The room in the great hall of the People on Beijing's Tiananmen Square was painted with murals of Tibetans frolicking with yaks under a rainbow and harvesting barley in a display of socialist spirit. A sign in misspelled English identified it as the TIEBET ROOM, and gathered within were dozens of Chinese Communist Party delegates, in town for the 18th Party Congress. The event not only saw China make its once-a-decade leadership change, but it was also a chance for glowing reports to be presented on every aspect of the state's business in this case, the high plateau.
"The last 10 years was the period when the people in Tibet gained the most benefits," declared Padma Choling, the chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). The accomplishments of the Chinese government, helmed over the past decade by President Hu Jintao, were enumerated. New airports and roads had been built. Electricity had been provided so that Tibetan Buddhist monks could watch the state-run news. Tibetan nuns had been taught about women's health. The Tibetan capital, Lhasa, had been voted the happiest city in China four out of five years. "The sunshine in Lhasa is the brightest," said Che Dalha, the Communist Party secretary for Lhasa, "and the people in Lhasa are the happiest."
Many of those living on the roof of the world feel otherwise. Since March 2011, more than 70 Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest repressive Chinese rule and call for the return of exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. At least four self-immolations, including one by a 15-year-old monk, occurred on a single day Nov. 7, just a day before the Party Congress convened. Another four took place from Nov. 8 to 12, say Tibetan exile groups.
Most of these ghastly protests were made not in the TAR itself but in Tibetan-dominated areas of China's Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu provinces. Nothing was mentioned about them during the congress until journalists brought up the issue. "The overseas Tibetan separatist forces and the Dalai clique sacrifice other people's lives to reach their ulterior political motives," was the view of Losang Gyaltsen, the TAR vice chairman. (The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile reject such claims.)
The disconnect between the communist cant and ordinary people's lives is not unique to Tibet. As the Tibetan presentation droned on in the Great Hall of the People, delegates from other provinces were also explaining how outgoing President Hu's decade in power had transformed their regions. Growth rates indicative of China's remarkable economic expansion were offered to the hundredth decimal point, while short shrift was given to the serious social problems, like corruption and a widening income gap, that confront Hu's heir, Xi Jinping.
But nowhere is the discrepancy between propaganda and reality starker than in Tibetan regions. There's no question that since 1949, when the People's Republic was founded and later began to occupy Tibet, life has improved materially on the isolated plateau. If it hadn't been for the communists, "a girl like me would never have had opportunities to study and learn painting," says Yeshi Lhamo, an art researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. Yet the 30-year-old Tibetan Communist Party member cannot speak her native language well and believes that ethnic minorities in China tend to "drink a lot and are late to everything." Every year, more members of China's Han majority flood into Tibet, provoking fears that Tibetans will be outnumbered in their own land. Tibetan monasteries must hold patriotic-education classes, and the top party post in Tibet has never been occupied by a Tibetan.
Meanwhile, the immolations continue, with more laypeople young mothers, students and retirees burning themselves in a sign of the radicalization of an already heartbreaking campaign. The Chinese government's response has been to send in wave after wave of security forces to remote monastery towns. In Padma Choling's succinct distillation of the party's attitude toward domestic politics: "Stability overrides all thought."
As the TAR chairman spoke to assembled delegates, outside on Tiananmen Square firefighters stood stern-faced and hypervigilant. Each was in charge of a fire extinguisher in the event that any martyrdom-minded individual should wish to mar the great convocation. The fires of self-immolation may be lighting up the Tibetan plateau, but there's nothing quite so incandescent as the party's disapproval of dissent.
with reporting by Chengcheng Jiang and Gu Yongqiang / Beijing