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Self-immolations by Tibetans don't bother the Chinese

China may have heard of Lobsang Jamyang, who immolated himself over the Tibetan issue, but it certainly isn't listening. Tibetans expected more from Beijing.

Lobsang Jamyang lit himself on fire a year ago, in the Tibetan-majority city of Ngaba, in western China. Friends say he died to protest China's ban on the use of the Tibetan language in schools. He died a hero, they say, a selfless agent for change.

Deliberate death by fire is "the only way to put the Tibetan issue into the light", one of his friends, living in exile in India, told me days after Jamyang was cremated. "This is the only way the Chinese are ever going to listen" to Tibetan concerns.

Twelve months on, that must seem like wishful thinking. China may have heard of Jamyang, but it certainly isn't listening.

Tibetans expected more from Beijing. In the waning years of the Hu Jintao era, reforms on social issues seemed possible. Indeed, protests over unemployment, corruption and censorship, once crushed mercilessly, have led to marginal change in some places across China.

This month in Guangzhou, angry journalists prompted Beijing to reconsider laws on censorship. In late 2011, residents in the southern village of Wukan protested against government land seizures and won both federal compensation and local elections.

Yet in the four years since Tibetans began killing themselves by fire - there have been nearly 100 self-immolations since February 2009 - China has offered no hint of a concession to Tibetans' grievances. The Communist Party has responded to the concerns with propaganda, force, violence and fear. If Beijing has shown contrition elsewhere, Tibetans have seen only control.

"Tibetans are indeed taking their lives to say repression must end," says Mary Beth Markey, president of the International Campaign for Tibet, in Washington, DC. "Where is the solution?"

For Beijing, the solution is more of the same. For 50 years now, propaganda has shaped the Chinese public's views on the Tibetan minority, and it is still relentless; China calls those killing themselves "criminals", "terrorists", "whores" and "gamblers".

Leaders have also moved forcefully - quixotically at times - to control flows of information. After a recent series of self-immolations in Qinghai province, authorities in Huangnan prefecture confiscated televisions and destroyed satellite equipment at 300 monasteries, claiming that these devices were spreading "anti-China" views.

The state-run Qinghai news agency said the best way to stop the spread of self-immolation is by "guiding public opinion", flooding towns with security forces and "blocking outside harmful information".

Now more physical intimidation is being used. On January 15, seven so-called immolation "collaborators" were arrested in Gansu province for allegedly encouraging Tibetans to set themselves ablaze, and for sending photos of the dead to India. The seven face years in jail if convicted.

During the 1960s, CIA-trained Tibetan guerrillas launched attacks on Chinese soldiers from bordering Nepal. But as China's control has tightened, Tibetan demands for absolute freedom have given way to simpler calls for more cultural and religious liberty.

But Beijing has responded with continued aggressive efforts to erode Tibetans' sense of identity - shuttering monasteries, controlling Buddhist practices, banning religious ceremonies.

China's moves on language are particularly infuriating, and debasing. Michael Davis, a law professor and Tibet expert at the University of Hong Kong, says Beijing's aim with this policy is to make Tibet less Tibetan.

"This shift to emphasise Mandarin in primary education seems to be about Chinese concerns that recognising Tibetan identity has only encouraged resistance," he says. "So this is not about enabling Tibetans to compete in Chinese society as much as it is about making them more compliant."

Human rights advocates may seethe at these tactics, but inside China they barely register.

Issues such as land seizures, corruption and labour concerns can draw tens of thousands of Chinese into the streets, and have even led to Chinese self-immolations, but Tibetan demonstrations have been small and isolated, and have drawn little sympathy from the majority.

Chinese microblogs and media rarely offer supportive posts after a Tibetan self-immolates. Aside from seeing Buddhism as in vogue, and Tibet as a nice place to go for a honeymoon, most Han Chinese rarely extend any thought to the suffering on the Tibetan plateau. Subconsciously or otherwise, Chinese intellectuals have been more swayed by Communist propaganda than by the pleas of a dying minority.

The power of self-immolation lies in its visibility, and its ability to win support across religious, political and cultural divides.

On June 11, 1963, the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc doused himself in petrol and lit himself ablaze to protest against the anti-Buddhist policies of the US-backed president, Ngo Dinh Diem. Dozens of other monks followed suit, and five months later Diem was toppled by the army.

China's Communist Party does not intend to let anything like that happen. But as it floods Tibetan areas of western China with security forces, controls information, and rejects any dialogue on loosening religious and cultural controls, Beijing is betting on two things: that it can keep most Chinese citizens apathetic to Tibetans' plight, and that Tibetans will not one day redirect their flames at those oppressing them.

In a nation of citizens growing increasingly accustomed to having their grievances listened to, those are both risky bets.

gbruno@thenational.ae

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