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Chinese painter focuses on Tibetan self-immolators

BEIJING -- Beijing-based artist Liu Yi is working on a series of black-and-white portraits he knows will never be shown in a Chinese gallery. His varied subjects -- men and women, young and old, smiling and pensive -- have one thing in common: They are Tibetans who have set themselves on fire to protest repressive Chinese rule.

Liu wants to paint a portrait of each of the hundred-or-so Tibetans who have self-immolated over the past three years, as a way of bearing witness to one of the biggest waves of fiery protests in recent history. With each brush stroke, Liu is making a heartfelt plea: The burning must end.

"When I'm painting, I'm thinking: 'Enough, enough, don't do this anymore. Stop,' " said the soft-spoken artist who has completed 40 so far. "That's enough."

Liu is rare among his contemporaries for addressing the largely taboo topic. Only a tiny handful of activists from the Han Chinese majority have spoken out, among them the prominent legal scholar Xu Zhiyong.

At the heart of the silence is Han Chinese indifference or even hostility to the Tibetan cause, despite some overlap with liberal Han activists who chafe at authoritarian controls. "We are victims ourselves," Xu wrote in a recent op-ed piece in which he apologized for the silence.

Many among the majority see the immolations as part of attempts to break away from China and wonder why Tibetans aren't more grateful for government development of their region with rail links, expressways, houses and factories.

Han Chinese also tend to see Tibet, with its breathtaking mountain grasslands and yak-rearing nomads, as a wild and unknowable region -- but one that fascinates nonetheless.

Year-round, Chinese tourists stream into a famous Tibetan Buddhist temple in Beijing to offer incense before snapping up cheap Tibetan jewelry or artifacts in the city's many stores.

Although Han Chinese activists increasingly advocate the preservation of Tibet's pristine environment, most draw the line at political issues, staying mum as Tibetans drink gasoline and douse themselves with it before lighting themselves in calls for religious freedom and autonomy.

Liu hopes to change that.

"I also hope that everyone won't look at it in an ideological or ethnic way, but to pay attention to it from a humanitarian perspective," he said.

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