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Lhasa Diary -- Dispatches from Tibet

August 3, 2008
August 1, 2008

Kathleen McLaughlin has been a journalist in China for more than
seven years and has covered regional issues including economics, the
environment and governmental regulation. Recently she applied for a
foreign journalist's permit to visit Tibet and was granted permission
to do so. She is one of the first foreign journalists since March
2008 allowed to travel independently to Tibet, although regulations
still require hiring a government-approved guide. During her five-day
trip, she is sending dispatches from Lhasa for the REVIEW.

Posted on July 29, 2008 - final entry

Before leaving Lhasa for Beijing on Monday, I walked in the midst of
hundreds of Tibetan Buddhists chanting their morning prayers circling
the Potala Palace. The faithful flock to the palace from inside the
city and from afar, conducting a ritual hundreds of years old. In
many ways the circling ritual felt ancient and intact.

Yet it was impossible to overlook the obstacles and the constant hum
of tension throughout the city. Police and soldiers standing by,
monitoring Lhasa's holy sites, nervous glances from Tibetans and
Chinese alike, and monks a glaringly rare sight in a city filled with
temples and monasteries. Around the Potala the pilgrims pay homage to
the former home of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. He is in
exile, his name and image banned. Tibetan prayer flags mix with the
red Chinese five-star flags over Lhasa, but the flag of the Tibetan
nation is absent by law. An Olympics slogan calling for national
unity stands between the pilgrims and the Potala.

Before I left for Tibet, I spoke with an American who has traveled
there a few times working on human rights issues. He told me Tibet to
him was like stepping onto an Indian reservation in the United
States. After visiting Lhasa four months after the unrest and
crackdown, I couldn't agree more.

As with many other colonizing cultures throughout history, the
Chinese government believes deeply in its mission in Tibet. The
government officers we met were insistent that China's large
financial investments in the place and its people are well
intentioned and long term, meant to improve the lives Tibetans and
Chinese. They point to figures showing that Tibet's economy doubled
in size from 2000 to 2005, mainly due to Chinese central government investment.

Assimilation, they said, is the best policy for native Tibetans
living in China. I was a taken aback by the use of that word in such
a positive tone, since assimilation is known as a cruel and failed
policy toward American Indians in the United States -- a policy that
destroyed countless traditional languages, cultures and beliefs.

Yet the Chinese in Lhasa still see Tibetan discontent over religious
and cultural freedom as ungrateful. The gulf of misunderstanding over
religion and culture is not easily bridged with cash, infrastructure
or new housing. Those Tibetans who have rejected Chinese aid and
development, pushing for stronger religious freedom and economic
opportunity, are troublemakers now locked away for re-education.

When the sun goes down in Lhasa, the tensions increase as riot
shields and armored cars come out. Although tourists have started to
trickle back in since Tibet was reopened, most hotel rooms remain
vacant and shopkeepers struggle for business. The road to recovery,
both emotionally and economically, appears long and highly uncertain.
Any seeds of Tibetan rebellion have been crushed for some time to come.

I came to Tibet looking for the truth, knowing it would be a
difficult thing to find. Most people are afraid to talk about much of
anything and even the lightest topics are political. The truth in
Lhasa four months after the unrest is buried deep, hidden beneath
many layers of fear and nearly impossible to unearth.

Posted on July 28, 2008

The long dirt road to Drepung Monastery two miles outside downtown
Lhasa is heavily guarded and blocked to outsiders by military police
who quickly turn away attempts on foot and by taxi to visit.

Drepung, the largest Tibetan monastery and once home to as many as
10,000 monks, is now a reeducation camp for monks involved in the
March 14 uprising. China's state media says an "education work group"
is being conducted inside the monastery "to restore religious order."
Up to 1,000 monks are reportedly locked inside, human-rights groups
say, being retrained in line with Chinese Communist Party directives.
The monastery is one of Lhasa's taboo topics these days. Questions to
locals about Drepung are typically met with a shake of the head and a
wave of the hand.

