A Chinese man set himself on fire in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in what is thought to be the first act of self-immolation at the scene of the 1989 pro-democracy protests for more than a decade.
The incident – which happened on October 21 – appeared nowhere inChina’s censored state media, but was also witnessed by a Daily Telegraph reader who photographed the aftermath as Chinese police rushed to douse the flames using fire extinguishers.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
However after being shown the photograph, the incident was confirmed on Wednesday by the press department of the Beijing Public Security Bureau (PSB) which is responsible for monitoring and maintaining social order in China.
“At around 11 o’clock on Oct. 21, 2011, [a man surnamed] Wang walked to the spot near Jinshui bridge, and suddenly set his clothes on fire. The policemen at the scene extinguished the fire within ten seconds and sent the man to hospital for treatment,” said a faxed statement.
“He has now pulled through. After investigation, Wang (male, 42, resident of Huanggang city, Hubei province) took the extreme action because of discontent over the outcome of a civil litigation in a local court.”
The self-immolation of Mr Wang would appear to be the first known incident since January 23 2001 when five people, including a 12-year-old girl, set themselves on fire allegedly in protest at the violent suppression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Two died, including the young girl, and three were left severely disfigured in the incident which remains controversial to this day after the Falun Gong leadership accused the Chinese government of staging the incident to justify its persecution of the movement’s members.
While by no means common in China, self-immolation incidents are reported at least once or twice a year, often involving victims of unjust court rulings, land grabs, property disputes with local government or extreme examples of corruption.
Chinese authorities in Tibet have also been dealing with a wave of self-immolations this year, with 11 monks and nuns setting themselves on fire in protest against Chinese rule in the Tibetan region since March.
However, Tiananmen Square, which 22 years after the 1989 killings remains the most politically sensitive location in China, is very heavily policed, thronging with plain clothes officers who are poised to wrap up any attempt at protest at a second’s notice.
Mr Brown, 59, said he had been astonished by the speed at which the security forces had stepped in to douse the flames and then erase any trace of the incident.
“There were lots of people taking pictures at the time, so I was surprised not to hear anything about on the news afterwards, so I thought that it should at least come to light.
“After it happened, the street cleaners were working almost straight away.
If anyone had arrived five or ten minutes later they would have seen nothing. By the time we reached the balcony overlooking the square, there was no sign of what had happened. Everything had gone.”
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