A Chinese Voice in the Wilderness: Breaking the Silence on Tibetan Self-immolations

For a fleeting moment this month, the separate human rights movements of the Han Chinese and Tibetans met at a point of solidarity, say Tenzin Palkyi and Louisa Greve. But such significant instances which build mutual trust are still few and far between.

The recent wave of self-immolations has marked a radical and tragic turn in Tibet‘s freedom struggle, with 95 Tibetans setting themselves on fire since February 2009, 81 of them confirmed dead. The Tibetan diaspora across more than ten countries marked this year’s International Human Rights Day on December 10th with large rallies calling for immediate international action to address the crisis.

Xu Zhiyong, a prominent Han Chinese lawyer and human rights advocate (left), stepped forward with a commentary in the New York Times (Tibet is Burning) that would be censored in China.  Xu’s courageous choice to speak up will only intensify the police harassment he has been experiencing on a regular basis for his pro-democracy activities and his role in many of China’s groundbreaking cases and research, including a report on 2008 protests across the Tibetan plateau.

Xu recounts his failed effort to meet the parents of Nangdrol, a Tibetan self-immolator.  He encounters many Tibetans who seem wary of his presence in their neighborhood and are reluctant to give him directions to Nangdrol’s parents’ home.  These incidents illustrate the enormous mistrust between Tibetans and Han Chinese.  Xu finally makes it to the right village only to learn that Nangdrol’s parents had moved away.

“I am sorry we Han Chinese have been silent as Nangdrol and his fellow Tibetans are dying for freedom,” Xu writes.

Many Tibetans are tremendously encouraged by Xu’s public efforts, at great risk to himself, to pay respect to one of the self-immolators, and to speak out on a sensitive issue that all too many Hans fail even to acknowledge.  Very few have dared broach the sensitive subject of Tibetan self-immolations, which the Chinese government characterizes as crimes secretly directed by external anti-China forces.

Against this backdrop, Xu’s voice is extraordinary.

A Tibetan friend praised Xu’s refusal to accept Chinese government’s propaganda on Tibet and his attempts to understand the real situation there.  He sets off on a journey to meet and converse with ordinary Tibetans and that process of inquiry he takes upon himself is remarkable.

Even more encouraging is that Xu is not the only Chinese to have tried to foster discussion of Tibetans’ experience. Despite the threats of punishment, and successful divide-and-conquer tactics of Chinese security forces to prevent movements extending solidarity, a trickle of voices have emerged among Han Chinese to speak up on Tibetan issues.

In March 2008, a group of Chinese intellectuals signed a significant public petition condemning the government’s crackdown in Tibet during the mass protests that swept across the plateau.  Four years ago, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo and thousands of Charter 08 signatories called for a Chinese Federal Republic “within which all ethnic and religious groups can flourish.”

The authors of Charter 08 came under criticism from ethnic minorities in China, who expressed disappointment that the charter did not go farther in insisting on the specific ethnic rights necessary for cultural survival, and did not contain a stronger endorsement of ethnic nationalities’ self-governance rights.  But if Liu Xiaobo had gone as far as he wanted to in Charter 08 regarding rights of Tibetans, the first 303 signatories would have dwindled down to fewer than ten, according to Yu Jie, a prominent Chinese writer and democracy activist.

Although Xu’s words of apology and sympathy for Tibetan self-immolators are powerful, his reference to Tibet as “our shared home” reflects a larger ongoing conversation about the relationship between Tibet and China.  Underlying much of the tension between Tibetans and Han Chinese, even among those Han with the goal of a democratic China and even within the diversity of Tibetan viewpoints, is the unresolved issue of defining Tibet’s future as a truly autonomous or independent governing entity.

But Tibetans should not give up on those Chinese who are willing to brave their government’s wrath to think independently about Tibet.  Even putting aside the risk of arrest, they have treacherous ground to cover.  Chinese willing to think and speak about Tibet are also trying to do so in an environment without freedom of speech or academic freedom and they must keep in mind their audiences.  They are not only trying to speak unpleasant truths, but do so in a way that their fellow Chinese audiences can understand and find persuasive.

Earlier this year, Xu called for a new citizens’ movement to deliver China from authoritarian government to fair and just constitutional governance. He was illegally detained multiple times as a result.  He is no stranger to being disappeared over his profession as a human rights lawyer.

At this critical juncture in Tibet and China’s history, where citizens who differ in their opinions from the Chinese Communist Party are considered “dangerous elements” and imprisoned, Xu’s efforts to find a shared space between Tibetan and Chinese freedom seekers are significant.

