China is showing a smiling face to the world while brutally crushing Tibet - a police state where supporters of the Dalai Lama can be beaten to death. Leonard Doyle reports from Lhasa
"Look here, here is where they shot at His Holiness." The Tibetan monk, pointed to two bullet holes in the ornate brass hinges on the front door of the exiled Dalai Lama's summer palace.
On Chairman Mao's orders, the Chinese People's Liberation Army stormed the place 46 years ago. With bombs and bullets flying, the youthful Dalai Lama disguised himself as a Tibetan soldier, slipped outside and headed over the Himalayas into a life of peripatetic exile. His path was cleared by Mao, who ordered his army "not to obstruct the way".
"The holes are a secret they don't know about," added the monk, pointing in the direction of a cluster of CCTV cameras behind which the Chinese State Security Bureau police were watching and listening.
Hidden from view by the heavy wooden door, the monk pulled out a pair of scapular medals. One contained the banned image of the Dalai Lama, the other the equally seditious photo of the Panchen Lama, the 16-year-old boy who most Tibetans see as second in line to the Dalai Lama. Today he is the world's youngest political prisoner.
"If you see His Holiness," he said, "tell him all Tibetans support him and the Panchen Lama. And tell the world how we hate the black hand of the Chinese."
Then he was gone. Despite carefully financed restoration, the bullet holes remain, silent witnesses to the harsh reality of China's rule over Tibet. Hopes that political freedom would blossom alongside China's new affluence have proven illusory. Dissidents are still clubbed to death, executed or given long prison sentences.
When a European Union delegation visited the notorious prison of Drabchi some years ago, they encountered a demonstration by inmates. A group of Buddhist nuns shouted "Free Tibet" and "Long live the Dalai Lama" instead of the required patriotic songs at a flag-raising ceremony convened by the prison. The police beat the prisoners so severely afterwards that in the words of a survivor, "it looked like an abattoir. They beat us with their belts until their belts broke. Then they used electric batons." After more torture including electric shocks, and sexual humiliation, four nuns died, reportedly after stuffing their mouths with their Buddhist katak scarves.
The four, Choekyi Wangmo and Tashi Lhamo, both aged 24, Dekyi Yangzom, 21, and Khedron Yonten, all died on the same day, more than a month after the demonstrations. Another nun reportedly hanged herself.
Although many Chinese and Tibetans now own mobile phones, three months passed before information about the protests reached the outside world. Prison officers and released prisoners were threatened with severe reprisals if they spoke about it. Today, the Chinese authorities still deny that anything happened.
Despite the obvious need, the European Union cannot even agree to appoint a special rapporteur to investigate human rights abuses in Tibet. Tibet is a place where truth disappears. Recently some of the worst and most obvious aspects of Communist repression have fallen away as China shows a smiling face to the world and gears up to host the next Olympics.
It is starting to win the international respectability it craves. But during a five-day visit to the "Roof of the World" I found ample evidence that, if anything, China's iron grip on Tibet is tightening. China is becoming a consumer paradise, but as the Communist ideology falls away, the Tibetans find themselves confronted by equally blind and aggressive Chinese nationalism. It is a creed that views Tibet's dream of self-rule as a deadly threat to China's integrity.
In reality, with its tiny population of some 2.6 million native Tibetans, Tibet poses no threat to China's one billion people. But the vast Tibetan Plateau, an eighth of China's land mass, is seen by Beijing as a strategic buffer to the West and as a potential El Dorado in terms of unexploited mineral and energy resources.
The propaganda machine relentlessly pumps out the message that the Tibetan people are delighted to be part of the greater Chinese family. It is a sinister but successful policy, so much so that a series of man-in-the-street interviews produces nothing but platitudes in praise of China.
Take Lhobsang Chupel, the director of scripture at Lhasa's famed Sera monastery, a hotbed of pro-Dalai Lama feeling. In the course of a long interview with The Independent, observed by Chinese Communist Party officials, he could not remember anything about the day when 30 monks marched through central Lhasa shouting "Free Tibet" and similar slogans.
Witnesses say the police fired on the monks, and up to 70 monks of the Sera monastery were arrested. Another seven monks disappeared after the protest and it is feared Chinese security officials killed them.
Afterwards, the Chinese authorities instituted "reform through re-education classes" for the monks which included a handbook called What the Masses of Sera Monastery Must Know for the Education Session.
It went on: "To all the monks of Sera monastery: The time has arrived for patriotic education to take place by means of Comprehensive Propaganda Education. The purpose of this education session is to implement the party's policy on religion totally and correctly."
The monks were ordered to attend classes, lectures and tutorials on Tibetan history, opposing splittism, legal knowledge and religious policy. "No one must leave early or make any noise. No one must cause any disruption in the classroom," it warned.
Visibly uncomfortable at being questioned about these events in front of party officials, Monk Lhobsang said: "I never heard of these events, I am a loyal follower of Buddhism, I worship God, study scripture and practise my religious beliefs, that is all."
