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China tightens its grip on Tibetans

Philippe Lopez / AFP - Getty Images, file

Paramilitary police walk the streets of Aba in China's Sichuan province in October.

BEIJING — Just short of four years ago, NBC News tried to cover an outbreak of violence in a Tibetan community in remote western Sichuan Province. 

The drive from the capital Chengdu took thirteen hours, but my colleague and I were turned away just a few dozen miles away from our destination, Aba.  We had run into a lone Chinese police roadblock set up around a bend in the road, blocked from our view by a hill.  A four-hour standoff with local authorities ensued as the police unsuccessfully tried to view—and seize--our videotapes.

Even back then, the challenge of trying to report from a harsh region that was being sealed off by the Chinese government was formidable, and we found ourselves relying on secondhand reports.  Twitter was still in its infancy; its Chinese equivalent Sina Weibo did not even exist. 

But BlackBerries did.  Impressively there was reception on the Tibetan Plateau in Sichuan, enabling us to read a stream of emailed reports from exiled Tibetan groups alleging Han Chinese atrocities being committed against Tibetans inside Aba.  But without being able to enter the area or being able to talk to residents, we could not verify any of the stories.

Fast forward four years later, not much appears to have changed.  Once again, foreign journalists are unable to report in the area, and secondhand reports are the norm.

However, the crackdown taking place across China’s Tibetan communities is not so much just another stage of a cycle that’s repeating itself as it is perhaps growing evidence that March 2008 was a turning point.

A watershed moment
“The region has never recovered from the 2008 repression,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch who monitors the region. 

“That really was a turning point.  We’re still in the aftermath of this very, very severe repression that took place in 2008….  Over the years, [Chinese officials] have shifted from trying to gain the consent of the Tibetan people to basically riding roughshod.”

Following a year of Tibetans--mostly monks and nuns--setting themselves on fire, the western half of Sichuan, once part of the Himalayan kingdom, finds itself ringed with checkpoints. 

Kyodo News via AP

Armed police patrol a Tibetan area in Chengdu, Sichuan province, on Tuesday.

“The Chinese authorities have set up a massive security cordon in an attempt to prevent journalists from entering Tibetan areas in Western Sichuan Province where major unrest – including killings and self-immolations – has been reported,” said the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) in an emailed statement on Thursday.

The cordon, continued the FCCC statement, is “a clear violation of China’s regulations governing foreign reporters, which allow them to travel freely and to interview anyone prepared to be interviewed.”

Foreign camera crews have been harassed and their Chinese colleagues intimidated and threatened.  Attempts to enter the region by car, taxi, or even on foot have been blocked; local authorities have used excuses such as “bad weather” or “dangerous conditions” to keep outsiders from proceeding.

Security is also tight in neighboring Qinghai Province, also once part of the Tibetan kingdom.  Meanwhile, security forces the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) are on high alert, with troops fanning out across the capital Lhasa.  There appears to be as much concern about preventing information about what’s happening inside the Tibetan areas from leaking out as there is about containing any opposition to Beijing.

“We have had pretty consistent reports of the gearing up of security measures that are taken there,” said Bequelin.  “Lhasa is basically a garrison town now.”

A murky future

Reports of the crackdown have been cast against the backdrop of several upcoming events: the Tibetan New Year, the anniversary of the March 10, 2008, protests, and the Chinese Communist Party Congress.  The party congress, which takes place every five years, is an especially sensitive event this time as it will usher in a massive leadership changeover.

But Beijing has also painted itself into a corner.

“The government has no room for compromise, because they insist on this depiction of the reality that is absurd,” said Bequelin.  A reality, he continued, that claims that Tibet is a harmonious place populated by happy Tibetan people grateful for the economic growth Beijing has brought them.

Indeed, state-run media contend the unrest in Tibetan regions is due to a handful of bad foreign elements. 

The Global Times ran an article today that quoted a local Tibetan policeman describing a recent outbreak of violence in Sichuan Province “as a result of a few separatists in and outside of China plotting riots and instigating the mostly non-political Tibetan residents to follow them.”

Like the security forces in the Tibetan areas, this narrative has remained constant, and according to many observers it risks preventing Beijing from understanding the real challenges they face.