It will take a long-term coordinated effort on the part of both Tibetans and Han Chinese to overcome mistrust.  When Chinese rights activists speak out on behalf of Tibetans, they are building a welcome foundation upon which mutual trust can be built.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has called for the 21st century to be a century of dialogue.  Xu Zhiyong, despite facing tremendous threats to his own freedom, has taken another bold step in sustaining a dialogue about realizing the “shared dream” of freedom.

It is imperative for Han Chinese and Tibetan activists alike that this conversation continues.

Tenzin Palkyi and Louisa Greve are, respectively, Asia Program Officer and Vice President, Programs – Asia, Middle East & North Africa, and Global, at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. 

Time to start a Twitter war of the bots?

Most Twitter users try to ignore messages from robot accounts. But maybe we should be putting bots to work for a more noble cause—democracy, writes the University of Washington’s Philip N. Howard

One estimate holds that 75 percent of all Twitter traffic is generated by the most active users—about 5 percent of Twitter accounts. One-third of those active users are believed to be machine bots tweeting more than 150 times a day,” he writes for Slate:

Most of these crafty bots generate inane commentary and try to sell stuff, but some are given political tasks. For example, pro-Chinese bots have clogged Twitter conversations about the conflict in Tibet. In Mexico’s recent presidential election, the political parties played with campaign bots on Twitter. … Furthermore, the Chinese, Iranian, Russian, and Venezuelan governments employ their own social media experts and pay small amounts of money to large numbers of people (“50 cent armies”) to generate pro-government messages, if inefficiently.

During the Cold War, Western diplomats smuggled fax machines to the democracy advocates behind the Iron Curtain. For a while now, we’ve been sending satellite phones to activists who need help organizing supporters. But we aren’t yet taking advantage of Twitter robots. Let’s put those tools to work promoting democratic values, expanding the news diets of people in other countries, and critiquing tough dictators.

Inevitably, this will result in some sort of Twitter war of the robots, some promoting democracy, some decrying it. I suppose anti-democracy robots can target their own citizens at home or abroad, but they would probably have little impact on the people living in democracies. Sure, maybe this will clog up Twitter a bit. But we need a strategic response to 50-cent armies and the existing authoritarian bots.


Philip N. Howard is professor of communication, information, and international studies at the University of Washington. Currently, he is a fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. He tweets from @pnhoward.

Havel, dissidents and totalitarianisms

ladanThere are extraordinary human beings who of right ought never to die for their very existence is a ray of hope in the tragedy of life, writes Iranian activist and historian Ladan Boroumand (right). 

This thought came to my outraged and devastated mind when, on 18 December 2011, my fellow human-rights activist Igor Blaževic informed me of Václav Havel’s passing. Igor is originally from Bosnia, and a Czech citizen by adoption. His e-mail was full of sorrow. He knew Havel personally, and I could only measure his pain through the intensity of my own despair. Perhaps the shared grief and tears of the Bosnian refugee and the Iranian refugee reveal more about what Havel meant—and still means to all those powerless who have rebelled against a totalitarian rule —than could any words.

The first and only time I met President Havel was on one of the many occasions when he used his prestige and glory to give a voice to the voiceless. It was 20 February 2007, at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Havel was there to receive the Democracy Service Medal (below) from the National Endowment for Democracy . For the occasion, he had asked NED to invite dissidents from different countries to share the floor with him and talk about their respective struggles for freedom. The event had been cosponsored by NED and the Library of Congress, where Havel was doing research.

He came to the podium short of breath and looking frail. In a brief speech, he reminded his audience that they should be aware of the shortcomings of the very concept of “dissident” invented by the Western press, that “dissidence” is not a profession, for dissidents are men and women who have an identity of their own. They are scientists, workers, artists, what makes them dissidents is their determination to defend their dignity and fight for their liberty. And thus with elegance and subtlety, Havel reminded us that those who would speak that night were more than what they would be talking about. He was warning us against the reductionist mischief of our benevolent solidarity. At this point, when we were all thinking about the limitations of the concept of “dissident,” Havel shifted gears and said, not without irony and humor, that he had ended up adopting the word anyway, because “it was so practical.”

The second warning that the former Czech president gave his audience was about the uncertainties of the world of dissidents, these unknown people: Who are they? Are they real dissidents? Are they insane? Are the spies? Are they just individuals who like to be invited for drinks at the embassies of democratic countries? Perhaps some of the dissidents are all the above, Havel said, and as the audience burst into laughter, he made a strong plea in favor of engaging and supporting dissidents despite all the risks and uncertainties that come with such engagement and support. To be sure, dissidents are not elected and have no other legitimacy than that which is conferred upon them by the principles for which they fight, yet the risks and uncertainties implied by engaging and supporting dissidents are always smaller than those implied by invading a country.

