After the Earthquake, Not All Quiet on China’s Western Front

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One year ago today, an earthquake hit the northeastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, leveling a small, majority-Tibetan town.  The magnitude-6.9 temblor shook buildings from the hills and pulled monasteries and mud-brick homes to the ground. The first images from the scene showed crimson-robed monks digging though the rubble by hand. They were soon joined by veritable army of Chinese rescue workers, soldiers and officials. Having felt the political aftershocks of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Beijing was taking no chances.

The search and rescue operation (which was, for the most part, masterfully efficient) quickly became a television event with a familiar cast of heroes. Premier Wen Jiabao, a constant presence after Sichuan, summitted piles rubble, posed with local leaders and comforted kids. When the focus shifted from rescue to recovery, Wen was at the scene and on point: “We can overcome the disaster,” he said, “and improve national unity.”

Talk of ‘unity’ has not played well among the locals. One year after the earthquake, there are growing signs of discontent.

Earlier this month, some 40 ethnic Tibetans were reportedly detained while demonstrating against the government’s reconstruction plans.  The protesters were angry over land distribution, charging that the state is appropriating the best plots, reports the International Campaign for Tibet, a concern group.  Photographs from the scene show banners with slogans like “our land belongs to us.”

The area, which I visited in Nov. 2009, has long been under dispute:

Yushu sits at what was the edge of the old Chinese empire, and to this day its predominant population is not Han, the ethnic group that rules the new China, but Tibetan. Indeed, the name Yushu, or “Jade Tree,” is not what the locals use, beautiful as it is. Yushu is Mandarin, the language of the bureaucrats of Beijing. The town uses Jyekundo, which is Tibetan — the language of the exiled Dalai Lama, a bête noire of the Chinese government. Dominating a large square in Yushu was a spectacular statue not of some cultural hero from the broad river plains, crowded cities or farmlands further east but of the great Gesar, a legendary king of the pastoral peoples of Tibet and Mongolia…

…Like much of the country’s western regions, this rural county is relatively poor. The newly built Qinghai-Tibet railway runs 124 miles (200 km) to the north, whisking tourists and traders — and their money — directly to Lhasa, the capital of what the Chinese have demarcated as the Tibet Autonomous Region. (The Dalai Lama claims a larger territory for Tibet, including Qinghai province, where Yushu lies, and the Tibetans have their own name for Qinghai and parts of Sichuan province: Kham.) Yushu’s villagers, monks and herders tend to be wary of the central government in Beijing. Many worry that the influx of Han Chinese migrants threatens Tibetan culture, and some consider China an occupying force. (via TIME)

It’s a clash playing out across western China. Vast swathes of Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu provinces (what  Tibetans call Amdo and Kham) are being transformed by state-led development and migrants from the east. Many of the small Tibetan towns I visited in 2009 had rows of identical, whitewashed apartment blocks and fresh-paved roads clogged by military vehicles.  At night, shiny police cars patrolled wide, dusty streets.

A year and a half later, the high-plains are still seething.  On Mar. 16, the three year-anniversary of the 2008 uprisings, a young monk from the Kirti Monastery in Aba county,  Sichuan province, lit himself on fire to  protest Chinese rule.  When security officials arrived they extinguished the flames, but proceeded to beat and kick his body, reports the AP. He died hours later.

Yesterday, Tibetan exile groups reported that the Kirti monastery was under siege. Chinese security officials have built a barbed wire fence around the compound and armed men are preventing monks from leaving and food from being delivered. Inside the monastery, says ICT, a campaign for “patriotic education” is underway.