2008 Tibetan unrest

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Orange refers to areas in the People's Republic of China that have been designated as Tibetan (and other ethnic minorities) autonomous areas.

The 2008 Tibetan unrest, also referred to as the 3-14 Riots[1] in Chinese media,[2] was a series of riots, protests, and demonstrations that started in the Tibetan regional capital of Lhasa. What originally began as an annual observance of Tibetan Uprising Day turned into street protests by monks,[3] which had become violent by March 14.[4] The unrest spread to a number of monasteries and other Tibetan areas beyond Lhasa as well as outside the Tibet Autonomous Region. Xinhua, the Chinese government's official media outlet, estimated that 150 protest incidents occurred across Tibet between March 10 and March 25, but estimates vary.[5][6] Casualty estimates also vary; the Chinese government claimed that 23 people were killed during the riots themselves, and the Tibetan government-in-exile claimed that 203 were killed in the aftermath.[7] Violence occurred between Chinese security forces and the protesting Tibetans as well as between Tibetans and Han and Hui civilians.[4] Police eventually intervened more forcefully to end the unrest.[8] Protests mostly supporting the Tibetans erupted in cities in North America, Europe,[9] and Australia[10] as well as India[11] and Nepal.[12] Many of the international protests targeted Chinese embassies, ranging from pelting the embassies with eggs and rocks to protestors entering the premises and raising Tibetan flags.[13][14][15][16][17]

The Chinese government asserted that the unrest was motivated by separatism and orchestrated by the Dalai Lama.[18] The Dalai Lama denied the accusation and said that the situation was caused by wide discontent in Tibet.[19] The Government of the People's Republic of China and the Dalai Lama held talks on the riots on May 4 and July 1 of the same year.[20][21]

During the riots, Chinese authorities prohibited foreign and Hong Kong media from entering the region and forced those who were already there to leave soon after the unrest began.[22][23] Two German reporters, George Blume of Die Zeit and Kristen Kupfer of Profil, left Tibet on March 18 due to pressure from the authorities, and James Miles, a correspondent from The Economist left on March 19 when his official tour ended.[24] Domestic Chinese media initially downplayed the riots, but this changed relatively quickly as they began to focus on the violence against Han civilians.[25] There was speculation that the violence might affect attendance at the 2008 Olympic Games of Beijing, China[26] particularly amid pressure for leaders to boycott the games,[27] but the calls for boycott went largely unheeded.[28][29]


The political situation in Tibet makes the area especially sensitive, but it is also reported by some Western media that a number of simmering socio-economic issues may have led to the riots in Lhasa on March 14.[30] The Economist reporter James Miles, when asked in an interview if the Dalai Lama was responsible for the riots, responded that he "didn't see any evidence of any organized activity" and that "it's more likely that what we saw was yes inspired by a general desire of Tibetans both inside Tibet and among the Dalai Lama's followers, to take advantage of this Olympic year. But also inspired simply by all these festering grievances on the ground in Lhasa",[31] and he noted in another report that "[the] rioting seemed to be primarily an eruption of ethnic hatred".[32] Some Tibetans also complained about social discrimination, unequal pay, and rumors that Tibetan monks had been arrested, and even killed, in the days before the riots.[33]

In recent years many migrants from other parts of the People's Republic of China have been moving into Lhasa and now own many of the city's small businesses. According to the Tibetan Independence Movement and some Western media, Tibetans in Lhasa are angered by inflation that has caused the prices of food and consumer goods to increase. Residents were worried that a railway built to link Lhasa to China would increase the number of migrants in the city, but they accepted it because the government assured them that cheaper transportation would keep prices lower. However, as in other parts of the country, prices have continued to rise, creating resentment amongst the residents of Lhasa.[32] Tibetan youth complain about not having equal access to jobs and education.[34]

Protest and violence[edit]

Violence and protests in Lhasa[edit]

Violence started in Lhasa in Tibet on March 14 when police cars, fire engines and other official vehicles were set on fire as anger erupted following the police's dispersal of a peaceful demonstration near Ramoche Temple in Lhasa. Tibetans attacked Han and Hui passers-by using stones and knives, and an eyewitness stated, "It seems like it's ethnic - like they want to kill anyone not Tibetan."[35][36] Rioters robbed non-Tibetan-owned businesses and banks, also attacked and burned down houses, including governments and schools.[37] Police used tear gas and cattle prods to quell the riots. According to Chinese media, 18 civilians were killed by rioters.

