Monday, March 24, 2008

As Tibet erupted, China troops wavered

In Lhasa during the recent riots, a tourist who requested anonymity took this photo of Chinese goods being burned.

A woman recently surveyed the damage in Lhasa from the rioting in that Tibetan city. This photo was taken by a tourist who requested anonymity.

A fire truck on a street in Lhasa during the recent unrest. Firefighters put out fires while Chinese soldiers kept guard. This photo was taken by a tourist who requested anonymity.

As Tibet Erupted, China Security Forces Wavered

In Lhasa during the recent riots, a tourist who requested anonymity took this photo of Chinese goods being burned.


Published: March 24, 2008

BEIJING — In the chaotic hours after Lhasa erupted March 14, Tibetans rampaged through the city’s old quarter, waving steel scabbards and burning or looting Chinese shops. Clothes, souvenirs and other tourist trinkets were dumped outside and set afire as thick gray smoke darkened the midday sky. Tibetan fury, uncorked, boiled over.
Intellectuals in China Condemn Crackdown (March 24, 2008)
Times Topics: Tibet
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A woman recently surveyed the damage in Lhasa from the rioting in that Tibetan city. This photo was taken by a tourist who requested anonymity.

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A fire truck on a street in Lhasa during the recent unrest. Firefighters put out fires while Chinese soldiers kept guard. This photo was taken by a tourist who requested anonymity.

The New York Times

Foreigners and Lhasa residents who witnessed the violence were stunned by what they saw, and by what they did not see: the police. Riot police officers fled after an initial skirmish and then were often nowhere to be found. Some Chinese shopkeepers begged for protection.

“The whole day I didn’t see a single police officer or soldier,” said an American woman who spent hours navigating the riot scene. “The Tibetans were just running free.”

Lhasa is now occupied by thousands of paramilitary police officers and troops of the People’s Liberation Army. But witnesses say that for almost 24 hours, the paramilitary police seemed unexpectedly paralyzed or unprepared, despite days of rising tensions with Tibetan monks.

The absence of police officers emboldened the Tibetan crowds, which terrorized Chinese residents, toppled fire trucks and hurled stones into Chinese-owned shops. In turn, escalating violence touched off a sweeping crackdown and provided fodder for a propaganda-fueled nationalist backlash against Tibetans across the rest of China that is still under way.

“I really am surprised at the speed with which these things got out of control,” said Murray Scot Tanner, a China analyst with a specialty in policing. “This place, this time, should not have surprised them. This is one of the key cities in the country that they have tried to keep a lid on for two decades.”

What happened? Analysts wonder if the authorities, possibly fearing the public relations ramifications of a confrontation before the Beijing Olympics in August, told the police to avoid engaging protesters without high-level approval.

Timing also may have contributed to indecision; Tibet’s hard-line Communist Party boss, Zhang Qingli, and other top officials were attending the National People’s Congress in Beijing when the violence erupted.

The full explanation could take years to emerge from China’s Communist Party hierarchy. But the Lhasa unrest, not entirely unlike the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests of 1989, may be remembered as much for poor police work — faulty crowd control and political indecision followed by a large-scale response — as for the underlying grievances of protesters.

Lhasa now has created far more than a public relations problem for Beijing. It has unleashed widespread Tibetan resentment over Chinese rule. Antigovernment demonstrations have spread to Tibetan areas of western China. Military convoys and trucks of paramilitary police officers are streaming westward to quell the protests.

International leaders are alarmed at the violence and have called for restraint by China. But domestic opinion is inflamed with nationalist anger as state television is repeatedly showing images of Tibetans rioting in those early, unfettered hours.

“Our government should take a bloody suppression on these separatists!” blared one posting among the legion of enraged postings on Chinese Internet chat rooms. “We cannot hesitate or be too merciful, even at the cost of giving up the Olympics.”
The police hesitation did not last long. The crackdown began within 24 hours, on March 15. Witnesses described hearing the thud of tear gas projectiles and the crackle of gunshots as paramilitary police officers took control of the riot area. By March 16, the paramilitary police were searching Tibetan neighborhoods and seizing suspects. One foreigner saw four Tibetan men beaten so savagely that the police sprinkled white powder on the ground to cover the blood.

