PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 January, 2014, 12:19AM
Today, the only thing many people know about Tibet is the 2008 riot, which coincided with the Beijing Olympics, and the self-immolations of Tibetan monks that followed. Similar conflicts have been ongoing for centuries, from before the rise of the Communist Party of China (CCP). Before the Kuomintang (KMT) was forced to retreat to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War in 1949, The Republic of China had several violent confrontations with the Tibetans. The Qing Dynasty, the very last dynasty of China which ruled Tibet for 400 years, also experienced similar violent conflict.
The topic of Tibet’s independence is an extremely controversial one. Claiming that Tibet should be completely independent is like claiming the world is black and white, made of only right and wrong and nothing in between. However, behind the walls of Chinese and Tibetan propaganda, a number of issues have been forgotten by the general public. While the CCP claims the situation in Tibet has been improving, there is still a tight control of information and demographics from the region.
Two young students decided to see the conflict for themselves. In the summer of 2013, Steven Shi and Luke Niu embarked on a remarkable journey. During their weeklong bike ride through Tibet, Shi and Niu witnessed the impact of China’s neglect toward Tibetans, especially regarding their education and culture. Consequences of this neglect include widespread loss of support for the Chinese government in the Tibetan region. The neglect has also led Tibetans to resort to desperate measures such as the region-wide riot that took place in 2008. China has been publicly emphasizing the improving political and economic situation in Tibet, but what the two young men experienced reveals a Chinese attempt to mask the current condition of the region.
Shi and Niu, two foreign students who grew up in Shanghai, decided to start their own charity under the name “Gears for Change.” After receiving a $3,000 donation from Shanghai’s Tongji University, the pair set off to Tibet with their backpacks full of stationery, books, and a truckload of sports equipment. Shi reported having many difficulties in soliciting donations. “We donated to the first school privately…but afterwards we were in villages around major cities, and we couldn’t afford to keep doing so,” Shi said. “We had to apply for a permit….we applied to three different departments of the government, and were rejected three times…They pretty much said there were ‘no poor schools in Tibet’….” According to Niu, the Chinese government wanted to present the false image that it was completely in control of the economic situation in Tibet. The CCP did not want to appear “weak” by accepting charity.
“The CCP didn’t want foreigners to go into the region and do their jobs for them,” said Niu. Critics have accused the Chinese government of exploiting Tibet’s resources and neglecting the welfare of the people. The economy in Tibet, although growing quickly, has not been completely efficient. Since the central government in Beijing has been boasting “Leapfrog Development” in Tibet, the GDP per capita last year only reached 10,000 RMB (around USD $1,600). Although the economy in Tibet is improving, the Chinese government appears keen to prevent foreigners from seeing the current conditions of the Tibetan region.
Despite Chinese media outlets boasting of the successes in developing Tibet, Shi and Niu witnessed a Tibet that is far from civilized. Despite opposition from the local government, the two continued to donate to schools through discreet means. They were forced to donate secretly, often meeting people in clandestine locations. According to Shi, the two achieved their objective “by getting teachers to come to us and pick up donations…We wouldn’t go near the schools or the children, they would just get the donations and leave.”
The Chinese government eventually caught up with the illegal donations. Although they were not asked to leave the region, they were brought to the army-sponsored schools around Lhasa to donate there instead. “The contrasts were huge,” said Shi. “These are big white buildings that were really well preserved, instead of the dirty brick houses that we saw when we donated privately. All the kids also seem really well dressed and fed in these army-sponsored schools, while the schools we privately donated to are filled with kids with rugged clothing and sole-less shoes.”
Scholars have pointed out that although the tension in Tibet has greatly diminished in recent years, the region quickly returned to strict military control immediately after the 2008 riot. Shi and Niu saw a military base every few blocks, and tons of police officers patrolling the streets. “The Han people also almost seem as if they’re trying to white-wash Tibetan culture,” said Niu, “with Chinese flags over almost all buildings, and making it law for Mandarin texts to appear larger than the Tibetan language.”