As I watched Havel leaving the podium, I was filled with gratitude to the journalist and historian Anne Applebaum, the author of Gulag: A History (2004) who had given me a copy of Havel’s essay collection The Power of the Powerless. Of course I had known about Havel and admired him, as I had admired Andrei Sakharov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Lech Walesa and other dissidents living under communist rule, but I had not actually read Havel.

My sister Roya and I had asked Anne to come and see Omid, the online virtual memorial in defense of human rights that we had been creating to preserve the memories—and the case facts—of all those killed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Our goal, we told Anne, was to restore the common denominator of humanity that Islamist totalitarianism had destroyed. We told her that as Iranian citizens in exile, without any power, the only thing that we could do was to document the truth about the victims. We told her that the Memorial was our way of taking up the burden of our moral responsibility to stand up against Evil. As she was browsing the pages of Omid, and listening to us, Anne told us that we should read what Havel had to say in The Power of the Powerless. Two days later, she sent us a copy.

Havel’s concept of “living in truth” was not new to me. I grew up in a dissident family in Iran, in the Sixties and Seventies. My father had renounced his political and professional carriers—and ultimately his life—for the sake of his principles. Living in truth and being isolated as a consequence was somehow part of the family culture. Nor was the idea of taking action without calculating the chances of immediate success a new revelation to me, for I had learned this from another hero of mine, Shapour Bakhtiar (1914–91), the last prime minister of Iran under the monarchy.

An old humanist and social democrat who had spent six years in the Shah’s prisons, Bakhtiar accepted the premiership in January 1979 only because he thought it was his duty to tell the truth and warn his nation against the danger of a new form of totalitarian rule. Havel had told the truth to Gustáv Husák,. Bakhtiar’s less-than-welcoming audience was not a head of state, but rather the millions of his fellow Iranians who had become drunk with the Islamists’ false promises of a paradise on earth. When asked why he had accepted the premiership when he knew that he had little chance to succeed, Bakhtiar said the same thing as Havel: I did it because it was the right thing to do. In 1991, the same year that my father was murdered, Bakhtiar too fell to an assassin’s blade, paying with his life for his steadfast insistence on living in truth.

So Havel did not need to convince me of the need to live in truth and be oneself, but he taught me as had no one before what living in lie does to man’s soul and by extension to human society as a whole. ….For as different as the Communists’ atheist totalitarianism and the Islamists’ theocratic totalitarianism may be—the one denying God’s existence and worshiping historical determinism, the other denying God’s transcendence and making itself an idol on earth—there is an undeniable kinship between different kinds of totalitarian systems, for they all tend to reduce history to the dominion of one exclusive Truth, and by doing so pervert history’s very essence.

As a result, writes Havel in his open letter to Dr. Husak, “ history as uniqueness disappears from the flow of events, so does continuity….The deadening of the sense of unfolding time in society inevitably kills it in private life as well. No longer backed by social history or the history of the individual within it, private life declines to a prehistoric level where time derives its only rhythm from such events as birth, marriage, and death.”

Havel’s masterly elaboration on the essential correlation between man’s liberty, his incessant quest for consciousness, and history in his open letter to Husák helped me to understand the confusion and purposelessness that has infected the lives of my fellow Iranians for more than thirty years.  

That is why on the 18th of December, to honor the memory of one the greatest political and intellectual figures of our time, the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation is pleased to release the Persian version of Dear Dr. Husak, which I consider to be a masterpiece both in its form and its content. I have no doubt that each paragraph will strongly resonate with a great number of Iranian citizens who will find in it an illuminating analysis of their own experience. This publication is to be followed by a Persian translation of “The Power of the Powerless.”


This is an edited extract of a longer must-read article available at the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation website. The foundation is a 501(c) 3 non-governmental organization, founded in April 2001, and dedicated to the promotion of human rights and democracy in Iran. Please visit atwww.iranrights.org and www.facebook.com/iranrights. All donations are tax deductible.

Holidays DemDigest Blog Posts

Posts will be light and sporadic over the next couple of weeks as the DemDigest site is redesigned and vacations taken.

Happy Holidays!

As Putin blows nationalist ‘dog whistle’, is reset in need of a reset?

Vladimir Putin has called on Russians “not to lose ourselves as a nation,” to seek inspiration from the country’s traditional values rather than Western political models.

Russia had chosen the path of democracy, he said in his first major speech since returning to the presidency, but defined that as “the power of the Russian people with their traditions” and “absolutely not the realization of standards imposed on us from outside.”

