Is apartheid alive and well in Tibet?

2013-03-27 10:47
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Tibetans protest against Chinese rule

Here is a collection of images of Tibetans carrying out protests, including self-immolation, against the occupation of Tibet by China.

The irony will not be lost on many News 24 readers that just days after South Africa celebrates its Human Rights Day, the man at the head of the world's largest dictatorship pays a visit as part of his first overseas trip since assuming the presidency of his country. Xi Jinping wants the world to pay attention to the so-called Chinese economic miracle, to China’s growing influence on the world, to its investments in Africa and beyond.

He wants to hide the fact that China is an occupying power in Tibet, that the abuse of Tibetans' human rights is routine and flagrant, and that the people of that country are marginalised and discriminated against because of their ethnicity and culture. In particular, he would like that issue hidden in South Africa. 

Since March 2011, more than 100 people in Tibet have doused themselves in petrol and set themselves alight in protest against the Chinese regime and its 63-year occupation. More than two thirds were under 25. Most have died.

All but one of those who self-immolated never knew a Tibet that was free, and yet so deep is their opposition to Chinese rule, and so deep their sense that other options are closed to them, that they have been willing to take this most extreme and shocking form of protest. Why?

The first answer is obvious: The Chinese occupation depends on the brutal suppression of free speech, expressions of Tibetan identity and any form of protest. Self-immolation protests began in Ngaba, where in 2008, Chinese security forces opened fire with live ammunition on a crowd of unarmed protesters; killing at least 13, including a 16-year-old girl.

In each of the last three years, the anniversary of this massacre has been marked by a self-immolation protest in the town. Undeterred, the Chinese used lethal force against protesters on three separate occasions in just one week in January 2012. The sense of grievance is deep.

Suppression of religious life

Despite the risks, Tibetans continue to protest in many ways, as individuals and in mass demonstrations. The catalyst for these protests is the suppression of Tibetan culture. Last November, hundreds of students took to the streets in protest against new schoolbooks which marginalised the Tibetan language and denigrated their culture.

Students in Tibet are taught in Chinese, with their own language relegated to the occasional lesson, and Chinese is the language of higher education and business, more of which below.

Another profound grievance is the suppression of religious life. The postcard image of Tibet is the stunning Potala Palace, the traditional residence of the Dalai Lama, formerly Tibet's spiritual and political leader. The 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 and has been exiled ever since.
While the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches have just installed new leaders with great pomp and ceremony, simply carrying a picture of the Dalai Lama in Tibet will get you beaten and jailed.
Tibet is a profoundly religious culture, and monasteries are central to community life. Some 6 000 monasteries were destroyed by the Chinese, monks and nuns are subject to political control and "patriotic re-education", which frequently involves being forced to denounce the Dalai Lama.

China says this Nobel Laureate "harbours evil" and "speaks nothing but lies". South Africa got its own taste of Chinese vitriol regarding the Dalai Lama when it was bullied into refusing him entry to attend Archbishop Tutu's birthday celebrations in 2011.

Explicit racism
Tibetans are now second-class citizens in their own country. Tibet covers an area the size of Western Europe but its ethnic population is less than that of Johannesburg and its suburbs. Since the invasion, it has been subject to an active policy of immigration by Han Chinese. According to the Tibetan government-in-exile, Chinese now outnumber Tibetans in the capital Lhasa by three-to-one. While the governor of the so-called Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) is Tibetan, the role is subservient to the regional Communist party chief – who is, and always has been, ethnically Chinese.

Chinese investment in Tibet has not favoured Tibetans. Illiteracy in urban areas in the Tibetan Autonomous region stands at 40% - in the neighbouring Chinese province of Sichuan, it is 3.6%. Because Chinese is the language of higher education and business, even poor Chinese immigrants are considered to be "better" educated. Tibetan graduates end up performing manual labour because the top jobs are taken by Chinese immigrants. Urban property prices are driven up and Tibetans are unable to afford them.

In an interview with CBS late last year, one young Tibetan expressed the problem very clearly: "The Chinese people always look at us in a strange way. They don't believe we are normal, or human." When travelling in other parts of China, "Sometimes there is a sign on the door that says no Tibetans or minorities. The racism is so explicit."

Fuelled by frustration and despair, the self-immolation protest peaked in November 2012, just as Xi Jinping was anointed head of the Communist Party of China. Since then, an intense crackdown has taken place across Tibet; communications restrictions, arbitrary detentions, show trials, punitive sentencing and acidic propaganda.

As Xi Jinping shows his statesman-like face to South Africa and the world, he would rather that no attention was paid to Tibet – to the military occupation of an independent nation, to the routine abuse of human rights and the creation of a society in which ethnic status determines social, economic and political status. In South Africa, that's a situation that should never be ignored.

-    Free Tibet is a London-based international campaign group advocating an end to China’s occupation of Tibet and self-determination for the Tibetan people.
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