XIAHE, China -- As undercover police prowled through crowds of pilgrims bedecked in traditional embroidered Tibetan costumes, the monk in the bright purple robe looked around to make sure no one was watching. Then he smiled defiantly and raised his fist.
Hours earlier yesterday, in a new eruption of long-hidden Tibetan resolve and pride that has challenged the Beijing regime just months before it hosts the Summer Olympics, monks and ordinary Tibetans reportedly attacked a police station, overturned cars and raised a banned national flag in this holy city just outside the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Hundreds of police moved in, blocking access to the sprawling Labrang monastery complex, one of the most revered sites in Tibetan Buddhism. The London-based Free Tibet Campaign said 20 people were arrested in the ensuing violence, and a local official said seven people were injured, as authorities scrambled to quell the worst protests against Chinese dominion over Tibet in two decades.
Although the massive police presence here was designed to intimidate residents with a show of power, it also suggests how worried and insecure Beijing is at the prospect of losing control, analysts said.
The spread in recent days of protests from Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, to neighboring communities and now here in adjoining Gansu province is a major concern for a regime trying to project an image of friendly confidence and cultural refinement in advance of the Beijing Olympics.
"The fact that it's now happening at the far reaches of Tibet must be very serious for the authorities," said Robbie Barnett, a professor at Columbia University. "It does seem like we're entering a new chapter. ... This sounds like a real political challenge to the government."
The president of the International Olympic Committee President rejected the idea of boycotting the Summer Games in Beijing over China's crackdown in Tibet, saying yesterday that it would only hurt athletes.
"We believe that the boycott doesn't solve anything," Jacques Rogge said. "On the contrary, it is penalizing innocent athletes, and it is stopping the organization from something that definitely is worthwhile organizing."
The past several days of unrest were sparked Monday when 300 monks in Lhasa challenged Beijing to release several imprisoned colleagues on the anniversary of a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. Protests then spread to other monasteries around Lhasa, then farther afield. Sympathy demonstrations were reported yesterday in Australia, India and Nepal against Chinese embassies.
Reports of deaths in the Lhasa demonstrations varied, with the government saying 10 people had been killed but Tibetan activist groups suggesting the death toll was higher and rumors circulating among Tibetans of 100 or more deaths. Lhasa residents reached by telephone yesterday said the city was under a near state of emergency, with many afraid to go outside.
As with many reports in recent days, the claims could not be independently verified. An official at the Xiahe County People's Hospital said yesterday that seven people were injured in the morning rampage, which he blamed on the monks.
Others blamed authorities. "The police were extreme," said a businessman who shares his time between Xiahe and Lhasa, declining to identify himself for fear of retaliation. "I was on the spot, and it was two hours of chaos."
The Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, an activist group, citing sources, claimed that police and paramilitary forces fired tear gas and live ammunition into the air in a bid to disperse the crowd.
The rolling protests underscore the shortcomings of a ruling strategy based on fear, intimidation and tight control over Tibetan culture and religion, some analysts and human rights groups said, which has failed to win the hearts and minds of Tibetans in the half-century since China annexed the region.
The unrest here in Xiahe reportedly started yesterday morning after several hundred monks marched out of the Labrang monastery, gathering supporters along the way for what was initially a ceremony of chanting and burning incense around a white stupa, a religious structure.
China has been quick to blame the exiled Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's spiritual leader. Champa Phuntsok, chairman of the Tibetan government, told reporters yesterday in Beijing that the Dalai Lama, 72, orchestrated the unrest from abroad.
Mark Magnier writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.