Beginning in March and continuing in the weeks and months preceding the Beijing Olympics, a tidal wave of protests swept across the Tibetan plateau, the result of more than half a century of Chinese government misrule. The uprising revealed the breakdown of Beijing’s Tibet policy at a time when China hoped to convey to the world an image of harmony, as characterized in their “one world, one dream” Olympics slogan.
“Thanks to its own hard-line policies and miscalculations – and the determination of free people around the world – Beijing utterly failed to portray the happy picture of Tibet it had planned for. In the lead-up to the Olympics and during the Games, Chinese authorities have espoused vitriol against the Dalai Lama and his supporters, broken their pledges of media access and committed both petty and gross violations against internationally recognized human rights norms, from blocking access to rock songs celebrating peace to shooting Tibetan demonstrators dead,” said John Ackerly, ICT President.
The Olympics closing ceremony on Sunday, August 24 will feature an operatic depiction of China’s historic relations to Tibet. The piece was commissioned to support Chinese legitimacy in Tibet and first performed following the March 1959 uprising in Lhasa, which led to thousands of Tibetan deaths and the flight of the Dalai Lama into exile.
Mary Beth Markey, ICT Vice President for International Advocacy, said today: “There is a real drama going on in Tibet during these Olympic Games and it has little to do with the flying Buddhist sprites of the opening ceremony or the operatically conveyed propaganda of the closing ceremony. China’s leaders now should move beyond showmanship to statesmanship and engage the Tibetan people in finding real solutions to the real problems in Tibet.”
According to numerous reports received by ICT, there are serious fears that the crackdown could worsen still further after the Olympics, once the global focus is no longer on China. Many Tibetans are concerned – and in some cases, have been warned by Chinese security personnel – that more reprisals may follow the Olympics, with people who are now being monitored being taken into custody later. One source referred, chillingly, to the well-known Chinese phrase of “settling accounts after autumn harvest” (qiu hou suan zhang).
Veteran China analyst Willy Wo Lap Lam believes this may well apply throughout China, saying: “Not only have the Olympics failed to act as a catalyst for political liberalization in China, but the regime’s pre-Olympics security buildup looks set to enable the government to crack down as hard as ever on dissent after the Games are over… Growing instability on various fronts has predisposed the Hu leadership toward strengthening the police-state apparatus that has been put together in the name of ensuring a trouble-free Olympics. Moreover, cadres in the law-and-order establishment, who include senior officials in the Central Political and Legal Commission as well as military, police and judicial departments, have gained immense clout, not to mention much more funding, since early this year.” (Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2008).
New images and reports received from Tibet despite China’s attempts to impose an information blackout give evidence of the following:
- In the early days of the Olympics, military snipers were positioned in Lhasa hotels
- Two Tibetan women entering a shop in Ngaba were shot by security personnel on 9 August, the day after the Olympics opening ceremony
- Security personnel in Ngaba held a mock demonstration a week before the Olympics complete with display of flags that appear to be similar to the banned Tibetan ‘snow lion’ flag
- Monasteries across the Tibetan plateau remain under lockdown
- Intense security remains in the Kham area of eastern Tibet with severe restrictions on the movements of Tibetans and the atmosphere of a ‘war zone’, as described by a recent visitor
Despite the Chinese government’s attempts to impose a news blackout across the Tibetan plateau during the Olympics, ICT has received the following reports in the last few days.
Military snipers positioned in Lhasa hotels
From August 6-10, military snipers were positioned in Lhasa hotels. According to a report by a Western expert with Tibetan sources, “In one hotel, which had no guests at the time, about 20 soldiers took over upstairs rooms overlooking the street for the entire period. They entered the hotel discreetly so few people knew they were there. They were behind curtains or stood back from the window in some other way so as not to be visible from the street. They were changed periodically by replacements. They paid a small token fee for each room and were well behaved and friendly. All were Chinese. My source believed that an order had been given for that 24-hour period that soldiers could shoot on sight anyone who was seen with a knife or other weapon.” It is not known if the snipers were People’s Liberation Army or People’s Armed Police, although the former appears to be the most likely according to the same report.
Two Tibetan women shot by security personnel
A day after the Olympics opening ceremony, on August 9, at around 4.30 p.m. local time, two Tibetan women in their twenties were shot by security personnel as they went to a shop in the town of Ngaba (Chinese: Aba), Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan province. The two women are Sonam Wangmo, aged 22, from Lower Ngawa Sezo and Tranyeyeng, aged 28, from Gyalrang. One was shot in the leg and the other sustained an injury to her hand and they are still receiving medical treatment. According to three Tibetan sources in contact with exile Tibetans, it appears that the women were visiting the shop to recharge their mobile phones, and may have been shot because they were in the street at a time of restrictions linked to the Olympic Games and in the aftermath of protests in the region.
A Tibetan source told ICT: “[The source] heard four or five gun shots while he was at home with family and friends. He wanted to go out into the street to see what was going on. But his family and friends advised against that because the situation was obviously dangerous and, in addition, strict restrictions had been imposed upon the movement of Tibetans since a few days before the Olympics began. He, along with his family and friends, performed some prayers at home.”
Sources in the area say that restaurants and shops are closed before 7 pm and no one is allowed to go out of their houses after that. People are even frightened to go out in the daytime. Monks are ordered to stay in their monasteries, which are surrounded by armed troops, according to various reports.
