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Discovering the new China along the trail of the Long March

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Monks at the Jingang temple in Kangding January 21, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Monks at the Jingang temple in Kangding January 21, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

The China Diaries

Monks self-censoring about self-immolation Add to ...

I had come a long way looking for answers, but the young man in the crimson robes had none he was able to give.

I met Thupten (not his real name – it would be dangerous for any monk to talk to a foreign reporter these days) at his temple in Kangding, a town almost 3,000 metres high in the mountains of Sichuan province that are the jagged staircase to the Tibetan Plateau. I had hoped to go higher, to the monasteries of Aba and Gandze that have been ablaze with hopelessness and anger for much of the past four years. I wanted to understand what might have motivated 97 Tibetan monks, nuns and laypeople to try and end their lives by setting themselves on fire. It proved impossible.

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While we were driving Tuesday in the mountains of Sichuan, a 98th self-immolation was reported by Tibetan exile groups, this time in the neighbouring province of Gansu, another Chinese province with a large Tibetan population. All that’s been reported at this point is that Kunchok Kyab was 23 years old when he died near the Bora Monastery, leaving behind his wife and his 10-month-old child. It was exactly the kind of act I find so hard to comprehend, and why I wanted to speak to other Tibetan monks to ask them why this was happening and how they thought this grim era might end.

But the roads to places like Aba and Bora are blocked these days, especially to foreigners. In the city of Chengdu, the Sichuanese capital with its sizable Tibetan minority, no driver would take us to Aba – let alone to Lhasa or any part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region itself. They believed we would get stopped at one of the many Chinese security checkpoints along the road, and we would all be punished. “They’ll beat you first, and then make you come back here,” one driver warned us.

We were told Kangding – an occasionally harrowing six-hour drive from Chengdu, still in Sichuan but on the edge of historic Tibet – was as far as we could go. So we climbed into a battered Mitsubishi SUV and headed into the mountains.

The two monasteries we visited in Kangding were places of calm, not anger. Other than the chants and drums of afternoon prayer – and the occasional buzz of a mobile phone – complete stillness reigned over the centuries-old complexes. Apart from the occasional visitor, the hundred or so monks of the Nanwu Temple – and the 40 or 50 at Jingang Temple – live and study in complete isolation.

China’s ruling Communist Party government has tried to use that separateness to keep the wave of self-immolations – which began in February, 2009, when a young monk lit himself ablaze outside Aba’s Kirti Monastery – from growing any further.

Scenic Kangding has long been a meeting point and trading post between the Tibetans who live further up the mountains and the Han Chinese who live below. But, these days, the atmosphere is a nervous one, with no fewer than five mobile police checkpoints currently established on and around Kangding’s main People’s Square. The officers at each post are equipped with riot shields and metre-long poles with U-shaped rubber endings that look designed to pin a burning person to the ground. At least one police cruiser we saw in Chengdu had fire extinguishers in the back seat.

Monks in Kangding say they’ve been told they can no longer travel from one region to the next unless they first obtain a hard-to-get permit from the Public Security Bureau, creating a farcical situation in which the Tibetan Autonomous Region – long sealed to many foreigners – is now also closed even to many Tibetans living in the neighbouring Chinese provinces. Monks here say authorities also came to tinker with their satellite dishes so they no longer receive foreign channels such as BBC or Voice of America. (China’s state-controlled media have alleged the self-immolations are directed by foreigners.)

But news still trickles through. Thupten said word of the self-immolations had reached Kangding via text messages and the occasional visitor. Some of the burnings had occurred just a few hours’ drive north of his temple.

So what, then, did he think of them? What would cause a young man or woman to want to die in such a spectacular and horrible way?

Thupten, like all the monks I met Tuesday in Kangding, wasn’t willing to either condemn the self-immolations or show any support. “Right now, it’s very difficult to talk about this,” he said apologetically, as if he didn’t trust even the other monks around him. Then the 29-year-old switched from speaking in Chinese to the broken English he is ably teaching himself: “You know, because of politics.”

He flipped back to Chinese. “I hope you will come again another time. Maybe then we can speak of these things more freely.”

I smiled back at him, but I doubted that day would come any time soon.

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

The China Diaries

Mark MacKinnon, The Globe and Mail’s China correspondent, and staff photojournalist John Lehmann are exploring China at a defining moment in its modern history. Travelling mainly by rail, they will roughly retrace the path of Mao Zedong’s Long March to look at the challenges facing Mao’s latest successor, Xi Jinping.

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