The Fear in Lhasa as Felt in Beijing (Part 1) – Woeser

by Tsering Woeser


It was one day in April. When I met DZ, he was standing on the street with the lights just turned on near Saite Shopping centre, dully watching the never-ending flow of cars and people. Earlier, I had heard from JM that there was a Tibetan like this who had come from Lhasa and seldom went out of the house. He also hadn’t gone to parties held by fellow Tibetans. The reason is that his very typical Tibetan looks caught everyone’s attention in present-day Beijing. This is not an exaggeration. Even when Mr. Phuntsok Wangyal, the earliest Tibetan communist in Tibet, went out for a walk, he would be pointed at by a few young Beijing people who would exclaim, “Look at him, if he is not a Tibetan separatist, then he is a Xinjiang separatist!”

I was very surprised to see that DZ was greatly frightened when he heard his name. JM did not expect to run into DZ, then he invited him to join us to go to a café. However, the reason I had gone to meet JM is because I heard that he would go back to Tibet within the next few days. Originally he had been working on temporary jobs in Beijing for a few years, and the reason he was fired was due to his national identity. JM told me that there were altogether eight Tibetans who had been dismissed, but it was not the boss’s fault. This is all because the pressure put on the boss by the local police stations was too great. JM thought it was not a big deal to go back. March twenty years ago was like March twenty years later, there were also many Tibetans who rose in revolt in Lhasa. JM, in his early teens, burned the gate of a shop and, as a result, was imprisoned for four years. It is probably because of such experience that JM could not care less about what happened to him.

It seems that DZ dared not speak Tibetan unscrupulously like JM did, and I could also see he was hesitant about the unexpected invitation, but why didn’t he decline the invitation? I was observing him quietly. It is perhaps because at this moment this Tibetan man, who wears his hair long like herdsman and whose loneliness could not be hidden though dressing in black clothes, needed to get together with a few fellow Tibetans.

There were no other people in the café who could understand Tibetan, but I still dared not hastily ask DZ about what happened in Lhasa. DZ had the disposition of an aristocrat in old days, therefore, I teased him saying, “you look more Tibetan than us. If you wore Tibetan clothes, you would look like a Tibetan in Chi-itsog Nying-pa” (spyi tshog rning pa, old society). But, while laughing, JM said that he himself who was light in colour and thin, definitely could fake his way into the crowd. Thus, DZ suddenly said, “Now I often dream that there are soldiers holding their guns all over Lhasa; while walking on the streets in Beijing, when I see armed police and policemen, I am, for no reason, angry and afraid too. When DZ looked out of the window and said these words in a moderate tone, I knew that he was willing to tell us some things.

“It happened to be March 14 when I fetched the foreign tourists from Dzam to Gyantse. On my way I received a phone call saying that an incident had happened in Lhasa, and Tibetans from Ramoche area had revolted. Originally it was decided that we would not go back to Lhasa, and would temporarily stay in Gyantse, but later I received another phone call urging us to go back. As soon as we arrived in Lhasa, I quickly escorted the foreign guests to their hotel. This was in the afternoon. On the streets near the east there were shops and cars being smashed or burned. I ran to the area near the Post and Telecommunications Building, where there were many people standing on the streetside watching how Tibetans protested. We can say that, for a few hours, Tibet seemed to be independent. Not long after, I saw quite a few armoured cars drive over there, shooting tear-gas with the noise thum-thum-thum. The crowd dispersed right away. Those who had experience were cleaning their eyes with the water in shops. I only felt that my throat hurt greatly, and I could not hold back my tears…”

“Did you see firing at the crowd? I asked.

“I didn’t, but my friend saw that a man was killed in the area near Lhasa Middle School, and he was a Tibetan.” DZ gesticulated his forehead, then continued to say,

“I quickly ran back to my place. I was tired and frightened, so I fell asleep as soon as I lied down. But the next day I had to go to take care of those foreign tourists. As soon as I stepped out of my house, I became stunned. In front of me there were soldiers everywhere, some holding sticks and clubs and others holding guns in their hands. I wanted to go back, but the soldiers called out loud to me “Come over!” I had to force myself to go over there. Two soldiers told me to hold up my two hands just like when one surrendered himself, then they searched my body. I was terribly frightened. I had my amulets in the pocket of my jacket,” DZ took out his amulets and showed us very quickly. I noticed that in addition to Sung-dud (srung mdud, a sacred cord) he also had Ten sung (rten srung, amulate). The latter is a sacred object especially blessed by the Dalai Lama and it symbolizes removing ill-fortune and avoiding calamities. It is very precious for Tibetans. “I also had a badge of Kundun (one of the honourific titles for the Dalai Lama). If the badge had been found by the soldiers, then I would definitely have died. I was quietly praying to Kundun. Indeed Kundun was protecting me. Thought that soldier held my pocket between his fingers several times, he did not find it, then he howled at me, “Beat it!” I denoted a sense of gratitude in DZ’s expression of rejoicing at his good fortune. Of course, this was his gratitude toward the Dalai Lama. He prayed, then his prayers were answered.

“I heard that those soldiers also checked Tibetan’s necks, if they found a badge of Kundun hanging on the “Sung dud”, they would pull it off and threw on the ground. Is that so?” I asked.

