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,Tibets 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 years 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 years 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 Buddhisms 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 Rongwos 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.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009