The Return & the Rise of Self-Immolations: China’s Failed Policies & Propaganda in Tibet

“Someone who was a poster boy of assimilating with the
Chinese system took his life in this overtly political
protest. This makes Norbu’s self-immolation even more

  • An Article on the Self-Immolation of Tsewang Norbu
    The year 2022 has been rocked by 3 reported selfimmolations by Tibetans inside China Occupied Tibet,
    signaling a return to the self-immolations as a tool of
    protest. A man identi ed by Radio Free Asia as Tsering
    Samdup, set himself on re near a monastery in Qinghai,
    making it the most recent case after the self-immolation
    by singer Tsewang Norbu and 81-year old Taphun.
    As the world grapples with rising geopolitical rivalries
    and global unrest marred by the Russia-Ukraine crisis and
    economic recovery in a post-pandemic world, the rise of a
    revisionist China has been a cause of global concern,
    especially since 2020. Xi Jinping’s policies aimed at the
    rejuvenation of the Chinese Dream has led the
    Communist Party of China (CCP) to walk down a path
    that is characterized by a special interest in building a
    ‘homogenous identity’ for the citizens of China based on
    its atheist outlook and communist principles.
    The fact that there is a gap of 3 years between the latest
    spate of self-immolations and the last one reported before
    it (it was reported in 2019) exposes the double whammy
    of Beijing’s policies in Tibet – the rising wave of brutal
    Sinicization tactics as the root cause of self-immolations
    and the propaganda and narrative building tools along
    with surveillance and information blockage tactics that
    China uses to curb the access to information on Tibet.
    Tibetan Angst Against Xi’s Policies
    Before he came to power as the President of People’s
    Republic of China (PRC) in 2013, Xi Jinping spoke in
    Lhasa while marking 60 years of the communist takeover
    of Tibet. His statement that China “should thoroughly ght
    against separatist activities by the Dalai clique by rmly
    relying on all ethnic groups… and completely smash any
    plot to destroy stability in Tibet and jeopardise national
    unity” was telling of what was in store for Tibet in the
    years to come.
    Over the years, especially under Xi Jinping, China has
    undertaken brutal tactics that are aimed at the Sinicization
    of Tibetan Buddhism and building what Beijing claims to
    be a ‘modern, socialist and culturally advanced Tibet’.
    The end result of such tactics has been that Tibetans have
    been at the receiving end of gross human rights violations
    that are taking Tibetans’ culture, language, identity,
    traditions and religion.
    As these gross human rights violations continue and in
    fact, keep rising with every day passing, it would not be
    an understatement to say that Tibetans are hurting. Any
    sort of free speech or expression is prohibited in
    Occupied Tibet, Tibetans cannot hold a peaceful protest,
    you will land in jail for hanging a picture of His Holiness
    the Dalai Lama, you will ‘vanish’ if you share any
    incriminating post against China or its actions in Tibet
    and your children will be sent to special Chinese
    Boarding Schools that will make sure that they learn
    Chinese language, sing Chinese nationalistic songs and
    take part in brutal military drills under the People’s
    Liberation Army (PLA) at a tender age of 6. And not to
    forget, Tibetan nomads are being displaced for illegal
    mining purposes and the Tibetan Plateau’s precious water
    tower is being overtaken by Beijing in a hegemonic
    manner. And lastly, Xi securitizing Tibet by deploying
    heavy military and bringing into e ect new Border Laws,
    is putting the nal nail in the co n for Tibetans.
    As the angst grows at such haranguing, Tibetans are yet
    again turning to self-immolations as a tool of protest.
    What is more painful to realize is the fact that China
    blames His Holiness the Dalai Lama for them in what
    only reveals his anxiety and desperation to control Tibet.
    It further reveals the ‘absolute angst’ that the Tibetans
    feel while maintaining their resilience in the face of such
    brutal treatment by the Chinese.
    But, every human has a breaking point. For Tibetans, it is
    self-immolation. Xi’s policies have pushed certain
    Tibetans to such a point that they feel that there is no
    other option left but self-immolation. Horrifying as it is to
    imagine, it would certainly be a crime if we blame
    Tibetans for taking it up. The only blame that should lie is
    on China and Xi Jinping.
    While Beijing harps on the poverty alleviation programs
    that it has undertaken in Tibet and claims to have
    ‘liberated’ Tibet, the sudden return and the rise in selfimmolations only tells one truth – that Xi’s policies have
    failed the Tibetans. The only motive of such policies by
    China is to build a ‘homogenous identity’ amongst its
    people, even if it comes at the cost of a ‘cultural
