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Locking Down Tibet

March 15, 2008

NewsWeek

The ripple effects of Beijing's reaction to the Lhasa riots could
spill over into the Olympics.
Mar 14, 2008

Once again riots have exploded, shots have rung out, and blood has
flowed in the streets of Lhasa. And once again the Chinese
authorities' habit of overreacting threatens to keep making things
worse. As police battled against angry Tibetan protestors, shops were
set on fire, vehicles (including at least one tourist bus) overturned,
ethnic Chinese attacked and tear gas fired into crowds in the worst
civil unrest in Tibet in nearly two decades. Although these reports
are extremely difficult to confirm, death toll estimates cited by
Western media ranged from two to as many as 20.

For those of us who wrote stories about Tibetan protests and the
blood-tinged imposition of martial law in Lhasa in March 1989, it felt
a bit like deja vu all over again. 1989 was the last time such
violence has wracked the Tibet Autonomous Region, where Chinese
soldiers marched into Lhasa in 1959 to enforce Beijing's heavy-handed
sovereignty over the remote Himalayan region. Since then Tibetan
militants have agitated for outright independence, while the exiled
religious leader the Dalai Lama has criticized what he calls "cultural
genocide" in Tibet and has lobbied for greater autonomy.

As in 1989, what began as relatively modest protests against Chinese
rule in Tibet--in both cases, initiated by monks at Drepung
monastery--escalated into wider unrest after authorities cracked down
with detentions and brute force, triggering yet more protests. Once
again, authorities are scrambling to keep foreign media out of Tibet;
foreign correspondents are chafing under regulations requiring them to
get prior permission before traveling to the roof of the world. Once
again, government censors are busy trying to shape the news. As I
write this, coverage of the Lhasa riots has been continually blacked
out from television news reports on the BBC and CNN (including one
that, just before the cut, showed the anchor saying, "we've heard that
CNN's reporting on Tibet has been blacked out….")

Once again, a proximate cause of the turmoil was the March 10
anniversary of the failed 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule,
during which Tibet's religious leader the Dalai Lama fled into exile
in India. There was even a similar eeriness when, at one point Friday,
the police presence in Lhasa seemed to ebb -- emboldening more and
more protestors to pour into the streets. Monks from the Ramoche
temple joined the unrest en masse, and crowds set about smashing and
setting ablaze buildings "with real or perceived Chinese connections,"
reported Radio Free Asia. Targets included the popular Tashi Delek
restaurant run by Tibetans seen to be pro-Beijing.

Then security personnel struck back with tear gas and live ammunition,
their shots ringing out in the traditional Barkor area of ancient
Lhasa. But this time, unlike 1989, the stakes are much higher.
Although we didn't know it back then, the Tibetan turmoil was a
precursor of the even more violent crackdown that unfolded several
months later in Beijing, snuffing out the Tiananmen Square protests.
One of the reasons those demonstrations managed to grow so large was
because the government was deterred from cracking down, for a time, by
the looming May 1989 state visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev
whose VVIP arrival in Beijing was to mark the end of decades of
Sino-Soviet hostility.

This time round, Beijing is slated to host the 2008 Summer Olympics in
just five months' time. That means international scrutiny of China's
human rights record - as well as nearly everything else, from
pollution levels to traffic jams to the condition of Beijing's toilets
- has been intensifying for months. It also means Chinese authorities
need to be on their best behavior in the run-up to the Summer
Olympics.  Perhaps with the lesson of 1989 in mind, the government has
made huge efforts to eliminate anything that might tarnish Beijing's
image.

A recent spate of PR setbacks appears to have rattled Chinese
authorities, and now the potential for over-reaction seems great.
"They're simply just freaking out now," says one foreign analyst
involved in monitoring Olympics preparations. One example cited by the
analyst, who requested anonymity, was the recent live concert in
shanghai by Icelandic singer Bjork, who hit a raw nerve in the Beijing
regime when she exclaimed "Tibet! Tibet!" after singing her
unauthorized song "Declaration of Independence".

That unexpected outburst prompted china's Ministry of Culture to
declare that Bjork had "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people". It
later also declared that she'd broken Chinese law, and that the
ministry would "further tighten controls on foreign artists performing
in China in order to prevent similar cases from happening."

Since then officials have been frantically re-examining all sorts of
cultural programs. One project that's now up in the air is the filming
of "Mao's Last Dancer" - based on Li Cunxin's best-selling memoir of
his life in the prestigious dance academy overseen by Mao Zedong's
ruthless wife Jiang Qing - which was supposed to start Monday. In
other words, it has no direct relationship to Tibet. Nonetheless, on
Tuesday the production was told that they would not be able to start
filming - despite having lined up a prestigious cast including Joan
Chen and Kyle Maclachlan -- and that, in the post-Bjork era, all
cultural projects now have to be vetted by no less than the State
Council, the equivalent of China's cabinet.

The traditional Olympic torch relay, meanwhile, has become even more
controversial. Beijing plans to have runners bring the Olympic flame
to the top of Mt. Everest in Tibet - using special technology to keep
the fire burning at such high altitudes. That's been criticized by
critics who contend that Tibetan culture and language have languished,
and that Tibetans have become economically marginalized, under
Beijing's governance.

To ensure there is no repeat of last year's protests at Everest base
camp by pro-Tibet Western activists, Chinese officials have simply
barred foreign climbers from climbing the Tibetan side of Everest from
May 1 to 10, provoking huge squawks from members of mountaineering
expeditions. Now Chinese authorities are learning on the government of
Nepal to impose similar restrictions on mountaineering activities from
the Nepalese side. The Kathmandu government has already said it will
suspend the registration of any trekking company with a member who
takes part in any anti-Chinese act, such as "raising the Tibetan flag
on the summit of Everest."  Which raises the question: if they have to
lock down the entire country in order to hold a protest-free Olympics,
will Chinese authorities declare success?
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