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Dispatches from Tibet
FEER[Thursday, July 31, 2008 09:31]
Kathleen McLaughlin
Kathleen McLaughlin
Kathleen McLaughlin has been a journalist in China for more than seven years and has covered regional issues including economics, the environment and governmental regulation. Recently she applied for a foreign journalist's permit to visit Tibet and was granted permission to do so. She is one of the first foreign journalists since March 2008 allowed to travel independently to Tibet, although regulations still require hiring a government-approved guide. During her five-day trip, she is sending dispatches from Lhasa for the REVIEW.

By Kathleen McLaughlin

Posted on July 23, 2008

BEIJING -- The golden ticket arrived at my Beijing office on Tuesday in a express-mail envelope with an image of a leaping Liu Xiang, China’s champion hurdler. Inside, handwritten in blue ballpoint ink on a whisper-thin piece of paper was a five-day travel permit for two foreign correspondents to visit Tibet.

When the Chinese government announced June 25 that Tibet would reopen to foreigners, it seemed a natural step to apply for a permit. The region had been sealed off since the March 14 uprising and subsequent crackdown. As yet, news coverage from Tibet has been limited to state-run media and government-organized tours for foreign journalists–one soon after the unrest, another during the Olympic torch relay. A Spanish journalist friend and I had submitted what seemed to be very basic paperwork asking for permission to visit independently. We faxed copies of our passports, press cards and a very roughly sketched itinerary. The Tibetan foreign affairs office asked no questions about what we planned to write.

When we got word last week our permit was likely to be approved, I asked my assistant to make sure the Tibetan foreign affairs office was clear that we are two journalists who will write about our experiences there. I knew of no other foreign journalist approved for independent travel in Tibet since March, so I thought there might have been a mistake.

Came the answer: “It’s fine; they just need to report the truth.”

A simple sentence, but fraught with complications. The truth about Tibet has been perhaps the most hotly debated topic involving China in 2008. Most Westerners see Tibet as a mystical land struggling under the heavy hand of Chinese political and cultural repression; most Chinese see it as an inalienable part of their country—one that has benefited tremendously under Chinese rule.

Chinese discontent over Western media reports on Tibet in March sparked antiforeigner sentiment not seen in the capital in nearly a decade. Major news outlets such as CNN were vilified for cropping photos and other minor transgressions. At least 10 foreign correspondents working in China, several of them among the first organized group to visit the region, had received death threats. Tibet became a focal point of China’s critics during the public relations fiasco that was the global Olympics torch relay and a whole generation of instant-messaging Chinese youth proclaimed their nationalism online.

The reality is this: I have few illusions about discovering the absolute truth in Tibet. During our five days, we will be accompanied by a minder and required to use a government-supplied car and driver. Those limitations are not unlike China’s country-wide reporting restrictions of years past, when foreign correspondents were legally required to register with provincial and local officials when traveling. The rules were lifted as part of China’s promises for free reporting during the Olympics, but never eased in Tibet.

My Spanish colleague and I have discussed our plans for the trip and we agree on our own truth. We want to go to Tibet with open eyes and ears, to see as much as we can, to listen, and try to discover as much as we can about the truth.

Posted on July 24, 2008

A troop of Chinese soldiers drill in downtown Lhasa.
A troop of Chinese soldiers drill in downtown Lhasa.
After only a few hours in Lhasa, one thing is crystal clear: Four months after the riots and subsequent crackdown, controls may be easing somewhat but this remains a very tightly controlled city under intense guard by Chinese military and police.

Uniformed soldiers and police stand watch in pairs and trios at most major intersections throughout the Barkhor district, a ring around the Jokhang Temple – one of the most sacred places in Tibetan Buddhism. As the faithful masses walk praying in a clockwise-turning throng around the temple they barely notice the guards and the police and soldiers pay little attention to the crowd. There is no visible aggression or animosity between the Tibetans and Chinese security forces. Life appears to be slowly getting back to some form of normal.

