The free Tibet protestors outside Downing Street, tightly coralled behind crash barriers, made a colourful spectacle with their banners, bobble hats and flags. The Olympic torch relay, on the other hand, did not.
First, a float displayed five scantily-clad girls, obviously under orders to dance no matter what. They bopped without enthusiasm, and one poor girl seemed to be crying; presumably she had not signed up to be shouted at.
Then a load of yellow jacketed cops, some on horses and bicycles, appeared, followed by a squad of Chinese security guards in blue tracksuits. Just about visible at their centre a glum-looking athlete held a metal stick with a smear of flame on top.
As the torch passed protestors would jump the barrier to get at it and get wrestled to the ground. Photographers would surround them as they were cuffed. It was a piece of street theatre that made for dramatic news photos.
Just as numerous as the pro-Tibet protestors was the one China lobby, Chinese students waving flags and singing patriotic songs. They were herded in a separate area.
They, and most folk in China, are outraged that the recent anti-Chinese riots in Tibet should be seen in the west as some kind of noble insurgency. They saw the same pictures we did, and were sickened to see their compatriots being beaten up by Tibetan thugs.
They have a point there, of course. It’s just a shame that they never ask why the Tibetans are rebelling, and simply believe their government’s propaganda.
Tibetans have been appallingly treated for decades and from what I have see things there are only getting worse.
I first went to Tibet in 1998. On the very first day I was travelling in a taxi when the Tibetan driver pulled to the side of the road and began to shake so hard that he could not keep his hands on the wheel. A slow convoy of military trucks was approaching. I got out. We were on the busy main street in Lhasa, Tibet Road, and everyone had stopped to watch.
Prisoners were displayed on the open backs of the trucks. A soldier stood behind each one, pushing his shaved head down. Each truck had about twenty prisoners on it, and there more than twenty trucks. I assume they were charged with sedition – there had been riots the week before.
They would have disappeared, along with hundreds of thousands of other Tibetans, into forced labour camps. It is perilously easy for a Tibetan to find himself slung in one of those – just owning a Tibetan flag or a picture of the Dalai Lama, or talking inappropriately to foreigners, or mentioning a desire for Tibetan independance, can lead to hefty sentences.
Yet plenty of Tibetans are willing to take those risks, so passionately do they feel. In the Potala Palace – the stale and melancholy mansion where the Dalai Lamas once lived – a monk drew my aside from my tour group to whisper that the Chinese were destroying his country, and that everything my Chinese guide was telling me was a lie. He complained about the CCTV system that the state had just installed (I later discovered that it had been paid for from a UNESCO development grant).
In a cafe I met another monk who admitted he was about to make the arduous journey to India. Tibetans walk to India to study with the Dalai Lama’s government in exile or live as refugees. The journey takes weeks, and they have to carry all their food with them – he was taking a rucksack full of steamed buns. As well as frostbite and exposure they run the risk of being shot by Chinese border guards
(as you can see on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLN4KWxqZ-0).
I gave the guy a postcard of the Dalai Lama, and he secreted it in his robes, and gave me a kata, the Tibetan white scarf, in return. (I would not take such images into Tibet now, knowing the trouble that they can cause for the locals).
Another Tibetan I know of works as a school teacher. As this is an official position, he is not allowed to practise his religion, and risks losing his job when, every week, he disguises himself with a scarf over his face and circumnambulates Lhasa’s main temple, the Jokhang. He carries a bag of vegetables so that, if caught, he can argue he is only browsing the stalls. He has to teach, of course, in Mandarin Chinese; Tibetan is not taught even as a second language.
Everywhere you look, Tibetans are being subjugated. The great monasteries are largely empty. There are spies everywhere, and one Chinese soldier for every twenty Tibetans. Nomads are being settled into ghettoised camps and women forcibly sterilised.
The Chinese, like the colonisers of the Victorian era, sincerely believe in the superiority of their civilisation, and think it no bad thing for backward cultures to be given its benefits. Tibetans are seen as child-like and primitive, their extraordinary religious piety an inferior state of consciousness caused by insufficient education.
The old Tibet, they point out, was a feudal slum where slavery was tolerated (they are absolutely right on this, of course), and the Chinese invasion was, they sincerely believe, a liberation, a chance for the serfs to overthrow their masters. What repression they do acknowledge they see as the regrettable consequence of Tibetan ‘splittism’ by the ‘Dalai Lama clique’ – the feudal old guard.
My interpretation of recent events is that as a colony Tibet was muddling grumpily along – smouldering with discontent but workable; but now a huge and intolerable new pressure has been added that simply cannot be borne. The Han Chinese are moving to Tibet at the rate of thousands every month, lured by tax breaks, and the new railway line has massively speeded up this Lebensraum style resettlement program.
There are millions of Han there now. In Lhasa they outnumber ethnic Tibetans. They have brought with them that harsh Chinese version of modernity, where money is king, the lust for development trumps all other considerations, and governance and the law are for sale.
Tibetans, not a particularly practical lot at the best of times, are never going to prosper under such a system, and have become an underclass. There are very few Tibetan businesses; you might see Tibetans working as waitresses, say, but the boss is always Han.
Everywhere you look, Tibetans culture is being destroyed, its people brutalised and subjugated. They are up against it, and they are desperate, and finally even the calming words of the Dalai Lama, who preaches non violent resistance, are no longer enough to stop them lashing out.