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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

A Trip to Tibet, With My Handlers Nearby

August 4, 2010

By EDWARD WONG
The New York Times
July 31, 2010

LHASA, Tibet -- One warm morning on the campus of
Tibet University, a couple of foreign journalists
on a government-run tour of Tibet quietly broke
away from the group to talk to students standing
on a grassy lawn. Security guards dashed in and waved the students away.

Two days later, Chinese officials brought the 30
or so foreign reporters to the sprawling
Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, the seat of
power of the Panchen Lama, a reincarnated leader
in Tibetan Buddhism. The officials had arranged
for a monk to brief us on the monastery’s
history. But reporters preferred to pepper him
with questions about the selection of the 11th
Panchen Lama — the Chinese government appointed
one in 1995 after whisking off a 6-year-old boy
endorsed as the genuine reincarnation by the
exiled Dalai Lama. The boy and his family have not been seen since.

A foreign ministry official from Beijing quickly
signaled an end to the talk. Later, walking
through the white-walled monastery, the official
shook his head and said to me: "The questions you
all ask -- what’s the word I’m looking for? -- they’re ridiculous!"

These days, the Chinese government wants
foreigners to think it is moving beyond Orwellian
controls on information. In Beijing and most
other parts of China, a foreign journalist can
usually travel freely. Plainclothes officers
don’t regularly follow journalists around. And
ordinary people who talk to journalists usually
do not fear reprisals from the authorities,
unlike many Tibetans, who speak to foreign
reporters only in quick, furtive conversations
because of the omnipresent security forces.

China is pushing its state news agency, Xinhua,
into new markets in hopes that foreign
publications will run its stories as if they are
those of The Associated Press or Reuters. Xinhua
is even opening a newsroom in Times Square. One
Xinhua reporter asked me, "When will foreigners view us like The A.P.?"

The Chinese government and its information
agencies crave legitimacy among foreigners, and a
growing number of Chinese journalists are trying
to push the boundaries. But open and critical
inquiry is still an alien concept to Chinese
officials, as I discovered on this five-day
government-run tour of Central Tibet.

In general, Chinese journalists still have to
tip-toe around strict censorship measures. We
foreigners know that we are being monitored,
however subtly. And when it comes to certain
important issues -- like sovereignty and
treatment of minorities -- China places tight
restrictions on domestic and foreign reporting.

That means that reporting on Tibet, Taiwan and
Xinjiang, where ethnic tensions run high between
Uighurs and Han, is still fraught.

Foreign journalists are forbidden from travelling
independently to the Tibet Autonomous Region. A
government-sponsored tour, held about once a
year, is the only way in. And woe to reporters
who cross some invisible line. Two Polish
journalists recently discovered that they are on
a blacklist for Chinese visas, one possibly because of his Tibet reporting.

Harmony, however, is the official catchword these
days -- including between the government and
Tibetans, and the government and journalists. So
two years after the largest Tibetan uprising in
decades and the continued arrests of Tibetans
accused of subverting state power, reporters on
this trip received a heavy dose of ethnic
entertainment, beautiful scenery and stage-managed interviews.

An hour after we checked into our hotel in Lhasa,
as the afternoon sun dipped toward stark brown
peaks, we were bussed to the Nangre Folk Customs
Park for a buffet dinner that included several song-and-dance routines.

The next day, two tour buses and a police escort
shuttled us around. At a village called Gaba, we
talked to residents about new homes they had
built with subsidies and loans under a government
mandate called the "comfortable housing" program,
begun in 2006. Gaba was a model village, and
clearly not representative. In fact, the visit to
Gaba was reminiscent of ones during the Cultural
Revolution, when officials brought foreigners to
similar model villages to demonstrate the country’s progress.

(The living room décor did not help: In each
home, there was the same poster featuring the
smiling countenances of Mao, Deng Xiaoping and
Jiang Zemin, the three paramount leaders of China.)

There were occasional reminders of reality. One
morning, our minders wrung their hands when
cameramen on my bus filmed more than 150 military
trucks with ethnic Han soldiers rumbling along a highway to Lhasa.

The last day, as we boarded the buses for a
four-hour ride to the airport, reporters griped
to one another about the tight leashes, but
agreed that going on the trip was better than
having no access at all. Just riding through the
sweep of the Himalayas made up for all the
frustrations. We stopped for lunch by a stunning
holy lake, Yamdrok Tso, nestled high in the mountains.

Then, as we packed up to go, an Australian and a
British reporter each stripped naked and dove into the waters.

I looked over at our minders. The ones from Lhasa
were laughing, and so were our police escorts,
from behind their mirrored sunglasses. It had been a long five days.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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