“Yes, after throwing it on the ground, they also had Tibetans step on it. If anyone refused to trample it, he would be arrested and taken away. Some young people wore rosaries on their wrists, but when they were found by the soldiers, they were also arrested and taken away.” DZ pointed at the rosary on his left wrist.

“Is that the case that only men, men like you would be searched by raising your hands high as if you were surrendering?” I asked.

DZ looked into my eyes, and said slowly, “no, not just men. As long as you are Tibetan, no matter whether you are a man or a woman, old or young, just like me, you would be searched by raising your hands like you were surrendering. Do you know that I had never experienced such an insult before? I saw we Tibetans raising our hands as if we were surrendering and being searched by soldiers with guns in their hands. Even the old people were not spared, neither were girls. I remembered the movies I had watched. Those movies about Japanese ‘devils’ invading China or about the nationalists fighting against the communists were just like what were happening in front of my eyes.” I also looked into DZ’s eyes, and saw that his eyes were full of humiliation.”

I could not help telling him my maternal Uncle’s story. It was nine years ago when Tibetans revolted like today in Lhasa, but later they were suppressed by soldier, led by a steel helmet clad Hu Jintao. In addition, martial law was also imposed in Lhasa. One day, when my Uncle went to work, he forgot to take his pass with him. Consequently, he was searched by the soldiers and he was also ordered to hold his two hands high as if he were surrendering. This greatly irritated my Uncle and later whenever he talked about this experience, he would be so angry as to be choked with sobs. He had followed the Chinese Communist Party as early as since the beginning of 1950s, and he was an old party member and a scholar employed by the government, but since then he understood that as a Tibetan, he would never be trusted.

It was probably because I was a little bit excited, my tone was comparatively high. DZ was a little nervous and looked around. After a little while he continued his account.“The house I rented was also searched. Fortunately, I had already moved to stay with the guests in the hotel. I had a Thangkha in my house which is a portrait of the Dalai Lama but painted like a traditional Thangka. Later my neighbours told me that the house had been searched twice. One time it was searched by armed police, and the other time it was by cadres from the Neighbourhood Committee. Those armed police probably did not recognize that image on the Thangka as the Dalai Lama who is portrayed like Manjushri, so they did not touch it. Cadres from the Neighbourhood Committee were certainly able to tell and I am sure they must have taken pictures and kept a copy for the record. I have a small chest in which I put Tibetan coins I had collected and currencies of various countries given by tourists when I served as their tour guide. This small chest was taken away. I do not know whether it was taken by the armed police or by cadres from the Neighbourhood Committee. They were just like thieves”

“I thought that I could not stay in Lhasa any more and I had to leave, otherwise I would probably be arrested. I heard there were tour guides who had been arrested, at least five of them. I know a few reporters from CCTV in the hotel and they were willing to help me by taking me with them when they left Lhasa. Because of my looks, it would be very difficult for me to pass through many checkpoints guarded by the soldiers, so these reporters told the soldiers that I was a member of the video and photography team. In this way, we went to the railway station together. At the railway station, I saw that a young man with very short hair was arrested and I think he was probably a monk.”

“The train stopped for a little while at Tuotuo River. Outside the window I saw many military trucks and soldiers. The reporters from CCTV probably thought it was fun, so he began to videotape them, as a result, a few solders were very tough, they not only deleted everything in the video camera but also made a record. If a Tibetan had been videotaping, he would definitely have been arrested and taken away. When we arrived in Xining, hotels did not allow Tibetans to stay. Thanks to the reporters from CCTV, at last two molas (old women) and I had a room where we could sleep.

During the first few days in Beijing, when I walked on the street people asked me where I was from, I truthfully told them that I was from Tibet but immediately those people’s expressions became very unsightly. It was as if I were a terrorist. Once I was even interrogated and examined by the armed police. Therefore, if I do not have any errands or business to attend to, then I will not go out, but I feel very bored. Then I watch TV. On TV there were only programmes showing Tibetans beating, smashing, looting or burning but there were never any programmes about how Lhasa and other Tibetan areas are under the control of soldiers. It never mentioned how many Tibetans were killed or arrested. All those officials are lying, claiming that the troops had never fired on people and saying that the troops went on the street to clean the streets. It is right that they came to clean the streets, and what they wiped out were us Tibetans, because we are garbage in their eyes.”

DZ laughed softly. But I perceived the anger and despair in his laughter. For a short while we were all silent. A few westerners passed by outside the window and we saw that a sense of carefree diffuse from their mien and even every pore of theirs. That is a sense of light heartedness without any fear, and that is a kind of a lighthearted attitude of people who do not have to be afraid any more. It was for this freedom that DZ fled to Beijing and was enduring every fearful day in Beijing, patiently waiting for the permit of a certain embassy.
I remembered it was late at night when we left the café. The lights were brighter and the Chinese were still rushing about like tidal water. Suddenly DZ, who looks more Tibetan than any of us, opened up his fist and said in a very low voice, “I worry that they would recognize me as a Tibetan, so I dare not wear it any more.” And in the palm of his hand was a small turquoise earring.


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