Beijing: Chinese authorities are responding to an intensified wave of Tibetan self-immolation protests against Chinese rule by clamping down even harder - criminalizing 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. Arrests quickly followed.
"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. "I think self-immolations and all of this suggest that they are not winning the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people and in fact the more repressive they are, the more resistance they encounter, so it's a kind of vicious circle," Davis said.
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, India,-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.
It was only the latest example of harsher measures being used in an effort to stem the unrest. Last month, authorities in Qinghai province announced they had detained "major" suspects allegedly involved in five self-immolations, while police in a county in Sichuan province said a monk and his nephew were being held for similar reasons. Local governments are also trying to scrub the area of information they deem hostile.
Qinghai authorities said on January 14 they had conducted a sweep of households in restive Tongren county and seized and destroyed more than 1,800 illegal satellite TV dishes. Local newspapers have run commentaries condemning the Dalai Lama and decrying what they describe as the "slaughter of life." State broadcaster CCTV has aired documentaries of the same theme and a historic drama series about the life of a Tibetan serf-turned-Chinese patriot.
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. Yu is slated to take over as head of the country's top parliamentary advisory body, a role that puts him in charge of minority issues.
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. Lam said that Chinese leaders expected the Tibetan cause to dissipate once the elderly Dalai Lama dies.
"There is no rationale for the party leadership to shift to a more liberal policy," Lam said. "I think the Chinese believe that time is on their side ... after the death of the Dalai Lama, there won't be such a powerful spiritual leader soliciting international support."
Wang Lixiong, a scholar and an activist for minority rights, said that it was still early days for the new leaders, who customarily do not make dramatic policy changes while in a transition period. Wang added that he expected that any policy shifts they might enact would be minor, and that Tibetan demands for greater autonomy would not be met - leading to ever greater frustration.
"There is also the possibility that the new leaders will increase repression," Wang said. "China's current governance style is to use any way possible to block any channel for expressing different views, so that it appears on the surface that everything is peaceful and tranquil in this society ... but this harmony is entirely false."
"It's like a boiler sitting on a fire with its vents blocked. The pressure inside is increasing constantly, the ultimate ending will be explosive," Wang said.