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Kate Saunders is the Communications Director of International Campaign for Tibet.

Hope blooms in Tibet

The blue flower is a narrative of cultural defiance that co-exists with oppression.

The blue flower

few days ago, a blue flower improbably blossomed from the dry, cold earth of the Tibetan plateau in the depths of winter. It happened in Kyegu, an area in eastern Tibet that was rocked by a devastating earthquake in April 2010. Many Tibetans in the area saw the flower as an auspicious sign, symbolic of hope over despair, and images posted on Tibetan Facebook pages and on unofficial websites showed Tibetan blessing scarves (khatags) and offerings carefully arranged around its delicate blue petals.

But another image was posted on the same websites that says much about the nature and depth of the Tibetan struggle today. In the image, a Tibetan man is walking away from the flower, his hat in his hands, clutched at his chest, his head down. And armed troops in black uniforms are gathered all around the man and the blue flower, blocking the path of the Tibetans.

The Chinese authorities' response to the gentle symbolism accorded to a blue flower blossoming in winter is indicative of their anxieties over the erosion of their authority in Tibet. It is a further signal of the bankruptcy of China's Tibet policy. At a time of crisis in Tibet, when more than 90 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in radical acts of protest, the Chinese leadership appears to have no other strategy beyond oppression. Beijing has responded to the self-immolations by intensifying the military buildup in Tibet and strengthening the very policies and approaches that are at the root cause of the acts, such as aggressive campaigns against loyalty to the Dalai Lama.

The absence of any response but military force to the blue flower tells us this. But the response of Tibetans to the blue flower perhaps tells us another story, a narrative of cultural resilience and endurance that co-exists with the anguish of oppression.

A Tibetan friend told me: "The first flowers to appear in Tibet in the spring are always blue. Flowers never appear here in the winter, at this time of year. So maybe people see this as a metaphor, that the suffering in Tibet will end, and they draw sustenance from that. They interpret the blossoming of the flower in a specifically religious context. I remember going to a religious teaching in my childhood in Tibet. Many people said that in the offering water, a blue flower appeared."

Many harrowing, vivid images have emerged from Tibet in recent months, giving glimpses of Tibetans' determination to protect their religious and cultural identity in the face of implacable authoritarianism. From Lhasa, troops in riot gear patrol one of the holiest sites of Tibet, the Jokhang Temple, while a pilgrim clutches his hat in his hand, a bunch of flowers appearing as a blaze of colour against smoke billowing from incense burners. In Labrang, in eastern Tibet, a crowd of monks sit in the middle of a dusty road, chanting prayers for a young mother of two who self-immolated and died in August.

In another image taken earlier this year, guns and knives are stacked in a public place and adorned with white blessing scarves. The photograph was taken before their destruction, as a symbolic demonstration of Tibetans' intent to adhere to the Dalai Lama's emphasis on non-violence, despite the intense provocation from the Chinese authorities.

All of these photographs and other equally powerful images appear in a new report published by the International Campaign for Tibet about the self-immolations and Chinese policy, entitled "Storm in the Grasslands" ( This new report outlines how Tibetans are taking increasingly bold steps to defend the core values of their culture, and the developing sense of solidarity and common cause across the Tibetan plateau.

A Tibetan blogger who identifies herself simply as Mountain Phoenix ( eloquently summarises the new imperatives for Tibetans as follows: "Tibetans have come a long way. Our brave ancestors fought the Chinese. They survived the crazy political campaigns and the devastating famines only to go through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. A new generation of Tibetans born in an era not affected by political craze is coming of age. We must not lose our patience now but carry on so the sacrifices of the self-immolators are not in vain. We must rise from the ashes with renewed strength, a cool head and a clear vision to absolutely outlive this situation, always prepared to renegotiate the relationship with China once the political constellations change. Nothing can shake us or make us nervous in the manner of 'time is running out'. We have all the time in the world because we're in charge, not our opponent. Remember David [who killed the giant Goliath]."

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