Fire, Flight, Freedom

by Tienchi Martin-Liao    /  March 27, 2013  / No comments

Stopping the tragedy in Tibet is in the hands of the CCP.

A chalk outline in the Czech Republic in memory of Tibetan monk Tapey, one of the 114 self-immolators in protest of occupied Tibet. Photo: Ya Noya Shantie on Flickr.

This year, Tibetan blogger Tsering Woeser was among the 10 individuals that the U.S. Department of State presented with the International Women of Courage Award. Since the inception of the award in 2007, Woeser is the first Tibetan woman to receive this honor. But, as expected, she was not allowed to leave China to participate in the ceremony in Washington, DC. Two other awardees, Syrian lawyer Razan Zeitunah and Vietnamese blogger Ta Phong Tan, were absent too. Actually, Woeser’s been unsuccessfully applying for a passport for years, but this time the authorities told her, “Save your effort, you will not get it.”

  1. Blind Chess, a column by Tienchi Martin-Liao
  2. During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
  3. Tienchi Martin-Liao
  4. Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

According to the U.S. Department of State, Woeser was given this high honor because she “bravely persists in documenting the situation for Tibetans, noting that ‘to bear witness is to give voice to,’ and asserting that ‘the more than 100 Tibetans who have expressed their desire to resist the forces of oppression by bathing their bodies in fire are the reason why I will not give up, and why I will not compromise.’”

Woeser and her husband Wang Lixiong frequently travel to Tibet to collect information about the immolations. Then they post the biographies of these courageous Tibetans, who have committed an extraordinary sacrifice, online.

In addition to providing on-site coverage, Woeser was the first to tell the world about kin liability—the Chinese authority’s suppression of an immolated person’s family and friends—and its severity. There have been 114 cases of immolation, but hundreds of innocent people related to the dead have been investigated, arrested, and put into jail.

China’s secular culture and Machiavellian-principled rulers in Beijing can never understand the religious feeling of Tibetans. No abettor, nor separatist could ever have the power to persuade another person to set himself on fire and willingly suffer the cruel death that results. Such an act must come from the deepest conviction. It is the strongest form of expression available to demonstrate free will. The immolators hope to see freedom and peace for both his Holiness the Dalai Lama and their country, without being humiliated and suppressed by the Chinese.

In 1975, during the 29th assembly of the World Medical Association (WMA) in Japan, physicians from all over the world signed the Declaration of Tokyo, which demands doctors to “refuse to participate in, condone, or give permission for torture, degradation, or cruel treatment of prisoners” and when “a prisoner who refuses to eat, [he] should not be fed artificially against his will.” This Declaration was updated again in 2005 and 2006 in France by the WMA.

The self-immolation of Tibetans is the hardest form of protest, and from a certain standpoint, it can be compared to the hunger-strike. Finding the cause and rooting out the reason is the real, humane way to help. Simply forbidding or preventing them from doing so, or punishing the people around them, is just as brutal as killing them. Public opinion wonders why the Dalai Lama does not tell his followers to stop this kind of sacrifice. After our talk with his Holiness in February, I believe I understand why he does not do so.

The Dalai Lama is saddened by the loss of any Tibetan lives, yet as compassionate as he is, he does not want to deprive his people of their will to fight for civil rights, freedom, and dignity. Mahatma Gandhi, with his non-violence movement, forced the British Empire to bend and quit the country. Can the CCP take a lesson from Britain’s imperialism? In ancient China, a loyal subject would kill himself to persuade the emperor to hear his critic in an act called si-jian (death-admonishment). Nowadays people are anxious and disturbed by the Tibetan-immolations—it’s even harder for them to accept than Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers. Yet, despite all the sympathy we may give to the immolators, we need to know that the solution is in hands of the CCP. It’s up to the Chinese rulers to open the deadlock. Should the CCP have the least respect for tradition and humanity, it would pick up its interrupted dialogue with the Dalai Lama and try to find a resolution to the Tibet issue.

About the Author

Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

View all articles by Tienchi Martin-Liao

Leave a Comment

comm comm comm

Fearless, Ink.