The contrast between the way United States has so far handled the case of the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and at least 30 self-immolations by ordinary Tibetans could not be more striking.
As Chen left the protection of the U.S. embassy in Beijing under rather extraordinary assurances from the Chinese government, I cannot help but think about the rash of self-immolations in Tibet in recent weeks and how they have done nothing to move Washington on that particular question.
One wonders what might have happened if a Tibetan Buddhist monk had managed to reach the gates of the US embassy in Beijing under similar circumstances. Would it have compelled the mission to get involved to the extent it did in the Chen case? I am not sure about the answer.
Not a lot of people are likely to say it openly but the fact that Chen is blind most certainly ensured that he got the kind of attention he did as did his campaign against forced abortions and sterilization. The New York Times quotes unnamed US officials as saying they got involved because of the “exceptional circumstances, including his disabilities.” All things being equal, one has to wonder what if Cheng was not blind. One can also argue that Chen’s steadfast insistence on staying in China and bringing about change from within also swayed many official minds on both sides.
Chen’s stay inside the embassy was seriously threatening to overwhelm US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visit to Beijing. So it is just as well that the two sides managed to settle the problem with no small help from Cheng himself who insisted on staying in China.
At their heart self-immolations in Tibet are as much about individual liberties as the campaign that Chen is embarked on and yet other than profound anguish they do not inspire much more by way of official US response. Perhaps the fact they are motivated by the great historic debate over Tibet’s sovereignty and its status as an independent nation-state compels the world community to treat them differently.
Whatever be the case, I remain intrigued by how some causes gain so much more international traction and how a single act, like that of Chen, becomes so symbolic of much deeper disaffections and dissidence. In contrast, the Tibetans have to go to macabre lengths to draw attention to their plight and still fail to achieve much more than vague sympathies.
One understands that even the United States has to choose its battles carefully. The one involving Chen was basically thrust upon it by the activist showing up at the embassy. Eventually, cases such as Chen’s do nothing more than highlight the ferment in societies that are so tightly run with some very obvious economic success without the attendant social and cultural freedoms.