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A week in Tibet
Politics - 2008-03-23 - ETHNIC-Chinese shopkeepers in Lhasa's old Tibetan quarter knew better than the security forces that the city had become a tinder-box. As word spread rapidly through the narrow alleyways on March 14th that a crowd was throwing stones at Chinese businesses, they shuttered up their shops and fled. The authorities, caught by surprise, held back as the city was engulfed by its biggest anti-Chinese protests in decades.
What began, or may have begun (Lhasa feeds on rumour), as the beating of a couple of Buddhist monks by police has turned into a huge political test for the Chinese government. Tibet has cast a pall over preparations to hold the Olympic games in Beijing in August. Protests in Lhasa have triggered copycat demonstrations in several monasteries across a vast swathe of territory in the “Tibet Autonomous Region” of China and in areas around it (see map). Not since the uprising of 1959, during which the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, fled to India, has there been such widespread unrest across this oxygen-starved expanse of mountains and plateaus.
Years of rapid economic growth, which China had hoped would dampen separatist demands, have achieved the opposite. Efforts to integrate the region more closely with the rest of China, by building the world's highest railway connecting Beijing with Lhasa, have only fuelled ethnic tensions in the Tibetan capital. The night before the riots erupted, a Tibetan government official confided to your correspondent that Lhasa was now stable after protests by hundreds of monks at monasteries near the city earlier in the week. He could not have been more wrong.
It was, perhaps, a sign of the authorities' misreading of Lhasa's anger that a foreign correspondent was in the city at all. Foreign journalists are seldom given permission to visit. In January 2007, in preparation for the Olympics, the central government issued new regulations that supposedly make it much easier for them to travel around the country. Travel to Tibet, however, still requires a permit. The Economist's visit was approved before the monks protested on March 10th and 11th, but the authorities apparently felt sufficiently in control to allow the trip to go ahead as planned from March 12th. As it turned out, several of the venues on the pre-arranged itinerary became scenes of unrest.
Rioting began to spread on the main thoroughfare through Lhasa, Beijing Road (a name that suggests colonial domination to many a Tibetan ear), in the early afternoon of March 14th. It had started a short while earlier outside the Ramoche Temple, in a side street close by, after two monks had been beaten by security officials. (Or so Tibetan residents believe; the official version says it began with monks stoning police.) A crowd of several dozen people rampaged along the road, some of them whooping as they threw stones at shops owned by ethnic Han Chinese—a group to which more than 90% of China's population belongs—and at passing taxis, most of which in Lhasa are driven by Hans.
The rioting quickly fanned through the winding alleyways of the city's old Tibetan area south of Beijing Road. Many of these streets are lined with small shops, mostly owned by Hans or Huis, a Muslim ethnic group that controls much of Lhasa's meat trade. Crowds formed, seemingly spontaneously, in numerous parts of the district. They smashed into non-Tibetan shops, pulled merchandise onto the streets, piled it up and set fire to it. Everything from sides of yak meat to items of laundry was thrown onto the pyres. Rioters delighted in tossing in cooking-gas canisters and running for cover as they exploded. A few yelled “Long live the Dalai Lama!” and “Free Tibet!”
For hours the security forces did little. But the many Hans who live above their shops in the Tibetan quarter were quick to flee. Had they not, there might have been more casualties. (The government, plausibly, says 13 people were killed by rioters, mostly in fires.) Some of those who remained, in flats above their shops, kept the lights off to avoid detection and spoke in hushed tones lest their Mandarin dialect be heard on the streets by Tibetans. One Han teenager ran into a monastery for refuge, prostrating himself before a red-robed Tibetan abbot who agreed to give him shelter.
The destruction was systematic. Shops owned by Tibetans were marked as such with traditional white scarves tied through their shutter-handles. They were spared destruction. Almost every other one was wrecked. It soon became difficult to navigate the alleys because of the scattered merchandise. Chilli peppers, sausages, toys (child looters descended on those), flour, cooking oil and even at one spot scores of small-denomination bank notes were ground underfoot by triumphant Tibetan residents into a slippery carpet of filth.
During the night the authorities sent in fire engines, backed by a couple of armoured personnel-carriers laden with riot police, to put out the biggest blazes. By dawn they had also sealed off the Tibetan quarter with a ring of baton-carrying troops and stationed officers with helmets and shields in the square in front of the Jokhang temple, Tibet's most sacred shrine, in the heart of the old district. But they did not move into the alleys, where rioting continued for a second day. Residents within the security cordon attacked the few Han businesses left unscathed and set new fires among the piles of debris.