Chinese tour groups are in evidence, as are a handful of Western tourists. One of the few foreign aid workers who has remained in Lhasa throughout the chaos of 2008 said the city finally is regaining a sense of normalcy, despite the continued police and military presence. Still there is much talk in hushed tones of Chinese repercussions against Tibetans involved in the riots, and the need for extreme caution. In other words, things are calmed but not healed.

On leaving Beijing this morning, I wondered how the lockdown in Lhasa would compare with current conditions in the security-obsessed Chinese capital, where, less than two weeks ahead of the Olympics, SWAT units patrol the highways near the international sporting venues and ever-larger troop brigades march through the streets. Now I can say with some confidence: Security is tighter in Lhasa than Beijing, if based solely on sheer numbers of visible police and soldiers per citizen.

While the police are out in force in Lhasa, we two foreign journalists have been left quite alone. In fact, our biggest headache in getting to Lhasa came at the new Beijing airport. The nervous Air China ticket agent who checked us in for the flight was downright befuddled by the validity dates of our permit to Tibet, and obviously afraid of getting in hot water if he erroneously allowed foreign journalists to fly into what has been this year China’s biggest forbidden zone. After issuing our boarding cards, the agent chased us down at the security line and asked me to sign a blank piece of paper, at the bottom of the page. I couldn’t agree to signing a confession or apology I hadn’t read, so he chased us down again 60 minutes later at the boarding gate. This time, he demanded we sign a paper insisting we took responsibility for our own actions (thus meaning he would not bear the brunt should there be trouble). I compromised and gave him a copy of our travel permit.

Arrival at the Lhasa airport was subdued, the only shocking moment being the guard with the semi-automatic weapon manning the doorway of the tiny airport. We were met by our handler, a young Tibetan woman who went to university in Beijing. During the one-hour drive into the city, while taking in the breathtaking scenery and trying to draw deep breaths of the thin air, we heard from our minder that there are this week four or five foreign tour groups in Lhasa. As for foreign journalists? “You’re the only ones,” she said with a laugh.

One would think the arrival of foreign journalists traveling independently in Lhasa would muster some special security notice and handlers. Instead, with little fanfare, we were deposited at out hotel and left to our own devices for the evening. Perhaps we were followed; I looked several times throughout the evening and didn’t notice anyone who seemed to be watching us with anything other than a passing curiosity for foreigners.

How much we get to see and whether people will be willing to speak honestly with us remains unclear. Our requests to visit the Drepung Monastery – once the biggest monk-training school in Tibet – were rejected. The monastery, which critics charge has become a prison camp for monks, remains closed to outsiders. After just a few hours here, I can already tell that the elusive truth I’m looking for will not be easily found.

Posted on July 25, 2008

This should be peak tourist season in Tibet. Instead, only a scattered handful of Chinese tour groups seem to be visiting the Tibetan capital’s most prominent places this week. Western tourists are scarce enough to make heads turn.

And while business is bad, the majority of those few tourists who are coming to Lhasa often strike at the heart of the ethnic tensions that spurred riots in March. A Tibetan business proprietor here said her place is usually full of foreigners this time of year, with tourist season in high gear from May through September. Now, she said, just a few Chinese tour groups visit sporadically and making a living is quite tough.

Asked what she thinks of the Chinese groups, the woman rolled her eyes. “Eh, you know we can’t say anything bad about them or we’ll get put in prison,” she said with a wry laugh.

The Chinese government reopened Tibet to domestic tourists in May, while foreign tourists were held off until late June. Locals say though business is bad, it has picked up slightly in the past two weeks or so. It’s unclear what impact the political trauma of Lhasa’s unrest and the Chinese crackdown has had on the desire of foreign tourists to visit here.

Of several Western tourists we approached at the Potala Palace today, all had purchased their tickets and tour packages last year. For several months this spring, they believed Tibet would be off their itinerary. Travelers in a group of about 15 Americans said they only learned a week before leaving for China that their Tibet-entry permits had been granted after all.

The Potala, probably Lhasa’s most famous destination as the former home of the Dalai Lama, is open to tourists and heavily guarded, as are several other key sites. Several monasteries, however, remain off-limits. As I mentioned yesterday, our minder from the Tibetan foreign affairs offices said there are currently four or five groups of Western tourists in Tibet.