A mob tried to storm the Lhasa Great Mosque and succeeded in setting fire to the front gate. Shops and restaurants in the Muslim quarter were destroyed.[38] A Chinese businessman reported that many Hui Muslim beef shops were burnt. Also burnt were stationery shops, banks, and a wholesale market at Tsomtsikhang, one of the most important Tibetan markets, where many shops are owned by Hans and Hui Muslims.[39]

Gansu riots[edit]

Gansu Province

The Tibetan riots spread outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region for the first time. Demonstrations by ethnic Tibetans and monks took place in the northwest province of Gansu on Saturday, March 15, 2008.[40] The riots were centered around Gansu's Labrang Monastery, which is one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries outside of Tibet.[40] Demonstrators marched through the streets of Xiahe, a predominantly Tibetan county in Gansu which surrounds the Labrang Monastery, a region referred to by Tibetans by its traditional name, Amdo Golog.[41] There were reports of government offices being damaged by the rioters, and police using tear gas and force to break up the demonstrations.[40]

The Tibetan government-in-exile claims that 19 Tibetan rioters were shot dead on March 18. Little is known about Han or Hui deaths.[42]

China's Xinhua News Agency reported the cost of damage in Gansu at an estimated ¥230 million (US$32.7 million).[43]

Qinghai protests[edit]

Qinghai Province

Chinese authorities have reportedly arrested twelve Tibetan monks after an incident in the historic region of Rebkong, which is located in the Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai (known to Tibetans as Amdo).[41] Chinese security forces surrounded the Ditsa monastery in Bayan County.[41][dubious ] Qinghai province borders Tibet and has a large Tibetan population (still known as Amdo according to Tibetans).

The Swiss Newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung published an account by a foreign journalist who managed to travel in the region of Xining at the end of March. According to the reports Tibetan teachers were receiving intimidation calls from the Public Security Bureau (PSB), passports belonging to Tibetans were confiscated to prevent traveling abroad and foreign residents were informed about their possible expulsion in case they got involved in Tibetan independence activism. Students in the region were receiving one-sided "political teaching". Notwithstanding, Tibetan students of the Medical University of Xining held demonstrations to express their solidarity with the demonstrators and victims in Lhasa.[44]

Sichuan riot[edit]

Sichuan Province

In an area of Sichuan province incorporating the traditional Tibetan areas Kham and Amdo, Tibetan monks and police clashed on March 16 in Ngawa county after the monks staged a protest, killing at least one policeman, and setting fire to three or four police vans. The India-based Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy claimed at least seven people were shot dead; however, the claim could not be independently confirmed.[45] There are claims that police shot between 13 and 30 protesters after a police station was set on fire; however, reports of the deaths were impossible to verify because of restrictions on journalists.[46]

International protests[edit]

A Free Tibet rally outside the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, California, on March 17, 2008

According to Wen Jiabao, the Premier of the People's Republic of China, attacks on between ten and twenty Chinese embassies and consulates occurred around the same time as attacks on non-Tibetan interests in the Tibet Autonomous Region and several other ethnic Tibetan areas.[47]

According to an article by Doug Saunders published in The Globe and Mail, the protests were loosely coordinated by a group of full-time organizers hired by two umbrella groups that were loyal to the Tibetan government in exile. Documents were sent to more than 150 Tibet support groups around the world giving them detailed notes on how to behave when organizing similar disruptions as the torch made its six-month trip around the world. This included advice on maintaining non-violence and following the Dalai Lama's opposition to Tibetan national independence. (Protesters were to advocate a more autonomous Tibet within China). However, many of the protests did not follow this advice.[48] However, Doug Saunders further published that the torch-relay protests had no relationship with the riots and uprisings inside Tibet.[49]

International reaction[edit]

Casualties and fatalities[edit]

Tibetan monks arrested in April, 2008
Arrested Monks and lay Tibetans in 2008 遭逮捕藏族僧侶與平民.jpg

China's official Xinhua News Agency reported on early Saturday, March 15, that 10 people to date had been burned to death by rioters, including two hotel employees and two shop owners.[50] It also reported that the victims were all innocent civilians[51] and that most of them were business people.[52] It again reported on March 21 that, according to the Tibet regional government, 18 civilians and 1 police officer had been confirmed dead in the unrest by the night of Friday, March 15. In addition, the number of injured civilians rose to 382 from 325, 58 of whom were critically wounded. 241 police officers were injured, 23 of whom were critically wounded.[53]