Lhasa’s death toll remains in sharp dispute. The Chinese authorities say 22 people died, including a police officer killed by a mob and shopkeepers who burned to death in the violence.

The authorities also claim security forces did not carry lethal weapons or fire a shot. But the Tibetan government in exile, in Dharamsala, India, said at least 99 Tibetans have died in Lhasa during the crackdown.

Foreign journalists are now forbidden to enter Tibet. But interviews with more than 20 witnesses show Lhasa was boiling with Tibetan resentment even as authorities believed they had the situation under control. Protests broke out at three monasteries beginning March 10, the anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, which forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India.
The police arrested more than 60 monks and confined the rest in their monasteries. Tibetans say the police also beat monks during peaceful demonstrations.

James Miles, a Beijing-based reporter for The Economist magazine, had obtained approval from authorities for a reporting trip to Lhasa before the demonstrations. When the protests started, Mr. Miles wondered if he would be notified that his trip had been canceled. But no call came. He arrived March 12, and on March 13 officials took him to dinner, signaling their confidence by making no attempt to hide the recent demonstrations.

“I was assured that the situation in Lhasa was stable,” Mr. Miles recalled.

But the next day, March 14, would prove otherwise. At Ramoche Temple, monks left the monastery about midday to protest and were immediately met by police officers. Unlike the other monasteries, Ramoche is in the heart of Lhasa’s old Tibetan quarter, so the confrontation attracted a large crowd.

Unconfirmed reports about the earlier protests had been swirling among Tibetans for days, according to several people, including that monks and Buddhist nuns had been killed. Many Tibetans were angry when they saw the police clash with the Ramoche monks. Quickly, the crowd attacked the police.

Witnesses say police reinforcements who arrived with shields and riot gear were overwhelmed. “Almost immediately they were rushed by a massive group of Tibetans,” one witness said. Police officers fled, and a mob of Tibetans poured out of the old quarter onto Beijing Road, a large commercial street. A riot had begun.

Angry Tibetans attacked a branch of the Bank of China and burned it to a blackened husk. Photos and video images show Tibetans smashing Chinese shops with stones and setting them on fire. Witnesses described Tibetans attacking Chinese on bicycles and throwing rocks at taxis driven by Chinese. Later, crowds also burned shops owned by Muslims.

“This wasn’t organized, but it was very clear that they wanted the Chinese out,” said the American woman who witnessed the riots and asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals. She said Tibetan grievances exploded in anger. Crowds tied ceremonial silk scarves across the threshold of Tibetan shops to indicate they should not be damaged.

Mr. Miles, the journalist, found himself the only Western reporter on the scene. He spent the next several hours carefully walking around the old Tibetan quarter as rioters burned buildings and overturned cars. “I was looking around expecting an immediate, rapid response,” he said. “But nothing happened. I kept asking people, ‘Where are the police?’ ”

Protests are common in China and clashes can occur between demonstrators and police officers. Beginning in the early 1980s China created a paramilitary force, known as the People’s Armed Police, to deal with domestic unrest and other crises. Mr. Tanner, the specialist in Chinese policing, said the People’s Armed Police had developed tactics over the years to defuse protests without resorting to violent crackdowns. But riots of this scale are rare, and if violence erupts, policy dictates a firm response, Mr. Tanner said.
“There is no suggestion that they are supposed to sit back and let a riot burn itself out,” he said.

Tibetans also say the security forces were unusually passive at the beginning. One monk reached by telephone said other monks noticed that several officers were more interested in shooting video of the violence than stopping it. “They were just watching,” the monk said. “They tried to make some videos and use their cameras to take some photos.”

Ultimately, the man responsible for public order in Lhasa is Mr. Zhang, Tibet’s party chief. Mr. Zhang is a protégé of President Hu Jintao, whose own political career took flight after he crushed the last major rebellion in Tibet in 1989.

