Self-Immolation in Tiananmen Square Goes Unreported for 26 Days (Updated)

A 42-year-old man from Hubei province set himself on fire in Tiananmen Square on the morning of October 21, according to a British eyewitness who photographed the scene. From the Daily Telegraph:

“The man did it right in front of me. He stepped over the low railing in front of the cycle-lane that runs past the picture of Chairman Mao. He was only two or three metres away from me,” recalled Alan Brown, a retired RAF Engineer from Somerton, Somerset.

Despite being witnessed by several hundred other Chinese bystanders there is no record or mention of the incident either in China’s heavily censored state media, or on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, where news deemed sensitive or undesirable by the state often leaks out.

“The policeman initially leapt back and then grabbed a fire extinguisher from his motorbike and put the man out,” added Mr Brown, who was holidaying in China with his wife, Pamela.

“He said something quickly and a policeman nearby was suddenly agitated, but this chap whipped out his lighter and set himself on fire. Without being melodramatic, he looked straight at me and set himself on fire.

News of the incident, the first since 2001 when five people alleged by state media to be members of the Falun Gong self-immolated in Tiananmen Square, went suppressed in official and unofficial media and was only confirmed by Beijing’s Public Security Bureau once confronted with the photo evidence (a faxed statement said the man acted “because of discontent over the outcome of a civil litigation in a local court”). Peter Foster, the reporter who broke the story, writes that the episode underscores the ability of the Chinese government to still succeed in sweeping dissent and the truth under the rug:

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.

Credit to the Beijing Public Security Bureau for not lying about the incident when presented with the photographic evidence, but it is the preceding cover-up that begs the questions – that so fogs the slippery relationship in China between the State, the people and the truth.

Ironically the Chinese government is in the midst of a major crackdown on “false rumours” on the internet, and yet this kind of story, when it emerges, is exactly why no one believes the government or officialdom in China, and why rumours have such currency.

No doubt, without the photographic evidence, Mr Wang’s self-immolation would have been another subversive “rumour” to suppress. This is the single biggest problem facing the Chinese state, the one from which all its other difficulties flow: the absence of truth.

Update: The BBC World Service’s Newshour interviews the photographer (audio: skip to 41m38s), British tourist Alan Brown, who described the incident. The New York Times uncovered an audio recording, purportedly of the incident itself, posted to YouTube by a Japanese tourist:

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 http://www.youtube.com/catpochi]

See also CDT coverage of a recent wave of Tibetan self-immolations in China.