March 25, 2013
To hear senior Chinese officials speak of "innocents" who died in flames, you might think the government is really concerned. Even as the voices from Beijing blaming the Dalai Lama, Tibetans' exiled spiritual leader, for the immolations get shriller and more frequent - they have offered up comparatively gentle rhetoric about those who have died. But examining Beijing's policy response in Tibetan areas presents a different picture.

There is precious little evidence that Beijing is addressing the reasons articulated for the immolations - a desire for religious freedom, for independence or autonomy, for the return of the Dalai Lama among others. Nor is there any discernible sign of redress for Tibetans, as there has occasionally been for others in China who have self-immolated over issues like evictions or land disputes.

In Tibet, the central government's strategy is now wholly unambiguous: surveillance and suppression for all dissent. Over the past year, authorities in Tibetan areas have prosecuted people who appear to have done little more than talk about immolations on incitement charges. Some family members of people who have immolated have been cut off from state benefits and there are heavy restrictions on Tibetans' ability to move within the region or communicate with one another or those outside Tibet.

Even more alarming, our new research shows that despite the lack of any organised or even small-scale threat to officials, state property or even public order - the Chinese government has dramatically expanded its surveillance and security apparatus in the region. While the same system is being implemented across the country, raising still-broader concerns about the suspicion with which the Chinese government views its entire population, Tibet is being treated far more harshly.

Tibetans' acts of violence are directed only at themselves. Beijing's reaction might be appropriate if Tibet faced a massive crime wave or an armed insurgency but it clearly does not. In February Yu Zhengsheng, the top Chinese official for Tibet policy, announced that the "grid" system would expand across the autonomous region. The state media characterizes the system as providing better delivery of public services, such as education and medical care. Perhaps, but the system clearly also has an extraordinary surveillance component and is explicitly described as serving the Orwellian-sounding goal of "stability maintenance".

It establishes a new, grassroots administration explicitly tasked with gathering and cataloging extensive personal information about neighbourhood people; particularly those known to have been political prisoners, or to have returned from exile in India. The central government has also endorsed establishing more than 600 new police stations and volunteer brigades known as "Red Armband patrols" in Tibetan areas - a region already saturated with security forces.

These police are using computers and video equipment to track individuals' movements and we have documented intrusive home searches. Chinese law does not provide for volunteers to engage in such activities and many of those who staff the "grid" system and patrols are Chinese Communist Party members. As such, they have to explicitly state their opposition to increased autonomy - among other things - raising questions about whether political criteria rather than law will serve as the basis for surveillance, searches, or detentions.

Governments have an obligation to maintain public order, yet that must be balanced against protecting peoples' rights to speak their minds or gather peacefully. Even in circumstances in which those rights are well-protected authorities must make the case, typically before a judge, that an especially high degree of surveillance is necessary. These processes and protections are sorely lacking in Tibetan areas.

The Chinese government- - unlike many Chinese scholars - seems fundamentally unwilling or unable to acknowledge at any level that its policies toward ethnic minority regions have failed. Massive subsidies and infrastructure development, imposed without the key step of ensuring people's support, have unsurprisingly not bought allegiance. Unprecedented relocations, particularly nomads, under the guises of environmental protection and providing better access to public services, have arguably deepened resentment in the region.

Beijing's devotion to demonising the Dalai Lama accomplishes little other than further alienating Tibetans. Unilaterally imposing on Tibetans a model of life that Beijing wants - of an urbanised, monetised, secular, 'modern' society - is proving a losing strategy. Beijing's imposition of the "grid" shows it intends to double-down rather than change course.

The willful refusal to see Tibetans as people who want to live a different way and have every right to do so - not as insurgents, criminals or separatists - is ultimately self-defeating. If Beijing wants to stop Tibetan 'innocents' from immolating, it must reverse course and loosen up - not batten down. Self-directed violence can dissipate if there is hope. Something Beijing is long overdue to deliver to Tibetans.

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