A visit to Tibet’s regional capital Lhasa by U.S. lawmakers last week was highly staged, with all signs of a typically heavy security presence removed from central areas in the city before the delegation’s arrival, according to a source inside Tibet.
U.S. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi led a delegation of six lawmakers to the normally tense and tightly controlled city—the scene of violent 2008 protests against Chinese rule—on Nov. 10 for a three-day visit, a local resident told RFA’s Tibetan Service this week.
“On the eve of the visit … Chinese officials in Lhasa ordered 10 members from each division of each township, and six members from each neighborhood, to participate in staged religious activities,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They were summoned from all sectors of the Lhasa city government jurisdiction and forced to circumambulate around the religious sites, while the monasteries in the city were directed to organize religious activities during the three days.”
According to the source, many of the people called to stage religious activities “were paid for their participation.”
“Therefore, it would have been very difficult for Nancy Pelosi and others to see the true status of religious freedom in Tibet,” he said.
The source said that all of the metal-detector gates used to scan people entering the Jokhang—Lhasa’s central cathedral—and the police tents regularly pitched in the central Bakhor district were removed from the area before Pelosi’s arrival.
“The U.S. delegation did not see even one of those restrictive gates, so the visitors might have got a false impression of peace and calm in the area,” he said.
“In reality, the situation is very different.”
The delegation was shown a Potemkin Lhasa where religious freedom and economic progress is enjoyed by all, the source said.
“They likely did not see any of the darker aspects of Tibetan life in Lhasa, and thus [didn’t understand the problems] in the wider Tibetan region,” he said.
“Whatever they saw was all staged and part of a deceptive plan to paint the wrong picture, so it is important for all to know the truth.”
The Tibetan government-in-exile on Friday cited a “confidential letter” from a resident of Lhasa who said the city was under a severe lockdown in late October and early November, and described repressive measures taken by the Chinese government to silence Tibetans ahead of the delegation’s visit.
“Lhasa was placed under extreme repression and the people were being constantly indoctrinated in political thoughts, using both violent and softer approaches,” said the letter, according to the report by the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, India.
“Free speech was also severely curtailed. So much so that people felt it difficult to even move their bodies.”
The letter echoed the account of RFA’s source, saying the gates to Barkhor, which were constantly guarded by security personnel, “were all of a sudden removed and replaced with new doors and lesser security.”
“We were confused at first for the cause of these replacements. However, we realized their intent after learning about the U.S. delegation’s visit,” the letter said.
The letter welcomed the fact-finding visit to Lhasa and expressed the Tibetan people’s desire to meet with the delegation, but acknowledged that it would be hard for Pelosi and the other lawmakers to learn the aspirations of Tibetans because their visit was being guided by Chinese authorities.
‘We saw what they wanted’
On Tuesday, Pelosi and the other members of the delegation—Democratic Representatives Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, Betty McCollum and Tim Walz of Minnesota, Joyce Beatty of Ohio and Alan Lowenthal and Ted Lieu of California—thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping for inviting them on the state visit, which also included stops in the capital Beijing and Hong Kong.
McGovern, the co-chair of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said it was clear that the Chinese government “has invested a great deal in Tibet,” but warned that the investment “should not come at the price of an entire culture.”
“You cannot confine a people’s culture and heritage—their very sense of identity—to a museum or a market of handicrafts,” he said.
Pelosi, who has been highly critical of the situation in Tibet, agreed that China’s government was not doing enough to preserve the traditions of the Tibetan people.
“It’s beautiful if the Chinese government spends a lot of money to gild the temple roof … but we’re interested in what’s happening in the minds of the children, and the education and the perpetuation of the culture there,” she said, adding that a large scale resettlement of majority Han Chinese to the region is “diluting that culture.”
The lawmakers were also quick to acknowledge that their delegation had been guided by handlers and encountered difficulty meeting with Tibetan residents of the city.
“I think it’s fair to say that … the Chinese government wanted to control as much of our visit as they could. And we saw what they wanted us to see,” McGovern said.
Pelosi said that 30 Chinese officers guiding their delegation “is probably a conservative estimate because there were people who—shall we say—had walkie talkies that may not have been identified as security” joining the entourage through Lhasa, making sure the lawmakers stuck to a prescribed route.
“Well, what they wanted us to see was housing. And we did,” she said.
“Did we see families? I’m not sure.”
In June 2013, sources in Tibet told RFA that a visit to the region by then-U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke was met with a similarly staged welcome, including police officers dressed as Tibetans from remote rural and nomadic communities, carrying prayer wheels and rosaries in their hands.
During his trip, Locke emphasized the importance of preserving the Tibetan people’s cultural heritage, including its unique linguistic, religious, and cultural traditions, the U.S. State Department said at the time.
A riot in Lhasa in March 2008 followed the suppression by Chinese police of four days of peaceful protests by Tibetans, and led to the destruction of Han Chinese shops in the city and deadly attacks on Han Chinese residents.
More than a dozen civilians were killed in the clashes, according to various reports.
The riot sparked a wave of mostly peaceful protests against Chinese rule that spread across Tibet and into Tibetan-populated regions of western Chinese provinces.
Hundreds of Tibetans were detained, beaten, or shot as Chinese security forces quelled the protests.
Meanwhile, a total of 143 Tibetans to date have self-immolated to challenge Beijing’s rule in Tibetan-populated areas and to call for the return of exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
Reported by Sonam Wangdu for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.