The accelerating waves of self-immolation amongst Tibetan communities have been the subject of growing international attention over the last few months, as the world press wakes up to a story that refuses to go away. With the focus largely on the sheer number of self-immolations, an increasing number of media outlets and pro-Tibet groups have begun to present the self-immolations as though they were the defining tragedy of Tibet, something which in large part overshadows the policies and conditions which actually motivated these actions in the first place.
As though as a reminder of this, another story has built momentum in the background, noticed in passing by most dedicated Tibet news-sites, but rarely discussed in detail. It is a development that may ultimately prove of equal, and indeed, greater historical significance than the self-immolations: that of the increasingly tortuous reaction of the Chinese state in legal terms.
Chinese state media and legal experts have worked hard over the year not simply to address the problem of Tibetan self-immolations, but to suppress public sympathy with self-immolators and their cause. But this is rendered more difficult by the very esteem in which self-immolators are held by Tibetans, who regard them as gyalché pawo, “patriotic heroes” to the growing movement towards ethnic unification amongst Tibetans in the wake of the 2008 protests. Over the last two years, both the Beijing government and its affiliated media have learned the hard way that personally villifying self-immolators simply further aggravates an already alienated population.
One of the answers to this puzzle on the part of the Chinese legal establishment has been to distinguish between acts of self-immolation themselves and those that are seen to encourage, aid or abet them. Since most self-immolators die from their wounds, and those that do not are usually hospitalised for months (in many cases, such as Tapey, disappearing), there have been no trials of actual self-immolators yet. This is no doubt convenient, since such trials would be the subject of intense scrutiny and (most probably) large scale public protest, and even in the present febrile international climate, there is little to be gained politically- and potentially much to be lost – by publicly trying badly burnt and crippled individuals whose primary ‘crime’ was to inflict bodily harm upon themselves.
By contrast, since late 2012, legal and media organisations in the PRC have announced that collusion in self-immolation (however understood) could lead to charges of the “intentional homicide” of the self-immolator, who is thereby presented as the victim of the actions of more widely connected others. Op-eds in state-run media organs have persistently portrayed self-immolators as naive, deluded and easily led by senior figures (usually linked to the ‘Dalai Clique’), and as deeply regretting their actions. This is a view which has been replicated at the state law level by applying the category of “intentional homicide” to any action which supports, aids, abets, or encourages self-immolation. In December, the English-language People’s Daily reported:
‘China has launched a new regulation to curb self-immolation after several Tibetans burned themselves to death over the past months, Gannan Daily from Northwest China’s Gansu Province reported on Monday. The new regulation was said to have been drafted by the Ministry of Public Security, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, which pointed out that people who in any form plan, organize, incite or help others perform self-immolation will be tried for intentional homicide. The regulation also stipulates that people who burn themselves in public places will be charged with a public security offense and those who parade a corpse through the streets or gather to watch the immolation without actively stopping the suicide will also be subject to criminal prosecution. “To incite and help others commit self-immolation is in essence a criminal act depriving people of their lives,” reads the regulation. Xu Zhitao, a director of the United Front Work Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, told the Global Times on Tuesday that many of the people who perform self immolation have been brainwashed and lack basic judgment.’ (Self-immolation instigators may face homicide charges, People’s Daily Online, 7 December 2012)
This principle has been applied to cases of Tibetan self-immolation since at least December, with the suspended death sentence of Lorang Konchok and the sentencing of his nephew Lorang Tsering to 10 years in prison in late January. Xinhua reported this case and its verdict as follows:
“The two incited and coerced eight people to self-immolate, resulting in three deaths, the Intermediate People’s Court of the Tibetan-Qiang Autonomous Prefecture of Aba found. Of the eight people, three set themselves on fire and died in 2012. They were identified as Lorang Tsedrup, Tsenam and Jokba. The other five people did not self-immolate, after willfully abandoning their plans or after police intervened, the court found. Lorang Konchok, a monk in Aba’s Kirti Monastery, maintained long-term and close contact with Samtan, a member of an overseas “Kirti Monastery media liaison team” — a “Tibet independence” organization, according to the court. After the self-immolation of a Kirti Monastery monk named Tapey in 2009, Samtan asked Lorang Konchok to collect and provide information related to self-immolations in Aba. Lorang Konchok used his status as a “geshe,” or a high-level Tibetan religious scholar, to convince monks and others to self-immolate, the court found. Lorang Konchok sent information regarding self-immolations to Samtan. The information was used by some overseas media as a basis for creating secessionist propaganda, according to the court. Lorang Konchok and Lorang Tsering convinced eight people to self-immolate, constituting the crime of intentional homicide, according to the court’s verdict.” (China Sentences 2 Tibetans Over Self-Immolations, Xinhua, 31 January 2013)
The defendants in this case were detained as far back as August 2012, but the legal logic of their criminality was only announced in December, implying at least in part that the full rationale of “intentional homicide” was still being fully formulated.
