Although the Tibetan region is quiet now, it was roiled by violent anti-government riots three years ago that killed at least 22 people and set off a wave of protests across Tibetan areas of western China. Beijing blamed the unrest on followers of the Dalai Lama, who it says are seeking to separate Tibet from China. The Tibetan spiritual leader has denied that, saying he is working only for a high degree of autonomy under Chinese rule.
In the wake of the riots, China closed off the remote Himalayan region, barring international tourists for about a year. On Monday, Chinese travel agents said they had been ordered not to allow foreign visitors into the region around the upcoming third anniversary of the riots. Foreigners heading to Tibet have always needed special permits in addition to their Chinese visas and must travel with tour groups.
As part of its efforts to maintain control over Tibet, China regularly maligns the Dalai Lama, who is the head of Tibet's government-in-exile, and tries to play down his importance to the people in the region. Tibet's former Beijing-appointed governor, Qiangba Puncog, said Monday that the exiled spiritual leader still has religious clout but no political influence in China.
"Of course there will be some small shock waves due to religious factors, but we will take that into consideration and will surely guarantee long-term political stability in Tibet," Puncog, who now heads the regional legislature, told reporters in Beijing.
The Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet amid an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in 1958, remains deeply revered among many Tibetans despite Beijing's decades-long campaign to vilify him and undermine his influence. The 76-year-old, who is 14th in the line of reincarnations, has at times insisted his successor would be born in exile but has also said the tradition could end with his death. He has talked about dividing his power, with his reincarnation carrying on spiritual duties while someone else — perhaps someone he appoints — takes up the leadership of the exile movement.
China says that the reincarnation tradition cannot be abandoned and that the next Dalai Lama must be born in a Tibetan area under Chinese control. After the death of the last Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's second-highest spiritual leader, Beijing refused to accept the Dalai Lama's choice and appointed another boy instead.
Evidence of the control China exerts on the region was evident in the order reported by travel agents Monday. Beijing Youth Travel Service saleswoman Li Jianyue said the order was conveyed verbally, as is often the case with official directives that the government does not wish to defend or explain.
"A few days ago, they told us not to organize the foreign groups this month," Li said. The unrest broke out March 14, 2008.
The top Chinese government official for Tibet, Zhang Qingli, confirmed there were restrictions but said they were being enforced for safety reasons, citing possible overcrowding and the bitterly cold winter weather.
Tourists from outside the country were banned entirely for more than a year following the 2008 riots in Lhasa. China responded with a massive military crackdown in which Tibetan rights groups say nearly 140 Tibetans were killed.