Checkpoint on the road to Lhasa

New Statesman
A car travels along the Qinghai-Tibet Highway, over 2,000 kilometers of road connecting Beijing with Lhasa in Tibet. (PHOTO: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

Early one summer morning in August, travelling from Golmud to Lhasa on the Qinghai-Tibet Highway, we came across the first checkpoint. A police officer wearing a dark cotton uniform used a flashlight to inspect our identity cards: “There’s a Tibetan? Tibetan, get out of the vehicle! Do you have a permit to enter Tibet? If not, you can’t enter!”

I was driving with my husband and two friends who were making a documentary. All three were Han Chinese, I was Tibetan. My “PRC Resident Identity Card” read: “Ethnicity: Tibetan”. So that’s how it was.

Around the checkpoint there were all kinds of blockades. I said pointedly: “I’m not from the ‘four major Tibetan regions’.” This was because, one day in May, two Tibetans from other regions, doing contract work in Lhasa, self-immolated between the Jokhang Temple and the police station on Barkhor Street, where it was busiest with the military, police, tourists and believers. This brought the number of Tibetans who had self-immolated in recent years to 39. It is an unprecedented action of personal sacrifice and protest against the Chinese government.

Such protests have moved from the borders of Tibet to the hinterland, and the Tibet Autonomous Region issued an urgent notice requesting that Tibetans in the “four major Tibetan regions” of China, namely in the four provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan, must have a certificate from the public security bureau of the local county to enter Lhasa. After this decision, another 14 Tibetans self-immolated, one of whom was a herdsman from near Lhasa.

“All Tibetans must have a certificate,” said the police officer –who was, in fact, Tibetan himself, young and tired-looking. At his side, a Han Chinese armed police officer was resting at the table, looking drowsy.

You might well ask: what? Tibetans need a permit to return home? It’s true.

There was a notice stuck on the police car, detailing the information needed on the permits, to which the officer now pointed. Copying was allowed, so that one could make sure one complied in all respects. The notice read:

Basic details about the person: name, gender, identity card number, destination in Tibet, reason for entering Tibet, intended place of residence after entering Tibet, period of stay in Tibet, whether the person entering Tibet has a criminal record, a guarantee that the person does not engage in criminal activity, the public security institution issuing the certificate, a contact person and mode of contact.

I didn’t have a permit, but I was a dissident who had had to leave Beijing before the 18th National
Congress of the Communist Party began. The task of “stability maintenance” in Beijing was obviously greater than in Lhasa. Although I was detained in Golmud for eight hours and spent a lot of effort “communicating”, finally I was released.

On the Qinghai-Tibet Highway, more than 2,000 kilometres long, apart from frequently missing the trains running on the neighbouring railway (and filled with tourists from all over China), we also saw plenty of young Chinese boys and girls riding bicycles towards Lhasa. They were carefree and eye-catching. With just one identity card they could travel through all of Tibet, despite the checkpoints everywhere. But Tibetans on the pilgrimage to Lhasa were no longer anywhere to be seen. Thinking back a few years, on this very road, hundreds of Tibetans from the borderlands would have been majestically kowtowing, with a snowstorm directly ahead. A fellow Tibetan driving the car suddenly exclaimed: “We have only this little bit of freedom left.”

No more solace

Lhasa is the final destination of Buddhist pilgrimage. Tibetans who used kowtowing to express their piety once found solace here. Now they are shut out. But the “stability maintenance” policy based on ethnicity is not new and has been operating across Tibet for years. Han Chinese are given preferential treatment, instilling in them a sense of superiority. But for Tibetans, on whom pressure continues to mount, and who have been deprived of almost all rights, this is not only a disguised policy of “racial segregation” but also a catalyst for ethnic antagonism and separatism. Will we see a stable and united future? I am extremely doubtful.

I once discussed an important question with Tibetans from the Amdo, U-Tsang and Kham regions: had Tibetans been right to protest in 2008? Some think the protest incurred severe repression and even tougher policy reform, so that the little space that had previously been won rapidly diminished. But we think this outcome was not related to the protest. It just turned the lukewarm water used to boil a frog into boiling water.

The mass protest in 2008 sent a slogan of solidarity across Tibet: Tibetans stick together through thick and thin. The self-immolations that began in 2009 show that Tibetans continue to protest vehemently by means of self-sacrifice. The last words uttered from the flames of the 54 self-immolated Tibetans so far call for two things: first, for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet and second, for freedom for Tibet.

Nangdrol, one of those who self-immolated, gave a bitter account in his suicide note: “It’s impossible to live under evil law, impossible to tolerate torture that leaves no trace.” There is not a single true Tibetan who does not want Tibet to be self-governing.

“City of blessings”

There are more than a dozen checkpoints manned by crowds of soldiers and police on the Qinghai-Tibet Highway. On other routes to Tibet, such as the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, there are similar numbers.

Two weeks later we left Lhasa, where even temples and parks have security checks but which is promoted by China Central Television as “the city of happiness and blessings”. After we left the checkpoint at Jagsamka township, in Qamdo Prefecture, I heard that back in July a monk named Pema Norbu had been killed by a policeman there because he had CDs and books on the Buddhist teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

17 September 2012, Lhasa

Tsering Woeser was born in Lhasa during the Cultural Revolution. She lived and studied in Kham, eastern Tibet, and in the Han ethnic regions of China for many years, and is a former editor of Tibetan literature. In 2003, her collection of essays published in China was considered “politically erroneous” and was banned by the authorities. She was also dismissed from her job. Now a freelance writer, she lives in Beijing and Lhasa