Followers of China news have been presented with two disturbing images in the past 24 hours. Both say something about a facet of today's China. Before considering them, a question: How angry or helpless does an individual have to feel before they commit to setting their own flesh aflame?
First, there is the photograph of a man who set himself on fire in Tiananmen Square, his body flat against the ground and covered with fire extinguisher foam. First reported by Peter Foster of The Telegraph, the self-immolation in the dead center of this city of some 20 million people happened on October 21, but was not made public until yesterday.
More than the fact that the man, surnamed Wang, was able to light himself on fire in the middle of a dense security cordon at Tiananmen, I am astounded that the news was unknown to the world for so long. Is this due to massive government efforts at suppressing information about unrest? Or did no one in the crowd, other than a random British tourist, happen to snap a photo and then pass it on?
Police have said that 42-year-old Wang, of Hubei Province, was upset about the outcome of a civil court case. This is a familiar refrain among petitioners who come to Beijing seeking justice.
The second image is a video that recently surfaced via Radio Free Asia. I have to warn you, it is gruesome. In fact, I didn't watch all the way to the agonizing end.
The short clip is reportedly of an ethnic Tibetan monk named Tsewang Norbu. The 29-year-old monk lit himself on fire in August in apparent protest of Beijing's policies toward Tibetan culture and religion. The video captures the monk's charred, smoking body.
The advocacy group Free Tibet has described Tsewang Norbu's death:
"Tsewang Norbu drank petrol, sprayed himself with petrol and then set himself on fire. He was heard calling out: 'We Tibetan people want freedom', 'Long live the Dalai Lama' and 'Let the Dalai Lama Return to Tibet'. He is believed to have died at the scene."
I was recently in the north edge of China's Sichuan Province, where 11 Tibetan clergy including Tsewang Norbu have committed self-immolation in the past year. But interviewing people about the rash of fiery protests and seeing the aftermath are two very different things. As this video makes clear, it is a profoundly disturbing thing to witness.