A Critical Analysis of Media Discourse concerning Tibetan Self-Immolations

Posted on May 28, 2014 by



Ever since a young monk from the Kirti Monastery set himself on fire February 2009, there have been over 100 cases of self-immolation protests in the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  These self-immolation protests are thought to be in protest of the Chinese government’s oppressive policies and a call for the return of Tibet’s spiritual leader in exile, the Dalai Lama. The vast majority of these protests have happened over the last three years as Tibetan citizens are becoming increasingly frustrated with their struggle.

Location of self-immolations since 2009

Location of self-immolations since 2009

This essay will provide critical analysis of the media discourse on Tibetan self-immolations. News sources from the United States, the United Kingdom, and The People’s Republic of China will be analyzed and compared to gain a further understanding of the media’s representation and reaction to the Tibetan struggle. By examining the different responses from each country one can determine the goals, ideals, and biases present within each news report. Analysis of this information will ultimately lead to a greater understanding of the issues as well as provide a clear example that all information should be properly researched before taking it as fact.

In general, the news sources from the United States are sympathetic to the Tibetan citizens. Websites like Save Tibet have been made to garner public support for the issues faced by the everyday citizen’s of Tibet. They promote human rights and democratic freedoms for the people of Tibet and keep an accurate account of all the self-immolation protests that have happened in Tibet since 2009. Meanwhile, news sources like USA Today and the New York Times have made numerous reports of the immolations. They also provide information about the Chinese government’s reactions. “In its latest move, the Chinese government now treats self-immolation as a crime and charges anyone inciting the act with ‘intentional murder.’ “ and “Government authorities have responded to the protesters demanding more rights with more crackdowns.” (USA Today). The New York Times states “Tibetans privately remembered those who had suffered in a harsh Chinese crackdown on Tibetans a year earlier — all of those who were murdered, jailed or disappeared….at least four Tibetans were reportedly executed, more than a thousand illegally detained and countless others went unaccounted for.” They clearly paint the Chinese government in a negative light while also providing information about the Tibetans’ plight.

This sympathetic viewpoint from the American sources is slightly different than that presented in the United Kingdom. While the tone of many articles written and published in the UK are supportive of the Tibetan citizens, they used much less aggressive and violent language in comparison to the US or the PRC. “Fearing widespread unrest, [China] has clamped down even harder, arresting and even jailing Tibetans accused of aiding those who have self-immolated.” says BBC. The UK news sources were more focused on the causes for the self-immolation protests rather than the actual self-immolations themselves. An article published by the BBC also peppered the discourse with tidbits of information about Tibetan Buddhism, mentioning prayer wheels, prayer flags, and prostration.

A major theme highlighted in the UK news sources is that the rest of the world has been more or less turning a blind eye to the human right’s violations that are leading the Tibetan people’s to self-immolate. “Tibetans fear that they are being marginalised, their culture eroded, their voices silenced, all while the rest of the world looks away.” (BBC). Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan poet and activist was quoted saying, “Yet in a lot of places – even in China – people know this is happening, but don’t really care.” It is clear that the Tibetan’s frustration stems not only from the harsh, repressive regime of the Chinese government, but also from the lack of response worldwide. “Amongst Tibetans there have been growing frustrations [that] the West in particular, [is] not so keen to tackle China on its human rights record.” (BBC).


The Chinese provide the most drastically different account of the on goings in Tibet. Often blaming the Dalai Lama and his “separatist motives”, they claim that there is no major issue in the Tibetan regions. This is is a frightening example of the Chinese government’s control of the media, their usage of propaganda, and information blackouts. A prime example would be an article by The People’s Daily in which an official claims “None of the 46,000 monks and nuns in Tibet’s 1,700-plus monasteries, nor any local residents, have self-immolated since similar events were plotted by the Dalai Lama clique” . The article goes on further to state “Tibetan authorities have insisted that self-immolations were criminal acts premeditated, plotted and manipulated by overseas separatist forces.” Another article by China Daily reads, “the Dalai Lama is the one who manipulated and sabotaged ties with recent incidents, including the self-immolation of monks.” Clearly, the Dalai Lama is not organizing, inciting, nor supporting the self-immolation protests by the Tibetan citizens. It is a horrifying thought that information can be so flagrantly twisted and changed to support a party’s agendas.

All three countries present different perspectives on the issue of the Tibetan self-immolations that have been happening over the last five years. While the US and UK new sources provide differing interpretations, they are more or less providing the same basic information. The US sources seemed more concerned with the human’s rights violations by the Chinese government and the UK was more based on the Tibetan people’s struggles and hardships. They were both fairly sympathetic to the Tibetan citizens. The starkest difference in presentation is by the Chinese news sources. They act as though the self-immolations are a non-issue, some reports going so far as to say that not a single Tibetan citizen had self-immolated in protest. The Chinese news sources portray the Dalai Lama, a figure widely considered to be a prime example of benevolence and righteousness, as a villain and manipulator. This misinformation and blatant disregard for the truth is scarily similar to the totalitarian regime of North Korea.

Surprisingly enough, although almost every article made a mention to the Dalai Lama, who is considered Tibet’s spiritual leader and one of the figureheads of Tibetan Buddhism, none of the articles written outside of the United States even mentioned the religion. There were passing remarks about prayer flags, but nothing more in depth. And while not every self-immolation was performed by a Tibetan Buddhist monk or nun, the vast majority were. It’s interesting to see the religious connotations of the protests to be more or less ignored. For example, many of the protesters self-immolated because it is the most extreme form of non-violent protesting. More often than not, a pledge of nonviolence is a Buddhist vow.

In conclusion, it is clear that you should probably cross reference information before you take it as fact. Different new sources can provide wildly different perspectives and accounts of the same events. The Western media views the self-immolations as a tragedy and a human rights concern, whereas Chinese media outlets go so far as to deny the self-immolations all together.  When you take into mind the bias and intent of the author of an article or news story, then you can begin to reach a well rounded understanding of the incident in question.


http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-25195006 (BBC)

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-26271596 (BBC)

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/03/opinion/international/tibets-enduring-defiance.html?_r=0 (New York Times)

http://www.savetibet.org/resources/fact-sheets/self-immolations-by-tibetans/ (US: International Campaign for Tibet )

http://english.people.com.cn/90785/8560054.html (The People’s Daily)

http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/2014-03/10/content_17334176.htm (China Daily)


http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/01/31/china-tibet-immolations/1880677/ (USA Today)

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/01/25/tibetan-immolations-monk-suicide-communist-china/1859983/ (USA Today)

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/17/tibet-self-immolation-book-woeser-ai-weiwei (UK: The Guardian)

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/tibet/10193139/Tibetan-monk-dies-after-self-immolation-in-China.html (UK: The Telegraph)


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