The Curious Case of Tsering Shakya

Consider the position that noted Tibetan scholar Tsering Shakya found himself in one unseasonably draughty, early-April evening in Toronto: you are part of a panel that kicks off a series of discussions under the auspicious heading of “New Beginnings: Young Canadians’ Peace Dialogue on China and Tibet”. Your topic for the evening is “Where Are We Now?: Finding Common Understanding on China and Tibet”.

You are joined onstage by Susan Henders, a doctor of philosophy, and Zhiming Chen, a doctor of political science and international relations.

The former, an associate professor at York University, expounds on the nature of nationalism, and its effect on creating communities and conflicts. Henders touches on the Tibetan issue by positing that China will do well to heed the examples of the agreements brokered in Aceh and North Ireland with their respective counterparts in Indonesia and the UK; in terms of figuring out that balance where Tibetans feel secure in their identities and needs inside Tibet, versus an unwieldy nation that brooks turbulence as the people demand freedom from China — a cause or symptom of which could be heightened nationalism.

The latter, an associate professor at the University of Montreal, goes on at length about the intricacies behind the Chinese relationship with Tibet. He makes it clear from the get-go that he is merely presenting the Chinese government’s point of view — “I am just a shamanistic medium” — and that he neither endorses nor opposes any of the viewpoints that he will shortly present to the audience.

Chen claims that the Chinese government is unfairly maligned in their management of the Tibet situation. Since the 1950s, Chinese officials have attempted, at various intervals in policy and leadership reorganizations, to address Tibetan demands in the areas of autonomy, religious freedoms and other rights. Deng Xiaoping tried really hard, man.

And now, finally, you have the mic. You are the noted Tibetan historian and expert — you were introduced by the moderator at the outset of this symposium with the endorsement that “if you want to know about Tibet, there’s no one better than Tsering Shakya.” Well then.

What sort of tack will you employ? Are you going to present a sharp retort to the panelist before you, take apart his theses and facts piece by piece? Will you appeal for a more nuanced contextualization of Tibet? A picture of the present situation there, rife with self-immolations and protests, framed in a way that makes it easy for your young audience to understand, but also does justice to the scale of the issues and the grievances of the nationalistic Tibetans? Perhaps you can present a separate angle altogether. Maybe a diasporic perspective that connects the Tibetan struggle with your own experience as a Tibetan refugee, which would also then speak to the experience of most of the Tibetans attending this panel discussion.

You have many paths before you to consider. As one of the lead faculty members of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia, you are aware of the expectations (“no one better”) that comes with that kind of academic distinction. As someone who’s written and published a great deal on the history of Tibet — your book, “The Dragon in the Land of Snows”, has been heralded by the New York Times as “the definitive history of modern Tibet” — you feel that this opportunity you have, in front of these receptive Tibetan- and Chinese Canadian youth, is quite special, and you hope that what you have to say will help lead to some measure of a meaningful dialogue between these two groups, as the organizers of this event intended. Finally, as a Tibetan yourself, maybe you feel like you have an added responsibility to do right. You know. Represent your people and all that.

What do you do, Tsering Shakya?

You double down on what Chen said. You claim that the Tibetan struggle for freedom is, for all intents and purposes, bupkiss.

And… scene.

This may seem like a crude blow-by-blow of the event held on April 3 at the University of Toronto’s Innis Town Hall, but unfortunately, the gist of the retelling above basically rings true. In front of more than ninety audience members, Shakya achieved the stunning feat of not only defenestrating Tibetan nationalism, but also muffling the cries of the 116 Tibetan self-immolators to date.

That his performance comes at the heels of two speakers speaking from a non-Tibetan perspective adds another layer of perplexity. This was not a debate, and one does not expect Shakya to assume a position simply in reaction to the ideas that his co-panelists have presented. It might simply be the case that he had his notes already in place, without any notion of what the others were going to speak about. Podium time is limited, and you want to make sure that you are well-prepared and cogent while under the spotlight.

Even so, if the speaker to your side, Zhiming Chen, peppers his talk with dubious assertions that paint a different coat altogether on Tibet’s history, one would assume, as a Tibetan, that you would feel compelled to at least set the record straight on points such as (paraphrased):

“the ‘one-country, two-state’ system was first applied by China in Tibet and quite successful for nine years until 1959”

The Dalai Lama’s call for ‘a halt to the Chinese population transfer into Tibet’, in his Strasbourg Proposal in 1988, was untenable from the Chinese point of view because it fomented the threat of communal violence, à la the India-Pakistan partition.

