Tension in Tibet

Anastasia Corell checks in on the capital city of Lhasa, where Chinese authorities are keeping a worried eye on separatist sentiment:

The conventional Chinese belief toward Tibet is that the Communist Party liberated Tibetan people from an oppressive, feudal government under the Lamas and, through development, have improved their material welfare and provided them with opportunities in the modern world. Beijing’s investments in the territory are substantial: In 2011, China announced a five-year plan that includes $21.4 billion in infrastructure projects such as road, rail, and hydropower. Tibetans argue that these improvements have come at a great cost to their culture and way of life, and that the migration of Han Chinese settlers—lured by government incentives—is turning once-traditional Lhasa into an ordinary Chinese city.

Tibet’s strategic importance to China is great. The territory is the source of Asia’s most important waterways, including the Yangtze, Yellow, and Mekong Rivers, which irrigate China’s fertile central plain and most of Southeast Asia. It also serves as a buffer between the country and an emerging rival, India. Beijing feels that any compromise with Tibetans would encourage separatist movements elsewhere, particularly among the Uighur population in China’s far-west Xinjiang region. It is essential to China’s domestic security that Tibetans come, eventually, to regard themselves as Chinese.

Meanwhile, the Tibetans have grown increasingly desperate.

Over the last two years, tensions have led to a spike in self-immolations, resulting in over 120 deaths, and the possibility that people may set themselves on fire explains Lhasa’s tense police presence. In Jokhang Square, the physical center of ancient Lhasa and a holy Buddhist pilgrimage site, soldiers carry fire extinguishers instead of guns. At gas stations, everyone must register and report exactly how much gasoline they take, and to which destinations. The government monitors siphoning—after all, it may be a possible prelude to self-immolation.

Fisher says Tibet is now less accessible to foreign journalists than North Korea:

[Tibet scholar Carole] McGranahan discusses one of the major challenges facing an anthropologist like herself who wants to study Tibet: simply getting information. She can’t go herself unless she sneaks in, which is risky; she can’t “call up friends in Tibet” without “putting them at risk,” she says; Tibetans living in exile face the same problem. And she can’t read journalistic reports because, with the exception of the “very brave” Chinese-Tibetan journalist Woeser, they are almost never allowed to go.

The comparison to North Korea is not an invalid one. The Chinese government, by and large, has not been anywhere near as severe or restrictive as North Korea’s since leader Mao Zedong died in 1977. The two countries are just on very different paths, and being a journalist in most of China is much freer than being a journalist in North Korea. But within Tibet, some of China’s old, totalitarian-tinged habits can still come through. The irony is that, in recent years, North Korea has been opening itself up to foreign journalists – albeit under extremely tight restrictions – as China has closed them off from Tibet.

The Associated Press even has a tiny bureau in Pyongyang; a deal with the devil, some critics charge, but if nothing else it produces an awful lot of very good photos of life in North Korea. There is nothing close to an analogous foreign media presence in Tibet. Sometimes the best we can do is satellite images, taken from thousands of miles away in space.