Chinese authorities are offering reward money in an attempt to put an end to self-immolation protests by ethnic Tibetans.
Officials in Kanlho Prefecture announced Wednesday a reward of about $8,000 to anyone who informs about people planning to set themselves on fire. The announcement also promised a reward of about $30,000 to anyone who gives any creditable information about the most recent self-immolations.
At least three Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule and Chinese policies in the past five days. Six Tibetans have died in self-immolation protests this month.
China has long-accused Tibetan exiles of self-immolating as part of a separatist struggle, denouncing them as terrorists.
On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei again accused the Dalai Lama of inciting the deadly protests, saying it "is despicable and deserves the people's condemnation."
The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile say they oppose all violence.
At a U.S. State Department briefing Wednesday in Washington, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she was not aware of the reward offer but expressed concern about the escalating tensions.
"We have consistently expressed our concern about the violence in the Tibetan areas, about the continuing pattern of self-immolations, heightened tensions in Tibet in general. And we continue to both publicly and privately urge the Chinese government at all levels to address the underlying policies in Tibet that have created these tensions and which threaten the cultural heritage of the region," said Nuland.
Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University in New York, says the immolations are worrisome.
"It does suggest that boiling point could be reached as all these things come together," said Barnett.
Barnett says it is difficult to determine the significance of the reward money.
"If they [Chinese officials] are moving to a stage where they think that the exiles are planning them (the self-immolations) rather than just encouraging them, that would be a new development," he said.
And Barnett says there appears to be an element of fear about how the powerfully symbolic protests are spreading.
"I think that this [the patten of self-immolations] is conceived as dangerous by the authorities. The fact that this movement is spreading further to the east, closer to the Chinese borders, into these populations where you have educated Tibetans - students, monks - who have a tradition of thinking for themselves, I think they may be concerned about this," he said.
But he also says the motivation for trying to find and stop would-be protesters from setting themselves on fire may be humane, that for all the brutality of the Chinese state, officials honestly want to see an end to the tragic, and horrifying, suicides.
Since February of 2009, at least 58 Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese policy in Tibet. In 48 cases, the protesters have died. And experts like Barnett note that the tone and tactics used by Chinese officials at a national level is not always reflected on the local level, where authorities tend to be more aggressive.
Such aggression has become increasingly visible. Earlier this month, Chinese police in Nagchu town arrested about 30 people, including the uncle, sister and brother in-law of a 43-year-old man who set himself on fire in protest.
Activists have also accused Chinese security forces of killing a man to prevent him from setting himself on fire and bringing attention to Tibet's plight.