Published January 14, 2015
A group of monks disrupted a government-managed tour by foreign reporters to Tibet's capital on Thursday, screaming there was no religious freedom and that the Dalai Lama was not to blame for recent violence there.
The outburst by about 30 monks came as the journalists, including an Associated Press reporter, were being shown around the sacred Jokhang Temple by government handlers in Lhasa.
"Tibet is not free! Tibet is not free!" yelled one young Buddhist monk, who then started crying.
They also said their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, had nothing to do with recent anti-government riots by Tibetans in Lhasa, where buildings were torched and looted, and ethnic Han Chinese were attacked.
The government has said the March 14 riots were masterminded by "the Dalai clique," Beijing's term for the Dalai Lama and his supporters.
Government handlers shouted for the journalists to leave and tried to pull them away during the protest.
The government had arranged the trip for the reporters to show how calm was Lhasa was after the deadly riots shattered China's plans for a peaceful run-up to the Beijing Summer Olympics.
"They want us to crush the Dalai Lama and that is not right," one monk said during the 15-minute outburst.
"This had nothing to do with the Dalai Lama," said another. The Chinese government says 22 people died, while Tibetan exiles say the violence plus the harsh crackdown afterward have left nearly 140 people dead.
The outburst by the monks came amid a morning of stage-managed events. Reporters had already been taken to a Tibet medical clinic that had been attacked nearby the Jokhang, and shown a the clothing stores where five girls had been trapped and burned to death.
The monks, who first spoke Tibetan and then switched to Mandarin so the reporters could understand them, said they knew they would probably be arrested for their actions but were willing to accept that.
On Wednesday, the first day of the visit, police presence was visible but not overbearing in the newly built up and heavily Chinese portions of Lhasa, teams of security forces stood in the lanes near the Jokhang.
Two Tibetan teachers drinking in a nearby bar said they were enjoying a first night out after nighttime curfews kept them at home eating mainly tsampa — roasted barley — since the day after the March 14 riot. One reason the curfew was loosened, they said, was the foreign media visit.
An acrid odor hung in the blocks near the old city where rows of burned out buildings stand as evidence of the violence. Many shops were closed, some from a lack of business, others from looting that left their migrant Chinese owners with little to sell.
"People are leaving because there's no business," said Jin Zhenman, a South Korean who came to Tibet to study traditional Buddhist painting and now runs a sundries shop.
China rarely allows foreign reporters into Tibet under normal circumstances, so the media tour underscores the communist leadership's determination to contain any damage ahead of the Beijing Olympics in August that was supposed to celebrate China as a modern, rising power.
Asked to comment on the reporters' trip, the Dalai Lama — the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetans — called it a "first step." He said he hoped the trip would take place "with complete freedom."
The rioting and four days of protests that preceded it were the worst anti-Chinese demonstrations in Lhasa in nearly two decades and they sparked protests in Tibetan areas across a vast portion of western China.
Chinese state media and officials said Wednesday that more than 660 protesters have surrendered in Lhasa and in Sichuan province, site of at least two violent confrontations between police and Tibetan protesters.
The Chinese government has maintained its response was measured and comparable to what any responsible government would do when faced with civil unrest.
That message underlined much of the official program put on for the roughly two dozen American, European, Middle Eastern and Asian reporters from the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Financial Times, Japan's Kyodo News Agency, KBS of South Korea, and Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera.
"The situation in Lhasa is returning to normal," Liu Xuan of the Tibetan Information Office told the reporters. The Potala — the Dalai Lama's former palace and a tourist attraction — was reopened Wednesday for the first time since the violence.
But while police in the Tibetan old city checked ID papers at twilight, letting only residents into the narrow alleys, by 10 p.m. Wednesday the area seemed deserted except for the police. Patrols of a dozen police with helmets and shields marched on the streets.
Police at checkpoints stopped cars. While they waved the foreign reporters through, a Chinese taxi driver said Tibetan passengers are pulled out and searched.
The foreign reporters were frequently monitored, and even followed. The bus ride from the airport seemed purposely slow, taking nearly 90 minutes to travel 40 miles in an apparent effort to soak up time despite pleas from the reporters to speed up.
Journalists were monitored most of the time during the first day of their visit but did venture outside without minders for several hours. However, several cars followed the journalists at one point and a cab driver who took journalists around the city was questioned afterward by authorities.
When the motorcade stopped beyond one of three checkpoints seen on the airport roadway, several reporters hurried toward the police chased by government minders.
Five uniformed police stopped cars. Officer Cunluobu, who like some Tibetans uses only one name, said the post was set up March 14 — the day of the rioting — and they were checking for "people not wearing seat belts, for violating traffic rules and for having fake licenses."
Aside from the monitoring, a clash of expectations soon emerged between the officials and the foreign reporters. The officials from Beijing and the Tibetan government emphasized the violence of what is known as "the 3-14 beating, smashing, looting and burning incident."
Reporters were shown an extended version of video of the violence that has been replayed on state television. It pointed out that rioters targeted not just Chinese and their businesses but also Chinese Muslims known as Hui. The video stressed the security forces' restraint.
"The armed police did not use lethal measures," the narrator said. "Only shields and batons were used."
Liu and other officials present declined to answer questions from reporters about the suppression and the causes and events leading up to the protests. They deferred until interviews arranged for Thursday.
But the video and the extent of damage visible on Lhasa's streets showed how Tibetan protesters targeted many of the symbols of Chinese rule. They torched police stations, fire trucks and a Bank of China. The video showed a charred signboard from a Communist Party office.
On Qingnian, or Youth, Road — one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, a ceremonial arch was draped with a red banner with the latest party slogan "Build a Harmonious Society." On either side stood burned-out, two-story storefronts.
Shops were closed on the road, but from the windows above or the steel gates over the doors hung traditional white ceremonial scarves — an apparent signal to rioters that the places were Tibetan, not Chinese.
President Bush called China's President Hu Jintao on Wednesday and raised concerns about the crackdown in Tibet.
Bush encouraged Hu to engage in "substantive dialogue" with representatives of the Dalai Lama, the White House said. The president also called on China to allow access for journalists and diplomats in Tibet.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday that the United States has requested that U.S. diplomats be allowed to go to Lhasa. But he said that he did not think that China had granted that access.