Right Time, Right Place, Wrong Reporter?

(Richard Spencer's blog)  Battle over Tibetan truths in China.  March 17, 2008.

King of the journalists at the moment is James Miles of The Economist - right reporter, right place, wrong news organisation, given that its weekly magazine's first report of what has been happening since Friday won't be out till next Friday, and their journalist is the only western journalist in Lhasa itself. But even he is limited in what he can see.

(The Economist)  Fire on the roof of the world.  March 14, 2008.

THE Chinese authorities had been fearing trouble, but nothing on this scale. An orgy of anti-Chinese rioting convulsed the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, on Friday March 14th, leaving security forces uncertain how to respond. For many hours mobs controlled the streets, burning and looting as they pleased.

The approach of Beijing’s Olympic games in August is seen by many of Lhasa’s residents as an opportunity to put their contempt for Chinese rule on display to the outside world. China’s desire to ensure the games are not marred by calls for boycotts is tying its hands as it considers how to respond. 

Your correspondent, the only foreign journalist with official permission to be in Lhasa when the violence erupted, saw crowds hurling chunks of concrete at the numerous small shops run by ethnic Chinese lining the streets of the city’s old Tibetan quarter. They threw them too at those Chinese caught on the streets—a boy on a bicycle, taxis (whose drivers are often Chinese) and even a bus. Most Chinese fled the area as quickly as they could, leaving their shops shuttered.

The mobs, ranging from small groups of youths (some armed with traditional Tibetan swords) to crowds of many dozens, including women and children, rampaged through the narrow alleys of the Tibetan quarter. They battered the shutters of shops, broke in and seized whatever they could, from hunks of meat to gas canisters and clothing. Some goods they carried away—little children could be seen looting a toyshop—but most they heaped in the streets and set alight.

Within a couple of hours, fires were blazing in the streets across much of the city. Some buildings caught fire too. A pall of smoke blanketed Lhasa, obscuring the ancient Potala—the city’s most famous monument, which covers a hillside overlooking the city. It is the traditional winter palace of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, who fled into exile in India after an abortive uprising in 1959. Some of the demonstrators shouted slogans like “long live Tibet” and “long live the Dalai Lama”. One group trampled on a Chinese flag in the middle of a main road.

The rioting seemed primarily an eruption of ethnic hatred. Immigrants have been flocking into Lhasa in recent years from the rest of China and now run many of its shops, small businesses and tourist facilities. Tourism is the mainstay of Lhasa’s economy and has been booming in recent years, not least thanks to Tibet’s first railway link with the rest of China, opened two years ago. The visitors are mainly Chinese.

There is big resentment too over sharp increases in the prices of food and consumer goods from the rest of China. Many residents of Lhasa, suspicious of the new train service, which they felt might encourage immigration, had been comforted by what they say were official statements saying the rail link would help bring prices down. But they have kept on rising, as they have in other parts of the country.

Residents had mixed feelings about the violence. Some celebrated by throwing rolls of lavatory paper over wires across the streets, filling them with streamers intended to resemble traditional Tibet scarves. Others appeared aghast at the violence. As your correspondent spoke to a monk in the backroom of a monastery, a teenage boy rushed in and prostrated himself before him. He was a member of China’s ethnic-Han majority, terrified of the mobs outside. The monk helped him to hide.

The violence was fuelled by rumours of killings, beatings and detention of Buddhist monks by security forces in Lhasa this week. Access to the city’s big three monasteries has been blocked by police since the beginning of the week when hundreds of monks staged protests coinciding with the March 10th anniversary of the 1959 revolt. Dozens of them, residents believe, have been arrested. On Friday morning, rumours spread that monks had been shot dead outside the Jokhang temple, the holiest shrine of Tibetan Buddhism in the heart of the Tibetan quarter. A couple of monks outside another temple were said to have been beaten by police.

A handful of riot police with shields and helmets (but no guns visible) patrolled in front of the Jokhang as the riots continued around them, while others stood in lines at the perimeter of the riot-torn area. But for many hours they made no attempt to intervene. After nightfall, fire engines supported by two armoured personnel carriers, moved down the streets putting out the blazes. But the police carrying automatic rifles atop the armoured vehicles did not attempt to deploy on the streets. The occasional bang was heard, but it was difficult to tell whether it was shooting or explosions in the fires.

During the evening, Lhasa television broadcast over and over again, alternately in Tibetan and Chinese, a government statement accusing the “Dalai Lama clique” of being behind the violence by a “small number” of rioters. It called on city residents to support the authorities’ efforts to restore control.

But ensuring stability in Lhasa in the coming months will be an enormous challenge for China as it prepares for the Olympics. Many residents expect a massive deployment of security forces over the weekend and possibly a reintroduction of martial-law type restrictions, as in 1989 during the last serious outbreak of unrest in the city (some say the latest protests have been the biggest since 1959). But officials in Lhasa had been preparing to host growing numbers of foreign tourists and Olympic visitors this year. A long-term visible deployment of troops would be, to say the least, a big embarrassment for the Communist Party.

(The Times)  'They stopped attacking the boy when I rushed forward'  James Miles.  March 15, 2008.

The violence erupted suddenly and clearly caught the authorities by surprise. Lhasa has not seen any rioting on this scale for 20 years, possibly not for the past 50, although tensions have been high this week because of the anniversary of the 1959 uprising in Tibet and fuelled by the desire of many Lhasa residents who wanted world attention to their plight as the Olympics approach.

It began with an attack on monks near one of Lhasa’s temples. The security forces are reported to have beaten a couple of monks with their fists and this led to a monk retaliating by throwing stones at police and police vehicles. Nearby crowds then joined in, throwing stones at Chinese shops and businesses.

I saw a group of a hundred or so residents breaking up pieces of concrete and throwing them at the windows of Chinese shops as hundreds of on-lookers cheered. There was no sign of any attempt by security personnel during all of this to restore order. For an entire afternoon and into the evening Lhasa was under the control of rioters.

At the outset, the violence was also directed at passers-by who appeared to be ethnic Chinese. I saw one boy on a bicycle and people throwing stones towards him. As a foreigner, like other foreigners in Lhasa, I was treated with respect by the demonstrators. When I rushed forward to stop them attacking the boy, they ceased throwing their stones. 

Several taxis I saw driving past had stones thrown through their windows. And a bus caught in the middle of the crowd had stones thrown at it. A small group of people carried a Chinese flag out into the middle of the street and trampled on it.

Throughout the afternoon groups of people came out from various houses. Sometimes just one or two teenage youths armed with traditional Tibetan knives, sometimes large groups of dozens, attacked Chinese shops, most ethnic Chinese themselves having fled in the early stages of the violence, leaving their shops shuttered but not secure enough to prevent them from being broken into by the mob.

They hauled out everything they could from row after row of Chinese shops. I saw them dragging out clothing , large pieces of meat and gas canisters, all of which they heaped on to the streets and set alight, with occasional explosions as the canisters caught fire.

Within two or three hours, the main Beijing Road that runs through the middle of Lhasa was engulfed in flames with fires every few yards and one or two buildings ablaze.

In one side street I saw two burnt-out cars as well as two fire engines that had been set on fire by the mob.

As a gesture of celebration and defiance, many of the demonstrators took rolls of lavatory paper and threw them up over electricity wires so that many of the side streets were filled with hanging strips of paper, which they intended to resemble traditional Tibetan scarves.

