Will China's new leaders change Tibet policy?

Tibetan exiles participate in a candlelit vigil in solidarity in Dharmsala, India, after reports of a self-immolation in northwestern China's Gansu province, 13 Oct 2012 Tibetan exiles have mourned those who died after setting themselves on fire

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As China's new leaders prepared to take the reins of power earlier this month in Beijing, a shocking event was unfolding 2,000 km away.

In the mountainous region of western Sichuan, on the Tibetan plateau, three teenage Tibetan monks set themselves on fire on the eve of the Communist Party congress.

According to London-based activist group Free Tibet, the monks called for freedom in Tibet and the return of the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. The youngest monk, a 15-year-old, died from his injuries.

Since 2011, over 70 Tibetans have set themselves on fire.

But during the 18th Party Congress - which approved China's once-in-a-decade leadership change - none of the country's top leaders spoke about the protests.

Start Quote

Qiangba Puncog

The Dalai Lama group are using these people, and they have no concern for the advancements we made in living standards, improving facilities and making more and more people content and happy”

End Quote Qiangba Puncog Tibet deputy party chief

"The Chinese authorities seem to be playing down this issue, especially domestically," says Robert Barnett, the director of the Modern Tibet Studies Programme at Columbia University in New York.

"This represents a crisis in China's Tibet policy, and they must be reluctant for that to become apparent."


China's leaders and the six million Tibetans they govern have had a strained relationship in recent decades.

In the 1950s, Beijing reasserted control in Tibet. Previously, the Tibetans had largely governed themselves. It was during this period the Dalai Lama fled into exile in India.

In 2008, there were violent protests in the city of Lhasa which quickly spread across the region. They were quelled by the Chinese authorities.

But last year, trouble flared once again when Tibetans - mainly monks and nuns - began setting themselves on fire in protest against what they see as political and religious repression. It has now become a disturbing trend.

Many of the self-immolations have taken place in western Sichuan, a mountainous area with a large Tibetan population, which until a few years ago had been relatively quiet. There have also been large-scale protests.

China has carried out an extensive security operation in the region and has largely prevented foreign journalists from reaching the affected areas. There has been almost no coverage of the events in the Chinese state media.

The Tibet Divide

  • China says Tibet has always been part of its territory
  • Tibet had long periods of autonomy
  • China launched a military assault in 1950
  • Opposition to Chinese rule led to a bloody uprising in 1959
  • Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India
  • Dalai Lama now advocates a "middle way" with Beijing, seeking autonomy but not independence

But the Tibetan blogger, Tsering Woeser, scours the internet for information.

She is routinely harassed by the Chinese authorities and told the BBC that she was told to leave Beijing in August ahead of the Communist Party Congress. She is currently in Lhasa.

Ms Woeser told the BBC that there was growing desperation among Tibetans and that was why so many were prepared to set themselves on fire. She said that the security measures put in place by the Chinese authorities were making the situation worse.

Earlier this month the top human rights official at the United Nations, Navi Pillay, said she was disturbed by reports of detentions, disappearances and the excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators.

Beijing denounced the statement, saying it would not tolerate interference in its internal affairs.

During the party congress, Qiangba Puncog, legislature chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, while expressing sympathy for those who set themselves on fire, denounced the Dalai Lama.

"They are political victims," he said. "The Dalai Lama group are using these people. They have no concern for the advancements we made in living standards, improving facilities and making more and more people content and happy."

'Great courage'

China emphasis its development of Tibetan areas, saying its rule has brought huge economic benefits to what was a poor, feudal society.

The Dalai Lama gestures prior to start a public teaching in Yokohama, Japan, 04 Nov 2012 The Dalai Lama: Too early to say whether Xi Jinping will change policy

Nonetheless the authorities appear unable to end the protests. The question now is whether there will be a change in direction under the leadership of Xi Jinping.

Xi Jinping's father, Xi Zhongxun, was a former senior leader well known for pursuing a more conciliatory approach towards the Tibetans.

In a recent BBC interview, the Dalai Lama said they were on "friendly terms" and that he had even given Xi Zhongxun a watch. He said it was too early to say whether his son would change policy.

But even if Xi Jinping wanted to change direction he would have to tackle a vast security and government apparatus that has been geared up to deal with the Tibet issue, says Bi Yantao, a professor at Hainan University.

Prof Bi says it is clear that the Tibetan government-in-exile is using Western media to pressure Beijing.

But he believes that both sides need to show more flexibility, describing the current situation as "deadlock."

Robert Barnett says there are suggestions that Xi Jinping has set an internal team to review Tibet policy and believes the possibility of a change in policy cannot be ruled out.

"It will take great courage, Xi Jinping will have to overcome heavy internal resistance," he says. "Any change is likely to seem small from an outsider's perspective.

"But in the current situation, even a slight change would have a significant effect among at least some of the Tibetan community in Tibet."

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