In Beijing, Fire Brigades at the Ready


November 13, 2012 11:08 am

A Tibetan activist was detained outside the Chinese embassy in New Delhi on Monday, the same day that two men burned themselves to death in a Tibetan area of China/Sajjad Hussain/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By MARK MCDONALD / The New York Times

HONG KONG — Two young Tibetan men killed themselves by fire on Monday in the latest in a series of self-immolations during the Communist Party congress that’s now under way in Beijing.

There have been 10 immolations already this month, according to the Tibetan government in exilenews reports and local sources cited by activists. A grisly photograph of one of the immolations Monday is here, on the Web site of Radio Free Asia.

The gruesome deaths by fire — and their effect on international opinion — have clearly registered with the authorities in Beijing. As the leadership has staged its landmark gathering over the past week, security officials in orange jumpsuits have been deployed outside the Great Hall of the People — fire extinguishers at the ready.

As my colleague Andrew Jacobs reported from Beijing, “a New York Times photographer who took pictures of the firefighters was confronted by the police, who forced her to delete the images.”

Official reaction at the congress to the self-immolations and the ongoing unrest in Tibet and Tibetan areas of western China has seemed to be a mix of falsehoods, happy talk, anger and defiance.

Foreign reporters were told they should go to Tibet to report directly on the situation there instead of relying on disgruntled locals, dissident monks and various outsiders. Qiangba Puncog, the chairman of Tibet’s regional assembly, was quoted by Reuters as telling journalists that the authorities “welcome all of you to go to Tibet to see Tibet’s real situation. Listening is false, seeing is believing.”

The notion of free-range reporting trips to Tibet drew laughter and head shakes from foreign journalists at the congress: Western reporters are routinely barred from traveling to Tibet or reporting independently there.

But Qiangba Puncog said agencies with human rights agendas would not be welcome in the region, presumably including Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.

Last week, the day after the congress opened in Beijing, Ms. Pillay said she was disturbed by “continuing allegations of violence against Tibetans seeking to exercise their fundamental human rights of freedom of expression, association and religion.”

She made reference to “reports of detentions and disappearances, of excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators, and curbs on the cultural rights of Tibetans.”

She cited the case of a 17-year-old girl who was “reportedly severely beaten and sentenced to three years in prison for distributing flyers calling for Tibet’s freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama.”

She also called on Tibetans to stop the self-immolations.

“I recognize Tibetans’ intense sense of frustration and despair which has led them to resort to such extreme means,” she said, “but there are other ways to make those feelings clear. The government also needs to recognize this, and permit Tibetans to express their feelings without fear of retribution.”

A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry assailed Ms. Pillay’s remarks, saying she should stop interfering in China’s internal affairs.
The spokesman, Hong Lei, also blamed the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, for encouraging scores of self-immolations by Tibetans in the past few years.

report in the official Xinhua news agency, said “the Dalai Lama clique clamorously prettified such activities.”

“The clique has talked black into white, passed the buck to the Chinese government, and made accusations about China’s national and religious policies,” Mr. Hong said. “Such despicable behavior with the sacrifice of other people’s lives goes against human morals and conscience, and should be severely condemned.”

Foreign reporters covering the party congress were schooled on the government’s modernization of Tibet and Tibetan areas, including new roads, airports, schools, medical clinics, power lines and improved housing. Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, has been voted the happiest city in China four out of the last five years.

Alec Ash, a former English teacher in the restive city of Tongren, in Qinghai Province, writes on The Economist’s Analects blog, that Beijing’s investment in Tibetan areas is “undeniable.”

Tongren is a boom town, with many new high-rise residential and office blocks, which have enriched Tibetan property developers. Schools and hospitals are better funded and equipped, and there is a new center for disease control.

Some of the effects of modernity are more subtly detrimental to Tibetan culture. When Kumbum monastery near Xining, Qinghai’s capital, was singled out for tourism, it saw an influx of female Han Chinese tour guides.

The resulting temptation for some of the monks winnowed their numbers, as did some of the other sorts of interference that tourists and their cash can bring. Rongwo monastery fears the same fate. And all the while, the growth of Tongren attracts more Han immigrants, diluting its historically Tibetan identity.

Lobsang Sangay, the Dalai Lama’s political successor, told me earlier this year that the blame for the ongoing self-immolations “lies with the Chinese government and its very hardline, insensitive policies.”

Mr. Sangay, whose official title is kalon tripa, or prime minister, said he and the Dalai Lama were aware of a growing anger and restlessness among many ethnic Tibetans, especially young people, who bridle under the control of the ethnic Han authorities.

But he said he would not veer from the Dalai Lama’s policy of the “Middle Way,” the nonviolent pursuit of autonomy for Tibet within China, and the Dalai Lama continues to reject all displays of violence, from hunger strikes to self-immolation.