On Wednesday the 22nd of February, Tibetans would have normally celebrated Losar or Tibetan New Year. This year, unlike the years before, Tibetans in exile called for a solemn day of reflection and prayer to acknowledge those who have sacrificed their lives for the Tibetan cause.
The self-immolations of Tibetans under Chinese occupation that have shocked, saddened and renewed the anger of Tibetan society have sent the Chinese government into an overdrive of denial. Not for an instant has there been a moment of visible remorse, introspection or any admission of the absurdity of their knee jerk reaction: "self-immolators are criminals." This is of course standard PRC policy, any admission of imperfection being tantamount to weakness.
For Tibetan Buddhists who hold life sacred, taking one's own life is normally considered to be a negative action with serious spiritual consequences. Yet these were ordained people, one of them even a reincarnated lama, all normally revered in Tibetan society, who set themselves on fire. Tibetans of all walks of life are not condemning these acts; many are seeing the self-immolations as a supreme sacrifice. The ongoing, brutal rigidity of the Chinese government has manifested in at least three major waves of violence over three generations in the Kirti region: the Long March of the 1930s during which Kirti suffered perhaps more than any other Tibetan region; the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s; and the Patriotic Education in the 1990s. More recently, ever since the troubled lead up to the 2008 Olympics, the PRC has been twisting the thumbscrews ever tighter.
Perhaps the only vague hint of acknowledgment of transgression was Chinese VP Xi Jing's recent statement during a lunch hosted by US VP Joe Biden, tacked onto his defense of China's human rights record, that "there is always room for improvement on human rights." It is difficult to assess what Xi's comment, made only months before he is expected to take the reins, could actually purport, if anything at all, for future PRC policy in occupied Tibet.
Clearly the man was focused on making his US 'Valentine' visit a success in foreign relations partly in order to ensure positive press back home for his future leadership. He understood that something that sounded like a concession to mollify Biden and the US public was the most expedient way to move into the issues which China considers much more pressing: China's market economy status, anti-dumping sanctions on exports to US, restrictions on Chinese investments in the US, and ongoing sensitivity about US high tech exports to the Chinese mainland.
There is an ocean of difference between the Tibetan 'acts of self-sacrifice' and the desperate suicides for example of factory workers in the Han dominant areas in the last weeks. The Tibetan refusal to completely submit to the 62-year-old occupation is epic. Yet there was arguably as much buzz on the internet regarding depression suicides at Apple suppliers' manufacturing plants in China as there has been for this deeply saddening trend of self-sacrifice, that over the last 3 years has seen more than 15 people in the region of Kirti die of flames lit by their own hands.
International consumers of one of the most popular brands on the planet are now exposed to an appeal to their conscience. It resonates in a much more concrete, personal manner than a relatively abstract appeal to their humanity regarding a people who they have most likely never met.
The relationship between the international world and China has changed dramatically. In the past China used its potential market and manufacturing edge as a blunt carrot-and-stick approach to getting its own way, ignoring any call for modification on its Tibet policy. Today China's dependence on foreign raw materials and markets to keep its economy growing should in fact be the very reason for it not to ignore hot political issues.
Let's be clear: this is not about hoping for the world to suddenly come to its senses and realize that it actually now has the reverse economic leverage to push for human rights improvements in China. Few would entertain the thought of rocking this boat even if the odds for success were pretty good. As an official in the Tibetan government-in-exile said to me over the phone:
"It's election year in key countries. Xi himself has to make sure he enters the stage smoothly. The basic issue will always be economy. You know, human rights - well its just not the main issue."
Within China itself, real-life communism hardly needed capitalism to become corrupt.
But there is another factor that is creating the insecurity that drives the PRC to mask its paranoia with iron-fisted repression. When people feel they have nothing left to lose, it pushes them beyond their habitual inhibitions and fears. As Thomas Friedman so succinctly put it in his essay 'The Politics of Dignity' : "Humiliation is the most underestimated force in politics." As the PRC keeps ratcheting up the pressure, its own insecurity increases as people instead respond ever more boldly. The draconian internet crackdown on the phantom, post Arab Spring, "Jasmine Revolution" can only be seen as a reflection of this.
It really is up to the PRC to save itself by moving beyond blowing off human rights issues with denial or casual trivialization. It needs to read the writing on the wall, and acknowledge that the happiness and freedom of its citizens who live both within and outside that wall are the best security for the future. What's more, the international community needs to move beyond simply expressing moral outrage, and pro-actively engage with China to help resolve these issues.