Olympic Torch Diverted on Way to Tibet

Tibet has largely dropped off the Western radar since China's devastating earthquake last month. But the tragedy hasn't stopped the government from continuing its hard-line policies toward the Tibetan region.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's follow up now on a story that almost disappeared from the headlines. Tibet's protest against China was a major story until it was overshadowed by China's big earthquake a little more than a month ago. This week, the story could have returned.

The Olympic torch was supposed to be in Tibet. Instead, it's been diverted to another part of China with plans not announced for when the torch will arrive in Tibet's capital. NPR's Rob Gifford has been talking with people who monitor the situation in Tibet, and in recent days, he slipped into some Tibetan areas of Sichuan Province.

ROB GIFFORD: The spotlight may have been off Tibet as a result of the Sichuan earthquake, but it's clear talking to those who stay in close contact with Tibetan areas, that the quake, for all its human tragedy, has not changed the hard-line policies of the Beijing government towards Tibet.

Quite the opposite, says Robbie Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University. Beijing has stepped up its campaign, he says, to make Tibetans denounce the Dalai Lama, the very approach that caused the March protests in the first place.

Professor ROBBIE BARNETT (Tibet Specialist, Columbia University): So the Chinese government has stepped these up. So they're stepping up the reasons for more unrest in Tibet. They're just fueling the fire that they already had.

So I think that suggests if they don't change that policy, that there will continue to be low-level discontent, unrest inside Tibet.

GIFFORD: But, says Barnett, the government's concern is still very much focused on the monasteries in and around Tibet. The question is how much the continued hard-line policies will alienate ordinary Tibetans.

Over the last 20 years, Beijing has poured money into Tibet, hoping the offer of a better life will make Tibetans put aside aspirations of independence. Many of them have bought into that deal.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: The contradictions are clear as soon as you enter the Tibetan areas west of Chengdu. Even given for a degree of caution talking to a Western reporter, this Tibetan woman appears very pragmatic. Over a shot of strong barley wine in her farmhouse, she says unashamedly she's even given her children Chinese names to help them get ahead.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: There's no future in the countryside, she says, for Chinese or Tibetans. I want my children to grow up to be doctors or some other good job like that.

The roads beyond this woman's farm to the west, into the most sensitive areas of Sichuan Province, are guarded by armed police. And I was stopped twice to be asked what I was doing there. Reporting on the earthquake has, however, given foreign reporters slightly more freedom to roam, and two Tibetan men standing beside their vegetable garden were also prepared to speak cautiously about the situation.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: They've heard about the ongoing demonstrations since March. That's mainly the monks protesting, they say.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: But the older man does say many Tibetans think the earthquake was a kind of divine retribution on Beijing for its policies in Tibet. Robbie Barnett says the earthquake has created another difference within China by opening more space for discussion of all sorts of issues.

Prof. BARNETT: One of the things the earthquake has done, combined with these protests in Tibet, is to make the Beijing government more vulnerable to its own public opinion, and also exposed to much more thoughtful comment and criticism coming from Chinese intellectuals.

In other words, China's not going to have to just watch what are Tibetans doing inside Tibet and what is the international community saying. It's also got to watch what its own people and its own intellectuals are thinking.

GIFFORD: As yet, the Tibet debate within China is almost all pro-government, but things are changing very fast in China at present: Public response to the earthquake, the flow of information, the flow of emotion and the coming Olympics. And although the Tibetan issue has been knocked off the world news agenda for now, it hasn't gone away. And it's likely to continue playing a role in the debate about where China is headed. Rob Gifford, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And since Rob mentioned the flow of information, let me tell you that Rob is part of a team of NPR correspondents who've brought you news of China over the years. He's one of several of our correspondents who cover China while speaking Chinese. That's the kind of hard work that makes the difference between bringing you somebody's opinion and bringing you facts. NPR will bring you all the facts that we can find about one of the world's most compelling countries as the Olympics approach.

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