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China's 60th birthday: The view from Tibet

In and around Lhasa, division, mutual contempt — and sometimes violence — are a way of life, no matter the date.

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.