One toyshop had been broken into and was swarming with children who were carrying away the merchandise.

At one point, a monk dragged me into a monastery building to keep me away from the crowds. He took me into a back room where, as we were talking, a teenage boy rushed up and prostrated himself before the monk. The monk asked him whether he was a Tibetan or a Han Chinese. 

The boy said that he was a Han and begged for protection, which the lama offered in the warren of rooms of the building.

After nightfall, the crowds melted away with groups still huddled in doorways watching the fires ablaze, and the columns of smoke furling across the city and disappearing over the distant Potala Palace.

Late in the evening, two or three fire engines moved down Beijing Road accompanied by a few armoured personnel carriers.

I walked past these and saw the police quietly sitting on top of them with their automatic rifles and helmets, but even when this well protected they did not deploy on the street at this stage. 

The authorities’ main concern in the evening was to stop the fires from engulfing the narrow alleyways of the old Tibetan quarter. As they put out the fires, Tibetans watched but did not attempt to stop them. Neither did the occasional police vehicle venturing up and down Beijing Road attempt to stop any of the Tibetans walking past. It seemed as the night wore on that the authorities were still waiting for a political decision to be made as to how to handle the unrest.

I saw lines of riot police in two places at the perimeter of the riot-torn area and I saw riot police walking in front of the Jokhang temple alongside one of their vehicles with helmets and riot shields, but not firearms. Beyond these limited displays of strength, the authorities watched and waited and allowed the riots to take their course.

One Chinese trader told me as she sat terrified above her shop that she had lost 200,000 yuan (£14,000) of bicycles after doing business in Lhasa for only a few weeks.

As I spoke to her in Mandarin, she begged me to keep my voice down lest the sound of the Chinese dialect excite the people outside. And we spoke in darkness in case they recognised that Chinese traders were still in the building.

The violence was fuelled by rumour. There was rumour of killings of monks and ordinary Tibetans by security forces during the day – including reports, unconfirmed, that a handful had been shot dead in front of the Jokhang Temple itself.

I saw no evidence of deaths, but many people to whom I spoke were convinced that not only Tibetans had died, but that a number of ethnic Chinese had also been killed by the mob. 

(The Times)  Fears of another Tiananmen as Tibet explodes in hatred.  James Miles and Michael Sheridan.  March 16, 2008.

VENGEFUL rioters returned to the streets of the old Tibetan quarter of Lhasa yesterday, defying the gunshots and tear gas of Chinese troops surrounding the centre of the city. They broke into the few remaining shops untouched by a rampage of destruction on Friday and tore them apart, wrecking interiors and flinging debris into narrow alleys.

The main Tibetan exile group in India put the death toll in Tibet’s worst outburst of popular violence in two decades at 30 confirmed and more than 100 unconfirmed. China said 10 people, “all of them innocent civilians”, had been burnt to death in the mayhem.

It was impossible to verify the contending claims at first hand in Lhasa. While gunfire was heard, no bodies could be seen on the streets within the Chinese troop cordon.

The rioters appeared impervious to increasingly shrill calls for order issued by the Tibet autonomous regional government, which set a deadline of midnight on Monday for them to surrender. 

By yesterday afternoon, China still had not regained control of the centre of Lhasa and as world attention focused on its reaction to the uprising, its leaders, gathered for a self-congratulatory meeting in Beijing, faced the “Tiananmen dilemma” – whether to use overwhelming force.

China is conscious that with the 2008 Olympics just five months away it could face a new public relations disaster on a par with the Tiananmen Square massacre, in which hundreds died when the party sent in tanks to crush pro-democracy protests in 1989.

Lhasa awoke yesterday to the hush of dawn, when Tibetans came out to walk around and gaze at the heaps of debris in the streets. The contents of ransacked shops spilled out, smouldering and reeking of fire.

The whole Tibetan quarter of the hallowed mountain capital appeared stunned after what had been an orgy of wrecking and looting.

The violence was undoubtedly racial. Its prime targets were the Chinese merchants who have flocked to Tibet by road and on a prestigious new train across the roof of the world.

The mobs were the losers of Lhasa – the poor who seethe with resentment, outwitted commercially by Chinese traders, out-gunned by the Chinese army and, many fear, ultimately to be outnumbered by Chinese migrants.

The demonstrations had started as peaceful marches by Tibet’s revered Buddhist monks. They came out of their monasteries last week to observe the 49th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile.

A predictable and harsh response by the Chinese set off more protests by monks, then ignited popular rage among the ordinary inhabitants of Lhasa.

Their explosion of hatred, when it came, was sudden and shockingly intense. Fire engines were attacked. Any Chinese army vehicles were stoned. Cars were ambushed, victims dragged off bicycles and beaten.

Yet for all China’s claims of a political conspiracy, there was no evidence of organisation on the streets. Only a handful of rioters produced flags or pictures of the Dalai Lama. A few yelled “Long live Tibet!” For most, it was merely a moment of intoxicating, sweet revenge.

From late on Friday to Saturday afternoon there was almost a sense of liberation and joy among Tibetans that they had been able to vent frustrations pent up for so many years.

But the Chinese were steadily pouring troops and armoured personnel carriers into Lhasa, building up a posture that indicated a readiness to strike.

Late yesterday the troops on the streets exchanged their batons for assault rifles. They began to stage charges into the warren of grimy houses and shops around the temples, chasing the stone-throwers and firing shots at people looking on from rooftops.

Sporadic skirmishes broke out across the city as the day wore on, surreal contrasts between pockets of violence and areas of timeless calm.

A few Chinese picked their way back into the blackened ruins of their shops, bewailing the utter loss of their meagre livelihoods. They were not bothered by Tibetans as they picked over the remains.

One, a member of China’s Muslim Hui minority, sat with his Han Chinese neighbour in mutual contemplation of their ruin. “We have lost everything,” he said in despair.

The mood in Lhasa as Saturday drew to a close was a mixture of tension, foreboding and, among many Tibetans, sheer disbelief at the speed of events.

Tibetan exiles said at least five Tibetans had been shot dead by the Chinese security forces and forecast mass imprisonment and torture to come.

In London, the Free Tibet campaign said it had reports that between 26 and 33 people had been killed on Friday after a bomb was thrown into crowds massed outside the Drapchi prison in Lhasa to demand the release of all prisoners.

Reports from travellers told of a rippling wave of violence across the vast Tibetan heartland. It extended far into the western provinces of China and there was as yet no reckoning of the cost in lives or property of ethnic conflict in remote towns and monasteries.

Tibetan exiles reported that the authorities had lost control of the town of Xiahe, the site of the influential Labrang monastery in Gansu province in the historic area of “greater Tibet”.

According to the reports, protesters attacked shops and government buildings in Xiahe. Police broke up the demonstrations with batons and tear gas. At one stage the demonstrators numbered 20,000 and had in effect taken over the centre of the town, the exile groups claimed.

True or not, reports of such demoralising scenes will intensify political pressure within the Communist party to put an end to them.

President Hu Jintao’s reputation for strength and resolve among his colleagues derives from his decision as party secretary of Tibet to crush demonstrations in 1988 and 1989 by martial law and severe military action.

Human rights groups say Hu’s policies led to pitiless retribution at the cost of many lives and a slew of well-documented abuses.

The devastation and chaos in Lhasa poses a huge problem for the Chinese government. For a regime that prizes stability above all else, it is the ultimate challenge to legitimacy.