He struck a chauvinistic note, implicitly defending the decision to force overseas-funded civil society groups to brand themselves as “foreign agents.”  

“Direct or indirect outside interference in our internal political processes is unacceptable,” Putin said in his speech in the Kremlin. “People who receive money from abroad for their political activities — most likely serving foreign national interests — cannot be politicians in the Russian Federation.”

The chauvinistic tone had a political purpose, said former Kremlin insider Gleb Pavlovsky.

“As long as Putin talks about patriotism he is obliged to show that somewhere the anti-patriots are hiding. He seeks them among mythical political structures which are supposedly financed abroad,” he told AFP. “It is a phantom topic.”

Pavlovsky was equally dismissive of Putin’s declared intention to root out high-level corruption, suggesting that low- and middle-rank officials would likely bear the brunt.

“Putin had failed to send a message of purging the high ranks,” the strategist told the Interfax news agency:

The opposition ridiculed Putin’s statements as lacking substance and novelty. “Everything will be fine soon, I promise,” opposition activist Alexei Navalny wrote, sarcastically summing up the address.

Another opposition activist, Vladimir Ryzhkov, called the speech a “manifesto of preserving political status quo.”

Putin’s patriotic theme was anticipated after a Kremlin commission referred to a unique Russian “civilization” in outlining a new “strategy of state nationalities policy”, earlier this week.

“Thanks to the unifying role of the Russian people……..a unique sociocultural civilisational community on the historical territory of the Russian state has formed: the multinational Russian nation,” reads a representative sentence from the document, seen by the Financial Times:

The new approach is a classic example of “dog whistle” politics – a politically loaded message inaudible to all but Russian conservatives and nationalists, who see its significance in two ways: an imperial instead of a civic concept of nation which simultaneously implies that Russia belongs to a civilisation other than the west.

The strategy is likely to encounter resistance from non-Russian nationalities.

The document is a “trial balloon” by hardline Russian nationalists who hope to “create a unitary nation” by abolishing or diluting national autonomous republics, home to a number of non-Russian peoples, said Rafael Mukhametdinov, a historian from the republic of Tatarstan.

“They feel there might be a crisis – just as happened to the Soviet Union, when all the republics separated and headed for the exits. There is no reason why the same thing cannot happen now to Russian Federation,” Mr Mukhametdinov said.

Putin’s uncompromising tone will only add credence to arguments that the reset of US-Russian relations is in need of a…er, reset.

“As President Obama approaches his second term, few foreign policies are more in need of reassessment than his stance toward Russia,” say two leading analysts.

“[G]lib formulations and major energy projects should not cover up the fundamental choice the two administrations face: to continue their transactional approach to relations, with their inevitable ups and downs, or to put relations in a broader, longer-term strategic framework, which could foster more enduring constructive relations,” according to Thomas E. Graham, senior director of Kissinger Associates, and Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center:

A choice in favor of the former faces two problems. First, it is hard to see where progress can be made in the next four years. ………Putin’s recent preference for trade and investment requires a qualitatively different business climate in Russia, including the de facto rule of law and competent, honest governance. Fruitful cooperation on regional conflicts, as Syria has demonstrated, requires dealing with the age-old principles of world order, sovereignty and noninterference in internal affairs, and the growing Western preference to use force to protect foreign populations from brutal leaders.

Second, domestic political conditions in neither country are conducive to pursuing such trade-offs. Incensed by Washington’s insistence on dealing simultaneously with the Russian government and Russian society, Putin has taken steps — from branding foreign-funded non-governmental organizations as “foreign agents” to ending the U.S. Agency for International Development’s 20 years of work in Russia — that do not make it politically easier for Obama to sell closer engagement with Moscow.

“By contrast, a strategic approach would start with the geopolitical transformation now underway across the globe and ask how each country could become a strategic asset for the other,” Graham and Trenin contend:

So far, both the U.S. administration and the Kremlin have resisted taking a strategic approach. …On the U.S. side, this oversight grows in part out of the discomfort America has with the very idea of Russian power, grounded in the long Cold-War struggle. Having confronted malevolent Soviet power for so long, America resists the idea that Russia could ever have a positive role in American strategic interests.

On the Russian side, there is still great resentment over the way the United States treated Russia after the end of the Cold War, and a fair amount of suspicion that U.S. policy is aimed at weakening Russia today.

“There is no guarantee that we would reach agreement,” the analysts suggest. “Indeed, a strategic dialogue could reveal unbridgeable differences. But the potential benefits of strategic cooperation justify the effort.”