It’s easy to see why the tourist ban and slump is a serious problem for Tibet, and for China. According to the Chinese government’s figures, tourism is a strong and rapidly growing peg of Tibet’s economy, accounting for more than 14% of the region’s gross domestic product in 2007. The Xinhua news agency says money brought into Tibet through tourism increased by some 75% in 2007 from a year earlier. There are no official figures available for tourism thus far this year, but it’s clear from streets full of empty souvenir shops that business is barely hanging on.

Chinese businesses are also hurting. Continued bad business conditions here will weaken the government’s oft-touted economic development of Tibet. So the big question now is when and whether the tourists who helped make Lhasa boom will return. Another Tibetan business person asked me to tell Westerners to come back.

“But tell them it’s not just tourism, tell them to think about the Tibetan people,” he said.

Posted on July 25, 2008

A Tibetan pilgrim prays outside the Jokham Temple while a Chinese tour group rests on the sidewalk.
A Tibetan pilgrim prays outside the Jokham Temple while a Chinese tour group rests on the sidewalk.
As I was strolling near the Jokham Temple in central Lhasa on Friday just after sunset, a young Tibetan man cycled up next to me on his bike.

He greeted me in clear, proper English, asking where I was from and how long I would be in Tibet. My first paranoid thought was of him as a not-too-subtle undercover officer looking for information. My instincts told me otherwise. He somehow seemed too earnest. The young man said he was studying English in Lhasa and was eager to find some foreigners to practice conversation with. When he started studying in the capital, he hoped to use his English with the multitude of foreign tourists who come here each year. Since the troubles of March 14, he smiled, there simply hadn’t been any around to talk with.

He wanted to know, could we trade phone numbers and set up a time to meet and speak English together?

My heart sank a little. When a dozen passing soldiers and two uniformed police eyed us warily, I wanted to run, or to at least warn the young man away. Instead, I smiled and we parted ways. I’m still a little worried he may have been questioned after I left him.

I relate this story only to try to give some idea just how tense and oppressive the atmosphere is these days in Lhasa (and this, I’ve been told, is much freer than it was just a few weeks ago). It is quite clear from words and actions that any Tibetan speaking openly to a foreign journalist would draw unwanted attention and potential trouble from the omnipresent Chinese army and police. Hence, finding, speaking to and protecting potential Tibetan sources during the course of a five-day trip with little time to build trust, and government minders on the watch, is a monumental task.

Whether we are continually monitored or followed, I don't know. I assume so. With police and army patrolling most street corners, white faces have no chance of escaping notice. Inside the famed Potala Palace, for instance, there are an equal number of People’s Liberation Army uniforms and monks’ robes worn.

I’m not at all concerned for my own safety. Instead, I fear even being seen speaking with me will cause problems for Tibetans living already under these so obviously extreme conditions.

Posted on July 26, 2008

Tibetans pray in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa.
Tibetans pray in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa.
On the sidewalk stretching before the Potala Palace, Tibetan pilgrims prostrate themselves before the holy place -- Lhasa’s most famous landmark and the former home of the Dalai Lama. But in between this stretch of mostly elderly Potala worshippers on the sidewalk and the palace proper stands a very unsubtle message, written in Chinese, in five-foot-tall tidy flower arrangements: “Unite the nation to welcome the Olympics.”

The sight of Tibetan Buddhists throwing themselves face-first onto the pavement in prayer is somewhat jarring for an outsider. Watching them drop face down, either unwittingly or obliviously, before a Beijing Olympics slogan is nothing short of bizarre. Yet they are deep in prayer and don’t seem to notice the slogan.

The Olympics message is in full force in Lhasa. Whether it has taken hold is quite another matter. Across from the Potala, in the park that houses a monument to the anniversary of China’s control over Tibet (Chinese call it a liberation; critics say it’s an occupation), a display of larger-than-life sized cutouts of the Olympic mascots wave merrily at the 7th century palace. The flat painted cartoon Fuwa -- the “friendly children” -- dance gaily in a carefully cultivated sea of artificial flowers that stands in stark contrast to the holy place directly opposite.

