U.S. Scholar: Protests a 'Disaster' for China, Tibet Violent protests erupted Friday in Lhasa, Tibet. Hundreds of demonstrators defied Chinese police and took to the streets, reportedly setting fire to several Chinese-owned businesses. Robbie Barnett, adjunct professor of contemporary Tibetan studies at Columbia University, says the protests are a disaster for both China and Tibet.
NPR logo

U.S. Scholar: Protests a 'Disaster' for China, Tibet

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/88251828/88251810" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
U.S. Scholar: Protests a 'Disaster' for China, Tibet

U.S. Scholar: Protests a 'Disaster' for China, Tibet

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/88251828/88251810" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


And for more on todays protest, well hear now from Robbie Barnett. Hes adjunct professor of contemporary Tibetan studies at Columbia University and author of the book "Lhasa: Streets with Memories."

Hes been traveling back and forth to Tibet for more than 20 years and says hes been fielding a steady stream of cell phone calls and text messages from friends still there.

Professor ROBERT BARNETT (Contemporary Tibetan Studies, Columbia University): Whole night here in New York and all during the day weve been hearing growing reports of the first big demonstration by lay people in Lhasa. This is always been the nightmare scenario for the Chinese. They basically worked out how to contain demonstrations by monks but the big fear for them has been that lay people would join in. And this has now happened this morning, Lhasa time, at about 10 or 11 a.m., a small group of monks in a little temple in the heart of the city started the demonstration and was set upon by police. And then, hundreds of lay people joined in, attacked the police.

That led to police leaving the city for some time. They fled really. And during that time, the lay people who took to the streets and began burning cars, attacking Chinese businesses and Chinese people, a number of houses on fire, some 200 cars probably have gone up in flames.

And the police returned in force, the armed police with armored personnel carriers sometime during the afternoon. But the incidents continued throughout the day until, I think, late in the evening, the police opened fire and there are reports of people being shot dead.

BLOCK: You have heard these reports yourself?

Prof. BARNETT: Yes. The numbers are quite low at the moment, but six bodies said to be in one area, near the Jokhang Temple. But I think thats only from one source and this is all over the center of the city, so nobody has a complete picture of the situation, but it sounds like the Chinese finally run out of patience and weve gone over the precipice into something of a disaster for China and for Tibetans.

BLOCK: On both sides?

Prof. BARNETT: Yes. It is a disaster for China, as we all know, its trying to improve its image internationally. Its a disaster for the Tibetans because theyve tried so hard to present themselves as a peaceful movement and the monks have staged many demonstrations throughout Tibet actually in the last four days where they were peaceful.

But I think that from the level of frustration in Tibet have just - has been so high that thats what we saw breaking out this afternoon. Because this migration policy that China has in Tibet have encouraging thousands of Chinese traders to move to Tibet has been very provocative.

And one of the problems with it is that the Chinese dont allow anybody to discuss this. No Tibetan is allowed to criticize that policy and I think we see today one of the classic examples of what human rights people say which is if you dont allow a certain amount of freedom of expression, you tend to create bigger problems for yourself further down the line with just peoples acute anger and frustration.

BLOCK: The frustration and the anger that youre talking about, is it because China is seen as essentially suffocating Tibetan culture and denying freedoms? Whats the root of that?

Prof. BARNETT: The problem is that theyre made to live with the Chinese people - just really they end up not by force but by some kind of social policy pressure, leads them to have to live in the Chinese language environment where their own culture is very much denigrated, really.

But the real pressure has come from the Chinese policy on religion which is not even its official policy. It's a kind of secret policy for Tibet and also in Xinjiang(ph), the Muslim restive area to the north where all students in universities and at most schools, and all government workers, you know, even the girl who cleans the floor in the dormitory where we live, none of them are allowed any religious practice if theyre Tibetans and if theyre Buddhists, its not admitted by the state and yet it dominates the lives of probably half of the urban population.

BLOCK: There is, of course, so much scrutiny right now on the government of China because of the upcoming Olympics in Beijing. Do you think that in any way binds the government and how it can react and how far they might go in cracking down?

Prof. BARNETT: Well, its a good question and the previous three days of this week when the monks were demonstrating around Lhasa, the police were quite careful and we thought this was a sign of China moving into a new era where it tries to talk to its critics.

But I have a feeling that it isnt whats going to happen politically once behind the doors of the monasteries and once the phone lines have been cut off. Some people say they have been in Lhasa, I think, were probably going to see a return to their traditional heavy-handed politics of Chinas leaders - the Communist Party ruling the borderlands with a very heavy fist.

BLOCK: I hate to put you in a position of predicting disaster, but are you anticipating a crackdown on the scale of what we saw in Tiananmen Square in 1989?

Prof. BARNETT: No, I dont think were going to see hundreds of dead. The Chinese are very aware of what theyre doing and they will know how far to go and when to stop. And the people in the streets will also get over what must be an emotionally, terribly dangerous time for them when they quite clearly - we know this from numerous phone calls and messages during the night - that people are enormously exhilarated and many people described it as weeping with relief at being able to finally show again after 20 years what they actually feel. That exhilaration is going to fade off as they see the bodies in the streets and hear the sound of gunfire, and people are going to, as it always happens, they'll quickly realize that theres a very severe prospects, a very tough time is ahead.

BLOCK: Weve been talking with Robbie Barnett, adjunct professor of contemporary Tibetan studies at Columbia University.

Prof. Barnett, thanks so much.

Prof. BARNETT: Thank you.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.