The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This is what happens when Tibetan villages refuse to fly the Chinese flag

The Tibetan capital Lhasa in 2008, adorned with Chinese flags. (Getty Images)

One of China's creepier policies in the Tibetan Autonomous Region is a 2011 initiative known as the "nine haves." Some of the nine are about development ("to have roads, to have water, to have electricity"), but one is less about helping Tibetans and more about entrenching Beijing's control in a region that doesn't seem to want it: "to have a national flag." Every house and monastery building would be required to fly the crimson, five-starred flag of China. (Monasteries are also required to display portraits of Chinese leaders.) It was to be a show of submission to Chinese rule and a continuation of Tibet's slow cultural dilution.

The rural Tibetan county of Driru, though, has defied the rule, with villagers refusing to fly the flag. On Sept. 27, Chinese authorities responded by sending in "thousands" of Chinese troops to force up the flags, according to Tibetan exile outlets and Radio Free Asia, a U.S. government-backed outlet that's among the few foreign media organizations regularly reporting on Tibet. Now, a week later, Chinese flags are still not flying.

Some Tibetans initially clashed with the troops when they arrived, precipitating a tight security clampdown. "Groups of seven paramilitary policemen have been stationed at each house and are watching the Tibetans,” an unnamed Tibetan local told Radio Free Asia. “Villagers are not being allowed to tend to their animals, and any Tibetan found loitering in the town is being taken away."

Earlier in the week, hundreds of Tibetans reportedly gathered in the Driru county seat, a village called Mowa, to protest on behalf of the civilians who had been taken away by the Chinese troops. It's estimated that 40 locals have been taken.

The most significant moment may have been on Tuesday, Oct. 1. That was China's National Day, the equivalent of America's July 4, a major national holiday – and one in which the flag is particularly important. It seems likely that the troops had arrived to ensure that all Chinese flags would fly in Tibet by the National Day. They didn't – and photos of Driru, taken clandestinely by locals, make it appear as akin to a military occupation.

Tibetans in Driru have held a number of protests against Chinese rule. In August 2012, demonstrations against Chinese mining expansion there ended when a Chinese troops shot and killed one of the protesters. Locals held more anti-mining protests in May.

The nature of China's rule has changed dramatically over the past four decades, easing with remarkable speed from the indoctrination and totalitarianism of Mao Zedong's era to the market reforms and flexible civil rights of today. But these sorts of stories from Tibet – portraits of political leaders required to be displayed in monasteries, national flags forced up over the homes of villagers – are a reminder that some of the old habits still remain.