“Almost all of them were born after the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the Cultural Revolution,” Lobsang Sangay, the political leader of the refugee community’s India-based government-in-exile, said of the protesters. “They have grown up in the Chinese system, received Chinese education. They are the primary beneficiaries of whatever the Chinese government gave them. They are saying, ‘This is not what we want.’ ”
Last week alone, seven people doused themselves in gasoline and set themselves on fire in eastern Tibet, including two cousins in their 20s who called for “freedom for Tibet” before setting themselves ablaze in front of a government building. At least 62 people have set themselves on fire in Tibet since February 2009, and all but nine are known to have died, the Free Tibet group says.
It is not certain whether the latest acceleration of the protests is timed to send a signal to the Chinese Communist Party Congress, which will meet beginning Nov. 8 to install a new leadership in Beijing.
Nevertheless, the protests appear to have embarrassed the Chinese leadership, which has responded by intensifying its crackdown, activists and scholars say.
China says it rescued the Tibetan people from medieval serfdom under the Dalai Lama’s theocratic rule when it took over in 1950, and in recent years it has poured money into the region for roads, a high-speed railway and projects such as rural electrification.
It blames the self-immolations on what it says are the previous leadership’s attempts to split the country. “This is shameful and should be condemned,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news conference last week.
But many Tibetans appear to view the protesters as heroes, sometimes trying to prevent the removal of their bodies by Chinese police, laying ceremonial scarves at protest sites or paying tribute to their families.
“Tibetans are responding to China’s repressive policies, to seeing their neighbors, friends and families attacked, harassed, beaten and jailed,” said Lhadon Tethong, director of the Tibet Action Institute. “The self-immolations are a response to escalating repression, which the Chinese meet with more repression, and we are in this vicious cycle.”
In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Tibet was engulfed in protests and riots that saw hundreds killed and thousands arrested. Since then, China has tightened its grip on the high plateau, in what many Tibetans have described as an attack on their language, religion and culture.