Drepung's sealing off from the rest of Lhasa (along with that of at
least one other important monastery) seems an apt metaphor for the
religious chasm that separates the people of Tibet and China. Tibet
is, to its roots, a deeply religious society. Modern China assuredly
is not. It often seems the biggest problem here is a simple lack of
understanding among Chinese that religious faith and principles, to
the faithful, are non-negotiable items. Wealth and riches do not
erase religious traditions, particularly in a society so deeply
rooted in faith as Tibet. This lack of understanding of religion is
evident among many Chinese in Lhasa.

The Chinese Communist Party has maintained its legitimacy across
mainland China by bettering the economic conditions of its people.
Chinese people, so many bound for so long to poverty, now can see a
way out even if they're not yet among wealthy or middle class.
Opportunity and prosperity abound. Yet that model doesn't work so
easily in Tibet, a fact that seems to genuinely perplex ordinary
Chinese. The central government spends more money per person in Tibet
than most other parts of China on new housing, roads, infrastructure
and other economic development. Trouble is, that's not enough to
satisfy Tibetans.

While discussing a plan to build new homes for Tibetans, a Chinese
woman remarked to me: "They have it so good."

What's missing from her assessment illustrates the deep gulf of
misunderstanding. While the Chinese government promises religious
freedom in Tibet, Tibetans are not allowed to hang photos of their
spiritual leader, the current Dalai Lama, or to worship him openly.
They are restricted in other ways as well, even as the practice of
Tibetan Buddhism may seem freer than that of many other religions in
China. For a deeply faithful people, promises of economic prosperity
are not always enough.

While economics and ethnic tensions may have added fuel to the fires
of March 14, there is no ignoring religious oppression as the initial
trigger. The demonstrations, according to eyewitnesses, began with
monks in monasteries and temples then spread into the greater
population. The Chinese government maintains that Tibetans have
religious freedom; Tibetans complain of strict controls on religion,
culture and language. It's apparent from my visit to Lahsa that the
situation has grown worse, not better, since March.

The increased police presence in Lhasa is focused more heavily around
its holiest sites. Pilgrims making their rounds of the Jokhang Temple
each morning and evening pass by throngs of soldiers with each lap.
At night, the police presence assumes a more menacing posture as the
officers front riot shields and armored vehicles patrol the streets
and squares. Police and guards abound in the Potala Palace, the
former home of the Dalai Lama. Those in uniform are well-trained and
restrained, local say, but their mere presence warns all against
stepping out-of-line, and sends a not-so-subtle message that
religious practices must not step outside party lines.

The view of Drepung Monastery in the distance from Lhasa.

Posted on July 27, 2008

Despite the Chinese government's assertions that the March 14 riots
in Lhasa were masterminded entirely by the Dalai Lama, not the result
of economic disparities or ethnic tensions, there is no question
Lhasa is fast growing expensive even as wages remain low.

A rough canvas of food markets in Lhasa indicates the price of eggs
is up 20% to 25% over last year, while cooking oil is up 15% to 18%.
Yak, the local meat, has increased by as much as 35% since 2007,
shoppers and hawkers told me. All around Lhasa, prices are beginning
to mirror those found in large Chinese cities, even though Lhasa is
tiny by Chinese standards. Yak meat in Lhasa now costs more than pork
in Beijing. With far higher average wages, these price increases are
more easily absorbed in Beijing.

"It's much more difficult to buy things now," said a young Tibetan
woman shopping with her baby and mother.

The Lhasa inflation pattern is in line with China's national trend.
The country's inflation rate has risen at record levels in the past
year, with consumer prices led mainly by especially steep increases
in the cost of food. China's consumer prices rose 7.9% in the first
half of this year, with food prices up more than 20%. Inflation is
rising faster in rural areas than urban, hitting hardest those who
can least afford it. Official inflation figures for Tibet are not
published; anecdotally it seems the problem is worse than in the
Chinese capital.

As with so many other sensitive topics in Lhasa, many people are
reluctant to openly discuss rising prices. Chinese vendors, who run
most of the food markets in the city, are particularly averse to
talking about inflation. In other cities like Beijing, I've had no
trouble getting both customers and sellers to talk about rising food
prices -- usually the vendors are middle men who operate on extremely
thin margins, so inflation hurts them as much as anyone else. But in
Lhasa, inflation seems to be among the more touchy topics. Perhaps
that's because it added fuel to the anger behind the March riots.

