The message in the flames

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 October, 2003, 12:00am

In Nanjing, developers removed people from their homes under the guise of weigai, or urban renewal. When one man asked for compensation in the form of a mere 645 sq ft apartment, removal bosses cut his water and electricity, threw stones through his windows and beat up his wife's parents, instead. This man went to the developer's removal office covered with gasoline, threatening to light himself on fire. Nobody got the message.

So he lit the match. The gas was excessive. He quickly burned to death, injuring others.

Within weeks a farmer from Qingyang county of Anhui province, facing a similar removal, chose to burn himself in Tiananmen Square. Authorities doused the flames and brought him to a hospital. The farmer's life savings were bulldozed by real estate developers. Before coming to Beijing, he lobbied provincial government officials, who did not get the message. Now these same local officials have all come apologetically to the Beijing hospital where he is recovering. They finally got the message, but it was too late.

On September 25, another self-immolation over forced removals occurred in Beijing's Chaoyang district. This was followed by an attempted self-immolation in Tiananmen Square on October 1st before crowds celebrating National Day, marking the fourth such instance within a month.

Urban removals on the mainland are forced, and compensation is often unfair. Developers get removals approved by urban planning authorities, then they hire a removal company belonging to the district government and give it a budget. The character chai, meaning removal, is painted on people's homes, and they are given a few days to move out. On the night that notice is given, thugs working for the removal company smash windows. The next morning, negotiations begin. In Beijing, if the budget is 10,000 yuan (HK$9,300) per square metre to remove the residents, they will be offered 3,000 to 4,000 yuan. The balance will be kept and split along the commercial chain.

That is how entire neighborhoods in Beijing disappear overnight.

Most elderly people leave out of sheer fear, moving to the new brick ghettos popping up outside the city's fourth ring road - effectively the countryside. Many die of heart attacks or respiratory ailments caused by the stress and shock of leaving the only place they have ever lived. The tragedy in uprooting the soul of a neighbourhoods is in uprooting the soul of a people.

Self-immolation represents an ultimate act of desperation, or rather the desire by a soul to consecrate desperation through action, making an irreversible impression upon the minds of those witnessing or learning about it.

These recent self-immolations over removals present a new pattern begging to be understood. Other examples of self-immolation in modern Asian history may provide insight. On June 16, 1969, elderly monk Thich Quang Duch set himself alight in the streets of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh city. Frances Fitzgerald in her classic on wartime Vietnam, Fire in the Lake, described this act as 'not a gesture of resignation, but one of protest - an advertisement of the intolerable gap between morality and the reality of the Diem regime'.

Such historic examples may have no relation to recent events, but it is worth understanding the psychological nuance of self-immolation in Asian society. It hints at a Buddhist pacifism, a call for the turning of the wheel of social injustice full cycle to its inevitable conclusion.

Perhaps local leaders in Nanjing, Beijing, the province of Anhui and other places are not terribly interested in reading much history, philosophy or psychology into the tragedies of the past few weeks. On the other hand, these recent self-immolations over removals may be disturbing to China's central leadership, as the self-immolators are presumably trying to send a message. Hopefully the message will be understood before it is too late.

Laurence Brahm is a political economist and lawyer based in Beijing