According to one biographer, Mr. Hu actually made himself unavailable during the 1989 riots when the paramilitary police needed guidance on whether to crack down. The police did so and Mr. Hu got credit for keeping order, but he also assured himself deniability if the crackdown had failed, the biographer wrote.

Mr. Zhang also has an excuse; he was at the National People’s Congress in Beijing. When the violence started, Mr. Zhang had just completed a two-hour online discussion about China’s Supreme Court, according to a government Web site. It is unclear when Mr. Zhang was told of the violence, or if he made the final decision on how to respond.

But that decision became clear on March 15, the day after the riots. During the riots, the police were armed with shields and batons, witnesses said. But overnight, the People’s Armed Police had encircled the riot areas. Armed vehicles also were in position. By afternoon, witnesses saw small teams of paramilitary officers with high-powered weapons moving into the old quarter.

Mr. Zhang would later declare “a bitter struggle of blood and fire against the Dalai clique, a struggle of life and death.”

The Chinese authorities have also confirmed that army troops had arrived in Lhasa by March 15, saying their role was limited to traffic control and securing military property. But many people question if some of those troops were involved in the crackdown. Several armored vehicles had their license plates removed or covered in white paper.

Mr. Miles noticed that many of the People’s Armed Police officers actually appeared to be wearing irregular uniforms. One military analyst who studied photographs of the scene concluded that some armored vehicles belonged to an elite military unit. Witnesses reported hearing the sounds of gunshots throughout that Saturday afternoon.

The crackdown was only one part of the new strategy. The Chinese news media initially had not been allowed to cover the Lhasa violence. But by March 15,, that had changed. There, broadcast on state television, was video of Tibetans raging through Lhasa. No images were shown of the crackdown the next day.

Zhang Jing, Huang Yuanxi and Chen Yang contributed research.

March 24, 2008
Intellectuals in China Condemn Crackdown
SHANGHAI — A group of prominent Chinese intellectuals has circulated a petition urging the government to stop what it calls a “one sided” propaganda campaign about Tibet and initiate direct dialogue with the Dalai Lama.

The petition, which was signed by more than two dozen writers, journalists and scholars, contains 12 recommendations. Taken together, they represent a sharp break from the government’s response to the wave of demonstrations that swept Tibetan areas of the country in recent weeks.

Most of the signers are Han Chinese, China’s dominant ethnic group. Their petition accused the government of “fanning racial hatred” in China by blaming ethnic Tibetans for the violence and seeking to inflame passions among the Han to support the crackdown.

One of the signers, Wang Lixiong, is a prolific writer and leading analyst of Tibetan issues. Others are better known for their liberal political views and their willingness to speak out against government policies.

The Chinese government has sought to convey a sense of strong domestic and international support for putting down what is depicted here as a civil disturbance by lawless people being instigated by the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing denounces as a secessionist, or “splitist.” In recent days, the state-controlled media have also stepped up their criticisms of the international news media for what they say has been biased and overblown coverage of the Tibetan crisis. China has barred international journalists from Tibet and expelled most tourists and other foreigners from the region since the crisis began. As trouble has spread to neighboring provinces where many Tibetans live, the government has blocked access to these areas as well.

“In our view, the current news blockade cannot gain credit with the Chinese people or the international community, and is harmful to the credibility of the Chinese government,” the petitioners wrote. “Only by adopting an open attitude can we turn around the international community’s distrust of our government.”

Given the government’s stringent censorship of the media, including the Internet, it is not clear how widely knowledge of the petition will spread in China. But many of its points directly challenge or dispute the government line.

“We support the Dalai Lama’s appeal for peace, and hope that the ethnic conflict can be dealt with according to the principles of good will, peace and nonviolence,” it reads.

The petition cites accusations by the government that the unrest was “organized, premeditated and meticulously orchestrated by the Dalai clique,” and calls on Beijing to invite the United Nations Human Rights Council to do an independent investigation of these charges.

It states, “In order to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future, the government must abide by the freedom of religious belief and the freedom of speech explicitly enshrined in the Chinese Constitution, thereby allowing the Tibetan people to fully express their grievances and hopes and permitting citizens of all nationalities to freely criticize and make suggestions regarding the government’s nationality policies.”

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