A Chinese businesswoman who owns a sporting-goods shop that caters to
Chinese and western tourists was frank about the situation. The price
of everything has gone up, she said, but with tourism in the tank
this year, there's little hope of maintaining last year's standard of
living. Instead, families have to cut back, buy less and hope the
economy picks up soon.

"There's really nothing we can do," she said. "We just hoe the
tourists start to come back."

Street stalls selling food staples in Lhasa.

Posted on July 27, 2008

We had a rather enlightening dinner Saturday evening with officials
from the Tibetan Foreign Affairs Office. These Chinese bureaucrats
from Beijing with years of experience working with foreign
correspondents are serving what they call a diplomatic mission in
Tibet. Our hosts were engaging, open and surprisingly willing to
tackle even our toughest questions.

They did not, however, veer even slightly from the Communist Party
line that the March 14 riots were instigated by the mysterious "Dalai
clique," a group the government says is led by the Dalai Lama trying
to stir up splittist trouble in Tibet. Even though the Dalai Lama
himself has denied involvement and rejected calls for Tibetan
independence, his "clique" is the root of all tensions in Lhasa, the
Chinese government says. Our hosts rather summarily rejected the
notions that religion oppression, ethnic tensions between Chinese and
Tibetans or economic issues like inflation led citizen rioters to get
involved after Buddhist monks began protesting. It was all the doing
of the Dalai clique.

At one point, they called in the Tibetan restaurant manager to talk
to us. He looked like he'd rather be anywhere else, but still
answered a few questions. He said he earns more money that anyone
else in the restaurant, including Han Chinese employees. It's all
about education and training, the manager said, underlining a point
made a few minutes earlier by one of the Foreign Affairs officers.

Much of our discussion with the Chinese officials revolved around
semantics and perceptions, and around the Western media. They believe
Western journalists are rarely able to see the Chinese perspective on
Tibet, that we come to Tibet with pre-formed notions and often have
trouble telling the truth (there's that truth issue again!). They are
sensitive to even minor wording disparities. Though he didn't say, I
believe one of the officers has been reading these diaries, as he
said to me: "We say the situation here is stabilizing; you say it's tense."

I tried to explain that for anyone coming from outside of Lhasa,
seeing military police on most street corners and troops patrolling
the city certainly indicates that tension is still afoot. I have
noted in my dispatches that residents say life is finally getting
back to normal, or stabilizing. But I simply cannot ignore a very
obvious undercurrent of tension throughout this entire city.

A handful of foreign journalists (perhaps three small groups,
including ours) has been allowed into Tibetan to work independently
since the riots. We tried to make the case that the best way to
dispel misinformation about Tibet is to allow more journalists to see
the situation with their own eyes. The vast majority of foreign
journalists are objective, we said, but closing off Tibet indicates
there is something to hide. I can't say whether our hosts agreed.
Tibet is now technically open to foreign reporters, as evidenced by
the fact that we are here. But I don't expect to see many permits
issued to journalists until after the Olympics, when the Chinese
government may relax its strict image controls.

A building on Lhasa's Beijing Road burned during the March 14 riots.

Posted on July 26, 2008

On the sidewalk stretching before the Potala Palace, Tibetan pilgrims
prostrate themselves before the holy place -- Lhasa's most famous
landmark and the former home of the Dalai Lama. But in between this
stretch of mostly elderly Potala worshippers on the sidewalk and the
palace proper stands a very unsubtle message, written in Chinese, in
five-foot-tall tidy flower arrangements: "Unite the nation to welcome
the Olympics."

The sight of Tibetan Buddhists throwing themselves face-first onto
the pavement in prayer is somewhat jarring for an outsider. Watching
them drop face down, either unwittingly or obliviously, before a
Beijing Olympics slogan is nothing short of bizarre. Yet they are
deep in prayer and don't seem to notice the slogan.