On one level it shatters the carefully fostered illusion that Tibetans are the happy recipients of Chinese money and progress. On another, it has destroyed the reputation for efficiency of the Chinese security forces by exposing their inability to predict an uprising and their failure to protect the Chinese inhabitants of Lhasa.

Recriminations are already rife in China about the apparent breakdown of its much-vaunted intelligence agencies, which are widely if inaccurately believed to monitor every dissident move.

Yesterday China opened the propaganda war at home with resounding declarations by Qiangba Puncog, the chairman of the Tibet local government, that the “plot” to split Tibet from China was doomed.

To win over world opinion, the state news agency Xinhua published what may be its most vivid dispatch in living memory, from two reporters in Lhasa, Lou Chen and Yi Ling.

The Xinhua team described seeing rioters carrying back-packs full of rocks and bottles of inflammable liquid, iron bars, sticks and long knives – “a sure sign that the crowd came fully prepared and meant harm”, they observed.

They told of burning cars, motorcycles and bicycles, of rock-strewn streets where smoke hung in the air and of the impressive restraint of the security forces.

“Policemen were ordered not to use force against the attackers,” they reported, the officers limiting themselves to tear gas and warning shots “to disperse the desperate crowds” who spared neither women nor children.

No Xinhua story would be complete without a quote from the relevant official, in this case an unnamed functionary of the Tibetan government who obligingly revealed that “the sabotage was organised, premeditated and masterminded by the Dalai Lama”.

The Tibetan spiritual leader has, in fact, appealed for an end to violence. But he has put the onus on China to handle the uprising with restraint and to respond to Tibetan aspirations with a willingness to negotiate.

“For the Chinese government to blame all this on his holiness is baseless and ridiculous,” said Tashi Tsering, representative of the Dalai Lama at the Office of Tibet in London.

Although the actor and Tibet supporter Richard Gere has raised the prospect of a boycott of the Olympics, Tsering said the Dalai Lama did not support one.

“If they are able to resolve the Tibetan issue before the Olympics this would be the best present to the Chinese people and the world,” he said.

But the Chinese politburo’s concept of what constitutes a resolution of the issue could turn out to look very different in the next 48 hours. 

(The Times)  Midnight ultimatum for Tibet showdown.  James Miles.  March 17, 2008.

Last night I gazed out over a deserted city. After two days of deadly riots and arson attacks, the people of Lhasa hunkered down before a midnight deadline and a feared military crackdown.

Rubble and burnt-out vehicles littered the streets, but few people dared to set foot in the narrow and winding alleyways, fearful of turning a blind corner and running into an army patrol. Only the occasional gunshot rang out over the city, the whoops and cheers of the rioters silenced. Amid claims that many people have been killed in the most dramatic backlash against Chinese rule for almost 20 years, a showdown looms tonight. The rioters must turn themselves in by midnight or face the consequences.

Things began to look different, and much more frightening, late on Saturday. The troops armed with batons who were ringing the old Tibetan quarter began to carry rifles instead. Tibetans whom I had seen tossing stones at the troops earlier in the day (and getting tear-gassed in return; the gas stung my eyes as it wafted over the hotel) began to hold well back. One soldier turned his rifle on me as I stepped around the corner of an alleyway to get a better look.

By late afternoon the troops, members of the People’s Armed Police, were entering the alleyways themselves, firing the occasional shot. One appeared suddenly on the roof of my hotel where two Americans and a Tibetan crouched in terror. I was told he looked like a teenager, as surprised to see the foreigners as much as they him. He quickly left for another rooftop. 

Fear of the shooting, and of encountering troops in the narrow winding alleys where often one sees no more than a few yards ahead, kept most residents in their homes yesterday. I could see a pall of dark smoke rising from an area where the city’s main mosque is located. That area is home to many Hui Muslims, who are as much a target of Tibetan wrath as are the ethnic Han Chinese.

I had seen so many columns of smoke rising from the area around the hotel since Friday that I thought little of it. In the middle of the night I was awakened by a hammering on my door and was summoned to the roof. Residents were gathered on rooftops all round the hotel. Rumour had spread that Huis were preparing a revenge attack. Some had gathered stones to throw down on the Hui if they approached.

They never did. The part of the city near the Jokhang Temple, the holiest of Tibetan holy sites, was completely silent yesterday, apart from the odd gunshot. There were no pilgrims heading to the Jokhang, no shoppers and certainly no tourists: many hotels have been refusing to let them out except to go to the airport.

From our hotel rooftop, crouching low as is now the norm, I saw a patrol of troops disappearing around a corner. They appeared to have two Tibetan women with them. Under arrest? Escorting them home? It was impossible to tell. For the first time since the rioting began on Friday there was no sign during the day of any attempt to gather on the streets.

One Tibetan said that he saw troops with rifles clustered on a nearby rooftop.

Polite officials from the Tibetan government’s Foreign Affairs Office visited the hotel yesterday. One said he wanted to relay the concerns of his bosses about my welfare. He was concerned too about the supply of food and offered to help if I wanted to leave before my permit expired. It might be difficult, he said, to arrange a ticket because so many were trying to leave Tibet. I thanked him for the offer. The two officials headed back to their car, which they said they had had to leave parked a distance away because of the security cordon.

The worry now is about tonight’s deadline. Will this be followed by knocks on doors and sweeping, indiscriminate arrests? Many Tibetans keep pictures of the Dalai Lama in their homes. I imagine now that they are busy secreting them. 

(The Economist)  Lhasa under siege.  March 17, 2008.

UNDER the gaze of troops armed with automatic rifles, bayonets and batons, residents of Lhasa’s old Tibetan quarter are now being allowed outdoors after many hours of cowering in their homes. Burnt-out buildings, smashed shop-fronts and piles of looted property are ubiquitous reminders of an orgy of anti-Chinese rioting. Lhasa is back under control, but with a heavy hand.

Security is particularly intense in the Tibetan quarter itself. Helmeted riot police are posted every few metres along its narrow, winding alleyways. Residents are subjected to identity checks as they walk around. In the heart of the district, in front of the Jokhang temple, which is Tibet’s holiest shrine, two armoured personnel carriers are parked. On the front of one big red Chinese characters read: “Stability is Happiness”. On the other it says “Separatism is Disastrous.” 

The road around the temple, normally packed with pilgrims spinning their prayer wheels and murmuring prayers, is now nearly empty. At one point those trying to walk around it—an act of piety—were required to walk through a column of gun and baton-toting troops, one by one, and present their identity cards. Your correspondent saw several turned away—usually, it appeared, pilgrims from out of town—before the circuit was blocked to all. The pious had no choice but to turn back, retracing their steps around the temple in an anti-clockwise direction (to Tibetans unholy).

Beyond the Tibetan quarter, it is now possible to survey the full extent of the damage caused by the rioting of Friday and Saturday. It extends well into areas of the city where ethnic Han Chinese form the majority. Your correspondent saw a Bank of China branch with its windows smashed, the guardroom of the Tibet Daily, the Communist Party’s main mouthpiece in the region, similarly damaged, a multi-storey internet café gutted by fire, and shop after Chinese-owned shop burned or destroyed. The scale of the unrest was probably the biggest the city had seen since the Tibetan uprising of 1959 which prompted the Dalai Lama to flee into exile.