Most visitors to Tibet these days are newly affluent Chinese, with no independent knowledge of Tibet's unequal struggle with China. They see only the billions of dollars of investment being pumped into modernising the country. They read only official Chinese media - all independent websites and books about Tibet are censored - and they would be astonished to learn how much most Tibetans loathe their Chinese masters.
Out in the wilds of a Tibetan mountainside, I watched local Communist Party officials supervising preparations for an annual nomad horse festival. The nomads gathered under vast and colourful billowing tents as party officials talked of their miserable lives in the days of the Dalai Lama. The nomads sounded grateful and said that economic progress had helped them trade in their ponies for powerful motorbikes.
But away from the party officials, a young nomad said "hello" in perfect English. "This is all a charade for Chinese tourists," she whispered. "Why can we not have our leader the Dalai Lama back among us?"
As some officials wandered over, she clammed up. Then she was gone.
But such forthright voices are hard to come by. And in the West, the movement for a free Tibet, so active in the 1990s, is running out of steam. So are the hopes for Tibetan democracy, enjoying genuine autonomy within China. There is little prospect of the Dalai Lama returning to Tibet. Anyone found supporting the Dalai Lama can expect instant and harsh retribution in the shape of a lengthy spell in jail or worse.
While the world beats a path to China's door seeking profits in its booming economy, the hopes of Tibet's people are being lost in the rush. With all the predictable bad taste of a one-party state, China is rapidly modernising Tibet, building gleaming airports, highways and soon the highest railway in the world. On a tour of the country, Communist Party apparatchiks burst with pride that Tibetans - with all their ancient beliefs in reincarnation, sky burials and strange deities - are being offered the trappings of a modern state. Billions of dollars have been invested to raise the standard of living in Lhasa and elsewhere, and they believe the Tibetans are grateful.
Despite the money gushing into Lhasa and major infrastructure projects across Tibet, a land the same size as Western Europe, there is evidence that ordinary Tibetans are not benefiting. Some 85 per cent live in rural areas or in the Lhasa ghetto, where they are largely excluded from a Chinese-run economic boom.
Britain, perceived to have lost out in the first phase of economic expansion on the Chinese coast, is desperate not to alienate Beijing. As president of the European Union, Britain is showing little enthusiasm for the appointment of a special EU rapporteur on Tibet. And while Beijing spends billions of pounds in its "develop the West" programme, targeting the vast and inhospitable Tibetan plateau along with its untold reserves of unexploited minerals and energy, British businesses are lining up for a piece of the action.
Standing in the way of Beijing's ultimate quest for international respectability (and the West's desire to do business) is the uncertain fate of the missing teenage Panchen Lama and along with him the flickering hopes of millions of Tibetans for true autonomy.
Ten years ago, shortly after the Dalai Lama named the six-year-old Choekyi Nyima as the reincarnate 11th Panchen Lama, both the boy and his parents were locked up by the Chinese. Nothing has been heard from them since. The boy may be lying in a shallow grave or in a Chinese gulag. More likely, it is thought by Tibet watchers, he is being comfortably raised as an atheist by his Communist Party hosts and will emerge in due course as a puppet of the regime denouncing Tibetan Buddhism as so much hocus pocus.
On the rare occasions that British and European officials meet their Chinese counterparts to discuss human rights, bland assurances are given about the Panchen Lama's fate. The same assurances about the living boy-Buddha were given to The Independent during an interview with Jagre Danizen, a self-declared reincarnated Buddha himself and senior official of the local Tibetan autonomous government.
"As for the boy's whereabouts, I cannot give any information; the child is getting education and living a happy life," reassured the lapsed Tibetan Buddha. He denied that the boy's disappearance from the face of the earth was of any international significance or that it would cast a shadow over the forthcoming Olympics.
"The Chinese people have the right to decide what to do and the Olympics has nothing to do with this boy. The fate of one boy has little to do with the reputation of China."
China fervently hopes that Gyaltsen Norbu, its own hand-picked pretender for the title of Panchen Lama, currently living in Beijing, will be recognised by Tibetans as a spiritual leader when the Dalai Lama, now aged 70, passes away.
And that is where Beijing's well-made plans may fall apart.
Chinese officials are increasingly frustrated with the Tibetans' lacklustre reception of Norbu on his infrequent visits. Earlier this year senior army, police and intelligence officials summoned religious leaders and warned them of punishment if they did not persuade Tibetans to accept Norbu.
But Buddhist clergy continue to reject him as a fake or pay only lip service to Beijing's demands to recognise him. Significantly China now only produces him on ceremonial occasions such as a recent presentation of a Katak scarf to the Chinese leader Hu Jintau in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. As propaganda gestures go, the presentation was never going to win over Tibetans who remember that Mr Hu imposed martial law in the 1990s when he was Communist Party chief of Tibet. It was Mr Hu who ordered the crackdown on monks, whom the Chinese officials are today trying to cajole into supporting the regime and the puppet Panchen Lama.