Saturday, May 8, 2010

The earthquake in Qinghai Co-operation between monks and the government has been curtailed

FOR Tibet’s rebellious monastic community, the earthquake that killed more than 2,000 people in a remote county on the Tibetan plateau on April 14th became a rare opportunity to forge some trust with the government of China. In an unspoken truce, the authorities allowed monks from far and wide to to join the relief efforts. Chinese troops watched impassively as columns of red-robed Buddhists bearing the flags of their monasteries deployed near the epicentre. But mutual suspicions have been quick to resurface.

The devastation struck Yushu, a county in Qinghai province, which Tibetans view as part of their historic territory. The government has seen the recovery efforts here as a chance to show its care for an ethnic minority suffused with misgivings about Chinese rule. The prime minister, Wen Jiabao, delayed an overseas trip and the president, Hu Jintao, cut short a trip of his own to fly to the disaster area and be photographed with grieving Tibetans. Just as it did after a far more destructive earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008, the government declared a national day of mourning, which was observed on April 21st.

But official goodwill has its limits. Tibetan areas, including Qinghai, had been under a security clampdown since March 2008, when anti-Chinese protests and riots flared across the plateau. The government is still in no mood to give leeway to Tibetan dissenters who, it fears, might seize on any inadequacies in the relief mission to whip up public anger. One of China’s senior leaders, Jia Qinglin, said on April 19th that “hostile elements abroad”—often code for the Dalai Lama and his supporters—were trying to “sabotage” the relief work.

Four days later, police in Qinghai’s capital, Xining, detained a prominent Tibetan intellectual, Tagyal (he has a single name, as do many Tibetans). He had joined seven others in signing an open letter to residents of the disaster area. It referred to the earthquake as another blow to Tibetans; on top of “armed force and cruelty”. And it urged people to give donations only to “trustworthy” agencies—implying that government bodies are too prone to corruption.

Tagyal’s letter seems to have been the last straw. The authorities were already enraged by a book he wrote under his pen name, which he had been circulating informally in the past few weeks. “The Line Between Sky and Earth” praises the activism of monks during the Tibetan unrest of 2008 and calls for passive resistance as a way of pressing for more freedoms. Its message was particularly striking because Tagyal had been regarded by many Tibetans as someone who shared official China’s disdain for Tibetan religion. Police have informed Tagyal’s family that he is suspected of “inciting separatism”. Concerns about his book might have helped to inspire a campaign the government launched to prevent “illegal publications” from disturbing the relief effort.

The authorities have reason to worry about the loyalties of this earthquake’s survivors. Some have been scrabbling in ruins to recover photographs of the Dalai Lama. The government has ignored the exiled Tibetan leader’s suggestion that he be allowed to visit Yushu. Woeser, a Tibetan writer living in Beijing, says survivors become excited whenever they spot an aeroplane overhead, hoping the Dalai Lama might be on board.

Monks, unfettered by the altitude sickness suffered by many of the emergency workers sent from other parts of China, made valiant contributions to the rescue. But the government appears to have lost patience with them. Within a week of the earthquake, officials were making it clear that those from outside the county should return to their monasteries. Woeser says that many monks have decided to play safe and withdraw. The Economist

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