Twenty-seven Tibetans have set fire to themselves since 2009 in protest against Chinese rule. Since this January alone, 14 people have done so. A total of 20 have died in the past few years from self-immolation; an unknown number of Tibetans have been tortured or detained since protests broke out in 2008. What has been the reaction within China to this huge human disaster? Silence, mostly.
Why? There's a Tibetan saying: "Hope ruins Tibetans; suspicion ruins Han Chinese." I'm not sure when this saying came into being or what its background is. I only know that this expression falls off the lips of many Tibetans, who use it meaningfully, mockingly, or helplessly.
For the Han Chinese, who make up more than 90 percent of China's population, there is a similar expression engraved in their history books: "Whoever is not among us must be of a different heart."
Originally, these words were not frightening. Over the years, though, the sentiments they express have created an atmosphere of raw violence. Minorities stand in the way of the grand unity of China's different peoples; they must be Sinicized or extinguished. The ethnic minorities who live in China, the Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians, and others, understand that this view of ethnic minorities is actually quite widespread, that it is the mainstream, that they receive little empathy from the majority.
A few Han Chinese have spoken out. Human rights lawyer Teng Biao said this year that "Chinese public intellectuals have kept mum [about the immolations], pretending to be ignorant of what's happening, silently cooperating. They are as shameless as the murderers themselves." In 2008 after the authorities suppressed the Tibetan protests, Teng and more than 20 Chinese rights lawyers issued a public statement saying they were willing to provide legal assistance to those Tibetans who had been arrested. As a result, Teng lost his lawyer's license; the other lawyers involved also met with difficulties. Over the last year, China's leading human rights lawyers have come under harsh attack, and now few would dare take on sensitive cases involving Tibetans.