A man set himself on fire in China’s heavily policed Tiananmen Square last month, according a report in The Daily Telegraph on Wednesday, in the first known case of a self-immolation at the politically sensitive site in Beijing in nearly a decade.
China has experienced a spate of such grisly protests this year in the country’s western regions by Tibetan monks challenging Chinese rule. At least 11 Tibetans have set themselves on fire, and six have died.
But the self-immolation in the heart of the Chinese capital, where plainclothes officers snuff out any hint of dissent, was the first to be reported at the square since 2003, when a man survived an attempt to light himself on fire. In January 2001, five adherents of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group, including a 12-year-old girl, set themselves on fire; two died.
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A British tourist described the event to The Telegraph and provided a photograph of what he said was the charred body of the man, identified only by his last name, Wang. “This chap whipped out his lighter and set himself on fire,” the tourist, Alan Brown, told the paper. He said the man was only feet away from him. “Without being melodramatic, he looked straight at me and set himself on fire.”
The Chinese authorities later confirmed the event, attributing the man’s actions to “discontent over the outcome of a civil litigation in a local court,” The Telegraph reported. “The policemen at the scene extinguished the fire within 10 seconds and sent the man to hospital for treatment,” according to a statement faxed to the Telegraph by the Beijing Public Security Bureau. “He has now pulled through.”
The self-immolation occurred on Oct. 21, but despite being witnessed by foreign tourists and many Chinese steps from a massive portrait of Mao Zedong, it was not previously reported. The Telegraph said it had found no posts related to the event on the Twitter-like networks known as Weibos before their report.
In an accompanying blog post, the reporter, Peter Foster, noted that political posts on social media have been routinely suppressed by the Chinese government’s Internet monitors:
Perhaps some people did register the incident on their Weibo accounts but, as is common, they were deleted by the “net nannies” who police online discussion spaces with the same zeal that plain-clothes officers police Tiananmen Square, snuffing out dissent at the first possible sign.
He adds: “We presume that such things are very rare, but after this expertly erased incident, who can say? Perhaps these things happen far more regularly than we know.”
There appeared to be at least one other report of the event, by another tourist who posted a video to YouTube on Oct. 21. The video is a still-frame image that seems to be from the same event documented by The Telegraph, along with sound said to have been recorded immediately after the man set himself on fire.
The person who uploaded the video, identified as catpochi, has posted many videos of tourist sites and other events in China and Japan. The text under the video described the scene in Japanese and in English:
At around 11:15 a.m. local time in October 21, 2011, I saw a man in fire rushing toward the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing, China. At the time of the incident, I was taking pictures in front of the gate as a tourist, but happened to capture the recording as it has been my hobby to record the sound of busy sites. [Check my other recordings at https://www.youtube.com/catpochi]
There seems to be no news about this incident as of October 22, 2011, so I decided to upload this recording here.
I can easily expect to see lots of insults against Communist China and the Chinese. It is waste of public space, you do it in your brain. On the other hand, you are welcome to ask questions about what I saw during the incident. I will answer them as objectively as I can. I don’t understand Mandarin. If you figure out what people were saying, please leave the comments.
0:00 Beginning of the recording
0:33 Woman Yelling – Perhaps she recognized the guy in fire
0:40 “Uh” – Me recognizing what was going on
0:54 Police started using extinguisher.
2:27 Two policemen grabbed the guy’s arms and dragged to the police/ambulance car
2:35 A policeman yelled at a guy shooting a video
The events leading up the man’s actions in October were not immediately known. The authorities said he was from the city of Huanggang in the central Hubei Province but did not elaborate on the nature of the legal issue that was said to have precipitated his self-immolation.
After the 2001 self-immolations in Tiananmen Square, there was a similar lack of independent information, leading to warring propaganda efforts with widely differing accounts from the government and the Falun Gong and a steady stream of conspiracy theories online, including over details in video — released by the government — of flaming bodies being extinguished in the square.