Hours before the opening of this week's key Communist Party meeting in Beijing, three teenage monks walked into the streets of a tiny monastery town on the Tibetan plateau, shouted their support for Tibetan independence and the Dalai Lama, and lit themselves ablaze. The youngest of the three, a 15-year-old boy known only as Dorjee, died at the scene.
Such desperate acts by Tibetans protesting against Chinese rule have become unsettlingly common over the past three years and appear to have spiked this week as the Communist Party gathers to pick its new leadership.
The week-long meeting that began Thursday will end with the introduction of the Communist Party's new leadership lineup, leading up to the event, there has been a contest between traditional and reformist factions that will signal the direction of the world's rising superpower. The process is opaque and only small parts of the congress are open to reporters.
The impression of a stable power transition has been tarnished somewhat by the unravelling situation in the country's remote Tibetan areas.
The paramilitary People's Armed Police has been deployed to many Tibetan towns, often escorted by officers carrying fire extinguishers in case of more self-immolations. Orange-suited firemen also have been deployed to Beijing's Tiananmen Square, even though the plaza is closed to the public for the duration of the Communist Party congress in the adjacent Great Hall of the People. Tibetan delegates at the gathering met here Friday to hail the progress being made in raising living standards, while dismissing the self-immolations as the acts of a foreign-influenced minority.
The grisly unrest is at odds with optimism expressed by the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, who has said he believes the new generation of Chinese leaders – to be headed by current Vice-President Xi Jinping – will be "more lenient" in how it deals with the question of Tibet. Mr. Xi is set to become general secretary of the Communist Party, China's most powerful post, after the Beijing congress ends on Wednesday.
The Dalai Lama's hope stems from a wristwatch he gave to Mr. Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, during a meeting in the 1950s, before the Dalai Lama fled into exile. The elder Mr. Xi, a famous Communist guerrilla who rose to become vice-premier of the People's Republic, was apparently spotted wearing the watch decades later, long after it became dangerous for a Chinese official to show any sign of friendship toward the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama called Xi Zhongxun "very friendly" and "comparatively more open-minded" in a recent interview with the Reuters news service, and said he had already received visitors representing the new Chinese leadership. That could suggest Beijing is interested in restarting negotiations, stalled since January, 2010, with the exiled Tibetan leadership.
But hopelessness remains more evident than optimism on the Tibetan plateau. Two more self-immolations were reported Wednesday in Tibetan areas, followed by another – this time by a 23-year-old mother of one – on Thursday.
Several thousand residents of Rebkong, the young woman's village in Qinghai province, briefly took to the streets Friday. It marked one of the largest anti-government gatherings since the plateau was consumed by violent riots in early 2008. There were reports Friday of security forces pouring into the area. "We have grave concerns for the safety of the people of Rebkong County," Stephanie Brigden, director of Free Tibet a London-based lobby group, said in a statement. "As congress opens, China must be held accountable for its actions in Tibet."
The Dalai Lama, who escaped in 1959 as the People's Liberation Army marched toward Lhasa, has called for a peaceful struggle to gain greater autonomy and religious freedom for Tibet. Official Beijing, however, brands him a separatist and blames him for the sporadic outbreaks of violence on the plateau, including the 68 self-immolations in Tibetan areas of China since 2009. Fifty-five people have died.
The Dalai Lama has said he doesn't encourage the acts of suicide, but has also praised the young monks for their courage.
There are no signs of a changing Tibet policy so far at the party congress in Beijing. The 28 Communists who make up the Tibet Autonomous Region's delegation spent Friday reviewing statistics backing their argument that life is improving on the plateau, despite the swelling unrest.
There's more social housing now than a decade ago and the public education system has been expanded, said Padma Choling, the Chinese-appointed governor of the Tibet Autonomous Region. "We are supporting the central government with all our hearts. We spontaneously follow the Communist Party of China, and we have the confidence to build a better Tibet," he told Tibetan delegates, some of whom wore brightly coloured traditional garb that stuck out among the business suits and military uniforms of the other attendees.
His deputy, Lobsang Gyaincain, blamed the Dalai Lama for the ongoing unrest. "The external Tibetan forces and the Dalai clique are sacrificing other people's lives to attain their secret political motives," he said.