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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?"

China and Tibet: Not much of a celebration

February 27, 2009

Feb 26th 2009 | TONGREN AND XINING
 >From The Economist print edition

IN TIBET, March is the cruellest month, the traditional season for
doomed protests against Chinese rule. This year the authorities are
unusually edgy. They have mounted a pre-emptive clampdown of a severity
rarely seen in recent years. Monastery towns across a wide area of the
Tibetan plateau are being sealed off from visitors. In those still
accessible, troops are on heightened alert to prevent any repeat of
last year’s explosion of discontent.

Security measures vary across the vast Tibetan-inhabited area of China,
which includes parts of four provinces as well as the Tibet Autonomous
Region itself (see map below). Helmeted troops bearing rifles patrol
Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Snipers lurk on rooftops near the Jokhang
temple, Tibet’s holiest shrine and often a focus for protests. A Western
tourist says she was conspicuously followed by plain-clothes police
during a recent trip. Foreign journalists are largely barred from Tibet.
Chinese travel agencies say foreign tourists are also denied entry until
late March.

In recent days troops have been blocking approach roads to Tibetan areas
in Gansu and Sichuan. They look like members of China’s paramilitary
People’s Armed Police (PAP), but many Tibetans believe that regular army
soldiers dressed in PAP uniforms are involved in the operations as well.
One source says that army barracks across the plateau have been busy
building extra accommodation in recent months to house an influx of
soldiers.

Tense anniversaries in March include the first of rioting in Lhasa last
year, and the 50th of both the uprising that led to the Dalai Lama’s
flight to India, and, on March 28th, of the replacement of the local
government in Tibet by one more tightly under Communist control. The
government has said this date will be officially marked as Tibet’s
“liberation from serfdom”. Few Tibetans will be joyful.

The mood has been soured by widespread arrests in the wake of last
year’s unrest. International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), an NGO based in
Washington, DC, says official figures suggest that some 1,200 of these
detainees remain unaccounted for. More than 70 have been given prison
sentences. There have been abundant reports of torture and other
mistreatment.

Even so, fresh unrest has been reported in recent days by Western
human-rights groups. On February 15th police took away a lone monk who
protested in the town of Litang in Sichuan. The next day a small group
of Tibetans who gathered to demand his release were also seized. On
February 19th a crowd reportedly set fire to police vehicles in Nagqu
after a fight between a Tibetan and a Han Chinese taxi driver.

Tensions have also been stoked by appeals from Tibetans abroad to avoid
celebrations of the Tibetan new year, which this year fell on February
25th, in order to mourn those killed during last year’s protests. The
Dalai Lama said the government had issued “provocative orders” for
special celebrations of the festival. State television in Tibet
broadcast a four-hour gala performance to mark the occasion.

But in Qinghai, which was also swept by protests last March, the
authorities in some areas have refrained from the all-out campaign under
way elsewhere to eliminate open displays of loyalty to the Dalai Lama.
In Tibet, monks have been ordered to take part in “patriotic education”
meetings involving denunciation of their spiritual leader. This was
common even before last year’s unrest, but ICT says that this time
ordinary citizens have been required to take part in such exercises. A
meeting in Lhasa last month presided over by Zhang Qingli, Tibet’s
Communist Party chief, called on security personnel and the public to
“smash the furious assaults of the Dalai Lama clique”, a reference to
claims that the Dalai Lama has been fomenting unrest.

In Rongwo monastery in Qinghai’s Tongren county, however, pictures of
the Dalai Lama are on conspicuous display in many of the shrines. One
prayer room centres on a large and elaborate portrait of him in silk
embroidery. Banknotes placed as offerings cover a small table in front.
Several pictures can also be seen around the monastery of the boy
recognised by the Dalai Lama in 1995 as a reincarnation of the Panchen
Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s second-highest figure. China refused to accept
him, keeping him hidden and appointing its own candidate as Panchen Lama
instead. Shops near Rongwo monastery openly sell pictures of the Dalai
Lama and of the Karmapa Lama, leader of another important branch of
Tibetan Buddhism, who fled to India in 1999. At an internet café,
Chinese visitors can read foreign websites about Tibet’s
hierarchy-in-exile. At Kumbum monastery, near the provincial capital,
Xining, monks say they have not had to denounce the Dalai Lama.

Many of Rongwo’s monks were detained after last year’s protests. Some
monks, at least, say that all are now free again, after, in a few cases,
several months in custody without trial. PAP troops occasionally patrol
the streets, but with soft hats and carrying batons and shields rather
than guns. On Tibetan New Year’s Day monks chanted prayers, with little
sign of tension. But a Tibetan restaurant owner complains that calls for
a subdued new year kept away dance troupes and the custom they would
normally attract.

Officials are unlikely to conclude, however, that a lighter touch is any
more effective than Lhasa’s iron fist. Protests last year broke out both
in tightly controlled areas and in parts ruled less aggressively, and in
relatively affluent districts as well as poorer regions. Woeser, a
Tibetan poet and blogger, says that some ethnic-Tibetan officials
privately complain about the clampdown, but Han Chinese officials in
Tibet toe a uniformly hard line. Officials in Beijing worry about Woeser
too. Her blog, strongly sympathetic to Tibetan sufferings, is blocked in
China. She says police have been deployed outside her Beijing home and
follow her when she goes out.

However Tibet weathers the upcoming protest season, it will be a tough
year of the Earth Ox. Tourism, a pillar of the Tibetan economy, has been
devastated by the clampdown. Chinese citizens are much freer to visit
than foreigners, but many are apparently fearful of going. For their
part Tibetans complain that they are now treated elsewhere in China
almost as terrorist suspects. Hotels refuse them rooms and Han Chinese
mutter about “separatists”. China’s crackdown, however mildly or
fiercely imposed, is breeding resentment and storing trouble for the
future.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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