Tibet is burning

Tibet is burning January 18, 2013

Let me commend for your reading this AP article by reporter Gillian Wong on the military crack down in Tibet. Entitled “As Tibet burns, China makes arrests, seizes TVs” this article reports on the wave of self-immolations that have swept across Tibet in protest to the Chinese regime’s occupation of the region.

It opens with a strong lede, provides the facts in a straight forward – balanced way, offers good comments from knowledgeable experts, provides the principle points of view — all while being written under a Beijing dateline (which means the reporter can find herself severely discommoded by the government for reporting unpalatable truths.)

The article opens:

Chinese authorities are responding to an intensified wave of Tibetan self-immolation protests against Chinese rule by clamping down even harder – criminalizing the suicides, arresting protesters’ friends and even confiscating thousands of satellite TV dishes.

The harsh measures provide an early indication that the country’s new leadership is not easing up on Tibet despite the burning protests and international condemnation.

For months, as Tibetans across western China doused themselves in gasoline and set themselves alight, authorities responded by sending in security forces to seal off areas and prevent information from getting out, but those efforts did not stop or slow the protests. The self-immolations even accelerated in November as China’s ruling Communist Party held a pivotal leadership transition.

There is a strong religious component to the story:

Nearly 100 Tibetan monks, nuns and lay people have set themselves on fire since 2009, calling for Beijing to allow greater religious freedom and the return from exile of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Speaking technically, (e.g., removing the subject of the story and looking at its construction, language and the reporter’s craft) this is a superior news story — it has all the elements of good journalism. And when you add in the compelling subject matter of religious freedom and political self-determination for Tibet you have a great story.

Were I to add anything to this story, it would be a paragraph or two on what the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan Buddhist tradition has to say about self-immolation. Buddhism holds that human life is sacred — how does suicide as political/religious protest stand in light of these teachings?

My sense is that a reporter writing from Beijing can only go so far down this path before they find their visa cancelled. One telephone call to a leader of the Tibetan exile community in a story might pass police muster — direct quotes or a response from the Dalai Lama would be too much. An informed reader should look at the dateline of an article — the location where the story was written often placed in parentheses at the beginning of an article — so as to understand how to read the story. A dateline of Beijing as opposed to Hong Kong or Tokyo for this story says very different things. Let the reader understand.

Informed Western readers of this article are likely to come to this story with the knowledge the Arab Spring began with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia. Older readers will remember the self-immolation of Buddhist monks during the Vietnam war in protest to the South Vietnamese government’s policies. Is this the tradition in Tibet?

Not according to the Tibetan government in exile. They released a You-Tube video this past summer that looks into this question — noting the first Tibetan self-immolation took place in 2008.  The video received little news attention when it was released, and I do hope that it is picked up by the press now that the Chinese government has pushed this issue into the limelight with its crackdown.

What say you GR readers? Is an extra sentence or paragraph necessary to explain the religious “why” question behind this story? Or, given the threat of censorship from Chinese government that hovers over all Tibet or religion (think House Churches, Falun Gong) stories, is it incumbent upon the reader to approach these stories with a modicum of wisdom — knowing that he will only hear part of the story?


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3 responses to “Tibet is burning”

  1. Is an extra sentence or paragraph necessary to explain the religious “why” question behind this story?

    (At some point the Get Religion question is to step all the way back and ask, do we need to explain what religion is? Other than some private style of worship consistent with what the State allows.)

    For those of us who think “why yes I do want to understand whether self-immolation is consistent with Buddhist religion, because in my religion…,” a sentence or two would be nice.

    It’s hard to tell if an explanation of the religious context is off the table so that Gillian Wong will not lose her Visa (quite reasonable because some reporting is better than no reporting), or if it is off the table because it is irrelevant. Sadly, religion is immaterialist for the materialist. “Religion is poison” according to Mao in the video.

    I appreciate that Ms. Wong did include a clear picture of the conflict between the secular government and the Buddhists, e.g. “Earlier this month, senior Chinese leader Yu Zhengsheng visited a prefecture in Sichuan at the center of the self-immolations, urging Buddhist clergy to be patriotic and denouncing the Dalai Lama.”

    Also, Willy Lam “said that Chinese leaders expected the Tibetan cause to dissipate once the elderly Dalai Lama dies.” I thought the Dalai Lama reincarnates? Way too much to explain?

    And Wong ends her story with a final word from Wang Lixiong, “it appears on the surface that everything is peaceful and tranquil in this society … but this harmony is entirely false.”

  2. I think a sentence or two on the history of the practice would be helpful. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-immolation has a good overview which shows that the practice is very very ancient and was done for both political and religious reasons.

    “Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks” records five monastics who self-immolated on the Zhongnan Mountains in response to the 574-577 persecution of Buddhism by Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou

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