Two dozen posters in the Arts Quad depicting Tibetans self-immolating in protest were snatched last week by an unknown person or people on the same night a Cornell group had put the signs up.
The stealing of the signs last week emphasized a campus divide among international students regarding China’s policy toward Tibet, which includes exiling the Dalai Lama and prohibiting photographs of the spiritual leader, and elicited differing views regarding protests in Tibet and campus activism.
The poster campaign, organized by the Tibet Initiative at Cornell, featured names and pictures of 30 Tibetans who self-immolated — set fire to their own bodies — in protest of China’s actions regarding Tibet.
“Self-immolation has begun to boom since 2009 [and] the  Beijing Olympics, when people were desperate about the situation in Tibet,” said Tenzin Dechen ’18, a member of TIC. “It did garner a lot of international media attention then, but, since then, coverage has died down and we wanted to let the campus know that this is still happening.”
The posters attracted attention from pedestrians who walked around Arts Quad on the first day of the campaign, organizers said, which was their intention. Their mission, members said, was to make students aware of the acts by making the acts of protest visible.
“That first day was great,” said Tenzin Wangmo ’18, a member of TIC. “We were not expecting people to research or act on this issue. People were stopping at the signs and just reading it. That’s all we wanted, and people were doing just that.”
More than half of the signs, 24 of 34, were missing on the second day of the poster campaign, and most TIC members suspect foul play.
“We couldn’t continue the poster display because, after the second day, over two thirds of it [was] gone,” Wangmo said.
“All four title posts were gone,” Wangmo said, making her think that wind or other weather was not the culprit. “We talked to maintenance about it. It’s not like [the signs] were scattered across the Arts Quad, they were all just gone.”
All of the posters with political messages were removed from the Arts Quad, said a CALS junior who spoke to the The Sun on the condition of anonymity because the student had “family back home in Tibet” and was worried about potential consequences of speaking to the press.
“I looked at the posters that were gone,” the student said. “A lot of them had quotes. Any posters with quotes that mentioned anything that was slightly political, like they did it in front of a government building, were gone.”
Given exceptional circumstances, Cornell administrators extended the duration of the poster campaign and worked to find the culprit, TIC members said. But the campus group lacks the time and money to launch another poster campaign and the identity of the potential vandal remains unknown, Dechen said.
“At the moment, we are corresponding with the Cornell administrators to find out what next steps to take,” Dechen said. “But our budget is shot, and it’s prelim season. We realistically can’t do much for this semester … [the possible vandal] could be anyone. There are no cameras in the Arts Quad.”
Chinese Students’ Perspectives Vary
Campus activity concerning Tibet is a controversial topic for Chinese international students studying in the United States. Chinese students recently protested the selection of Dalai Lama, the exiled head of the Tibetan government, as the commencement speaker at UC San Diego, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Some Chinese international students studying in Ithaca were also unnerved by the Tibetan poster campaigns.
“It’s complicated,” a Chinese student in the College of Arts and Sciences told The Sun on the condition of anonymity because the student feared retribution if they were identified.
“There are two different versions [of history], and I don’t know which is true. But, I feel it’s good to at least recognize that this conflict exists and these Tibetans are here, because they are considered minority groups, even here.”
Self-immolation in the Tibetan context is not an “act of suicide,” Prof. Jane-Marie Law, religious studies, said in an interview.
“Self-immolation is a long-standing form of protest in the Buddhist world … done when people have no sense of agency,” she said. “It’s very different from suicide. What makes self-immolation not a suicide is the motivation — it is done to prevent suffering of someone else, or on behalf of your community … it is the ultimate selfless act.”
Self-immolation is a very sensitive issue for the Chinese government, which often perceives the act as a symbol of Tibetan defiance of Chinese authority in the area.
“The Chinese government does not freak out without good reason,” Law said. “What is terrifying about self-immolation to an oppressing power … is that it tells them, ‘You don’t control my fear of pain and suffering.’ Once you realize the mental control required [for self-immolation], you realize you are oppressing someone stronger than you are.”
A Chinese sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences said pro-Tibet activism on campus is positive, but added that it is discouraging to see how the issue of Tibet was framed in the exhibit.
“Students or on-campus organizations should be allowed to express their political stances,” the student wrote in a message to The Sun. “I think removing the pictures was an unwise decision, regardless of the intentions behind it.”
“However, I am indeed concerned about some of the effects of displaying these pictures,” the student added. “From what I have seen these pictures overwhelmingly convey the message that the situation in Tibet could not be improved unless China granted it complete autonomy, which is not consistent with political reality.”
Other Chinese students were more critical of the Tibetan campus activism for “neglecting how divisive and complex the issue of Tibet is … for Chinese international students at Cornell.”
“‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ goes both ways,” a Chinese Arts and Sciences freshman wrote in an email to The Sun. “What seems to be a campaign for human rights could possibly be considered a public endorsement to a known separatist and traitor by some members of the Cornell community.”
Some Chinese students said they were supportive of Tibet, but support for more pro-Tibet policies was the minority view in some Chinese communities at Cornell.
“I think I am supportive of Tibet and campus activism about it, but that may be because my maternal family is from Taiwan and I went to an international school and wasn’t shaped by the government in the same way,” Deanna M. Pistono ’19 said. “I don’t think I am representative of the Chinese international community who grew up in China and went through their school system.”
Law, the religious studies professor, said the Chinese government generally attempts to restrict speech regarding Tibet.
“There certainly is censorship in Tibet,” she wrote in an email. “People are not allowed to discuss any controversial issues, the status of the Dalai Lama, the problem with the Chinese-selected ‘Panchen Lama,’ or any other host of issues.”
Not the First Time…
Despite TIC members’ shock, this is not the first time a political display on the Arts Quad has been vandalized. Last year, Amnesty International at Cornell’s displays, and, in 2014 and 2015, signs and chalkings placed by pro-Palestine groups, were repeatedly removed or vandalized, The Sun previously reported.
“Last year, Amnesty’s refugee display was a collection of flags from five countries with the most refugees,” said Helen Shanahan ’18, co-facilitator of Amnesty International at Cornell. “People repeatedly stole the flags, particularly the Palestine flags, and scattered them around North Campus. It was obviously purposely destroyed.”
The vandal behind Amnesty International at Cornell’s display was never found.
“Cornell Police looked into it but they never found any leads about it, so we didn’t have any avenues to go,” said Christopher Hanna ’18, another co-facilitator for the group.
In response to last year’s vandalism, Amnesty International made sure this year’s display was securely anchored to the ground to deter potential vandals.
“The displays this year are harder to take out,” Hanna said. “The flags were just shallowly put in the ground, so an assailant can easily rip dozens and scatter them out. But these displays have metal sticks in the ground and will take a lot of time to pull out.”
Hanna suspects the vandals may have been racially motivated, aiming to negatively shape the activism culture on campus.
“I think the common thread is disrespect or [a] racist way of thinking,” Hanna said. “It’s subtly racist, because these [countries] are all non-white or otherwise on the periphery that are having their flags and displays removed.”
The fact that these exhibits have been removed from campus, Hanna said, “speaks to a toxic culture about activism on campus.”