John Gittings

China through the Sliding Door: Chapter IX
Peace writings
Journal articles
Newspaper articles
Family links
1989 - 1994
Tibet in the Shadows

(a) A city under martial law

(b) Defiance of the nuns

(c) Tourism in an occupied country



Tibet had been devastated by the Cultural Revolution, when almost every one of several thousand monasteries was destroyed and Buddhist clergy thrown into jail. Hu Yaobang visited in 1980 and wept for shame to see how poor the Tibetans still were. He lifted taxes, allowed monasteries to be rebuilt, and let the farmers grow barley again instead of the rice which they were forced to cultivate for the Chinese. Tibet was opened up to foreign tourists, ending the total isolation in which it had been plunged since the Chinese Communist occupation of 1950. A new generation of young Tibetans looked for inspiration to the Dalai Lama in exile. But talks between him and Beijing got nowhere, and local cadres in Tibet resisted Hu's reforms while increasing numbers of Chinese migrants set up business.

With incredible bravery young monks (and nuns) began to stage peaceful demonstrations in 1987-88, knowing they faced jail and torture. Demonstrators were shot in the streets, and the world began to take notice. In March 1989 martial law was declared for Lhasa by Premier Li Peng - two and a half months before he would do so in Beijing. Yet Tibet still seemed remote and exceptional - until the Beijing Massacre showed that repression was not confined to the `national minorities'. Tourists continued to visit Tibet under tighter restrictions: they included journalists like myself who would be barred if they applied openly. Dissidents still found ways, at great risk, of communicating news to us about human rights abuses.

Tibetan society may have been a feudal - sometimes brutal - theocracy in the past, but most Tibetans today are completely alienated from the Chinese. Few of them believe that the Tibet Autonomous Region offers any real autonomy. Tibet is an amazingly beautiful country, close to the stars on `the roof of the world', yet it is impossible to forget that this remains a country under occupation.



27 September 1989, Lhasa

More than a thousand Chinese soldiers are guarding the Tibetan capital on the eve of China's National Day to prevent independence demonstrations. Monks are stopped from entering town and armed soldiers examine identity papers at checkpoints.

The streets are deserted. The sacred Jokhang Temple was closed on Wednesday - the second anniversary of the 1987 mass protest. Martial law, declared in March three months before it was imposed in Beijing, has deterred civilians from large-scale defiance. But activists are still risking severe punishment. Two groups of nuns were arrested this month after shouting independence slogans. Leaflets were handed out this week calling for self-determination and a plebiscite to `free Tibet from China'. The centre of Lhasa was prohibited to foreigners today. The few tourists still visiting Tibet - less than 10 per cent of last year's figure - must travel at all times with a guide and an official pass.

Life seems almost normal at the start of Barkhor Street - the clockwise pilgrims' circuit around the Jokhang Temple. Hawkers thrust amulets, temple bells and leather money belts into the hands of tourists. Pilgrims in dusty clothes carrying babies, kettles and prayer wheels throng the circuit. Only the Chinese, especially plainclothes police who are conspicuous in tinted sunglasses, deliberately walk anti-clockwise.

But within a hundred yards, the first narrow alley into the old Tibetan quarter is blocked by a tin sentry box and four soldiers with camouflage jackets and AK-47s. No one can leave or enter without showing an identity card. The soldiers may refuse to let people past if their hair has grown longer or other personal details differ. Old people with immensely wrinkled faces stand in line while a young soldier from Sichuan province decides whether they can go shopping.

It was from this network of lanes that hundreds of demonstrators emerged on 5 March and the next two days, when security forces shot at least a dozen Tibetans after a peaceful demonstration on the Barkhor. Independent activists say the death toll was far higher. Today there were brief shouts of `Independence for Tibet' and `Long live the Dalai Lama' by the few demonstrators willing to risk identification. Shops and street stalls closed in sympathy - perhaps also because there was no business to be done. Most supporters found it safer to stay home and read the scriptures in memory of those who died.

Tourists ending a hard bout of bargaining for a prayer wheel or scroll banner this week might find a thin square of paper folded into the change: `Help us to free Tibet under the supreme leadership of his holiness the Dalai Lama. We do not want to stay under a foreign power - China. Tibet has never been a part of China except by conquest.' Longer leaflets have been tucked surreptitiously into the handbags of tourists. They allege inhuman behaviour by the authorities, including dragging injured suspects from hospital and deliberate acts of torture. The stories cannot be confirmed, but local Chinese do not deny that force has been used. A regular visitor to Lhasa, who is not opposed to the Chinese presence, says the security forces are out of control.

