BEIJING – Along with their traditional robes, Tibetan delegates to the annual meeting of China's ceremonial parliament are sporting unique lapel pins displaying their loyalty to the Beijing leadership at a time of simmering tensions in their Himalayan homeland.
New this year and not seen on any other group of delegates, one of the inch-wide round pins shows a Chinese flag and busts of five Chinese leaders, from revolutionary founding father Mao Zedong to current President Xi Jinping. The other shows a smiling Xi visiting a Tibetan family.
"We want to express our gratitude to the Communist Party leadership and State Council, so it's only natural we wear the pin of the leaders of five generations," Hongwei, one of the 18 delegates from the Tibetan Autonomous Region, told The Associated Press at Saturday's opening session of the National People's Congress.
"There have been so many great changes in Tibet," said Hongwei, who like many Tibetans uses just one name. "If we don't thank the party leadership the State Council, if we don't thank the socialist system, who else should we thank?"
The State Council is China's Cabinet, headed by Premier Li Keqiang.
Images of Communist leaders are common in Tibet, which is under much tighter party control than the rest of China following a history of political volatility, and is generally off-limits to foreign journalists.
The remarks by Hongwei came days after U.S. government-backed Radio Free Asia reported the death of 18-year-old Buddhist monk Kalsang Wangdu after he set himself on fire Monday in the Tibetan area of Ganzi in the western Chinese province of Sichuan, which adjoins Tibet. The area also is known as Kardze in Tibetan. The monk reportedly called for Tibetan independence while he burned.
On Saturday, Yeshe Dawa, governor of Ganzi prefecture, denied the report.
"No, no, this is a false allegation," he said. "There is nothing, we are a peaceful area."
The International Campaign for Tibet says at least 144 Tibetans have self-immolated in China since early 2009 in protest of Beijing's rule. Some cases have been confirmed in China's state media, which depict them as acts of terror instigated by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans' exiled spiritual leader. Authorities have vowed to punish the self-immolators, their family members and sympathizers.
Tensions in Tibet have occasionally flared into violence in the decades since communist troops entered the region in 1950. The Dalai Lama fled the regional capital of Lhasa in the wake of a failed uprising against Chinese rule nine years later. Although the Dalai Lama insists that he seeks only authentic autonomy for the region and Tibetans, Beijing accuses him of being a separatist.
To win over Tibetans, Beijing has poured more than $100 billion into the region to improve living standards and bring modernity. Critics, however, question whether the investments have truly benefited Tibetans or flowed mainly to Beijing and migrants from the majority Han ethnicity.
Violence broke out in Lhasa in 2008, and many Tibetan cities and towns remain under heavy security. Foreign journalists are barred from the region, apart from the rare tightly scripted reporting trip organized to showcase Tibet's development.
In his address to the congress' opening session, Li made no direct mention of Tibet, but said China would "stick to the Chinese way — the right way — of managing ethnic issues."
AP videojournalists Helene Franchineau and Isolda Morillo contributed to this report.