After week of violent protests, Chinese retake control in Lhasa

The Baltimore Sun

BEIJING -- A Chinese shopkeeper in Tibet's capital came out of hiding yesterday for the first time since mobs ransacked his herb store last week during the biggest uprising against the region's Chinese rulers in nearly two decades.

Ma Zhonglong, 20, said he had had nothing but a few packets of instant noodles to eat since he ran for cover Friday when he saw hundreds of Tibetans smash and burn storefronts near the Jokhang Temple, the religious and geographical heart of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.

"I went outside and saw people fighting on the street," Ma said in a telephone interview. "I hurried back and closed the door. Through the glass window I could see the mob rushing toward me. They carried knives, stones, sticks. I ran further back into this courtyard to hide. Outside I could hear them smashing everything."

Yesterday morning, as Ma emerged and found his store in ruins and expensive herbs looted, the Chinese government had retaken control of Lhasa and ordered rioters to turn themselves in by midnight or face serious consequences. The deadline passed without any apparent surrenders or arrests.

A calm descended on the Tibetan capital yesterday after a week of protests that turned violent and spread to two nearby provinces. Even the Chinese capital saw demonstrations, with dozens of students at the Central University for Nationalities gathered for a candlelight vigil under the heavy security presence.

Chinese authorities, weary of bad publicity in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in August and eager to avoid any reminder of the violent crackdown on pro-democracy student protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989, offered a portrait of official restraint during the effort to restore order.

Qiangba Puncog, the head of the Tibet regional government and who was in Beijing yesterday attending the annual meeting of China's parliament, denied that soldiers used lethal weapons or excess force. Rioters, he said, set fire to more than 300 homes and shops, leaving at least 13 civilians burned or stabbed to death and 61 police officers injured.

Aides to the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, have put the death toll at 80. There was no independent way to verify the conflicting tolls because Beijing forbids foreigners from visiting Tibet without official permission.

Witnesses say Lhasa had been turned into a war zone, with both sides suffering casualties.

"I saw mayhem everywhere - Tibetans throwing rocks, setting fires, people running scared like cats and dogs," said a 27-year-old migrant worker from Sichuan province, who was told to stay home by his employer. "The Tibetans were looking for Han Chinese to kill, adults and children.

"Somebody told me they hung these Chinese schoolboys on the beams inside the Jokhang Temple, to protest, I guess," said the migrant worker, who requested anonymity and, like other Chinese in Lhasa, was interviewed by telephone.

"It was very scary," said a 40-year-old Chinese man who works in a car dealership with an office near the Jokhang temple. "There was fire and killing everywhere. When peace and stability is gone, ordinary people suffer."

Authorities blamed the violence on a "small clique" of Dalai Lama supporters who the government says instigated chaos to put China in a bad light ahead of the Olympics. The Nobel laureate, who fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising and runs a government in exile in India, has denied any role in inciting the violence.

China's critics blame the unrest and the underlying ethnic tension on what they call the Communist regime's long- standing policy of cultural and economic strangulation, which they say has pushed Tibetans to the breaking point.

As a result, the Tibetans and Chinese keep mostly to themselves, reinforcing the ethnic divide and simmering tensions.

"It's normal for the Tibetans to hate the Chinese. You are on their turf. Of course they hate you," said the 27-year-old migrant worker from Sichuan.

Zhaxi Duoji is a Tibetan who runs the Tibet Cafe and Inn in southwestern China's Yunnan province. He organizes regular tours to Tibet but had to put them on hold since the disturbances began.

"I am a Tibetan, and I think what is happening in Lhasa is terrible. I can say 90 percent of ordinary Tibetans are opposed to this kind of violence," he said in fluent Mandarin, adding that he is a Buddhist and not a Communist Party member.

"The Chinese government's policy on Tibet is improving," he said.

Ching-Ching Ni writes for the Los Angeles Times

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