“most of Tibet was historically not under the control of Lhasa”

Etc., etc.

Perhaps an extemporaneous flair is not one of Shakya’s strong suit. Maybe it’s unfair and misguided to expect from him some kind of “solidarity” with the Tibetan struggle just because he happens to be ethnically Tibetan. These are all impertinent to the matter of discussing the history of Tibet. Facts are facts.

Taking all of those into account, what then are we to make of Tsering Shakya’s assertion that “historically there has never been a concept of Tibetan sovereignty” as a central element of his exordium? Or this particular gem:

The self-immolations are not happening because of oppression. If that were the case, the self-immolations would not be allowed to occur at all. In fact, if there was true oppression then it would be like North Korea. The reasons these self-immolations are allowed to occur is because China is going through a period of growth and change.

Yes. You read that verbatim. Shakya tells us what the self-immolators haven’t. What they think they’re doing, and what is actually the reality. When Lama Sobha perished with an impassioned plea — “Freedom is the path to happiness for all living beings. Without freedom, we become a candle flame in the wind […]. If Tibetans from the three autonomous regions can be united, we will have won an accomplishment. Please don’t lose your faith.” — Shakya would seem to almost tut-tut it and tell us instead that what’s really happening is the Tibetans are feeling more emboldened because of some of the more liberal policies enacted by China in their area. It is natural, therefore, that once the Tibetans have a whiff of this elusive freedom scent, courtesy of China, that they would then proceed to whip themselves into a state of frenzy and sometimes douse themselves in flames.

We could interpret Shakya’s statements as qualifiers to let the audience know that the situation in Tibet at the moment is not as cut and dry as it may appear. The media focuses on the sensationalistic aspects of these horrifying acts, and as an analyst nonpareil on Tibet, Shakya feels compelled in telling us to cool our heads and stay our hands. These things are complicated, he reminds us, with an almost pained exasperation furrowing across his brow. “China and Tibet are ancient, difficult neighbours.”

Regardless of what position you take on the Tibetan situation — whether you’re pro-China or pro-Tibet; whether you advocate for rangzen, independence, or support the Central Tibetan Adminstration’s Middle-Path Policy; a Buddhist, communist or a non-interventionist — I would wager that it would be hard for you to claim that a person would take the extreme measure of applying gasoline on her body and lighting it on fire just because of a “reform period [that] brought revitalization of the local identity and the reconstitution of scarred sites, [a] revival of religion and traditional practices [that] heighten[ed] local identity”.

Even the Chinese government attributes the string of self-immolations to some forms of machination from “the Dalai clique”. In this scenario, regardless of how petty, cynical or delusional it appears, at least there’s an element of imputation that falls in line with how adversaries normally relate to each other.

In Shakya’s case, he seems to be applying a meta-anthropological tack that suggests the grievances of the Tibetans belie an almost artificial construct, i.e. Tibetan nationalism. At his talk and in articles, Shakya stresses that the clarion call for a united Tibet is somehow in reaction to a mix of repressive and reformist actions from the Chinese government. The matter of an illegal and violent occupation never gains traction in Shakya’s mind, insofar as his last article on Tibet indicates.

[T]he question [of] why the Tibetans have now adopted self-immolation as the language of protest is complex and cannot be understood in terms of individual motives or by simply studying the social backgrounds of the individuals.


To some degree the creation of a single Tibetan group owes much to the nationality policies and ethnic categorization system introduced by the Communists.

Imagine an Indian version of a Tsering Shakya upbraiding his compatriots fighting against the British rule by telling them that there was never a unified concept of India before the East India Company. What would those Satyagrahis have made of this historical pedantry?

To be fair, adopting this sort of syncretic approach in analyzing and distilling the present-day situation in Tibet is by itself not an anathema. Indeed, there is lots to unpack from these acts of self-immolations, and it is not the intent of this audience member to reduce any discussion on this subject into a simplistic, either-or proposition.

What I think was most egregious in Shakya’s talk that evening was the fact that he attempted to distil very dense ideas through a string of problematic proclamations. Quotes like “Tibet has no historical sense of sovereignty” and “China has allowed these self-immolations […] because of a period of growth and change.” — what is a Chinese Canadian student to make of these opinions?

Will his takeaway from Shakya’s talk be that the calls for independence from the self-immolators and exile Tibetans are hollow? That the Tibetans, driven by some kind of primitive allegiance to religion, culture and language, don’t appreciate the benevolence showered upon them by the Chinese government?