The Associated Press reported that at a press conference on Monday, March 17, Tibet Autonomous Region governor Champa Phuntsok announced that 16 had been confirmed dead over the weekend's violence and dozens injured.[54] Other sources published after the same press conference indicate that China put the death toll in Lhasa at 13.[55][56] The Associated Press claimed later that the Chinese government's official death toll from the previous week's rioting in Lhasa had risen to 22.[57] Accordingly, the death toll provided by Xinhua had risen to 19.[58]

Tibet's government-in-exile claimed to have confirmed at least 80 deaths.[59]

According to James Miles, The Economist's correspondent in Lhasa, the police fatalities included both Tibetans and the Han ethnic group who were the target of much of the violence. Qiangba Puncog, the head of Tibet's regional government, said that Chinese police did not fire their guns or use anti-personnel weapons against the Tibetan protesters, even though the Tibetans wounded 61 police officers, including six seriously,[60] and the Tibetan regional government reported that 13 innocent civilians had been killed by mobs.[61]

According to a news source affiliated with a Tibetan exile group, the People's Armed Police had blocked off water, electricity, food and health facilities in Sera, Drepung and Ganden monasteries and others active in the demonstrations. As a consequence, monks were suffering starvation, and on March 25 one monk reportedly died from starvation at Ramoche Temple.[62][63][64]

On March 28, IHT reported 5 shopgirls, Yang Dongmei, 24; He Xinxin, 20; Chen Jia, 19; Liu Yan, 22; Ciren Zhuoga, 21 had been burned alive when the rioters torched the Yishion clothing store where they worked.[65] The IHT article noted Ciren Zhuoga was Tibetan.

On April 5, the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) stated that the Chinese authorities arrested over 2,300 Tibetans from various parts of Tibet.[66] According to the Tibetan Government in Exile, more than 140 people were killed in the crackdown on recent unrest.[67]

On April 18, in an interview to Canadian journalists, it was reported that the Dalai Lama said that since the beginning of the demonstrations in Tibet at least 400 people had been killed and thousands of others arrested.[68]

The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy reported that a Tibetan woman, 38, who was involved in peaceful protests on 16 and March 17, 2008 in Ngaba County, died after being tortured in a Chinese prison. Following her release, the government hospital, possibly under the influence of local Chinese authorities, had refused to admit her.[69]

Media coverage[edit]

Western media accused Chinese officials of trying to contain information about the unrest and play down protests. According to The Guardian correspondent Tania Branigan, the government blocked foreign broadcasters and websites and denied journalists access to areas of unrest. Video sharing websites like YouTube, the entire The Guardian website, portions of the Yahoo! portal, and sections of The Times website had been restricted.[70]

Conversely, the Chinese media accused Western media of reporting with inaccuracy and little independent cross-checking. The Chinese newspaper China Daily reported bias in the Western media's coverage of the rioting in Tibet, including deliberate misrepresentation of the situation. The newspaper pointed out Western media sources such as The Washington Post used pictures of baton-wielding Nepalese police in clashes with Tibetan protesters in Kathmandu, claiming that the officers were Chinese. The article stated that Chinese citizens had been angered by what they saw as biased and sometimes dishonest reporting by Western media.[71] There was also criticism of CNN's use of a cropped picture that shows only the military truck but not rioters who were attacking it.[72] John Vause, who reported this story, responded to the criticism saying, "technically it was impossible to include the crashed car on the left".[73] However, CNN later replaced the image with one that was cropped differently. On March 24, 2008, the German TV news channel RTL disclosed that a photograph depicting rioters had been erroneously captioned. Separately, another German station, n-tv, admitted that it had mistakenly aired footage from Nepal during a story on Chinese riots.[74] AFP further reported that Chinese students abroad had set up the website Anti-CNN to collect evidence of "one-sided and untrue" foreign reporting. Media accused of falsified reporting include CNN, Fox News Channel, the Times Online, Sky News, Spiegel Online and the BBC. Spiegel Online has rejected the accusations in an article.[75][76] According to The New York Times, CNN apologized on May 18 over some comments made on April 9.[77]

China's alleged downplaying of the event soon ended. Riots against non-Tibetans began on Friday, March 14. Chinese TV channels aired hours of anti-Chinese riots in Lhasa and the aftermath. Employees at the state television service CCTV's English service were instructed to keep broadcasting footage of burned-out shops and Chinese wounded in attacks.[dubious ] As of March 18, 2008, no footage of demonstrators acting peacefully was shown.[78] China's Communist Party newspaper, the People's Daily, called on the government to "resolutely crush the 'Tibet independence' forces' conspiracy and sabotaging activities".[57][79] The People's Daily also accused the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration of orchestrating the protests in its commentary.[57] Yahoo! China have published "most wanted" poster across its homepage to help China police to catch 24 Tibetans. MSN! China has published the same list as well.[80]

