MAQU, China: Enraged nomads swooped into this windswept town on the Tibetan plateau a year ago this month, storming a Chinese police compound, setting fire to police cars and forcing security forces to flee. To the north, Tibetans on horseback galloped into a schoolyard, ripped down a Chinese flag and hoisted a Tibetan one, shouting "Free Tibet!"
Now, the authorities have imposed an unofficial state of martial law on the vast highlands where ethnic Tibetans live, with thousands of troops occupying areas they fear could erupt in renewed rioting on a momentous anniversary next week. And Beijing is determined to keep foreigners from seeing the mass deployment.
In monasteries and nomad tents, villages and grasslands, the fury of Tibetans against Chinese rule has raged continuously since last year's riots and the violent repression that followed. March 10 marks the 50th anniversary of a failed revolt against Chinese rule that led to the Dalai Lama's flight into exile in India.
Signs of simmering resistance abound: Just last week, many of China's six million Tibetans chose not to celebrate Losar, the Tibetan New Year, in order to mourn Tibetans who suffered during last year's clashes. Monks have held rallies in parts of Qinghai and Sichuan Provinces. Last Friday, a monk from Kirti Monastery in Sichuan lighted himself on fire in a market, prompting security officers to shoot at him, according to Tibetan advocacy groups. Local officials deny the shooting.
Chinese leaders have prepared for the worst, ordering the largest troop deployment since the Sichuan earthquake last spring. This reporter got a rare look at the clampdown because he was recently driven through the Tibetan areas of arid Gansu Province while being detained by the police for 20 hours.
Tibetan regions, a sprawling, lightly populated swath of western China that measures about one-quarter of the country's total territory, have become militarized zones. Sandbag outposts have been set up in the middle of towns, army convoys rumble along highways, and paramilitary officers search civilian cars. A curfew has been imposed on Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.
"The Tibetan ethnic situation is very serious," said a paramilitary officer after he stopped three foreigners on a snowy mountain road. "Tibetans are causing trouble. This is an extremely sensitive time."
The young officer and his half-dozen colleagues at the checkpoint were members of the People's Armed Police, the main Chinese paramilitary force. The officers said their unit was based in Beijing and had guarded the Bird's Nest stadium during the Summer Olympics in August, but had been sent here last month. Their mission included keeping foreigners out of the area.
Foreigners do not need special permission to travel in this region, and the police never offered an explanation for detaining this reporter.
The broad security measures undercut assertions by the Chinese government that serious ethnic tensions did not exist and that Tibetan nationalism was not widespread. They also show that Tibet remains one of the most sensitive political and security issues for China, though one that remains invisible in the developed cities along the country's east coast.
Last March, the largest Tibetan uprising against Communist rule in decades erupted after Chinese security forces suppressed a protest by monks in Lhasa. At least 19 people were killed in ethnic rioting in Lhasa, most of them Han civilians, according to Xinhua, the state news agency. In the ensuing crackdown, 220 Tibetans were killed, nearly 1,300 were injured and nearly 7,000 were detained or imprisoned, according to the Tibetan government-in-exile, which is based in Dharamsala, India.
The Chinese government accused the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetans, of fomenting the violence. The Dalai Lama advocates Tibetan autonomy under Chinese rule, but disavows violence and says he does not favor secession.
Some of the worst rioting outside Lhasa took place here in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, where the worlds of the Tibetans, Chinese and Hui Muslims converge. It is a dry area of herders roaming the plains and white-walled monasteries nestled against brown hillsides. At least 94 people almost all policemen were injured here last March, according to official news reports.
The most prominent monastery in eastern Tibet, Labrang, lies in the town of Xiahe, in western Gannan. There, more than 1,000 monks and lay people protested for two days and attacked government buildings last March.
There are no signs of protests now, residents say, because the town is completely locked down. Recent photographs taken in Xiahe show riot police officers marching in the streets.
"The security forces are everywhere, on every corner, day and night," said a Tibetan woman reached by telephone. "Don't come here."
She paused when asked her opinion about the current situation. "We Tibetans who do business, we're under a lot of pressure," she said. "We have to keep quiet. I can't say I disagree with the policies of the Chinese. It's their country, and we're only a minority."
Like others interviewed for this article, she declined to give her name for fear of government reprisal.
This reporter and two foreign companions entered southern Gannan by driving past several unstaffed checkpoints on a recent night before being stopped on a mountain road by the paramilitary officers. The foreigners and their driver were brought to the towns of Maqu and Hezuo for interrogation and then forced to drive to the provincial capital of Lanzhou to board a plane for Beijing.
A police officer in Maqu said rioters burned 18 patrol cars last year. The police headquarters now has a new fleet of white sport-utility vehicles. Official reports say more than 70 percent of shops here were looted or damaged, but those, too, appear to have been restored.
During the day, policemen or soldiers stand on street corners wearing helmets and green coats and carrying riot shields. The main road leading through town is watched by officers armed with assault rifles standing at checkpoints. The sound of troops' drilling can be heard in the early morning hours louder than any chanting from monks.
"We're afraid that Tibetans who've returned from Dharamsala might cause trouble," a police officer said.
Farther north, in Hezuo, the seat of Gannan Prefecture, the signs of tension were just as clear. In the town's main traffic circle, the authorities had set up a circular sandbag emplacement overseen by a half-dozen officers, resembling a scene in a war zone. It was just south of Hezuo where nomads on horses and thousands of others rampaged through a schoolyard last year.
But local officials deny there is any hostility.
"There's no ethnic conflict here," Cairang Dao'erqu, a Tibetan official at the foreign affairs bureau who goes by his Chinese name, said over a lunch during this reporter's detention. "Look in the streets everything is peaceful here. The Chinese, Tibetan and Hui people all get along."
Tibetans say they have no idea what might take place on March 10, the momentous anniversary of the failed uprising in 1959. Last week, the Dalai Lama urged Tibetans not to be provoked by the Chinese, saying any radical moves would give the Chinese government an excuse to take harsher steps.
"It is difficult to achieve a meaningful outcome," he said, "by sacrificing lives."
By Edward Wong
Thursday, March 5, 2009