Trashing the Beijing Road

The Economist Magazine just happened to have a correspondent in Lhasa as the Tibetan riots broke out.  So, in spite of the efforts of the Chinese government to control information about what happened there,we have here an uncensored view of what went on.

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ETHNIC-Chinese shopkeepers in Lhasa’s old Tibetan quarter knew better than the security forces that the city had become a tinder-box. As word spread rapidly through the narrow alleyways on March 14th that a crowd was throwing stones at Chinese businesses, they shuttered up their shops and fled. The authorities, caught by surprise, held back as the city was engulfed by its biggest anti-Chinese protests in decades.

What began, or may have begun (Lhasa feeds on rumour), as the beating of a couple of Buddhist monks by police has turned into a huge political test for the Chinese government. Tibet has cast a pall over preparations to hold the Olympic games in Beijing in August. Protests in Lhasa have triggered copycat demonstrations in several monasteries across a vast swathe of territory in the “Tibet Autonomous Region” of China and in areas around it (see map). Not since the uprising of 1959, during which the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, fled to India, has there been such widespread unrest across this oxygen-starved expanse of mountains and plateaus.

Years of rapid economic growth, which China had hoped would dampen separatist demands, have achieved the opposite. Efforts to integrate the region more closely with the rest of China, by building the world’s highest railway connecting Beijing with Lhasa, have only fuelled ethnic tensions in the Tibetan capital. The night before the riots erupted, a Tibetan government official confided to your correspondent that Lhasa was now stable after protests by hundreds of monks at monasteries near the city earlier in the week. He could not have been more wrong.

It was, perhaps, a sign of the authorities’ misreading of Lhasa’s anger that a foreign correspondent was in the city at all. Foreign journalists are seldom given permission to visit. In January 2007, in preparation for the Olympics, the central government issued new regulations that supposedly make it much easier for them to travel around the country. Travel to Tibet, however, still requires a permit. The Economist‘s visit was approved before the monks protested on March 10th and 11th, but the authorities apparently felt sufficiently in control to allow the trip to go ahead as planned from March 12th. As it turned out, several of the venues on the pre-arranged itinerary became scenes of unrest.

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