Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Heights Traveled to Subdue Tibet

Published: March 14, 2009

MAQU, China — The paramilitary officer took our passports. It was close to midnight, and he and a half-dozen peers at the checkpoint stood around our car on the snowy mountain road. After five days, our travels in the Tibetan regions of western China had come to an abrupt end.

My colleagues and I waited for the police to arrive. We were to be escorted to the local police station, interrogated and put on a plane back to Beijing.

“This is for your own safety,” the paramilitary officer said.

The detention, two weeks ago, was not entirely unexpected: I was reporting on Tibet, one of the most delicate issues in the eyes of the Chinese government. And I was traveling through Tibetan areas of Qinghai and Gansu Provinces as the government was deploying thousands of troops to clamp down on any unrest.

Tibetans widely resent Chinese rule, and Chinese leaders fear that Tibetans could seize on this month, the 50th anniversary of a failed uprising, to carry out a wave of protests, similar to what took place a year ago. Part of the mission of the security forces is to evict foreigners so that whatever occurs will be kept hidden from the world.

That, of course, has always been part of the problem with Tibet. China’s lockdown this month is only the latest episode in a long history of both Tibetans and Chinese trying to keep the mountain kingdom closed to the outside world. News of Tibet has always been difficult to obtain because much of the region lies on a remote plateau above 15,000 feet that is ringed by mountains. Information becomes that much harder to get when governments padlock the gate.

Drawing a veil over Tibet has only encouraged outsiders to project their own imaginings and desires onto the hidden land, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

It happened in the 19th century, when Tibetan officials, seeing Britain and Russia jockey for influence in Central Asia during the Great Game, decided to close Tibet to foreigners. The very state of isolation spurred explorers, spies, missionaries, colonial officers and Buddhist devotees into quests to reach Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.

Britain shot its way to Lhasa during a brutal military invasion in 1904, then tried to keep other foreigners out. The Chinese Communist Party, after conquering Tibet in 1951, kept the region closed during decades of repression (and made it into a “hell on earth,” the Dalai Lama said on Tuesday).


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