Stacked up in Liu Yi’s studio, dozens of China’s most sensitive subjects stare out from thick black-and-white oil paintings, from victims of Tiananmen Square to Tibetans who have set themselves on fire.
Liu, 50, is a rare example of a member of China’s Han ethnic majority taking up the Tibetan cause— a project that has finally brought the authorities to his door.
More than 100 Tibetans have set themselves alight, about of them 90 dying, to protest against what many call Beijing’s oppressive rule, but most Han Chinese accept the government’s stance that it has brought development and is combating tragic acts of violence.
“What they want is simply freedom of religion, of faith, and respect,” said Liu, in his home in an artists’ community in Beijing.
“One goal is to commemorate them,” he said of his images. “Another is to let more people understand the truth in Tibet through these paintings because nowadays, especially in China, people simply don’t know what is happening.”
He treats his 40 subjects as though he knew them personally, pointing out the first immolator, the youngest, and the first woman.
Over the past 15 years growing numbers of Han Chinese, like Liu, have embraced Tibetan Buddhism, but have not backed their political demands, Columbia University Tibet expert Robbie Barnett said.
However, the spiritual interest “seems not to affect political positions, certainly not openly,” Barnett said in an e-mail. “For an ethnic Chinese artist to take up this project publicly is very unusual and high-risk, and I can’t think of a precedent.”
China has invested heavily in Tibetan areas to raise living standards, but also imposed controls such as monitoring monasteries and banning images of the Dalai Lama.
It has also gone on the offensive to prevent immolations — which the UN and overseas rights groups have blamed on repressive tactics — by jailing those accused of inciting and abetting the acts.
Han Chinese make up 91 percent of China’s population and Barry Sautman, an expert on Chinese ethnic politics, said that while they may empathize with Tibetans and appreciate their culture, they also tend to trust the government on security matters.
The majority thinking runs along the lines of “the government is trying to do something for the Tibetans; on the other hand, the Dalai Lama is trying to get them to commit suicide,” said Sautman, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Critics say` that China’s development efforts have mainly benefited Han incomers while eroding Tibetan culture, and that other measures have inhibited religious practice and led to abuses such as disappearances and unfair trials.
Official Chinese data say that Han numbers in Tibet rose 56 percent from 2000 to 2010, and 92 percent in the previous decade, compared with 12 percent and 15 percent respectively for Tibetans.
The census figures say Tibetans make up 90 percent of the region’s population, but the Tibetan government-in-exile counters that, if traditionally Tibetan areas in the rest of China are included, their ethnic group is now “outnumbered.”
Liu hopes to spread awareness of the Tibetan perspective through his latest collection, even though he knows it is unlikely ever to go on public display in China.
After his immolation paintings began drawing attention, the authorities visited him three times in 10 days and tried to confiscate his work, he said. However, he managed to dissuade them and is preparing his next batch of portraits.
“Unless they lock me up in prison, as long as I am free, then for sure I will keep painting,” Liu said. “I am definitely not afraid. Who am I compared to those self-immolators?”