Phoenix TV Reporter In Lhasa

The following are translated excepts from the blog of Phoenix TV reporter Chen Ling (陈琳).

(March 16, 2008)

When I visited Tibet for the first time, I had harbored certain fantasies about strange occurrences.  But nothing compares to the suddenness of this trip that left me quite lost.

During the plane ticket purchase, I was surprised to find that it was hard to procure a ticket for either a direct or indirect flight.  What kind of people have such courage?

On the plane, there were people anxious to go home to see what happened, there were tourists, there were media people who were loaded with camera equipment and then there were people who were disguising as media people ...

People recalled to us about the disturbance and they were still scared.  A young man from Sichuan who had thought Lhasa would be paradise has no illusions left: "I'm leaving quickly.  I'm going home quickly."  A tourist told us that he before he left the hotel to visit the Potala Palace, the street was bustling with activity but when he returned to his hotel, there were debris everywhere.  Many foreign tourists were stranded so the tourist bureau had to them away to hotels in the safer areas.  Many people did not witness anything themselves, but they were still scared from what they had heard.  The area at the center of the disturbances is sealed off, so that only residents can enter (and they cannot come out once they go in).

Thanks to a veteran reporter, we received permission to enter the restricted zone.  The burnt stores were still standing, the broken glasses were piled high, the ground showed signs of fire marks and the kindergarten remained padlocked.

On television, the notice from the authorities were repeating the same message every few minutes: Those who took part in the disturbances should surrender as soon as possible; the drinking water is absolutely safe because there is no truth to the rumors that the water system had been poisoned; everybody pay attention to safety please!

(March 17, 2008)

At Youth Road, the property of three brothers from Zhejiang province went up in smoke.

At around 4pm on the afternoon of March 14, the three brothers heard that there was trouble started at the other end of the street.  They locked the iron gate in the hope that it would protect the two million yuan plus worth of their merchandise, cash and all other assets that they had accumulated over twenty years.  But they were only locking down their own wishes.  The rioters kicked and smashed the gate and they used gasoline to set these adjoining Han-owned stores on fire.  One of the brothers told us that there was nothing that he could do except to watch his property burned down bit by bit.  By 7am the next morning, there was only ashes left.  When the fire was initially set off, they did not dare to go near and fight the fire.  They had seen the Chinese person next door jumped down from the second floor with his body in flame and then chased by the rioters who beat him with rocks and sticks.  The rioters poured gasoline on the man and set him on fire again.  The man was burned into a strip of charcoal.  Mister Ye said that he did not have the courage to die in such an ugly fasion.

There are plenty of burnt down  houses and stores along Beijing Middle Road, Jiangsu Road, Beijing East Road, Linguo East Road, ... you can see this almost everywhere in eastern Lhasa.  These were basically the properties of the Han and Hui people in Lhasa.

A taxi driver told us that when the disturbances began on the afternoon of March 14, the students were just getting out of school.  The rioters cut off the ear of a Hui child and set it on fire right there.  A Tibetan citizen implored the rioters to stop but they threatened to kill him with a knife.  So the Tibetan citizen had to abandon the child to a cruel fate ...

Please pardon me for telling you these true stories so directly.  I am not telling you the worst yet, because I have heard many such true stories.  When I recover from my altitude sickness, I will tell you ...

(March 19, 2008)

I wanted to visit the plaza at the J****** Monastery on March 19, but I would have to have legal papers to get near.  The zone is restricted to those with the proper student IDs, work IDs, residence permits or business permits.  I heard that there was another violent incident aimed at one civilian with serious consequences.  This was just hearsay and we had no direct evidence because our status is not quite legal.

We are "illegal" because our presence did not fit the wishes of the local authorities.  On the evening of March 18, we received a notice from our hotel that unless we get the proper papers, we will be reported and then likely asked to depart.

I cannot go to the authorities to request interviews, I cannot go to the hospitals where the wounded people are being treated and I cannot go to the aid stations where the homeless are being sheltered.  When I encounter Tibetan citizens, foreign tourists, hotel employees or even shop owners who lost their properties, I find that they rush away as soon as they learn that I am a reporter seeking to interview them.  I even promised them to cover their faces  but to no avail.  Fortunately, the foreign tourists and shop owners were willing to chat with me off the record.  However, I do not have a news report without some form of recording.