As I was photographing the oddly placed Lhasa Fuwa, a Chinese man passed by and asked, “Aren’t they beautiful?” The answer to that lies in personal taste, I suppose. Much of Lhasa has been redesigned according to Chinese modern style in the past few years, with wide avenues, tidy parks and row-upon-row of white tile buildings. For me, as well as other foreign tourists, the Tibetan quarter of the city holds most of Lhasa’s charm.

In addition to the Olympics slogans just in front of the Potala and the park Fuwa display, complemented by a set of Olympic rings at the end of the road, Lhasa is, like most other Chinese cities, full of Olympics messages. Red banners hanging above the streets urge citizens to mind their manners and welcome China’s first Olympics, which begin in Beijing on Aug. 8. The green bicycle taxis that abound in the old parts of the city are all covered with stickers proclaiming the Olympics slogan, “One World, One Dream.”

Given the riots and crackdown here in March, that slogan seems particularly ironic. Most of the Tibetans I’ve met are like the pilgrims at the Potala, praying before a call to national Olympic unity. Either they don’t know much about the Olympics, or they just don’t care.

“I really don’t know about the Olympics,” one 20-something man told me. “Maybe I’ll watch some of it on television. I’m not clear.”

Posted on July 27, 2008

A building on Lhasa's Beijing Road burned during the March 14 riots.
A building on Lhasa's Beijing Road burned during the March 14 riots.
We had a rather enlightening dinner Saturday evening with officials from the Tibetan Foreign Affairs Office. These Chinese bureaucrats from Beijing with years of experience working with foreign correspondents are serving what they call a diplomatic mission in Tibet. Our hosts were engaging, open and surprisingly willing to tackle even our toughest questions.

They did not, however, veer even slightly from the Communist Party line that the March 14 riots were instigated by the mysterious “Dalai clique,” a group the government says is led by the Dalai Lama trying to stir up splittist trouble in Tibet. Even though the Dalai Lama himself has denied involvement and rejected calls for Tibetan independence, his “clique” is the root of all tensions in Lhasa, the Chinese government says. Our hosts rather summarily rejected the notions that religion oppression, ethnic tensions between Chinese and Tibetans or economic issues like inflation led citizen rioters to get involved after Buddhist monks began protesting. It was all the doing of the Dalai clique.

At one point, they called in the Tibetan restaurant manager to talk to us. He looked like he’d rather be anywhere else, but still answered a few questions. He said he earns more money that anyone else in the restaurant, including Han Chinese employees. It’s all about education and training, the manager said, underlining a point made a few minutes earlier by one of the Foreign Affairs officers.

Much of our discussion with the Chinese officials revolved around semantics and perceptions, and around the Western media. They believe Western journalists are rarely able to see the Chinese perspective on Tibet, that we come to Tibet with pre-formed notions and often have trouble telling the truth (there’s that truth issue again!). They are sensitive to even minor wording disparities. Though he didn’t say, I believe one of the officers has been reading these diaries, as he said to me: “We say the situation here is stabilizing; you say it’s tense.”

I tried to explain that for anyone coming from outside of Lhasa, seeing military police on most street corners and troops patrolling the city certainly indicates that tension is still afoot. I have noted in my dispatches that residents say life is finally getting back to normal, or stabilizing. But I simply cannot ignore a very obvious undercurrent of tension throughout this entire city.

A handful of foreign journalists (perhaps three small groups, including ours) has been allowed into Tibetan to work independently since the riots. We tried to make the case that the best way to dispel misinformation about Tibet is to allow more journalists to see the situation with their own eyes. The vast majority of foreign journalists are objective, we said, but closing off Tibet indicates there is something to hide. I can’t say whether our hosts agreed. Tibet is now technically open to foreign reporters, as evidenced by the fact that we are here. But I don’t expect to see many permits issued to journalists until after the Olympics, when the Chinese government may relax its strict image controls.