The authorities believe they were faced with a counter-revolutionary threat in March, when for at least a day Lhasa was virtually independent. Lhasa is now a garrison town. Army jeeps and trucks dominate the traffic. Off-duty soldiers photograph each other at the foot of the Potala or window shop in the empty stores. One estimate is that at least four regiments - more than 10,000 troops - are stationed in or around the city.

Some fraternizing goes on at the checkpoint behind the Holiday Inn, one of two hotels where all foreign tourists are confined. A bicycle-repair man and a marker of ashtrays from Coca-Cola tins keep the soldiers company. There is even a compliment book in which school-children have written `Uncle Soldier, are you well?' But the army's real message to the people was broadcast today from loudspeakers on a patrolling lorry. It warned people to stay away from the Barkhor. `We must maintain iron discipline!'

China insists that it has saved Tibet from feudalism and that the independence movement is instigated by a `handful' with sinister foreign backing. But Chinese residents admit the strength of feeling against them. `Before martial law I did not feel at all safe here,' says a tourist agent. `Now I can do my work much better.'

Lhasa should be at its best in September. The nights are cool and the mountains rise clear in the pollution-free air. Yet no one, Chinese or Tibetan, can see a way to a future without troops and inter-racial tension. The independence movement stages small-scale demonstrations, but arrest is almost certain. Lamas who plan to demonstrate wear all their winter clothes, ready for prison.

Tibetan activists still hope for international pressure to be brought upon China. `Lovers of peace and freedom,' says one leaflet, `don't fail to give your support to Tibetans.' Another reads: `Wake up champions of human rights. The UN's very foundation is being shattered beyond the Himalayas.' The room vacated by the Dalai Lama in 1959 on his flight to India still awaits him. But its location in the White, or secular, Palace rather than the Red, or religious, Palace symbolizes the main obstacle to his return. The desire for political, as well as religious, freedom is so widespread that China's intermittent efforts over more than 30 years to `improve and educate' Tibet have been ineffective.

In retrospect, the March 5th - 7th demonstration in Lhasa has much in common with that in Tiananmen Square. A peaceful movement was answered with extreme force. Some violence was reported on the Tibetan side - a soldier died after being chased and stoned by the crowd. But this was vastly outweighed by the authorities' deliberate use of firepower to intimidate and kill. The dilemma of the Chinese authorities in Lhasa and Beijing is much the same. Martial law offends their version of normality - the maintenance of Party rule without big public protests. It cannot last forever, yet its ending is likely to bring protesters back to the front of Jokhang Temple - and into Tiananmen Square.



October 1989, Lhasa

Out of the throng of Tibetan pilgrims on the sacred Barkhor street in Lhasa a few weeks ago emerged six young women in maroon gowns and bare heads. The pedlars of shawls and prayer wheels and bottles of Indian hair-oil scattered, knowing what would happen next. The six women - all nuns - cried out `Independence for Tibet' and began to walk with short but determined steps around the clockwise circuit of the Barkhor temple. They did not get far.

As the official indictment says, `officers on duty from the Lhasa Public Security Bureau seized them on the spot with the swiftness of a thunderbolt'. The nuns were charged with `splittist activity' and condemned to three years' labour for being `extremely arrogant'. For a group of young nuns to challenge the full authority of the Chinese state, visibly expressed by the tin-hatted martial-law troops standing guard only a hundred metres away, is an act of calculated defiance. In view of the treatment handed out to previous women demonstrators, it also displays remarkable courage, but it is not an isolated act.

The `heroic nuns' - as they are described in the clandestine leaflets of the Tibetan resistance - have staged at least twelve protests in the past two years. Nuns, and lay-women, were prominent in the 1959 demonstration before the Dalai Lama's flight to India, and during the 1969 Cultural Revolution. The story of their latest protests is beginning to be pieced together from documents brought by travellers to Hong Kong and the West.

