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Beijing Tiananmen Square self-immolation: where truth is swept away into a dustman’s cart

Posted by Author on November 17, 2011

Even after nearly three years reporting in China, there is still something amazing about the fact that a man can set himself on fire in Tiananmen Square, in broad daylight, and then no one hears or says a word about it.

As it happens, the incident we report today that occurred on October 21st was witnessed by a Telegraph reader who photographed the aftermath and – after hearing nothing more about it – decided it was right to alert the wider world.

The picture shows several hundred people who must have also witnessed what happened after Mr Wang, a 42-year-old man from Huanggang in Hubei, set himself on fire in protest at a court judgment that, we must presume, he felt was so unfair his only recourse was to self-immolate.

Such incidents, which are not completely uncommon in China, reflect the frustration faced by ordinary people as they seek justice from a system of courts and government that offers little recourse to the weak.

Mr Brown recalls that “everyone” was taking pictures of the incident, but despite extensive online searches we cannot find any record of the incident: not in the state media, commercial media or on in the freer discussion forums of QQ or Sina Weibo (Chinese Twitter).

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.

As the power and prevalence of Weibo grows, it has become increasingly difficult for the authorities to suppress unwanted and unpalatable news, as has been seen this year over protests in Dalian, with the “Barefoot lawyer” Chen Guangcheng and over the Wenzhou rail disaster.

But as this incident shows, they also succeed, and in the nature of that suppression, it is impossible to know the ratio of successes to failures.

Asking around some old correspondents here in China, no one can remember a self-immolation incident in Tiananmen Square since 2001 when five people – allegedly Falun Gong practitioners – self-immolated.

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.

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