Tibetans are hoping the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China will pass uneventfully, and Chinese police and military in Tibet are on heightened alert to make sure that there will not be a repeat of last year's deadly riots. While Thursday's celebrations will center on Beijing, with the country's largest-ever military parade, thousands are also expected to gather 2,500 miles away in Lhasa for a government-led rally in front of the Potala Palace, the exiled Dalai Lama's former home.
Despite the government's investments in Tibet, including a recent multi-million dollar renovation of Potala Palace, Tibetans interviewed in the weeks leading up to the anniversary say China has done little to improve their lives and that they resent Beijing's restrictions on freedom and religion.
"On the outside it looks better, but on the inside it is not," a Tibetan shop owner in the Himalayan capital said recently, referring to infrastructure upgrades in the city. "They make some improvements, but still we are not free."
'Social order' responsibility of armed police
The Dalai Lama has said the Chinese Communist Party has transformed Tibet into a "hell on earth." This year, Tibet marked the 50th anniversary of its failed 1959 uprising against China, only to have the federal government in Beijing rename it "Serfs Emancipation Day."
Communist Party officials in Tibet have vowed that the October celebrations will be free of dissent, though nationwide festivities are expected to increase pressure on police to prevent protesters from speaking out.
In late August, the government passed the country's first law on the armed police, giving the 660,000-strong People's Armed Police Force statutory authority to respond to security emergencies and "take necessary measures to dispel large assemblies of people that compromise social order," the state-run news agency Xinhua announced.
"The armed police played a key role in handling the Lhasa riot last year and the riot in Xinjiang last month," Liu Xirong, vice-chairman of the National People's Congress (NPC) Law Committee, was quoted saying in the state-run China Daily. "Based on that experience, we'd better make clear their responsibility in similar incidents." As during previous periods of potential unrest, foreigners have reportedly been banned from traveling to Tibet from Sept. 22 through Oct. 8.
Soldiers on the rooftops
Camouflage-clad Chinese troops, armed with weapons loaded with tear gas and rubber bullets, stand guard at every entrance to Lhasa's old town, one of the few neighborhoods in central Lhasa still dominated by ethnic Tibetans.
While pilgrims circle the sacred Jokhang temple at the center of town, chanting prayers and bowing to the ancient structure, the round helmets of soldiers are visible on the surrounding rooftops.
Armored vehicles periodically roll along Lhasa's streets and groups of soldiers, wearing facemasks and wielding riot shields, patrol the sidewalks and alleys. They march in line and stop to demand that a tourist photographing them erase his pictures. Soldiers and police officers operate checkpoints along roads throughout the Tibet Autonomous Region, which covers most of the Tibetan plateau in what is today western China.
Such heavy military presence began after the March 2008 riots, when monks from around Tibet protested in Lhasa to mark the 49th anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising in 1959 and in the wake of international rallies in support of Tibetan freedom in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics. When security forces suppressed those protests, Tibetans began rioting in the streets, attacking ethnic Han Chinese civilians – who today outnumber Tibetans in Lhasa's population – and burning shops and vehicles.
The government reported that 22 people died in the Lhasa violence, including 18 civilians, one police officer, and three rioters. Outside observers placed the number of people killed between 100 and 218, according to the US Department of State's annual country report on human rights. Thousands were arrested and detained.
One Tibetan shopkeeper said two friends were imprisoned as police rounded up political dissidents. "I am not as afraid of the police on the street as I am of the secret police," the shopkeeper said. "They've been doing a lot of cleaning up, which means people have gone missing."
Monks from Ganden Monastery, about 45 kilometers outside Lhasa, also participated in the 2008 protest, and about 500 were defrocked in the fallout. Several hundred soldiers and police are now permanently stationed at Ganden, and a monk at the monastary says they eavesdrop on monks' conversations.
Dark humor, and paranoia, in the monastaries
Tibetans, reticent to openly criticize Chinese for fear of retribution, speak in hushed tones about the 2008 protest, and instead make jokes to diffuse the tension.
"Why are the police here? Because they want to study the scriptures and philosophy, of course," the monk at Ganden quipped.
In private conversations, Tibetans say they believe monks at many monasteries around Tibet are actually undercover police sent by authorities to search out Tibetan nationalists. Even at the Potala Palace, a UN World Heritage Site and home to the Dalai Lama until 1959, many of the monks and workers say that they think have been infiltrated by undercover Chinese officials.
"If I go to Potala Palace, the monks there listen to what I tell the tourists," said one government-approved tour guide. When tourists ask about what happened in March 2008, the guide said that he and his colleagues "play dumb."
China, however, maintains it is helping Tibet with its multi-million dollar investments in infrastructure and culture. On Aug. 23, the government announced it had completed a seven-year, $43.9-million renovation of Potala Palace and Norbu Lingka, another former palace of the Dalai Lama.
But Tibetans say such investments don't make the government's restrictions on religion and freedom more palatable. And while it may be possible to visit the former reception area of the 14th Dalai Lama inside the palace, locals decry the exile of Tibet's spiritual leader, who now lives in India.
On the day of the heavily guarded anniversary celebrations, a few Tibetans will likely be selected by the government to stand beside Chinese leaders and laud the country's accomplishments, a shop owner in Lhasa predicted.
Meanwhile, he said he and most other Tibetans will skip the celebrations and instead "go to the temple and pray for peace."