China’s attempt to mask Tibet’s situation reveals China’s inability to accept and understand Tibet’s religion-oriented culture and its consequences. Without accepting Tibetans for who they are, no amount of economic development or attempted brainwashing can help ease Tibet’s tension with China. Wiping away culture could be just as destructive as taking away life. China’s ignorance of Tibetan cultural practices can be seen clearly in Tibetan monasteries. In efforts to combat more belligerent monks in the region after the 2008 unrest, the Chinese tore down all Lama Monasteries, putting posters of Mao and his quotes on the monastery walls. In the most extreme situations, head lamas of these monasteries were forced to publicly denounce the Dalai Lama.
Tabe, the monk believed to be the first self-immolator, conducted this cruel form of protest when his head lama was forced to denounce the Dalai Lama. Tabe survived and his whereabouts are currently unknown. Out of the 121 Tibetans who have reportedly set themselves on fire, 40 have died, and everyone else, including those affiliated with self-immolations, is serving various degrees of felony charges.
Continuing talks of “Hanization” in Tibet, the widely popular method of converting other cultures into Han culture, further shows China’s unwillingness to accept Tibet’s unique culture. Shi described the poor state of local Tibetan schools, which emphasize the Tibetan mother tongue, when compared to “army-sponsored” schools, which emphasize the Han Mandarin. Although most of the population speaks Tibetan, Chinese characters always seem more prevalent than Tibetan texts. According to CNN, Tibetan students have held ongoing protests against the destruction of their culture. An unidentified Tibetan middle school teacher claimed, “The Chinese are enforcing reforms which remind me of the Cultural Revolution. This reform is not only a threat to our mother tongue, but is in direct violation of the Chinese constitution, which is meant to protect our rights. For Tibetans, the Chinese constitution is meaningless.”
The Chinese have been extremely uncooperative in negotiations with the Dalai Lama over Tibetan independence. During negotiations, when the topic of autonomy has been brought to the table, the Chinese end the conversation completely. A decision made by the CCP in 1994 to attack the Dalai Lama and further restrict religious freedom alienated most of Tibet from the Communist regime’s rule. “This almost seems to be the last best offer for China to solve the issue in Tibet,” said Suzanne Ogden, a Northeastern University political science professor, as she commented on a possible negotiation between the CCP and Dalai Lama. “It almost seems stupid to me that [the CCP] won’t accept this bargain.” An explanation for this seemingly irrational decision to oppose autonomy can be traced back in Chinese history.
According to Robbie Barnett, a Columbia University professor who has long studied Tibet, China’s history with religion continues to influence its current policies toward Tibet. “The history of the Chinese shows that they have been very nervous about religion for hundreds of years,” said Barnett. “They’re also extremely nervous about ethnicity….The Manchus did overrun China for around five centuries before the 1911 rebellion…That, combined with China’s communist ideology, makes it almost impossible for large forms of religion to exist in the country.” Although the dire situation in Tibet cooled down earlier this year, nothing will change in the near future. With its tight grip over religious freedom and cultural oppression, the CCP is not likely to let go of any of their current power soon.
The most unfortunate fact is that the Dalai Lama has not stepped up to stop any of the self-immolations. He does, in fact, praise the courage of those who engage in the practice. In recent interviews, the Dalai Lama expressed that he does not have the authority to prevent Tibetans from setting themselves on fire.
The actions of these self-immolators, sadly, are almost counter-intuitive. “A lot of these locals will often see these self-immolators as heroes,” said Barnett. “But in truth, they’re only causing harm to themselves. It is almost impossible to make differences in Tibetan policies through these irrational actions.” Neither Shi nor Niu ever could have anticipated what they witnessed in Tibet. “Our trip made us realize that doing something good in Tibet can be extremely difficult,” said Niu.
Reflecting on these challenges, Tabe’s last words before becoming the first self-immolating monk were filled with sorrow. “I had no idea what I had started,” he said during a television interview last July. “I completely regret what I have done.”