Communication Currents

Tibet is Burning

October 1, 2013
Intercultural Communication

Jampa Yeshi ran through the streets of New Delhi, his body aflame. Barefooted, his face clenched in an agonizing grimace, he struggled to shout slogans supporting Tibetan independence. As he ran, the wind fanned the flames, which leapt from his body until he collapsed in a blackened heap—it was a stunning, deadly demonstration of the desperation and anger that have gripped segments of the Tibetan exile community. Because Yeshi’s fiery act of March 26, 2012, was staged in New Delhi, a heavily-wired town that enjoys a bustling free press, his immolation was recorded digitally and soon went viral on the web.

Yeshi’s immolation is part of an unprecedented wave of politically-motivated suicides taking place in Tibet and Tibetan communities in India, Nepal, and China. In fact, between March 16, 2011, and June 10, 2013, 118 Tibetans have self-immolated, with 100 confirmed deaths (see the reports posted on the Free Tibet website; the International Campaign for Tibet’s “Self-Immolation Fact Sheet”; and the Tibetan Youth Congress’sfact sheet). These immolations provide deadly evidence of a charge levied by Tibetans in protests all over the world—that “Tibet is Burning.”

The fire in Tibet began in the autumn of 1950, when China first invaded. As conquest turned to occupation, Jung Chang and John Halliday report in Mao, the Unknown Story, that “a staggering 15 to 20 percent of all Tibetans—perhaps half of all adult males—were thrown into prison”; the nation’s population of more than 110,000 monks was reduced—by starvation, murder, and forced exile—to 7,000.” The Dalai Lama has estimated in his Five Point Peace Plan that since 1950, the death toll has reached one million, or roughly one sixth of the population. China’s war on Tibet was so complete—encompassing the blowing-up of hundreds of monasteries, genocidal death tolls, the repression of local religious customs, the forced transition from centuries-old agricultural practices to disastrous collective farming units, the marginalization of local languages and dialects, and the obliteration of ancient kinship systems —that John Avedon has described the period as “an orgy of destruction.” Tsering Shakya reports that Tibetans were so pulverized by these events, both physically and emotionally, that they began to refer to the Chinese occupation of their land as triggering a nearly apocalyptic tragedy wherein “the sky fell to the earth.”

Supporters of Tibetan independence have responded to these events by producing what I call the testimonial rhetoric of catastrophic witnessing. This resistance rhetoric takes two distinct forms. The first entails cataloguing abuses foisted upon the Tibetan people by Chinese military and police forces; by documenting what I call the barbarism of occupation, this rhetoric depicts the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a colonizing, corrupt, and callous force. The second sub-genre of Tibetan resistance rhetoric turns from the critique of the macro-level ambitions and strategies of the Chinese state toward the micro-level insults and harms caused by colonization; by focusing in particular on their sense of how the Chinese treat them as second-class racial inferiors, this rhetoric amounts to what I call protesting dehumanization. 

The question, of course, is whether or not shaming the CCP in these ways is likely to produce any political change? After 60+ years of Chinese occupation of Tibet, it would appear that the answer is NO, meaning it may be time for pro-Tibetan rhetors to reappraise their strategies of persuasion. 

Chief among these Tibetan spokespersons is the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who has pursued what he calls “the middle way.” Because the “middle way” calls for infinite patience toward one’s oppressors (hence enablingthe continued CCP occupation of Tibet) while forwarding a radical ecological and anti-military vision (which would destabilize China’s hold on Tibet, if implemented), I characterize the Dalai Lama’s discourse as the conflicted rhetoric of Buddhist care. This rhetorical strategy has been wildly successful in converting millions of devotees to de-localized versions of postmodern Buddhism, yet it has been a failure in terms of coaxing China to the negotiating table.

The Chinese have refused to negotiate because they believe the Dalai Lama, his Tibetan supporters, pro-Tibetan Non-Governmental Organizations, and the U.S. in particular continue to ignore China’s rightful claims upon Tibet. My research indicates that China’s stand toward Tibet is based on three arguments that have been deployed consistently from 1950 up to the present. First, the CCP portrays Tibet as a feudal backwater that needed “liberation” from Buddhism so that it could join the great communist future—this comprises a historical claim about why China invaded in 1950: to spread communist justice by destroying Tibet’s oppressive ruling class. Second, the CCP characterizes Tibet as having been repeatedly manipulated by imperialists and, therefore, as serving as a constant threat to the motherland, hence requiring forced integration into the strong arms of PRC protection—this is a military claim that reveals much about China’s geostrategic fears and ambitions. And third, the CCP has argued that both the mistakes of feudalism and the threats of imperialism can be contained by pulling Tibet into the great stream of communist modernity, as embodied in China’s efforts to transform Lhasa from a sleepy mountain redoubt into a major regional trading center—this is a cultural claim about China’s assumed ability to transform not only the modes of production but all political, intellectual, and spiritual tendencies via the unstoppable force of communism. Readers can find ample examples of these tropes in the archives of the People’s Daily OnlineChina Tibet Online, the Global Times, and the Xinhua News Agency.

These historical, military, and cultural tropes are suffused with a sense of world-changing fervor and patriotism; they are not isolated arguments but interwoven and pulsing claims about the righteous vigor of the People’s Republic of China. Thus, when taken together, these tropes amount to what I call the patriotic rhetoric of communist modernity.

For example, when you enter Lhasa’s new Tibet Museum—built to honor China’s “liberation” of Tibet—you encounter a lobby adorned with large, wall-filling images of the “New Tibet,” where old world charm is celebrated in tandem with the miracles of modernity. In the image printed below, Lhasa’s iconic Potala Palace dominates the valley, which now includes an airplane, China’s “Great Train,” another new road, and the wonders of advanced agriculture (including a golf course-worthy manicured lawn, a true oddity considering the high desert climate). Such images are ubiquitous in museums, shops, bus and train stations, on TV, and in printed materials across China. For example, the China Tibet Online site features a steady diet of such stories, including the announcement that “Tibet’s Industrialization Realizes Leapfrog Development.” Beijing is so confident in the success of this forced modernization that it has begun planning to turn Lhasa into a regional tourism hub, complete with a $4.7 billion Disneyland-style theme park.

And so, while Tibetans charge “genocide,” the CCP envisions turning Lhasa into a regional tourism hub. In this way, one of the great human rights catastrophes of the past half-century grinds along, with various factions speaking at and abouteach other, but not with each other. If ever a situation required an astute rhetorical intervention, surely this is it. I therefore appeal to all concerned scholars, teachers, artists, and activists to help craft the interpersonal bonds, political contacts, and rhetorical strategies needed to move this impasse toward a peaceful resolution. As a first step, I encourage readers to consult the information posted by the International Campaign for Tibet, Free Tibet, the Tibetan Youth Congress, the Central Tibetan Administration, or Students for a Free Tibet.

About the author (s)

Stephen J. Hartnett

University of Colorado at Denver