Man sets himself on fire in iconic Chinese square


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REPORTING FROM BEIJING -- At midday in the most visible location in one of the world’s most populous cities, a man lit himself on fire in a political protest Oct. 21.

But it is a tribute to the Chinese government’s ability to control information, that the Oct. 21 incident at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square didn’t become public until Wednesday, when a photograph shot by a tourist was published in Britain by the Daily Telegraph newspaper.


The photograph showed in undeniable detail a man lying face down on the pavement in front of the iconic photograph of Mao Zedong, armed police with a fire extinguisher next to him and tourists with cameras looking on.

Confronted with the photograph by the Telegraph’s Beijing bureau, the public security bureau confirmed Wednesday that the incident had taken place and identified the protester as a 42-year-old resident of the city of Huanggang in Hubei province, who “took extreme action because of discontent over the outcome of civil litigation in a local court.” The man survived.

The tourist, retired Royal Air Force engineer Alan Brown, said the man climbed over a railing separating the street from the sidewalk in front of the Mao portrait and said something in Chinese. “The police got very agitated. As soon as that happened, the bloke took out his lighter and set himself on fire,’’ Brown said in a telephone interview. “A policeman grabbed a fire extinguisher and succeeded in putting out his clothes, but the bloke’s head was still on fire…. One or two more police arrived on motorbikes fairly quickly and managed to put him out. At which point a white van pulled up and they bundled him up and drove away.”

Brown said he and his wife climbed a balcony overlooking the square and looked down to see street cleaners at work below.

‘They were sweeping up the mess. Unbelievable,’’ said Brown. “A few minutes later, you wouldn’t know anything had happened.”

Brown sent in the photograph after returning last week from his travels through Asia. A Japanese tourist also took a still photograph and recorded audio of the incident.

Tiananmen Square is perhaps the most heavily patrolled location in China, the symbolic center of the nation as well as the scene of the brutal 1989 crackdown on student demonstrators. In 2001, five people, including a 12-year-old girl, immolated themselves in a still unexplained incident that the Chinese government blamed on the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.

Protests nowadays are rare at the square because of the cat-and-mouse game between discontents and authorities, in which the latter invariably have the upper hand. An exception was in October 2010 when a woman set her car on fire, an incident that was recorded by commuters passing by on a bus who posted it on the Internet.

Self-immolations have in recent months become a common form of protest by Chinese publicizing grievances ranging from land confiscation to religious oppression. Eleven young Tibetan monks and nuns have staged public burnings in Sichuan province -- incidents that have been publicized by Tibetan exile organizations.

What is unusual about the Oct. 21 incident is that it escaped from the omnipresent cellphone cameras that Chinese are using to report news that would be censored in state-run media.

Jeremy Goldkorn, a media analyst in Beijing, said it was possible that no one in the crowd was a heavy Internet user, or that the picture was posted -- but quickly deleted. ‘The censors are very efficient,” he said.

Goldkorn said that on Thursday morning he had posted a photo montage from a controversial new Benetton advertising campaign that shows Chinese President Hu Jintao and President Obama kissing.

‘Within two minutes it was gone. That speaks to how efficient they’ve become at controlling things,’’ said Goldkorn.


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-- Barbara Demick