I've been reporting on the Tibetan protests for several days now, and for the first time since I moved to China, I am seeing the full force of this nation's propaganda machine and the frightening might of its enormous military.
A few days ago, we went to a Tibetan neighborhood in Chengdu, the southwestern Sichuan city where we have been based. It was two days after the riots in Lhasa. There were police on every corner, clearly trying to intimidate the local Tibetans from starting any sort of protest. When we started filming the security operation, they told us to stop.
I explained that under China's new Olympic-related rules, foreign journalists are allowed to report without restriction, the police shrugged and hailed us a cab.
This small incident personifies the many inherent contradictions in China's policies — not only toward foreign journalists, but toward its own people. They make rules and enforce them until they no longer suit their aims. Their aim in this case seems all too clear— to conduct their crackdown of Tibetan protesters away from the scrutiny of cameras and reporters. There's a Chinese saying I heard the other day: "You close the door before beating your dog." It was a phrase tossed around a lot during the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Now, it might be invoked to describe the violent clashes between mostly unarmed protesters and China's police and army. They are closing the door. Except for reporters who work for the state-controlled media, no journalists have been granted a permit to report from Tibet since the protests.
A Hong Kong crew was kicked out of Lhasa for "illegal reporting." Countless journalists have been turned away at checkpoints on roads leading into Tibetan areas in China, including our ABC crew just today. Most reports that have leaked out were shot "undercover," often with camcorders and cell phones to evade detection by authorities.
Chinese state television has broadcast video showing Tibetan protesters attacking Chinese citizens and businesses, but they've shown no footage of troops retaliating against the Tibetan protesters. China says it never fired on protesters in Lhasa, but our sources in Tibet heard plenty of gunfire on the day of the riots and photos of dead bodies with gunshot wounds have leaked out from areas where there were demonstrations.
It comes down to China's word against the Tibetans, and, frustratingly, both claims are impossible to verify because of the news blackout.
In our hotel room in Chengdu, you can watch CNN and BBC — intermittently. There must be a Chinese guy somewhere with his finger on a button, because every time a story about Tibet comes on, the screen literally goes black. Never mind trying to surf news Web sites. Google isn't working well, and YouTube is completely blocked. This is the reach of China's censorship machine.
We drove to a Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan province Monday in search of a monastery where we might be able to gauge the reaction of other Tibetan monks. The most startling observation of the trip was the seemingly endless convoys of military vehicles carrying thousands of Chinese People's Liberation Army troops. They were on a road leading to Tibet and many Tibetan communities in Sichuan.
There were so many soldiers that the military apparently ran out of transport vehicles and had rented tour buses to carry them all. The troops in the tour buses were armed with rifles. This was overwhelming force if I've ever seen it. We don't know exactly where 2they were heading or what their mission was — China has closed the door. But they may have been getting in place to enforce a deadline the Chinese had set for protesters to turn themselves in or face "harsh consequences."
We returned to the Tibetan neighborhood in Chengdu today. This time, the roads into the neighborhood were barricaded to traffic. I walked though, pretending to be shopping for Tibetan curios. There were paramilitary police everywhere, armed with semi-automatic weapons. Some wore helmets as if they were preparing for war. But despite the massive security presence, life was going on pretty normally.
Monks were chatting and laughing; shop owners looked bored.
Notably, there were no photos of the Dalai Lama anywhere, not even in the shops that sold religious relics. So, this is what old China must have felt like, I thought. Before they supposedly became more open, before they won the bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games.