Why (even successful) Tibetans burn themselves to death

The recent case of the self-immolation of a young Tibetan pop singer reveals extremely clearly what drives young Tibetans to such protests, despite the significant improvement in material conditions in Tibet in recent decades.

For more than a decade, self-immolation as an extreme form of protest by Tibetans in the PRC, in a tightly guarded society where state control deeply interferes in the private lives of the people, has been seen as one of the tools of pressure on the Chinese government by the Tibetan exile. However, the latest tragic case in February this year is exceptional in several respects.

On 25 February this year, the 158th Tibetan fire was set ablaze. “The ‘living torch’. A young Tibetan man, Tsewang Norbu (tse dbang nor bu ཚེ་དབང་ནོར་བུ་; Chinese. Tse-wang Luo-pu 财旺罗布; 25 years old) reportedly set himself on fire at a symbolically significant, indeed the most significant, place while shouting slogans for the return of the Dalai Lama and freedom in Tibet: On the edge of a modern and heavily guarded plaza hosting a monumental obelisk, the “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” memorial, on one side of which stands the Dalai Lamas old Potala residence, while the other side is occupied by the sprawling complex of the headquarters of the Tibet Autonomous Region government and the Communist Party of Tibet.

The vast majority of the protest self-immolations to date have taken place outside the Tibet Autonomous Region itself, in Tibetan counties within Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu provinces. Several tragic protests have also occurred in exile. Only one case of self-immolation has so far been recorded in Lhasa itself, in May 2012 in front of the Jokhang Temple, Tibet’s second holiest building in the centre of the old city. However, the most recent victim of this extreme form of protest so far was a young man who had the status of an influential celebrity on a national scale. It is precisely this fact that gives his act exceptional significance.

Influencers for the Unity of the Fatherland

Contemporary celebrities (sometimes referred to as “idols” after the Japanese and Korean model) play a special social role in the People’s Republic of China. The system takes advantage of their influence and forces them to participate in various government campaigns aimed at spreading patriotism and promoting the unity of the homeland and all its nationalities, or reinforcing correct moral values. They must therefore ensure, among other things, that they are good role models for society and young people in particular, for example by paying their taxes honestly, not flaunting extravagance and luxury in the public eye and not encouraging the current trend of ‘star chasing’ which leads young people to unhealthy social behaviour.

It should be noted that fan behaviour in China (as in the whole of East Asia, especially Korea and Japan) is reaching quite extreme forms, and fan groups represent a huge purchasing, but above all social force whose ideological and political potential cannot be simply ignored.

The current way in which the regime co-opts celebrities in Chinese popular culture is somewhat different from the earlier exploitation of artists, of which the Tsewang Norbu family in particular has extensive experience. Previously, there was a clear division between “official artists” in the service of the regime, usually working within official institutions, most often party or military, and others who were more or less left alone by the regime unless they crossed certain thresholds – followed by censorship or outright banning. It is not possible to verify the information unequivocally, but according to exile sources, Tsewang Norbu’s mother is the artist Sonam Lhamo, a well-known Tibetan singer in the service of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. She is known in Chinese artistic circles as the “second Tchetän Dolma”, after the first legendary figure of Chinese Tibetan propaganda.

Sonam Lhamo joined the Sog county propaganda troupe in the Nagchu area of northern Tibet at an early age in 1991, and a year later won a singing prize in a competition for PRC minority nationality artists in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi. Later, she became famous for her own variation on traditional Tibetan songs called “Golden Home”, which she sang in Tibetan, and even performed it at a prestigious New Year’s gala on state-run CCTV in 2002. In the years that followed, she then “rose to fame” with promotional songs in Chinese, such as “Ceremonial Khatag for the People’s Liberation Army” or a modernized cover version of the 1950s Tibetan “red classic” “Laundry Song”. It features Chinese singing: “Who helped us to break free from the shackles, who set us free? It was our dear People’s Liberation Army and our saving star, the Communist Party.”

These artists, following in the tradition of the 1950s and 1960s, were closely associated with the propaganda institutions, or even directly employed by them. As a result, they were given generous space on state television, on official ceremonial occasions, at celebrations, festivals, etc. They were part of the mainstream culture, especially for the old and middle generation, but everyone knew which side they were on. They were people who came from a party or military background and only became famous as artists because of that background.