A list of the fourteen nuns who demonstrated in March this year gives their ages between 18 and 32, with an average of 23. Four of them were arrested. `In prison they were intensively tortured, including electric sticks to the breasts and being beaten by rifles, sticks, handcuffs and chains.' It goes on to state that the cell had no electricity and no floor covering, the prisoners were allowed few clothes and they received only two meals a day, one consisting of a single very small momo (steamed bun) and the other of a small cup of wormy vegetables. It also alleges that they were forced to put their heads into a bucket of urine and excrement.

Tibetan sources claim that two nuns who were seized after the March demonstrations were held in cells with male prisoners and raped. One, who had an electric prod inserted in her vagina, has disappeared since their release and it is feared that she has committed suicide. The written accounts suggest an array of special `female' tortures, including the use of dogs, lighted cigarettes, electric prods and stripping prisoners naked. One young Lhasa lay-woman, a secondary school teacher, was sentenced to two years' jail for writing a manifesto. She was so badly tortured that the authorities had to send her to hospital. They first extracted a written guarantee of good conduct from her uncle and aunt, who are now required to pay for the medical treatment which, if successful, will allow the woman to return to prison.

Nuns have been prominent in all the large demonstrations which culminated in the March 5th - 7th demonstration this year and the imposition of martial law. But they have also staged their own protests. One was held in December 1987 and another five during 1988. Despite the repression, seven protests have been staged so far this year. It used to be possible to complete three circuits of the Barkhor before being detained. Since martial law was imposed, with army checkposts everywhere, and a heavy plainclothes police presence, protests last only a few moments.

Nine nuns leapt on to the stage of a Tibetan opera at the Yoghurt festival in the Norbulinka Park on 2 September and were quickly seized. According to more than one witness, one of the nuns had her shoulder broken. Several came from Shung Sep nunnery, a day's walk from Lhasa, which had also supplied the heroic nuns of the March demonstration. Another was seen later with a breast wound. Others came from Ani Tsangkhang nunnery in Lhasa. Although this has a militant reputation, the abbess is a Chinese appointee and nuns have been known to climb out of windows to take part in the demonstrations.

The nuns are young because fresh recruitment - of monks as well as nuns - was stopped during a decade of suppression and allowed only after reform in 1981 initiated by the then Communist Party Secretary-general, Hu Yaobang. Mr Hu, whose death in April this year sparked off the student democracy movement in Beijing, was forced to resign in 1987. The charges against him included that of being too soft on the Tibetans.

Most nuns come from the Tibetan countryside and may join the nunnery in their early teens or even when they are as young as nine or ten. They reflect a tough tradition among rural women of shouldering a heavy economic burden and speaking their mind. Their stand is not explicitly political, but the strands of secular and religious commitment to an independent Tibet, led by the Dalai Lama, are closely woven.

Women were active in March 1959 when thousands of Tibetans demonstrated in Lhasa believing that the Chinese were planning to kidnap the Dalai Lama. Members of the Women's Patriotic Association - originally set up by the wife of the Chinese army general as a pro-Beijing front - gathered on 12 March. One participant, Rinchen Dolma Taring, wrote in her book, Daughter of Tibet: `The Lhasa women had made many anti-Chinese posters and when I joined them they were lined up around the Barkhor shouting slogans, ``From today Tibet is independent'' and ``China must quit Tibet''. Our women were more fierce than our men. It was frightening to walk through the Barkhor, where Chinese soldiers with machineguns were watching us from the roofs. All the shops were shut and no one was on the streets except the shouting women.'

In 1969, the destruction of monasteries and suppression of monks and nuns during the Cultural Revolution led to another desperate rising, largely unknown to the outside world. Its most famous leader, according to the only available account, was a Buddhist nun who led more than 1000 people in an attack on government offices in the western suburbs of Lhasa. Defeated, the rebels fled to the mountains overlooking the Lhasa valley. Blockaded by Chinese troops, the leader was captured and executed at a public meeting. Some say that more people died that year than during the rebellion ten years before.

The nuns' tales reveal that inhuman treatment was already standard practice before the declaration of martial law in March. An Amnesty International report, published in February, documented torture of Tibetan men as well as women. More first-hand accounts which have reached the Tibet Information Network in London have not been translated for lack of funds. After recent mass arrests and tortures in Beijing, it has become even more difficult to claim that the government is unaware of the excesses committed in Lhasa.