To counteract what the Chinese government called biased Western reporting on the crisis, foreign journalists were allowed to access the region again.[81][82] Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Deutsche Welle (DW) reported that the Chinese government has allowed a small group of foreign journalists on a tour of Tibet. These reporters included those from the American Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Britain's Financial Times, Japan's Kyodo News Agency, KBS of South Korea, and Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera.[83] However, on March 27 in Lhasa, a riot by a group of monks from the Jokhang Monastery disrupted a media tour organised by Chinese authorities through Lhasa. The tour was the first opportunity given to selected foreign journalists to enter Tibet after the de facto ban on foreign reporters.[84] The delegation was made up of journalists from the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, USA Today, the Arabic news station Al-Jazeera and the Associated Press. The journalists were selected by the Chinese authorities and were kept under close control while in Lhasa. The authorities blamed the limited number of journalists permitted to attend and the restrictions on their movement on logistical considerations.[85] The Taiwanese media, who were also invited on the tour, reported that the monks told them that they had been locked down in the temple even though they had not participated in the riots and implored the foreign media to report the truth. The vice-chairman of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Padma Choling, explained that they were locked down pending police interviews in relation to the riots, and that once interviewed they were released. He also promised that the monks involved in the protest would be "dealt with" according to law.[86][87] The Tibetan activist group International Campaign for Tibet stated on March 28, 2008, that it feared for the welfare and whereabouts of the monks involved in the protest – Sera Monastery, Drepung Monastery, Ganden Monastery and Ramoche Temple.[88] The group did not explain why it identified four monasteries when the protest involved only monks from Jokhang. Choling later told reporters the monks would not be punished.[89]

On March 17, 2008, the Toronto Star reported the accounts of various Canadian witnesses who were caught up in the violence.[90][91] One Canadian witnessed a possibly fatal attack by a mob on a motorcyclist, others recounted how the violence of the riots forced them to escape with help from taxi drivers and guides, and another described how they intervened to save a Han Chinese man from a violent mob.

People's Republic of China response[edit]

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao blamed supporters of the Dalai Lama for the recent violence in Tibet. "There is ample fact and we also have plenty of evidence proving that this incident was organised, premeditated, masterminded and incited by the Dalai clique", said the premier.[92] However, the young generation of Tibetans are dissatisfied with the Dalai Lama's insistence on peaceful protest, revealing deep divisions within the Tibetan community.[93] The Dalai Lama denied any involvement in the events,[94] On April 1, 2008, the Chinese government escalated its accusation against supporters of the Dalai Lama, accusing them of planning suicide attacks. The prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Samdhong Rinpoche, denied these allegations, saying "Tibetan exiles are 100 percent committed to nonviolence. There is no question of suicide attacks."[95]

On March 31, 2008, the PRC state-owned news agency Xinhua published what it claimed to be an account of the process by which the Dalai Lama allegedly masterminded the riots. Key claims include that five groups associated with the Government-in-Exile recruited agents for the "Tibetan People's Great Uprising" in India in February, that 101 agents sent from Dharamsala were instrumental in organising the protests and riots, that the Government-in-Exile directly funded the protests and that the Tibetan Youth Congress intends to conduct an armed guerilla campaign in China.[96]

The West Australian reported that Chinese forces claimed to have found semi-automatic firearms hidden throughout a temple in Ngawa prefecture, in an ethnic Tibetan area of southwestern China which had been the scene of anti-Chinese riots in recent weeks.[97][98] Police officers told state television, "they were modified semi-automatic weapons."[97]

Riot actions[edit]

China responded by deploying the People's Armed Police. The BBC reported seeing over 400 troop carriers mobilizing into Tibet,[99] which would represent a deployment of up to 4,000 troops. The Chinese authorities ordered all Hong Kong and foreign journalists to leave Lhasa.[100] According to General Yang Deping, regular military troops from the People's Liberation Army were not deployed.[101]

Chinese authorities were also reportedly concerned that the Tibetan protests could "embolden activists in restive Xinjiang province" to organise street protests as well.[41] The Chinese-backed Panchen Lama, Gyaincain Norbu, condemned the unrest, saying, "the rioters' acts not only harmed the interests of the nation and the people, but also violated the aim of Buddhism ... We strongly condemn the crime of a tiny number of people to hurt the lives and properties of the people."[102]

