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China's strange Tibetan silence

In a gruesome act of resistance that has played out dozens of times in recent months, seven young Tibetans set fire to themselves this week, shouting demands for freedom as they were consumed by flames.

world Updated: Nov 11, 2012 02:11 IST

In a gruesome act of resistance that has played out dozens of times in recent months, seven young Tibetans set fire to themselves this week, shouting demands for freedom as they were consumed by flames.

On Friday, for the second day in a row, exile groups say thousands of Tibetans took to the streets in the northwestern Chinese province of Qinghai decrying "cultural genocide" and demanding an end to heavy-handed police tactics.

Here in the nation's capital, where Communist Party power brokers are presenting a new generation of leaders, the outgoing President, Hu Jintao, made no mention Thursday of the anger consuming China's discontented borderlands during his sprawling address to the nation.

But while Tibetan rights advocates have long been inured to impassive officials, they are increasingly troubled by the deafening silence among Chinese intellectuals and the liberal online commentariat, a group usually eager to call out injustice despite the perils of bucking China's authoritarian strictures.

On Twitter, where China's most voluble critics find refuge from government censors, the topic is often buried by posts about official corruption, illegal land grabs or other scandals of the day. Since the self-immolations began in earnest last year, few Chinese scholars have attempted to grapple with the subject.

"The apathy is appalling," said Zhang Boshu, a political philosopher who lost his job at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences three years ago for criticising the government's human rights record.

With a mounting toll of 70 self-immolations, at least 55 of them fatal, many Tibetans are asking themselves why their Han Chinese brethren seem unmoved by the suffering - or are at least uninterested in exploring why so many people have embraced such a horrifying means of protest.

The silence, some say, is exposing an uncomfortable gulf between Tibetans and China's Han majority, despite decades of propaganda that seeks to portray the nation as a harmonious family comprising 56 contented minorities.

"It's the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about," said Wang Lixiong, a prominent Tibetologist and social theorist whose writings have drawn the unwelcome attention of public security personnel, including a contingent of police officers who kept him sequestered inside his Beijing apartment this week as the Party Congress got underway.

Wang and others say a subtle undercurrent of antipathy toward Tibetans suffuses the worldview of educated Chinese. That sentiment, they say, has been nurtured by official propaganda that paints Tibetans as rebellious, uncultured and unappreciative of government efforts to raise their standard of living.

One prominent filmmaker, speaking more candidly than usual, but only under the condition of anonymity, noted that many Chinese are alternately fascinated and repulsed by Tibetans.

"We Han love their exotic singing and dancing, but we also see them as barbarians seeking to split the nation apart," he said.

Whether it be antipathy or apathy, many Chinese have been unconsciously swayed by government propaganda that describes the self-immolators as "terrorists" even as unrelenting censorship blocks any public airing of their grievances, which include complaints about restrictions on Tibetan Buddhism and educational policies that, in some areas, favour Mandarin over Tibetan.

"I think the authorities have deliberately created a barrier between the two cultures," said Hu Yong, a professor at Peking University's School of Journalism and Communication.

Hu said such attitudes were reinforced by China's army of Tibet specialists, nearly all of whom are employed by government-affiliated institutions and who faithfully parrot the party's official narrative on Tibetan history and politics.

Rigorous censorship has ensured that news about the protests rarely makes it onto the internet, let alone into the mainstream news media. The Chinese media has only reported on a handful of the self-immolations, and people who transmit news from Tibetan areas face harsh punishment.

The fear can be paralysing for many Chinese intellectuals.

"No one wants to be accused of being a separatist," said Zhang, the former academy member.

But neither fear nor censorship fully explain the silence of Chinese liberals, most of whom are adept at skirting the great firewall and many of whom regularly step across imaginary red lines to lambast the Communist Party.

Tsering Woeser, a blogger of mixed Tibetan and Han ancestry, said many Chinese see Tibetans as the "other"; she said even friends have been known to cite a well-known Chinese proverb to explain their indifference to Tibetan grievances: "If you are not of my ethnicity, you cannot share my heart."

Woeser said that even her most open-minded friends are confounded by Tibetans, with their fierce religious devotion, their demands for greater autonomy and their aching for the return of the Dalai Lama, who Beijing regularly dismisses as a "wolf in sheep's clothing."

Chinese intellectuals, she added, see Tibet as a forbidding, restive land, but also inseparable from China.

"The Han are obsessed with issues of sovereignty," said Woeser, who is married to Wang, the critic barred from leaving his home.

"They want to claim Tibet as part of China, but they are not terribly concerned with the Tibetan people or their culture."

Even if the self-immolations are confined to a region thousands of miles away, Beijing officials were taking no chances this week as party elders gathered for the once-a-decade change in leadership.

During the opening day of the Party Congress on Thursday, several security guards inside the Great Hall of the People held fire extinguishers between their knees as they sat in the back row of the auditorium.

Outside on Tiananmen Square, firefighters stood at attention with fire extinguishers at their feet, even if the vast granite-clad plaza was devoid of anything flammable.

A New York Times photographer who snapped pictures of the firefighters was confronted by the police, who forced her to delete the images.

At a session held Friday by delegates from the Tibet Autonomous Region, Liang Tiangeng, a top party official, dismissed a foreign reporter's question about whether the government had plans to address the self-immolations.

After extolling the happiness of the Tibetan people, he noted that even developed and democratic nations were plagued by suicides.

"People kill themselves, they set fire to themselves, they shoot themselves every day," he said.

"I think some media organisations are trying to sensationalise the very few cases of self-immolation that have happened in Tibetan area because they have ulterior motives."