#1 in a series of three blogs on self-immolation and the roots of the blindness of China’s central leaders


Three existential questions gnaw at Tibetans and their friends worldwide.

Why do so many Tibetans carefully and premeditatedly flame themselves publicly to death?

Why does the world barely notice this unending chain of protest suicides?

Why are China’s new leaders so utterly deaf to the unmistakable deep unhappiness of the six million Tibetans?

The first question is at least answerable. The 100 or more Tibetans who have burned themselves to death over the past two years have all called for freedom, an end to repression, and for cultural space for Tibetan civilisation to breathe, and retain its strengths. Tibetans, mostly young, have discovered a distinctive, non-violent, deeply Tibetan way of confronting China’s leaders with the disastrous failure of China’s arrogant civilising mission in Tibet. Burning the body, while hurting no-one else, is not a Tibetan discovery, still less a Tibetan tradition, but it has become the defining way of rallying fellow Tibetans to resist, at any price, China’s assimilationist agenda.

Because the question is answerable, the questions that then arise are much harder to answer. Why do China’s leaders, and the wider world, ignore this utterly unambiguous, almost daily cry of protest?

The rest of the world cannot bear to look. The available footage of men and women deliberately dousing themselves with kerosene, even swallowing it before applying the match, are too much reality for the evening news viewer to bear. Even where free media are not subject to official censorship, the news channels self-censor, for fear of upsetting viewers. Since the self-immolation is usually the only footage of a meaningful life and death, there is nothing to show, which means it is not news. No picture, no story. So the second question also has an answer.

The third question seems unanswerable. China’s official response is that these deliberate deaths by burning are terrorism, and a plot instigated by evil external forces led by the Dalai Lama. This stubbornly denies the obvious, that the Tibetans who burn themselves are heroes whose courage and resolve is deeply admired by almost all Tibetans. These deaths speak a language beyond language, unmistakably telling China that its modernising project in Tibet transgresses the purpose of life, as Tibetans know it.

If China’s leaders were to hear these cries for freedom, they would have to question official policy, contemplate state failure, question their own sinicising, civilising, colonising purposes. The utter denial of the obvious is a denial of a ground truth that questions China’s great rise to comprehensive national power. Denial becomes necessary when the alternative is so subversive.

Ordinary Chinese with their eyes open, such as  Xu Zhiyong, went to the homes of Tibetans who burned themselves, to see the evident truth, and pay their respects. Lawyer Xu wrote: “I am sorry we Han Chinese have been silent as Nangdrol and his fellow Tibetans are dying for freedom. We are victims ourselves, living in estrangement, infighting, hatred and destruction. We share this land. It’s our shared home, our shared responsibility, our shared dream — and it will be our shared deliverance.”

But official China can make no such human response, for fear that the entire edifice of Chinese modernity, the China model of state capitalism, the assimilationist pedagogy of “civilising” the primitive Tibetans, will unravel. In order to answer the third question requires a deep dive into Chinese history, into mental maps, the framing of China’s problems and their solutions. China’s official incapacity to hear a cry for freedom has, it seems, a long lineage. It is a long and complex story of buried assumptions, naturalised categories, embedded mindsets, national trajectories, dominant discourses, master narratives and silenced subalterns. By the end of this long journey we might actually undo the ready answers to the first two questions, or reconsider them afresh.

We go back to Japan in the 19th century to find the roots of official China’s blindness today, to the invention of religion as a category that means the opposite of everything scientific, rational, modern and progressive. We must detour into long-forgotten debates about the meaning of revolution, the direction of history, the identity of nations, the dis/continuities of Chinese culture, and even to the meaning of life, as understood by Tibetans and today’s Chinese. Only after taking this winding road do we arrive back in the here and now, with eyes open.

This could get quite personal, telling us anew who we global moderns are, why we hanker after spirituality but want to stay away from religion; how we relish the material world but want to transcend it;  why we yearn to be unique, but to belong. It is not all about them, as if the China model is anything other than our own hopes and fears, sped up and in our faces.

This starts way back, when Japan discovered it needed a word for “religion”, to deal with the demands of the intrusive West, backed by warships. Japan had never conceptualised “religion” as a realm of human activity separate from the rest of life, still less that there could be many “religions”, each with equal claim to headspace.

