As Tibet burns, China makes arrests, seizes TVs
Beijing: Chinese authorities are responding to an intensified wave of Tibetan self-immolation protests against Chinese rule by clamping down even harder, criminalising the suicides, arresting protesters' friends and even confiscating thousands of satellite TV dishes.
The harsh measures provide an early indication that the country's new leadership is not easing up on Tibet despite the burning protests and international condemnation.
For months, as Tibetans across western China doused themselves in gasoline and set themselves alight, authorities responded by sending in security forces to seal off areas and prevent information from getting out, but those efforts did not stop or slow the protests.
The self-immolations even accelerated in November as China's ruling Communist Party held a pivotal leadership transition.
Then the government went on the offensive in December, announcing through a state-owned newspaper that the burnings are the work of foreign hostile forces keen on separating Tibet from the mainland and that those who help others self-immolate are liable to be prosecuted for murder.
"Tibet is getting into the global evening news because of self-immolations and so there's this anxiety to bring it under control," said Michael Davis, a law professor and Tibet expert at the University of Hong Kong.
Davis said he expected the government to continue to take a repressive and conservative approach. "The new leadership will be particularly anxious not to have any of these problems blow up in their face."
Nearly 100 Tibetan monks, nuns and lay people have set themselves on fire since 2009, calling for Beijing to allow greater religious freedom and the return from exile of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
This week, police in Gansu province of western China announced the arrests of seven people accused of helping a Tibetan villager self-immolate in October and said investigations showed that two of the men were members of the overseas-based Tibetan Youth Congress, which they said had "masterminded" the protest.
Tenzin Norsang, joint secretary of the Dharmsala-based Tibetan Youth League, said by phone that Chinese authorities were making "baseless accusations" about his group and that the two people named in Xinhua's report were not members.
Earlier this month, senior Chinese leader Yu Zhengsheng visited a prefecture in Sichuan at the center of the self-immolations, urging Buddhist clergy to be patriotic and denouncing the Dalai Lama.
Though Yu is considered a liberal on economic matters, he has not had any previous experience dealing with Tibet and has no incentive to change the government's policies in Tibet, which is a region of strategic importance because it borders India, said Willy Lam, a China politics expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.