Tibet Talk – on Life, Death, and the State

From the Series: Self-Immolation as Protest in Tibet

Several weeks ago I was invited by a friend to attend a large private dinner for an art opening in Beijing. He was smuggling me into a place I didn’t belong, for these are not my usual digs, and I soon found myself seated with wealthy collectors and patrons and chroniclers of the art scene in Beijing and beyond. I was surely the only anthropologist at the event.

Our lavishly prepared table was itself a work of art, candles flickering in a darkened space, beautiful dishware, waiters pouring delicious wine, exquisitely prepared and presented dishes, with hints of flavors from around the world. I was grateful for this opportunity to have a great meal, to sit with the movers and shakers of Beijing’s global art world. As the evening wore on, and people moved from table to table, I became interested in how talk of art, and gallery openings, and rising stars in the art scene soon gave way to discussion about the state’s obsession with stability and harmonizing all kinds of inequalities, discordances, and conflicts, what used to be called contradictions. On this particular night most of the political talk is all about rumors of political happenings in Zhongnanhai, that imposing enclosure to the west of the museum of the Forbidden City, where the top echelon of China’s leadership does the everyday work of the state. Our dinner is occurring at the very end of the two legislative meetings—the “liang hui”—that take place each year in early March, the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Tonight, the fate of Bo Xilai is the main course. The Maoist inspired mayor of Chongqing has just been toppled. Premier Wen Jiabao has warned in his final press conference about a return to the days of the Cultural Revolution, a clear reference to Bo Xilai and his “Chongqing model.”[1] The charismatic Bo’s political career is in ruins. This is all for the good, someone at the same event later insists. If Bo had won his much-desired seat on the Politburo Standing Committee, and brought his “ruthless” and “brutal” politics to Beijing, the rich in China, in the flash of a moment, would flee with their wealth. I want to ask her if this isn’t what the rich are already doing, but I have other things on my mind.

A pause comes in these speculative musings about Bo. I ask: what about the self-immolations in Tibet? Would political instability in Tibet, the continued protest and bodies on fire, a bolstered military presence across the Plateau, a return to the spring protests of 2008, worry you? Would you take your money and art and everything else and flee? Could the “Tibet problem” bring apart the country, in the way that a Bo Xilai power clique in Beijing might bring the country apart, or, at the very least, herald a quick end to the neo-liberal dream of China’s never-ending machine of growth, development, and it “peaceful rise” on the global stage?

I have asked these kinds of questions in other contexts in Beijing. No matter the setting—even the ever-loquacious Beijing taxi driver pauses before he or she answers—talk of Tibet tends to produce a momentary silence. As for the art collectors, dealers, and chroniclers of the endlessly cool and hip, it is not that they are unaware of what is going on “out West.” But even they, so smart and informed about all the other political intrigues of the moment, are challenged about how to think the new wave of protest through singular acts of self-immolated bodies. I see in their faces what I see all over Beijing when I insist on Tibet talk. Sadness. Compassion. Some hints of anger (at whom, it is not clear). But what I don’t see is fear. Not the kind of fear that Bo Xilai and his “red politics” have produced. No one really thinks that the thirty or more Tibetans who have swallowed petrol and set themselves ablaze will bring an end to China; no one really thinks their own futures, and fortunes, are linked to the problem of “national unification” on the far-away and always restless ethnic borderlands. In talk about Tibet, there is the palpable sense that a body on fire can never really fight the state, with its military, roaming militias, systems of surveillance, its capacity to round up, pacify, subdue, cordon off, educate and monitor. In another context, a sympathetic acquaintance in Beijing says to me, “They are so brave, but to what end? They will only induce the government toward even more violence. The military has all the power. It is a hopeless cause. There must be other ways.”

Are there really other ways? Should there be other ways? How to imagine alternatives when the state seemingly remains unchallenged in its foundational relationship to violence, in all its myriad forms?[2] But let’s turn a couple centuries of theorizing the state and its relationship to violence on its head for a moment. Is the self-immolating subject, where we arguably see the work of the state and its effects most profoundly on the body, turning violence, through hybrid forms of spectacle, devotion, and signification, back against the state? Is it stealing, in a sense, the state’s claim on violence? Is the body in flames unmasking, if only for an instant, the state’s claim to be the sovereign subject that most effectively, most foundationally, regulates care and punishment, life and death?

Can this question – how the self-immolating body speaks back to the state – be answered through anything but theoretical reflection? I don’t know how to answer this. So much of Tibet is off limits now. Journalists sneak in. Some get banged about. A few get their story out. There is now an increasingly “global” documentation of what is happening in Tibet, but the flow of information is clearly not coming from China, via social networking sites that are closely monitored, from the academic community or from the activist environmentalists who have worked on the Plateau for over a couple of decades. Their speech is essentially forbidden. We do get to digest the occasional and predictable state media commentary on what the self-immolations mean, just who is causing all of the trouble. On the streets, at fancy dinners where the cosmopolitan elite gather, in a university cafeteria, on a park bench or in a bar, I have found suggestions of a new kind of “cruel optimism,” manifest in an increased tendency to reflect, to seek some meaning, to move beyond the silence, to find ways to affectively attach oneself to the unthinkable (Berlant 2011). And even still, Tibet still seems to be further away than ever. Especially for the traveling Chinese middle-class, it remains the must-see tourist destination, the exotic Shangri-la, the place of Buddhist monasteries and mountains peaks and high grasslands, but also a place of danger, of protest always on the brink of eruption, like that which gripped the country’s attention in 2008 (until the Sichuan Earthquake in May of that year shifted the discourse away from unruly and ungrateful ethnics out West toward an imagined national unity based on compassion and volunteerism). In our present conjuncture, a new subject works to emerge, throwing all these previous ways of knowing, relating, and attaching to Tibet and its futures into disarray. It is the self-immolated body on fire.

In Beijing, few, if any of those I have spoken to can name the names of the dead, or tell you who has survived. What they give words to is the belief that the state, even with its military and security presence, is also an agent of care. This is the state that harmonizes. It relieves poverty, pays people to think and maybe do something about environmental problems, is concerned about the wealth gap, raises the occasional warning about exploitative capitalism, corruption, land expropriation, and, as we see in Wen Jiabao’s final press conference, it warns of a return to a Cultural Revolution-style politics. Even so, people know that the state that harmonizes is all a bit of governmental theatre. Most people know that the caring state cannot do its work without also deploying its capacity to do violence. Only the state, at once and always caring and violent, can stop the madness of bodies on fire. Only the state can restore “harmony.”

When it comes to Tibet, I have never encountered such unquestioned belief in the capacity of the state to set things right. What no one seems to ask about is how the self-immolating body, the body that protests through flames and charred tissue, a body that is often wrapped in barbed-wire so it can not be saved (cared for) by the Public Security or Health official on the ground, is not just giving itself to a greater cause. It is using fire to steal from the state its foundational relationship to violence. It is denying the state, if only for that singular moment when the body ignites in flame, its sovereign claim to determine how individuals, in this most precarious of times, will be cared for, how they will live, and how they will die.

April 3, 2012


[1] For a discussion of Wen Jiabao’s final press conference, see: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/03/29/the_revenge_of_wen_jiabao?page=full On debates about the “Chongqing Model,” see this special issue of Modern China: http://mcx.sagepub.com/content/37/6.toc

[2] See Faison 2011 for a recent commentary.


Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press, 2011.

Didier Fassin, “The Trace: Violence, Truth, and the Politics of the Body,” Social Research, Vol. 78. No. 2 (Summer 2011): 281-298.

Ralph Litzinger, Department of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University