The Tibet Autonomous Region, as China calls central Tibet, is harder to visit as a journalist than North Korea: There have been only a handful of government tours organized in the past decade, all closely controlled.
In 2010, correspondents reported that security agents were lying down in the corridor outside their rooms to prevent them from sneaking out in the night to talk to ordinary Tibetans.
But this trip, my first, had a much more relaxed feel about it. Although most of the day and evening was taken up with organized activities, there was a little free time. To our surprise, we were actually allowed to leave the hotel on our own to explore Lhasa and talk to ordinary people, without any sign of being followed.
On Sunday, I told one of the Foreign Ministry officials accompanying us that I needed a few minutes to do a Facebook Live in Potala Square, and I was allowed to do so unhindered, and largely out of earshot of our minders. I can’t imagine being allowed to do that in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, let alone in Lhasa.
Chinese troops invaded Tibet in 1951, two years after the Communist Party took power in Beijing. They claimed to be liberating its people from feudal serfdom, and that Tibet had historically been part of China. Many Tibetans, however, see themselves as a separate people and complain of repression under Chinese rule.
After an uprising in 1959 was brutally suppressed by Chinese troops, controls were tightened and the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s religious and political leader, fled to India, where he still lives in exile. Today, more than 125,000 Tibetans live in the diaspora.
Now China says it wants to turn Tibet into a “world-class” tourism destination: We had been invited to Lhasa to attend the Third China Tibet Tourism and Culture Expo.
Officials told us that President Xi Jinping and Yu Zhengsheng, the top official in charge of Tibet, had told an internal party meeting last year that Tibet needed to be more open to foreigners and to foreign media in order to realize its potential as a tourism destination. China, the top leaders argued, should be more confident about Tibet and had “nothing to be ashamed of.”
The Tibet Autonomous Region of China is home to about 3.1 million people, and is made up of 475,000 square miles of high-altitude plateau, grasslands, forest and mountains — roughly the size of Texas and California.
Foreigners are allowed to travel to Tibet only on group tours, and obtaining permits can be complicated and time-consuming. In March, officials promised to simplify procedures and shorten waiting times for permits — although they have been making similar promises since 2013, and no one we spoke to on our trip offered any firm assurances.
There was also an awkward moment when we asked our tour guide at the Potala Palace whether any tourists asked about the 14th Dalai Lama, whose home this magnificent building had once been before he fled to India. We have to go, our minders suddenly insisted, one after the other in quick succession. We are out of time, they said, hurrying us along.
Nevertheless, the freedom we were given did mark a shift in the way media tours are handled.
There was, perhaps, also a realization that using a North Korean style alienated journalists and fueled a negative perception about Chinese rule here.
Of course, our interactions with ordinary Tibetans were limited, and not just because we had little time. We had to be careful we were not being watched or followed, and wouldn’t get people into trouble. Several people said they could not speak on political issues, and one said it was dangerous to do so. Others, though, did speak, on our assurance that we would not reveal their identities. Several people expressed unhappiness with the fact that young Tibetans are growing up learning Chinese in school, and studying and speaking Tibetan as though it were a foreign language. Others spoke of economic discrimination, or of cultural and political marginalization. I’ll be writing more about this in future reports from Tibet.
A Human Rights Watch report in May argued that China’s “stability maintenance” polices in Tibet involved greater controls over daily life, less tolerance for peaceful expression of grievances or assembly, and the criminalization of nonviolent protests in a “relentless” pattern of repression.
Nevertheless, the fact that we could talk to any ordinary Tibetans at all seemed like a hopeful sign. At least, until the trip went sour.
On Tuesday, we visited the town of Nyingchi, also known as Linzhi. There, we were given a tour the North Koreans would have been proud of. A visit to an ecological institute and animal husbandry station kicked off the day, where we looked at photographs of flowers and then ventured outside to look at plants and pig enclosures. In the afternoon, we visited a “folk village” — an as-yet-unoccupied replica of a Tibetan village built by Chinese real estate companies for the benefit of Chinese tourists, complete with luxury hotels.
It was Disney meets Potemkin.
Then, we pulled into a “real” Tibetan village, where we would meet villagers who were renting out their homes for tourists. As we entered, a police car left. The streets were entirely deserted, and not by accident.
Two Tibetan people were supplied for us to talk to, both of whose homes were decorated with posters of Communist China’s past and current leaders — one was a party member and former soldier in the Chinese army, the other a woman whose real feelings we would never really know.
All day, we had been asking to visit a nearby monastery. There are two close to each other around 15 miles south of the hotel where we were staying, both built in the 7th century in the reign of Tibet’s first king, Songtsen Gampo. Officials first said a visit would be arranged. But then the lies began.
The monastery was too far in the other direction, and we wouldn’t have time, we were told. The road to Lamaling monastery was blocked by a landslide caused by heavy rain, another official claimed.
And then, the most ridiculous lie of all, when Xue Chengtao, director of Nyingchi’s foreign affairs office, told us there were actually no monasteries in the area at all.
How far away is the nearest one, we asked. More than 100 kilometers away, he said, and not of any historical significance anyway. (That’s about 60 miles.)
All day, officials dragged their feet, in what seemed like a deliberate attempt to ensure that we would return after nightfall. We eventually got into the hotel around 9 p.m., on a tour scheduled to end at 6:30 p.m.
Still, four of us tried to get away, jumping in a taxi close to the hotel. A taxi and a white SUV followed us.
We got out, went for a walk, switched cars, thought we had lost the tail. Then another taxi appeared behind us, overtaking us for a closer look, then pulling back again.
At the turnoff to the monastery, police were waiting for us, briefly questioned us and then sent us back to the hotel. At least six security officials were stationed in the lobby and at the hotel gate to make sure we didn’t leave again.
Clearly, officials in Nyingchi were determined to prevent us from speaking to any monks.
The Facebook Live in Lhasa generated an incredible 2,600 comments, nearly 1,600 shares and 60,000 views. I haven’t had a chance to look at all the comments yet — but I want to thank everyone for the amazing response.