The troop presence in Lhasa is similarly extensive. Some are members of the People’s Armed Police, an anti-riot force. Some could be regular soldiers. China wants to give the impression that the unrest is being handled by the police. But the licence plates of some military-looking vehicles are covered or missing (army and police licence plates are readily distinguishable). They are patrolling along streets, stopping cars and pedestrians to check papers and sealing off some areas to all but residents. There must be hundreds if not thousands deployed.

Access to monasteries on the edge of Lhasa, where the unrest first began on Monday March 10th, remains blocked by police. Your correspondent was stopped several hundred metres away from the entrance to one of them, Sera, and was taken to a police station for brief questioning and inspection of documents before being released. Troops stopped him and deleted his photographs (foreigners, he said, were not allowed to take them). Government officials visited your correspondent at his hotel and advised him not to go out “for the sake of security”.

Some Han Chinese in the city remain nervous. A Han taxi driver (Hans, rather than Tibetans, dominate the taxi business) was reluctant to drive close to the Tibetan quarter despite the intense security. A Han shopkeeper more than a kilometre away from the Tibetan-dominated area said he would remain in Lhasa, his home for the past 20 years, but many other Hans would leave. A Han acquaintance, he said, had been knifed to death during the riots. An exodus of Hans—and a drying up of tourism from other parts of China—would deal a body blow to the city’s economy.

The authorities have set a deadline of midnight on Monday local time for rioters to hand themselves over (if they do so by then apparently they can expect more lenient treatment). This has aroused fears among Tibetans of widespread and indiscriminate arrests in the days to come. Some Tibetans say house-to-house searches and arrests have already started.

But the authorities are trying their best to give the outside world an impression of normality. Unlike their response to a big outbreak of anti-Chinese unrest in 1989, this time they have not declared martial law, nor even announced any curfew or measures to expel foreigners (some are being told by their Chinese travel agencies to leave, however). Your correspondent, the only foreign journalist with official permission to be in Lhasa (which was applied for and granted well before the unrest erupted) is still allowed to remain. But in practice the city’s daily life is being controlled by troops (from elsewhere in China), foreign journalists are being barred from entering and the most repressive measures in 20 years are in force.

Pictures from Lhasa

(The Economist)  Trashing the Beijing Road.  March 19, 2008.

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 crackdown

Han 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 flame

The 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 happier

The 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 role

Chinese 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.

(CNN)  Transcript: James Miles interview on Tibet.  March 20, 2008.

James Miles, of The Economist, has just returned from Lhasa, Tibet. The following is a transcript of an interview he gave to CNN.

Q. How easy was it for you to see what you wanted to see?

A. Well remarkably so, given that the authorities are normally extremely sensitive about the presence of foreign journalists when this kind of incident occurs. I was expecting all along that they were going to call me up and tell me to leave Lhasa immediately. I think what restrained them from doing that, one very important factor in this, was the thoughts of the Olympic Games that are going to be staged in Beijing in August. And they have been going out of their way to convince the rest of the world that China is opening up in advance of this. I think they probably didn't want me there but they knew that I was there with official permission, and one thing they've been trying to get across over the last few months is that journalists based in Beijing can now get around the country more freely than they could before. Of course Tibet is a special example. I've been a journalist in China now for 15 years altogether. This is the first time that I've ever got official approval to go to Tibet. And it's remarkable I think that they decided to let me stay there and probably they felt that it was a bit of a gamble. But as the protests went on I think they also probably felt that having me there would help to get across the scale of the ethnically-targeted violence that the Chinese themselves have also been trying to highlight.

Q. What you say you saw corroborates the official version. What exactly did you see?

A. What I saw was calculated targeted violence against an ethnic group, or I should say two ethnic groups, primarily ethnic Han Chinese living in Lhasa, but also members of the Muslim Hui minority in Lhasa. And the Huis in Lhasa control much of the meat industry in the city. Those two groups were singled out by ethnic Tibetans. They marked those businesses that they knew to be Tibetan owned with white traditional scarves. Those businesses were left intact. Almost every single other across a wide swathe of the city, not only in the old Tibetan quarter, but also beyond it in areas dominated by the ethnic Han Chinese. Almost every other business was either burned, looted, destroyed, smashed into, the property therein hauled out into the streets, piled up, burned. It was an extraordinary outpouring of ethnic violence of a most unpleasant nature to watch, which surprised some Tibetans watching it. So they themselves were taken aback at the extent of what they saw. And it was not just targeted against property either. Of course many ethnic Han Chinese and Huis fled as soon as this broke out. But those who were caught in the early stages of it were themselves targeted. Stones thrown at them. At one point, I saw them throwing stones at a boy of maybe around 10 years old perhaps cycling along the street. I in fact walked out in front of them and said stop. It was a remarkable explosion of simmering ethnic grievances in the city.

Q. Did you see other weapons?

A. I saw them carrying traditional Tibetan swords, I didn't actually see them getting them out and intimidating people with them. But clearly the purpose of carrying them was to scare people. And speaking later to ethnic Han Chinese, that was one point that they frequently drew attention to. That these people were armed and very intimidating.

Q. There was an official response to this. In some reporting, info coming from Tibetan exiles, there was keenness to report it as Tiananmen.

A. Well the Chinese response to this was very interesting. Because you would expect at the first sings of any unrest in Lhasa, which is a city on a knife-edge at the best of times. That the response would be immediate and decisive. That they would cordon off whatever section of the city involved, that they would grab the people involved in the unrest. In fact what we saw, and I was watching it at the earliest stages, was complete inaction on the part of the authorities. It seemed as if they were paralyzed by indecision over how to handle this. The rioting rapidly spread from Beijing Road, this main central thoroughfare of Lhasa, into the narrow alleyways of the old Tibetan quarter. But I didn't see any attempt in those early hours by the authorities to intervene. And I suspect again the Olympics were a factor there. That they were very worried that if they did move in decisively at that early stage of the unrest that bloodshed would ensue in their efforts to control it. And what they did instead was let the rioting run its course and it didn't really finish as far as I saw until the middle of the day on the following day on the Saturday, March the 15th. So in effect what they did was sacrifice the livelihoods of many, many ethnic Han Chinese in the city for the sake of letting the rioters vent their anger. And then being able to move in gradually with troops with rifles that they occasionally let off with single shots, apparently warning shots, in order to scare everybody back into their homes and put an end to this.

Q. Would be false to suggest there was heavy-handed security approach?

A. Well this was covering a vast area of the city and I was the only foreign journalist, at least accredited, to ... who was there to witness this. It was impossible to get a total picture. I did hear persistent rumors while I was there during this rioting of isolated clashes between the security forces and rioters. And rumors of occasional bloodshed involved in that. But I can do no more really on the basis of what I saw then say there was a probability that some ethnic Chinese were killed in this violence, and also a probability that some Tibetans, Tibetan rioters themselves were killed by members of the security forces. But it's impossible to get the kind of numbers or real first hand evidences necessary to back that up.

