written on the 63rd anniversary of the Tibetan national uprising
Jianli Yang and Rongbin Zhang
March 10, 2022
The recent passing of Tsewang Norbu, a 25-year-old Tibetan singer in Tibet, due to major injuries sustained after his self-immolation protest in front of the Potala palace in Lhasa against the current Chinese Communist government led by Xi Jinping, shows once again the dire situation that Tibetans have been in since China invaded Tibet more than 6 decades ago.
Tibetans are a largely peaceful people and tend to mind their own business, as shown by their neutrality during both 20th-century world wars. During this time, the strong influence of Buddhism in Tibet helped prevent the country from entering those wars, war being the trend of the world then as now, as the Russian army launching war by invading sovereign Ukraine territory demonstrates.
But even Tibetans experienced their breaking point and moved away from peace when China’s People’s Liberation Army marched into sovereign Tibetan territory shortly after 1949. Tibetan reaction culminated in the unsuccessful 10th March Uprising in 1959, which continues to be commemorated to this day.
This uprising was launched against the Chinese army and its overarching authority, which was quickly becoming totalitarian dictatorship, something never before experienced by Tibetans. Peace-loving Tibetans, even the monks who were religiously forbidden to hurt other beings, now took up arms to protect their homes and dreams.
The already tense situation between the Tibetans and the invading Chinese worsened when His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was secretly invited to attend a theatrical performance to be held in the Chinese military headquarters in Tibet. This changed Tibetan attitudes decisively, as local leadership first prevented the Dalai Lama from attending this secret performance. (The secret had been leaked by Tibetan officials who feared for the Dalai Lama’s life.) This then drew a violent response from the Chinese, who with total disregard for human life used artillery and shelled the capital city of Lhasa and the vicinity of the Potala Palace. The uprising lasted for several days, before China’s crushing of it generated a legacy still with us.
First, the 14th Dalai Lama along with many Tibetans sought refuge outside Tibet. Second, the capture of numerous Tibetans who were part of this uprising indicated the template that China would follow in quelling any such future uprisings by the Tibetan people. Third, the Chinese implemented a sweeping crackdown on monasteries and religious institutes, which Beijing saw as an obstacle to their goal of conquering Tibet both territorially and culturally.
The abortive uprising today still captures the imagination of Tibetans worldwide and has had wide ramifications for Tibetans inside and outside the country. 63 years later it remains their focus for their rallying cry against the arbitrarily harsh, inhuman, draconian and real brutality that faced inside Tibet every day.
The first domino to fall after the uprising was the fostering of the creation of a clear animosity towards the Chinese, especially communist-party officials, among Tibetans. Prior to this there was a general sense of friendship between Tibet and its large neighbor, but the crushing of the uprising and the subsequent decades of repression changed all this.
The second was the frequent waves of uprising and protest against the communist government of China both inside Tibet and in the exile community. The 1987 protests, the 1989 protests, the 2008 protests and the self-immolations that continue even today indicate that the spirit of resistance still remains strong among Tibetans.
Third, people worldwide have in recent years started to understand the true situation in Tibet This is all to the constant activism that Tibetans engage in to make the world understand the truth, especially around the anniversary of the uprising, when Tibetans worldwide come together in solidarity to remember, commemorate and share the narratives of what really happened to the once-independent nation of Tibet, now continuously plundered physically and traumatized mentally.
Even though Tibetans have been able to share the world their plight with the world and have gained a large amount of sympathy, there have been no substantial developments when it comes either to the Tibetans in exile returning back to Tibet or the Chinese guaranteeing freedom of religion and other rights to the Tibetans.
Instead, since Chinese rapprochement with the US in the 1970s, its economy and power have grown, so that now it commands a sense of respect even from the industrial democracies. And to the extent the world centers its mindset around economic matters, China is increasingly even seen to be at the center of almost everything.
This has given them unprecedented power, be it soft or hard. This power is particularly showcased within China’s annexed territories, including Tibet and Xinjiang, where now more than ever, in this open, free global era (from which the Chinese people have benefited more than most) these two regions remain the most secret, protected and censored regions of the world. The example of the Tibetan diasporic community only able to verify the death of a self-immolated Tibetan in Tibet years after the event vividly illustrates the strangulation under which Tibetans live. And each year what they face grows more dire. The recent discovery that nearly 100% of Tibetans who possess smart phones are under direct surveillance by the Communist government shows us the level of oppression Tibetans live under.
The latest reports of the destruction of Buddhist sites and structures in Drakgo in eastern Tibet and the imprisonment of monks, women and men merely advocating the protection of their Tibetan mother tongue and traditions in annexed/occupied Tibet is a very sad and ever-worsening reality. And with Xi Jinping consolidating his position come this November, one certainly cannot be optimistic about Tibet’s future prospects.
With the Tibetans commemorating the 63rd anniversary of the Tibetan uprising in the coming days there are many events taking place from Canada and the US to France to India to South Africa to Australia. This demonstrates the extent to which the Tibetan story is being shared around the world. We Tibetans must continue to tread on this path, but also take innovative approaches to ease the suffering of our Tibetan brothers and sisters who continue to suffer under Beijing’s ruthless rule.
Dr. Jianli Yang, a former political prisoner of China and a Tiananmen Massacre survivor, is the founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China and the author of For Us, The Living: A Journey to Shine the Light on Truth.
Mr. Rongbin Zhnag, a former private entrepreneur of China, is a human rights activist.
Evan Osborne contributed to this article.