Maybe I’m too biased or blinkered to view this from the position that Shakya has. Maybe academic treatises are not my strong suit.

All I know is, impartiality does not mean impunity. When you assume a position of authority, in front of many who are not as well-versed on an emotional issue like the self-immolations, it behooves an important Tibetan analyst such as Tsering Shakya to make clear why someone would be driven to kill themselves within the context of a Chinese occupation. To not dissect and sublimate their actions into mindless, hive mind undertakings.

A 30,000-foot view is important, absolutely. But if you stray far beyond that, you risk going out of orbit.

To conclude, I just wish this professor of history was present as one of the panelists for the talk that evening. For what it’s worth, he makes more sense to me:



  1. Edward Teach

    Any who have looked with care at Shakya’s writings and his various public presentation will not be surprised at his most recent comments. Playing hide and seek behind a veneer of supposed academic ‘objectivity’ and parading an over regarded nuanced analysis, when the pseudo-intellectual white-noise has been removed, what’s left is a crude propaganda. A version strikingly similar to that engineered in the laboratory of China’s Xinhua agency. Tibetans would do well to spend some time reading his interview with the New Left Review, which contain some very unsettling and revealing views on Tibet.

    Take his response to the following question on the 2008 Tibetan National Uprising:

    Was the issue of Tibetan nationalism the overriding one, or were some of the protests focused on economic or social issues?

    “People talked about many things, but if you look at the slogans and banners the protesters were carrying, there was no explicit demand for independence..”

    (Source: Page 19 ‘Tibetan Questions’ Tsering Shakya, New Left Review 51, May-June 2008)

    Where was Doctor Shakya as reports were streaming out of Tibet documenting protests across the three regions of Tibet, that most surely were demanding Tibet’s independence? Was he blind to the photos of Tibetans that year who across Tibet defiantly raised the very symbol of Tibetan political, national and territorial sovereignty ? Was this richly resourced academic with in-numerable contacts in Tibet and elsewhere, ignorant of media reports that carefully documented protests calling for Tibetan independence? Why, despite numerous reports from respected sources such as Tibetan Center For Human Rights And Democracy, and Phayul, that reported a string of demonstrations demanding independence for Tibet, did this all knowing expert on Tibet choose to misrepresent the facts?

    That is the question!

  2. bob

    Shakya is merely presenting a different side of the story. There is no need to comment on his incentives. If you actually read his writings, he has attacked people such as Wang Lixiong for been Han Chauvinistic. Self immolation isn’t necessarily a sign of human rights oppression, and people who are nationalistic enough will do it. This isn’t unique to China; in fact self immolation in India in recent years for an independent Telangana state is just an example.

    • driftsdrafts

      Shakya has questioned the novelty behind these acts of self-immolations a number of times as well. And all I’m left asking is: so?

      Why are you so focused on the fact that people other than Tibetans have self-immolated? Show me a statement from any of the self-immolators or Tibetans claiming that these drastic measures are a trademark of Tibetans only.

      I am mystified about why this is such a point of emphasis for you and Shakya.

      Or, wait: could this be just another case of an intellectualist sideshow? A kind of academic greebling just for the sake of putting in some extra lines of citations and footnotes.

  3. Tsedolma

    Excellent analysis!! I would avoid giving any significance to the title one carries and focus just on their points which you did very well!…title these days are just for economic means and are political tools.
    There are no DIFFERENT SIDES to any story, when the story itself was presented by the self immolators in whole. There could be different sides of a story when story were crafted by the governments and outsiders who by any means are not subjected to the sufferings of the victims in the story.

  4. bob

    There ARE different sides of the story. Self immolators are not representative of the entire Tibetan population. I’m not sure if you lived in Tibetan regions in China, I’ve been in Amdo and Kham for a few months, while they have no love for the Chinese government, politics and independence simply isn’t an everyday concern, quite unlike the views of the overseas Tibetans. The point in bringing up India as an example is to show that what drives self immolation isn’t necessarily deprivation of basic human rights(I’m not going to go into the details here). Nationalism will induce people to such acts. Shakya was merely stating what he sees as a social scientific fact. You might not agree with him, but there is no need to attack his incentives, it is perfectly plausible for him to make such a statement if you take away the nationalist lense of the story.

    • driftsdrafts

      So what does that make of the tens of thousands of Tibetans who have protested in Tibet since 2008? What is your cut-off line as far as numbers go to make you take their grievances seriously? This is a rhetorical question by the way because you are just an observer with no skin in this game; an armchair pontificator who had the privilege of visiting Tibet. (FYI: I can’t.)

