The Year of the Dragon has begun on a fiery note for Tibet with Chinese security troops using lethal force to suppress protests and Tibetans venting their anger at the authorities in the worst violence in the region in nearly four years.
The bloodshed in Sichuan province's Kardze (in Chinese, Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture this week could escalate, experts warn, as Beijing refuses to ease its hardline policy that has provoked an unprecedented wave of Tibetan self-immolations and street demonstrations.
"They will continue to come down hard. It's all about using strong-arm tactics to contain domestic troubles, which [if they spiral out of control] will give a bad name to a rising China," Mohan Malik, an expert at the Hawaii-based Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, told RFA.
He said he was "not optimistic" that the new leadership taking over the ruling Chinese Communist Party later this year will accommodate Tibetan demands for cultural and religious freedoms highlighted by 16 self-immolation protests since March last year.
"Anyone who comes to power wants to show he is more nationalistic, especially at a time when nationalism is on the rise in China. They do not want to be seen as weak," Malik said.
Beijing's shoot-to-kill response to the Tibetan protests in Draggo (in Chinese, Luhuo) county on Monday and Serthar (in Chinese, Seda) county on Tuesday only underscores its tight-fist policy of administering the resource-rich region.
The Draggo protests were triggered by Chinese demands that local Tibetans celebrate the Lunar New Year against the wishes of residents saddened by earlier protest deaths, while the Serthar demonstration was fueled by calls for more self-immolations, local sources said.
Beijing said two Tibetans were killed in the unrest while rights and exile groups believe at least six were dead and 60 injured, some critically. Advocacy groups said it was the largest reported shooting of Tibetans since bloody protests against Chinese rule in March 2008.
But Chinese official media blamed the unrest on "mobs" armed with knives and stones who had "opened fire" on local police.
"China's violent provocation—shooting unarmed demonstrators and beating Tibetans who have lit their bodies on fire, along with arresting hundreds of people and issuing inflammatory statements against the Dalai Lama—is pushing Tibetans to the breaking point," warned Tenzin Dorjee, Executive Director of Students for a Free Tibet, which is pressing for independence for the Chinese-ruled Himalayan region.
Dorjee said the latest protests by Tibetans were timed to coincide with the Lunar New Year and aimed at "sending a clear message to the world that they are not Chinese."
"Far from wanting to celebrate alongside their Chinese neighbors, Tibetans are using this occasion to show the extreme resentment they feel about the injustices they suffer under China's rule" Dorjee added.
Han Chinese are expected to outnumber Tibetans in the region by the end of the decade in a demographic shift driven by Beijing that will reduce Tibetans to a minority in their own homeland, experts say.
Some 185 Tibet advocacy groups issued a statement this week condemning Beijing's crackdown in Tibetan areas and calling for "joint international action" against the Chinese government.
Lobsang Sangay, the head of Tibet's exile government the Central Tibetan Administration, which is based in India where Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama lives, said "resentment and anger amongst Tibetans against the Chinese government" has risen rapidly over the last four years.
"[B]asic human rights are being denied to Tibetans, the fragile environment is being destroyed, Tibetan language and culture is being assimilated, portraits of His Holiness the Dalai Lama are banned, and Tibetans are being economically marginalized," he said.
He also called on the international community to show solidarity and "to raise your voices in support of the fundamental rights of the Tibetan people at this critical time."
But analysts caution that Tibetans should not step up their protests and risk their lives in the expectation that Western powers, including the United States, will come to their aid.
"It would be a great tragedy if the Tibetans took to the streets or in other ways escalated their protests because of an expectation that either the U.S. or any other country is going to come to their aid," Robert Hathaway, an Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, told RFA.
"Virtually everyone here in Washington sympathizes with the Tibetans, but I think we need to be careful that we don't allow our natural sympathies to lead the Tibetans to expect more from us than we are able to provide," he said.
"We're simply not in a position to lend any substantial material support or aid to the Tibetans."
But Hathaway said that as the Dalai Lama himself has maintained that he is not pushing for any separation of Tibet from China, foreign powers should not hesitate to criticize Beijing for using lethal force on Tibetan protesters.
"With that important caveat, I think it's quite proper for Washington and for other governments around the world to make sure that the Chinese understand that so long as they use deadly force against their own people, this is going to be a limiting factor in the ability of any foreign country to build a long-term constructive partnership with China," he said.
The fatal shootings this week drew sharp criticism from Washington.
U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues Maria Otero said the United States is "gravely concerned" by the incidents and repeated Washington's call for China to resume dialogue with representatives of the Dalai Lama.
"The U.S. government repeatedly has urged the Chinese government to address the counterproductive policies in Tibetan areas that have created tensions and that threaten the distinct religious, cultural, and linguistic identity of the Tibetan people," she said.
Beijing has shrugged off Washington's persistent calls to resume talks with the Dalai Lama's envoys, suspended more than two years ago.
The Dalai Lama's envoys have held nine rounds of talks with Beijing, but there has been no breakthrough in terms of greater autonomy for the territory.
This week's violence came ahead of Chinese vice president Xi Jinping's Feb. 14 visit to the White House and in the lead-up to his expected elevation this year as leader of the Communist Party and as president next year.
The State Department said it will raise the situation in Tibet and other human rights issues during his visit.
Xi last visited Tibet in July 2011 to preside over celebrations marking 60 years since China gained control over the region and vowed to crack down on any "separatist activity" in the region, suggesting that Beijing's hardline stance will remain.
As Tibetans stage self-immolations and take to the streets to push for more rights, Xi and other Chinese leaders appear to be losing little sleep, analysts say.
"It's like a pebble in the shoe," Malik said. "It may cause a little irritation, but the Chinese are good at containing such problems."