Chinese officials have admitted to stepping up security in Lhasa linked to “the Dalai Lama’s separatist activities” and coinciding with the eighth round of dialogue between Chinese officials and the Dalai Lama’s representatives in Beijing (October 31 – November 5). Hardline comments made on Monday by Zhu Weiqun, the Executive Vice Minister of the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Chinese Communist Party, who met the Dalai Lama’s envoys, followed the announcement by China’s state-run media last week of a propaganda drive on Tibet, and indicate the Party’s concern over support from the international community on the Tibet issue.

Vice governor of the Tibet Autonomous Region Pema Tsewang (Chinese transliteration: Bai Ma Cai Wang) told two Australian journalists accompanying an official visit to Lhasa last week that local authorities had boosted the security presence in Lhasa above and beyond the crackdown that followed the wave of protests from March 10 onwards. He said that this was due to fears by the government of a repeat of the March protests, and he reiterated the official line that the protests were the work of the Dalai Lama and his supporters: “After the March 14 riots, the Dalai Lama and his followers have speeded up their separatist activities.” (The Australian, November 8).

The Chinese state media last week announced a major propaganda campaign “to help international readers to better understand Tibet.” (China Tibet Information Center, November 3). The report stated that nine state-run media outlets, including Xinhua and the People’s Daily Online, would take part in the drive. Beijing has sought to impose a news blackout in Tibet to prevent information about the security crackdown reaching the outside world and, with few exceptions, the international media have been blocked from visiting Tibet since before the Beijing Summer Olympics. The launch of a propaganda campaign aimed at an international audience indicates official concern about reporting by the global media and criticism expressed by governments since the crackdown began.

Zhu Weiqun, who participated in the dialogue with the Dalai Lama’s envoys, will soon tour European capitals to deliver China’s account of the dialogue’s proceedings, which have so far included denouncing the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way approach and a memorandum on genuine autonomy for Tibetans delivered by his envoys as “disguised independence.” (ICT report, No progress in eighth round of dialogue as Chinese reject autonomy proposal).

Zhu Weiqun represents the United Front Work Department in the Party, which operates in conjunction with other core Party organizations, such as the Propaganda and the International Liaison Departments. The UFWD’s role is to assert and enforce the Party line, rather than discuss or negotiate official policy. At the local level in Tibet, UFWD officials are responsible for instilling the Party’s hard-line policies among government and Party offices in Tibet’s prefectures and counties, and UFWD officials are often regarded as some of the most politically indoctrinated and “anti-splittist” cadres in Tibet.

Crackdown intensifies in Lhasa as rare media visit allowed

Two Australian journalists accompanied an Australian parliamentarian on a four-day visit to Tibet (November 2-6, at the invitation of the Chinese government. During his visit, Liberal MP Michael Johnson, Vice-Chairman of the Australia-China Parliamentary Friendship Group, called on Chinese leaders to consider allowing the Dalai Lama to return to his homeland, saying: “As a friend of China, I would say that some kind of reconciliation must take place between Beijing and the Dalai Lama.” (Report by Steve Lewis, The Courier-Mail, Australia, November 2008).One of the reporters, Cameron Stewart, wrote about the intensified military presence in Lhasa:

“As night falls, hundreds of Chinese troops fan out across this rebellious city, armed with riot shields and assault rifles. They set up sentry posts on street corners and dispatch patrols in groups of six soldiers, three with shields and three with guns. These patrols spend the night walking down the lanes of Lhasa’s Tibetan quarter, looking for any sign of dissent…When the sun rises, the soldiers do not melt away, but are replaced by a new rotation of troops. The military stranglehold on Lhasa by day is maintained with one chilling addition — snipers are installed on rooftops around the city’s most holy site, the Jokhang Temple, ready to train their guns on the hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims praying in Barkhor Square below. The heavy military presence betrays China’s unspoken fear that it is losing, rather than winning, the hearts and minds of local Tibetans, who accuse Beijing of subjugating their culture and religion to preserve national unity.”

The two journalists told ICT that they witnessed a group of monks being bundled into a police van close to the Jokhang Temple, one of the holiest religious sites in Tibet. They were unable to establish the reason for the monks’ detention.

A statement given to the journalists by the TAR Vice Governor appears to confirm other reports that during the time of the Dalai Lama’s envoys’ visit to China, security was stepped up and the atmosphere in Lhasa was even more tense than usual. It could not be confirmed that this was linked to the authorities’ concern about possible reactions to lack of progress in the talks and continued hostility to the Dalai Lama.

A Tibetan source told ICT on November 4: “Today, the situation is tense and the police are arresting monks and any Tibetans who do not have officially issued identification. The police are closing all hotels and inns that let Tibetans stay who do not have ID. People are saying that the negotiation is the breaking point. The military set up new checkpoints and wear new uniforms.”

Chinese officials admitted to the Australians that 55 Tibetans have received prison sentences on various charges related to a March 14 demonstration in Lhasa that spiraled into violence. The prison sentences handed down ranged from three years to life, Xinhua reported on November 4, based on comments made by Pema Tsewang, TAR Vice Chair. Xinhua did not give details of how the sentences were handed down or what sort of trial the prisoners had received, if any. It is not clear whether this total includes the 30 people, including six monks, convicted in April in Lhasa and sentenced to periods ranging from three years to life. (ICT report, First sentences since Tibet protests began: monks to serve life, 20 years. For a full account of the protests and riots in Lhasa and beyond, see ICT report, Tibet at a Turning Point).