Last summer, I witnessed a clash between a group of demonstrating Khamba (Tibetan) men and Chinese police in a small town on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. This disturbance was unrelated to the pre-Olympic Games riots in Lhasa. The men had been demonstrating against corruption by the local Chinese authorities.
Four of them were shot and killed as they confronted police outside the county office, and for days later the situation in that town was very tense. Extra riot police and soldiers were bussed in reinforce a local Chinese Army garrison and to maintain order in the streets.
Their presence was a warning to the Tibetan community. A show of force as they jogged shoulder to shoulder down the main street wearing helmets, and carrying shields, truncheons, and weapons.
A fire-truck with water-cannon was parked across the main intersection. Demonstrate if you dare. Worried-looking senior officers monitored the situation with their radios as angry nomads on horseback prowled the outskirts of the town.
A large monastery (home to the 3rd and the 10th Dalai Lamas) on the mountain slopes above the town was quarantined. The Chinese authorities know that the Lamas have a temporal edge to their spirituality and that they enjoy the loyalty and support of the local people. The monastery, not the County Office is the heart and soul of this isolated valley community 4,000 metres above sea-level.
A friend and I walked towards the riot-police and soldiers. The police were turning back vehicles, and warning local pedestrians to get off the street. To my surprise, however, we were allowed to continue. We walked through the police cordon unchallenged.
How come? I am not sure. Maybe those in charge simply did not expect to see a couple of foreigners walking towards them and were paralysed by indecision. Middle-ranking officers in any Chinese institution do not have the same on-the-spot decision-making freedom that their western counterparts enjoy. Important decisions must be referred to and sanctioned by a remote leadership group. So we passed through the cordon and continued our progress down the main street.
A more likely reason for our freedom of movement however, is this: China fears what it cannot control, and China cannot control the observations and opinions of foreign guests. Consequently, the local authorities were not going to do anything in our presence which might attract international scrutiny.
These guys know that foreigners live in open societies and that foreigners are notorious for informing their media and governments of suspected human rights abuses. The post-demonstration “clean-up” and the targeting of demonstration leaders, would come later: after any foreigners had left town.
But we had already seen enough, and the authorities cannot stop people from being distressed by what they see. A human rights abuse is a human rights abuse in any society; regardless of any religious, political, or historico/cultural justification for the act, or of any law or argument that that says a state is entitled to safeguard its internal security.
Such an argument should be reserved for serious threats against the state such as terrorism; and not for any naïve demonstrations by hot-headed individuals or aggrieved minority groups who may feel disempowered in one way or another (e.g., via local corruption and its injustices).
I ask the question: Do the authorities really believe that these few people could threaten the powerful state of China? If so, then their grip on power is not as tight as we think it is.
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