Tibetans in China: Fearing the Worst

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A group of demonstrators are seen on a street in Lhasa in this frame grab from China's state television CCTV March 14, 2008.

It's early evening in Litang, a normally bustling city of some 50,000 in the far west of China's Sichuan province. On a normal day, the streets would be crowded with cars, bicycles, throngs of shoppers, even the odd yak. But today there is an eerie silence, with only the occasional resident hurrying home, eyes to the ground. The shops are all shuttered and the only vehicles on the roads are prowling police cars whose blue and red lights flash in the gathering dusk. Litang, 90% of whose population is ethnically Tibetan, is a city under siege.

Residents say that all shops have been told to remain closed, all cars are banned from within the city limits, schools are closed and few people are going to work. One local television channel ceased its regular programming, replacing it with a looped reading of a government warning, in Tibetan and Chinese, against listening to or cooperating with the "splittists of the Dalai Lama clique." Since anti-Chinese riots erupted in the Tibetan capital Lhasa on March 14 leaving at least a dozen dead, the situation in Litang has been "very difficult, very tense" says one Tibetan, dropping his voice to a whisper and turning his face away from a window as a police car passes.

It's not surprising that the city is tense. Other areas to the north and west where Tibetans are in the majority have seen demonstrations, some of them violent, in recent days. Protesters — often including Buddhist monks — condemned Chinese rule in Tibet, and expressed their support for their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. The authorities responded with arrests, and human rights groups and Tibetan activists report that some demonstrators were shot dead.

Such fervor in a part of China outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region comes as no real surprise — much of Sichuan had been part of Tibet when it had been an independent nation, before it was annexed by China in 1951. And Litang is a focus of Tibetan nationalism. The city has a special place in the long history of Tibetan rule in the area, and a tradition of resistance to the Chinese authorities. Two earlier Dalai Lamas were born here, and Litang was the center of a full-scale rebellion against Beijing in 1956, that was ultimately crushed when the People's Liberation Army bombed the city's ancient monastery into rubble.

Despite its past, the residents of Litang — which at a breathtaking 13,500 feet above sea level calls itself the highest town in the world — have so far ignored the example of the protesters in Tibet and neighboring regions. Perhaps most importantly, the 2,000 monks living in the magnificently rebuilt monastery that perches on a hill above the town have remained within its walls. But there's no question that the same fury that has erupted elsewhere against the often hamfisted Chinese administration and Beijing's constant vilification of the Dalai Lama is also simmering in Litang. "They control everything too tightly," says an angry Tibetan, hissing a curse under his breath as a military truck rumbles past. "They won't let us worship the way we want or have the Dalai Lama as our guide."

Most others in the city are less outspoken, even with a guarantee of anonymity. One businessman grumbles mildly at the sales he'll lose because of the lockdown. But he won't elaborate. "We can't say more or we will be smashed." He grimaces and makes as though to hit himself in the cheek with a fist.

At the monastery itself, all seems serene. Evidence of new building is everywhere, and many of the walls and frescos are newly painted in the characteristically vivid Tibetan designs. But many of the monks shy away from talking to a foreign reporter until one older devotee lifts a heavy embroidered cloth from a doorway and ushers the visitor inside a dimly lit hall where a group of thirty or so novices is chanting a sutra. In one corner, warming his hands over a glowing electrical coil, sits a senior monks swaddled in burgundy robes. "I don't know the situation outside," he says with a smile. "But this is a stable monastery. We follow the law. There won't be any trouble here in Litang."

Many others in the city express the same wish. But they, too, have a haunted look behind their smiles that betrays a deep concern about what might happen in the coming days. The Chinese authorities have effectively sealed off Lhasa, but reports from the capital speak of widespread arrests and house-to-house searches by security officials. While Litang remains more or less untouched by the troubles in Tibet proper, it will remain a symbol of coexistence in any possible compromise solution to the confrontation in which Beijing and many Tibetans now find themselves. But the city's state of grace could be fleeting: The single, potholed road that winds over mountain passes nearly 16,000 feet high to connect Litang to the rest of Sichuan was jammed today with a convoy of military trucks, perhaps 150 strong. Inside, grim-faced soldiers of the People's Armed Police sat in full combat gear clutching automatic rifles. Ominously, the convoy included five paddy wagons — and a similar number of ambulances.