Tibetans’ self-immolations as protest against Chinese state repression

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


    China claims sovereignty over both Xinjiang and Tibet, claims which are accepted by the international community. These regions form 25% of modern China’s landmass and have significant natural resources. Both areas have grown economically under Chinese rule, with progress on many social indicators. Substantial movements of Han Chinese to these areas have altered the demographics, particularly in urban areas. China has been accused of ‘cultural genocide’ through the erosion of local religions, languages and identities, and both regions experience periodic resistance to Chinese rule. Beijing responds with harsh repression to any demands for autonomy or federalism. While violent political activity and riots have occurred in both areas, Tibet has since 2009 seen a new type of protest: self-immolation. To date, this has left around 118 individuals dead or severely injured. The ‘human torches’ are mostly monks, but also nuns and laypeople. Their exact motives are unclear and the Chinese security apparatus is unsure how to react to this phenomenon. Chinese state responses have included labeling them ‘terrorists’, accusing the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan diaspora of orchestrating the suicides, and suggesting that they are mentally-ill. Overseas Tibetans have alleged that the Chinese state repression is responsible. However, it does not appear that the ‘human torches’ are led by any hierarchy, Tibet has no history of self-immolation, and Buddhism cautions against suicide. These individuals blur the boundaries between victim and protestor. This blurring is a key aspect of political suicide. This paper suggests that these self-immolations can be understood as a challenge to the imbalanced power dynamic between the monolithic Chinese state and the Tibetan ‘nation’, represented in each case by an individual martyr. These are acts of extreme defiance that seek to delegitimize the state, by subverting its monopoly on violence. These deaths are symbolic sacrificial gestures that paradoxically serve to strengthen the ‘nation’ in the face of China’s dominance.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationConflict, Violence, Terrorism and their Prevention
    EditorsChas Morrison, J. Martin Ramirez, Arthur J. Kendall
    Place of PublicationNewcastle-upon-Tyne
    PublisherCambridge Scholars Publishing
    Number of pages8
    ISBN (Print)9781443853477
    Publication statusPublished - 2014


    • Tibet
    • China
    • Self-immolation
    • Political suicide
    • Repression
    • Protest


    • Social Movements and Contentious Politics
    • Faith and Peaceful Relations


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