Tibet’s Slow Burn

14 minute read

Even though his words could land him in jail, the monk isn’t afraid. We are inside his mud-brick lodgings, safe from the security cameras that track a people so desperate that about 130 Tibetans have torched their own bodies in fiery dissent since 2011. Clerics, farmers, herdsmen, teachers, even a 15-year-old schoolgirl have all self-immolated to protest Chinese rule. Here, in the hills around Labrang Monastery, one of the holiest sites in Tibetan Buddhism, a dozen people have chosen such incendiary suicide against the Chinese authorities. In the ensuing security crackdown, communist minders have instructed local clergy not to talk about politics or anything that might harm the illusion of serenity. Yet this monk, who was ordained when he was 11 years old, speaks out. “The Chinese government has stolen our holy place,” he says, “and turned it into a tourist destination.”

For much of the year, the whitewashed labyrinth of Labrang, in the barren furrows of northwest China’s Gansu province, heaves with tourists from China’s Han ethnic majority, who make up some 90% of the country’s population. Some are pilgrims searching for meaning in a society in which neither communism nor capitalism offers spiritual succor. Others are members of China’s expanding middle class, exhilarated by a newfound freedom to travel. Even the memory of the 2008 violence between Han and Tibetans, which resulted in dozens of deaths and an ensuing security clampdown, hasn’t dissuaded the domestic visitors. While overseas tourism in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) has dwindled because the government now only sporadically lets in foreigners, 13 million Han Chinese vacationed there last year, arriving via newly built roads, railways and airports. A decade ago, only 1 million visited. In the summer, the grasslands near Labrang, one of many Tibetan areas outside the TAR proper, are so crowded with Han campers that the vegetation is rubbed bare.

The grim news of Tibetans setting themselves on fire has forced the world to confront the intensity of despair on the high plateau. But this anguish remains a mystery to many Han. The authorities have poured billions of dollars into the region through infrastructure and investment. Tourism to Tibetan areas is seen as another key driver of growth. China’s ethnic policy—not just for Tibetans but also for the Uighurs of the northwestern region of Xin­jiang—is based on the premise that financial betterment will convince minorities of the utility of Han rule. Such is the intoxicating mix of fresh air and fattening wallets that local propaganda czars have deemed the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, China’s “happiest city.”

Chinese officials—and many Chinese citizens—wonder why a dramatic increase in Tibetan living standards has not sated a people whom, the official line goes, were enslaved by god-kings until the People’s Liberation Army arrived in 1950. Beijing blames the wave of self-immolations on the current Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who escaped to India after a failed uprising in 1959. The exiled monk maintains he has no role in orchestrating the suicides. “This is very, very sad,” he told TIME in February, while visiting Washington. “Human life is very, very precious.”

Government oppression of ethnic minorities is hardly unique to China. But the pace of change in Tibet and neighboring Xin­jiang, where Islam is the dominant faith, has added urgency to the plight of China’s ethnic peoples. Among these minority populations, there is a sense that some of China’s borderlands are under siege by the Han, and some of those who can—which is not very many people at all—are trying to flee. Whether their destinations are Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia or elsewhere, Tibetans and Uighur refugees can find themselves forcibly repatriated—often into Chinese detention. Such is the diplomatic might of Beijing in an age of Chinese economic ascendancy. Meanwhile, ethnic violence is bubbling up, whether the inward attacks of the Tibetan self-immolators or, more troublingly, deadly assaults on civilians blamed on Uighurs. In the bloodiest terror attack this year, explosions at a market in Xin­jiang’s capital, Urumqi, on May 22 claimed 43 lives, including those of the assailants. Authorities blamed the attack on Uighur separatists.

Such bloodshed has elicited harsh official reprisals. Hundreds of locals in Xin­jiang and Tibetan regions have been rounded up by the authorities. Online and cell-phone communication is often severed, leaving all residents—not just those who might be guilty—in the dark. On a trip to Xin­jiang in late April, China’s President Xi Jinping hailed police, who are mostly Han, as the “fists and daggers” in the battle against terrorism and separatism. “Sweat more in peacetime to bleed less in wartime,” Xi was quoted as saying in Chinese state media. Many Han—still grieving over a spree of terrorism blamed on Uighurs, ignorant of the daily repression of ethnic minorities and puzzled over their unwillingness to unite in a rising China—welcomed their leader’s strong stand.

