China's 60th birthday: The view from Tibet

Editor's note: Oct. 1 is the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. To mark the occasion we have two dispatches from two very different corners of China — Tibet and Hong Kong. And from Beijing, Kathleen E. McLaughlin examines the event's unique security arrangements.

LHASA, Tibet — As I rode in a truck peeling around the curves of a narrow mountain road in southwestern Tibet, wheels squealed as the driver tried to pass a van. Minutes later the van sped past and cut in front of our car, almost forcing us over a cliff. “Bad Chinese drivers!” our Tibetan driver shouted, slamming his fist on the horn. The men pulled over and began a 10-minute shouting match.

This is the dislike shared by Tibetans and the Han Chinese who now outnumber them in Tibet’s capital of Lhasa. While such animosity is usually tempered it sometimes erupts, like on the road that September afternoon or in March 2008, when riots in Lhasa prompted by police crackdowns on monks’ peaceful protests killed 18 Chinese civilians, according to state-run media. With Beijing celebrating the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China Oct. 1, mutual contempt is running high. Before the treacherous drive south, I visited the capital, where armed soldiers stand on every major street corner in Lhasa’s Old Town, one of the only remaining areas in the city still dominated by Tibetans. Looking like teenagers in baggy camouflage uniforms and full riot gear, soldiers patrolled the streets and scanned the city from its rooftops, prepared to quell any unrest.

Undercover police — dressed as tourists and even monks — search for hidden subversives. When my boyfriend photographed a caravan of soldiers entering a monastery, the plain-clothes women beside him whipped out her police badge and ordered him to erase the photos.

Enhancing an already ubiquitous military presence, in late August the Chinese legislature expedited the passage of a law ambiguously allowing police to “take necessary measures” to prevent riots and expanding their rights to interrogate “suspicious persons.” It cited the Oct. 1 anniversary.

“I’m not as afraid of police on the street as I am of the secret police,” one Tibetan shopkeeper told me. “They’ve been doing a lot of cleaning up, which means people go missing.”

According to this same shopkeeper, police arrested two of his friends in sweeps that began after the 2008 riots. One was sentenced to 15 years and one to life in prison. The shopkeeper doesn’t know their alleged crimes, but insists they were good men who happened to have strong political beliefs.

No official statistics on the total number of political prisoners in Tibet exist, though the Chinese government said it arrested more than 4,000 Tibetans after the riots last year. Several rights groups say more than 1,000 of these people, mostly monks and nuns, remain missing.

In monasteries such as Ganden, built into a hillside about 30 miles outside Lhasa, armed soldiers now outnumber monks. When I visited, uniformed men smoked cigarettes on the roof of a barracks adjacent to the monastery. Police arrested and defrocked two-thirds of the monks at Ganden after last year’s protests and today about 500 soldiers and 300 monks live at the complex, said one 38-year-old monk. As of March 2008, new monks are banned from joining all monasteries in Tibet. The Chinese government also handpicks Tibet’s leaders, including the Panchen Lama, the second-highest lama in Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama has called such control of religious practices a ''cultural genocide.''

When I passed through Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city, its main monastery Tashilhunpo was closed in anticipation for a visit by the Panchen Lama. In a region dominated by religious devotion, only about 100 people, mostly Chinese tourists, showed up to see him. When his white SUV drove up, His Holiness, the 19-year-old son of a communist party member, motioned a slight wave through his cracked window. The real Panchen Lama, chosen by Tibetan monks according to Buddhist tradition, was arrested in 1995 — when he was 6 — and remains missing.

Several Tibetan tour guides added that some monasteries are now populated almost entirely by Chinese-appointed monks. “They listen to what I tell tourists,” one guide said, adding that they report to authorities when guides acknowledge events like the destruction of monasteries during the Cultural Revolution that began in the 1960s. In Beijing’s version of history, retold at the history museum in Lhasa — one of the only tourist sites in the city with no entrance fee — China liberated Tibetans from their enslavement by the ruling lamas. When Tibetans this year marked the 50th anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule that killed more than 80,000 Tibetans, China officially named the event “Serf Emancipation Day” and commemorated it with a ceremony in front of Potala Palace, Tibet’s holiest monastery and the Dalai Lama’s former home.

Today Chinese and Tibetans in Lhasa are required to hang red banners outside their homes with slogans praising the People’s Republic. On the Oct. 1 anniversary, authorities will stage another ceremony in front of Potala with a handpicked number of Tibetan attendees. All other Tibetans will be required to stay home, even small business owners, to prevent spontaneous gatherings, said the shopkeeper. Chinese residents can carry on as they please, he added.

Many Tibetans criticize the chasm between their rights and those of their Chinese neighbors. Tibetans have many stereotypes for the Chinese, accusing them of being clever, greedy and “naughty.” Only Chinese can own large businesses in Lhasa, widening the wealth gap between the city’s two main ethnicities, complained one Tibetan artist who ran a small portrait gallery in an old building with low ceilings. Tibetan tour guides joke that they prefer Western tourists and fight over who has to lead the demanding and noisy Chinese groups.

One Chinese tourist, a Canadian originally from Hong Kong, said she didn’t personally experience any animosity from Tibetans during her eight-day tour through the province. She said she thinks Tibet should be free, then recanted, saying: “But they are poor — I don’t know if they could support themselves.”

The shopkeeper says the Chinese look down on Tibetans and, in turn, Tibetans look down right back. “They look at us like we smell, but they smell just as bad.”

Despite his contempt, the shopkeeper said he hopes the anniversary passes without incident and believes most Tibetans feel the same.

Summoning the composure of a Buddhist, he said: “On Oct. 1, we will go to the temple and pray for peace in all the world, not just in Tibet.”