    genocide’ in Tibet.
    If one were to look closely at the three reported selfimmolations in 2022 – a well-known Tibetan singer who
    had assimilated the Chinese system, a well-educated man,
    and an 81-year old – it would be safe to say that
    something harrowing must be happening in Tibet for
    people like them to undertake such drastic measures to
    protest. Oh, the fact that they are not allowed to protest is
    the starting point of the massive problem in Tibet, thus
    pointing to the root cause – the failure of China and Xi’s
    policies in Tibet.
    Manufacturing Narratives
    Controlling the out ow from and in ow of information to
    China has been one of the top priorities of Beijing under
    Xi Jinping. In 2020, the US Department of Defense
    (DoD) submitted a report to the Congress titled ‘Military
    and Security Developments
    Involving the People’s Republic of China’. Identifying
    Chinese in uence and information warfare under it, the
    report stated that “the CCP seeks to condition domestic,
    foreign and multilateral political establishments and
    public opinion to accept Beijing’s narratives”.
    Such tactics hold special relevance when it comes to
    China and its occupation of Tibet. In fact, Tibet can be
    identi ed as the origin story of PRC’s in uence and
    information warfare tactics – post Tibet’s invasion by
    PRC in 1959, Beijing has been doing everything it can to
    control the narratives around Tibet. And Beijing has
    undertaken a two-pronged approach to pursue this in the
    case of self-immolations – attack HH and shift the blame;
    control information out ow and in ow; and disguise
    Sinicization plans as development programs.
    Firstly, Beijing has attacked the very institution of His
    Holiness the Dalai Lama by branding him as a ‘splittist’
    and ‘separatist’ since his escape from Lhasa in 1959 in a
    bid to shift and escape the blame for the self-immolations
    by Tibetans. While he continues to seek dialogue with the
    Chinese through the ‘Middle Way Approach’, Beijing has
    continued to tarnish HH’s image – so much so that China
    identi es His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the key
    motivator for self-immolations, a man highly revered for
    his teachings on non-violence and peace across the world.
    While a case can be made against self-immolations for
    being ‘violent’, blaming it on either HH or the Tibetans
    will only lead to the world absolving China and Xi
    Jinping of their crimes against humanity in Tibet.
    Secondly, China has undertaken online in uence and
    information operations aimed at controlling the narratives
    around self-immolations. This can be evidenced from the
    fact that it deleted hundreds of posts on Tsewang Norbu,
    the Tibetan singer who self-immolated recently.
    Additionally, China has gone ahead and time and again
    stated that those undertaking self-immolations are
    ‘mentally ill’ people, especially since 2012 when Xi
    Jinping was set to overtake as the President of PRC.
    Simultaneously, China’s
    heavy surveillance and information blockage tactics in
    Tibet makes sure that no information about any such
    happenings and Beijing’s policies comes out in the open.
    Curiously, there is also evidence of Beijing undertaking
    ‘o ensive cyber operations’ against pro-Tibet groups and
    individuals across the world, especially the Central
    Tibetan Administration (CTA) and the Tibetan diaspora
    with the capability to steal their personal information.
    Lastly, in the context of Tibet, one has to understand that
    China’s policies are aimed at what China claims to be the
    ‘uni cation of China’ with a ‘homogenous identity’ for its
    citizens, eventually leading to ‘national rejuvenation’.
    Every tactic it undertakes to control and manufacture the
    narratives, not just around Tibet, but also Xinjiang, Inner
    Mongolia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc., also focus on
    highlighting the positives of Beijing’s policies in these
    regions. From its so-called poverty alleviation programs
    to tackling climate change to securitisation, the only thing
    that China is implementing in Tibet is actually its policy
    of ‘Sinicization’. One look at the Chinese state-controlled
    media outlets and state-backed social media handles is
    enough to reveal this reality to any layman. Their aim,
    one might ask? Deceive and distract the domestic and
    foreign audience from the real issues that plague Tibet.
    As China under Xi Jinping continues to sell itself as a
    ‘superpower’, one must not forget the resilience and sacri
    ce of Tibetans in their peaceful ght against Beijing. A
    telling tale of this is the title of a 2017 essay by Kevin
    Carrico for the Foreign Policy magazine – The Cult of
    Stability Is Killing Tibetans.
    (Tenzin Samphal is currently serving as a Consultant
    with Tibet Rights Collective)

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