The Money God

No doubt, economic development has transformed Tibetan areas, with billboards for iPhones towering over gold-tipped stupas. Although Han monopolize the best state jobs, Tibetans with Mandarin-language skills enjoy newfound career opportunities as guides, traders, trinket-shop owners and even lamas who can translate their faith to Han devotees. One in 10 Tibetans in Tibet is now employed by the tourism industry. “It’s naive to say that all the money is going to the Han,” says James Leibold, a senior lecturer at La Trobe University in Melbourne, who visited Lhasa last year. “Tibetans are profiting too.” The Dalai Lama told TIME, “We Tibetans also want more modernization.”

But money alone cannot erase the sense that Tibet is under enemy control. Power in Tibetan terrain continues to reside in outside hands. No Tibetan has ever held the TAR’s highest political position, that of the region’s Communist Party secretary. Hopes that President Xi, who took power in late 2012 from hard-liner Hu Jin­tao, would nurture cultural reforms have stagnated. If anything, government restrictions on worship—nearly all Tibetans adhere to local Buddhist traditions—have tightened across the plateau, as security forces crack down on anyone believed to be connected to the self-immolations. Hundreds have been jailed, some just for watching the burnings, according to international human-rights groups.

In Lhasa, the region’s spiritual heart, Tibet­ans cannot complete pilgrimages without enduring a cavalcade of police checks. Some are turned away. Meanwhile, tourists with Han faces tend to get waved through. Facing an onslaught of Han visitors—not to mention a flood of migrants from elsewhere in China who hope to make their fortunes in this harsh, distant land—some Tibetans fear they could one day become minorities in their homeland. Although 90% of Tibet is still Tibetan, only a few hundred Han lived in Lhasa before the People’s Republic was formed in 1949. In January a group of Han celebrities led a power walk of 1,000 people through Lhasa. The fresh-air campaign was widely covered by state media, with one Han movie star known for his devotion to Tibetan Buddhism dubbed an ambassador for Lhasa. “Imagine, if even 10 Tibetans gathered together in Lhasa, the secret police would immediately arrest us,” says Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan activist and poet who divides her time between Lhasa and Beijing. “The Han have political rights in Tibet that we lack. It makes us feel our own absence of power more strongly.”

Such existential angst coincides with a fascination for all things Tibetan in the rest of China. Newly pious Han are donating money for the renovation of monasteries—some of the same monasteries whose monks have been locked up for allegedly associating with self-immolators. Rich Chinese are bidding at auction for antique thangkas, the Buddhist prayer paintings, and studying versions of the Tibetan faith in faraway Beijing. “The most attractive thing about Tibetan Buddhism to me is that it adores nature,” says Wang Xinmin, a 29-year-old believer who worships in the Chinese capital. “It gives you a lot of freedom.” An April headline in the Communist Party–linked Global Times proclaimed “Young Han Chinese Turn to Tibetan Buddhism Amid Worldly Frustrations,” quoting one devotee who thinks that “it is even cooler to sing Tibetan prayers in hip-hop!” Although statistics on Han converts don’t exist, one Tibetan lama has more than a million followers on Weibo, China’s micro­blogging service. Another cleric’s spiritual tome sold 50,000 copies in a fortnight. Rumors proliferate about top Chinese leaders whose relatives have embraced Tibetan Buddhism—this in an officially atheist communist nation. “Tibetan Buddhist tradition is of immense benefit to millions of Chinese Buddhists,” said the Dalai Lama.

Yet, when speaking to Han who have visited Tibetan regions recently, I was struck that no one knew how common self-immolations had become. With the proliferation of information available online, Chinese are increasingly adept at parsing the state media’s censored coverage. Clumsy propaganda gets ridiculed, official silences are questioned. Yet such discernment doesn’t often extend to Tibet. “I’m not sure if stories of people burning themselves are real or fake,” says Gong Lin, an IT professional from the southern Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen, who visited Lhasa last year on vacation. “I think I would have heard more about it if it were true.”

Most Han are ignorant about the plight of Tibetans. They don’t know that at Tibetan monasteries, monks must regularly denounce the Dalai Lama in “political rectification” classes. In Labrang, government notices, written only in Tibetan, proscribe clergy from lighting incense or yak-butter lamps. Often, the men in robes don’t abide by the directive—one notice I saw in a monastic compound was pasted under a picture of the Dalai Lama, which is itself a banned image. But the weight of prohibition enervates the place. Even news of a $27 million renovation of the 300-year-old Labrang complex is freighted with bitterness. “It’s just being done for tourists,” says one monk, unable to see any good in Han motives. “The [Han] Chinese, they come to pray, but they understand nothing about us.”

