international community would respond to violence, which eventually sowed the seeds of the Tiannamen Square incident. We cannot be so naive as to believe that the Han people would not be victims of self-immolation. We have seen that forced evictions have caused self-immolations in the Mainland.

At the same time, the demise of the Soviet Union and Eastern European communism teaches us that ethnic conflicts and nationalism have often served as principal catalysts in the collapse of the totalitarian regimes. Considering the immense popularity and international standing of the Dalai Lama and the organisational network of the Tibetans, the hope and the future of China's own democratic aspirations is also closely dependent on the fate of the Tibetan struggle for freedom.

However, there is widespread indifference and even misperception amongst Chinese scholars when it comes to the Tibetan struggle for freedom. Here, we can divide the Chinese intellectuals into three different categories. First, the official scholars, including some Tibetologists of Tibetan ethnicity, who attack and disparage the fellow Tibetans or the leadership of the Dalai Lama's exile community. Tibet's struggle for freedom is essentially a conflict between people with a strong religious faith and an atheist Communist regime. It shares similarities with the Uighur struggle, “Falun Gong” incident, and the “Christian house churches” among the Han Chinese inside China. It is not a conflict between Han people and Tibetans. But the Communist Party’s propaganda machine and the violent repressions have increasingly turned it into an ethnic conflict. As the well-known Han-Chinese Tibetologist Wang Lixiong said in 2008, the CPC’s "anti-separatist bureaucratic machinery" has turned the Han-Chinese relations into a “self-fulfilling prophecy” of “ethnic conflict.”

Unfortunately, many Han Chinese scholars fully and indiscriminately accept the official Chinese propaganda and prejudices. For example, some overseas Chinese scholars accept the false theses of “evil serfdom” and “slave owners” and also equate Mao Zedong’s action in Tibet to that of Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves.

For example, many of the Han Chinese scholars always concern themselves with the economic development of Tibet and avoid discussing religious freedom and human rights, which are the core issue of Tibetans. Also, many Han Chinese intellectuals ignore the achievements of the Tibetan community in exile in terms of democratisation and the separation of church and state. Chinese scholars continue to educate the Chinese people with such untruths as the Dalai Lama’s efforts to restore the “feudal system” in exile and return to theocracy, amongst others. They also make no mention of the fact that the Dalai Lama’s "Middle Way policy," which clearly advocates and seeks genuine autonomy in Tibet under the framework of the constitution of the People's Republic of China and the non-violence has been the consistent policy of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan administration in exile.

The second type of scholars is the reason why there is a market for official propaganda. They have no official background, and the vast majority of these scholars also do not want to hurt Tibetan interests, but they remain indifferent to the issue of Tibet, thereby becoming unintentional messenger of lies. Few know the true meaning of Buddhism and easily dismiss the religion as ignorant and backward. Many people do not know the Dalai Lama, have no knowledge of his writings and teachings, and why he garners such respect amongst the Tibetans and the international community; but they readily slander his achievements and reputation. Many of them do not try to understand the aspirations of those who carry out self-immolation, completely ignore the fact that they are restraining themselves from harming others while they carried out the act, and these scholars quickly label them as “extremists” and “terrorists.”

No doubt, resorting to self-immolation is not a good option. Tibetans today, however, do not have the luxury to choose between "good" and "bad". Tibetans can only chose between “bad” and “worse.” Losing their religious faith is worse than self-immolation for Tibetans. The Chinese Communist regime wantonly insult the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, ban his portrait to be hung in the temples, expel the monks devoted to the Dalai Lama from their monasteries, establish "Temple Management Authority” and "Work Units" in the monasteries, and send millions of copies of the so-called "four leaders” (Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao) to the temples. All of this represents a serious threat to the religious freedom of the Tibetan people.

The goal of the self-immolation is to offer one’s own body to safeguard the religion and the survival of Tibet as a nation. Since the intellectuals do not understand this concept, we have seen that a number of Han Chinese scholars who, while holding a deep sympathy for the Tibetans still could not avoid misunderstanding the Tibetans.

