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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

As Tibet Erupted, China Wavered

March 25, 2008

The New York Times
March 24, 2008

In Lhasa during the recent riots, a tourist who requested anonymity took
this photo of Chinese goods being burned.

BEIJING ­ In the chaotic hours after Lhasa erupted March 14, Tibetans
rampaged through the city’s old quarter, waving steel scabbards and
burning or looting Chinese shops. Clothes, souvenirs and other tourist
trinkets were dumped outside and set afire as thick gray smoke darkened
the midday sky. Tibetan fury, uncorked, boiled over.

Foreigners and Lhasa residents who witnessed the violence were stunned
by what they saw, and by what they did not see: the police. Riot police
officers fled after an initial skirmish and then were often nowhere to
be found. Some Chinese shopkeepers begged for protection.

“The whole day I didn’t see a single police officer or soldier,” said an
American woman who spent hours navigating the riot scene. “The Tibetans
were just running free.”

Lhasa is now occupied by thousands of paramilitary police officers and
troops of the People’s Liberation Army. But witnesses say that for
almost 24 hours, the paramilitary police seemed unexpectedly paralyzed
or unprepared, despite days of rising tensions with Tibetan monks.

The absence of police officers emboldened the Tibetan crowds, which
terrorized Chinese residents, toppled fire trucks and hurled stones into
Chinese-owned shops. In turn, escalating violence touched off a sweeping
crackdown and provided fodder for a propaganda-fueled nationalist
backlash against Tibetans across the rest of China that is still under way.

“I really am surprised at the speed with which these things got out of
control,” said Murray Scot Tanner, a China analyst with a specialty in
policing. “This place, this time, should not have surprised them. This
is one of the key cities in the country that they have tried to keep a
lid on for two decades.”

What happened? Analysts wonder if the authorities, possibly fearing the
public relations ramifications of a confrontation before the Beijing
Olympics in August, told the police to avoid engaging protesters without
high-level approval.

Timing also may have contributed to indecision; Tibet’s hard-line
Communist Party boss, Zhang Qingli, and other top officials were
attending the National People’s Congress in Beijing when the violence

The full explanation could take years to emerge from China’s Communist
Party hierarchy. But the Lhasa unrest, not entirely unlike the Tiananmen
Square pro-democracy protests of 1989, may be remembered as much for
poor police work ­ faulty crowd control and political indecision
followed by a large-scale response ­ as for the underlying grievances of

Lhasa now has created far more than a public relations problem for
Beijing. It has unleashed widespread Tibetan resentment over Chinese
rule. Antigovernment demonstrations have spread to Tibetan areas of
western China. Military convoys and trucks of paramilitary police
officers are streaming westward to quell the protests.

International leaders are alarmed at the violence and have called for
restraint by China. But domestic opinion is inflamed with nationalist
anger as state television is repeatedly showing images of Tibetans
rioting in those early, unfettered hours.

“Our government should take a bloody suppression on these separatists!”
blared one posting among the legion of enraged postings on Chinese
Internet chat rooms. “We cannot hesitate or be too merciful, even at the
cost of giving up the Olympics.”

The police hesitation did not last long. The crackdown began within 24
hours, on March 15. Witnesses described hearing the thud of tear gas
projectiles and the crackle of gunshots as paramilitary police officers
took control of the riot area. By March 16, the paramilitary police were
searching Tibetan neighborhoods and seizing suspects. One foreigner saw
four Tibetan men beaten so savagely that the police sprinkled white
powder on the ground to cover the blood.

Lhasa’s death toll remains in sharp dispute. The Chinese authorities say
22 people died, including a police officer killed by a mob and
shopkeepers who burned to death in the violence.

The authorities also claim security forces did not carry lethal weapons
or fire a shot. But the Tibetan government in exile, in Dharamsala,
India, said at least 99 Tibetans have died in Lhasa during the
crackdown. Foreign journalists are now forbidden to enter Tibet. But
interviews with more than 20 witnesses show Lhasa was boiling with
Tibetan resentment even as authorities believed they had the situation
under control. Protests broke out at three monasteries beginning March
10, the anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule
in 1959, which forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India.

The police arrested more than 60 monks and confined the rest in their
monasteries. Tibetans say the police also beat monks during peaceful

James Miles, a Beijing-based reporter for The Economist magazine, had
obtained approval from authorities for a reporting trip to Lhasa before
the demonstrations. When the protests started, Mr. Miles wondered if he
would be notified that his trip had been canceled. But no call came. He
arrived March 12, and on March 13 officials took him to dinner,
signaling their confidence by making no attempt to hide the recent

“I was assured that the situation in Lhasa was stable,” Mr. Miles recalled.

