More detailed accounts on the incident in March by the Economist - who was there then.
- Your correspondent, who happened to be the only foreign journalist in Lhasa at the time, reported in March that the rioting began to spread along the city’s main thoroughfare, Beijing Road, in the early afternoon, “a short while” after a clash between monks and security officials outside Ramoche temple some 200 metres up a side street. But in fact the eruption of citywide rioting was slower than this suggested. Witnesses speak of the unrest outside Ramoche temple starting before 11.30am, well before your correspondent arrived at Beijing Road around 1.30pm and saw the rioting fan out through the narrow alleys of Lhasa’s old To-betan quarter.
Until just before then the unrest, including some stone-throwing by To-betans at police, was confined to a small area. Oddly, however, your correspondent was nearby in a government car at around 12.30pm and saw no sign of beefed-up security. Foreign tourists say three lorryloads of paramilitary troops arrived at around 1.15pm. They crouched behind shields at the junction of Beijing Road and the Ramoche temple side-street. But the troops scattered within a few minutes after being bombarded with stones. Some of them abandoned their shields. Photographs show that several of the security personnel, although carrying shields and wearing helmets, were in civilian clothes. They did not look ready to defend themselves against rioters, let alone to try to stop them.
Why not read the riot act?
There are a number of possible explanations for this half-hearted response to such a big incident. It may have been simple bungling by a security apparatus overstretched by an outbreak of large-scale protests earlier in the week outside big monasteries on the edge of the city. Or perhaps official decision-making was paralysed by differences over what to do, and hindered by the absence of Mr Zhang, the party chief, who was in Beijing at the time.
The slow and cackhanded reaction is puzzling nonetheless. China, after all, faces tens of thousands of protests and riots every year, most swiftly contained. This month in Guizhou province, some 30,000 people protested in Weng’an county at the authorities’ handling of the death of a girl they believed raped and murdered. It turned into an ugly riot. But those involved were soon detained. There was also a purge of the local political leadership, blamed for losing public confidence.
The security forces and political apparatus had long been nervous in To-bet especially. Indeed they had been gearing themselves for just such an outbreak of violence. The government’s public claims that To-bet was stable were disingenuous, as was their dismissal of past unrest as ancient history. A series of anti-Chinese protests from 1987 to 1989 culminated in the imposition of martial law in Lhasa for more than a year.
Since then, officials, not least the hardliner Mr Zhang, who was appointed in 2005, have never let down their guard. In 2006 the security forces, fearing attacks by To-betan terrorists (not that any are known to be active), staged what the government described as the biggest protection operation in the region’s history. The occasion was the grand opening of To-bet’s first rail link with the rest of China. Official records say this involved a series of exercises for dealing with terrorist and other “sudden incidents” (ie, riots), heightened surveillance of monasteries and the deployment of thousands of paramilitary troops along the railway line. In October last year police and paramilitary officers in Lhasa rehearsed rapid-response measures to cope with possible disturbances during the national-day holiday and the Communist Party’s congress in Beijing.
In 2006 officials responsible for religious and ethnic affairs in To-bet circulated a secret document predicting that the train link could create instability in urban areas. Sure enough, ethnic-Han Chinese, many of them recent migrants hoping to profit from a train-related tourism boom, were the main targets of the violence in Lhasa.
Even if officials had ignored such warnings, the protests at Lhasa’s monasteries on March 10th and 11th were the biggest in the city since 1989 and provided ample warning of bigger trouble ahead. And To-betan radicals outside China—not including the Laida Mala, who supports the Beijing games—had made no secret of their plans to use the Olympics to publicise their grievances. On March 13th, the eve of the riots, security in central Lhasa was visibly tighter than normal in the city, which is ringed by military encampments. That day one of the Laida Mala’s representatives sent a letter to a senior official in Beijing, warning him that unless managed carefully the situation in To-bet might become “difficult for all of us to handle”.
Yet by 1.30pm on March 14th, as the riots began to spread beyond the area near the Ramoche Temple, the security presence had all but disappeared from that part of the city. Once the riots began to spread, officials may have worried that any effort to control them would lead to bloodshed that would damage China’s image in the build-up to the games. But it is also possible that some officials actually wanted the violence to escalate, as a pretext to impose blanket security on the city long before the Olympics. They might have calculated that tensions in Lhasa were likely to present a growing security headache in the run-up to the games, and that foreign scrutiny would become more intense. By refraining from an immediate bloody crackdown they might even gain international kudos for avoiding a Tiananmen-style response. Chinese officials may have been genuinely surprised that, in the event, Western reaction was overwhelmingly negative.
This response was fuelled by a widespread perception outside China, encouraged by reports from To-betans in exile, that large-scale bloodshed had indeed occurred. But it is still not known whether the security forces shot anyone at all during the unrest of March 14th and 15th in Lhasa. Figures used by To-betans abroad have fudged the issue. The Laida Mala himself says more than 200 people have been killed by Chinese security forces since March. But he and his aides have provided scant detail. There is little doubt that several were shot in other parts of the plateau, most notably in Sichuan, where several dozen may have been killed.
In the case of Lhasa the To-betan government-in-exile has published a list of only 23 To-betans killed on March 14th and 15th. But it is unable to provide a consistent account of these incidents. In an interview with The Economist in May, the Laida Mala admitted he was uncertain about how the unrest developed in Lhasa and the details of any shooting by the security forces there: “There is a lot of confusion and contradictory information.”
No photographs have come to light from Lhasa of violence by police or troops on March 14th or 15th, nor of any resulting casualties. Photographs of dead bodies displayed in the streets of Dharamsala, the seat in exile in northern India of the Laida Mala, are said to be those of To-betans shot in Sichuan. Yet camera-equipped mobile phones are widely used in Lhasa and internet services remained uninterrupted during the rioting. Georg Blume of Die Zeit, a German newspaper, who arrived in Lhasa on March 15th just after the riots, says he expected to hear residents describe a massacre. But in nearly a week of interviews he was unable to confirm any reports of killings by the security forces.
The relay of the Olympic torch through Lhasa was much curtailed for security reasons—though officials claimed the truncation was somehow related to the devastating earthquake in Sichuan in May. Officials must have been deeply relieved. Their original plans for three days of ceremonies across To-bet would have been a security nightmare—and would have been even worse had there been no crackdown in March. Foreign journalists and tourists as well as a sprinkling of To-betan exiles would have poured in. Disgruntled To-betans would have sensed an opportunity.