LHASA, China — The troops with automatic rifles patrolling the Tibetan quarter of the capital of Chinese-controlled Tibet are as ever-present as Buddhist pilgrims.
Two years after Lhasa erupted in a riot that set off anti-government protests across Tibetan areas of China, heavy security is the new normal. Helmeted paramilitary police stand guard behind spiked barriers at some street corners. Men on rooftops train binoculars on the square and streets in the Barkhor, the heart of the old city that surrounds a holy temple.
Their presence is so common that people in Lhasa were startled last week when the uniformed patrols seemingly disappeared. In their place, fit young men with military crewcuts — some wearing yellow and black track suits — marched in groups. The reason: a rare visit to the tense Tibetan capital by foreign reporters arranged by the government.
"Walking in the streets of the Barkhor and other parts of Lhasa, I realized all the army people had become plain-clothed overnight. Only today I learned that it was because the journalists were visiting," said a Tibetan woman who declined to give her name for fear of official retribution.
This week opens an always edgy time in Lhasa: two weeks of anniversaries marking a Tibetan revolt in 1959 that failed, led Tibet's theocratic ruler the Dalai Lama to flee into exile and brought the long-isolated, Himalayan region under Beijing's direct control. In 2008, demonstrations that sputtered for days flared into a riot on March 14. Sympathy protests spread to Tibetan communities across a quarter of west China — the widest uprising against Chinese rule in a half-century.
Many Tibetan areas have lived under smothering security ever since and are unsteadily struggling to find normalcy amid the intrusive policing and a mix of government threats and economic incentives to toe the line. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced Friday that the government will speed up economic development in Tibet and the heavily Muslim area of Xinjiang, which was hit by communal violence in July that further challenged China's ethnic policies.
Sporadic protests recur in Tibetan areas, as do arrests. The government continues to vilify the Dalai Lama and his exiled government, whom Beijing accuses of fomenting the discord, and to purge monasteries and nunneries, where support for the Dalai Lama and Tibetan independence run high.
Governor attacks Dalai Lama
At a news conference Sunday, China-appointed governor Padma Choling renewed the verbal attacks. "The Dalai's lies to the world and media have adversely affected Tibet's development," he said.
Government officials defend the actions and say that Tibetans' loyalty to Beijing grew in the wake of the shocking violence of the riot, which left 22 dead by official count and is known as the 3-14 riot for the day it occurred.
"Because of the 3-14 incident, the people in Tibet understand more clearly the true nature of the Dalai clique. They are 'splittists' in nature. The people understand more that 'splittism' brings misfortune and ethnic unity brings happiness. So currently, Tibet is enjoying increased ethnic unity and harmony. Everything is moving in the right direction," Hao Peng, the Chinese vice governor of Tibet, told the visiting journalists.
During their weeklong trip to Lhasa and the eastern Tibet town of Nyingchi, the foreign reporters were closely monitored and often followed if they managed to slip their government escorts, making candid interviews difficult. Paramilitary police on guard duty forced a reporter to delete photographs of them. Pilgrims refused to answer questions about whether they believed in the Dalai Lama.
When a similar question was posed to Basang, a 39-year-old farmer in Sangzhulin village outside Lhasa, an official interrupted the translator to make sure the right answer was given: she prefers the Panchen Lama, a high-ranking cleric selected by Beijing. "I don't know what the Dalai Lama does," the official interpreted Basang as saying.
Still Lhasa residents seem grateful if begrudgingly so for the intense security. The city carries physical scars from the riot; the Yishion clothing store where five young women burned to death has left standing its charred shop front as a memorial.
Though Tibetans dislike the denunciation of their revered Dalai Lama, they and Chinese residents said violence may reignite if troops were withdrawn. Unaddressed since the riot are its underlying grievances, said one Tibetan man who declined to give his name because he was worried about official retribution. Among the gripes are restrictions on religion and worries that the Han Chinese majority were benefiting more than Tibetans from economic growth.
Tibetans too are benefiting from China's buoyant economy and from the more than $21 billion the government has poured into the region this decade. Nyingchi, a prosperous town at the bottom of a valley, is experiencing a tourism boom. An airport, still a rarity on the Tibetan plateau, opened three years ago.
Farmers in nearby villages have turned their homes into bed and breakfasts, while still farming barley and herding yaks. In Gong Zhong, the first village in Tibet to get phone service, 40-year-old Shilou used a government loan to turn part of her house into an inn, charging mostly Chinese tourists 25 yuan, or $4, a night. Posters of communist patriarch Mao Zedong and current President Hu Jintao hang on the walls, hung with the white silk scarves Tibetans offer as a sign of respect.
Dawa Dunzhu is a success story. With only a primary school education, the Tibetan went off to the northwestern industrial city of Lanzhou to work on construction projects. With the money he earned plus a government loan, he started the Tibet Dashi Group Co. that makes specialty food products like mineral water from the glacier melt of Mount Everest. His organic walnut oil is made with nuts grown by Tibetan farmers and is sold in up-market food stores in Beijing.
"This is a really unique Tibetan resource that wasn't used before. Now we are taking advantage of it," said Dawa Dunzhu.
In recent months, the communist government began tweaking its economic policies toward Tibet, moving away from the big infrastructure projects that are seen to encourage Chinese migration and targeting funds into the pockets of farmers and poorer Tibetans. Rather than winning over Tibetans, however, experts contend the new policies are still too top-down and fail to give Tibetans the kind of say that would make them feel less like second-class citizens.
"Tibetan resentments are not necessarily about development, but about disempowered development and about being a dominated and subordinated minority," said Andrew Fischer of the Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.
The bitterness is unlikely to go away soon. Some in Lhasa seem weary of the tensions whether caused by disgruntled Tibetans or government actions. "As long as those few people don't spread rumors or make the situation worse in the future, we'll have better cooperation and unity," said Neyma Tsering, a retiree.
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