The Olympics message is in full force in Lhasa. Whether it has taken
hold is quite another matter. Across from the Potala, in the park
that houses a monument to the anniversary of China's control over
Tibet (Chinese call it a liberation; critics say it's an occupation),
a display of larger-than-life sized cutouts of the Olympic mascots
wave merrily at the 7th century palace. The flat painted cartoon Fuwa
-- the "friendly children" -- dance gaily in a carefully cultivated
sea of artificial flowers that stands in stark contrast to the holy
place directly opposite.

As I was photographing the oddly placed Lhasa Fuwa, a Chinese man
passed by and asked, "Aren't they beautiful?" The answer to that lies
in personal taste, I suppose. Much of Lhasa has been redesigned
according to Chinese modern style in the past few years, with wide
avenues, tidy parks and row-upon-row of white tile buildings. For me,
as well as other foreign tourists, the Tibetan quarter of the city
holds most of Lhasa's charm.

In addition to the Olympics slogans just in front of the Potala and
the park Fuwa display, complemented by a set of Olympic rings at the
end of the road, Lhasa is, like most other Chinese cities, full of
Olympics messages. Red banners hanging above the streets urge
citizens to mind their manners and welcome China's first Olympics,
which begin in Beijing on Aug. 8. The green bicycle taxis that abound
in the old parts of the city are all covered with stickers
proclaiming the Olympics slogan, "One World, One Dream."

Given the riots and crackdown here in March, that slogan seems
particularly ironic. Most of the Tibetans I've met are like the
pilgrims at the Potala, praying before a call to national Olympic
unity. Either they don't know much about the Olympics, or they just don't care.

"I really don't know about the Olympics," one 20-something man told
me. "Maybe I'll watch some of it on television. I'm not clear."

Tibetans pray in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa.

Posted on July 25, 2008

As I was strolling near the Jokham Temple in central Lhasa on Friday
just after sunset, a young Tibetan man cycled up next to me on his bike.

He greeted me in clear, proper English, asking where I was from and
how long I would be in Tibet. My first paranoid thought was of him as
a not-too-subtle undercover officer looking for information. My
instincts told me otherwise. He somehow seemed too earnest. The young
man said he was studying English in Lhasa and was eager to find some
foreigners to practice conversation with. When he started studying in
the capital, he hoped to use his English with the multitude of
foreign tourists who come here each year. Since the troubles of March
14, he smiled, there simply hadn't been any around to talk with.

He wanted to know, could we trade phone numbers and set up a time to
meet and speak English together?

My heart sank a little. When a dozen passing soldiers and two
uniformed police eyed us warily, I wanted to run, or to at least warn
the young man away. Instead, I smiled and we parted ways. I'm still a
little worried he may have been questioned after I left him.

I relate this story only to try to give some idea just how tense and
oppressive the atmosphere is these days in Lhasa (and this, I've been
told, is much freer than it was just a few weeks ago). It is quite
clear from words and actions that any Tibetan speaking openly to a
foreign journalist would draw unwanted attention and potential
trouble from the omnipresent Chinese army and police. Hence, finding,
speaking to and protecting potential Tibetan sources during the
course of a five-day trip with little time to build trust, and
government minders on the watch, is a monumental task.

Whether we are continually monitored or followed, I don't know. I
assume so. With police and army patrolling most street corners, white
faces have no chance of escaping notice. Inside the famed Potala
Palace, for instance, there are an equal number of People's
Liberation Army uniforms and monks' robes worn.

I'm not at all concerned for my own safety. Instead, I fear even
being seen speaking with me will cause problems for Tibetans living
already under these so obviously extreme conditions.

Posted on July 25, 2008

This should be peak tourist season in Tibet. Instead, only a
scattered handful of Chinese tour groups seem to be visiting the
Tibetan capital's most prominent places this week. Western tourists
are scarce enough to make heads turn.

And while business is bad, the majority of those few tourists who are
coming to Lhasa often strike at the heart of the ethnic tensions that
spurred riots in March. A Tibetan business proprietor here said her
place is usually full of foreigners this time of year, with tourist
season in high gear from May through September. Now, she said, just a
few Chinese tour groups visit sporadically and making a living is quite tough.

Asked what she thinks of the Chinese groups, the woman rolled her
eyes. "Eh, you know we can't say anything bad about them or we'll get
put in prison," she said with a wry laugh.