Posted on July 27, 2008

Street stalls selling food staples in Lhasa.
Street stalls selling food staples in Lhasa.
Despite the Chinese government’s assertions that the March 14 riots in Lhasa were masterminded entirely by the Dalai Lama, not the result of economic disparities or ethnic tensions, there is no question Lhasa is fast growing expensive even as wages remain low.

A rough canvas of food markets in Lhasa indicates the price of eggs is up 20% to 25% over last year, while cooking oil is up 15% to 18%. Yak, the local meat, has increased by as much as 35% since 2007, shoppers and hawkers told me. All around Lhasa, prices are beginning to mirror those found in large Chinese cities, even though Lhasa is tiny by Chinese standards. Yak meat in Lhasa now costs more than pork in Beijing. With far higher average wages, these price increases are more easily absorbed in Beijing.

“It’s much more difficult to buy things now,” said a young Tibetan woman shopping with her baby and mother.

The Lhasa inflation pattern is in line with China’s national trend. The country’s inflation rate has risen at record levels in the past year, with consumer prices led mainly by especially steep increases in the cost of food. China’s consumer prices rose 7.9% in the first half of this year, with food prices up more than 20%. Inflation is rising faster in rural areas than urban, hitting hardest those who can least afford it. Official inflation figures for Tibet are not published; anecdotally it seems the problem is worse than in the Chinese capital.

As with so many other sensitive topics in Lhasa, many people are reluctant to openly discuss rising prices. Chinese vendors, who run most of the food markets in the city, are particularly averse to talking about inflation. In other cities like Beijing, I’ve had no trouble getting both customers and sellers to talk about rising food prices -- usually the vendors are middle men who operate on extremely thin margins, so inflation hurts them as much as anyone else. But in Lhasa, inflation seems to be among the more touchy topics. Perhaps that’s because it added fuel to the anger behind the March riots.

A Chinese businesswoman who owns a sporting-goods shop that caters to Chinese and western tourists was frank about the situation. The price of everything has gone up, she said, but with tourism in the tank this year, there’s little hope of maintaining last year’s standard of living. Instead, families have to cut back, buy less and hope the economy picks up soon.

“There’s really nothing we can do,” she said. “We just hope the tourists start to come back.”

Posted on July 28, 2008

The view of Drepung Monastery in the distance from Lhasa.
The view of Drepung Monastery in the distance from Lhasa.
The long dirt road to Drepung Monastery two miles outside downtown Lhasa is heavily guarded and blocked to outsiders by military police who quickly turn away attempts on foot and by taxi to visit.

Drepung, the largest Tibetan monastery and once home to as many as 10,000 monks, is now a reeducation camp for monks involved in the March 14 uprising. China’s state media says an “education work group” is being conducted inside the monastery “to restore religious order.” Up to 1,000 monks are reportedly locked inside, human-rights groups say, being retrained in line with Chinese Communist Party directives. The monastery is one of Lhasa’s taboo topics these days. Questions to locals about Drepung are typically met with a shake of the head and a wave of the hand.

Drepung’s sealing off from the rest of Lhasa (along with that of at least one other important monastery) seems an apt metaphor for the religious chasm that separates the people of Tibet and China. Tibet is, to its roots, a deeply religious society. Modern China assuredly is not. It often seems the biggest problem here is a simple lack of understanding among Chinese that religious faith and principles, to the faithful, are non-negotiable items. Wealth and riches do not erase religious traditions, particularly in a society so deeply rooted in faith as Tibet. This lack of understanding of religion is evident among many Chinese in Lhasa.

The Chinese Communist Party has maintained its legitimacy across mainland China by bettering the economic conditions of its people. Chinese people, so many bound for so long to poverty, now can see a way out even if they’re not yet among wealthy or middle class. Opportunity and prosperity abound. Yet that model doesn’t work so easily in Tibet, a fact that seems to genuinely perplex ordinary Chinese. The central government spends more money per person in Tibet than most other parts of China on new housing, roads, infrastructure and other economic development. Trouble is, that’s not enough to satisfy Tibetans.

