Last week, seven Tibetans set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule and political oppression. These self-immolations have increased in frequency immediately before and during the weeklong Communist Party’s 18th National Congress, during which party chairman and president Hu Jintao will cede his posts to his successor, Xi Jinping.
A few statistics stand out when one considers the recent surge of Tibetan self-immolations, which have been concentrated in the city of Tongren. The first is the sheer number of individuals that have participated: according to the Tibetan government-in-exile, 69 have set themselves on fire, and 54 have perished. Second, an overwhelming majority of these were males between the ages of 18 and 22. The protesters are the same age as college students. However, unlike student activists at Harvard who organize campaigns, picket, and demonstrate, the Tibetans have chosen a much more drastic route, mainly because heavy Chinese control and oppressive tactics make most forms of protest nearly impossible.
How effective is this strategy of protest? It seems to depend largely on domestic and global contexts. The Chinese government currently has many priorities besides Tibet; the country is involved in nationalist posturing with Japan and Southeast Asian countries over island and maritime territories, and the Communist Party is focused on its transfer of power. To contrast, the single self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia sparked protests that toppled the longtime authoritarian presidency of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and triggered the Arab Spring throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In 1963, the image of South Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc’s burning body prompted widespread criticism of the Ngo Dinh Diem government, which led to attempted reforms and increased civil strife.
In both cases, public suicides were combined with other, deeper social pressures. Most importantly, self-immolation became the symbol of those grievances. It is unclear whether the Tibetans have been able to make this connection in the public eye. Firstly, drastic individual protest requires widespread media coverage. Much has been written about the powerful role of social media during the Arab Spring. An image of Thich Quang Duc spread all over the world and won its photographer, Malcolm Browne, a Pulitzer Prize. Where is that powerful disseminating force in Tibet? Admittedly, the role of the media is severely hampered by the Chinese communist regime, and the events in Tibet have been covered by countless international news agencies. But other stories have also been dominating the airwaves and social media: the American presidential election, the continuing Euro crisis, and the violence in Syria have diverted attention away from other, important stories.
Compare the attention we devote to Tibet now to the focus we gave immediately before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when widespread protests and violence led to a Chinese crackdown. At that time, the international community vocally supported the Tibetan movement; now, there is almost no global response. If we want the situation in Tibet to improve, we have the responsibility of effectively promulgating the news of protests to create international pressure against the new government of Xi Jinping.
Photo credit: flickr.com