In Tibet, politics cannot be cleaved from faith. Many Han, however, embrace the instruments of Tibetan Buddhist piety—the mystical texts, the prayer wheels, the bright mandalas—without acknowledging the desperation of monks who light matches to end their lives. Questioning Han faithful isn’t fair—who am I to say who is a true believer? Han are drawn to Tibetan Buddhism for the same reason foreign seekers have long been: an aura of purity floats over Tibetan lands. Besides, if worshippers are drawn to Tibetan Buddhism precisely for its otherworldly calm, can we really expect them to adopt political outrage as a mantra? Ethnic causes court trouble in China. “There are several taboos in China, and one is the Tibet and Xin­jiang issue,” says Hu Jia, a Han democracy advocate in Beijing. “These places are like military occupation zones, with police and soldiers everywhere. The heavy-handed policies are even more severe than in Han areas.”

The Ethnic Divide

Like americans faced with the conundrum of holding territory once possessed by native peoples, the vast majority of Han take as fact that Tibet is an inalienable part of China—and has been for centuries. Alternate narratives don’t resonate. Complicating matters is the typecasting of Tibetans (and Uighurs, even more) as an unpredictable, martial tribe. It is true that history is filled with battles between Han soldiers and Tibetan forces; over the centuries, Tibet­ans also clashed with Mongols, Manchus, Gurkhas, Uighurs and Muslim Hui. Wrapped in a gauze of tranquility, Tibet­an Buddhism may be gaining influential Han acolytes, but Tibet itself denotes danger. Many Han tourists see the stifling security presence in Lhasa and other Tibetan sites as reassuring, not Orwellian. “The Han majority tends to carry a racist attitude toward Tibet­ans,” says La Trobe University’s Leibold. “There’s a fear because they are different.”

Ethnic tourism is a complicated issue for many countries—how authentic an experience is a sweat-lodge ceremony at a Native American reservation? Isn’t there a whiff of exoticism about watching any people in native dress performing ancient rituals for iPhone-toting visitors? But the difference is this: most Americans, at least glancingly, know that the U.S. government’s extermination of indigenous populations is a shameful part of history. Many Han tourists, by contrast, simply do not know that they are considered the colonizers.

The Dalai Lama has consistently called for a middle ground with China. “We are not seeking independence,” he told Time. “We are seeking general autonomy.” Decades of propaganda about a “wolf in monk’s clothing” have not dulled Tibetan reverence for him. Most self-immolators are believed to have used their dying breaths to call for the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet. For now, the exiled monk’s moderate stance holds sway. But once the 78-year-old cleric passes from the scene, separatist sentiment may harden. If violence explodes, as last happened in 2008 when dozens of Tibetans and Han died, what will happen to the tourism industry that the Chinese government says is so vital to regional development?

Back at the Labrang Monastery, cement mixers churn, as the government-funded renovation proceeds. Tibetan pilgrims prostrate themselves, their bodies flung forth on dirt paths in veneration; undercover security agents, not very well disguised, watch them crawl past. A Han tourist snaps a photo. On the road into Xiahe, the town next to Labrang, I see a propaganda sign that commands, “Hold High the Flag of the Communist Party. Satisfy the People.” I last visited Xiahe eight years ago. As in many places in China, the building boom is such that I recognize nearly nothing from my last visit. Then, the town was predominantly Tibetan. Today, it is neatly divided: a Disneyfied Tibet­an section, with Han and Muslim Hui shopkeepers selling Buddhist amulets and yak key rings, and a Han part—tiled buildings, blue glass windows, karaoke parlors—that could be any place in China.

Across Xiahe are signs warning of imprisonment for anyone who aids self-immolations or fails to report information that could stop them. Near the junction of the two halves of town—Han and Tibetan—is the local Public Security Bureau. It was in front of this symbol of the Chinese state that a 58-year-old Tibetan farmer drenched himself with fuel and set himself on fire in October 2012. (A day before, a herdsman had self-immolated at Labrang itself.) I talk to a Tibetan monk who happened to be passing by the government office when the farmer burned himself two years ago. “I do not think he was a hero,” he says, mindful of the Buddhist proscription on suicide. “But I know he was doing it for his people, and I respect his bravery.” What else does the monk recall from that day? He thinks for a moment and wraps his burgundy robes around himself. “I remember,” the young monk says, “that he glowed for a very long time.”

— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Labrang and Elizabeth Dias / Washington

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com