Heavy Presence of Chinese Police Quells Rioting in Tibet's Capital
Sunday, March 16, 2008
BEIJING, March 16 -- Chinese police flooded into the streets of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa on Saturday to smother riots that have destroyed scores of Chinese-owned businesses and left at least 10 people dead. Officials demanded that the rioters surrender by midnight Monday, and shopkeepers cowered in their stores as tourists fled the city.
Lhasa, a renowned tourist destination high on a Himalayan plateau, was generally quiet a day after the protests against Chinese rule became violent, according to official reports and tourists and residents contacted by telephone. Armed patrols tightly controlled traffic in the middle of town and sealed off the Buddhist monasteries that have traditionally been centers of anti-Chinese sentiment, they said.
"They have closed Lhasa down," said David McGhie, 49, a British tourist who arrived in the city by train at the height of the rioting Friday afternoon and planned to leave as soon as possible. "Clearly, we're not going to see Lhasa."
Patrick Conaghan, a tourist from St. Louis, said he had just stepped off a bus Friday afternoon when "all at once, black smoke. Police were blocking off streets and people running. It was just chaotic."
The protesters "were shaking hands with us and telling us to get the message out," Conaghan said in an interview as he arrived Saturday in Beijing on a flight from Lhasa. "You know, if I was Chinese, I would have felt like I was in a race riot in America. I would have been in . . . trouble."
With travel and reporting tightly restricted by Chinese authorities, it was impossible to verify reports of sporadic violence Saturday that were ricocheting around the Internet and through phone calls, particularly among thousands of Tibetans who are in exile to escape Chinese rule.
A group of Tibetan exiles led by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, said it had confirmed that at least 30 Tibetans had been killed by Chinese forces. The Chinese government put the death toll at 10.
Local authorities pledged a harsh crackdown, risking China's attempt to shine as host of the Olympic Games in August. After days of silence about the escalating protests, the state-controlled media launched extensive coverage. Chinese television broadcast video of the riots and identified protesters as violent saboteurs. Local officials offered rewards for informers and warned residents that anyone caught sheltering a protester would be punished.
The violence not only muddied China's "one world, one dream" Olympic image but also overshadowed what China had hoped would be the big news of the day -- President Hu Jintao's official reelection and the ascension of his likely successor, Xi Jinping, who was named vice president by the Communist Party-controlled legislature. Xi's first job is overseeing management of the Games.
Although the rioting in Lhasa subsided, a struggle ensued over public perceptions of what caused the protests that began Monday and their significance for China's role as Olympic host.
A regional government official defended police actions Friday. He said officers had not fired their weapons but rather had rescued more than 580 people, including three Japanese tourists, from burning buildings. He said many of the 10 dead were business owners who burned to death when their shops were set ablaze. He also said Lhasa was not under martial law.
Chinese leaders urged Lhasa residents to "support the government's crackdown on all forms of criminal activity." A spokesman for the Games organizing committee said the violence would not deter plans for the Olympic torch to be carried over the crest of Mount Everest and into Tibet.