Once again, we go back to Youth Road which was traumatized during the disturbances.  We were on this street once on March 16, twice on March 17, twice on March 18 and once more today.

I encountered the three brothers Ye from Zhejiang whom I saw several days ago.  They stood in front of the blackened store location and chatted with me again.  They complained about how they called 119 without getting any response ... I tried to get them to give me an interview, but they refused.  It was a low moment for me ...

In spite of their refusal to do a formal interview, we continued to chat.  They suddenly mentioned a certain sign.  They said that on the stores that were burned down, a certain strange sign was present.  The Tibetans don't recognize it and the Han don't recognize it.  Nobody has been able to guess its meaning.

This sign began to appear around March 10.  At first, the people thought that it was some graffiti drawn by children.

In retrospect, they recalled that virtually all the burnt out stores had this sign written on the door or wall.  Today, there were still two of these signs left to be seen.  The store next to this sign above was also burned out.

At the other surviving sign, the store was intact but there were clear indications that the gate had been kicked hard.  At the time, someone watched the rioters attack this store but they were frustrated by the strong locks on the gate.

So this was my report of the day, and it is an exclusive.  Such was my extraordinary experience in Lhasa.  If this turned out to be the evidence to show that the disturbances had been planned (that is, the Han-owned stores had been designated beforehand for destruction), then it would be a good thing.  The shop owners have reported this matter to the police in the hope that this could help to make things clear.

This was not my only extraordinary experience in Lhasa.  On my sixth journey down Youth Street, we entered the Phuntsok Khasang International Youth Hostel (URL:  On the day of the disturbances on March 14, this place became the shelter of the guests as well as about 150 residents in the neighborhood.  From the verandah, it is possible to watch the happenings on the street.  Besides Han Chinese people, those who sought shelter here included foreign tourists and Tibetans.

According to the young man and the young woman who work at the hostel, there were a dozen foreign tourists there right now.  The government has not told them to clear out of Lhasa, but they have instructed the hostel to persuade the guests to stay inside the hostel.  If the guests want to leave, the Foreign Relations Department was willing to send a car over to take escort them.

At the coffee house upstairs, there were two foreigners.  One was sipping Coca Cola and the other was making telephone calls.  They were watching the view of the Potala Palace outside the window.  Roi was from Israel and he said that he has not been told to leave yet.  The Israeli government has informed its citizens that things are dangerous in Tibet, but he did not feel unsafe.  The problem is that he cannot visit the J****** Monastery or the Potala Palace.  The pubs and shops are not open either, so life is quite boring here.  He was planning to depart.

The hostel owner is named Zhang showed up some photos from the peaceful petition on March 10 and the barbaric incident on March 14.  He has been operating the hotel in Lhasa for some years.  He said that he has never seen the people who wrought the violence on Youth Road North.  He clearly saw one man and one female with loudspeakers issuing orders but not taking actions themselves.  Some men and women who range from teenagers to people in their 30's used rocks and sticks to assault passersby.  They also broke into stores and used white gasoline tanks to start fire.  The rioters would occasionally come to the two commanders who told them where to continue next.

Zhang said that his Tibetan employees were bravest that because they stood guard at the front of the hostel.  He does not think that the rioters were ordinary Tibetans from Lhasa.  He personally saw a Tibetan being assaulted as well.  At the house that he had just rented across the street, one of his employees rescued a civilian whose shoulder had been broken.

He showed us the photographs.  On March 10, there were many lamas petitioning peacefully in front of the monastery.  The armed police formed a human wall to surround them but they did not take any action.  On March 14, first in front of the J****** Monastery plaza, a rioter wielding two knives stood on a vehicle.  According to a hostel guest who came back from that scene, this man shouted slogans and instigated the riot.  This guest was chased by the mob and only got away when the mo turned their attention to the Dicos restaurant on the street.  In another photo on Youth Road North, there shops were ablaze and the rioters included both men and women.  There were photos of the armed police coming into action  The armed police formed several human walls close to each other, and they were being assaulted from four sides.  They were hoping to split up the rioters.  The armed police held shields on one hand to defend themselves, and they practically did not get to use the batons on their other hand.  There was another photo of the steel helmet of an armed police fallen on the ground ...

