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The earthquake in Qinghai

May 7, 2010

From whence cometh my help

Co-operation between monks and the government has been curtailed

Apr 29th 2010 | BEIJING | From The Economist print edition

Time to go back to the cloister

FOR Tibet's rebellious monastic community, the earthquake that killed
more than 2,000 people in a remote county on the Tibetan plateau on
April 14th became a rare opportunity to forge some trust with the
government of China. In an unspoken truce, the authorities allowed monks
from far and wide to to join the relief efforts. Chinese troops watched
impassively as columns of red-robed Buddhists bearing the flags of their
monasteries deployed near the epicentre. But mutual suspicions have been
quick to resurface.

The devastation struck Yushu, a county in Qinghai province, which
Tibetans view as part of their historic territory. The government has
seen the recovery efforts here as a chance to show its care for an
ethnic minority suffused with misgivings about Chinese rule. The prime
minister, Wen Jiabao, delayed an overseas trip and the president, Hu
Jintao, cut short a trip of his own to fly to the disaster area and be
photographed with grieving Tibetans. Just as it did after a far more
destructive earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008, the government
declared a national day of mourning, which was observed on April 21st.

But official goodwill has its limits. Tibetan areas, including Qinghai,
had been under a security clampdown since March 2008, when anti-Chinese
protests and riots flared across the plateau. The government is still in
no mood to give leeway to Tibetan dissenters who, it fears, might seize
on any inadequacies in the relief mission to whip up public anger. One
of China's senior leaders, Jia Qinglin, said on April 19th that 'hostile
elements abroad''often code for the Dalai Lama and his supporters'were
trying to 'sabotage' the relief work.

Four days later, police in Qinghai's capital, Xining, detained a
prominent Tibetan intellectual, Tagyal (he has a single name, as do many
Tibetans). He had joined seven others in signing an open letter to
residents of the disaster area. It referred to the earthquake as another
blow to Tibetans; on top of 'armed force and cruelty'. And it urged
people to give donations only to 'trustworthy' agencies'implying that
government bodies are too prone to corruption.

Tagyal's letter seems to have been the last straw. The authorities were
already enraged by a book he wrote under his pen name, which he had been
circulating informally in the past few weeks. 'The Line Between Sky and
Earth' praises the activism of monks during the Tibetan unrest of 2008
and calls for passive resistance as a way of pressing for more freedoms.
Its message was particularly striking because Tagyal had been regarded
by many Tibetans as someone who shared official China's disdain for
Tibetan religion. Police have informed Tagyal's family that he is
suspected of 'inciting separatism'. Concerns about his book might have
helped to inspire a campaign the government launched to prevent 'illegal
publications' from disturbing the relief effort.

The authorities have reason to worry about the loyalties of this
earthquake's survivors. Some have been scrabbling in ruins to recover
photographs of the Dalai Lama. The government has ignored the exiled
Tibetan leader's suggestion that he be allowed to visit Yushu. Woeser, a
Tibetan writer living in Beijing, says survivors become excited whenever
they spot an aeroplane overhead, hoping the Dalai Lama might be on board.

Monks, unfettered by the altitude sickness suffered by many of the
emergency workers sent from other parts of China, made valiant
contributions to the rescue. But the government appears to have lost
patience with them. Within a week of the earthquake, officials were
making it clear that those from outside the county should return to
their monasteries. Woeser says that many monks have decided to play safe
and withdraw.
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