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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Not Such a Happy New Year

January 28, 2012

by Lyndsey Hilsum

Xin Nian Kuaile! Gong Xi Fa Cai! Happy New Year! Congratulations and Prosperity! It’s Chinese New Year, and I’ve been practicing my greetings in Chinese.

But the Year of the Dragon has not started well in the Tibetan parts of China. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of ethnic Tibetans are being punished by the Chinese authorities for refusing to celebrate the annual Spring Festival. It’s not only because they see it as an example of the government in Beijing forcing Han Chinese culture on them, but also because they’re in mourning for 16 Tibetans who have set fire to themselves in the past year in protest at continued Chinese rule.

According to the pressure group Free Tibet, two Tibetans were killed and 36 injured last Monday when Chinese police opened fire on a demonstration in Sichuan province. At least one was killed the next day in another town in the same province. This is the worst violence since the Tibetan uprising in 2008. Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, is said to be calm, but one Tibetan is reported to have written on an internet chatroom: “I dare not look around in a casual manner. I dare not move around freely. Armed personnel are everywhere and police are on every corner.”

These days, Tibet is rarely big news. The Chinese government has thrown up roadblocks to prevent journalists from reaching the remote places where protests are taking place. Mobile phones and internet have been cut. Western governments avoid confronting China over human rights issues because they’re competing to attract Chinese investment, and for exports to the world’s biggest emerging market. The concern of celebrities like Richard Gere has done nothing to protect Tibetans from the harsher aspects of Chinese rule. But many Tibetans protest nonetheless.

The dragon is one of four mythical animals with special significance in Tibetan Buddhism. It is meant to bring thunder, but also symbolises compassion. There’s not much of that around in relations between Tibetans and the Chinese government, and at least one Tibetan has said he will also set fire to himself as a protest on February 22nd, the official start of the Tibetan New Year, also symbolised by the dragon.

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