Zhang did not believe that this was an ethnic conflict.  From his experience and sense, someone was deliberately instigating a riot and blaming it on ethnic relationships.

I only know that among the people whom I chatted with over the past few days, the Hans were scared, the Hues were scared and the Tibetan civilians were just as scared.

(Washington Post)  Eyewitnesses Recount Terrifying Day in Tibet. By Jill Drew.  March 27, 2008.

In the moment, Canadian backpacker John Kenwood recalled, he was "young and stupid, and it was all adrenaline." He was running, one in a mob of 200 or so, screaming, "Free Tibet!" and chasing riot police down a narrow street in downtown Lhasa in the early afternoon of March 14.

It was a heady feeling, being part of a howling pack that had forced police to turn tail and run, some dropping their shields as they fled a barrage of rocks. Then the Tibetans in the crowd slowed and began turning back, grinning and patting one another on the back.

The ebullient mood did not last long. The pack broke into smaller groups, gathering rocks and pulling out knives, looking for the next target.

"There was no more crowd to be part of. It looked like they were turning on everybody," said Kenwood, 19, describing the scene to reporters last week when he arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal, after 10 days in the Tibetan capital. "It wasn't about Tibet freedom anymore."

What he witnessed next was a violent rampage unlike any in decades in Lhasa, a city where Tibetan Buddhism's most revered temples sit among office buildings and concrete markets built by Chinese bent on developing the remote Himalayan region. Hundreds of mostly young Tibetans broke up into roaming gangs and attacked Chinese passersby and vandalized shops, killing 19 people and injuring more than 600 over two days.

During the riots, looters set fire to a clothing store, burning to death five young employees who were huddled on the second floor. Most police officers kept their distance while the center of Lhasa descended into chaos.

Nearly two weeks later, there are still more questions than answers about what sparked the violence. But several witness accounts suggest that what began as a small protest by Buddhist monks on the morning of Friday, March 14, turned quickly into ethnically charged rioting, possibly fueled by rumors that monks had been roughed up by police. Some outside experts cite another factor behind the uprising: Tibetans' awareness that the world is following news of their cause more closely as China prepares to host the Olympic Games in August.

Police and paramilitary troops have blanketed Lhasa, looking for ringleaders. Hundreds of Tibetans have been arrested or turned themselves in to police in a bid for leniency. There are rumors that outsiders orchestrated the attacks, echoing the official Chinese government claim that the Dalai Lama, the exiled Buddhist leader, is to blame. For his part, the Dalai Lama has condemned the violence and said repressive Chinese policies fueled the explosion.

Whatever the reasons, the people of Lhasa have been left to deal with the repercussions.

Ethnic Chinese, who were the main targets of the attacks, are mourning their dead and rebuilding what's left of their homes and businesses. Buddhist monks are confined to their monasteries, where telephones go unanswered.

Few Tibetans in their homeland have been heard from since the riot, and the tally of their dead is hard to confirm. Friends and relatives from outside the region say they are afraid to telephone out of fear that Chinese authorities will monitor the calls and arrest anyone who discloses information.

Chhime Chhoekyapa, secretary to the Dalai Lama, said Tibetans call and ask that their dead be remembered in the spiritual leader's prayers. "Our information is based on this," Chhoekyapa said. The Dalai Lama's office has released details of 22 people who died in Lhasa on March 14 and is checking unconfirmed reports of dozens of others.

Interviews with nine eyewitnesses, some of whom spoke only on condition of anonymity, confirm that tensions began building in Lhasa on Monday, March 10. That's when police blocked monks from Drepung Monastery, a few miles outside Lhasa, from marching into the city to mark the anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising that sent the Dalai Lama into exile.

When protesters shouted Tibetan independence slogans and unfurled a homemade Tibetan flag, they were quickly hustled away by police, who detained at least 15 people. The police response was fairly typical for such protests -- public dissent against Chinese rule is not allowed -- but this time the incidents were not quickly snuffed out.

Rather, rumors began circulating among Tibetans that some monks had been beaten. "A lot of Tibetans on Monday night were distraught by the arrest of the monks," said Chris Johnson, a novelist who was in Lhasa on a two-week vacation.

On that Tuesday, police stopped another protest march, this one by monks from nearby Sera Monastery. By Wednesday, tourists said, the roads to the monasteries outside town had been blocked by police vehicles. One tour agent said he was told to tell his clients that "the monasteries were closed for renovation."

