What can we learn from Tibetan self-immolation?

Where there's a will, there's a war

*Quote to Consider: “Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” (H.L. Mencken)

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This past decade, 156 Tibetans have burned themselves to death to protest Chinese government oppression in Tibet. That’s one immolation every 24 days, including 28 immolations in November 2012 alone, nearly one every day.

Is this strategic approach futile? Or is “David” striking “Goliath” with some success?

[This essay and site does not support or glorify suicide in any form; the discussion that follows is merely for analytic purposes.] 

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Most mornings I run past the shredded remnant of a “Free Tibet” bumper sticker on the rear window glass of an old Jeep. It’s a routine reminder of the limp-wristed support some Westerners offer Tibetans. Instead of the hope the sticker intends, its overwhelming takeaway is hopelessness. Given that people are literally burning themselves to death to advance the cause by the tiniest margin, a sticker’s a pretty trivial gesture.

There’s good reason to feel hopeless about Tibet. There are 300 Chinese citizens for every single Tibetan, by my count. One academic study defines an “asymmetric” advantage as five-to-one. The Chinese advantage is sixty times that in population, a situation so overwhelming it would make David feel like a lucky guy to have only had to fight a single giant.

While the Tibetans may want their home back, the Chinese want Tibetan land just as much. Depending on how you count, the Tibetan Plateau is 30 percent of China by land area (roughly equivalent to Alaska, California, and Texas combined). Moreover, control over the Tibetan Plateau provides a buffer against an emerging India. 

China seeks to pacify a small number of Tibetans to claim enormous resources. China’s first geological surveys of the plateau showed “reserves of up to 40 million tons of copper, another 40 million tons of lead and zinc, a field of oil shale of undisclosed size, some natural gas and billions of tons of iron,” according to Tom Zoellner in his book, Train. (This book is also the source for the quotes in the next few paragraphs.)

They’re extracting these resources by rail. Dai Xinliu, a midlevel official with the Economic and Planning Research Institute of China Railways (the state-run monopoly in charge of rail expansion): “We are putting energy and passion into this because of the practical situation of China. We have a lot of land and a big population, and we are still short of resources.” 

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway opened on July 1, 2006. It is the world’s highest railway, and the outbound trains are full of critical resources. When it opened, General Secretary Hu Jintao called the line, “an important expression of the constant increase in the comprehensive national strength of our country.”

But at that ribbon cutting, Hu also acknowledged it was about “enhancing ethnic solidarity and consolidating the motherland’s frontier defense.” Which means all the trains inbound to Tibet would be (and still are) full of troops and ethnically Han Chinese.

One Han Chinese business passenger called the train a “symbol of China’s reign over Tibet.” Tibetan activists consider the railway a “second invasion of Tibet.” Even the Dalai Lama has called it “some kind of cultural genocide.” 

Like a whale swallowing krill, China’s strategy is to swallow Tibet. Academics like to point out that Chinese strategists’ play Go while Western strategists’ prefer Chess (point taken; note the popularity of “The Queen’s Gambit”). If Tibet really is a life-sized game of Go, then this is China dropping a dump truck’s worth of pieces on the board. The train is China’s engine for smothering Tibet (even more so than tech is turning China’s west into the world’s largest prison).

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The Tibetans have fought back with extreme suicide. One human burned alive every 24 days, for about ten years. It’s nuclear self-harm, Hiroshima for one, a war on oneself. 

But is this really war? Is this really fighting?

I’m not sure. My gut tells me this should be considered a tactic of war, if we consider war to be socially sanctioned violence for a political purpose. That’s a fairly standard definition, which doesn’t specify who precisely would give or receive that violence. 

Self-immolation as part of conflict raises so many questions. Can the terrorist and the victim be one and the same? Can there be war without killing a single enemy?

Can this work? 

Pre-internet, probably not. If a man burns on the street and there’s no video, did it ever happen?

While the burnings are the feature film(s), the strategy’s all about the megaphone. The Tibetan resistance is running a strategic communications campaign with several aims: to get a third party to intervene, to provoke the Chinese government into a mistake, or even, to achieve a policy shift from Beijing that grants greater autonomy to Tibet. 

The material imbalance is so great that it is a literal impossibility for Tibetans to win physically. So they’ve turned into self-harm terrorists, which takes an almost superhuman will to carry out. It calls to mind Ho Chi Minh’s warning to French colonialists in 1946: “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.” He made good on that promise. Could the Tibetans?

It looks bleak for Tibetan resistance, but there are pathways to strategic reversal. One can imagine mass and sustained damage on the train line to Tibet. That stops the flow, which helps, but doesn’t change the fundamental situation. Better would be to catalyze a global activist flash mob that can boost the resistance’s signal (think Kony 2012). Lastly, as hard as it is to type this, one can imagine another November 2012, when the Tibetan resistance sacrificed 28 souls in a single month. A second strike on that scale would attract the world’s attention. 

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What can we, as practicing strategists, learn here?

Without weapons, there’s still strategy. Where there’s a will, there’s a war. Even when your opponent has everything, you still have something. In this case, the Tibetan struggle pits extreme means against extreme ways. 

More broadly, Tibetan resistance provides uncomfortable evidence that war will always be with us. Political violence is here to stay. The tools of violent response are always available to us, even if that violence is self-violence. 

The Chinese will continue to control the terrain and resources in the Tibetan Plateau, but they won’t get Tibetans to bend the knee. The pacification’s failed in this respect. 

Because no matter how cornered, no matter how hurt, even a pacifistic mouse facing a murderous man can fight back. That doesn’t mean the Tibetans will win. But it guarantees the other side won’t win entirely, as long as the threat of extreme, attention-grabbing self-harm remains. And all that takes is some fuel, a match, and an iron will. 

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*Question to Reflect: What extremely low-cost method can you employ against your adversary, right now? 

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