Anti self-immolation team in Tiananmen Square pic.twitter.com/Pp7GM0T0OE— Ben Bland ??? (@benjaminbland) March 3, 2016
These vigilant firefighters in China’s Tiananmen Square stand ready to extinguish protest – and protestors. They aren't there all the time, but they show up when political tensions run high. Their presence is a statement by the Chinese government — a physical reminder of the notorious Falun Gong self-immolations and a deterrent against others who might try protest by fire.
The 2001 Falun Gong incident drew international attention, but what actually happened remains sharply contested. Five people arrived in the square, doused themselves in gasoline, and set themselves on fire. Two died, while the other three were extinguished and rushed to the hospital.
The Chinese government claimed that the self-immolators were Falun Gong protestors. Falun Gong is a religious sect officially outlawed in China. Founded by Li Hongzhi, it draws upon Buddhism and Taoism, involves meditation practices, and had millions of followers at the time. In 1999, China instituted an official policy of persecuting and even jailing Falun Gong members in an effort to eradicate the allegedly seditious sect. Human rights activists often held peaceful demonstrations in Tiananmen Square on their behalf.
The government had been trying in vain to turn public opinion against Falun Gong, but the Tiananmen Square incident turned the tide. People were horrified. Official media blamed the superstitious, seditious, and immoral teachings of Falun Gong, effectively demonizing the sect. Authorities released statements from the three survivors, condemning Li Hongzhi for poisoning their minds.
Outside reporters, however, found the incident suspiciously convenient for the regime. They pointed out inconsistencies in China’s version of the story. Some even suggested that the government had staged the incident to justify its pogrom against Falun Gong. Nothing in the sect’s teachings encourages self-immolation, and suicide is expressly forbidden. Many questioned whether the demonstrators were even followers of Falun Gong. Suspiciously, only government officials were allowed to communicate with the survivors. The incident was indeed timely for the State, and in its wake public schools started teaching the dangers of Falun Gong. Tiananmen Square is best known for the massacre in June 1989, which the Chinese government continues to deny.
Since the five self-immolations in 2001, there have been at least two other instances of people setting themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square, both times as a protest against government injustice. In Tibet, monks have occasionally resorted to self-immolation to draw attention to China's atrocities there.
While China continues to deny its human rights violations, it looks like authorities are not taking any chances. The firefighters serve two purposes. Ostensibly, they are there to save the lives of protesters who ignite themselves. (Putting people out quickly also helps China contain negative press.) As a visible spectacle, they also remind loyal citizens that religious sects are dangerous; the government has only their best interests at heart.
Banner Image Credit: Twitter @benjaminbland