China give rare, and orchestrated, glimpse of Tibet

August 29, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

LHASA,CHINA — LHASA, China -- This remote, unwilling part of China is not a place you go to see for yourself as a journalist.

Foreign reporters are seldom allowed to visit China's strategically important roof of the world, its buffer from South and Central Asia. The Chinese government invites you, escorts you, watches your every step, tries to hear everything you ask and control what you see and what you're told.

Then they cite the visit as proof that Tibet is "open."

Even so, they can't conceal the longing for independence and thehatred that many Tibetans continue to harbor for their Chinese rulers.

For the first time, they are willing to take reporters to Lhasa's Drapchi Prison, Tibet's only officially acknowledged prison -- home to perhaps a quarter of the region's political prisoners.

Inside the infamous prison, there are swarms of black flies, 12 bunks to each small cell and a sparsely furnished TV room, but no prisoners.

Though it is well after 6 p.m., the inmates have been sent to Drapchi'snearby vegetable fields, where they wait, crouching, heads turned quizzically to watch the foreigners' arrival.

There is little to suggest that Drapchi is one of the main pressure points in China's tight grip on the Tibetan independence movement -- that it is a place where Buddhist monks and nuns suffer for opposing Chinese rule. Authorities videotape the reporters' visit, perhaps for later propaganda.

The limited, sanitized glimpse of Drapchi typified a rare six-day journey to Tibet earlier this month by three Beijing-based foreign reporters, including a Sun correspondent.

Even by the standard of restrictions routinely imposed on foreign reporters elsewhere in China, it was a repressive exercise. Ten or more officials and apparatchiks from Beijing and Lhasa tried to be with the reporters all of the time. They moved into hotels with them, ate all meals with them and accompanied them on all scheduled interviews.

The official invitation for the trip came directly from the State Council, the Chinese government's executive Cabinet. There was nothing subtle about its intent or timing.

Protection of Tibetans' religious culture this year became a high-profile issue in the annual debate over China's favorable trade standing with the U.S. Concern for human rights in Tibet has also fueled foreign opposition to China's bid to host the Olympics in 2000 -- a bid that will be decided Sept. 23 by the International Olympic Committee.

"Seeing is believing," Li Yuan Chao, vice minister of the State Council's information office, said in inviting the reporters. But an apparent goal of the official program was to minimize time spent in politically-volatile Lhasa, Tibet's capital and population center.

Officials' lack of confidence in the sacred city seems merited: Every time a Sun reporter broke free of his handlers in Lhasa, however briefly, he met Tibetans quick to express ethnic hatred for Han Chinese -- as the mainstream Chinese ethnic group is known -- and a desire for an independent Tibet.

Casual conversations

The only time officials allowed for casual interviews was more than 100 miles from Lhasa in the rural town of Gyangze, where Tibetan peasants during a celebration carried huge portraits of Mao Tse-tung -- much as if he were still alive and in power. Even then, conversations had to flow through party cadres; few of the peasants speak Chinese.

The treatment wasn't unusual. Other visitors -- U.S. politicians, European diplomats -- lately are being received in Lhasa by authorities attempting to foster an improved image of China's handling of Tibet.

"My country was occupied by the Nazis during World War II, and being in Tibet reminded me of what that was like," says a European ambassador to China, who was part of a European Community delegation that was treated similarly in Tibet in May.

Two Tibetans who tried to give the Europeans a list of Tibetans detained for taking part in pro-independence protests were arrested during the delegation's visit. They're now in jail awaiting trial on charges of stealing "state secrets," a grave charge in China.

"All delegations who come here are escorted like prisoners," says aletter smuggled out of Tibet from one of the arrested men, according to the Tibet Information Network (TIN), a human-rights group in London. "If the Chinese treat them in such a way, then they can imagine how they treat us."

Right after the Europeans left Lhasa, the most serious unrest in four years erupted there. More than 1,000 protesters participated in two days of demonstrations, which began with complaints about rising inflation and increased Han Chinese migration and grew into cries for independence.

The protests ended with tear gas and arrests. This summer, TIN says, dozens more Tibetans have been arrested as pro-independence protests have broken out in small villages outside Lhasa.

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