A great cry, a noise that can be produced only by those who live in the grasslands, sounded from the Tibetan lands in March 2008, shocking the world. The Chinese media called it “the wolf howling”.
When the Olympic torch passed through Lhasa, Tibetans were not allowed to leave their homes unless they had special passes. My friends in Lhasa wondered: “If Chinese citizens can watch the torch when it passes through other cities, why can’t we? Are we not citizens of this country?”
Many monks have disappeared. Where are the thousands who were in the three major monasteries in Lhasa? Where are my two young monk friends? Last year I saw pictures of the Dalai Lama in their quiet dormitory, filled with scents of monastery incense. Some say that more than a thousand monks are locked up as “terrorists” in the Gobi Desert in Golmud, Qinghai – the Guantanamo of China – and will not be released until after the Olympics.
Buddhist ceremonies have been cancelled because the authorities fear gatherings of monks and devotees. Many annual folk festivals have been called off, too. When the Torch reached Qinghai, Tibetans around Qinghai Lake were banned from worshipping mountain gods and racing horses. The traditional layi song festival of the farming communities of Amdo, originally scheduled for the end of July, was banned. The Kampa Litang Horse Festival is not exempt either.
“I suppose the Olympic Games are just like our horse festival,” said a tall Kampa man, when I was visiting the area. “But we won’t have a horse festival this year.”
More troops have been deployed to the Tibetan areas in Gansu and Sichuan provinces. Roadblocks and military police are seen everywhere. In Ganzi County alone, there are more than 70,000 soldiers – far more than the troops sent to suppress the Tibetan rebellion in 1959. More than 10,000 soldiers have set up camp in Maqu County, the same number as the local population. In Lhasa, everyone must pass a loyalty test in the campaign to clean up in the aftermath of the unrest in March. The Olympics are meaningless to Tibetans there.
Then there are the thousands of Tibetans in Beijing. Tibetan college students have been told to go home this summer, while students at Tibetan schools are not allowed to leave the school premises. The Tibetan Studies Centre has given its staff a rare long holiday: even those we call “Tibetans hired by the imperial court”, meaning those on the government payroll, are not trusted. A Tibetan tour guide who I know was detained for a month, with no explanation whatsoever from the police.
A Tibetan artist friend was interrogated for a day because Buddhist scripture in Tibetan was found in his painting. My good friend Dechen Pemba, an ethnic Tibetan who was born in London and has been studying and working in Beijing, was deported back to the UK for reasons that were never fully explained.
As for me, if I stay in Beijing during the Olympics, I expect to be put under house arrest. So, should I go back to Lhasa? Friends and relatives there tell me: “You’d better wait until after the Olympics.”
Translated from the Chinese by Bessie Du.
Woeser is a Tibetan writer based in Beijing. Her blog The Middle Way is frequently blocked and her books are banned in China