The Chinese government reopened Tibet to domestic tourists in May,
while foreign tourists were held off until late June. Locals say
though business is bad, it has picked up slightly in the past two
weeks or so. It's unclear what impact the political trauma of Lhasa's
unrest and the Chinese crackdown has had on the desire of foreign
tourists to visit here.

Of several Western tourists we approached at the Potala Palace today,
all had purchased their tickets and tour packages last year. For
several months this spring, they believed Tibet would be off their
itinerary. Travelers in a group of about 15 Americans said they only
learned a week before leaving for China that their Tibet-entry
permits had been granted after all.

The Potala, probably Lhasa's most famous destination as the former
home of the Dalai Lama, is open to tourists and heavily guarded, as
are several other key sites. Several monasteries, however, remain
off-limits. As I mentioned yesterday, our minder from the Tibetan
foreign affairs offices said there are currently four or five groups
of Western tourists in Tibet.

It's easy to see why the tourist ban and slump is a serious problem
for Tibet, and for China. According to the Chinese government's
figures, tourism is a strong and rapidly growing peg of Tibet's
economy, accounting for more than 14% of the region's gross domestic
product in 2007. The Xinhua news agency says money brought into Tibet
through tourism increased by some 75% in 2007 from a year earlier.
There are no official figures available for tourism thus far this
year, but it's clear from streets full of empty souvenir shops that
business is barely hanging on.

Chinese businesses are also hurting. Continued bad business
conditions here will weaken the government's oft-touted economic
development of Tibet. So the big question now is when and whether the
tourists who helped make Lhasa boom will return. Another Tibetan
business person asked me to tell Westerners to come back.

"But tell them it's not just tourism, tell them to think about the
Tibetan people," he said.

A Tibetan pilgrim prays outside the Jokham Temple while a Chinese
tour group rests on the sidewalk.

Posted on July 24, 2008

After only a few hours in Lhasa, one thing is crystal clear: Four
months after the riots and subsequent crackdown, controls may be
easing somewhat but this remains a very tightly controlled city under
intense guard by Chinese military and police.

Uniformed soldiers and police stand watch in pairs and trios at most
major intersections throughout the Barkhor district, a ring around
the Jokhang Temple - one of the most sacred places in Tibetan
Buddhism. As the faithful masses walk praying in a clockwise-turning
throng around the temple they barely notice the guards and the police
and soldiers pay little attention to the crowd. There is no visible
aggression or animosity between the Tibetans and Chinese security
forces. Life appears to be slowly getting back to some form of normal.

Chinese tour groups are in evidence, as are a handful of Western
tourists. One of the few foreign aid workers who has remained in
Lhasa throughout the chaos of 2008 said the city finally is regaining
a sense of normalcy, despite the continued police and military
presence. Still there is much talk in hushed tones of Chinese
repercussions against Tibetans involved in the riots, and the need
for extreme caution. In other words, things are calmed but not healed.

On leaving Beijing this morning, I wondered how the lockdown in Lhasa
would compare with current conditions in the security-obsessed
Chinese capital, where, less than two weeks ahead of the Olympics,
SWAT units patrol the highways near the international sporting venues
and ever-larger troop brigades march through the streets. Now I can
say with some confidence: Security is tighter in Lhasa than Beijing,
if based solely on sheer numbers of visible police and soldiers per citizen.

While the police are out in force in Lhasa, we two foreign
journalists have been left quite alone. In fact, our biggest headache
in getting to Lhasa came at the new Beijing airport. The nervous Air
China ticket agent who checked us in for the flight was downright
befuddled by the validity dates of our permit to Tibet, and obviously
afraid of getting in hot water if he erroneously allowed foreign
journalists to fly into what has been this year China's biggest
forbidden zone. After issuing our boarding cards, the agent chased us
down at the security line and asked me to sign a blank piece of
paper, at the bottom of the page. I couldn't agree to signing a
confession or apology I hadn't read, so he chased us down again 60
minutes later at the boarding gate. This time, he demanded we sign a
paper insisting we took responsibility for our own actions (thus
meaning he would not bear the brunt should there be trouble). I
compromised and gave him a copy of our travel permit.