The city was fairly quiet Wednesday and Thursday. But late on the morning of Friday, March 14, Rune Backs, a 35-year-old tourist from Copenhagen, saw trucks of riot police driving in circles near the Potala Palace, the onetime residence of the Dalai Lama and now one of the region's biggest tourist attractions.

Backs did not see police advance farther into the city, but a line of officers blocked the square in front of the palace, letting no one through. After watching the scene, Backs turned and headed back downtown, puzzled by what he had seen and figuring he could visit the palace another day. That's when he saw the smoke.

Zhang Bing Quan saw it, too. The 38-year-old Beijing native was standing on the roof of the hostel he owns in Lhasa, watching the tendril of smoke rise, when one of his guests ran in, breathless, from the street. He told Zhang he had just seen a Tibetan man wielding two knives jump on top of a police sport-utility vehicle, shouting and slashing. The man quickly jumped down and was whisked away by two women while others upended the vehicle and set it on fire. Then another. Then another.

The crowd in the square grew to more than 100, including five or six people in monks' robes, according to two Swiss tourists who later compiled a timeline of what they had seen. The crowd began pelting a nearby fast-food restaurant with rocks, then surged inside, throwing boxes of restaurant supplies onto the street. "Join us!" the tourists heard some in the crowd cry.

Firefighters arrived to douse the flames but ran away after the mob took over their truck. The Swiss tourists decided to leave, and as they headed out into the street, they came upon the mob that was confronting riot police. They saw several people injured by rocks.

James Miles, a correspondent for the Economist magazine and the only accredited Western journalist in Lhasa at the time of the riots, was walking in the same area a short time later but did not see the mob attack police. Indeed, he did not see any police anywhere.

"That's what astonished me," he said in an interview after he returned to Beijing. "There was a complete absence of security or any uniformed presence on the street."

Claude Balsiger, another Swiss tourist, said he saw an elderly Chinese man clawed off his bicycle and thrown to the ground, where a rioter smashed his head with a large rock. "Some older Tibetans went to try to stop them, but others were howling like wolves. That's how they supported" the rioters, said Balsiger, 25. "Everything that looked Chinese was attacked and beaten up."

Back at Zhang's hostel, guests began pouring in from the streets. Many headed to the roof, transfixed by the sight of a city in flames. Five Tibetan neighbors crawled over nearby rooftops to join them, Zhang said.

Then, about 3 p.m., he heard a "strange, high-pitched sound." He looked down to see a gang of 30 to 40 people swing into his street, howling. He was surprised to see that most in the mob were young women, who had masks over their mouths and were wearing backpacks. "They were attacking even more fiercely than the boys," he said.

The mob began kicking down doors and wrenching open shops, including the offices of the state-run Tibet Daily newspaper and the local bureau of the official New China News Agency. Zhang saw a man in his 30s shouting into a megaphone and a woman nearby, pointing. They appeared to be directing the mob where to attack, he said.

One group grabbed a white barrel of gasoline, poured the liquid into the doorway of a shop and ignited it. In the space of about 30 minutes, seven fires were blazing on the block, including one in the building next door.

Thick smoke billowed over the roof, and his guests began to panic. Zhang's employees tied together heavy ropes to throw over the side of the building, an escape route. A firetruck soon arrived, though, and the flames were extinguished.

Zhang's street remained quiet the next day. A few riot police officers appeared and positioned themselves in front of the news bureaus. Zhang said the police ordered him and his guests to stay inside. They did, discussing Friday's chaos and swapping stories of rioters they felt certain could not have been local Tibetans; many of the guests said they had heard different dialects. They questioned how the government could have allowed the city to get so out of control.

Zhang went up to the roof to look at the smoldering shells of nearby buildings when he saw three men in police uniforms and white gloves carrying a heavy bag down the street. A body bag. He started to cry as he recalled it. "We didn't realize that night that people could be killed," he said. "Why did this happen? Even the Tibetans ask."

Tibetan experts outside China are asking the same question. The quickest answer is that because of the spotlight on China as the host of the 2008 Olympics, this is the year to make a stand.

"People think it's now or never," said Robbie Barnett, a professor of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University. "Presumably they thought that they could risk what they were doing and not be shot" because the world is watching.