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Foreign tourists are being shut out of Tibet, too

FOUR BURLY policemen man a makeshift checkpoint outside Hongya, a hillside village in the western province of Qinghai on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. One of them says would-be visitors to Hongya must have their identity documents photographed and names noted down. Hongya is the birthplace of the 14th, and current, Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader who is reviled by China’s government. His former home is maintained as a shrine by relatives; Tibetan pilgrims occasionally venture there. But for now, at least, Hongya is closed to unauthorised outsiders.

Security is often tight around Hongya. But the authorities across the plateau, including Tibet and vast Tibetan-inhabited areas of other provinces, are on heightened alert during what officials sometimes call the “sensitive month” of March. It is a time of year studded with anniversaries that officials fear could trigger protests by Tibetans. One is March 14th, the date in 2008 when anti-Chinese riots erupted in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, prompting plateau-wide unrest and a fierce clampdown.

But it is events 60 years ago that are most bitterly remembered by many Tibetans: the crushing of an uprising in Lhasa against Chinese rule that broke out on March 10th 1959 and intensified after the Dalai Lama fled to India a week later. Little suggests that another large-scale outbreak is in the offing. But as officials often say, no risk is too small to dismiss. Over the past decade more than 150 Tibetans, many of them monks, are believed to have set themselves on fire to protest against the government’s denunciations of the Dalai Lama and what some Tibetans see as China’s suppression of their culture. Demonstrations by pro-Tibetan groups have been planned in cities from New York to Delhi to mark the rebellion in 1959.

Kumbum monastery near Xining, the capital of Qinghai province, is one of the main centres of Tibetan Buddhism (some of its monks are pictured). It also has a reputation for being one of the most loyal to the Chinese government. But it does not feel relaxed. When greeted, resident Tibetan monks look nervously around for guards and at the ubiquitous rooftop security-cameras before offering a few polite words in response. There has long been a police station at Kumbum. Since the unrest in 2008 the authorities have opened them in many more monasteries.

At least foreigners are still allowed in Qinghai. Every year since 2008 Tibet itself has been closed to foreign tourists for several weeks around March. This year, because of the 60th anniversary, the ban is expected to be longer than usual. (Foreign journalists and Western diplomats are rarely allowed in.) In January Tibet’s police chief, Zhang Hongbo, said there were “many risks and hidden dangers” in this year of big anniversaries (including the 70th on October 1st of Communist China’s founding). He said that as a result, the task of maintaining stability in Tibet would be “even more serious and complicated”. On March 2nd he urged colleagues to “resolutely fight for victory” in the “tough battle” to ensure security this month. Officials are worried about dissent even within their own ranks. In a recent propaganda video, Tibet’s government accused “two-faced” Communist Party members of secretly working with separatists.

But the party has an anniversary in March it would like to celebrate. It falls on March 28th—the day in 1959 when China dissolved Tibet’s Dalai Lama-led government and, it says, ended an oppressive system of monastic control over ordinary citizens (much exaggerated, say Tibetans abroad). This year it will be a decade since the date was declared to be “Serfs’ Emancipation Day”. It is marked with official performances of song and dance. In recent days state media have been gushing with praise for the “democratic reform” and modernity that the day ushered in, and the gratefulness of Tibetans. The stepped-up security presence across the Tibetan plateau, however, paints a very different picture. Chinese officials know that Tibetans are in no mood for outpourings of joy.

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline "The sensitive month"
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