Mock protest demonstrates military force
During the Olympic period, there has been a significant buildup of troops in the Ngaba region, with military even carrying out a mock protest as a training exercise at the end of July/early August. The images – which are available for press – show troops near to Tro-Tsuk monastery in Ngaba county re-enacting a protest and demonstrating the suppression of that protest. They carried flags that appeared to be similar to the Tibetan national flag, just as Tibetan protesters carried Tibetan flags in demonstrations in the area in March. In that protest, police fired on and killed unarmed protesters (see ICT’s report, Tibet at a Turning Point: The Spring Uprising and China’s New Crackdown). According to Tibetan sources who provided the images, some soldiers were dressed as monks and lay protesters during the exercise. Sources have speculated that the protest was being filmed, perhaps for propaganda purposes as well as to train military personnel.
On August 4, the military troops stationed in this area, said to be occupying nomadic pastureland a few kilometers from Ngaba town, staged a drill performance attended by officials. Security has been stepped up at Kirti monastery after monks participated in protests in March. New surveillance cameras have been installed in the monastery, which is surrounded by Chinese security personnel. Monks are not allowed to leave the monastery without permission from senior monks in the monastery’s management.
Kham area “like a war-zone”
A number of reports received by ICT indicate that Beijing has ramped up security substantially in Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi), Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Kham) in order to ensure that no discontent was expressed during the Olympics. Many monasteries in the area are still under lockdown and severe restrictions imposed on the movements of Tibetans in these areas.
A Taiwanese-American tourist, Wen Yan-King, who was detained and expelled from the Kardze area after an unauthorized visit in July, reported: “There’s a good reason that foreigners aren’t allowed in these places. It looks like a war zone. In Kardze the police are in the middle of the sidewalks. They’re sitting in helmets holding their guns and riot shields in rows of 10 or 15. They are outside convenience stores under blue tarps every half a block, on both sides of the road – watching. They’re up on raised metal posts with cutout windows – watching. I couldn’t walk anywhere without dozens of armed police staring at me. I’ve never seen so many police and military personnel in one town in my life. Nor have I experienced this kind of heart-pounding fear before.” (Huffington Post blog by Rebecca Novick, August 12).
Since the unrest began in March, the crackdown in the Kham area of Tibet has been particularly severe – ICT has logged a total of 45 out of 125 protests in Sichuan (incorporating the traditional Tibetan area of Kham) since March, the highest total out of all the provinces incorporating Tibetan autonomous areas (Qinghai, Tibet Autonomous Region, Gansu, Yunnan). Tibetans in this area are known for their strong sense of Tibetan identity and nationalism; many Khampas (residents of Kham) were involved in resistance to the Chinese invasion in 1949-50 and to the Chinese presence in 1956-9.
Wen Yan-King reported similar restrictions in the Lithang (Chinese: Litang) area, where she counted as many as seven police stations in a half-mile radius. “The local Tibetans told me that these police stations had sprung up after the protests in March. If there’s a way to instill fear in people, this is the way to do it. You’re not going to go out in the street and protest when you see fifty armed police to the left and right of you.” (Huffington Post, August 12).
The recent intensification of restrictions on religious expression, and the requirement to denounce the Dalai Lama, has led to a new wave of protests and arrests of monks, nuns and laypeople in the last couple of months and a number of unarmed protesters have been shot dead. Hundreds of Tibetans in Kham including monks, nuns, laypeople and schoolchildren, have been detained and treated with extreme brutality. Unarmed peaceful protesters were shot dead during mainly peaceful protests in Kham in March and April. (see ICT’s report: Tibet at a Turning Point: The Spring Uprising and China’s New Crackdown).
Tibet and the Olympics
In order to hide its violent repression in Tibet, particularly as it seeks to project an image of stability and unity during the Olympics, China has sealed off virtually the entire plateau, despite promising increasing openness prior to the Games in August. Although the Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR] opened up to foreign tour groups on June 25, according to an announcement in the official media, tourism is not in any way back to normal, despite official reports. It is still highly restricted and monasteries are still closed.
While the crackdown continues in Tibet, Tibetan cultural performers were featured in the Olympics opening ceremony, and will feature in Sunday’s closing ceremony, in an attempt to convey the impression that Tibetan culture is thriving and that the Tibetan people are united with the rest of the PRC.
The opening ceremony had also included a procession of children dressed in traditional clothing to represent China’s officially recognized 55 ethnic nationality groups. News reports later revealed that the children were all Han Chinese, China’s majority ethnic group.
Tibetan traditional opera singers performing in Beijing have been warned that they must be on “their best ideological form,” with a senior government official in the TAR giving them the following briefing: “All performers who are going to Beijing must have the strongest consideration for political responsibility and must show the best ideological form in order for the performance to be lively and attractive.” The same government official added: “The performance must be symbolic of the great unity of ethnic groups in the TAR and to represent the remarkable achievement of Tibetan people under the excellent Communist Party’s leaders and their policies.” (News bulletin on Xizang TV, July 22, 2008.)
The Chinese-Tibetan opera to be performed at the Olympic Games closing ceremony is called “Princess Wencheng,” and is the story of the marriage between the eponymous Chinese princess and Songsten Gampo, a Tibetan king in the 7th century. The tale is often used by Beijing for propaganda purposes to illustrate the historic and cultural connection between the Tibetan and Chinese peoples. The director of the opera in Beijing this week, Mr Gao, told The Times of London: “Now you can say this is a perfect marriage between these two art forms just as the marriage of Princess Wencheng and King Songtsen Gampo was a marriage between the Chinese and Tibetan peoples.” (August 20). When The Times reporter asked a Tibetan performer if he was happy to be in the show, he replied: “What choice do I have?”
The ICT report, ‘Tibet at a Turning Point: The Spring Uprising and China’s New Crackdown‘, which includes an analysis of Chinese leaders responsible for implementing Tibet policy and the crackdown, is available for downloading here »
Press in China can contact [email protected] for an electronic pdf copy. Images of the military buildup and mock protest are also available for press; contact: [email protected]