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President of the Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee Liu Qi, right, hands the Olympic torch to Chinese President Hu Jintao at a ceremony in Tiananmen Square on March 31, 2008.
Two weeks of violence between Tibetan protesters and the Chinese government have taken a toll just months before this summer's Olympics, a world-wide event that could turn out to be a public relations boon or disaster for China's image. Shai Oster, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, was one of a group of journalists he says the Chinese government brought to Lhasa for followup coverage of the violent clashes.
Referring to a series of interviews with apparently pre-vetted ethnic Han Chinese and native Tibetan business owners, Osters says the trip was an attempt to support the government story line that all the problems in recent weeks were due to a few illegal elements, led by the "Dalai Lama clique."
"Being journalists we're ... a bit of a chaotic bunch," he says. Trying to control who the journalists could talk to proved more than enough challenge for Beijing's representatives. "It's kind of like trying to herd cats."
He points to one particularly poignant moment at a Lhasa temple, when monks surrounded the pack of Western journalists and told them everything the Chinese officials and their chosen interviewees had said were "lies," that hundreds of monks had been arrested. Oster says minders then attempted to drag he and his colleagues away.
"These are the people who when SARS hit Beijing they lied about it for a couple of months," Oster says, referring to Chinese officials, who are members of a notoriously closed system. Despite its shortcomings, Oster calls the invitation an example of remarkable openness.
Did he find evidence that supported the Chinese version of events — the idea that protesters weren't clamoring for change but were instead violent rioters? "From talking to witnesses," he says, "this was clearly a riot. Maybe even a race riot." He cites the fact that people were attacking Chinese-owned businesses and any symbols of Chinese authority and influence. "They burned part of a mosque," he says.
"To say that it's a riot doesn't discount that maybe the government's reaction was excessive," he says. "Both stories can be true."