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Chinese Tourists Unwitting Witnesses to Tibetans' Plight

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, March 25 2014

"The most common sight on the streets of Tibet are Special Police and People’s Armed Police ~~~ Why is this?" (Sina Weibo / ICT)

The International Campaign for Tibet has been collecting social media posts from Chinese tourists about Tibet that reveal far more than Tibetans themselves are allowed to share, and more than foreigners are allowed to see.

The images include a shot of at least seven long rows of armed guards outside a monastery; a paramilitary sniper stationed on a rooftop; and convoys of military vehicles.

Many of the tourists express confusion and bewilderment about the state of things in Tibet:

At night in the square in front of the Jokhang, there are more People’s Armed Police and regular police than other people combined. Is that really necessary?

I visited the Jokhang this morning, just in time for the local Shoton festival, and met with some extremely devout believers. Inside the square there were a lot of weapons: People’s Armed Police, Special Police, snipers, police, troops standing at the ready, it felt like a war was about to start. Tour guides say, you can’t wear revealing clothing, keep your eyes open when you visit, but keep your mouth shut! Has life here always been like this?!

Finally reached a place where I can access the internet, the internet is blocked in the area around Sangchu, People’s Armed Police are mounting a tight defense. I have no comment on this, whatever I say might be biased. It’s just that I think the national policy towards these minority areas is good enough, just trying to make sure they don’t make any trouble. But if you don’t make any trouble, don’t fight, don’t force the state apparatus to make some compromises, who can be sure that the things they have today won’t be taken away tomorrow?!

On the way back to Lhasa from the lake my ID card was inspected multiple times… If you take a picture of a fire truck they’ll make you delete it… Think again about taking a picture of Special Police vehicle… What is wrong with this society? The cost of maintaining stability truly is high!

The tourists have every reason to be surprised, because the vision of Tibet that Chinese authorities has projected to the rest of China and the outside world is one of “economic and political progress, cultural prosperity, social harmony, sound ecosystem and a happy and healthy life for the local people.”

The International Campaign for Tibet on that gap between rhetoric and reality:

However, while it is difficult to fully assess how this seemingly disjointed propaganda effort has been internalized among Chinese citizens, it is significant to note the sense of surprise or confusion, and at times fear, expressed in many of these Weibo messages with regard to the security conditions that exist in Tibet. . .[which] appear to indicate that the Party’s propaganda efforts on Tibet are successful, at least to the extent that Chinese travelers discover a Tibet that differs from the impression they had acquired through portrayals in state-run media.

These unwitting witnesses to Tibetans' plight are all-important because they have the twofold gift of: a) access to sites forbidden to foreign journalists and other visitors and b) more leeway online.

According to Index on Censorship, more than half of Sina Weibo posts from Tibet were deleted in 2012, versus just 12 percent from Beijing. At other times, Tibetans (and the Chinese tourists) find their Internet connection and cell phone service unavailable altogether.

The full gallery of images collected by the International Campaign for Tibet is available here.

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