Q. Form any sense of where it would go from here?

A. Well I think they now have a huge problem on their hands. When I left Lhasa yesterday the city was still in a state of effectively Martial Law. They've been bending over backwards this time not to declare martial law as they did in 1989 after the last major outbreak of anti-Chinese unrest in Lhasa. This time they have not used that term and yet the conditions now in Lhasa are pretty much the same as they were in 1989 under martial law. Officials say there are no soldiers, no members of the People's Liberation Army involved in this security operation. And yet I saw numerous, many military vehicles, military looking vehicles with telltale license plates covered up or removed. And also many troops there whose uniforms were distinctly lacking in the usual insignia of either the police or the riot police. So my very, very strong suspicion is that the army is out there and is in control in Lhasa. And removing that security given the way Tibetans are now focusing on the Olympics as a window of opportunity, removing that security now I think would be something they would be very, very cautious about. And yet there are enormous pressures on them to do so. Coming up to the Olympic torch carrying ceremony in Lhasa in June. That is one obvious event they will want the world to see and they will want the world to see that Lhasa is normal. But I think getting to that stage will be enormously tricky given the depth of feeling in Lhasa itself among Tibetans.

Q. Did you actually see clashes between security forces and Tibetan protesters?

A. Well what I saw and at this stage, the situation around my hotel which was right in the middle of the old Tibetan quarter, was very tense indeed and quite dangerous so it was difficult for me to freely walk around the streets. But what I saw was small groups of Tibetans, and this was on the second day of the protests, throwing stones towards what I assumed to be, and they were slightly out of vision, members of the security forces. I would hear and indeed smell occasional volleys of Tear gas fired back. There clearly was a small scale clash going on between Tibetans and the security forces. But on the second day things had calmed down generally compared with the huge rioting that was going on...on the Friday. And the authorities were responding to these occasional clashes with Tibetans not by moving forward rapidly with either riot police and truncheons and shields, or indeed troops with rifles. But for a long time, just with occasional, with the very occasional round of tear gas, which would send and I could see this, people scattering back into these very, very, narrow and winding alleyways. What I did not hear was repeated bursts of machine gun fire, I didn't have that same sense of an all out onslaught of massive firepower that I sensed here in Beijing when I was covering the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests in June, 1989. This was a very different kind of operation, a more calculated one, and I think the effort of the authorities this time was to let people let off steam before establishing a very strong presence with troops, with guns, every few yards, all across the Tibetan quarter. It was only when they felt safe I think that there would not be massive bloodshed, that they actually moved in with that decisive force.

Q. At time you left, were Han Chinese moving freely back?

A. There were some on the Saturday morning. On the second day we came back to the shops and I saw them picking through the wreckage, tears in their eyes. They were astonished, as I was, at the lack of any security presence on the previous day. It was only during the night at the end of the first day that this cordon was established around the old Tibetan quarter. But even within it, for several hours afterwards, people were still free to continue looting and setting fires, and the authorities were still standing back. And it was only as things fizzled out towards the middle of the second day that as I say they moved in in great numbers. Ethnic Chinese in Lhasa are now very worried people. Some who had been there for many, many years expressed to me their utter astonishment that this had happened. They had no sense of great ethnic tension being a part of life in Lhasa. Now numerous Hans that I spoke to say that they are so afraid they may leave the city, which may have very damaging consequences for Lhasa's economy, Tibet's economy. Of course one would expect that ethnic Chinese would think twice now about coming into Lhasa for tourism, and that's been a huge part of their economic growth recently. And leaving Lhasa, I was sitting on a plane next to some Chinese businessmen, they say that they would normally come in and out of Lhasa by train. But their fear now is that Tibetans will blow up the railway line. That it is now actually safer to fly out of Tibet than to go by railway. We have no evidence of Terrorist activity by Tibetans, no accusation of that nature so far. But that is a fear that's haunting some ethnic Han Chinese now.

Q. When you were told to leave, what were you told?

A. Well I had an 8-day permit to be in Lhasa. That permit began two days before the rioting, on March 12, and was due to run out on March 19. My official schedule was basically abandoned after a couple days of this. Many of the places on my official itinerary turned out to be hotspots in the middle of this unrest. They left me to my own devices. I was stopped by the police at one point, taken to a police station. They made a few phone calls and then let me go back out on the streets full of troops and police carrying out the security crackdown. They insisted however that when my permit did expire on the 19th that I had to leave. I asked for an extension and they said decisively no.

Q. So you weren't expelled? It just ran out?

A. Well we're in a gray area here. Because in theory China has been opened up to foreign journalists since January 2007, which means no longer, which was the case before, do we have to apply for provincial level government approval every time we leave Beijing for reporting. The official regulations don't mention Tibet. But orally, officials have made it clear that Tibet is an exception to these new Olympic rules and journalists who have made their own way there, unofficially, both before this unrest and during it have been caught or ... and expelled. Or those who have succeeded in making it out without being detected have been criticized by the authorities for doing so. So one could argue that yes I was expelled, if one looks at the regulations they've announced which one could interpret as meaning we have the freedom to be where we like. But in their interpretation, Tibet is an exception and in their view they were being rather liberal towards me by letting run to the end of my official permit.

Q. Is Dalai behind this?

A. Well we didn't see any evidence of any organized activity, at least there was nothing in what I sensed and saw during those couple of days of unrest in Lhasa, there was anything organized behind it. And I've seen organized unrest in China. The Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 involved numerous organizations spontaneously formed by people in Beijing to oppose, or to call for more reform and demand democracy. We didn't see that in Lhasa. There were no organizations there that ... certainly none that labeled themselves as such. These accusations against what they call the Dalai Lama clique, are ritual parts of the political rhetoric in Tibet. There is a constant background rhetoric directed at the Dalai Lama and his supporters in India. So it is not at all surprising that they would repeat that particular accusation in this case. But they haven't come across, haven't produced any evidence of this whatsoever. And I think it's more likely that what we saw was yes inspired by a general desire of Tibetans both inside Tibet and among the Dalai Lama's followers, to take advantage of this Olympic year. But also inspired simply by all these festering grievances on the ground in Lhasa.

(The China Beat)  James Miles on Media Coverage of Tibet.  March 29, 2008.

James Miles of The Economist was in Tibet when the riots and protests started on March 14. China’s strict limitations on foreign journalists entering Tibet in the following days made Miles one of the few journalists who saw the riots firsthand. With all the attention being now paid to how the international media are covering the events in Tibet, we thought it would be interesting to find out how Miles felt about the questions he got upon returning from the field. Here's how he answered us via email.

China Beat: Is there any question that you've been asked a lot since returning to Beijing that you think is off the mark or plays into simplistic or misleading thinking about a complex issue?

James Miles: No. The question I get asked most is what happened, and then why. What happened in Lhasa from midday on the 14th to late on the 15th did not fit the normal pattern of unrest in Tibet. It was not monk-led, it displayed little explicitly-stated political purpose, and it was violent. Reporters who interviewed me during the unrest and afterwards seemed to readily understand this. If I were a media studies specialist I'd have a very good look at this case. The foreign media were almost entirely absent from Lhasa (a couple may have sneaked in under cover after the riots broke out but would have had limited access). Yet I have seen some very good reporting on what happened, notwithstanding the Chinese media's nitpicking. Reporting in the official press, by contrast, while reasonably on the mark as far as the violence goes, has been highly misleading by failing to look at the bigger picture of unrest in Tibet and beyond, by not asking what might have caused this anger and by portraying this as the actions of a handful of people organised by the Dalai Lama's "clique." It wasn't a handful, and I saw no evidence to suggest anything other than spontaneity.

China Beat: Is there any question you wish you were asked? Maybe even are surprised you haven't been asked?