While discussing a plan to build new homes for Tibetans, a Chinese woman remarked to me: “They have it so good.”

What’s missing from her assessment illustrates the deep gulf of misunderstanding. While the Chinese government promises religious freedom in Tibet, Tibetans are not allowed to hang photos of their spiritual leader, the current Dalai Lama, or to worship him openly. They are restricted in other ways as well, even as the practice of Tibetan Buddhism may seem freer than that of many other religions in China. For a deeply faithful people, promises of economic prosperity are not always enough.

While economics and ethnic tensions may have added fuel to the fires of March 14, there is no ignoring religious oppression as the initial trigger. The demonstrations, according to eyewitnesses, began with monks in monasteries and temples then spread into the greater population. The Chinese government maintains that Tibetans have religious freedom; Tibetans complain of strict controls on religion, culture and language. It’s apparent from my visit to Lahsa that the situation has grown worse, not better, since March.

The increased police presence in Lhasa is focused more heavily around its holiest sites. Pilgrims making their rounds of the Jokhang Temple each morning and evening pass by throngs of soldiers with each lap. At night, the police presence assumes a more menacing posture as the officers front riot shields and armored vehicles patrol the streets and squares. Police and guards abound in the Potala Palace, the former home of the Dalai Lama. Those in uniform are well-trained and restrained, local say, but their mere presence warns all against stepping out-of-line, and sends a not-so-subtle message that religious practices must not step outside party lines.

Posted on July 29, 2008 - final entry

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Before leaving Lhasa for Beijing on Monday, I walked in the midst of hundreds of Tibetan Buddhists chanting their morning prayers circling the Potala Palace. The faithful flock to the palace from inside the city and from afar, conducting a ritual hundreds of years old. In many ways the circling ritual felt ancient and intact.

Yet it was impossible to overlook the obstacles and the constant hum of tension throughout the city. Police and soldiers standing by, monitoring Lhasa’s holy sites, nervous glances from Tibetans and Chinese alike, and monks a glaringly rare sight in a city filled with temples and monasteries. Around the Potala the pilgrims pay homage to the former home of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. He is in exile, his name and image banned. Tibetan prayer flags mix with the red Chinese five-star flags over Lhasa, but the flag of the Tibetan nation is absent by law. An Olympics slogan calling for national unity stands between the pilgrims and the Potala.

Before I left for Tibet, I spoke with an American who has traveled there a few times working on human rights issues. He told me Tibet to him was like stepping onto an Indian reservation in the United States. After visiting Lhasa four months after the unrest and crackdown, I couldn’t agree more.

As with many other colonizing cultures throughout history, the Chinese government believes deeply in its mission in Tibet. The government officers we met were insistent that China’s large financial investments in the place and its people are well intentioned and long term, meant to improve the lives Tibetans and Chinese. They point to figures showing that Tibet’s economy doubled in size from 2000 to 2005, mainly due to Chinese central government investment.

Assimilation, they said, is the best policy for native Tibetans living in China. I was a taken aback by the use of that word in such a positive tone, since assimilation is known as a cruel and failed policy toward American Indians in the United States -- a policy that destroyed countless traditional languages, cultures and beliefs.

Yet the Chinese in Lhasa still see Tibetan discontent over religious and cultural freedom as ungrateful. The gulf of misunderstanding over religion and culture is not easily bridged with cash, infrastructure or new housing. Those Tibetans who have rejected Chinese aid and development, pushing for stronger religious freedom and economic opportunity, are troublemakers now locked away for re-education.

When the sun goes down in Lhasa, the tensions increase as riot shields and armored cars come out. Although tourists have started to trickle back in since Tibet was reopened, most hotel rooms remain vacant and shopkeepers struggle for business. The road to recovery, both emotionally and economically, appears long and highly uncertain. Any seeds of Tibetan rebellion have been crushed for some time to come.

I came to Tibet looking for the truth, knowing it would be a difficult thing to find. Most people are afraid to talk about much of anything and even the lightest topics are political. The truth in Lhasa four months after the unrest is buried deep, hidden beneath many layers of fear and nearly impossible to unearth.
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