Chinese authorities in the southwestern province of Sichuan are stepping up state television programs to Tibetan nomads ahead of a sensitive political anniversary next week and are making it harder for them to receive anything but state-controlled news, exile sources said.
Nomadic families in the Kardze (in Chinese, Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture were being given free television sets and satellite dishes, local officials said, confirming earlier reports.
"They are being given away free in the nomadic districts," said an official who answered the phone at the Xinlong county religious affairs bureau in Kardze on Tuesday.
Asked if the televisions contained surveillance equipment, the official said, "I don't know."
The Norway-based Voice of Tibet radio station reported on Monday that the television sets contained microphones which were part of a new surveillance drive ahead of next week's 60th anniversary of the "liberation" of Tibet by People's Liberation Army troops.
But while RFA was unable to confirm that report independently, exile sources and officials said Beijing was definitely extending the reach of state-backed news and programming into the region.
"Right now, what the Chinese government fears most is that Tibetans inside China will get information from outside the country," said Dharamsala-based Tibetan exile parliamentarian Kalsang.
"Obviously that makes life difficult for local Tibetans, so they have come up with this idea to install a television in their homes."
He said he believes reports that the televisions contain surveillance devices to be "probable."
Tsoge, a Chinese-language spokesman for the International Campaign For Tibet (ICT) based in Dharamsala, said he believes the report is at least partly credible.
"They probably would try that," he said. "For example, there are a lot of Tibetan officials that the government itself doesn't entirely trust."
"They would be very likely to put them under surveillance [at least]."
He said the authorities are also concerned about the number of Tibetans who listen to overseas broadcasts.
"In [Gansu's] Xiahe county there are a lot of people who listen to the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia," Tsoge said. "The nomads would listen to them on shortwave radio sets."
"They unlocked the sets' code and retuned them ... but after that the government took their receivers away."
The Sichuan authorities have already rolled out the government's own satellite television programming across the region in the Kham Tibetan dialect, official media reported earlier this month.
"Authorities in Sichuan provided the solar powered TV sets, worth 4,000 yuan (U.S. $620) each, to 20,000 poor farmers and herdsmen in the Ngaba and Kardze prefectures," Xinhua news agency reported on May 1.
The Kham dialect Kangba Satellite TV began broadcasting programs 18 hours a day in June 2010 to 2.4 million people living in Sichuan's Kardze and Ngaba, Khamdo in Tibet, Diqing in Yunnan, Yushu in Qinghai and Gannan in Gansu.
Lithang, one of the areas targeted by the television gifting program, is populated largely by Tibet nomads and has in the past been a flashpoint for protests in opposition to Chinese rule.
Ngaba was in recent weeks the scene of a harsh Chinese security crackdown following the self-immolation death of a monk from Kirti monastery protesting Beijing’s rule.
China occupied Tibet in 1950 and claims the region has been part of its territory for centuries, although many Tibetans, who are linguistically and ethnically distinct, say they were effectively independent before that.
Monday's anniversary will mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of an accord which asserted Chinese sovereignty over Tibet and established a permanent military presence in the Himalayan region.
Reported by Rigdhen Dolma for RFA's Tibetan service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.