James Miles: Again no. I found those questioning me from foreign news organisations wanted me to explain the story as I saw it. Their questions were often open-ended, putting the onus on me to tell the story as fully as I could. Some of them devoted considerable airtime and print and web space to what I told them. Nobody has asked how I felt being on my own, journalistically, in the middle of this huge story. Journalists hunt in packs on big stories, competing with each other but also cooperating with one another. Bouncing ideas off one another helps to sharpen our thinking. Having others there means that some can break away from the main story and look at what is happening on the edges. It is exhilarating being on one's own, but this was not an exclusive of my own creation -- it was the product of an environment where newsgathering is restricted.

(Chen Lin's blog, Phoenix TV)  March 19, 2008.

We could not stay hungry and we kept looking until we found a restaurant opened for business.  It was a large restaurant with more than two dozen service workers and cooks.  But we were the only two customers.

When we returned to the hotel, we saw a foreigner.  I remembered that none of the foreigners that I saw today and yesterday agreed to be interviewed.  I raced up to this one, but I found out that he was also a reporter.  The difference was that he received permission from the Lhasa Foreign Relations Department to enter Tibet to gather news on March 10.  He was due to leave the next day.

He was pleasantly surprised that the authorities permitted him to stay during this period to gather news.  On the afternoon of March 14, he was scheduled to interview the vice-chairman of the Tibetan Autonomous Rule Region.  After the news came that there was a disturbance, the Foreign Relations Department agreed with his request to cancel the scheduled meeting and he rushed over to the scene.  He said that the rioters perpetrated violence right in front of him, although it was not as bad as in other areas.  The mobsters used rocks to throw at bicyclists and that was already scary enough.  

He was glad that he was a foreigner whom the rioters took to be on their side.  They even smiled at him and then continued to wrought violence.  He firmly believed that this was a racial conflict.  When I told him that Tibetans had been injured and even burned to death, he looked lost and said, "WHY?"

Yes, I also wanted to know.  WHY?

(CCHere)  The Perfect Mainstream Media Work: Lhasa Under Siege.  March 18, 2008.  (Note: A Chinese blogger does a close reading of James Miles' March 17 essay)

Lhasa Under Siege

Under the gaze of troops armed with automatic rifles, bayonets and batons, residents of Lhasa’s old Tibetan quarter are now being allowed outdoors after many hours of cowering in their homes. Burnt-out buildings, smashed shop-fronts and piles of looted property are ubiquitous reminders of an orgy of anti-Chinese rioting. Lhasa is back under control, but with a heavy hand.


- The use of the word "siege" has a powerful impact.  "Siege" was used to describe Troy as well as Stalingrad.  It invokes the association with the isolation and helplessness of the Tibetans and the barbarity and cruelty of the Commies.

- The photograph was deployed neatly.  It was obviously taken surreptitiously, thus reminding us of the media control exercised by the Commies.  However, our brave correspondent took huge risks to take this historic photo.  We also note the densely packed Commies afar who communicate a sense of oppression.  Nearer to the camera was an area of rubble that reflected the desolation after the riot.  This was an example of the awesome power of the wordless description via realism.

Under the gaze of troops armed with automatic rifles, bayonets and batons, residents of Lhasa’s old Tibetan quarter are now being allowed outdoors after many hours of cowering in their homes. 

- In the first paragraph of the text, the writer first describes how the Commies are armed to the teeth: automatic rifles, bayonets and batons.  They were armed with automatic rifles, not just any plain old rifles.  The advantage of an automatic rifle is that there is no need to take aim -- it is only necessary to point it in the general direction, press the trigger and spray target with an array of bullets.  The bayonet is the standard equipment with the automatic rifle while the baton is anti-riot equipment.  The troops are also said to be "armed" instead of "equipped," but then the alternate verb would lose that flavor of violence.

- Next the writer describes how the residents of the old Tibetan quarter are now coming outside of their homes.  There are four points to note:

1. The verb "cower" is used.  According to the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, "cower" means "to crouch, as in fear or shame."  What is "crouch"?  Remember <Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon>?  This verb is used here to show the terror felt by the Tibetans, like the Palestinians seeking shelter under an Israeli air raid.  In my opinion, this verb was used inappropriately because the reporter did not personally see the people cowering.  But the ordinary reader would not notice this flaw after reading the detailed description of the Communist troops before that set up the atmosphere.

2. The writer placed an emphasis on the Lhasa's old Tibetan quarter.  Everything here is factually true, but through the omission of any mention of the residents of the other quarters, this leaves the impression that the action was directed solely at the Tibetans.  While everything here is true, selective facts are used to concentrate the reader's attention on one point to create a false impression.

3. The writer mentioned "many hours" to emphasize that the Tibetans had to endure a great deal of inconvenience.  This evokes the image to the reader of needing urgently to urinate but not being able to find a restroom.

4. The writer said that the Tibetans did not even have the basic right to leave their homes, because they need the Commies to "allow" them to do so first.  This is truly tragic.

Having reached this point, we can go back and look at the opening phrase: "Under the gaze of troops ..."  The "gaze" now takes on a deeper significance now.

Burnt-out buildings, smashed shop-fronts and piles of looted property are ubiquitous reminders of an orgy of anti-Chinese rioting. 

The second sentence describes the sadness after the riot.  There were two very powerful words.  The first is "anti-Chinese?" which makes clear the nature of the riot: anti-Chinese.  The reader subconsciously figures that China is China, Tibet is Tibet and these are two countries.  The reader then asks: What are the Tibetans opposing the Chinese?  From the international anti-Chinese propaganda dished out over many years about the lives of Tibetans under the shadows of the bayonets of the Commie troops, the answer is very clear: it must be the brutal oppression by China!

The second word is "orgy."  The dictionary has four interrelated description:
1. wild, drunken or licentious festivity or revelry
2. any actions or proceedings marked by unbridled indulgence of passions: an orgy of killing
3. orgies, (in ancient Greece) esoteric religious rituals, esp in the worship of Demeter or Dionysus, characterized in later times by wild dancing, singing and drinking.
4. (informal) a boisterous, rowdy crowd.

I decided to settle on the second description.  But why did the rioters have such passion?  Were they drinking?  Have they gone crazy?  The mainstream media had said that the lamas were marching peacefully.  The only thing that makes "peaceful" lamas go crazy can only be the catharsis from oppression.

As for the other words, "ubiquitous" means "existing or being everywhere, esp. at the same time; omnipresent."  "Smashed" means destroyed and broken into pieces.

Lhasa is back under control, but with a heavy hand.

In the third sentence, the phrase was not "Lhasa is back to normal."  Instead, it is "Lhasa is back under control."  This means to say that Lhasa is not a free place because it is still under Communist control.

According to the dictionary, "heavy hand" can mean (1) oppressive; harsh or (2) clumsy; graceless.  Clearly, the first meaning applies here.  This means to say: "Lhasa is back under the control of the Commies through their heavy oppression; without the heavy hand, Lhasa would not be under their control."

These three sentences describes concisely the sad lives of the Tibetan people under the brutal oppression of the Commies.  How can anyone with a sense of justice not be angry with the Commies and sympathetic towards the Tibetans?

How might an ordinary Chinese reporter who is unaware of the hidden rules of the mainstream media write about the same facts?  What kind of "very stupid and very naïve" version might be written?  Here is an attempt:

Under the caring gaze of the People's Army, the Lhasa people could finally exit safely after hiding away from the disturbances for many hours.  Burnt-out buildings, smashed shop-fronts and piles of looted property remind us constantly of the insanity of the disturbance.  Finally, normal order has been restored in Lhasa.

