AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 14/2008

'Unstable Factors' In Western Provinces, Chinese Authorities Eye Tibetans with Suspicion

China has deployed massive police operations to suppress all protests by Tibetan nomads living in the country’s western provinces. Although speaking to Westerners is extremely risky for Tibetans, SPIEGEL journalists managed to report from the restricted areas.

By and


The small Tibetan restaurant is open late, and the relatively few guests have retreated to a corner. They anxiously observe what is happening out on the street. Blue light flashes through the window as a dozen policemen march by, in tight formation, wearing helmets and riot gear.

Most of the shops nearby have already closed, much earlier than usual. An eerie silence hangs over Tongren, the center of a region that is primarily inhabited by Tibetan nomads in China’s northwestern Qinghai province and officially called an “autonomous” area.

Normally, this town is teeming with tourists. But foreigners have been barred from coming here ever since the Tibetan inhabitants of this vast and remote mountainous region demonstrated over two weeks ago for the Dalai Lama and Tibetan independence. Locals now practically live under a regime of occupation.

The restaurant owner lowers the shutters halfway. Now the guests can speak more freely.

Just walking through the streets at night can be dangerous. “The Chinese police simply grab us and beat us,” says a Tibetan woman.

She keeps her voice down to a whisper; contact with foreigners is dangerous. The Chinese authorities could send her to prison for a wide range of offences, from divulging state secrets to disturbing the socialist order.

A report from Greece flickers on the TV. It shows the lighting of the Olympic flame, but Chinese censors have removed all footage of the protests. A guest switches to a local channel where the authorities are presenting a group of detained Tibetans from the area. They allegedly took part in the recent violent unrest. In two neighboring towns, administrative buildings were set on fire -- acts that the government maintains were carried out on behalf of the “Dalai Lama clique.”

However, the government’s vitriolic attacks on the spiritual leader make no impression on the Tibetans. “We carry the Dalai Lama in our hearts,” says the woman. Her friends nod in agreement. They wear fashionable clothing, not the long traditional garb that is preferred by many locals, and they say they cannot complain about their economic situation. But they want to ensure that their culture is preserved, and they see the Dalai Lama as the symbol of that identity.

It is risky even to talk about the “devil with a human face,” as Beijing calls the reviled Tibetan leader. Posters on the walls warn of discussing “Tibetan affairs.” In the mornings, roughly 200 hundred armed police march through the city, rhythmically uttering fighting shouts. Very few people venture onto the streets.

At that time of the day, many locals walk to Longwu Temple, which towers in front of a yellowish-brown mountainous backdrop, and turn the prayer wheels. Women throw themselves on the ground to pray before the golden Buddha. The holy shrine was renovated with money from Chinese companies, and even the Chinese government has been generous when it comes to sprucing up the region for tourists. Freshly-painted temples shine in all their glory alongside country roads, but these exotic attractions have an artificial quality.

Map: Tibetans in Chinese provinces
DER SPIEGEL

Map: Tibetans in Chinese provinces

Everywhere you look, there is a strange mixture of Chinese progress and Tibetan past. This is exemplified in everyday life by a Tibetan herding family near Tongren. In front of their mud hut stands an oven for sacrificial offerings -- right next to a satellite dish that allows them to receive 40 TV channels.

The head of the family, a woman with a weather-beaten face who looks older than her 54 years, invites us into the single, tiny room. Her adult daughters and son stoke the iron stove with yak dung. Six animals -- the basis of their very existence -- are put out to graze on the mountain slopes. The herders sell the wool and consume the milk and butter themselves.

On an altar near the TV hangs a portrait of Danzeng Jiumeigadan, the living Buddha of Tongren Temple. He is 29 years old; the Communist Party has allowed him to become a holy man. China’s atheistic leaders intend to maintain supremacy even in the religious realm of reincarnation. The arrangement has paid off for the authorities. When the monks recently decided to demonstrate outside the monastery, the party-loyal Buddha reportedly dissuaded them.

But all Tibetans see the Dalai Lama as the greatest living Buddha. The herder points to a poster of Potala Palace in Lhasa: “When the Dalai Lama returns there, we can at last live in peace.” Without a doubt, the Tibetans here are much better off than before, especially in comparison to the Cultural Revolution, says the woman. Back then, Mao’s Red Guards murdered her parents and even young Tibetans took part in the killing, she recalls. For years, she had to hide in the mountains.

But even if Tibetans continue to benefit from economic development in the region, they will never feel like full-fledged citizens. The paradox of their situation is that China’s growing prosperity has further fueled ethnic tensions, not only between Tibetans and Han Chinese, but also with members of the Muslim Hui minority, who are streaming into the region as successful merchants and restaurant proprietors. Clearly, the Tibetan herders can only keep pace with economic growth if they change their lifestyle.

Not many are willing to take this step, and so ethnic differences have flared into open conflict. One of the hotbeds of friction between these groups is Zeku, the home of some of the recently arrested alleged ringleaders. Zeku is an important meeting place for young Tibetan herders who roar down from the highland on their motorcycles, which they saddle with woolen blankets as if they were riding wild horses.

The young nomads usually come to Zeku to make purchases or just hang out together. Wearing long coats, they squat on the roadside -- intrepid souls, ruffled by the steppe winds. They play with their cell phones and chat about this and that. But they only meet in small groups, otherwise the Chinese authorities would intervene immediately.

Zeku is also currently brimming over with heavily armed representatives of the law. Two weeks ago, when the unrest flared up in Tibet, the Tibetans here suddenly started walking up and down the main street for hours on end, silently and peacefully, until paramilitary police arrived on the scene and dispersed the crowd.

A few days before the protest, most of the Muslims left town, says a young Tibetan. Apparently, they had gotten wind of the planned Tibetan demonstrations. “We hate the Muslims,” he says, “They cheat us and sell us poisoned food.”

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© DER SPIEGEL 14/2008
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