In late February, Tsewang Norbu, a Tibetan singer popular across China, set himself on fire in a protest outside the Potala Palace in Lhasa, becoming one of the most recent Tibetans in their 20s to die in this manner. At the age of 25, he seemed to have had a promising future as a performer of national and regional singing reality shows. After his death was confirmed, his Weibo account, followed by almost 600,000, was flooded with messages of condolence.

Based on the data provided by various sources, since 1998, 105 out of 159 self-immolators were aged between 15 to 30 years old. The number indicates the intensification of cultural repression by Beijing, following the military occupation in 1959, the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, and the martial law in the 1980s.

But over half (57 out of 105) of the cases, like Norbu, aren’t monks or nuns, who have been cracked down on for religious reasons. Many of them are either farmers or nomads, who are subject to China’s rural resettlement projects.

Andrew Martin Fischer, a scholar whose research focuses on economy and development in Tibet, argues that despite the lack of clear evidence of its direct relationship with self-immolation, the project has a profoundly disrupted nomad and local communities in the Tibet region, including provinces of Sichuan and Qinghai, leading to “an extreme form of defiance in response to an increasingly repressive atmosphere.” Another study by Adrian Zenz revealed thousands of Tibetan farmers and nomads were coerced into a labor camp.

A few cases, students or monks, are staunch advocates of the protection and preservation of Tibetan language and identity, including Tsering Kyi (19), Gonpo Tsering (19), and Kalsang Jinpa (18). Tsering Woeser’s book Tibet on Fire reveals that after Tsering Kyi’s self-immolation, thousands of Tibetan students and teachers from college took to the street to protest and called for linguistic equality.

A recent report by the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy revealed that Beijing detained about 100 Tibetan educators and closed private schools opened by Tibetan to promote the Tibetan language. Since the 2008 protests, the Chinese government has viewed the Tibetan language as a threat to national security and stability.

Beijing’s intensification of religious suppression, systematic assimilation, and forceful resettlement of nomads have magnified resentment against the government and moreover it reinforces Tibetan identity and nationalism among the young generation. Songs like “Tsampa” and “My beautiful homeland” by Tsewang Norbu also show a concern among the young generation for government policies that seek to wipe out their culture and identity.

Self-immolation underlines a sense of crisis among the young generation. The Chinese government has enrolled more than 800,000 Tibetan students at state-owned boarding schools, separated from their families and communities and risking losing connections to their cultural identity, according to a recent report by The Tibet Action Institute.

Beijing has been quietly sinicizing Tibet, and young Tibetans are showing their resistance to the policy with their lives.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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