The same facts, even the same details, can be used to create completely opposite psychological cues through the choice of language.

(The Economist)   The illusion of calm in Tibet.  July 10, 2008.

VISITORS to Rongwo Monastery, a sprawling 700-year-old complex on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, might notice little untoward. There are no open signs of protest, of the sort that presaged vicious rioting in Tibet in March. But in one shrine a monk chants near a portrait of the Dalai Lama, prominently displayed despite the government’s diatribes against the exiled spiritual leader. And police cars patrol the streets nearby: nervous, say residents, that protests could erupt anew.

Security around Rongwo, as it is known to Tibetans (its Chinese name, like that of the adjacent town, is Longwu), is far less visible than it was a few weeks ago when police surrounded the monastery, raided monks’ quarters and took many away to jail. No police are to be seen inside the hillside monastery. But a monk says some 200 of his colleagues in the 500-strong community have been detained since Rongwo joined the wave of protests that swept the plateau. Many are still in custody, and, says the monk, it is “very tense”. Near Rongwo is a much smaller monastery, which until recently was a popular destination for lovers of Tibetan religious artefacts, production of which creates hundreds of jobs in the area. It is now all but empty of visitors. A monk there says two of his colleagues have been seized by security officials.

As Beijing prepares to host the Olympic games in August, the authorities are trying, unconvincingly, to reassure the world that calm has returned to Tibet and ethnic-Tibetan parts of neighbouring provinces, such as Qinghai, to which Rongwo belongs, and much of which is considered by Tibetans part of their historical territory.

On June 21st the Olympic torch was paraded through the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, without incident but under huge security. Three days later the authorities announced that foreign tourists would be allowed back into Tibet for the first time since rioting erupted in Lhasa on March 14th. But they were supposed to join guided tours and stick to preset routes. On July 1st and 2nd Chinese officials held talks in Beijing with representatives of the Dalai Lama, the second such meeting since the riots. This time the Tibetans were treated to a tour of Olympic facilities in Beijing. But the talks got nowhere. The Dalai Lama’s team agreed to talk again in October but said that “in the absence of a serious and sincere commitment” on the Chinese side, it would “serve no purpose”.

Despite China’s promises of greater openness for the Olympics, foreign journalists still need special permission to visit Tibet. It is usually refused. About 50, none of them from The Economist, were invited to cover the torch parade in Lhasa, but were closely watched. Your correspondent reached Rongwo without hindrance, but was stopped twice at police checkpoints while leaving. Travellers say security is much tighter in Tibetan areas of Sichuan where several demonstrators were shot by security forces in March. In some monasteries police have seized computers and mobile telephones from monks to suppress news of the security operation.

Chinese officials want to win favour in the West by renewing talks with the Dalai Lama’s aides. The Dalai Lama is a moderate: many Tibetans do not share his willingness to accept Chinese sovereignty in return for genuine autonomy. But some Chinese officials see him as the source of their Tibet problem. The Communist Party chief in Tibet, Zhang Qingli, used the torch ceremony to assert that Tibet could “thoroughly smash the separatist plots of the Dalai Lama clique”. Even the usually tongue-tied International Olympic Committee expressed regret at the remark. Some government-controlled websites omitted it in reporting the speech. This could reflect differences over whether to seek a compromise with the Dalai Lama or to try even harder to erase his influence.

Chinese leaders must be relieved by America’s announcement on July 3rd that George Bush will attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Relations with the West, though strained by recent events in Tibet, have not been critically damaged. France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had been the most outspoken of Western leaders in linking the clampdown in Tibet to a possible boycott of the games. But this week, after meeting China’s president, Hu Jintao, at the G8 summit in Japan, he confirmed he would attend. Popular sympathy in the West for the Dalai Lama and Tibet is outweighed by the fear of antagonising China.

The leadership in Beijing, however, must also be asking itself whether the crisis in Tibet could have been avoided. As the dust settles, perhaps temporarily, it has become clearer that the unrest could have been far better handled. The rioting could have been stopped well before it engulfed the city, averting the deaths of the 20 or so ethnic-Han Chinese the government says were killed in fires set by the rioters. And had the unrest been more quickly contained, it might not have spawned sympathy protests across the plateau, even in monasteries such as Rongwo, some 1,200km (750 miles) from the Tibetan capital.

The security forces’ response was highly unusual compared with their usual tactics for dealing with protests in Tibet and elsewhere in China. In 1993 the authorities quelled a riot in central Lhasa using tear-gas and plastic bullets. This time they kept well away from the rioting. Even if troops did shoot at people, it was not part of a concerted effort to stop the unrest.

Your correspondent, who happened to be the only foreign journalist in Lhasa at the time, reported in March that the rioting began to spread along the city’s main thoroughfare, Beijing Road, in the early afternoon, “a short while” after a clash between monks and security officials outside Ramoche temple some 200 metres up a side street. But in fact the eruption of citywide rioting was slower than this suggested. Witnesses speak of the unrest outside Ramoche temple starting before 11.30am, well before your correspondent arrived at Beijing Road around 1.30pm and saw the rioting fan out through the narrow alleys of Lhasa’s old Tibetan quarter.

Until just before then the unrest, including some stone-throwing by Tibetans at police, was confined to a small area. Oddly, however, your correspondent was nearby in a government car at around 12.30pm and saw no sign of beefed-up security. Foreign tourists say three lorryloads of paramilitary troops arrived at around 1.15pm. They crouched behind shields at the junction of Beijing Road and the Ramoche temple side-street. But the troops scattered within a few minutes after being bombarded with stones. Some of them abandoned their shields. Photographs show that several of the security personnel, although carrying shields and wearing helmets, were in civilian clothes. They did not look ready to defend themselves against rioters, let alone to try to stop them.

Why not read the riot act?

There are a number of possible explanations for this half-hearted response to such a big incident. It may have been simple bungling by a security apparatus overstretched by an outbreak of large-scale protests earlier in the week outside big monasteries on the edge of the city. Or perhaps official decision-making was paralysed by differences over what to do, and hindered by the absence of Mr Zhang, the party chief, who was in Beijing at the time.

The slow and cackhanded reaction is puzzling nonetheless. China, after all, faces tens of thousands of protests and riots every year, most swiftly contained. This month in Guizhou province, some 30,000 people protested in Weng’an county at the authorities’ handling of the death of a girl they believed raped and murdered. It turned into an ugly riot. But those involved were soon detained. There was also a purge of the local political leadership, blamed for losing public confidence.

The security forces and political apparatus had long been nervous in Tibet especially. Indeed they had been gearing themselves for just such an outbreak of violence. The government’s public claims that Tibet was stable were disingenuous, as was their dismissal of past unrest as ancient history. A series of anti-Chinese protests from 1987 to 1989 culminated in the imposition of martial law in Lhasa for more than a year.

Since then, officials, not least the hardliner Mr Zhang, who was appointed in 2005, have never let down their guard. In 2006 the security forces, fearing attacks by Tibetan terrorists (not that any are known to be active), staged what the government described as the biggest protection operation in the region’s history. The occasion was the grand opening of Tibet’s first rail link with the rest of China. Official records say this involved a series of exercises for dealing with terrorist and other “sudden incidents” (ie, riots), heightened surveillance of monasteries and the deployment of thousands of paramilitary troops along the railway line. In October last year police and paramilitary officers in Lhasa rehearsed rapid-response measures to cope with possible disturbances during the national-day holiday and the Communist Party’s congress in Beijing.

