China Closes Tibet to Tourists in Preparation for 60th Anniversary of Communist Rule

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China has closed Tibet to foreign tourists and deployed soldiers armed with machine guns in the streets of Beijing -- part of a raft of stringent security measures ahead of the 60th anniversary of communist rule. Even kite-flying has been banned in the capital.

Although the Oct. 1 commemorations, including a massive military review and speech by President Hu Jintao, are centered on Beijing, the clampdown extends to the farthest reaches of the sprawling nation.

Online, blocks on sensitive political content and social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook have been expanded, and there has been a spike in e-mail spam containing spyware sent to foreign journalists. Communist officials across the country have been told to prevent travel to Beijing by petitioners seeking redress from central authorities and to try to resolve their complaints locally.

Security in the capital is as tight and in some ways tighter than even during last year's Beijing Olympic Games, with submachine gun-toting SWAT units mixing among the crowds in a city center festooned with national flags and colorful dioramas.

Residents have been barred from flying kites as a precaution against aerial hazards, and those who live in the diplomatic apartments that line the parade route have been told not open their windows or go out on their balconies to watch. Knife sales have been restricted, and notices in apartment lobbies urge residents to report anything suspicious.

The National Day celebration follows the most violent and sustained unrest against Chinese rule in decades in its far western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. Ethnic rioting in Xinjiang's capital of Urumqi killed nearly 200 people in July and the Turkic Muslim region remains on edge over a recent string of mysterious needle attacks in public places.

As in the wake of rioting in March 2008, foreign tourists have been banned from Tibet, according to local officials and people working in the travel industry. The March 14, 2008 riot in Lhasa target Chinese shops and migrants who have moved to the Himalayan region in increasing numbers since communist troops entered in 1950.

Su Tingrui, a salesman with Tibet China Travel Service, said that the company's general manager was called to a meeting Sunday night by authorities in Tibet's capital of Lhasa -- 2,500 miles (4,023 kilometers) from Beijing. He said the ban was not issued in writing but conveyed during the meeting and will extend to Oct. 8.

Other agents in Beijing and Lhasa said that the government had stopped giving out special permits needed to visit the region to foreigners.

"For October, business will be noticeably affected," a receptionist surnamed Wang with the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in Lhasa, said. The suspension of permits "is probably part of the extra security arrangements. You are beginning to see a larger number of police and military troops in the streets this month, and police and military at intersections where there used to be nobody guarding."

Security in Tibet was intensified in the weeks leading up to the Beijing Olympics last year and then again this past February and March around sensitive political anniversaries. Those in the industry said Tibetan tourism took a further knock after the Xinjiang rioting, which has also left Urumqi hotels virtually empty.

"To tourists there's no difference whether the July rioting was in Xinjiang or Tibet. They think it's dangerous to come down here," Zhang, a staffer at the Tibet Hongshan International Travel Agency, based in Lhasa, said.

Tan Lin, an official with the business administration office at the Tourism Bureau of Tibet, said foreign tourists would be banned from Tuesday onwards, but those who have already arrived would be allowed to stay.

Hu Shisheng, head of the South Asia office at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said the ban was motivated by government fears that overseas pro-Tibet groups could use sympathetic students or tourists to stage protests -- as occurred in Beijing during the Olympics. China says the violence in Tibet and Xinjiang was masterminded by such groups, although authorities have provided little evidence.

While the security measures in Beijing and elsewhere may seem like overkill to some, Joseph Cheng of the City University of Hong Kong, said. Chinese officials believe they are worth it to prevent even the smallest incidents while presenting an impression of a strong, stable nation.

"In the last one or two years in the preparation for the Olympics there has been a tremendous emphasis on showing the best face of China," Cheng said.

He added that local government and public security officials are told: "We want no incidents, so if anything happens, you are in trouble."