The creepiest sight in China? Tiananmen anti-self-immolator firefighters

November 8, 2012
Firefighter teams are posted to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, likely to put out any protesters who attempt to set themselves on fire. (Tom Lasseter/McClatchy)

In times of political sensitivity in China, security in the capital city Beijing can get pretty intense. The government, it seems, really does not want any political disturbances during this week's Party Congress, in which the country will change leadership. This means that Beijing officials are deploying, among other things, what has got to be one of the more unsettling measures against dissent: firefighter teams in Tiananmen Square.

Why, you ask, are there firefighters hanging out in Tiananmen Square? It's a natural question, since they're standing in the middle of a giant open square, with nothing flammable anywhere nearby. Except, that is, for the other people in the square, which may be exactly what they're worried about. More specifically, the firefighters are likely there to put out any protesters who attempt to set themselves on fire.

The Chinese government is naturally quite sensitive to any dissent in Tiananmen Square, where 1989 protests ended with hundreds of deaths when the government declared martial law, and it is particularly sensitive to self-immolations. In January 2001 – a time, recall, when China was still getting used to the idea of opening up to the world – five protesters lit themselves on fire there not far from a CNN crew that happened to be in the area. One man tried to burn himself on the square in 2003 in protest of the government practice of seizing land for development. 

Then, last November, a man walked into Tiananmen and lit himself on fire, but police were ready. According to tourists on the square, police pulled out fire extinguishers and put him out within 10 seconds. Within about a minute and a half, police bundled him into a car and drove him off. The Tiananmen security forces, it seems, had prepared for exactly that situation.

Presumably, this week's very public display of firefighters in Tiananmen – noticed by McClatchy's Tom Lasseter, who posted the photo to his McClatchy China blog and kindly granted permission for me to reproduce it – is meant to deter potential self-immolators, or at least to put them out as quickly as possible.

Far away from Beijing, Tibetan protesters are self-immolating, a protest against Chinese occupation of Tibet, in rising numbers: five self-immolations were reported on Wednesday alone, possibly a record. It's unlikely any of the Tibetan protesters would be able to make the long journey to Beijing, or get past plainclothes security to the square if they did, but when it comes to security and dissent at times of political sensitivity, the Chinese government does not take chances.

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Max Fisher | November 8, 2012