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Page last updated at 00:02 GMT, Thursday, 25 September 2008 01:02 UK

China's grip still firm on Tibetan area

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Gansu, China

villagers picking potatoes
Life is not quite back to normal in Gansu province

On the edge of Tibetan towns in this western province, special police officers carrying rifles stand guard behind checkpoints made of sandbags.

Inside the towns, convoys of police vehicles drive up and down the streets. Security personnel stop shoppers and question them.

Six months after Tibetans staged riots and protests against Chinese rule, Beijing still maintains a tight grip on this largely Tibetan area.

Locals say their lives have not yet returned to normal, and many people arrested during the March unrest are still in prison.

'Criminal attacks'

Trouble began in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in southern Gansu, shortly after riots erupted in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

According to the local authorities, schools, shops and buildings belonging to the Communist Party and government were attacked by "criminals".

In the town of Hezuo, there is a bustling open-air market, where shoppers haggle over live chickens, dried goods, clothes, fruit and music.

Outside town, in the small villages that line the valley roads, farmers are harvesting highland barley and potatoes. Others herd goats.

Hezuo monastery
Few people will talk about the unrest, and monks are especially cautious
But things are not as they were before the unrest, as one farmer with a weather-beaten face and a gold tooth was willing to explain.

"It hasn't returned to normal yet. They've released some of the people from prison, but not all of them," he said as he sat on a hillside near the village of Yumo.

The Chinese government blames the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's exiled spiritual leader, for orchestrating the unrest earlier this year.

But the farmer dismissed such claims. "We rose up on our own because there are no human rights here," he said.

Another Tibetan man told a similar story, although he only agreed to speak behind the relative security of closed doors.

"There are military personnel on every corner of the street. We don't have any freedom at all. Life is very difficult right now," he said.

He added that Tibetans want more freedom - and they want the Dalai Lama to return to his homeland.

Government investment

There are signs that China is taking the carrot-and-stick approach to resolving the still-tense situation in Gannan, where just over half the population is Tibetan.

The large number of personnel from the People's Armed Police - they even guard petrol stations - suggests Beijing is prepared for further trouble.

But the authorities also appear to be spending money in what could be a bid to quieten a population that openly criticises the government.

map
The Yumo farmer said the local government had handed out 3,000 yuan ($440; 240) compensation to every citizen after the March unrest.

And when the BBC visited Hezuo, a van from the local propaganda department was on the streets telling people about a new healthcare scheme.

The town square was also being spruced up. Workmen were putting new paving slabs in place, planting trees and laying out lawns.

Beijing seems concerned about the unrest, even if it publicly says there was no justification for it.

While we were in Gannan, a national committee in charge of minorities and religious affairs was holding a three-day investigation tour of the area.

A document circulated among delegates at the meeting shows Beijing wants to push ahead and create a "well-off society" in the prefecture.

It talks about developing the area's hydroelectricity potential, and the tourism industry in what is an area of stunning natural beauty, with mountains, clear blue skies and pine forests.

Negotiations

Beijing is also engaged in talks with the Tibetan government-in-exile, based in Dharamsala in India, about the situation in Tibetan areas.

The next round of talks is due to take place in October.

But Wang Lixiong, who has written about the relationship between Beijing and its Tibetan regions, believes China is not serious about making a breakthrough.

Army trucks in Gansu in March
The army were called in to stop the unrest in March
"I've always thought that the talks were only about letting foreigners think the government is doing something - it's an act," he said.

Meanwhile Tibetans have seen very little benefit from negotiations which have been going on for several years, said the Chinese expert.

Mr Wang believes the next round of talks is critical. If Beijing does not offer concessions, the Tibetans may refuse to continue talking.

Back to normal?

Back in Gansu, people are getting on with their lives, even if it is under the watchful eye of China's security forces.

At a monastery with a golden roof in the village of Zagzag, monks - some as young as 13 - are still praying and studying.

They are reluctant to talk about their lives since the March unrest, although that reticence suggests they face pressure from the authorities.

Author Mr Wang believes China's crackdown following the protests has made Tibetans more aware of their rights.

"Slowly, Tibetans who didn't know anything about independence are beginning to understand what it means," he said.

That suggests the tension in China's Tibetan areas will not quickly subside.





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