- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2009

TONGREN, China | The 150 households of Jinglong, perched on a hilltop high above the monastery town of Tongren, are now the butts of local jokes.

After singing, dancing and drinking in front of state television cameras for a recorded performance that aired Tuesday, the eve of the Tibetan new year, the villagers heard the news: Only one Tibetan village in China’s western province of Qinghai is said to have celebrated Losar, the Tibetan new year, on schedule this week.

“What is there to celebrate?” a shopkeeper in Tongren explained. “Too many of our people died in 2008.” He, like other Tibetans interviewed for this article, asked not to be named to avoid reprisals from Chinese police.

Inside the Tibet Autonomous Region, a war of wills was raging as the Lunar New Year, according to the Tibetan calendar, dawned on Wednesday.

Many Tibetans are marking the 15-day festival with silence, yak-butter lamps and prayers for those who died in violent demonstrations against Chinese rule last year.

The Chinese authorities appear desperate to enforce gaiety to show that Tibetans are nothing less than joyous. They have embarked on a generosity spree, handing out free fireworks and shopping vouchers and arranging live shows.

But in Qinghai, where most Tibetan-majority areas celebrated the new year at the end of January at the same time as ethnic Chinese, the boycott has been observed.

Other acts of defiance are obvious in Tongren, which most residents know as Rebkong, its Tibetan name.

One of the prayer halls in the town´s Longwu monastery boasts no fewer than five portraits of the Dalai Lama, even though the image of the man the Buddhist Association of China has denounced as “the root cause of civil unrest in Tibet” is officially banned.

A woman selling wares along the strip that leads to the monastery gate keeps a wad of Dalai Lama pictures under a pile of Tibetan prayer scripts. They are available for 2 yuan, about 30 cents, but she doesn´t sell to foreigners. “Don´t buy one; it´s not safe,” she warned.

Tongren was the scene of one of the first Tibetan-led riots last February, three weeks before fury erupted in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and spread to other areas. Residents recall the pent-up aggression that pervaded the town before the Lantern Festival, the final day of festivities for the new year.

“We decided on that night that we had to do something,” said one Tibetan man, who refused to divulge his name.

The spark was a tiff between two Tibetans and an ethnic Hui Muslim balloon seller. According to local eyewitness accounts, more than 1,000 Tibetans ran amok, torching motorcycles and turning over police cars; monks charged at lines of police, who were wearing riot gear.

“I threw rocks, bottles, anything I could find at them,” the man said. “That night was a small victory for the Tibetan people.”

This year, at the approach of the 50th anniversary of the abortive Tibetan uprising that spurred the Dalai Lama´s flight to India, local authorities in Tongren are trying to minimize the appearance of repressive measures. The police presence on the streets is relatively sparse, although a reminder that military personnel are stationed just outside the town comes every day at 7 a.m. when the roar that accompanies morning exercise booms out from the barracks.

Many local people complain that a tight network of security cameras, which was installed last year, monitors their every move. Some also fear Tibetan informers, who receive bribes from the local public security bureau to spy on chosen targets.

“You shouldn´t be going around asking sensitive questions,” said the woman running the prayer-script stall. “You never know who you are talking to.”

Others laugh it off.

“We know who the spies are. They´re the ones with new cars but no jobs,” a cabdriver said.

The government also is using one of Tibet´s most revered figures. It has launched a campaign to celebrate the 10th Panchen Lama, who died 20 years ago, as a “model patriot,” in stark contrast to the “evil splittist” tag it slaps on the Dalai Lama.

“We must learn from and continue his patriotic spirit,” Du Qinglin, a senior Communist Party official for religious affairs, wrote in the official People´s Daily last month. “He was always at the forefront of the struggle against separatism and resolutely protected ethnic unity.”

The 10th Panchen Lama´s elderly cousin, who helps maintain his late relative´s birthplace in Xunhua, a two-hour drive over the mountains from Tongren, is not convinced.

“I´m not sure that what Chinese officials say outwardly about the Panchen Lama matches what they feel inside,” he said, before declining to talk further about politics.

In other Tibetan areas, authorities are relying on force. A five-hour bus ride south of Tongren is Xiahe, home to the largest monastery outside Tibet and site of one of last year´s fiercest rebellions. Local residents say the town is sealed off by police checkpoints.

Reuters reported that hundreds of riot-control police, some with guns, are holding drills outside Kangding, a Tibetan town in Sichuan province. Farther west in Lithang, Chinese forces have detained up to 24 Tibetans for shouting support for the Dalai Lama, according to Tibetan exile groups.

Tour guides in Lhasa say police are positioned every 100 yards on the main streets. Some tour operators are taking a long holiday after travel agencies said permits stopped being issued last week to foreigners wanting to travel to Tibet. Most heavily Tibetan regions are also closed to foreigners.

“The policy of an open Tibet will not change. As for foreign people, including foreign journalists traveling to Tibet, they can apply through normal channels,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said at a news conference in Beijing.

“Now Tibet is stable, and the social order is calm. Tibetans in areas that celebrate the new year at this time are going ahead with celebrations. The Dalai clique´s attempt to spread rumors to destroy Tibet’s stability will fail,” he said.

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