This is the third category of Han Chinese intellectuals. For example, Professor Yao Xinyong at Jinan University has published many papers on China's ethnic problems. Recently I read two of his articles – "The Communist Government and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama Really Can not Dissuade the Tibetans from Self-immolating?” and “Burning the Body versus Body Politic: Observation and Thoughts on the Phenomenon of Self-immolation by Some Tibetans.” After reading the articles, I felt the need for dialogue and communication with the Han Chinese intellectuals. Professor Yao was clearly aware of the fact "the Communist China does not have the authority to put an immediate end to the Tibetans from self-immolating themselves," he does not agree with the government's “strict control,” and he also believes "the blind and increased attacks on the Dalai Lama” have “further intensified Tibetans emotions,” all of which have led to the self-immolations to continue.

However, Professor Yao’s following views warrant a debate. First, he argues that the self-immolation should be discouraged from the point of view of the preciousness of life. Second, he believes that the self-immolation is extreme behavior, which violates the Buddhist precepts of no killing and also contradicts the principle of non-violence, leading to "ethnic hatred". Third, he believes "cultural genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" do not exist in Tibet; Tibetans enjoy the freedom to live and the basic right to practice their religion; "the traditional Tibetan culture and the Tibetan mountains and rivers are not facing an immediate danger of destruction.” Fourth, he says, “the hard-hearted” Dalai Lama has deliberately evaded the responsibility of stopping the self-immolations, and that the Tibetan leader should have called an end to the practice by taking part in a hunger strike himself. Tibetan people have extremely strong religious faith and that is the biggest cultural difference between the Tibetans and the majority of Han Chinese. The Tibetans derive the meaning of existence from their faith, or in other words, this is the biggest difference between materialist atheists and spiritual idealists. However, in today’s Chinese culture, it is difficult to understand “the unity of life and death” as well as to comprehend how people in the olden days have resorted to sacrificing their life for justice. Chinese intellectuals have forgotten Hungarian national poet Sandor Petofi’s (1823-1849) poem " Life is dear, love is dearer. Both can be given up for freedom." And they have also long forgotten the line: "Give me liberty, or give me death.” They do not even understand what Communist Xia Minghan once said: "It does not matter if you are beheaded, as long as you are fighting for truth.” There is also a vast difference between “survival wisdom” characteristic of so many Chinese and the Japanese concept of "Bushido" (or the way of the warrior).

According to the Buddhist view of life, while our body would one day disintegrate and this life will end, our consciousness would continue forever. As intellectuals, if one cannot come to understand the fundamentally spiritual nature of the human pursuit of progress, we cannot possibly comprehend Descartes' "I think, therefore I am!" Moreover, we would also fail to understand Albert Camus who said: "I rebel, therefore we exist.” If we examine the Tibetans self-immolation from this higher plane, we will understand the pain of the Dalai Lama because nobody loves his followers more than him and nobody has worked more for the Tibetan people and their religion than him. Therefore, as Han intellectuals, we have no qualification or right to either “glorify” or "distort" the acts of self-immolation, and we have no authority to condemn or judge the Dalai Lama. In the face of continued self-immolations, what we need is to have the collective courage to pursue, practice and defend what is truth. The lack of awareness, impulse and courage to uphold the traditional virtues of “truth”, “goodness,” “beauty” and “sacredness” is the biggest crisis of the Chinese intellectuals.

The Tibetan issue is seen as a taboo for scholarly research and discussion. Evidently, Tibet is an academic minefield. It is not easy to remain rational and objective between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama. I am fortunate to have met with the Dalai Lama numerous times. After meeting with him, listening to his teachings, and reading his numerous works, I realised that the Dalai Lama is the key to the door of the Tibetan soul. Any attempt to sever the relationship between the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, and hurling him verbal abuse and discrediting the Tibetan spiritual leader will not solve the issue of self-immolation. For the Chinese government to seriously resolve the issue, it must begin by respecting the spiritual teacher and leader of the Tibetan people.

Dr Ming Xia is a professor of political science at the Graduate Center, and the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. This article originally appeared in the Hong Kong-based magazine iSunAffairs Weekly, Issue 35, on December 13, 2012. The complete version of this essay would be published in the April 2013 issue of Seminar Magazine. (http://www.india-seminar.com/)

Tsering Namgyal is a freelance writer and translator based in New York

The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.
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