Beijing must show it has nothing to hide

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am


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When riots erupted in Tibet last month, Beijing responded by ejecting all foreign journalists, giving the impression that it was planning to punish troublemakers behind closed doors. The protests started peacefully in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, but turned into riots on March 14, drawing a harsh response from the Chinese authorities.

The violence in Lhasa incited sympathy demonstrations in the neighbouring provinces of Sichuan , Gansu and Qinghai , and prompted the authorities to blanket the area with troops and paramilitary police. Tourists and journalists were warned to stay away.

With Tibet closed down, outside observers had no means of establishing the facts. Reports by the Chinese state media could not assuage international concern, because of a lack of credibility. Thus, the only way to show the true picture is to allow unfettered access to the troubled region.

With the Olympics looming, Beijing has been under heavy pressure to allow journalists more freedom to operate. A pooled visit was arranged on March 25 - a group of handpicked foreign journalists was taken on a government-arranged trip to Lhasa.

The stage-managed display of harmony backfired when the media tour was disrupted by a group of monks in the Jokhang Temple calling for greater freedom and support for the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader. The monks were agitated and several wept openly as they accused the Chinese authorities of lying to the visiting journalists. They promised further demonstrations.

The monks claimed the heavy security around the temple had been withdrawn only for the media visit. They said many of the people inside the temple were not genuine worshippers but had been brought in by officials to make it seem as if normal religious life had returned to the city.

The intrusion of the monks, who acknowledged they were taking considerable personal risks, undermined a carefully choreographed visit that was designed to show life was returning to normal in Lhasa.

The unrest has attracted a lot of attention in the international community. Demonstrations in support of the Tibetan cause have been held in many western cities. Beijing has maintained that the protests were fomented by a 'clique' led by the Dalai Lama to upset the Olympics and sabotage China's social stability and harmony.

A Chinese official said all ethnic groups would unite as one to crack down on the criminal activities. Anyone suggesting there was an ethnic basis to the riots was trying to instigate tension between different ethnic groups, it was claimed. Officials said there had been 400 arrests, mostly Tibetans.

After the government-arranged tour, some western media reported that the political fabric in Lhasa was under huge strain. They claimed there was widespread resentment of the authorities among Tibetans, and ethnic tension between the Tibetan population and both Han Chinese and Hui Muslims. There were even signs of political conflict within the Tibetan population.

The media reported that most of the city's Tibetan population was reluctant to discuss the riots or broader political issues, so they could not draw conclusions about the motivations for the attacks.

In a continuing effort to pacify the international community, 15 diplomats were also invited to Tibet. Afterwards, they said they did not see any protests. However, exiled Tibetan groups reported later that fresh disturbances had broken out in the temples in Lhasa; Beijing denied this.

As the Games draws near, there may be more protests. Maximum transparency and accountability are necessary to show that the authorities are handling the disturbances in a civilised manner and have nothing to hide. Beijing must abide by its Olympics bid, undertaking to give journalists unfettered access to all parts of the country.

Emily Lau Wai-hing is a legislative councillor for The Frontier