Official doctrine, first proclaimed by Chairman Mao Zedong forty years ago, insists that the state is entitled to use all the dictatorial weapons at its disposal to suppress its enemies. In Tibet this means suppressing a growing number of brave young people whose only crime is to write a leaflet or shout a slogan. The latest news from Lhasa is that six more nuns were arrested in mid-October. They had committed the `counter-revolutionary crime' of celebrating the Dalai Lama's Nobel Peace Prize.




August 1994, Gyantse

Tibet is the last place under Chinese rule where I expected to find a portrait of Mao Zedong being paraded through the streets. Had not 2000 Buddhist monasteries been sacked during the Cultural Revolution, and in the Chairman's name? In mainland China these days, people would hoot with laughter to see the old man's picture aloft. Surely there was some mistake: should it not have been the Dalai Lama?

It was the first day of the big summer festival in Gyantse, third town of Tibet. Young women with braided hair and striped chupa dresses carried good-luck offerings. A cheerful band of flute and percussion players wearing felt hats opened the show. And there, up front, was Mao being carried by a young Tibetan not even alive when the Chairman died in 1976. The portrait was draped sacrilegiously in a white prayer scarf. The opening ceremony had already been inaugurated by two giant floats. One bore a painting of Gyantse's famous Dzhong, the craggy castle which shadows the town. The other bore a massive picture of - Chairman Mao.

Moments like these confirm the impossibility of being `just a tourist' in Tibet. I was genuinely there, with my family, on holiday, at my own expense. A week in Lhasa followed by five days across the high plateau and over the Himalayas to Kathmandu. But it can never be quite the same as hiking in the Pyrenees or trekking in Nepal. It is impossible to forget for very long that this is tourism in an occupied country.

The Gyantse procession was followed by the yak races. This is a contradiction in terms: yaks don't like racing. Knots of yak fanciers in serge suits studied the form, while the competitors were dragged to the starting line. It was an achievement when more than two yaks completed the course. There was plenty of time to try to find out why Mao's portrait was on display. As we waited, a Tibetan quietly explained the reason. In Gyantse (and all over Tibet this summer) the Chinese authorities have been eager to promote local `cultural traditions'. What better proof that the Tibetan people enjoy `real autonomy' under the Communist Party's benevolent guidance?

Yet the authorities are still worried in case `splittist tendencies' stage a demonstration. In Gyantse, the local leaders thought they should prove their loyalty beyond all possible doubt. Who could accuse them of secretly desiring the return of the Dalai Lama if they carried Mao's portrait on high?

China's presence is less obtrusive now than five years ago when I last visited Lhasa, then under martial law. The entire Tibetan core of the city was ringed by army checkpoints. Ordinary Tibetans had to show three separate passes to be allowed through. Foreign tourists travelled in guided convoy: any deviation from the route led to instant arrest. The army has now pulled back from the streets but it has not gone away. On the road into Lhasa from the airport, we passed three substantial military camps. One is brand-new with smart Chinese-style architecture and an unambiguous name-sign at the gatehouse. It reads fang bao zhi dui - The Prevention of Disorder Force. Another camp fills the entire valley next to Sera Monastery on the other side of town.

On Lhasa's main square in front of the Jokhang cathedral, the alleys through which demonstrators in 1988-89 rushed out waving Tibetan flags have been sealed off. A police station blocks one entrance; a public lavatory another.

Outside the Jokhang, Tibetan worshippers prostrate themselves after throwing handfuls of juniper into the always-burning furnace. Some have come for miles on their knees, flinging a mat before them to ease the pain. A stream of pilgrims follows the clockwise Barkhor circuit around the Jokhang. Only Chinese tourists and secret police walk the other way, from ignorance or spite. `Watch out for the beggars and the monks,' warns a Tibetan friend. `Most of them are spies.' A red flag stands in the middle of the square. Any Tibetan pausing next to it is moved on by the police: who knows whether they might not suddenly unfurl a flag?

The Jokhang is a Tibetan sanctuary: the monks force Chinese visitors to buy tickets and keep to official opening hours. The pilgrims with their prayer wheels, and sympathetic foreigners with their cameras, are allowed in free of charge and in the mornings. `Be careful what you say,' warned a friendly monk. The Potala is being turned into a high-security zone with obtrusive TV monitors in the main halls and chapels. Beijing claims that the system is being installed as a gift to the people of Lhasa to prevent their sacred relics being stolen. `Stolen!' a Tibetan exclaims. `When the Chinese stole so many treasures of ours to pay back their debts to the Soviet Union!'