However, with the advent of the internet and new media, especially social media, much has changed in pop culture – the internet has allowed users to choose what kind of “art” they consume. Thus, pro-regime stars gradually lost most of their audience, who quite naturally gravitated towards where their hearts and the commercially built appeal of the new stars drew them. It was therefore necessary to change strategy and to engage stars that this audience itself sought out and recognized to attract younger audiences.

The targets of the regime’s co-optation thus became teenage boy idols imitating K-pop stars or hipsters representing the voice of the street and urban subculture, i.e. anyone who established themselves as a spokesperson for Chinese youth and could subsequently convey the right values to them. One of the influential tools for their co-optation has been the talent competitions from which teenage ‘idols’ are recruited. Typical examples are major competitions such as the “Chinese Voice” known as Sing! China (Zhong-kuo chao shengjin 中国好声音) or Rap of China (Zhong-kuo sin shuo-chang 中国新说唱).

Son of the bright future

Cchewang Norbu has participated in several such competitions. Back in 2014, at the age of 18, he made his debut in the “Chinese Good Boy” competition, Road to Star (Zhong-kuo chao nan-char 中国好男孩儿), where he was among the top 50 in the national round. That same year, he was invited to participate in the Voice of China, but declined. However, he drew attention to himself again in 2017 in the competition “Sons of the Future”, in English The Coming One (Mingzhi 明日之子), hosted by the internet and streaming channel Tencent Video.

In this competition, he also sang several songs in Tibetan, which is not entirely common in Chinese national media. Finally, in the autumn of 2021, he participated in the aforementioned Voice of China, where he sang his song “Coming Home” in Tibetan, among others. During the performance, he changed the last verse celebrating “dear home” (phajül ཕ་ཡུལ་ but it can also be “homeland”) referring to his hometown Nagchu to “Böldzhong” (བོད་ལྗོངས་), i.e. Tibet, which can be seen as a slightly subversive gesture. Indeed, it can be assumed that the original lyrics included Nagtchhu precisely to make the song sound like an expression not of Tibetan nationalism, but only of love for his native land. The advantage of such a gesture was that virtually no one except Tibetans caught it on the air. Unfortunately, the original video of this performance on the show’s official YouTube channel has disappeared, leaving only the version without this conclusion. However, Norbu sang the song in this form in the spring of 2021 in a Chinese New Year gala on Tibetan television in Lhasa.

Unfortunately, as the voices from exile and memories of Tsewang Norbu have grown on the internet, all content related to the singer on the Chinese internet and social media has gradually disappeared. His Weibo account was blocked immediately after news of his act leaked, and thanks to a handful of well-meaning activists and fans (one of the careful documentarians is the well-known Tibetan writer and dissident Tshering Özer), we now know his last words, which he posted before noon on 25 February. They were about his new song released on February 22. Sung in Chinese, its title can be loosely translated as “when you feel regret, don’t suffocate it inside you” (如果有遗憾, 别偷偷放不下). In his last comment on Weibo, he then wrote in Chinese: “I keep reading your comments. Thank you. When regret passes, only liberation will remain. When you feel sorry, don’t let it sink in.” Fans also later noticed that when Norbu posted a teaser for the new song on February 22, there was a handwritten “Bye” in the corner of the photo.

So the protest was obviously planned, although there are no clear clues as to what prompted the singer, who aspires to a grand and lucrative career in Chinese pop music, to stage it. According to exile sources, Tsewang Norbu is the nephew of a political prisoner currently serving an 18-year prison sentence for a protest that took place in January 2018, also outside Potala. He is Lodö Gyatso, known by the acronym Sogkhar, referring to the Sog district from which Sonam Lhamo also hails. One source of information about the family is said to be his other nephew, Ngawang Thapa, a member of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile in Dharamsala. Lodö Gyatso was first convicted in the 1990s for manslaughter (in alleged self-defence) and his sentence was extended to life imprisonment for his involvement in the protests at Lhasa’s infamous Dapchi prison. He was released after more than 20 years following intervention by international organisations, but even then he was repeatedly imprisoned for public political protests.

The tragic death of a talented young man sadly illustrates the complicated environment in which Tibetans have lived in their country for seventy years – on the one hand, they are pressured to openly support the Chinese regime in exchange for the promise of a comfortable life of communist-capitalist ‘welfare’, on the other, the vague vision of freedom and national sovereignty promised by the government-in-exile.

The text by Kamila Hladíková was provided to Přítomnost exclusively by the server Sinopsis.


Translated from the Czech original.

published: 19. 4. 2022