"Last Words." That’s the name of the art exhibit that Beijing does not want you to see.
The piece consists of five small frames containing copies of handwritten letters — the final writings of five of the more than 140 Tibetans who’ve died by burning themselves alive in the last six years.
“We, the six million Tibetans led by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama, want independence for Tibet,” starts one. “I am setting myself on fire to protest against the Chinese government,” reads another.
Copies of the notes were on display for two days at the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh before the Chinese ambassador stopped by this week and asked the organizers to shut it down. A rep told Agence France-Presse that they felt “intimidated” and “frightened” by the request, which they then took to the artists, Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam.
Sarin and Sonam were “outraged,” they said, but also did not want to see the entire summit shuttered, so they decided to cover the letters in sheets of white paper — an act they hoped would call attention to the suppression of Tibetan stories.
“We felt that this would make a stronger statement on the nature of censorship and coercion that was taking place, particularly as 'Last Words' comments on exactly the same issues,” they said in an email to The Washington Post.
The censoring did have an impact. Supporters posted pictures of the censored and uncensored frames online, generating interest well beyond the world of art summit attendees. Wasfia Nazreen, a Bangladesh native who is a friend and colleague of the artists, posted the photographs to her Facebook page, and the images quickly spread. Institutions should not be “fearfully bowing down to any foreign government’s threats,” she said.
But sometimes they do. Though China maintains that its foreign policy is guided by the principle of "non-interference" — that is, non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries — it seems increasingly willing to assert itself across borders.
In 2009, Bangladesh police shut down a Tibet-related show at the request of the Chinese. In other cases, people have stood up to Chinese pressure — and paid a price. In 2010, when Sarin and Sonam were scheduled to screen a Tibetan documentary at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Chinese officials asked organizers to pull the film. They did not; two Chinese film entries were subsequently pulled.
The requests can border on ridiculous: This year, Chinese officials reportedly tried three times — in three countries — to ground a hot air balloon painted to look like the Tibetan flag.
Sarin and Sonam said the problem with any type of interference is that event organizers may think twice before including Tibetan artists or Tibet-themed work, just to avoid the hassle. "The danger with this kind of action is that it creates a climate of uncertainty. Self-censorship begins to creep in.”
Diplomats and rights groups also worry that Beijing’s tactics are escalating, that what starts as a strongly worded letter may end somewhere far worse.
Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, drew a line between what happened in Bangladesh this week and the apparent abductions, from Thailand and Hong Kong, of booksellers affiliated with a publishing house that specializes in gossipy books about China’s elite.
“Beijing’s growing desire to control expression inside China is rapidly mutating into a desire to control expression outside China,” she wrote.
Threatening to shut down an art show over five letters speaks to this. The question now: Will Bangladesh give Beijing final say?