Exclusive: Foreboding on Tibetan plateau as China gathers forces

LITANG, China — High on the Tibetan Plateau, an eerie quiet has settled on the usually bustling city of Litang. Few shops open their doors. Only police vehicles and packs of dogs roam the streets.

The city is under police lockdown. Convoys of troops whir by, some with flashing lights. Most residents stay indoors. A massive paramilitary buildup appears under way in the region, but no one knows where or when it might unleash its force.

As in many Chinese cities with heavy ethnic Tibetan populations, authorities in Litang are racing to prevent new racial riots after a week of bloody clashes in Tibet and several neighboring provinces. Since early Monday, they've banned private vehicles from the streets and ordered store owners to close up.

No significant unrest has yet occurred in this city, which lies in a traditionally Tibetan area of western Sichuan province. But the government clearly is ready with a sledgehammer if it needs to respond. One resident who gave his name only as Dorje said, "It could get bad here."

Paramilitary trucks jam the main highway leading from central Sichuan into the Tibetan areas in the western part of the province. Among the more than 100 military trucks Tuesday were ambulances, paddy wagons, armored vehicles and troop carriers. Soldiers carried automatic weapons.

Whether the preparations were aimed for Litang or some other location was unknown, and contacting Chinese government officials to ask would be risky. While this reporter and another Western journalist were able to enter Litang, many others have been blocked in the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and other areas of Sichuan.

Foreboding, however, cloaks this city, home to 50,000 people on a breathtaking plain 13,100 feet high.

At least 90 percent of Litang's population is ethnic Tibetan, and many are wary of speaking to foreigners even as they signal unhappiness with the unfolding repression.

"You can't drive. You can only walk," said one disgruntled resident, who isn't being identified to prevent reprisals in the increasingly tense conflict between Tibetans and ruling Han Chinese.

A businessman, staying at a hotel, said he'd heard that the closure of the city's stores would last for three days but that there'd been no formal announcement.

"Of course it's bad for business but it's only for three days," he said.

Asked about other conditions in the region, he balked. "I can't talk about it because I'll get hit," he said, giving himself a mock punch to the face.

In the sudden spasm of violence that's shaking China within its Tibetan minority population, authorities are resorting to tried-and-true techniques.

They're turning up the criticism of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, blaming him for instigating unrest rather than accepting that many Tibetans are bitterly angry over their treatment.

In Beijing, Premier Wen Jiabao told a news conference Tuesday that there's "plenty of evidence" that the Lhasa riots Friday and subsequent unrest over the weekend "was organized, premeditated, masterminded and incited by the Dalai clique."

The Litang television channel carries a constant loop message condemning the Dalai Lama and warning that it's a crime to have contact with him or his supporters.

Litang is home to a large Tibetan Buddhist monastery with a history of rebellion against communist dictates. The monastery, which now houses about 2,000 monks, was besieged and subjected to aerial bombardment by the People's Liberation Army in 1956 after it resisted communist revisions in the region.

"The monastery is one of four (in western Sichuan) that are the strongest supporters of the Dalai Lama," Dorje said, adding that some of the monks have studied in India, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile, and "come back with ideas."

No guards blocked access to the monastery Tuesday, however, and inside a senior monk spoke to two journalists, briefly and with obvious reluctance.

"There have been no problems here. It is a stable monastery," he said, speaking in one corner of a dimly lit prayer hall where dozens of monks chanted. When he was asked whether many monks supported the uprisings against Han Chinese domination that roiled the Tibetan capital of Lhasa last week, he looked pained. "This kind of thinking is prohibited."

Dorje said, though, that religious restrictions deeply irked local Tibetans.

"They control everything too tightly," he said. "They won't let us have the Dalai Lama as our guide."

He said Tibetans knew that they held no chance of success in rising up against the Chinese majority, "but we'll do it anyway."

He said Tibetan anger in western Sichuan ran deep, as it did in Tibet, and that the unrest wouldn't end easily, even with the massive use of force.

"Wherever the Tibetans are in the majority, the situation will be unstable," he said.


Read Tim Johnson's blog, "China Rises."