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China, Tibetans and that which is not known

Normally, when there are conflicting versions about something as dramatic as a series of protests or self-immolations, foreign correspondents travel to the place in question and try to figure out what really happened.

In the case of ethnic Tibetans in China's Sichuan Province, however, that has been a difficult task.

Because police checkpoints in the region are turning outside media away (sometimes after detaining them, as happened to me in Sichuan during November), it's so far not been possible to pin down the facts on the ground.

For example, when writing yesterday on reports that surfaced over the weekend about three more Tibetans reportedly lighting themselves on fire, I was left to quote an advocacy group, Radio Free Asia and then give the Chinese government's line on unrest in the region. If confirmed, the three would make it 19 self-immolations in less than a year. (UPDATE: Chinese officials, quoted in state-run media, have denied those reports. The rights group Free Tibet stands by its information -- my story is here.)

When I got to the office this morning, I saw that China Daily, a government-run newspaper, had a story on the subject of ethnic Tibetans and Sichuan. Its reporter seemed to have no trouble at all gaining access to the areas in question. The piece looked at two incidents in which Tibetans were shot by police on Jan. 23 and 24.

I thought I might pass along a few different perspectives:

I. China Daily: Riots linked to organized crime and subversion

"The police station in Seda county was attacked on Jan 24, one day after the violence broke out in Luhuo.

About 200 people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, started to gather at Jinma Square in Seda town around 2 pm, according to Palden, the county director.

Around 2:40 pm, he said, they began to attack a police box near the square using Tibetan knives, rocks and flaming gas bottles. Gunshots were heard.

One participant died, and another was injured when the police fought back, Palden said. The riot lasted about 20 minutes before the mob was dispersed. Thirteen people were arrested.

The riot frightened people. Yeshe Lhamo, 28, a nun at the local Buddhism academy, said she didn't feel comfortable going into the county seat until several days had passed. 'People are scared, and the atmosphere in the temples is tense,' she said. 'Violence is against monastic order. No one wants to see such things happen.' 


Palden, who is 48 and ethnic Tibetan, has been the county director in Seda for four years. 'Some people involved in the violence are not locals,' he said. 'They traveled all the way from Tibet autonomous region and Qinghai province, so it is obvious that the riot was planned. It's also the reason why the violence in Luhuo and Seda was only one day apart.'"

II. Two images from Free Tibet, a Tibetan advocacy group, reportedly from the same town and incident.

From FT1

From FT2
Photos from Free Tibet

III. An e-mailed statement from the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China

"The Chinese authorities have set up a massive security cordon in an attempt to prevent journalists from entering Tibetan areas in Western Sichuan Province where major unrest – including killings and self-immolations – has been reported.

The FCCC considers this a clear violation of China’s regulations governing foreign reporters, which allow them to travel freely and to interview anyone prepared to be interviewed.

Correspondents attempting to travel to the region in question have faced major obstacles, including detention by the police and roadblocks at which they have been stopped and turned back by officials who have then forcibly escorted them back to Chengdu. 'Bad roads' and 'weather' are being used as excuses for denying correspondents entry to the area.

One team reported that their car was suspiciously rammed by another vehicle. Reporters have been followed, questioned for hours, asked to write confessions and had their material confiscated.


Journalists are merely trying to do their job and independently confirm the truth of reports from the area. We call on the Chinese government to recognize our purely professional motivation and to abide by its own regulations that allow us to enter the areas in question."


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John Morales

Let's look at the demands.

There are about 6 MILLION Tibetans in all of China (yes that's all). They WANT 1/3 of the entire country, but would settle for the Autonomous Tibet as is or about 1/6 of the country.

There are about 1.1 BILLION, yes 1.1 BILLION Han Chinese who feel that is an extreme demand considering that all the Tibetans could fit in one medium sized Chinese City.

Perhaps if they had realistic demands China might deal, but as long as they want to take such a huge chunk of the nation for such a small # China rightly sees them as 100% wrong.

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are these people insane?

Michael Hatley

There are some concerning irregularities on the edges. Free Tibet, for example, seemed to have a very fast reporting of the last incident. And the timing of your reporter arriving the day of, after noone had been in for a good span....I hope my gut is wrong and you didn't get tipped and transported by an advocacy group.

Now I'm very far from saying that the Tibetans are not being oppressed. Only that there are some things of concern.

I wish I looked the part and spoke the language, I've got the skills and willingness to get in there - but I'd stick out like a sore thumb for a fact


When I lived in Hawaii many years ago we had a similar problem with ethnic Hawaiian separatists. I called them 'left-behinds'.
Young men who had not acquired an education and could find neither work nor mates. Their minds were full of romantic notions of restoring traditional Hawaiian culture and kings--a particularly thuggish and brutal elite who enslaved most of their fellow-islanders. The young men were extremely dangerous to off-islanders and had me running for my life on one occasion.
So it is with the young Tibetan men who yearn for a better life that eludes their grasp.
In terms of self-immolations, the last time I checked, France had a more serious problem, per capita, than China--a stat that goes strangely unreported in the Western media.

Paul Barasi

Obviously it is difficult for journalists to report on Tibet when China bans entry but the media have been reproducing massive amounts of Chinese propaganda and the BBC even has a webpage giving China's version.

Governments continue to put trade with China above human rights when there is huge evidence of China's crimes against humanity: beatings, wrongful arrest, false imprisonment, torture, persecution of all kinds. On some issues the press is a positive campaigner but not on this right now. A typical recent instance is a Guardian story with 7 quotes from Chinese officials.

At a time when China is pushing a massive armed police force into Tibet and firing into crowds in a country where free speech, free elections and having posters for a free Tibet is not allowed, surely the media should be supportive to the people of Tibet and their aspirations to be free and for the truth to be responsibly reported.

Tom Lasseter

Hello Billy,
Thank you for the comment. I couldn't agree more re: the need to get out of the office and speak with sources who have first-hand knowledge of the events in question.
I've been to a different part of Sichuan to report on the issue of ethnic Tibetans and self-immolation.
But let's say, hypothetically, that I have contact information for some of those I met in that area.
There are two problems: 1. They likely wouldn't know about an incident that happened in a remote village in a different part of the province. 2. Contacting them from Beijing would run the risk of getting them in trouble re: speaking with foreign media about "sensitive" subjects.
As for travel to the village in question, foreign reporters have had limited luck so far getting into such areas. (Referring back to item No. 3 above.)
Best, Tom


Isn't it a derelection on your part not to have cultivated a single trusted Tibetan contact?

You can't rely on Twitter/Weibo for everything.

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"China Rises" is written by Tom Lasseter, the Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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