      You seem to think of self-immolation as a very cavalier thing to do — as if it’s like posting an angry comment on facebook.

      People don’t pour gasoline on themselves and burn their bodies just for the heck of it. Nationalism is not an entity that exists in a vacuum — it is intertwined with human rights, persecution, repression and colonization. You should actually read what Shakya has said on this matter.

      • bob

        Precisely because we are observers with no skin in this game makes us neutral and objective in analysis. I have no comment on self immolation. You are the one who attacked Shakya for his comments.

        • bob

          Also, do you think the protests in 2008 are representative of all Tibetans as well? I’ve asked numerous Tibetans on this issue. The Monks are the most hostile to the government, and are almost all against it. But the opinion of the common people varies, and there are also commoners who does not support violent rebellions either. It is sad that you cannot go there, but you should not assume that all Tibetans think in a certain way and that rebellions are representative of everyone; that’s not realistic.

          • bob

            Also, don’t mistakenly think that I am arguing that there are no oppression of human rights or social problems in China. There are. However, these are relative and not universal. Some groups might have faced more direct attack by the Chinese government than others depending on the circumstances. I am merely saying that just because Shakya made an analysis on certain matter means he has an political inclination and one should not assume protests are representative of everyone.

          • driftsdrafts

            “Self immolation isn’t necessarily a sign of human rights oppression.”

            Your quote. I find that very insulting and presumptuous of you because you have the gumption to insinuate that the self-immolators have some hidden motives that belie their difficulties. As if they’re not truly deprived of their basic human rights.

            Check that nonsense, please. And your privilege.

  5. Tsedolma

    With respect to ‘Self immolation’ and tibetan struggle..there is only one side to the story..any other sides are just plain lie.
    Drawing conclusion such as “Not representative of entire tibetan population” in few months of presence shows credibility of ones approach to understanding the whole story. For such unfounded conclusion–here is a better one based on factual circumstances (unwind 2013 to 1950) —self immolator are the “true messenger of entire tibetan population’. They are not trying to send message on ‘Few concerns”, given the depth of pain involved in such act ( If it were of few concerns,human knows how to ignore or suk it up). Its not of nationalism but a simple human approach to sougt help to put an end to all thewrongs thats been happenings.

    FYI..Tibet is not a region in China..( could be based on what hat one is wearing).

    • bob

      There are some Tibetans I’ve seen in Amdo and Kham who thinks otherwise, do their opinions not count? The first problem is simplifying and grouping everyone under a single perspective. It’s much more complex than that. No, they do not love the Chinese government, but they are not supportive of rebellions either. They simply want to carry on their lives. Believe it or not, nationalism isn’t a priority for most people, being outside of Tibet, you guys are well fed and have time to think about nationalism. In Tibet, there are real social issues which are far more important than nationalism and they don’t necessarily fall under the category of ethnic conflict.

      • driftsdrafts

        Of course, the Tibetans that you’ve had a fleeting interaction with as an outsider are totally the representative sample of Tibet as a whole. And because every Tibetan you meet that doesn’t self-combust upon speaking with you do not oppose China’s occupation of Tibet (never mind the absurdity of a Tibetan sharing his true feelings about China to some tourist from another country).

        Got it.

  6. Scott Olsen

    Perhaps Bob suffers from that condition in which those of an academic persuasion, searching for the grail of ‘objectivity’, become relocated in terms of emotional or moral connection to an issue. Shakya’s views are an example of this. The genocidal assault upon Tibet’s culture is transmuted into an lifeless sample in a petri dish, ethical considerations no longer apply. Indeed the suffering of Tibet’s people, their testimony and experiences under China’s terrorism is often dismissed entirely as ‘unreliable data’. A merciless skepticism is applied to a people’s experience, disregarded or marginalized as a false construct or subjective.

    In such ‘reasoning’ any inconvenient reality that does not conform to the dictate of such analysis is considered immeasurable as ‘truth’. Such are the inner mechanics which seem to drive the thinking of so-called Tibet experts, who are so fascistic in the application of critical examination that they can stand upon a public platform and effectively deny the suffering of Tibetans.

    Those who spin such a line are little more than apologists for China. If you read their writings with awareness it becomes very evident that the same ferocious critique, which they apply to dilute, ignore or dismiss the dark realities of China’s occupation of Tibet, is not applied with the same frequency or consistency to the obvious propaganda assertions and denials served up by the Chinese authorities.

    Mr Shakya has a long record of such bias, a distortion that infects a number of academic departments specializing on Tibet.

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