On October 1, China’s National Day, Tibetans' flames of protest erupted in the Sichuan, fanning a tired message of independence and religious freedom. Two teenage Tibetan monks set themselves on fire during a protest, demanding the return of the Dalai Lama and for Tibetan autonomy.
The self-immolation conjures images of the Tunisian fruit vendor who sparked the Arab Spring, making this uprising fit neatly into a web of agitation that has been rippling across the globe. But as much as we like to be hopeful, it is also easy to highlight the cracks in the Tibetan movement against a canvas of vivid revolution — Tibet deserves freedom, but its narrow political message will not capture the imagination of the people who matter most.
This is certainly not the first time that Tibet has agitated for independence. Their social message is idealistic and fits squarely under what the democratic world views as basic human rights: independence, and more importantly, religious freedom, which have both been denied of them since the PRC’s rule in the mid-1900s.
Tibetan activism has a problem of ideology. The Arab Spring took flight because the similar economic and political plight expressed by the multitude was easily relatable to the general populace. Even America’s Occupy Wall Street expresses a general discontent that can rally just about any group of dissatisfied people. In contrast, Tibet makes a case for religious freedom as the centerpiece of their revolution, and as an isolated people in a generally atheist country, this simply does not generate enough interest. Perhaps the fact that five young monks had to self-immolate before Tibetan discontent made it into the news cycle shows just how uninterested the world has become in Tibet's plight.
Moreover, on a more practical level, Tibetans simply do not have the manpower to agitate effectively against China. The entirety of Tibet’s population is about 5.4 million, and as the most recent protest showed, protests only draw a couple hundred to protest out in the open. No matter how vocal they may be, they are no more than a slight nuisance to be dealt with for the Chinese government, who has shown that it can strike hard when it needs to.
It is also not something that can capture the imagination of the Chinese people – for most Chinese people, religion is not seen as a lifestyle, but a hobby or leisurely activity. The way China censored and mystified the spiritual Fa Lun Gong movement in the past decade also created a great deal of social stigma against blatant spirituality.
Finally, it would be difficult to argue that China has been the evil overlord for Tibet, or that it would be even better able to govern itself if it gained more autonomy. Like any effective imperialist, China has greatly improved Tibetan infrastructure, instituted health care services and insurance, and has doubled the Tibetan population in the past 50 years. If Tibet were a territory of the United States, perhaps they would have a chance in winning this war of ideals. However, they are currently under the iron grip of a heavy-handed government that prizes development over all else.
This is not to say that Tibetans should abandon their goals of achieving autonomy and welcoming their spiritual leader back home. What Tibetans need to do in order to succeed is broaden their rallying message, perhaps to appeal to rural Chinese in Sichuan and nearby areas — change it from one specifically aimed at Tibetans and their freedom, and appeal to the general discontent of the Chinese masses. Looking at “successful” movements like Occupy Wall Street, it matters little what the message of the protest is until it gains a critical mass large enough for people to pay attention, and being exclusive is hardly going to do Tibetans any favors in drawing the eyes of the international and domestic community they are trying to reach out to.
As China is so isolationist, Tibetans are going to have to reach out for local instead of international support. If it does not, the flames of agitation set ablaze by those five young monks will be smothered.
Photo Credit: Monster Pete