In addition to sealing off monasteries, an eyewitness at Sera Monastery identified as John claimed, "They were grabbing monks, kicking and beating them".[103] In Ngawa county, Sichuan, police fired at the crowd after the rioters had burned down government buildings including the local police station, destroyed public and private vehicles including police cars, stabbed police officers with swords, and finally attempted to take firearms from the police, and after the police fired warning shots to no avail.[104] The government claimed that the police acted in self-defense. According to the Chinese government, four protesters were wounded, and 18 innocent civilians, along with a police officer, were killed. In contrast, the Tibetan government in exile claimed there were at least 99 deaths across the region.[105]

PRC and Dalai Lama dialogues[edit]

On March 19, 2008, Premier Wen Jiabao condemned the Dalai Lama's alleged role in the riot, but said the door for dialogue remained open if he renounced Tibetan independence,[106] and if he "recognizes Tibet and Taiwan as inalienable parts of the Chinese territory".[107] The Dalai Lama has repeatedly stated he seeks autonomy, not independence, citing the need for Tibet to develop as a modern nation.

On May 4, 2008, two representatives of the PRC government, Zhu Weiqun and Sitar met with two representatives of the Dalai Lama, Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. The two sides exchanged views and agreed that a further round of talks should be held at an appropriate time.[108]

Plans for the meeting had been announced by the Xinhua News Agency on April 25, 2008,[109] and was confirmed by the Dalai Lama's spokesman.[110]

This was the first high-level dialogue between the Dalai Lama's representatives and the PRC government since the March unrest, and was the continuation of a series of talks between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama's representatives, including his immediate family and close aides.[111][112]

During the Shenzhen meeting, a second meeting was scheduled for June 11, 2008. However, due to the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes, the two sides agreed to postpone the meeting.[113] The second meeting was held on July 1, 2008.[21]

Aftermath and appraisal[edit]

According to the People's Daily, on March 24 order returned to some affected areas in Sichuan Province as schools, shops and restaurants reopened to the public.[114]

On March 26 a small group of foreign journalists was taken by bus into Tibet, in a move that appeared calculated to bolster government claims that authorities were in control and that the protests which began peacefully were acts of destruction and murder. The heavily armed police presence indicated Lhasa remained under lockdown. Reporters were guided to burned streets in Lhasa hung with a red banner that read, "Construct a Socialist Harmonious Society", a catchphrase from the Chinese president's efforts to deal with social unrest created by an increasing gap between an urban middle class and the poor.[83] The Dalai Lama called the trip "a first step", provided that reporters were given complete freedom.

The US State Department issued a warning to US Citizens on March 20, to those who are attending the Beijing Olympics, that "Americans' conversations and telephones could be monitored and their rooms could be searched without their knowledge or consent".[115][116]

In October 2009, Four Tibetans were executed in connection with their involvement with the unrest.[117]

Amnesty International reported in June 2008 that over 1000 Tibetan protesters detained by Chinese authorities were unaccounted for.[118] According to an October 10, 2009, report by the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, at least 670 Tibetans had been jailed in 2009 for activities that included peaceful protest or leaking information to the outside world.[117][119]

The Open Constitution Initiative, operated by several Weiquan lawyers and intellectuals, issued a paper in May 2009 challenging the official narrative, and suggesting that the protests were a response to economic inequities, Han Chinese migration, and religious sentiments. The OCI recommended that Chinese authorities better respect and protect the rights and interests of the Tibetan people, including religious freedom.[120]

Impact on Olympics[edit]

Protest in San Francisco

There were rumors that some athletes were considering boycotting the 2008 Summer Olympics over the Tibetan violence. The vice-president of the International Olympic Committee discouraged this,[121] as well as the European Union and the Olympic Committees of Europe and Australia, who condemned politicizing sport.[122] Even the 14th Dalai Lama reiterated that he was against any boycott.[123]

The attendance of government leaders at the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony was watched by the media, because some groups called for a boycott of the ceremony on both human rights and Tibetan violence grounds. Nonetheless, by the end of July 2008, the leaders of more than 80 countries had decided to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, more than in any of the preceding Olympics.[29] All but one leader of the countries that did not attend the opening ceremonies emphasized that it was not to boycott the Olympics;[124][125][126][127] one German chancellor said that there was "no link to Tibet".[128] Prime Minister of Poland Donald Tusk was the one European head of government to boycott the opening ceremonies because of the violence in Tibet.[129]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]