The way religion was defined as the antithesis of progress, science and reason, continues to resonate today. China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, in almost all his speeches, refers to China’s rise, China’s renaissance, China’s rejuvenation, both as the national mission and his mission. Nothing can stand in the way of fulfilling this destiny. Social forces that by definition are opposed to progress, that hold productive forces in green-brained superstition, must be resolutely opposed at every turn. China’s mission has been the overarching goal for a century and a half, ever since the Western powers revealed the powerlessness of old China. The struggle to rejuvenate China’s strength is a continuity that includes the Manchu Qing dynasty, the Republican Kuomintang era, the revolutionary quarter century under Mao, and state capitalist China of today. This is not about communism’s hostility to religion. It goes deeper, is more persistent. A mission is a mission, a concept taken from both the military and the militant Christian churches, to define the core purpose for the existence of the state. A state that succeeds in fulfilling its mission to make the country strong cannot tolerate a religion that regards the national mission as a trivial distraction from the deeper purpose of life, to understand the mind.

Xi Jinping says: “The Chinese dream can be said to be the dream of a strong nation; and for the military, it is the dream of a strong military. We must achieve the great revival of the Chinese nation, and we must ensure there is unison between a prosperous country and a strong military, striving to build and consolidate national defense and a powerful military.”[1] China is now getting close to fulfilling a mission that united dynastic reformers, republicans, intellectuals, war lords, revolutionaries, bureaucrats and business leaders for more than a century. With success in sight, nothing must be allowed to drag China backwards. These are the best of times that China has experienced in thousands of years, as is often said in China, and nothing must halt China’s rise.

It is not only the religion of the Tibetans, but the stubborn religiosity of the Tibetan people that threatens to tear apart this tumultuous and fragile rise. The Tibetans as a nation have been singularly resistant to the assimilationist agenda of the rise of a unified, harmonious China under the natural leadership of the Han Chinese.

That is the grand narrative of the party-state, which has steadily solidified in recent decades, becoming self-evident, naturalised, taken for granted as obviously successful. Yet the roots of this master discourse are grounded in a series of binary opposites that define themselves by what they are not. Science, as a major engine of prosperity and national strength, defines itself as the opposite of superstition. The modernising state has every right and reason to sweep away and repress superstitions, because they hold back productivity. Superstition and religion, in China, are separate categories that largely negate each other. Religion is defined as a coherent body of doctrines, a systematic set of teachings, in Japanese shukyo, which, in the 19th century became the Chinese zongjiao. This definition suited the Christian missionaries planning to proselytise the Japanese and Chinese, because the definition is modelled on Christianity and creates a marketplace of competing doctrines to choose from. Muscular Christianity knew how to compete.

Shukyo/zongjiao repackages Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism,  as an –ism, an institutionalised package of doctrines enshrined in massive monasteries whose existence challenges the state, offering the masses an alternative centre of loyalty and identity. The very existence of institutional Buddhism is a threat to state power, a perception nursed by China’s emperors all the way back to the mid T’ang dynasty in 845 AD. The Buddhists of China and Tibet, whose focus is on the experimental discovery of the nature of mind, not on adherence to prepackaged doctrine, have struggled ever since to be understood. Even now, people worldwide who are born into material prosperity and seek a transcendent spirituality, are adamant that they want nothing to do with organised religion and its doctrines. That religion and spirituality are opposites is self-evident to such seekers, who have swallowed whole the modernist message that organised religion is the cause of most of the conflict in the world.

Thus it seems China’s animosity to the religion of Tibet is deepseated. Yet everything changes, even the blind awaken. In the next blog in this series of three, we take a fresh look at contemporary Chinese modernity as a project for providing meaning in life.

[1] New York Times 14 December 2012

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1 Comment

  1. Having read some of these articles on the problem of the incompatibility of the official Chinese view and Tibetan culture, it seems to me this is a universal problem.
    Nomadic people and gypsies of Europe are treated terribly by all ruling governments. They are often seen as untameable, unclean, unlawful, disruptive, often considered ignorant and unintelligent and a threat to property owners and the uniform cultural norms accepted by or imposed on the masses by those in power. Separate from ‘religious’ views’ these nomadic peoples are thought of as being in the way, using land which governments, corporations and individual land owners wish to possess, exploit and control for politicl strategic ends as well as financial profit. As well as by their nature causing an instability to the control of the general populace, modernity may be seen as held back by people outside the status quo but even before so called ‘modernity’ historically they have been regarded as a threat to the ‘stable’ control and running of life by governments.
    These people are seen as a threat all around the world by the forces of extreme materialism and those who wish to control and exploit resources and people. Sadly it seems that the sad terrible acts of desperation by Tibetans will be treated in a quite similar way to the way western and other governments throughout the world treat the indigenous people’s and nomadic peoples of the earth. Despicably.

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