In 2006 officials responsible for religious and ethnic affairs in Tibet circulated a secret document predicting that the train link could create instability in urban areas. Sure enough, ethnic-Han Chinese, many of them recent migrants hoping to profit from a train-related tourism boom, were the main targets of the violence in Lhasa.

Even if officials had ignored such warnings, the protests at Lhasa’s monasteries on March 10th and 11th were the biggest in the city since 1989 and provided ample warning of bigger trouble ahead. And Tibetan radicals outside China—not including the Dalai Lama, who supports the Beijing games—had made no secret of their plans to use the Olympics to publicise their grievances. On March 13th, the eve of the riots, security in central Lhasa was visibly tighter than normal in the city, which is ringed by military encampments. That day one of the Dalai Lama’s representatives sent a letter to a senior official in Beijing, warning him that unless managed carefully the situation in Tibet might become “difficult for all of us to handle”.

Yet by 1.30pm on March 14th, as the riots began to spread beyond the area near the Ramoche Temple, the security presence had all but disappeared from that part of the city. Once the riots began to spread, officials may have worried that any effort to control them would lead to bloodshed that would damage China’s image in the build-up to the games. But it is also possible that some officials actually wanted the violence to escalate, as a pretext to impose blanket security on the city long before the Olympics. They might have calculated that tensions in Lhasa were likely to present a growing security headache in the run-up to the games, and that foreign scrutiny would become more intense. By refraining from an immediate bloody crackdown they might even gain international kudos for avoiding a Tiananmen-style response. Chinese officials may have been genuinely surprised that, in the event, Western reaction was overwhelmingly negative.

This response was fuelled by a widespread perception outside China, encouraged by reports from Tibetans in exile, that large-scale bloodshed had indeed occurred. But it is still not known whether the security forces shot anyone at all during the unrest of March 14th and 15th in Lhasa. Figures used by Tibetans abroad have fudged the issue. The Dalai Lama himself says more than 200 people have been killed by Chinese security forces since March. But he and his aides have provided scant detail. There is little doubt that several were shot in other parts of the plateau, most notably in Sichuan, where several dozen may have been killed.

In the case of Lhasa the Tibetan government-in-exile has published a list of only 23 Tibetans killed on March 14th and 15th. But it is unable to provide a consistent account of these incidents. In an interview with The Economist in May, the Dalai Lama admitted he was uncertain about how the unrest developed in Lhasa and the details of any shooting by the security forces there: “There is a lot of confusion and contradictory information.”

No photographs have come to light from Lhasa of violence by police or troops on March 14th or 15th, nor of any resulting casualties. Photographs of dead bodies displayed in the streets of Dharamsala, the seat in exile in northern India of the Dalai Lama, are said to be those of Tibetans shot in Sichuan. Yet camera-equipped mobile phones are widely used in Lhasa and internet services remained uninterrupted during the rioting. Georg Blume of Die Zeit, a German newspaper, who arrived in Lhasa on March 15th just after the riots, says he expected to hear residents describe a massacre. But in nearly a week of interviews he was unable to confirm any reports of killings by the security forces.

The relay of the Olympic torch through Lhasa was much curtailed for security reasons—though officials claimed the truncation was somehow related to the devastating earthquake in Sichuan in May. Officials must have been deeply relieved. Their original plans for three days of ceremonies across Tibet would have been a security nightmare—and would have been even worse had there been no crackdown in March. Foreign journalists and tourists as well as a sprinkling of Tibetan exiles would have poured in. Disgruntled Tibetans would have sensed an opportunity.

Whether deliberate or incompetent, the authorities’ failure to stop the rioting at the outset has been a bigger setback for Tibet’s long-term stability and China’s foreign relations than any official is likely to have calculated on March 14th. Chinese officials appeared to condone the xenophobic outcry triggered by Western criticism of the clampdown. The party, after all, prides itself on its nationalist credentials. But the outburst has also shaken party officials. They are ever fearful that they might become the target of their own citizens’ anger. The earthquake helped restrain the nationalist anger. But as Sharon Stone, an American actress, found in May when she suggested that the earthquake could have been karmic retribution for the clampdown in Tibet, it is easily reawakened.

A matter of trust

The Dalai Lama expresses little optimism. He says that because of the unrest the Chinese government might now rally round the view held by some of its officials that “they can’t trust any Tibetans”. It might, he said, step up “demographic aggression” by sending more ethnic-Han Chinese into the region. The Dalai Lama talks of reports that the Chinese have fenced off land and speculates that this might be given to settlers. He even says he had heard a report that 1m of them might come in to Tibet once the Olympic games are over.

Such remarks suggest the enormous gulf between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government and the difficulty he and his aides face in separating truth from rumour. Just as there is scant proof that the “Dalai clique” is actively engaged in fomenting unrest, as Chinese leaders claim, so there is little evidence that China is actively seeking to change the ethnic mix of Tibet. Migrants from elsewhere in China, mainly neighbouring Sichuan, are indeed flocking to the region. But this is part of a nationwide flow of tens of millions of job-seeking migrants into the richer cities of China that has occurred since the 1980s. Tibet’s problem is the pace of this influx. No official figures are published. But it appears to have accelerated rapidly in recent years thanks to a rapid growth in tourism, which has received a big boost from the railway.

Sporadic discussions between Chinese officials and the Dalai Lama's advisers over nearly three decades have achieved nothing. The Dalai Lama's representatives paid three visits to Tibet in the late 1970s and 1980. Chinese officials were embarrassed by emotional displays of public support for them, and curtailed subsequent visits. In 1985 the Dalai Lama's team visited Qinghai and in 2002 Lhasa. Deng Xiaoping, then China's paramount leader, met a representative of the Dalai Lama in 1979. But current animosities make such a high-level meeting hard to imagine today.

Chinese officials will be alarmed that unrest spread as far as Rongwo. Qinghai, home to the biggest Tibetan population outside the “autonomous region”, had long been relatively peaceful and was ruled with a lighter touch than Tibet itself. The practice is frowned upon, but some monasteries there had greater freedom to display the Dalai Lama’s portrait.

Even now, amid a plateau-wide campaign of “patriotic education” in monasteries during which monks in some places are being asked by officials to denounce the Dalai Lama, two portraits of him were on display at Kumbum, a monastery close to Qinghai’s capital, Xining. Yet official tolerance of such infractions in recent years has not appeared to make Qinghai’s Tibetans any more loyal to the party than those in more tightly controlled Tibet.

Curbing official vitriol directed at the Dalai Lama would certainly please Tibetans. But addressing their economic grievances, such as Han domination of Lhasa’s shops and taxi services, would help a lot too. The officials who decided to stand back during Lhasa’s riots may well have gambled—correctly as it turned out—that the violence would be directed mainly at businesses run by Hans and Huis (members of a Muslim minority) rather than at symbols of party power.

The crackdown has been less astute. Officials have depicted the riots as politically inspired, and have ignored the underlying ethnic and economic grievances, which are rekindling pro-independence sentiment. Hardly any political slogans were uttered during the unrest on March 14th. But as the riots started outside the Ramoche temple, a Tibetan writer said she heard that a citizen, startled and delighted by the authorities’ failure to intervene, shouted “Tibet is independent!” Few would dare even to whisper that openly now. But many Tibetans still cherish the dream.