Xinhua‘s description highlights the relationship – indeed, the equation – in Chinese legal thinking between abetting a self-immolation and spreading information about it. This moves the focus to what David Shambaugh has referred to as the dangerous “connective tissue” which elevates protests from “internal” localized complaint to “external” systemic dissent. What for Tibetans are a series of heroic individuals and in some cases intellectuals are for the Chinese authorities a hierarchical web of overseas influence:
“An investigation shows that all the incidents are connected to an overseas Tibetan separatist group. It is a so-called “Tibet independence organization” spearheaded by the so-called Tibetan government-in-exile, with the Dalai Lama as its spiritual leader. The members of the group committed the crime in China under a foreign mastermind, and the information they passed on abroad through overseas media had a negative impact.”(Dalai Clique Manipulates Self-Immolation in Gannan. CRIEnglish.com, 7 Feb 2013)
This emphasis – on the “connective tissue” that is seen, correctly or incorrectly, to link self-immolations either together or to “secessionist movements” (here meaning the Tibetan Government-in-Exile) and “imperialist forces” (either external governments or increasingly simply the international media) – explains certain rather perplexing features of China’s legal responses to the Tibetan self-immolations. The first is that the crime of “intentional homicide” can apparently be committed after the event: thus, the same source above reports how:
“On August 7th, a 26-year-old Tibetan woman named Trakhutso set herself ablaze and rolled on the hillside northwest of the White Tower in Hezuo City, Gannan Prefecture, as she murmured, “Let me die. Let me die.” Chophel, a monk from the Hezuo Monastery arrived at the scene after hearing the news. But he offered no help; instead, he took some pictures of the burning woman.
“She was still alive at that time. She could breathe, but couldn’t talk. I took some photos with my mobile phone and uploaded four photos to WeChat in total.”
The four pictures were exactly what some foreign media used in their reports on the incident. Choephel has since been arrested on suspicion of intentional homicide.“
There seems little evidence to suggest that not helping Trakhutso (also known as Dolkhar Tso) was the substance of Chophel’s crime (or those police that, for example, shot and beat Tapey when he self-immolated would presumably be grossly culpable under the same law). His crime, rather, lay in taking and uploading photographs of Dolkhar Tso’s burnt body onto the WeChat server. In other words, he seems to have been charged with intentional homicide for something done after the self-immolation itself. Similar arrests have been recently made when Tibetans have been caught with photographs of self-immolators on their mobile phones, and the Chinese authorities have, since the beginning of January, been confiscating satellite dishes across eastern Tibet.In other words, it is connectivity that renders these events seditious in the eyes of the state. This is more than simply the wish not to look bad in the eyes of the international media, but rather a sense that systemic protest breeds a political consciousness that is large enough to present an alternative to that of the state. In this sense, the legality and illegality of actions that surround self-immolation are more than a simple legal matter, but rather a constitutional one, and in many respects the political future of China’s troubled relations with Tibetans rests upon it.
 David Shambaugh, China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, (Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2008) p 32.