China Hushes Tibetan Protests During Party Congress

on November 10 2012 10:42 AM
Tibetan Protester, March 26, 2012
A Tibetan exile runs after setting himself on fire during a protest against the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to India in New Delhi on March 26. Reuters

China's heightened security -- to "wartime" levels -- as a result of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China shows that Beijing is ready to go to great lengths to keep things quiet during the event.

As China's biggest congregation of national politicians and leaders is under way in its usual venue, the Great Hall of the People, outside in Tiananmen Square security guards and firemen stand ready to douse any demonstrations, literally. Some of them have been spotted with fire extinguishers, a precaution in case any self-immolation protests should be attempted.

The high level of security did not prevent the actions in Tibet that occurred on the eve of the party congress.

The International Campaign for Tibet reported that five Tibetans set themselves on fire in one day, Nov. 7, to protest against Chinese policies. They included a former monk and a 23-year-old woman. Following these self-immolations, hundreds, possibly thousands, of people gathered in Tongren for an emotionally charged demonstration on the same day as the commencement of the party congress, Nov. 8. The campaign reported a broad range of students, media types, and citizens from neighboring areas were present at the protest.

It did not take long for officials to take control of the demonstrations. The Los Angeles Times reported that Chinese armed forces entered the area and placed strict restrictions on protester movement in the town. Officials also threatened harsh sentencing for those who distributed footage or photographs of the protests to outsiders. 

Protests in Tongren are common. In March, a 20-year-old protester named Lobsang Tsultrim self-immolated after shouting anti-China slogans, protesting Beijing's repressive policies on Tibet, walking in the streets while engulfed in flames. Tsultrim was the 29th Tibetan to have self-immolated since February 2009, according to Radio Free Asia.

Because of tight security in Tongren and surrounding Tibetan areas, it is difficult for media outlets to obtain firsthand accounts.

Demonstrations -- and self-immolations -- have become more common in recent years because of China's increasingly tumultuous relationship with its province of Tibet. Senior Chinese authorities have rejected calls to meet with the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and they often condemn the officials of nations like the U.S. and Japan that choose to meet with him.

China has been criticized by the United Nations over various human-rights issues related to how the country has handled Tibetan protesting. Foreign Ministry representative Hong Lei has responded to the criticism by saying cases of self-immolation were instigated by the exiled Dalai Lama, who encourages "separatist" ideals.

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