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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?"

Why China is frightened of horses

August 8, 2008

Lindsey Hilsum
The New Statesman
August 7, 2008

The Communist Party doesn't believe in anything - not in God, nor
ghosts, nor spirits - so why are they so afraid of a picture?

As Beijing prepared for the Olympics, I set off for Rongwu, in the
Chinese province of Qinghai, where last spring's Tibetan uprising
started. The roadblocks which had stopped journalists from reporting
events have been dismantled, and we evaded the security forces by
never staying more than one night in the same place.

The police and soldiers may have withdrawn, but we saw one monk who
still had handcuff marks on his wrists. He was too scared to speak.
Another told us that the abbot of Rongwu is released from custody
during the daytime, but is still held by the police at night.

"They came with pistols and told us not to move and not to talk,"
said a monk, looking around nervously - the monasteries are full of
spies. "We're very afraid. It happened to us before, so it could happen again."

On 11 February, on the hills above their monastery, monks from Rongwu
held an incense-burning ceremony which - according to the Tibetan
writer Woeser - was disrupted by the police. Monks started shouting
independence slogans and calling for the return of the Dalai Lama.
Many were arrested, and unrest spread throughout the region,
culminating in the 14 March riots in Lhasa and subsequent protests
across the Tibetan parts of China.

The Chinese government blames what it calls the "Dalai clique", and
continues to accuse the Dalai Lama of instigating violence, even
while trying to appease international opinion by holding low-level
talks with his aides. The "working groups" took down pictures of the
man Tibetan Buddhists revere, but in the monasteries we visited, the
monks had put them back up again.

"The Communist Party doesn't believe in anything - not in God, nor
ghosts, nor spirits - so why are they so afraid of a picture?" asked one.

"In my heart, the Dalai Lama is as precious as the stars and the moon
in the sky," explained another. "Without him, the world would be
dark. I'm willing to give up my life for him."

Chinese government officials frequently say that foreign critics do
not understand the complexity of the historical relationship between
China and Tibet, but the "patriotic education" campaign in Qinghai
appears to have been crude, to say the least.

"The government handed out a survey, asking people to choose between
'A: Dalai Lama is good' and 'B: Dalai Lama is bad'. Many returned it
blank," said one man. "It's hard to choose. If we choose A, we get
into trouble with the government, but we can't choose B, because he's great."

More than anything, the Chinese government fears that Tibetans will
air their grievances during the Olympic Games. The annual summer
horse festivals have been banned - ast August, a Tibetan called
Ronggyal Adrak leapt on stage at the Litang Horse Festival demanding
independence and the return of the Dalai Lama. Tens of thousands of
Tibetans gathering this year would mean an even greater potential for
protest. Only small, local festivals are allowed.

At one, I watched half a dozen little boys gallop bareback across the
grasslands, their horses decorated with the silky scarves known as
hadas. They raced different horses through the day, watched by
admiring families of Tibetans, the women wearing traditional, heavy,
coral-and-turquoise necklaces, often over cheap, mass-produced
Chinese T-shirts.

The modern world has impinged on the grasslands, with nearly as many
motorbikes as horses at the festival. Roads are good, people eat
packaged noodles as well as the traditional tsampa, mobile phones
work even in nomadic summer pastures. The Beijing government, and
many Han Chinese people, cannot understand why the Tibetans are not
happy to see such progress.

A monk tried to explain: "The party secretary of the county came and
called for a meeting. He said: 'Life is so good and you still rioted.
It's your own fault.' I don't agree. We have our own thoughts. All
Tibetans want our own country."

They're not going to get it: the Chinese government is too strong and
too determined. But its project to make the Tibetan people reject the
Dalai Lama is futile. You cannot force people to hate what they love
more than anything.

At a recent meeting, a senior Chinese official grew angry about
western reporting on Tibet. "We, the Chinese, are the victims!" he
spat out angrily. "We are the victims of the Dalai Lama's campaign
and the western media!"

It's hard to see a nuclear power with the largest army in the world
as a victim - especially as 80 heads of state arrive to celebrate its
big Olympic party - but the sentiment shows the Chinese government's
defensiveness and feelings of vulnerability over Tibet. The only hope
is that one day China will be confident enough to relax and allow
Tibetans genuine autonomy and to worship as they wish.

Lindsey Hilsum is the China correspondent for Channel 4 News
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