The risks of crackdownHan Chinese in Lhasa were baffled and enraged by the slow reaction of the security forces. Thousands of people probably lost most, if not all, of their livelihoods (the majority of Lhasa's small businesses have no insurance, let alone against rioting). But the authorities were clearly hamstrung by the political risks involved. Going in with guns blazing—the tactic used to suppress the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and the last serious outbreak of anti-Chinese unrest in Lhasa earlier that year—would risk inciting international calls for a boycott of the Olympic games. Instead they chose to let the rioters vent their anger, then gradually tighten the noose.
On March 15th occasional rounds of tear-gas fired at stone-throwing protesters eventually gave way to a more concerted effort to clear the streets. Paramilitary police began moving into the alleys, firing occasional bullets: not bursts of gunfire, but single deliberate shots, probably more in warning than with intent to kill. They also moved from rooftop to rooftop to deter residents from gathering on terraces overlooking the alleys. Rumours abounded of Tibetans killed by security forces in isolated incidents during the earlier rioting, but not during the final push to reassert control over the city. By Chinese standards (not high when it comes to riot control), that effort appeared relatively measured.
By late on March 15th the alleys were quiet. Patrols firing the odd bullet kept most of them deserted the next day, too. A Western student said she saw six Tibetan boys hauled out of their homes by troops, pushed to the ground, kicked and beaten with batons. The boys were then bundled into a bus and driven away. Troops covered up the bloodstains on the road with a white substance, she said. The Tibetan quarter is now gripped by fears of widespread and indiscriminate arrests as the authorities attempt to find “ringleaders”. China's official news agency says 105 rioters have surrendered to the police.
When residents began venturing out more normally on March 17th, the extent of the rioting became clear. Numerous Han Chinese-owned premises well beyond the Tibetan quarter had been attacked. Several buildings had been gutted by fire. The gate of the city's main mosque was charred, and the windows of the guard-house of the Tibet Daily, the region's Communist Party mouthpiece, had been smashed.
The city was under martial law in all but name. The government said that only police were involved in the security operation, but there were many military-looking vehicles on the streets with their tell-tale licence-plates covered up or removed. Some troops refused to say what force they belonged to. Two armoured personnel-carriers were parked in front of the Potala Palace, Lhasa's most famous tourist attraction on the side of the hill overlooking the city, which is now closed. Troops with bayonets were deployed along roads leading to the city's main monasteries, which have been sealed off by police. The rioting on March 14th and 15th involved mainly ordinary citizens, but monks are often at the forefront of separatist unrest in Tibet.
The approaching flameThe government's decision not to declare martial law, or any emergency restrictions, reflected its concern about the Olympics. In March 1989 the authorities imposed martial law in Lhasa to quell separatist unrest. Its measures were barely distinguishable from those now in force in the city. The old Tibetan area has been sealed off by gun-carrying troops, but officials prefer to refer euphemistically to “special traffic-control measures”. This time foreign tourists in Lhasa have been “advised” rather than ordered to leave. On March 18th police and troops began moving the 100 or so remaining tourists to hotels far from the site of the riots. In 1989 foreign journalists were expelled from Lhasa. This time your correspondent was allowed to stay, but only until his permit expired on March 19th. No others were allowed in.
For all the government's attempts to appear unruffled, the recent unrest in Tibet exceeds the challenge it faced in 1989. Since March 10th protests have been reported not only in Lhasa's main monasteries (Drepung, Sera and Ganden), but also at Samye Monastery about 60km east of Lhasa, Labrang Monastery in Gansu province, Kirti Monastery in Sichuan province and Rongwo Monastery in Qinghai province. Tibet's traditional boundaries stretch into these provinces. Outside Labrang Monastery Tibetans attacked Han Chinese shops on March 15th. TibetInfoNet, a news service based in Britain, reported several protests in various parts of Gansu on March 16th. Unlike in the ethnic violence in Lhasa, it said, the protesters' main targets were symbols of state power and government-owned properties.
The challenge is partly a security one. The martial-law regulations imposed in Lhasa in March 1989 were not lifted until May the following year. This time China will need to move faster to restore a semblance of normality. On June 20th the Olympic flame, having been carried up the Tibetan side of Mount Everest the previous month, is due to arrive in Lhasa, where a big ceremony is planned. Barring journalists and flooding Lhasa's streets with troops would be embarrassing. More so would be cancelling the event.
