The number of Tibetans burning themselves to death in protests against Chinese policy has grown very fast recently: the first self-immolation was in 2009, but 22 of the 30 incidents happened in the past year. And while at first it was only Buddhist monks and nuns who were setting themselves on fire, in the past month both a teenage girl and a mother of four have chosen to die in this gruesome way.
The Chinese response has been repression and abuse. The affected provinces have been flooded with security forces, and Communist Party officials have condemned the protesters as anarchists, terrorists, and rebels—or, in the words of one official, “rats” born of “weasels”.
The state-controlled media claim that the deaths are orchestrated by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who has lived in exile in India since 1959. They also insist that the Dalai Lama’s real goal is separatism—the revival of the independent Tibet that existed until the Chinese troops marched back in in 1951—although the protesters themselves demand only the return of the Dalai Lama and respect for their culture and religion.
The Chinese media work themselves up into a lather of indignation about the alleged intention of these “separatists” not only to fracture the sacred unity of the Chinese homeland, but to expel the large number of Han Chinese settlers who have immigrated to Tibet. As the Xinhua News Agency put it: “How similar it is to the Holocaust committed by Hitler on the Jews!”
Well, not similar at all, really. Even though many Tibetans fear “cultural genocide” if the Han Chinese immigrants become a majority in Tibet (and they are probably right to suspect that this is why Beijing subsidizes the immigration), there is still a distinction between Panzer divisions and extermination camps on the one hand, and monks and teenage girls burning themselves to death on the other.
Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama goes on doing what he does best: he keeps Tibet before the world’s attention. As part of that process, he visits world leaders and collects various honours like the Nobel Peace Prize—and he never attacks the Chinese regime directly.
Instead, he patiently and politely insists that China must respect Tibet’s cultural and religious autonomy. He never demands Tibetan independence, nor does he let his followers in the large Tibetan exile community talk about independence. And, of course, he laments the self-immolations.
Yet the Dalai Lama also believes that he will one day return to Tibet. He is 76 years old, but he is in good health, “so I am expecting another 10, 20 years,” he told a BBC interviewer this week. “Within that [time], definitely things will change".
What does he think will change? Surely not the attitude of the Chinese Communist regime, which will never allow him to return to Tibet, since it fears that would unleash a great wave of anti-Chinese nationalism. Well, then, he must think the Chinese regime itself will eventually change.
Of course he does. Most people who know any history think that. Despite the death of Communist ideology in China, the regime has managed to stay in power for almost a quarter-century since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, but it has been helped by continuous, high-speed economic growth. Would it survive a major recession?
Nobody knows, but there is certainly a reasonable chance of regime change in China in the next 10 or 20 years. And that would be Tibet’s great opportunity, as the Dalai Lama must know.
The precedent is what happened when Communist Party rule ended in the old Soviet Union 21 years ago. The Soviet Union was the old Russian empire under a new name, and only about half of its population was ethnically Russian. When it collapsed, all the republics with non-Russian majorities took their independence.
The People’s Republic of China is more homogeneous: 90 percent of its population is Han Chinese. But in the few areas that still have non-Chinese majorities, like Tibet, separation would be possible when regime change happens in Beijing—on two conditions. It would have to happen fast, and it can only happen if the Chinese people do not see Tibetans as enemies.
It has to happen fast because the window of opportunity doesn’t stay open long: once a new regime is firmly established, no politician who wants a long career will take the blame for negotiating “the division of the motherland”. And if the Chinese worry that an independent Tibet would fall under the influence of their great Asian rival, India, or if they are under attack by Tibetan terrorists, they will be very reluctant to let the Tibetans go.
The Dalai Lama certainly knows all this, too. His job, therefore, is to keep the spirits of the Tibetans up while waiting for the window of opportunity to open—and to keep the impatient younger generation from launching some futile “war of liberation” involving terrorist attacks in the meantime. He has been successful in that for a long time, but the wave of self-immolations is a warning that patience may be running out.