But the next day, March 14, would prove otherwise. At Ramoche Temple,
monks left the monastery about midday to protest and were immediately
met by police officers. Unlike the other monasteries, Ramoche is in the
heart of Lhasa’s old Tibetan quarter, so the confrontation attracted a
large crowd.

Unconfirmed reports about the earlier protests had been swirling among
Tibetans for days, according to several people, including that monks and
Buddhist nuns had been killed. Many Tibetans were angry when they saw
the police clash with the Ramoche monks. Quickly, the crowd attacked the

Witnesses say police reinforcements who arrived with shields and riot
gear were overwhelmed. “Almost immediately they were rushed by a massive
group of Tibetans,” one witness said. Police officers fled, and a mob of
Tibetans poured out of the old quarter onto Beijing Road, a large
commercial street. A riot had begun.

Angry Tibetans attacked a branch of the Bank of China and burned it to a
blackened husk. Photos and video images show Tibetans smashing Chinese
shops with stones and setting them on fire. Witnesses described Tibetans
attacking Chinese on bicycles and throwing rocks at taxis driven by
Chinese. Later, crowds also burned shops owned by Muslims.

“This wasn’t organized, but it was very clear that they wanted the
Chinese out,” said the American woman who witnessed the riots and asked
not to be identified for fear of reprisals. She said Tibetan grievances
exploded in anger. Crowds tied ceremonial silk scarves across the
threshold of Tibetan shops to indicate they should not be damaged.

Mr. Miles, the journalist, found himself the only Western reporter on
the scene. He spent the next several hours carefully walking around the
old Tibetan quarter as rioters burned buildings and overturned cars. “I
was looking around expecting an immediate, rapid response,” he said.
“But nothing happened. I kept asking people, ‘Where are the police?’ ”

Protests are common in China and clashes can occur between demonstrators
and police officers. Beginning in the early 1980s China created a
paramilitary force, known as the People’s Armed Police, to deal with
domestic unrest and other crises. Mr. Tanner, the specialist in Chinese
policing, said the People’s Armed Police had developed tactics over the
years to defuse protests without resorting to violent crackdowns. But
riots of this scale are rare, and if violence erupts, policy dictates a
firm response, Mr. Tanner said.

“There is no suggestion that they are supposed to sit back and let a
riot burn itself out,” he said.

Tibetans also say the security forces were unusually passive at the
beginning. One monk reached by telephone said other monks noticed that
several officers were more interested in shooting video of the violence
than stopping it. “They were just watching,” the monk said. “They tried
to make some videos and use their cameras to take some photos.”

Ultimately, the man responsible for public order in Lhasa is Mr. Zhang,
Tibet’s party chief. Mr. Zhang is a protégé of President Hu Jintao,
whose own political career took flight after he crushed the last major
rebellion in Tibet in 1989.

According to one biographer, Mr. Hu actually made himself unavailable
during the 1989 riots when the paramilitary police needed guidance on
whether to crack down. The police did so and Mr. Hu got credit for
keeping order, but he also assured himself deniability if the crackdown
had failed, the biographer wrote.

Mr. Zhang also has an excuse; he was at the National People’s Congress
in Beijing. When the violence started, Mr. Zhang had just completed a
two-hour online discussion about China’s Supreme Court, according to a
government Web site. It is unclear when Mr. Zhang was told of the
violence, or if he made the final decision on how to respond.

But that decision became clear on March 15, the day after the riots.
During the riots, the police were armed with shields and batons,
witnesses said. But overnight, the People’s Armed Police had encircled
the riot areas. Armed vehicles also were in position. By afternoon,
witnesses saw small teams of paramilitary officers with high-powered
weapons moving into the old quarter.

Mr. Zhang would later declare “a bitter struggle of blood and fire
against the Dalai clique, a struggle of life and death.”

The Chinese authorities have also confirmed that army troops had arrived
in Lhasa by March 15, saying their role was limited to traffic control
and securing military property. But many people question if some of
those troops were involved in the crackdown. Several armored vehicles
had their license plates removed or covered in white paper.

Mr. Miles noticed that many of the People’s Armed Police officers
actually appeared to be wearing irregular uniforms. One military analyst
who studied photographs of the scene concluded that some armored
vehicles belonged to an elite military unit. Witnesses reported hearing
the sounds of gunshots throughout that Saturday afternoon.

The crackdown was only one part of the new strategy. The Chinese news
media initially had not been allowed to cover the Lhasa violence. But by
March 15,, that had changed. There, broadcast on state television, was
video of Tibetans raging through Lhasa. No images were shown of the
crackdown the next day.

Zhang Jing, Huang Yuanxi and Chen Yang contributed research.
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