But easing the clampdown would be risky. Many Tibetans see the Olympics as a golden opportunity to bring the world's attention to their problems under Chinese rule. Tibetans living outside China, particularly in India, have been taking advantage of the Olympics to step up their publicity efforts. This is an annoyance to India, which does not want to disrupt relations with China by appearing to condone efforts to disrupt the games. Indian police have blocked efforts, launched on March 10th by hundreds of dissident Tibetans, to stage a march across the mountains into their homeland.
China worries too about the possibility that other ethnic minorities in China, particularly Muslim Uighurs in the far western region of Xinjiang, may be emboldened by Tibetan activism if it is left unchecked. The Chinese authorities have played up reports about recent alleged terrorist activities in Xinjiang (as an excuse to suppress peaceful dissent, say sceptics), including what officials say was an attempt by a Uighur woman to start a fire on board a flight bound for Beijing on March 7th.
Richer, but not happierThe longer-term challenge for China is to rethink its Tibet policy. One reason why Chinese officials appeared so surprised by the unrest is that Tibet has not behaved like the rest of China, where rapid economic growth appears to have staved off a repeat of Tiananmen-style protests. A surge of government spending on infrastructure in recent years and strong growth in Tibet's tourism industry (made easier by the new infrastructure, especially the rail link, which was opened in 2006) have helped the region's GDP growth rate stay above 12% for the past seven years. In 2007 it was 14%, more than two points higher than the national rate.
Incomes have been rising fast too. Officials predict a 13% increase this year for rural residents, a sixth straight year of double-digit growth. Urban residents enjoyed a 24.5% increase in disposable income last year. Robbie Barnett of America's Columbia University says a new middle class has emerged in Lhasa in recent years. But, he says, this has made very little difference to what Tibetans think about politics.
In the old Tibetan quarter, many see the Han Chinese as the biggest beneficiaries of economic growth. Hans not only run most of the shops, but are moving into the Tibetan part of the city. Some Tibetans believe Han Chinese now make up around half of the city's population, with the railway bringing in ever more. (An official, however, points out that it is now also easier for Tibetans to reach Lhasa from distant parts of the plateau.)
The economic statistics may be misleading. Incomes may have been growing fast on average, but in the countryside averages have been skewed by soaring demand in the rest of China for a type of traditional medicine known as caterpillar fungus. Tibetans in rural areas where this fungus grows have seen their incomes rocket (and fights have broken out among them over the division of fungus-producing land). In the cities, many complain about fast-rising prices of goods imported from other parts of China. Inflation is a big worry elsewhere in China too, but Tibetan bystanders watching the riots said that Chinese officials had promised the rail link would help bring prices down. The near-empty expanse of the Lhasa Economic and Technological Development Area suggests that officials are having trouble replicating in Tibet the manufacturing boom seen elsewhere in China.
Tibetans also resent the hardline policies of Tibet's party chief, Zhang Qingli. Mr Zhang, who is a Han (China apparently does not yet trust Tibetans to hold this crucial post), was appointed in 2005 after a spell spent crushing separatism in Xinjiang. When he took charge, neglected rules banning students and the families of civil servants from taking part in religious activities began once more to be rigorously enforced. Mr Zhang also stepped up official invective against the Dalai Lama, who is widely revered. (Many Tibetans in Lhasa defiantly hang portraits of him in their homes, or did until the troops moved in.) Mr Zhang urged more “patriotic education” in monasteries, part of which involves denouncing the Dalai Lama. He banned the display of portraits of the Karmapa Lama, who fled to India in 1999 and enjoys a devoted following in Tibet.
The Dalai Lama's roleChinese officials have been divided over whether greater contact with the Dalai Lama would help to pacify Tibet. Between 2002 and July last year Chinese officials held six rounds of talks with the Dalai Lama's representatives. Laurence Brahm, an American author who has tried to mediate, says the discussions reached a high point in 2005 when the Chinese appeared to recognise that the Dalai Lama was crucial to resolving Tibet's tensions. At one stage the Chinese even considered allowing the Dalai Lama to visit Wutai Mountain in Shanxi province as a confidence-building measure, but they got cold feet. Talks eventually foundered over China's refusal to accept the Dalai Lama's statements that all he wants is Tibet's autonomy within China.
With troops on the streets, dialogue looks unlikely in the near future. China has accused the “Dalai Lama clique” of organising the riots. The Dalai Lama has denied involvement and has accused the Chinese of carrying out “cultural genocide” in his homeland. But he also needs to worry about the future of Han Chinese in Tibet. Many Han business people in Lhasa say they are planning to leave. Tourism from the interior, crucial to Lhasa's economy, is likely to be hard hit too. In the end, China may have a point with its obsession about economics. The recent boom has not won the loyalty or affection of Tibetans, but a slump would make them all the more angry.
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