Arrival at the Lhasa airport was subdued, the only shocking moment
being the guard with the semi-automatic weapon manning the doorway of
the tiny airport. We were met by our handler, a young Tibetan woman
who went to university in Beijing. During the one-hour drive into the
city, while taking in the breathtaking scenery and trying to draw
deep breaths of the thin air, we heard from our minder that there are
this week four or five foreign tour groups in Lhasa. As for foreign
journalists? "You're the only ones," she said with a laugh.

One would think the arrival of foreign journalists traveling
independently in Lhasa would muster some special security notice and
handlers. Instead, with little fanfare, we were deposited at out
hotel and left to our own devices for the evening. Perhaps we were
followed; I looked several times throughout the evening and didn't
notice anyone who seemed to be watching us with anything other than a
passing curiosity for foreigners.

How much we get to see and whether people will be willing to speak
honestly with us remains unclear. Our requests to visit the Drepung
Monastery - once the biggest monk-training school in Tibet - were
rejected. The monastery, which critics charge has become a prison
camp for monks, remains closed to outsiders. After just a few hours
here, I can already tell that the elusive truth I'm looking for will
not be easily found.

A troop of Chinese soldiers drill in downtown Lhasa.

Posted on July 23, 2008

BEIJING -- The golden ticket arrived at my Beijing office on Tuesday
in a express-mail envelope with an image of a leaping Liu Xiang,
China's champion hurdler. Inside, handwritten in blue ballpoint ink
on a whisper-thin piece of paper was a five-day travel permit for two
foreign correspondents to visit Tibet.

When the Chinese government announced June 25 that Tibet would reopen
to foreigners, it seemed a natural step to apply for a permit. The
region had been sealed off since the March 14 uprising and subsequent
crackdown. As yet, news coverage from Tibet has been limited to
state-run media and government-organized tours for foreign
journalists-one soon after the unrest, another during the Olympic
torch relay. A Spanish journalist friend and I had submitted what
seemed to be very basic paperwork asking for permission to visit
independently. We faxed copies of our passports, press cards and a
very roughly sketched itinerary. The Tibetan foreign affairs office
asked no questions about what we planned to write.

When we got word last week our permit was likely to be approved, I
asked my assistant to make sure the Tibetan foreign affairs office
was clear that we are two journalists who will write about our
experiences there. I knew of no other foreign journalist approved for
independent travel in Tibet since March, so I thought there might
have been a mistake.

Came the answer: "It's fine; they just need to report the truth."

A simple sentence, but fraught with complications. The truth about
Tibet has been perhaps the most hotly debated topic involving China
in 2008. Most Westerners see Tibet as a mystical land struggling
under the heavy hand of Chinese political and cultural repression;
most Chinese see it as an inalienable part of their country-one that
has benefited tremendously under Chinese rule.

Chinese discontent over Western media reports on Tibet in March
sparked antiforeigner sentiment not seen in the capital in nearly a
decade. Major news outlets such as CNN were vilified for cropping
photos and other minor transgressions. At least 10 foreign
correspondents working in China, several of them among the first
organized group to visit the region, had received death threats.
Tibet became a focal point of China's critics during the public
relations fiasco that was the global Olympics torch relay and a whole
generation of instant-messaging Chinese youth proclaimed their
nationalism online.

The reality is this: I have few illusions about discovering the
absolute truth in Tibet. During our five days, we will be accompanied
by a minder and required to use a government-supplied car and driver.
Those limitations are not unlike China's country-wide reporting
restrictions of years past, when foreign correspondents were legally
required to register with provincial and local officials when
traveling. The rules were lifted as part of China's promises for free
reporting during the Olympics, but never eased in Tibet.

My Spanish colleague and I have discussed our plans for the trip and
we agree on our own truth. We want to go to Tibet with open eyes and
ears, to see as much as we can, to listen, and try to discover as
much as we can about the truth.

(The Central Tibetan Administration does not necessarily subscribe to
the opinion expressed in this column. The article is reproduced from
the courtesy of the online edition of Far Eastern Economic Review,

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